On Wednesday, the February meeting of the RNA South and West Wales Chapter took place in Cafe Zest, House of Fraser, known locally as Howells. Its iconic building has been a landmark in Cardiff for generations and the community was shocked when the department store was earmarked as one of the House of Fraser stores to close. Luckily, in the autumn of last year, there was a reprieve and Howells will remain open.
We met with Sue, who had worked at the store for many years, and she gave us a very interesting and informative talk about James Howell, the original owner of the store, the department store and how it had evolved over the years since his business as a drapers opened in 1860, and the ghostly goings-on she'd witnessed or experienced herself.
As the business became successful, James Howell moved to bigger premises in St Mary Street and continued to expand. The Victorian workers worked long hours but it was good to work there, often putting their children's names down to work in the store. At one time, there were four hundred staff living and working there. Howell was a charitable man and had a modern outlook. He built a non-conformist chapel on the premises and it is still there today. He provided exemplary conditions for his staff, mainly men to start with but by the 1800s, women started working there too. Sue traced the passing of years and, for example, told us about the Beauty pageants in 1909, how the Welsh flag for Captain Scot's ship that left the capital for his famous voyage to Antarctica was made in the store and during the second world war, that parachutes were made on the premises. Uniforms were also made. In the late 1980s, now part of the House of Fraser chain of stores, Howells was targeted along with others and petrol bombed by activists for its sale of furs. The company no longer use any fur products in its clothing. The store has been extensively refurbished but due to its status as a listed building, the 'James Howell and Sons' signs remain even though it was rebranded from Howells to House of Fraser.
As writers, we were fascinated when the talk turned to ghosts and spirits. Our imaginations began to run away with us as we thought of characters for novels or short stories that Sue's tales inspired. Sue reported many members of staff feeling cold areas of the old building not accessible to the public. She has felt taps on shoulders, hair being pulled and someone standing very close to her. Ellen Logan Davies, James Howell's sister-in-law who was housekeeper in the early 1900s, has often been seen on the second floor as has a man in a top hat and wearing a cloak. She told us about a lady in grey chiffon appearing in the corridors. It is thought she'd been evicted from her living quarters and you wonder what she had done to warrant the eviction. As recently as the previous week, in a part of the store closed to the public, the hands on a clock kept spinning round out of control until finally reverting to the correct time and in a lift the lights went on and off. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, listening to Sue and her absolute belief that these things actually have happened, it was an excellent meeting for us all. Thank you, Sue, and to Sandra for organising the talk.
|Photo courtesy of Jessie Cahalin|
Have you experienced any unexplained goings-on in an old building? Do you believe in ghosts? Perhaps you've written a ghost story. In my novel, 'Whispering Olive Trees', the rustling of the leaves on the olive trees symbolises the presence of Lexi's dead mother whispering to her and reassuring her that she is not alone. Whether this is the ghost of Elin, her mother, Lexi's imagination or just a co-incidence that the breeze starts up at certain times in the novel is for the reader to decide. Is feeling a presence the same as a ghost? I'd love to know what you think. Thank you for reading.
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