Join the worldwide celebrations for Roald Dahl Day on Friday 13th September 2019!
Roald Dahl’s story began in 1916 in when he was born at Villa Marie, Fairwater Road, Llandaff, Cardiff, Wales. The house name was named after the first wife of Roald’s father. In 1918 his father, Harald, purchased a much grander property, Ty Mynydd (Mountain House in Welsh), a farmhouse and large farm of 150 acres in Radyr outside the city of Cardiff. Today Radyr is now part of Cardiff city.
His father, Harald Dhal, born in 1863 and mother Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg born in 1885 were both Norwegian. Harald was a farmer in the Sarpsborg area of Norway and after his first marriage ended, he came to Cardiff to seek his fortune in the late nineteenth century. At that time, Cardiff was one of the biggest and most important ports in the country with thousands of tons of coal being exported through the docks every year. Norway itself had a history of merchant shipping and it wasn’t long before Harald became the joint owner of a large and successful ship broking business, Aadnesen and Dahl.
Harald’s first marriage was to a French woman named Marie Beaurin-Gresser in 1901. Harald and Marie had two children, but Marie died on 16th October 1907 aged only 29. It was some four years later that Harald subsequently married Sophie Magdalene (who came from Norway for the wedding and to settle down with her new husband) in 1911. Despite living all their married life in Wales, Harald and Sophie remained very conscious and proud of their Norwegian heritage. For example, Roald was named after the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen and his first language was Norwegian which he spoke at home with his parents and his sisters Astri, Alfhild and Else. Roald and his sisters were raised in the Lutheran faith and were baptised at the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay where their parents worshipped.
The Norwegian Church was established in Cardiff in 1868 by the Norwegian Seamen's Missions. It was always more than just a church, being intended as a place where Norwegian sailors who were in port for a few brief hours or days could go to read newspapers and find comfort. Nevertheless, it was a church and it was used by Norwegian expatriates like Harald and Sophie Dahl. They and their family worshipped here regularly, and all their children were christened in the church.
In 1916, when Roald was christened, the Norwegian Church was not in the position or location we see today. Then it was situated on the spot where the Wales Millennium Centre now stands, at the entrance to Bute West Dock. It was an ideal location for the sailors who came regularly to use the facilities. Churches like this, made of wood and put together almost like flat-pack furniture, were common in most ports at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries - certainly in ports where the Norwegian presence was strong.
The Cardiff Norwegian Church was well used for many years, before closing in 1974 and falling into disrepair. Thanks to preservationists, the building was saved and moved, piece by piece, to its present site in 1990. Roald Dahl was the first President of the Preservation Trust, a position he held until his death in 1990.
The building has recently undergone a major refurbishment. Now known as the Norwegian Church Arts Centre, it regularly holds exhibitions and workshops - and the fact that Roald Dahl was christened there is commemorated on a large painting and a small plague on one of the walls inside the church.
In 1920 when Roald was three, he suddenly lost both his sister, with appendicitis and his father from pneumonia in successive months of February and March. Roald’s mother was only 35 when Harald died and was left with 6 children and two step children from Harald’s first marriage to bring up. In 1921 Roald’s mother could not afford to keep the Radyr farm and moved to a more modest house in Llandaff, which is now part of the Howells School. Roald’s mother chose to remain in Wales to honour Harald’s wishes that he be educated in British schools as he believed that British schools were the best in the world.
His education began in Cardiff where he attended Cathedral School in Llandaff. During his time at this school and when he was eight years old, his chief claim to fame was, with four other boys, slipping a dead mouse into a jar of gobstopper sweets in a shop owned by an unpleasant shop keeper. The boys in the school apparently consigned the occasion to immortality by giving the affair the name of 'The Great Mouse Plot of 1924'. The incident - which Roald duly went on to write about - shows a certain wicked sense of humour but, in his essays and school work, there was little or no sign of the prose style that later made him famous.
After this Roald was sent to boarding school in England where, again, nobody saw any literary merit in his stories and essays. He used to travel home for holidays on the old Beachley ferry across the River Severn but, despite the excitement of the trip, his time at this school was a very unhappy one. A further period at Repton in Derbyshire further removed Roald Dahl from Wales and for the last past of his childhood and adolescence he spent most of his holidays with relatives in Norway.
Roald Dahl went on to achieve fame as a pilot in the Second World War. Ultimately, he started experiencing severe headaches that prevented him from flying and spent the rest of his career working as a diplomat, writer, and intelligence officer. In later life he became famous for being one of the most gifted writers ever to pick up a pen. He wrote novels, poems and stories, not just for children but for adults as well - his Tales of The Unexpected are a classic of their genre.
Roald Dhal died on 23 November 1990 at the age of 74 in Oxford England and was buried in the cemetery at St Peter and St Paul's Church in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, England.
Now, every year, Roald Dahl is remembered on 13 September, the date of his birth with readings and discussions of his work take place all over the United Kingdom.
As far as Cardiff is concerned, he is remembered in the Norwegian Church Arts Centre and by the naming of a large pedestrian area in Cardiff Bay, the Roald Dahl Plass. When he was given the further honour of a 'blue plaque', it was placed, not on the house where he was born but on the wall of the former sweet shop where the Great Mouse Plot of 1924 took place.
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