Early 19th century Wales saw a period of rapid industrialisation. The south Wales valleys became peppered with ironworks and coal mines and this progressive urbanisation continued well into the mid-century. The cause at Bethania, the Mother Baptist church of the Llynfi valley, dates from the arrival in Maesteg of the Rev. Thomas Hopkin from Hirwaun in 1828, to serve a small but growing Baptist community associated with the new ironworks. He hailed originally from Hay on Wye; the Baptist cause in Maesteg, therefore, traces its ancestry to the more distant gathered church of Olchon valley Baptists on the Herefordshire/Monmouthshire border rather than that of John Miles at Ilston on Gower. Ministering at Bethania for 17 years, the Rev. Hopkin in 1832 oversaw the building of the first chapel on the present site, built by Mr Hurley of Maesteg at a cost of £60. It would have been a long-wall chapel, differing from Anglican churches in its humble simplicity and its focus on the pulpit. Rev. Hopkin also presided over the enlargement of the chapel in 1840-41, following a growth in attendance. He lies buried in the churchyard at Llangynwyd where he is commemorated by a fine englyn by one of his successors, Rev. Richard Hughes.
The Rev. H. W. Hughes (Arwystl) was installed as minister of the recently enlarged chapel in 1848. He was required to devote much time and energy over the next few years to preaching tours in order to pay off the debt incurred by the rebuilding, leaving Maesteg to take charge of a Liverpool congregation in 1851. In that year, the Religious Census recorded 700 attending the evening service on a “boisterous” Sunday at the end of March, and the building had become a thriving cultural hub that housed social and community events, festivals and eisteddfodau. Interestingly, one of these eisteddfodau during this period included a lecture entitled: ‘Geological facts and Biblical truths: are they contradictory?’
The Rev. H. W. Hughes was succeeded by Rev. Richard Hughes (1820-1885), who had been baptised in the Llynfi at the age of twenty by the Rev. Thomas Hopkin. The baptism took place in the month of November! The ministry of Rev. Richard Hughes witnessed the rapid expansion of the church with successive rebuildings: one associated with the 1859 Revival, and another in 1878. Whit Sunday festivities and preaching festivals became established features of the chapel calendar at this time as did choral and dramatic performances. A volume of the minister’s sermons was published bearing the name of the chapel, ‘Pwlpud Bethania’. Rev. R. Hughes is buried in the chapel burial ground.
Rev. Edward Jones (Iorwerth Ddu) (1852-1931) came to Maesteg from Troedyrhiw in 1894. Ten years following his arrival, Wales was convulsed by the Revival associated with the preaching of Evan Roberts. In that one year, 1904, 158 new members were baptised at Bethania; in the first twenty years of Rev. Edward Jones’ ministry there were 651 baptisms at the chapel. It was in this atmosphere of revival that Sir William Beddoe Rees, a Cardiff based architect born in Maesteg, was commissioned to design the present chapel. Costing £6,000, it is recognised as one of his greatest achievements.
Rees’s design is in the Classical Beaux Arts style with a gable-entry plan. The façade is of three bays, each defined by pilasters topped by a decorative shield. The wide central bay has an entrance flanked by large oculi with quarter-keyed dressings. Above, a large, rectangular 80-pane window is flanked on each side by an Ionic column and a smaller 32-pane window. The side bays have entrances with above, 32-pane windows set in surrounds with exaggerated semi-circular pediments. The central bay is gabled with a semi-circular light resting on the entablature which reads `CAPEL Y BEDYDDWYR 1908 NEILLDUOL’. The side bays have shouldered pediments and the whole façade is finished off by urns above the pilasters and a carved stone set at the peak of the gable. The side bay detail returns for the first bay on the side elevation, the remainder consisting of two tiers of plain windows.
The interior has seats for 1001. An entrance lobby is separated from the main chapel by a screen with stained glass panels. At either side this gives access to open stair wells to the gallery. In the main body of the chapel, a gallery runs round all four sides, the rear side being largely taken up by the organ, which is partly set into a round-arched recess. The gallery is carried upon cast-iron columns which, at the sides, continue to an arcade of six delicate round arches reminiscent of Richard Owens’ Capel Seion, Aberystwyth. The front of the gallery is of cast-iron with decorative panels of palmettes. The pulpit is set in front of the organ gallery and is a raised rostrum type with a projecting central section carried on a single pedestal, and is accessed by stairs either side. The Sedd Fawr in front, is bounded by railings with cast-iron panels similar to those of the gallery, the front railing being in a convex curve. Concealed beneath the Sedd Fawr is a notable baptistry which is still in good working order. The pews are of the plain bench type and on the ground floor and are divided into three blocks by the twin aisles, and are curved to match the Sedd Fawr. The middle block has staggered central dividers. In the gallery the pews are curved round the corners but are otherwise straight. The chapel opened on 28 March 1908 with a preaching festival, which lasted for five days.
Bethania is Grade II* Listed as one of the best surviving architectural achievements by a major chapel architect in his powerful Beaux Arts style.
In September 1925, the Baptist Union assembled at the recently opened chapel with its long-serving minister as President. A history of the cause had been prepared for the occasion by Samuel Davies, chairman of the history committee, to which Dr Tom Richards, historian of Welsh Puritanism and at that time history master at the local high school, acted as Secretary. Baptists from all over Wales flocked to the Union meeting at Maesteg, arriving by bus and train. From the Chair of the Union, “Ior Ddu” cast a wary eye over the political and social turmoil of the day.
It was that very fervour that had contributed to the 1904 Revival that paradoxically, was also to ensure the decline in chapel attendance that accelerated in the years following the Great War, in the course of which many members of Bethania chapel lost their lives. A steady decline in membership, accelerating in the second half of the twentieth century, led to the closure of the chapel in 2004.
The congregation combined with that of the nearby Carmel Chapel, and Bethania was transferred to the Trust in 2006, under its status as a prescribed charity under the Redundant Churches and Other Religious Buildings Act 1969, (as amended in Schedule 5 of the Charities Act 1992).
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