Caebach, Llandrindod

Chapel buildings pre-dating the C19 are rare across Wales, such was the pace of rebuilding and enlargement. Caebach retains a substantial amount of its fabric of 1715  – and most unusually a family vault to its founding family, the Jones of Trefonnen. The original form of the building is not clear, as in 1804 it was remodelled. The re-ordering of the front with central door and an ogee-headed sash window probably dates from this period, as does the panel-fronted gallery against the rear gable and the plaster barrel-vaulted ceiling. The lateral façade created was typical of early C19 chapel design across Wales, but Caebach is an early example of this, most known examples spanning the period c. 1820-c.1840. The original  orientation of the interior is uncertain – the end gallery suggests that it faced a pulpit at the opposite gable, but it is possible that the pulpit was central to the rear wall, opposite the door. In 1840, the chapel was again remodelled, including the provision of high box pews facing a gable end pulpit. The new seating included a large enclosed family pew close to the Jones vault, and tiered pews beneath the gallery. The pulpit – originally a tall double-decker structure – was later cut-down to form a single tier. With the focus on the new chapel of 1871 within the rapidly growing town,  Cae-bach escaped the typical pattern of later Victorian improvement. Thanks to the diligence of its members, the chapel remains as a rare example of a small Georgian chapel with historic fixtures of high importance, an unexpected delight within the suburbs of Llandrindod Wells. The Chapel is Grade II Listed.

Rob Scourfield

Aptly described by Timothy Hughes as “one of the secret treasures of mid-Wales, some effort of imagination is required today to place this tiny gem of a chapel in its original setting, both geographically and socially. ” [1]

The location of older nonconformist chapels is often significant. Numerous early chapels at county boundaries speak of the need for worshippers to move quickly from one jurisdiction to another when harassed by county magistrates in penal times.  Likewise, historic meeting houses are to be found deep in the countryside away from the prying eyes of the authorities. Less common in the history of nonconformity is the situation of Caebach, where proximity to a local seat of the minor gentry was the determining factor in the erection this little chapel around the year 1715. It was built for the personal convenience of the Jones family of Trefonnen, a family with strong dissenting connections whose seat lay just half a mile to the east. The chapel takes its name from a small marshy field owned by Trefonnen on the south bank of a deep meander of the Afon Eithon.

Today, the chapel has been overwhelmed by encroaching suburban sprawl and the rambling house of Trefonnen was demolished in the 1970s as Llandrindod Wells expanded northwards, its name commemorated in street names and that of a local primary school.   When Caebach opened its doors for the first time the spa town of Llandrindod Wells was yet to be, owing in existence (and the prevalence of its red and yellow brick buildings) to an Enclosure Act in 1862 and the arrival of the railway three years later. Trefonnen was situated in the parish of Cefnllys, a decayed mediaeval township, the evocative remains of which can still be explored a few miles to the east of the chapel.  Cefnllys had declined during the fourteenth century in consequence of outbreaks of bubonic plague, economic isolation and military insecurity but it nevertheless retained its status as one of the Radnorshire Boroughs into the nineteenth century. 

David Jones, founding father of the Joneses of Trefonnen, was brought up in Llanfihangel Brynpabuan, just across the Wye in Breconshire west of Newbridge. He had made his fortune in London and served in the Parliamentary Army during the Civil War before moving to Radnorshire, where he married Jane, one of the Powells of Llwyncwta at Nantmêl, a local dissenting family. Their eldest son John stayed at home to manage the family farm, living the life of a country squire, and becoming High Sheriff for the county in 1737. Their second son Thomas Jones was educated at the Dissenting Academy in Shrewsbury from whence he moved to Gloucestershire to plant the Congregational cause in Tetbury, opening a chapel there at Chipping Steps in 1710.  Thomas Jones married Elizabeth, scion of the Middleton Hope family that farmed the neighbouring property of Llandrindod Hall that in turn was directly descended from a branch of the eminent owners of Chirk Castle. Her brother John Hope prospered mightily in a legal career that saw his practice extend from Lincoln’s Inn to cover most of Wales. He used his wealth to acquire Pencerrig, just over a mile to the north of Llanelwedd.  In summary, the Jones of Trefonnen were an upwardly mobile family with a dissenting background, using marriage alliances to acquire extensive landholdings in eastern Radnorshire.

Thomas Jones returned to Trefonnen every summer and had Caebach built not only for family worship but also with a view to serving the established dissenting community of Y Garn, a farm owned by his wife Elizabeth, some four miles over the hills to the east of the chapel beyond Cefnllys.  The dissenting congregation that continued to meet at Y Garn, in the parish of Bettws Disserth, was one of the six “gathered churches” in Radnorshire recorded on Dr John Evans’ List in 1715. Originally under the pastoral care of John Weaver, a Puritan ejected from his living at Old Radnor, this farm church had, according to John Evans, 200 in average attendance of whom some 30 were eligible to vote, a reminder that this nonconformist community lived in the shadow of the rotten borough of Cefnllys.   Caebach first opened its doors for worship as Protestants celebrated the inauguration of the Hanoverian dynasty, offering the continuing prospect of freedom of worship as secured for Protestant dissenters by the 1689 Act of Toleration. It was Christodocious Lewis, pastor of the congregation at Y Garn, who was installed as the first minister at Caebach and the chapel quickly attracted members of Y Garn to its services; a stable beside the new chapel accommodated the minister’s pony.

Christodocious Lewis continued to minister at Caebach until his death in 1760, by which time Caebach was being drawn into the orbit of another old-established Independent cause in the county, that of Tabernacl, Rhaedr, inaugurating a sustained period of joint pastorates, of which the most notable was that of Revd. Ioan Thomas, author of the first volume of autobiography published in Welsh, Rhad Ras. The arrival of Ioan Thomas would have represented a gear shift for the congregation at Caebach. His formative years had been spent at the epicentre of the early eighteenth-century Methodist revival in south-west Wales where he was imbued with evangelical fervour. From an impoverished rural background, he went early into the service of Griffith Jones at Llanddowror with whom he acquired literacy and attended society meetings of the first generation of Methodists. After attending the Independent Academy in Abergavenny, he accepted a call to the joint pastorate of Rhaedr, Caebach and Y Garn in 1767. His ministry was responsible for a local religious revival of Methodist proportions beginning in 1769 and being sustained for some three years; the revival, described in Rhad Ras, resulted in the planting of a daughter church at Llanbadarn y Garreg. After preaching fervently in the area for a decade, Ioan Thomas left the settled ministry to devote himself to wider itinerant preaching.

In 1739, the son of John Jones, Trefonnen – another Thomas! – had married his first cousin Hannah and a decade later they set up home at Pencerrig, a property that she had inherited upon the death of her parents.  Of her sixteen children, seven of whom died in infancy and are buried in the family vault in Caebach, the most famous is Thomas Jones the Artist, as he became known. Hannah died in 1789 and in her will endowed Caebach with the rent of Carregegwan, a farm near Y Garn that was part of the Pencerrig estate. Ioan Thomas, the former minister, was invited to preach at her funeral, delivering a celebrated sermon that was subsequently printed at Howel Harris’s private press at Trefeca as Christ the Believer’s Life in which he castigated the surviving members of the Trefonnen family as backsliders who lacked their parents’ devotion to the cause; in Rhad Ras he remarks that “there is no sign of religion in any of their progeny up to now”. There is a social fault-line being exposed here, upwardly mobile nonconformists often becoming Anglicans as one generation succeeded another; other members of the Jones family lie at rest in St Michael’s church at Cefnllys  as well as in the family vault in Caebach.

The sadly dilapidated chapel benefitted from Hannah Jones’ endowment with a major restoration project undertaken in 1804 by Revd. James Price who, in 1779, had succeeded Ioan Thomas at Caebach. The restoration comprised the erection of a gallery and the insertion of a pair of ogee-headed sash windows. The chapel contains a wall tablet completed in 1810 commemorating Thomas and Hannah Jones as founders of the chapel; family members, including Thomas Jones the Artist are buried inside the chapel. The following year, in 1805, James Price died and there followed twenty quiet years under the pastorates of David Powell (1804-1821) and Richard Lewis (1821-1825) before the calm was broken with a sudden storm whipped up by another member of the Trefonnen family, Mr Middleton Jones of Penybont Hall.

Middleton Jones was one of Hannah Jones’s offspring. He had control of the minister’s house (tŷ capel) at Caebach and land on which the chapel was built and may have nurtured a grievance from the sermon preached by Ioan Thomas at his mother’s funeral. In 1825, as a trustee of the chapel, he sought, contrary to the principles of congregationalism, to impose a minister on the congregation against its will, and the unfortunate prospective minister, one John Davies from Rhaedr, quickly found himself with but a small remnant of the congregation, most of which decamped to Y Garn.   A year later Middleton Jones died, and the congregation returned to Caebach with its own choice of pastor, Daniel Williams, who had ministered to the church at Y Garn and continued at Caebach until 1844. Towards the end of his ministry, he was ably assisted by David Price from Howey who was subsequently ordained pastor to succeed Daniel Williams in 1844, ministering at Caebach for over twenty years. David Price was a carpenter by trade, and it is to the years of his ministry that we owe the chapel’s fine box pews.

It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast in style and outlook than those that characterised his successor, the celebrity preacher, lecturer, journalist and political campaigner, the Revd. Kilsby Jones. James Rhys Jones had acquired the name Kilsby from his ministry in that Northamptonshire village in the 1840s. He served as pastor to Tabernacl, Rhaeadr from 1857 to 1866, save for a brief interlude in 1860/61 when he accepted a call to a London chapel where the eccentricities that charmed his Welsh hearers were regarded as unacceptable oddities. In his career as a celebrity preacher and lecturer in Wales we witness a new phase in Welsh nonconformity that had cast off the evangelicalism of a Ioan Thomas and now sought to build the new Jerusalem through the instrument of the Liberal Party that had broken the mould of Welsh politics in the General Election of 1868, the year of Kilsby Jones’s induction at Caebach. 

Kilsby surfed the crest of a wave of High Victorian modernity and Imperial progress, the contemporary zeitgeist that attracted him irresistibly to the developing new town of Llandrindod Wells with its railway and seasonal visitors. With the latter in mind, he immediately embarked on an ambitious project to build a new church, in truth an auditorium for his oratory with a specially designed podium, in Llandrindod Wells. Christ Church Congregational Chapel was built in 1871 to the eye-catching design of architect Robert Moffat Smith of Manchester at a cost of £1700. The new chapel’s English name is significant, for Kilsby Jones shared the view of many of his contemporaries that the adoption of English was essential for progress. He would have liked to have seen Caebach closed altogether with its congregation incorporated into Christ Church. Neither at Caebach nor at Christ Church did he undertake the traditional pastoral work associated with a minister; no deacons were appointed and there was no Sunday School or church meeting. Kilsby Jones resided at Glenview, his house in Llanwrtyd, some thirty miles distant but now linked to Llandrindod Wells by the new railway.

Following his death in 1889, the decline he had inaugurated at Caebach continued, so that in the decades leading up to the Great War the chapel fell into disrepair and was largely disused.    Meanwhile, Christ Church, enlarged in 1907 during the ministry of Revd. D. Garro Jones using architect William Beddoe Rees of Cardiff, was demolished in the 1980s to make way for a smaller church incorporated into an apartment block. Afternoon worship was revived at Caebach during the summer months of the Great War and the chapel was subsequently used for special services such as Thanksgivings and candle-lit carol services, under the care of a succession of ministers of Christ Church. In 1972 the combined congregation joined the United Reformed Church and weekly services were resumed at Caebach from 1974 under the care of Pastor Gilbert Williams, a retired local art teacher, in association with Christ Church. The congregational cause at Caebach came to an end in 2019, the chapel passing into the care of Addoldai Cymru.

David Barnes

[1] T.J. Hughes, Wales’s Best One Hundred Churches (Bridgend, 2006), p. 158.