Salem Chapel was built in 1872, designed by Henry Morgan of Briton Ferry and built by Thomas, Morgan and Davies of Swansea for £2877/4-7 to seat 1150.
Gable-fronted chapels began to appear on a large scale across Wales in the 1820s, a plan-type suited to constricted urban sites and allowing flexibility for future extension to the rear or even the front. Within a generation or so, new gable-fronted chapels were provided with some architectural embellishment, mainly Classical where the gable could be treated as a pediment and detail such as rustication and pilasters could be added, be it in stone, brick or stucco. St James’ Chapel, Monmouth (1837 by G.V. Maddox) is an early example, built for the Wesleyan Methodists.
No group displays the trend better than the classical chapels built in the prosperous tinplate town of Llanelli during the 1850s. Bethel and Siloah have stuccoed facades, Zion and Greenfield (both by Henry Rogers) have grander stone pilastered fronts. All, except Siloah (Independent) are Baptist. These chapels represent the first generation of the classical chapel in Wales and their designers are drawn from professional architects and skilled artisans rather than from ministers and chapel members – although at Salem, the designer was a combination of both minister and talented designer, like the rather more proficient Rev Thomas Thomas. It is likely that designer’s name at Salem was wrongly recorded – he was no doubt Rev Henry Thomas of Briton Ferry, who designed Baptist Chapels at Calfaria, Clydach (1868) and Morriston (1869-70) – and quite probably, Bethania, Neath (1862-3).
They are all temple-fronted with tall windows between the Tuscan pilasters. Salem is very similar indeed, except that the tall windows are replaced by short pairs in the outer bays and a triplet over the door, as at Seion and Calfaria. The interior of Salem is similar to Thomas’ chapels at Neath and Morriston, both with sinuous cast iron gallery balustrading and broad enclosed ‘big-seats’. Alterations are recorded in 1908, possibly to seating and the entrance lobby – possibly the attractive painted detail of the ceiling is also of this date.
Salem Chapels is listed as a Grade II* listed building as an important chapel which has remained largely unaltered since it was built, including retaining its original decorations and fittings.
Salem Nantyffyllon – ‘A most costly and magnificent edifice’
In 1830, James Hodgkins Allen of Neath leased land from the Coegnant Estate, near the head of the Llynfi Valley. In 1831, he opened a zinc smelting works in Caerau, just north of Nantyffyllon, consisting of 4 furnaces and a calciner. This was part of the rapid growth in heavy industry which characterised the valley during the mid-nineteenth century – the corollary of which was the growth in the valley’s population. In the Maesteg area, the population numbered 307 in 1821 and by 1841, had expanded to around 4,000. The ‘Blue Book’ reports on the area published in 1847 estimated the population at between 6,000 – 7,000, and notes the overcrowded domestic arrangements of the area.
The first Welsh Baptist Chapel in the area, Bethania, Maesteg was incorporated in 1828, following the arrival of Thomas Hopkin from Hirwaun. Four years later, he oversaw the construction of the original Bethania building, which, in a further sign of the rapid growth of the area, had to be further extended in 1840 -1841, due to the increasing number of members.
To the north of Maesteg in the Nantyffyllon and Caerau area, then known as ‘Spelter’ after the works, members of Bethania had begun to gather together for prayer since the early 1840s, initially at the home of Martha Jones at 49, Metcalfe Street and at Toncwd, a row of cottages built specifically to house employees of the smelting works. As minister of Bethania, the Revd. Thomas Hopkin assumed the responsibility for ministering to the ‘Spelter branch’. They were forced to move their meeting place several times due to an increase in numbers. After Toncwd, they rented a room at the home of Evan Griffiths at 35, Tonna Road, where the first Spelter Baptist Sunday School was held, and then at the ‘Long Room’ at the Gelli Arms in Hermon Road, one of the earliest licensed premises in the area. However the stay here was even more brief and the members then relocated to the Potroom, a building which had previously been part of the smelting works, which had closed and been put up for sale in 1844. The unused Potroom was adapted for use as a chapel.
Although having left Bethania in 1845, the Revd. Thomas Hopkin continued to minister to the meeting at Spelter. In 1848, the Spelter branch applied to the Glamorgan Welsh Baptist Association to be received as an independent, incorporated church. However, at the Association’s Quarterly Meeting, held at Rehoboth Chapel, Briton Ferry on 1 and 2 November 1848, their application was refused: “This meeting is opposed to a cause relating to our Denomination being established at y Llwyni (Maesteg).”References in later Association reports suggest that the refusal was due to financial hardship.
This refusal was reiterated at the Annual Glamorgan Association Meeting held at Soar, Rhymney on 20 and 21 June 1849. The advice for the group at Spelter was issued in the strongest possible terms: “That this Association totally discourages every offer to raise a new chapel anywhere in the neighbourhood of y Llwyni in the current circumstances…”
The number of members joining Bethania continued to increase; in August 1849, a remarkable 47 new members were baptised. Consequently, at the Glamorgan Association Quarterly Meeting held at Caerphilly in February 1850, permission was finally given for the incorporation of the Spelter church “As the friends at Spelter do not presently intend building a place of worship.” The services to mark the incorporation were held shortly afterwards, on 1 and 2 March 1850. At 10.00am on 2 March, the Revd. H.W. Hughes, minister of Bethania preached a sermon before proceeding to read out the names of the Bethania members who wished to be part of the new church, followed by the names of those recently baptised who also wished to join them, making a total of 59 members. A preaching festival followed with numerous local ministers taking part.
On 19 – 20 June 1850, the Annual Glamorgan Baptist Association Meeting was held at Bethania and the newly incorporated Spelter church was received as a member of the Association. The following month, a Mr J Jones of Brynllefrith gifted a ‘large, fine and much needed’ Bible to the church and then on 6 August 1850, Howell Davies, an assistant preacher at Bethania who had recently moved to the Spelter area, was ordained and inducted as the new church’s first minister. He was initially a non-stipendiary minister, working underground during the week and preaching ‘with zeal’ on Sundays. A lively and witty individual, it was said that this only added to the respect in which he was held by the local chapel community. After about a year, the Spelter church set about searching for a suitable piece of land on which to build a chapel. A piece of land was secured at the lower end of Nantyffyllon, large enough to accommodate a chapel, a house and a graveyard. Building work commenced in 1851, with Mr. Evan Aubrey, a previous member at Bethania and now a prominent member at Salem and carpenter by trade as the architect, and a Mr. Oliver as the Contractor. The new building cost £700. It was opened in August 1852 and was called ‘Salem’.
The new cause flourished and by 1857, Howell Davies was able to leave his work underground and devote himself to full-time stipendiary ministry, receiving a regular wage of £4 a month. Around 1863, in another measure of success, a branch was established at Glyncorrwg. Further work was undertaken at Salem in 1865, and a vestry was built at a cost of £150. The contractor this time was prominent Maesteg builder, Joseph Hurley, whose firm had been responsible for building the first Bethania chapel, back in 1832. In 1866, Howell Davies died at the premature age of 47. In a measure of both the increased wealth and the affection in which he had been held, the church at Salem paid a year’s ministerial salary to his widow and family.
The following year, the church offered a Call to John Lewis, (later known as J Gomer Lewis, D.D.), a bright young student at Haverfordwest Academy. The call was accepted, and Lewis was ordained and inducted on the first Sunday of May 1867. He was remarkably successful and even more popular than his predecessor; in his first seven years at Salem, he baptised 265 people. Such was the increase in both members and listeners, rather than further extend the current building, it was decided to erect a brand new chapel. John Lewis approached Glamorgan landowner Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Picton Tubervill of Ewenny Priory to plead his cause – and came away with a large piece of land in Nantyffyllon to be leased for a nominal sum of 5s per annum – and £5 towards the work.
The foundation stone for the new chapel was laid on 18 March 1872 by a Dr Phillips of Taibach with Anne, the daughter of Salem’s first minister, the Revd. Howell Davies, having been awarded the privilege of handing him the mallet and silver trowel. The engaging John Lewis read the history of the chapel to the gathered congregation – and in a novel twist, it is said that his script was inserted into a bottle – which was then placed within the chapel wall, forming an early version of a time capsule. The new chapel’s architect was H. Thomas of Briton Ferry and the Contractors were Thomas, Morgan and Davies of Swansea. The building cost £2,877 4s 7d – and in a remarkable display of local wealth, generosity and diligence, by the time of its opening in 1873, £1,049 8s 7d had already been raised towards the cost. The new Salem, Nantyffyllon was considered one of the finest and most attractive chapels in Wales – and also one of the largest, being able to accommodate a congregation of 1,150.
On 18 May 1873, the congregation worshipped at the Salem for the first time. They gathered at old Salem at 10.00am, where a short service of thanksgiving was held. Then the entire congregation, led by their minister, processed the short distance to the new Salem, the older members weeping, ‘soaking the road with their tears’ the younger members, ‘singing loudly’. William ‘Epha’ Rees, the oldest member had the privilege of carrying the Bible. A baptism was held in the chapel that evening, followed by a communion service. Such was the joy of that day, it was said that the members would never forget it – ‘neither in this life or the next’. The ‘official’ opening celebrations were held over several weeks – and in a measure of the minister’s social standing, included a concert at which Mr Alexander Brogden MP, a member of the Brogden Ironmasters family had been invited to preside. In the event, parliamentary business precluded his attendance, but nevertheless he sent his brother, Henry, in his stead. The two brothers contributed a total of £70 to the building fund. Present at this concert, a commentator described the chapel as a “A most costly and magnificent edifice, a credit to the place, denomination and the contractors.” However he wasn’t quite as fulsome in his praise for the organ, describing it as ‘”A paltry instrument, and not at all in conformity with the splendid interior of the edifice.”
Five further successful years followed and then, much to the congregation’s dismay, the Revd. John Lewis responded affirmatively to a call from Belle Vue Baptist Chapel, Swansea. Unwilling to accept this and determined to prevent the metropolis from poaching their bright young star, the deacons were prevailed upon to travel to Swansea to persuade the members at Belle Vue to change their minds. One of the Maesteg deacons personally offered to pay the church £200 if they retracted their call. However, the efforts to persuade John Lewis to stay were unsuccessful, and on 1 March 1878, he left Nantyffyllon for Swansea. The church did not appoint a successor for another year, in the vain hope that he could be persuaded to return. Three Salem Deacons, along with the local doctor, Dr. E. D. Davies and his brother were among the large crowd who were present at John Lewis’ inauguration as minister at Swansea three days later. Mr Grove, one of the Salem deacons spoke on behalf of the church, declaring that he loved John Lewis like his own child and that he was superior to all the other ministers who were present at the service. The overwhelming dismay at Salem could be heard in one of his final comments: “Nid wyf yn dymuno i chwi lwyddiant. Nis gwnaf, oblegid yr ydych wedi yspeilio ein gweinidog.” (I do not wish you success. I will not do so because you have pillaged our minister).
Two short-lived pastorates followed before the church gave a call to another student, this time from Pontypool Academy, in 1891. David Christmas Howells, originally from Pembrokeshire, was due to be ordained and inducted during the church’s annual meeting in August of that year – however as he was standing at Pontypridd Railway Station waiting for his train on his journey to Nantyffyllon, in a cruel twist of fate, tragedy struck. In what came later to be known as ‘the Pontypridd Railway Disaster of 1891’, a train from Merthyr Tydfil careered into the back of a stationary set of carriages. As a result of the impact, the stationary carriages were forced onto the platform, injuring those who were waiting for the train. Although no one was killed, both a young boy of 15 and David Howells sustained severe injuries, which resulted in each losing a leg. Howells also had multiple fractures in one of his arms, and although amputation was considered, treatment to save it was successful, although he remained in hospital for the rest of the year.
1892 brought brighter days. Howells recovered and in April of that year moved to Nantyffyllon and on 26 May was married at Salem to the nurse who had cared for him whilst in hospital. The church presented Howells with an ebony and silver walking stick and a bookcase – and the new Mrs. Howells received a silver tea service. He was ordained and inducted the following July – nearly a year to the day of his accident. He remained at Nantyffyllon for over 25 years, and it was said that ‘never was there a minister and church so happy and beloved of each other.’ At the turn of the century there were 407 members, together with 409 Sunday school attendees and 46 teachers. Joshua Williams, the indefatigable church secretary had managed to raise £6,962 5s 4d over the previous twenty years and by 1902, the church had a debt of only £800. By this time, Old Salem had been demolished; a map of 1889 shows only the burial ground.
In 1904, the Evan Roberts-led revival saw a further increase in membership. Earlier that year, Salem had hosted the Annual Baptist Union meeting, and the first half of the year had been taken up with the preparations. However, on 20 November, following a sermon preached by David Howells, the Holy Spirit descended upon Salem ‘in the most wonderful communion ever experienced.’ People were ‘falling on their knees in their hundreds to plead for mercy’ and instead of being held twice weekly, prayer meetings were being held twice a day, with a six-fold increase in attendance. On 12 December, 64 new members were baptised, along with another 6 on Christmas Day itself. In that year alone, membership increased by 101. In 1917, after public appeals in the press, the church presented the Revd. David Howells with a special testimonial, to mark 25 years of service at Salem.
Apart from its spiritual role, Salem also had a thriving social life. It held popular weekly Penny Readings, organised Eisteddfodau, Cymanfaoedd Canu, (Singing Festivals) Children’s Cantatas and Cymanfaoedd Pwnc (Bible Recitation Festivals); the composition of ‘Pynciau’ (the arrangement of Biblical texts for recitation) had been a speciality of the former minister, the Revd. Howell Davies. There were Sunday School teas, Band of Hope meetings, sisterhoods, parties, magic lantern nights and that characteristic of industrial areas, the annual Whitsunday March through the village.
During the second half of the Nineteenth Century, coal replaced iron as the area’s heavy industry and main employer. The miners went on strike over wages both in 1915 and 1916, seriously affecting the coal output that was needed during the First World War; this prompted the government to take control of the mines from their private owners and comply with the miners’ demands for higher wages. When the mines were returned to private ownership in 1921, the owners refused to maintain the same level of remuneration. The resulting conflict led to a 4 year ‘lock out’, at the end of which the miners finally acquiesced, and returned to work for less than half their previous wage. During the time of the ‘lock out’, various churches and groups came together to provide for the stricken workers and their families. A soup kitchen was opened at Salem and a photograph dated 14 May 1921 entitled ‘Salem Nantyffyllon Canteen’ shows the members involved.
Following the Second World War, Salem celebrated its centenary in 1950, but the numbers never again reached the peak of the early 1900s. By the early 1980s, the cost of heating the chapel for a small congregation became prohibitive and services were held in the vestry downstairs. In the early 2000s, the congregation made a number of grant applications to a variety of funders to undertake restoration work in the chapel and to modernise the vestry for wider community use. These were successful and the work to the vestry was completed in 2008 and the chapel restoration shortly afterwards. However the congregations numbers continued to decline and in late 2020, the chapel was transferred to the ownership of Addoldai Cymru.