Cultural uses

Choral and dramatic traditions, Ysgol Gân/Band of Hope and Eisteddfodau

Early chapels were generally small and simple structures which provided accommodation for members of the local congregation to worship and develop their spiritual life. In several cases the earliest stages in the history of a chapel had occurred in the homes of members, and upper rooms of local taverns, barns or any other spaces that could be made available for worship. In Maesteg, initial meetings had been held in local houses and then in the upper room of the Coitrehen Arms before building the first Bethania Baptist chapel in 1832; and in Aberdare services were held for three years in the Long Room of the Boot Hotel before the first Siloa Independent chapel was built in 1844. Increasing congregations led to the extension of existing buildings and construction of larger buildings which in turn stimulated and maintained a wide range of activities undertaken by congregations. In many communities the chapel’s vestry or schoolroom was the only place where people could meet apart from the public house.

The April 1852 issue of Y Traethodydd, the monthly periodical, contained the statement that Welshmen went to chapel, in part at least ‘to seek for that which the Englishman goes to the playhouse to look for’, and in 1881 The Treasury, the monthly journal of the Calvinistic Methodists, described the chapel as ‘the social centre around which its adherents gather; it is school, lyceum, club, church, all in one…’

A strong tradition of choral singing was developed in many chapels despite an early opposition to the use of musical instruments in religious services which, it was considered, should be plain and unaccompanied. A series of practice sessions would be organised, usually during the winter months for both adults in the Ysgol Gân [singing class] and children in the Band of Hope, culminating in rehearsals in an individual chapel, or a group of local chapels in the following spring, and then the Gymanfa Ganu [singing festival], a major social as well as musical occasion.

An awareness of the low standard of singing at Bethel chapel, Llanidloes, had prompted the Rev.Thomas Charles, Bala (1755-1814) to propose that Henry Mills, whose singing voice had impressed Charles, be placed in charge of the congregational singing at the chapel. Henry Mills and his son James served as precentors for many years at Bethel, the forerunner of the present-day China Street chapel where a choral society was established teaching the rudiments of music to approximately 60-70 young people who attended this class after working in the town’s flannel factories. James Mills’s nephew, Richard Mills was one of the leading musicians of Wales who went to Aberystwyth to attend practice sessions of the Tabernacl Choral Society which had been established by 1845, and before 1858 this choir had performed oratorios including Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s The Creation, and Mozart’s Twelfth Mass.

The choir of Bethania, Maesteg, conducted by Isaac Howells, is reputed to have walked over the mountains on Christmas Day, soaked to the skins in pouring rain, to compete and win the first prize at the Mountain Ash eisteddfod for singing Worthy is the Lamb, thereby indicating their commitment. Other chapels with renowned choirs included Capel y Garn, Bow Street, where J.T. Rees, the composer of hymns, anthems and vocal and instrumental works, was the precentor for over sixty years; Capel Als and Zion, Llanelli under the direction respectively of Dr. Haydn Morris and R. C. Jenkins; and the Christian Temple, Ammanford, where Gwilym R. Jones was the organist and choirmaster from 1914 until 1950.

The installation of an organ, which had initially invoked opposition in some chapels, had gradually became acceptable with organ recitals often held, such as those held over the years at the Castle Square chapel, Caernarfon. The opening recital for this organ, built in the early 1880s, probably for a private residence, by Edward Franklin Lloyd, was given on 21 March 1887 by W.T. Best, organist of St George’s Hall, Liverpool who had opened many organs including the one at the Albert Hall, London in 1871. Concerts held at this chapel included the performance of Stainer’s Crucifixion for Easter by the chapel choir in February 1920. Tabernacl chapel, Cardiff had a succession of gifted organists and Arwel Hughes and Owain Arwel Hughes made a significant contribution to its musical traditions. A number of concerts have been arranged over the years by the Tabernacl choir, and during the Second World War concerts were held every Sunday evening for soldiers stationed at Cardiff.

Eisteddfodau were regularly held at many chapels, including the old chapel, Yr Hen Gapel, at Rhydowen. Social gatherings had been arranged at Rhydowen on Christmas Day over an extended period of time and in 1891 it was stated that these had been held there ‘ers cyn cof’ [since before one could remember]. In 1896 a Gymanfa Bwnc [biblical recitation and questioning session] was held in the new chapel of Llwynrhydowen and a cyfarfod adloniadol [entertainment meeting] in the evening at the old chapel. Also, Christmas concerts were regularly organised at the old chapel on Christmas evening until they were moved to the memorial hall in Pontsian in 1959.

Concerts, eisteddfodau and dramatic productions enabled chapel members not only to entertain their local communities, but also to raise substantial sums of money whereby in many cases they succeeded in clearing debts incurred on chapel buildings. Several chapels in various areas of Wales had their own dramatic companies, and those featured in Hywel Teifi Edwards’s volume Codi Llen (1998) included Capel Gad, Bodffordd; Bethesda, Mold; Capel Tegid, Bala; Soar, Lampeter; Heol Awst, Carmarthen; Capel Seion, Drefach; Bethel, Pont-rhyd-y-fen; Tabor, Maesteg ; Bethesda and Nasareth, Tonpentre; and Bethel, Cross Hands. The latter performed the play Yr Oruchwyliaeth Newydd in chapel vestries and village halls throughout west Wales and the company won second prize in the full-length drama competition at the National Eisteddfod held at Denbigh in 1939. The chapel was also responsible for colourful productions in the Cross Hands Public Hall of musical works such as Holiday on the Sands, Agatha and Ymgom yr Adar.

Several choirs regularly practice today at various chapels, including Tabernacl, Efail Isaf, and Salem, Canton, Cardiff. Those chapels where extremely popular concerts continue to be held include Salem, Llangennech, where Allan Fewster has been the organist and choirmaster for 43 years, and Côr Glandulais, which he conducts, holds annual concerts at the chapel, as also does the female choir, Lleisiau’r Llan. The remarkably-fine musical tradition of Tabernacl, Morriston, established by a number of precentors and choir-masters including David Francis (1872-89), Eos Morlais (1889-92), W. Penfro Rowlands (1892-1919), Edgar Hughson (1919-66) and Alun John (1966-96), is maintained by the annual concerts held in the chapel by a number of choirs, including the Tabernacl Choir, the Morriston Rugby Club Choir, the Morriston Orpheus Choir and the Morriston Ladies Choir.

Huw Owen

Further Reading:

David R. Barnes, People of Seion, (1995)

Braslun o hanes yr eglwysi… [The shorter, printed, history in handbook of the Baptist Annual Meeting held at Bethania in 1925]

Davies, Hanes Eglwys Bethania am y can mlynedd diwethaf , [History of Bethania during the past 100 years]

Hywel Teifi Edwards, Codi’r Llen, (1998)

Jones, A History of Castle Square Presbyterian Church, Caernarfon, (1983)

Alan Vernon Jones, Chapels of the Cynon Valley, Capeli Cwm Cynon, (2004)

Lionel Madden, Social and cultural uses of chapels (unpublished paper)

Aubrey J. Martin, Hanes Llwynrhydowen, (1977)

Huw Owen, The Chapels of Wales, (2012)