The height of Welsh chapel-building coincided with Wales having the first largely industrial society in the world. At the time of the 1851 census more people were employed in industry than agriculture for the first time on the planet.
Most chapels were built by worker congregations, often led by works managers and local tradesmen. The capital required for the construction for what were often the world’s largest industrial (principally iron and copper-smelting) works of the mid 19th century meant that most industrial concerns had Boards led by industrialists who were of, or had joined, the state Anglican Church – the Church of England. There were exceptions such as the Wesleyan Methodist Guests of the Dowlais Ironworks, or the Harfords and Darbys of Ebbw Vale who were Quakers, but these did not necessarily share the denominational faith of the majority of their workforce, or indeed their first language, which was usually Welsh and not English. However, one Nonconformist industrialist with a shared denomination with some of his workforce was George Conway, the Baptist founder of the Pontrhydyrun Tinplate Works near Cwmbrân, who built a particularly elegant classical chapel nearby in 1836. His wealth ensured that it was of unusually large size with a multiplicity of finely dressed flat stone pillars attached to its walls.
Most industrial, or agricultural worker congregations, could only afford chapels that usually cost around £1,000-£2,000. Nonconformist industrialists could afford to pay far more for their chapels. The most expensive of all in Wales was the building of Tabernacl, Morriston in 1870-72. Estimated at first to cost £10,000, the price of construction when complete was recorded as being £15,000. Crucial to its construction were a trio of Welsh Independent denomination industrialists who had acquired the redundant water-powered rolling mills of the giant Hafod Copperworks in Morriston and built tinning facilities alongside the mills in order to create the Upper Forest (1845) and Beaufort (1860) Tinplate Works. One of the three was John Jones Jenkins who was born in nearby Clydach and entered the Upper Forest Works when he was 14 and rose very quickly to be General Manager. He was also a part-owner of several works, knighted in 1885, Mayor of Swansea in 1889, MP for Carmarthen and created Lord Glantawe in 1906. He lived at Bath Villa in Morriston, within easy walking distance of the Welsh Independent Chapels of back street Libanus and its swaggering successor, Tabernacl, built on the main street of Morriston. It completely overshaded the earlier Anglican Churches built by the coppermaster Morris family who had founded ‘Morris Town’ in 1779.
The other major tinplate industry industrialists were Richard Hughes and Daniel Edwards. Edwards had worked as a stonemason on the Ystalyfera Tinplate Works in the Swansea Valley and in 1868 joined Jenkins in building the Worcester Tinplate Works at Morriston. The partnership was dissolved two years later and Edwards was persuaded to oversee the building of Tabernacl Chapel before he went on to build his giant Dyffryn Tinplate & Steel Works at Morriston that employed 1,100 workers by the 1890s.
The giant Italianate Nonconformist chapels built by the textile industrialists of Yorkshire and Lancashire in this period were widely publicised with illustrations and descriptions in the Yearbook of the Congregational Union of England and Wales, a quarter of whose membership were Welsh. Nonconformist northern English textile industrialists such as Crossley of Halifax, and Salt of Saltaire, also contributed to the construction of chapels in Wales. The Tabernacl architect John Humphrey was a deacon in the chapel at Mynydd-bach on the west side of Morriston and his first chapels of 1866-68 in the industrial suburbs of Swansea had single great arches set in the their gable fronts based on the designs of the neighbouring minister-architect Thomas Thomas. However, Daniel Edwards led John Humphrey and the Libanus/Tabernacl minister on a tour of what were said to be ‘the most famous chapels in England’ to gain ideas for the new chapel structure.
One of these was presumably the 1,500 seater Providence Congregational Chapel at Cleckheaton of 1857-59, south-west of Leeds, where the main gable front had a façade of multiple arches springing from the tops of a row of elaborate Corinthian columns and supporting a huge classical pediment forming the gable. A large Sunday School in the basement had one class taught by the textile industrialist William Anderton who had partly financed the chapel.
Another chapel also illustrated in the Congregational Yearbook was the recently competed 1,600 seater Stratford Congregational Church in east London built in 1866-67 with the first Minister appointed in 1869. The Building Committee had been led by the London City Merchant William Settles who lent most of the £11,500 cost rent free. This chapel had a three-bay classical portico divided by double columns with an Italianate tower and spire to its right-hand side and a large Sunday School underneath – clearly a strong influence on the design elements used and so successfully reworked at Tabernacl, Morriston.
The 1,450 seat Tabernacl at Morriston was designed by Humphrey with three giant arches set in its façade, but its crowning glory is the Italianate spire which is without precedent in British Nonconformist architecture. The Sunday School set in the basement of the sloping site could seat over 1,000. Other industrial towns wanted a version of the impressive three arch façade with its combination of arcade and portico. In 1873 another Tabernacle Welsh Independent Chapel was completed at the other tinplate centre of Llanelli at a lesser cost of £4,000 without the steeple. In 1878 a smaller version again was completed in the mid-Wales textile town of Llanidloes whose Zion English Congregational Chapel cost £1,550.
The ports of Penarth, Cardiff, Barry and Newport all boomed in the Victorian and Edwardian periods as the south Wales coalfield fuelled the fleets of the world with steam coal and supplied much of the Mediterranean’s industry. South Wales became the world’s largest exporting coalfield and the largest coalfield in Britain by 1913. Huge new chapels and Sunday School complexes were built along the coast. David Davies, the railway contractor and industrialist who founded the port of Barry, and the Ocean Company Mines in the Rhondda, was a Calvinistic Methodist. He helped finance many chapels including the substantial one of 1872-73 by the railway building designers Szlumper & Aldwinkle of Liverpool, near his country seat in Llandinam, Montgomeryshire (Powys).
Davies’s business partner John Cory, was a Wesleyan Methodist associated with the very large Roath Road Chapel in Cardiff, rebuilt as a Gothic chapel on a near cathedral scale by the architects Habershon, Pite & Fawckner of Newport in 1871. The Habershon architectural practice originated in London but the building of Tredegarville English Baptist Chapel for a congregation including Richard Cory (junior) in 1862, and other chapel-building opportunities, induced William Gilbert Habershon to open an office to serve the rich coal ports of south Wales.
The management of the works and mines were heavily involved in the leadership and diaconate of the chapels. The bilingual managers of the major iron and copper works were often deacons in the local Welsh-language chapels. Hard rock mining managers and specialists from Cornwall were often Wesleyan Methodists who founded and attended many of the chapels established in the rural upland lead and silver mining area of north Ceredigion. The Bible Christian denomination chapel in Trevivian at Swansea was founded by Cornish workers who had followed the Vivian family to find employment in the Hafod Copperworks, the largest of its type in the world
Each industrial community had a dense cluster of religious buildings at the centre of every settlement. The industrial settlement of some 10,000 people that was built around the Blaenavon Ironworks in south-east Wales had thirteen chapels by 1900. The influence of Thomas Deakin, a Wesleyan Methodist and the coal and mine manager at Blaenavon, ensured that a large Methodist chapel of 1837 formed the centrepiece for the forty houses of Chapel Row, completed by the Blaenavon Iron and Coal Company in 1839. Thomas Thomas, an engineer at the Blaenavon Ironworks and forges designed the Horeb Baptist Chapel in 1862. Many engineers also designed buildings and often for the chapel congregations they attended. One of the first may have been the innovative engineer William Edwards who was also a Welsh Independent minister. He laid out Morriston in 1779, established the designs to be followed by those building houses and then built Libanus Independent Chapel in 1782.
A particularly important industrial and engineering influence was in the building of Peniel Calvinistic Methodist Chapel in Tremadog near Porthmadog in north-west Wales. This was long thought to be the first columned classical chapel in Wales but the process and influences on construction is now known to be long and complex. The land-owner and industrialist William Madocks initially planned only to reclaim the northern part of the Afon Glaslyn Estuary by a large sea-wall embankment in 1800. The new model settlement at Tremadog, begun in 1805, was placed at the centre of the reclaimed land with an access canal, granary and large water-powered woollen and corn mills and reservoirs.
The landowner and industrialist William Madocks suggested the Italianate pillared façade of Peniel Chapel to ornament his model town of Tremadog and it was finished in its present form under the supervision of his engineer John Williams in 1849.
There was a cluster of ornamental buildings and structures at its heart including the Market Hall (1807), Hotel (1807), Church (1811), Triumphal Arch (c.1811) and Chapel (1810-11). Madocks had been corresponding with the pioneering classical archaeologist William Gell over the idea of building a version of a Temple of Neptune in Tremadog. Perhaps as a result he promised £50 for a portico that would ornament the front of the Tremadog Chapel but by 1810 he was in a serious financial crisis with the construction of his second and larger reclamation embankment (the Cob) and could only offer £10 when he attended the chapel opening prior to its completion. This may have resulted in the absence of columns, or the use of temporary timber ones, for the present stone columns were added under the supervision of John Williams, Madocks’s agent and engineer, in 1849. Madocks (and Williams) had a direct hand in the design of Tremadog: the design of the Triumphal Arch has elements from the Prince of Wales’s Conservatory in his Carlton House residence in London, and reference was made to Covent Garden when describing the theatre in the Tremadog Town Hall. There is little doubt that the Peniel chapel design with its wheel window in the pediment draws its design from that of St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden built by the great London-Welsh architect Inigo Jones, whose family came from Croesonen near Llanrwst. Madocks had eased construction by giving a long site lease for a nominal two beans a year!
Another engineer who built chapels in this period was Thomas White, resident engineer and manager of the Swansea Canal, who was responsible for the construction of the Ystalyfera English Congregational Chapel of 1868-69. This Gothic structure was adjacent to the very large Ystalyfera Iron and Tinplate Works and was part financed by one of the managers there, a Mr. Parish and the owner of Hendreforgan Colliery, Mr. Bayne.
Industrial or local materials did not generally influence chapel design – it can be seen that the most prolific Welsh chapel architects such as the Reverend Thomas Thomas, or Richard Owen, used the same successive designs over a number of years executed in whatever brick or stone was locally available. The only exception was in north-east Wales where moulded Terracotta dressings and tiles from the internationally known works of J.C. Edwards of Ruabon gave an added fluidity of design based on local ‘hot-red’ brick to the nearby 21 chapels of industrial Rhosllanerchrugog or in the resorts of Colwyn Bay, Rhyl and Prestatyn.
Stephen Hughes, ‘The Institutions of the Copper Townships’, Copperopolis: Landscapes of the Early Industrial Period in Wales (Aberystwyth, RCAHMW, 2000), 241-294.
Chris Barber, Exploring Blaenavon Industrial Landscape World Heritage Site (Abergavenny, Blorenge, 2002).