Later Chapel building

By the 1840s, there were changes in chapel planning, as congregations sought buildings which could house more people more easily. All the main congregations followed a similar trend towards square-plan and then gable-end chapels. The square-plan chapels had several variants, but the gabled plan became universal by the later 19th century. In the latter type, the entrance was located within the front gable facade, the pews and galleries orientated towards the pulpit at the far end.


Gwynfil Chapel Llangeitho, Ceredigion ©Crown Copyright: RCAHMW

There was initially a growing trend away from building long-wall chapels towards ones with a deeper, squared, plan by the end of the 18th century and early 19th century. Early examples are known, such as Daniel Rowland’s chapel of 1764 at Llangeitho, Ceredigion, which was divided internally by stone pillars. Such ‘double-pile’ plans were common in larger 18th century English chapels, echoing the fashion of larger houses. Towards the end of the century however, square-plan chapels became more compact, and were able to be spanned with a hipped roof, dispensing with the inconvenient pillars.


Ramoth Baptist Chapel Cowbridge ©Crown Copyright: RCAHMW

As with their English counterparts, square-plan chapels in Wales fall into two main types, those with central doors, such as Ramoth Independent, Cowbridge, Glamorgan (1829) and, less commonly, those which adhered to the pattern of the earlier long-wall chapels with doors towards each end. The popularity of the square-plan chapel grew due to fact that more seating could be provided for increasing congregations within a more compact auditorium. However, as with the long-wall type, any extension other than reseating and providing galleries was structurally difficult to achieve without major reconstruction. In response to this problem another change in chapel-planning is evident from c.1800. Pentre Llifior Chapel, Bettws Cedewain, Montgomeryshire  built in 1798 is a good early example of a chapel where the entry has been built at the gable end, the gallery and pews facing the pulpit at the opposite end.

Gabled chapels with increasingly ‘architectural’ fronts gained favour after the building of John Wesley’s City Road Temple, London, in 1778.  Earlier gabled chapels survive, but City Road with its pedimented façade was enormously influential, the Methodist conference of 1790 advocating its plan as an appropriate model for all new chapels for the denomination. The simple gabled Earlswood Methodist Chapel, Monmouthshire (1791)  is one of the earliest surviving examples in Wales.

As the century progressed, gabled fronts became more elaborate, firstly with windows to both storeys, for example, Bethabara Baptist, Crickhowell, Breconshire, (1840) or with tall windows spanning both storeys, for example Llangloffan Baptist Chapel, Pembrokeshire (1862). The tradition of using round-arched windows persisted, although the pointed form characterizes the later Gothic chapels.

The advantages of a gable-fronted chapel with its pews orientated to the rear pulpit were many. Such chapels looked less domestic and more like a definable place of worship, displaying the increasing confidence and resources of their congregations, especially when a fashionable Gothic or Classical façade was provided. They were easy to extend, either to the rear or even the front. The narrower plan allowed for a stronger roof structure and the galleries, whether along three sides or just at the entrance end, allowed a clear view of the pulpit. The plan-form was more adaptable for urban plots and for creating a façade that was more likely to stand out in an urban setting. The tradition of placing a window behind the pulpit was dispensed with, eliminating problems of glare. Instead, the pulpit was often given a framework of timber or plaster, sometimes with a scriptural text.

Towards the end of the 19th century, town chapels in particular were often extended to the rear to provide room for an organ (their provision being uncommon before this date), commonly with the provision of a fourth gallery for a choir, and with vestry and schoolrooms behind, for example, Ebenezer Wesleyan, Caernarfon, extended 1893.


Bethania Chapel, Berllandywyll, Myddfai ©Crown Copyright: RCAHMW

By the 1860s, many older chapels had been remodelled and refitted to the gable-end plan, often so skilfully done that their long-wall origins are not evident until renovations reveal earlier openings. Some alterations however are more apparent, as at Bethania Calvinistic Methodist, Myddfai, Carmarthenshire,  where, in 1880, a broad gable was added over the lateral front of 1857.  The remodelling of Ty-Newydd Calvinistic Methodist chapel, Cynwyl Gaeo, Carmarthenshire  in 1907, despite creating a new gable entrance, has not wholly disguised the appearance of the original chapel of 1837.


Rhosycaerau Chapel Pembrokeshire ©Crown Copyright: RCAHMW

As one would expect, there are many chapels built to a ‘hybrid’ plan, which are difficult to categorize. Rhosycaerau Independent, Pembrokeshire, was built in 1826 to a gabled plan yet still with paired outer doors.  Ainon Baptist, Llanuwchllyn, Merionethshire,  has a long-wall front of 1840, but a square plan. Nebo Independent at Efailwen, Carmarthenshire  as late as 1860 is a hip-roofed square-plan chapel, yet with the pulpit backing onto the front lobby, echoing the older long-wall-front tradition. In some industrial areas of Ceredigion and – slightly later – Pembrokeshire, are found lateral-fronted chapels with their interiors orientated towards the gable end. These date from around the mid-19th century, a good example being Penllwyn Calvinistic Methodist, Capel Bangor, Ceredigion, (1850)  Why this plan-type was thought suitable for congregations mostly comprising lead miners or coal miners is unclear, but it is an insight as to how quickly ideas on style and planning could spread across Wales, as Nonconformist families moved from one area to another.

Octagonal plans were popular for 17th century Dutch churches, as well as some Scottish Presbyterian churches. John Wesley recommended the octagonal plan as ‘best for the voice’ and a number survive from the later 18th century in England, such as in Stroud (1762). In Wales however, Beulah, Margam, Glamorgan, built in 1838 for the Calvinistic Methodists, is unique in being the only octagonal plan chapel in Wales, though the shape is often echoed in the number of five-sided galleries found in lateral-fronted chapels from the 1820s. William Beddoe Rees’ Ebenezer at Llandudno, Caernarfonshire (1909)   has a fully-round plan, and half-round or horse-shoe seating plans are sometimes found, for example, in Tabernacl, Ruthin, Denbighshire, (1888-91). It is clear – perhaps to be expected – that the Nonconformist builders, in contrast to their Anglican counterparts, were relatively free to adapt plans and styles to suit their own needs, preferences, and budget. The diversity of surviving chapels is testimony to that, although it is also clear that as fashions changed, ideas quickly spread, initially by word and mouth, and then via the press and building periodicals, especially when illustrations were provided.

 Rob Scourfield