Letters & Specifications from a Welsh Chapels Architect in Liverpool
Richard Owens is the second most prolific chapel architect in Wales and the favoured late- 19th century architect of the Calvinistic Methodists: the only one of the Nonconformist denominations that is indigenous to Wales and without equivalent in England. His work is uniquely illuminated by a huge collection of surviving letters and chapel design specifications now in Liverpool Record Office. He was resident architect on site during the building of the Welsh-language Independent or Congregational Chapel – Tabernacl Newydd – in Everton, Liverpool in 1866-68. This was the largest chapel designed by Thomas Thomas, the most prolific Welsh Chapel architect of all and presumably may represent a significant exchange of ideas by these two most significant Welsh Chapel architects. During the same period he was also involved on authorising the payments for site works of ‘the Cathedral of the Welsh’, the Princes Road Calvinistic Methodist Chapel in Liverpool – the most expensive Welsh-language chapel built.
Richard Owens was born in Y Ffôr (Four Crosses) to the north-east of Pwllheli on the Llŷn Peninsula in Caenarfonshire, but like so many of his north Welsh compatriots moved in his 20s to Liverpool where he attended evening-classes in building and architecture. Liverpool at that stage functioned partly as the economic capital of north Wales and had a significant number of large Welsh owned building firms in what was probably the second-largest port city in the world. Owens acted in general workers housing design in Everton for the firm of David Roberts & Son, and in 1867 designed their mansion and grand Gothic local Calvinistic Methodist Chapel in Abergele. He later moved his architects design practice into their impressive large headquarters building which he designed in the centre of Liverpool. He designed 250-300 chapels, largely in north Wales. Thirty-five were built in the 1860s, 25 of which were for the Calvinistic Methodist denomination of which he was a member. His work was much admired in Wales and he designed no less than 165 chapels in the 1870s, of which 90 were for the Calvinistic Methodist denomination. Another 38 are recorded for the 1880s when his reputation was fully established.
He grew increasingly impatient whenever he saw poor building standards used on the chapels he had designed. This is illuminated by the documentation surviving from his architectural practice which gives insights into the chapel design process in Welsh Chapels that are not available elsewhere. Like Thomas Thomas, he first designed for his own, former Welsh Calvinist congregation, in this case at Y Ffôr in 1861-62. By 1864 his fourth known design, Fitzclarence Street Welsh Calvinistic Chapel in Liverpool was under construction when ‘Early in 1864 on February 13 the half-built walls collapsed in a storm’. Work restarted two days later on this expensive, £7,000, chapel and the final report on the building on December 15, 1865, noted that all was ‘Quite Correct.’
There is also evidence of a somewhat abrasive temperament. For example in a letter sent to those concerned in building Mynydd Seion Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, Chapel Street, Abergele, Denbighshire in 1867 was the cryptic note ‘I enclose quantities [of building materials], it appears you do not want to see plans.’
All chapel architects regularly made site visits to inspect progress by the builders of their approved chapel designs. On April 24, 1873, Owen visited the building of Ithon Road English Presbyterian and Welsh Calvinistic Chapel at Llandrindod Wells in Radnorshire and noted in a disgruntled letter the following day ‘Surveyed yesterday … horrid evidence of hasty way finished.’
On June 15, 1883 he wrote a very blunt letter to the builder of the New Wesleyan Chapel at Prestatyn, expressing his dissatisfaction with progress: ‘To Mr. John W. Jones, Builder, Morley Road, Rhyl. I hereby give you this notice that I am not at all satisfied with the progress you are making at the new Wesleyan Chapel Prestatyn and unless you add considerably to the number of men on the ground and provide materials for them I shall on behalf of the Trustees take the work into my own hands and employ another party to do the work and charge you with the cost. You will please take this as three days legal notice as specified in the Contract. I cannot see any way to advance any more money until considerably more work is done. Yours respectfully, Richard Owens.’
More drastic was the direct action he took on his site visit to the Castle Square English Presbyterian Chapel in Caernarfon in 1883. On the following day he wrote to the iron founder who had supplied the chapel railings: ‘Mr. W.H.Peake, Seal Street. Sir, I have just returned from Caernarfon and I saw the Gates and Railings made by you to my order, and I beg to inform you that I have condemned the whole thing and ordered them down again of all the Iron Works that I ever had this is the worst specimen. Your Gates are fully 5’’ [12.7cm] too narrow and the work most slovenly done throughout. They will be there at your own risk and you will have to pay the carriage of them.’ However, in this case he may have overstepped his authority as architect, for the building-committee of the chapel congregation wrote to say they were not happy with his actions.
Owens championed the use of elements taken from the mixed architecture prevalent in north Italy (Lombardy) in the period of the cross-over from round-arched Romanesque (called Norman Architecture in Britain) to Gothic – the latter represented by circular windows and plate tracery. This Italo-Lombardic architecture fitted very well with Victorian architects’ ideas in mixing styles to find a new expression of architectural forms for the 19th century. He also designed some of the best ‘full church’ Gothic and pedimented Renaissance Italianate chapels of the later 19th century in Wales and in Welsh-language chapels in Liverpool and other English towns.
Owens’ work was so admired that he designed as many as four chapels each in towns like Aberystwyth and Llanidloes. Baker Street in Aberystwyth still has two functioning chapels designed by Owens, Seion Welsh Independent and Alfred Place English Baptist. A third chapel in the same short street, Bethel Welsh Baptist, was designed by the local builder Thomas Morgan in imitation of Owens’ Tabernacl Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Chapel in Aberystwyth.
Further Reading The Buildings of Wales Volumes (Yale, New Haven & London) for Carmarthenshire & Ceredigion (2006) & Pembrokeshire (2004) authored by Thomas Lloyd, Julian Orbach and Robert Scourfield; Gwynedd (2009) by Richard Haslam, Julian Orbach and Adam Voelcker, and Powys (2013) by Robert Scourfield and Richard Haslam. These books all have excellent introductions to Nonconformist architecture and many entries in their indexes to the work of Richard Owens.