Social and cultural uses

Education, Sunday schools, Lectures, the Welsh language and Literature

Griffith Jones (1684-1761) Rector of Llanddowror

Griffith Jones (1684-1761) Rector of Llanddowror

A close association has been forged between Nonconformist chapels and educational activities which have been largely associated with Sunday schools providing classes for both adults and children. Part of the Sunday school background may be traced to related events in England, including the activities of Robert Raikes and his efforts to educate adults in Manchester and Somerset. In Wales earlier developments including the circulating schools of Griffith Jones (1683-1761) in various areas of Wales, and a key figure was the Rev. Thomas Charles, Bala (1755-1814) whose immense contribution may be attributed to his pioneering vision, missionary zeal and organising gifts. One result of the expansion of Sunday schools, and of chapels, was an increasing demand for Bibles, and his involvement was again crucial in view of his participation in the establishment of the Bible Society which ensured the printing and distribution of Bibles in the Welsh language.


Rev. Thomas Charles, Bala (1755-1814)


“The Treachery of the Blue Books”

Thomas Charles’s primary aim was religious, centred on the salvation of souls, and his Y Geiriadur Ysgrythyrol [Scriptural Dictionary] (4 volumes, 1805-1811) sought to explain and enhance an understanding of the Bible. One important result was to increase substantially the literacy rates of the Welsh people. Also, the focus placed by Nonconformists on reading the Scriptures, whose translation by Bishop William Morgan into the Welsh language in 1588 has been generally acclaimed for its elegance and clarity, had a positive effect on the language. This was especially important in view of the emphasis on English as the only medium of instruction in day schools where the use of Welsh was forbidden: one of the objects discovered under the floor of Pen-rhiw chapel, Drefach Felindre, when it was dismantled before being moved to its present location in St Fagans: National History Museum, was the ‘Welsh Not’ which would be hung around the neck of a child discovered to have spoken Welsh at school. Other valuable consequences of the spread of Sunday schools have been considered to have been the opportunities for individuals to develop their debating skills as a result of the detailed discussion of Biblical and theological issues; and also to assume social responsibilities in a social structure where democratic values were instilled.

The value of Sunday schools was recognised in the government report into the condition of education in Wales, 1847, castigated as ‘Brad y Llyfrau Gleision’ [the Treachery of the Blue Books] on account of its vehement and at times hysterical emphasis on the immorality and ignorance of the Welsh people and attacks on the Welsh language. Though drawing attention to some perceived deficiencies, the commissioners praised the Sunday schools whose ‘general tendency’ was said to be ‘decidedly beneficial’ and referred to ‘the permanent and striking effect which they have produced upon society.’ The 1851 religious census recorded that 57% of the population of Wales attended a place of worship [in contrast to the 37% of the population of England] and 87% of these were present at a chapel or meeting house. Most of the chapels had an associated Sunday school: in Anglesey 58 of the 65 Calvinistic Methodist chapels had a Sunday school, and 33 of this denomination’s 36 chapels in the Pwllheli area. 32.9% of the inhabitants of north Wales attended a Sunday school and 22.4% of the inhabitants of south Wales.  It was claimed in 1852 that nearly 100,000 children under the age of 15 were taught by approximately 25,000 to 30,000 teachers, and statistics issued in 1883 referred to 461,468 pupils in Nonconformist Sunday schools. The number of Sunday schools in Calvinistic Methodist chapels increased from 1,483in 1885 to 1,664 in 1900, and the number of pupils in this period from 186,740 to 202, 759, reaching the highest figure of 222,239 in 1905.

The intention to enlighten the local community was responsible for the efforts to arrange lectures on specific subjects. Bethania, Maesteg was the venue of meetings addressed by the Revs. Toyohio Kagawa, Japan in June 1950 and Dr. Martin Niemoller, Germany in June 1953. The two were among the notable speakers invited to the Fellowship meetings, held on Sunday afternoons in the schoolroom of Tabernacl, Carmarthen, which were organised for many years, commencing in 1928, by T.J. Evans, the diligent chapel secretary. Other renowned speakers invited to address the meetings included the Revs. Dick Sheppard, Donald Soper and W. E. Sangster; Lords Attlee and Hailsham; and Hugh Gaitskell and Emlyn Williams. The Rev. Dr. Niemoller also addressed a meeting held in the schoolroom of Zion, Llanelli, which also housed political meetings at which the speakers who have appeared included David Lloyd George on several occasions.

Daniel Owen

Daniel Owen (1836-95)

This schoolroom was the location in 1947 of the first bilingual school in Wales to be established by a local authority, and was housed here until it moved to a permanent home. Other chapels which played an important role in establishing and supporting bilingual schools included Bethania, Maesteg, whose schoolroom housed classes in 1949 for the newly-founded Maesteg Welsh school; Bethesda, Mold, with the primary school which evolved into Ysgol Gymraeg Glanrafon first held in its schoolroom in 1949; and Capel Mawr, Denbigh whose schoolroom housed the Twm o’r Nant Welsh school before it moved to new premises.

The ministers and prominent members included a number of prolific authors and prominent individuals in the public and literary life of Wales. Thomas Evans,‘ Tomos Glyn Cothi’ (1764-1833), minister of Hen Dŷ Cwrdd, Trecynon, (1813-33) and regarded as the first Unitarian minister in Wales published pamphlets, translations and an English-Welsh Dictionary. David Rees (1801-69), minister of Capel Als, Llanelli (1829 to 1869) who was known as ‘Y Cynhyrfwr’ [‘The Agitator’] on account of his admiration of Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), the political leader in Ireland who campaigned for Catholic emancipation, was one of the notable leaders of 19th century Wales, a redoubtable defender of Nonconformity who vigorously expressed his Radical views as editor of the Welsh journal, Y Diwygiwr (1835-1865). Also, Daniel Owen (1836-95), an occasional preacher and person responsible for organizing the weeknight services at Bethesda, Mold, is considered to be the finest Welsh-language novelist, providing vivid images of the chapel in his novels which included Rhys Lewis and Enoc Huws.

Huw Owen


Further Reading:

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 ]

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

David Leslie Davies, They love to be Dissenters: The Historical Background of Hen Dŷ Cwrdd, Aberdare, 1650-1862, (2012)

Huw John Hughes, Coleg y Werin, Hanes yr Ysgol Sul yng Nghymru rhwng 1780-1851, (2013)

Huw Owen, The Chapels of Wales, (2012)

Ieuan Gwynedd Jones and David Williams (eds.), The Religious Census of 1851, A Calendar of the Returns relating to Wales, vol.1 South Wales, (1976)

Ieuan Gwynedd Jones (ed.), The Religious Census of 1851, A Calendar of the Returns relating to Wales vol.ii North Wales, (1981)