Chapel China

Chapel china – these are rare entities by now, especially china from chapels which have now closed. What has become of the tens, even hundreds of pieces – especially in view of the fact that nearly every chapel used to have its own set of chapel china? Such pieces aren’t of any great value as mementoes to the people who purchase redundant chapels – and they have probably ended up being deposited in a skip. The two or three of us who collect them often search for them in vain. The only pieces that remain are usually the few which were shared between the most faithful members when the cause was dissolved. Our only hope of finding them these days is via a mother or granddaughter who is clearing the grandmother’s house – although they are perceived as devoid of value even by them, as they no longer have an interest or connection with the place that was so highly esteemed by the old lady herself.

Such china is rarely used in chapels where the cause continues, as cheaper, less decorative crockery has become more commonplace. In some chapels where two or three causes have joined together, a mixture of crockery can be found – but perhaps in order to avoid causing offence or consternation to those members who are still loyal to their old chapel, such items are no longer used. They gather dust on the top shelf of a cupboard, in a scullery or utility room. China that is more modern and utilitarian is used instead; this type of china is more uniform and colourless – and is no longer of interest to a collector. How beautiful a table full of chapel china appeared on a social evening or the afternoon of a Cymanfa Ganu.

The manufacturers of chapel china would, from time to time, send their catalogues to crockery and furniture retailers of different towns – to enable the chapels or the individuals who wished to donate the crockery to choose according to their requirements. There would be options in terms of form and shape, colour and size – and in particular, the shape of the name badge. The first name badge in the picture below is the most commonplace – and it probably belonged to a particular company. Other companies provided a range of name badges in different colours, as can be seen here.

According to the catalogues from the mid-thirties, a dozen saucers or little plates cost around a shilling and sixpence, with the cups costing a few pennies more. If the company was reasonably well-known, they stamped their name at the rear of the crockery – but if the company had sub-contracted another less well-established company to produce the pieces on their behalf, then the company name would not appear.

The initial cost would have been a little higher as the company would have had to engrave a copper plate with the name badge; this would be kept by them for a number of years in case of a repeat order. This was a good way of ensuring that the new order didn’t go to another company.

Around the beginning of the last century, Cranogwen launched the Temperance Movement, which became prevalent in some of the south Wales valleys – especially in the Rhondda Fawr and the Rhondda Fach. It appears that several valley chapels included the letters UDMD on their crockery, the initials of ‘Undeb Dirwestol Merched y De’ – the South Wales
Women’s Temperance Union. It is very difficult, if not impossible to come across these pieces by now – but some remain and they are still in use in Llanilar (just outside Aberystwyth) – quite a distance from the south Wales valleys. Maybe they were needed there because the chapel and the pub stand facing each other in the village.

The china from Gwynfil Chapel, Llangeitho is very unusual – as the full name is branded across them ‘Wesley Llangeitho’. This is an ongoing example of the influence of Daniel Rowlands’ taste for uniformity. In many chapels, the name does not only appear on the china; there are examples where it appears on cutlery and in some chapels, especially in the south, on communion ware.

There are very few examples from the Established Church. Why is this? Is it because the religion of the chapels was more sociable – and their vestries were a centre for every social gathering, concert, eisteddfod and meeting that was held in the parish?

The name badges of the vast majority of these were in English. However there is far more to chapel china than at first appears. Many of the pieces reflect the social standing of the cause.

The grandest pieces, the finest and most costly usually belonged to the grandest chapels – especially those in urban areas – and in cities the other side of the Welsh border like London and Liverpool. They reflected the wealth, not only of the cause but also its members, as many of these pieces of china were presented in memory of a departed loved one.

On the other hand, the china which belonged to the chapels’ branches, the ‘ragged Sunday Schools’ as they were known in some towns, was often fairly plain earthenware.

It is sad to say that chapel china now belongs to a bygone age, something for the relic collectors by which to remember that which was once so popular. It is sad to say that our faith – to say nothing of its spiritual elements – has also become colourless, alienated and more detached from society.

William Griffiths, Aberystwyth