Yr Hen Gapel, Llwynrhydowen
Yr Hen Gapel is the third chapel of a cause which was the first Arminian congregation in Wales and the mother church of the Unitarian “Black Spot” of Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, a radical tradition in an apparently unlikely rural setting that was to have both national and international reverberations. Its is listed as a Grade II* building.
The Unitarian cause began in Llwynrhydowen in 1726, when Jenkin Jones is said to have preached to the first Arminian congregation in Wales which sprang from Pantycreuddyn church. The first chapel was built in 1733, and after Jenkin Jones’ death in 1742 he was followed by his nephew, the Rev. D Lloyd of Brynllefrith. He was a very popular preacher and the congregation increased enormously under his care making it necessary to extend the chapel in 1745. This was completely rebuilt in 1791 on a slightly different site. In the early 19th century the congregation progressed into Arianism and on into Unitarianism. The present, third, chapel, was built in 1834, a fine example of a long wall chapel of unrestored late Georgian character with a largely original interior – and the first burial in the graveyard took place. The chapel was again renewed at a cost of £300 in 1862.
During this period, up until 1876, the congregation could number anywhere up to 600. It was a part of a radical Unitarian culture within a Welsh rural setting, resistant to successive waves of evangelical revival emanating from the epicentre of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism not far to the north. As such these communities became collectively known to a hostile Methodist historiography as the ‘Black Spot’ (Y Smotyn Du).
Yr Hen Gapel’s land was leased from the local Alltyroden estate, and the mid century saw increasing tension between the Tory landowner John Lloyd and the radical congregation and its minister, the Revd. William Thomas, better known by his bardic name, Gwilym Marles. The Alltyrodyn estate had been notorious for evictions during the ‘Hungry Forties’; Anna Lloyd Jones, Unitarian mother of the celebrated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was evicted at that time. Gwilym Marles served as the champion of political social and religious freedom on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Eventually, the landowner John Lloyd evicted the minister and congregation from the chapel in 1876, citing their ‘radical’ non Tory, Unitarian ideologies as a breach of their lease. After the closure, the popular Gwilym Marles addressed an outdoor congregation of about 3000, with his back to the locked and chained chapel.
Due to the national interest prompted by the eviction, known as the “Troad Allan”, a fundraising campaign saw a new chapel created in Rhydowen. Unfortunately by this time, Gwilym Marles was in ill health and died before he was able to attend the opening ceremony of the new chapel. His remains were laid at the new chapel and it was subsequently dedicated to his memory. Gwilym Marles is also culturally significant as the great uncle of the poet, Dylan Thomas. It is even suggested that the scandalously evicted minister was the influence for Thomas’s Reverend Eli Jenkins in the play, Under Milk Wood.
Following the death of Mr. Lloyd two years later, his sister, Mrs. Massey, returned the building to the trustees and the congregation. After these events, the original chapel was utilised primarily as a Sunday school and a place for concerts and Eisteddfodau, before becoming disused in c1959 following the construction of the Neuadd Goffa D.H.Evans in Pontsaen. It had a brief re-opening in the 1970s as a Unitarian museum.
The chapel is a long-wall entry type built of coursed rubble stone with dressings and quoins of paler ashlar stone and a half-hipped slate roof. There are two doorways to the outer bays, with panelled doors and fanlights with intersecting tracery. There is a central pair of tall round-headed windows with sash glazing beneath a head of intersecting tracery, and two shorter, similar windows to either end over the doorways. In the centre is a slate plaque inscribed “Llwynrhydowain 1834”. There are two inscriptions from the earlier phases of building and four 19th century memorial stones, including one to Mary Thomas, the first wife of Gwilym Marles.
In the interior are slate flagged vestibules, leading ahead up steps to the main chapel interior and to gallery stairs. Each vestibule has a 19th century half-glazed screen wall parallel to pulpit and 2 doors leading to chapel, fitted with etched and coloured-glass margin panes. The main interior has a wooden floor and white plaster walls and a ceiling with a circular centre panel and moulded coving. There are bench seats to the ground floor, laid out in three blocks to the rectilinear Sedd Fawr. Two flights of steps leading up to the rectilinear platform pulpit have turned bobbin balusters of 17th century style. The pulpit has a central canted projection with moulded panels and a sloping lecturn. In the NE corner is the former minister’s library containing a two tier bookcase with a zinc front. There is a mid 19th century gallery to three sides, supported by 5 iron columns stamped “T BRIGHT CARMARTHEN” and with a front of grained and moulded panels. Opposite the pulpit is the clock with the legend “Dd Jones, Lampeter”. The gallery is fitted with open bench seats.
Yr Hen Gapel was transferred to the Trust in 2008, under its status as a prescribed charity under the Redundant Churches and Other Religious Buildings Act 1969, (as amended in Schedule 5 of the Charities Act 1992).
Click here: An account of the ‘Troad Allan’ at Yr Hen Gapel, Llwynrhydowen By Mallie Thomas
Read by the author’s granddaughter, Heini Thomas. (Currently only available in Welsh).
The account is called “Yr oeddwn i yno” translated it means “I was there”
Click below for the transcript in English and copy of the handwritten version in WelshRead more about the work to date The Opening Event Read more about Unitarians Archive-Yr Hen Gapel
Yr Hen Gapel Listing Document Llwynrhydowen Listing
John Hilling Report Adroddiad JH l Llwynrhydowen 2-9-05
David Barnes, Llwynrhydowen and Its Radical Tradition (2005)
Yr Hen Gapel Conservation Statement Neil Sumner 2016 Yr Hen Gapel Conservation statement
David Barnes, People of Seion (Llandysul: 1995)
Elwyn Davies, They Thought for Themselves (Llandysul; 1982)
Elwyn Davies, Y Smotiau Duon (Llandysul: 1981)
Aubrey J. Martin, Hanes Llwynrhydowen (Llandysul: 1977)
Elfyn Scourfield, Carmarthen craftsmen and implement makers, The Carmarthenshire Antiquary XXVII (1991)
G & J Hague, The Unitarian Heritage (1986)