Saving Places of Worship in Wales

Gruff Owen and Neil Sumner

There is continuing concern in Wales about the number of religious buildings that are falling into disrepair, have become redundant, and are being lost through demolition or insensitive conversion. Particular concern is expressed about the fate of what has been called the ‘national architecture of Wales’, the Nonconformist Chapel.

The history of Nonconformity in Wales is one of steady growth leading to an explosive expansion in the 19th century with an upsurge in the construction of chapels, and not always in any proportion to membership and the local population. For example, in Caernarfonshire in 1800 there were 64 Anglican churches. By 1851 this had risen to 67, an increase of five per cent, whereas during the same period the number of chapels rose from 30 to 221, a rise of about 700 per cent.

Similarly, in 1851 Glamorgan had 393 chapels but by 1905 this total had grown to 1,200. In all, some 6,500 or so chapels are recorded on The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales database as having existed in Wales at one time or another. (These records may be viewed through the Commission’s on-line database, Coflein, accessible on their website www.rcahmw.gov.uk.)

Redundancy is both a legacy of this expansionist fervour and a rationalisation in response to falling attendance at services. The result is that there are now too many buildings for current needs.

The decline in membership of Nonconformist denominations in Wales reflects the decline in attendance throughout the United Kingdom and has accelerated since the Second World War but most severely after the 1960s. Many chapels have closed outright due to low attendance levels and resources and continue to do so.

The outcome is difficult to predict but many more closures are expected, probably at an accelerated rate. Capel, The Chapels Heritage Society in Wales, quotes that chapels are closing in Wales at a rate of one per week. The all-too-common fates of many chapels include being boarded up and abandoned, being converted to inappropriate uses or, as in so many cases, demolished.

THE WELSH RELIGIOUS BUILDINGS TRUST

In May 1993 the Welsh Affairs Committee of the House of Commons recommended in its report The Preservation of Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments that a redundant churches and chapels fund be set up in Wales to undertake work similar to that being carried out by the Redundant Churches Fund in England (now the Churches Conservation Trust).

The Friends of Friendless Churches had already acquired several redundant Anglican churches in Wales, and the Representative Body of the Church in Wales therefore developed a partnership with the Friends to establish a formal mechanism for caring for future redundant Anglican churches in Wales. Meanwhile, Cadw established a working party, chaired by Dr Roger Wools, to review the issue of redundant Nonconformist religious buildings in Wales.

Its report, produced in September 1996, also recommended that a new charitable trust be set up, in this case to acquire and care for redundant non-Anglican religious buildings of significance, and to act as an advisory body and information source. Cadw subsequently invited the Wales Council for Voluntary Action to manage the creation of the trust, which was incorporated in November 1999.

The Welsh Religious Buildings Trust, as the new trust was named, was therefore established with the aim of taking into care a representative selection of non-Anglican redundant religious buildings in Wales that are of particular historic or architectural interest and are at risk. It ensures their conservation to the highest standards and will manage them for the benefit of the local community. It is in this respect similar to the Historic Chapels Trust, which deals with redundant non-Anglican buildings in England, the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust, the Churches Conservation Trust, and the Friends of Friendless Churches. It is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee.

As well as taking buildings into care, the trust also endeavours to provide advice and assistance, offering a source of information to those responsible for caring for the religious built-heritage in Wales. While its resources are very limited, the trust continues to respond to enquires and requests for information, primarily on funding issues.

Buildings acquired by the trust are repaired and conserved, and once repaired, will be as open and accessible to as many people as possible, with a programme of appropriate activities drawn up, depending on the building type, its location and the degree of local support. The trust believes that local support for any held buildings is essential. Active local committees or support groups are formed in conjunction with the various projects so that the trust can work closely with the local community wherever possible to enable the use of the buildings for appropriate community events and activities.

There is no formal and defined mechanism for the acquisition of buildings by the trust. Buildings are brought to the attention of the trust in many different ways: by concerned individuals, as a result of enquiries to or by the trust, by local authorities, or by the denominations themselves.

The trust also seeks to monitor the current status of appropriate Grade I and Grade II* listed buildings in Wales. Each enquiry and each acquisition is therefore an ad hoc procedure. The trust has established good relations centrally with various denominations in Wales, although the actual process of acquisition is very often a localised matter, as even the more centralised denominations operate on a fairly local level where the disposal of buildings is concerned. Each transfer is unique, and each has its own particular problems; deeds mislaid by the disposing chapel’s solicitors for example, or the lack of any surviving trustees to effect the disposal.

Legal problems by their very nature can be protracted with unforeseen hitches and with uncertain timescales. And, of course, negotiations for the transfer of buildings are not always successful for a variety of reasons.

In common with other similar organisations, the trust is a prescribed charity under the Redundant Churches and Other Religious Buildings Act 1969, and disposing trustees may apply to the Charity Commission for a scheme to transfer to the trust at less than market value. The trust has already received one building in this way, and the transfer of another is to be completed soon by the same method.

The trust has a close working relationship with Cadw and receives annual funding towards its core costs. As part of the acquisition process the trust submits candidate buildings to the Historic Buildings Council for Wales (HBCW), which advises Cadw on whether they consider the buildings to be of ‘outstanding historic interest’ under the terms of the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act 1953.

This is essentially following the same procedure as applying for a Cadw Historic Buildings Grant, and it serves as a very valuable ‘second opinion’ on the trust’s decisions regarding acquisitions. So far the trust has acquired two buildings, and another two are in the process of being transferred.

CAPEL LIBANUS

Exterior of Capel Libanus, Llansadwrn, CarmarthenshireThe trust’s first acquisition was Capel Libanus, a simple Baptist chapel with a magnificent interior. It stands within a small graveyard in a fairly isolated position near the village of Llansadwrn, Carmarthenshire.

Listed Grade II*, the present building was built in 1841, and added to in the late 19th century. It closed its doors in 1998. Architecturally, it is an unusually early example of a rural, gable-fronted, twostorey Nonconformist chapel; most rural chapels in Wales were of the long-wall type (like Beili Du for example) until the 1850s.

The original building is generally plain, built in rubble stone with quoins at the corners and sparsely positioned windows. The gabled entrance front has a single, centrally-placed, round-headed doorway and two small, roundheaded windows at upper level only. The north side is windowless. Windows on the south side were later obscured by a late 19th-century stable and schoolroom under a lean-to roof. The east elevation has two tall round-headed windows with heavy timber mullions and Y-tracery.

Inside, the chapel retains an unusually complete set of panelled box pews arranged in three blocks, together with a three-sided gallery with simple panelled fronts, carried on timber columns. The gallery panelling, soffits and columns are decorated with stencil patterns. The pulpit, sęt fawr (the big seat typically used by the church elders) and timber ceiling were added in the late 19th century.

Interior of Capel Libanus, Llansadwrn, Carmarthenshire

The earliest history of the chapel is vague. Hanes y Bedyddwyr (History of the Baptists) of 1839 suggests that the original chapel was one of three, built in 1789, following baptisms in the area during the previous year, while the 1851 Religious Census records the first chapel as 1788. However, replies to a National Library of Wales questionnaire in 1936 gave 1792 as the date when the cause was established and state that the original chapel was a thatched building shared with the Methodists.

The first minister was appointed in 1800. In 1839 the chapel had 80 members. The present chapel was built in 1841 by the members themselves. Libanus needs extensive repairs and the trust has drawn up a phased programme, with Alwyn Jones Penseiri:Architects of Taffs Well dealing initially with the exterior of the building.

The trust is working hard on raising funds for the work. There is strong local interest and support in the Llansadwrn area and a local Friends of Libanus group has been formed.

HEN DY CWRDD

Exterior of Hen Dy Cwrdd (the Old Meeting House), a Unitarian chapel, listed Grade II, at Trecynon near Aberdare, Glamorgan

The trust’s second acquisition was Hen Dy Cwrdd (the Old Meeting House), a Unitarian chapel, listed Grade II, at Trecynon near Aberdare, Glamorgan.

The ‘cause’ at Hen Dy Cwrdd was established in 1751 in what was at the time a rural area, and it is the oldest Nonconformist cause in the Cynon Valley. The chapel closed in 1988, and a lengthy acquisition process was completed by the Welsh Religious Buildings Trust in 2005.

The present building was built in 1862 during the rapid expansion of coal mining in the valley. It was designed by architect Evan Griffiths of Aberdare, and is a medium sized chapel that seats 250-300 people, measuring just 10.6 by 10.6 metres externally. It is a cement-rendered, rectangular, gable-end chapel with a single central entrance door, with windows on its front elevation providing light to the roof void, gallery and lobby. There are also windows at sides and rear to light the ground floor, gallery and pulpit.

Internally it has a gallery on three sides, with the pulpit located at the opposite end to the entrance doors. The gallery is accessed from the lobby, and apart from the lobby, the building has no other rooms. A privately owned house which adjoins it on its southern side was at one time a stable and subsequently housed the Trecynon Seminary.

The graveyard, which surrounds the chapel on three sides, dates from c1797. The last burial took place at the beginning of the 20th century. Hen Dy Cwrdd has a particularly rich inheritance in terms of its historic links and represents the Interior of Hen Dy Cwrdd (the Old Meeting House), a Unitarian chapel, listed Grade II, at Trecynon near Aberdare, Glamorgancontinuity of Welsh Dissenting tradition, with links to radical religious and political movements from the Commonwealth in the 17th century to early Labour in the 20th century by way of 18th century radicalism, and 19th century Chartism and Liberalism. It also had important links to the folk tradition, both eisteddfodic and literary. These links were of course epitomised by the work of radical and resourceful individuals. Possibly the most important was Rev Thomas Evans Tomos Glyn Cothi (1764–1833) minister 1811–1833. A Unitarian pioneer and admirer of Joseph Priestley, he was a religious and political radical who was imprisoned for his support for the French Revolution. He is buried at Hen Dy Cwrdd. Hen Dy Cwrdd has lain empty since its closure.

Previous schemes have been considered for the chapel, but none has come to fruition. The building has only received minimal maintenance since closing, and although its condition is generally sound, it requires fairly extensive repairs. Most of the building’s internal features are still there, including all its fixed seating, the sęt fawr and pulpit.

The immediate priority is to undertake small-scale emergency works while further feasibility and development is undertaken, building on the feasibility study undertaken by Dean & Cheason Associates and Jo-Anne Page.

Exterior of Beili Du is a redundant Presbyterian Church of Wales chapel at Pentre-bach, near Sennybridge, southern Powys

BEILI DU

Beili Du is a redundant Presbyterian Church of Wales chapel at Pentre-bach, near Sennybridge, southern Powys. The cause dates from 1790, and the chapel was first built in 1800 and rebuilt in 1868. It is listed Grade II and has been redundant since 1998.

Beili Du is a fine, attractive, and remarkably unaltered example of a once-common type of early chapel which is now rare: a small rural, long-wall type with twin entrance doors and, at one end, a stable and room above for the visiting preacher. It has a single storey, a small forecourt but no graveyard.

Interior of Beili Du is a redundant Presbyterian Church of Wales chapel at Pentre-bach, near Sennybridge, southern Powys

The interior has original panelled pews, sęt fawr and pulpit. The present condition of the building is generally fair, with some problems to the floor. Transfer from the Presbyterian Church of Wales to the trust is under way by virtue of the trust’s prescribed status, although there have also been certain issues for the disposing trustees to clarify with the Charity Commission.

In the first instance the building will require a thorough condition survey and minor emergency repairs. Major repairs will follow. Again, once repaired, the building’s activities and usage will be influenced by its rather remote location away from any major centres of population.

CAPEL BETHANIA

Capel Bethania in Maesteg in the Llynfi valley of Glamorgan, is a large, urban, architecturally important Baptist chapel, the work of a well-known Welsh architect, and is listed at Grade II*. The largest chapel in Maesteg, with a 1,000 seat capacity, it is a prime example of the new-found enthusiasm for chapel building during the early 20th century, following the religious reawakening brought about by Evan Roberts’ famous religious revival of 1904–05.

Exterior of Capel Bethania in Maesteg in the Llynfi valley of Glamorgan

Bethania was built in 1908 on the site of an earlier chapel dating from 1832. In order to build a new chapel worthy of its aims, the congregation chose William Beddoe Rees, a local man born in Maesteg in 1877 who also happened to be one of the most prolific Welsh chapel architects of the period and the author of Chapel Building: Hints and Suggestions (1903).

Rees chose a classical style, much influenced by the French Beaux Arts school, for the design of the chapel. The main front, including short returns, is largely constructed of narrow Pennant sandstone with lavish limestone trimmings in the form of banded piers, stylised pilasters, Ionic columns, rectangular, circular and semi-circular window surrounds and angular roof embellishments. The generous windows on the main front are divided into small panes to provide a strongly gridded effect.

The interior is spacious and handsome, with raking galleries and elaborate cast-iron balcony fronts on three sides. The pulpit projects from a raised gallery on the fourth side with, behind it, a recessed arch filled with organ pipes. The galleries and ceiling are supported by storeys of slender cast-iron columns linked by round-headed arches. The curved ceiling is divided by deeply moulded ribs.

At the rear of the chapel is a two-storey range of schoolrooms and a large vestry with a proscenium arch. Capel Bethania has been offered to the trust by the congregation which is combining with another Independent congregation located in a smaller chapel building nearby. (This is another typical circumstance leading to chapel redundancy in Wales.)

The trust commissioned a condition survey of the building from Acanthus Holden Architects which revealed significant dry rot problems. Further development work is being undertaken regarding ways to maximise opportunities for community (and other) uses for the building while avoiding conflict with the trust’s conservation requirements, so that the best possible use can be made of Bethania once repairs are complete.

Interior of Capel Bethania in Maesteg in the Llynfi valley of Glamorgan

Again, the formation of a local support group to manage the building on a day-to-day basis once repairs have been completed is central to the trust’s work at Bethania. The trust is developing a phased approach to tackling this chapel and will concentrate initially on safeguarding the fabric of the building by containing and eradicating the dry rot, dealing with the envelope of the building and safeguarding the main chapel space.

The building is being transferred to the trust at no market value, and therefore does not need to go through a Charity Commission scheme for transfer. The trust has a great deal of work underway currently and over the next few years as present projects develop, and as new buildings are offered. The trust’s present aim is to acquire, on average, one building per year, within the constraint of the unpredictable availability of suitable redundant buildings.

The Welsh chapel continues to be a precious and endangered jewel in the nation’s crown, and the importance of continuing this work could not be greater.

The Building Conservation Directory, 2005

Author

NEIL SUMNER is the chair of the Welsh Religious Buildings Trust.

GRUFF OWEN is its manager. Despite the generous help of Cadw and other funders, the trust faces a perennial challenge of raising sufficient funds for its activities. (gruff.owen@yacwrbt.plus.com).

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