How were chapels built?

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Evan Roberts (1878 – 1951)

By 1860, there were enough pews in the chapels of Wales to seat three-quarters of the population, with some 2,922 chapels in existence to serve a country visited by the Great Revival in the previous year. Following the 1904 revival led by Evan Roberts, this figure increased.

The needs of the congregation were simple – a dry and light space with decent pews facing the all-important pulpit. By the later 19th century, architectural style became more important, along with the consideration of luxuries like acoustics, heating, lighting and ventilation.

Building work was costly and risky, generally with little available in the way of funds or wealthy benefactors. Causes commonly met in temporary premises until a chapel could be afforded. The typical pattern was for early congregations to meet in houses, cottages, inns and even barns. As fellowships increased, interim premises were often required – the Baptists at Knighton, Radnorshire  met in a room above some wine vaults until their chapel was built in 1864. (Rev. J. Jones, The History of the Baptists of Radnorshire, 1895 pp 80-94) In the coalmining community at Fochriw, Glamorgan, the Independents built a cheap wooden chapel in 1865, superseded by a stone one two years later (Rees and Thomas, Hanes Annibynwyr, vol. 2, pp 154-9). Once funds and land were available, a permanent chapel could be built. With strong causes, lack of space and/or the desire to plant new ‘daughter’ chapels or even a split in the congregation, this process would be often repeated.

Where new premises were planned, a site was the first requirement, typically taken on a long leasehold, ideally on favourable terms from a sympathetic landlord. At Llechryd, Cardiganshire, for example, Thomas Lloyd of Coedmor provided the Independents with a site on a 999-year lease cost (Rees and Thomas, Vol 4 pp154-9).   In towns and industrial areas where land was more expensive, shorter leases tended to be granted by landowners, such as the Bute and Tredegar estates. Sometimes the freehold was eventually purchased, or even gifted by the landowner. A trust would then be set up by the members to avoid future pitfalls, such as the premises reverting to a single party.

Seion

Seion, Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire ©Crown Copyright: RCAHMW,

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Berea Welsh Baptist Church, Criccieth ©Crown Copyright: RCAHMW,

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Albion Square Chapel, Pembroke Dock– Prior to demolition ©Crown Copyright: RCAHMW,

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Tabernacl Chapel Aberystwyth (Capel y Groes) ©Crown Copyright: RCAHMW, Picture ref:DI2008_0801

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Hill Park, Haverfordwest ©Crown Copyright: RCAHMW,

More prosperous congregations purchased sites freehold. The English Calvinistic Methodist congregation at Denbigh purchased a site comprising an inn and large yard for £1500. Within a fortnight, they had prudently sold off the inn for £1150. Sometimes land was gifted – at Gladestry, Radnorshire,  the Baptist Chapel was built in 1842 in the garden of the house where the cause had begun (Rev. J. Jones, p. 54). In industrial areas, estates such as that of Lord Mostyn donated a number of sites and as Nonconformity strengthened, such generosity became more common.

The next stage was to raise money for building work. This was often achieved in difficult circumstances, demonstrating remarkable faith. At the Baptist chapel, Rhos, Glamorgan, for example, Thomas Williams raised money for the chapel in 1817 by pawning his pocket-watch, until he was able to sell a calf. (T.M. Bassett, The Welsh Baptists 1977, p 245)  A standard way of raising funds was to send the minister on a collecting tour, often far afield. Azariah Shadrach, when collecting funds for Seion, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion  in 1823, found 40 ministers in London engaged in a similar task (D.R. Barnes, People of Seion, 1995 p 49), while the Radnorshire Baptist, John Jones, toured seven Welsh and twelve English counties between 1866-69. Only in Wantage did he fail to get any donations, as the town had been visited by ‘three imposters in succession’. (Rev. J Jones. pp 95-6)

At a local level, public appeals were set up, usually in the form of pamphlets or in newspapers. Novel forms of fundraising are recorded, including that of John Saunders of Buckley who collected from the frequenters of local taverns on every Friday afternoon! (E. Gruffyd, A Review of Nonconformity in Flintshire, 2007) More typically, clubs and friendly societies were set up to raise funds through subscriptions. As building work progressed, funds were raised through concerts and prayer meetings. When the foundation stone was laid, it became common practice for generous benefactors to place money on it, and this was usually recorded in great detail by the local press. By the later 19th century, singing-festivals, bazaars, children’s crusades and ‘lantern lectures’ were all typical fund-raising events.

Borrowing money was not uncommon. A shopkeeper (and non-member) lent money for the building of Berea Baptist Chapel at Criccieth, Caernarfonshire  in 1866 (Capel Local Information Sheet 8 – Llanystumdwy and Criccieth), while other congregations procured bank loans. From the mid-19th century, the denominations themselves started setting up ‘in-house’ loans and grants, addressing the problem of spiralling debts and the burden of collecting-tours. Many chapels remained saddled with debt years after opening.  Albion Square Congregational, Pembroke Dock, Pembrokeshire, cost £3940 in 1867, but the cumulative debt of £6389 was not cleared until 1899. (S. Peters, The History of Pembroke Dock, 1995, p 100)

Records are sparse for the building of early chapels, but it may be assumed that local craftsmen were responsible for building and designing them. Usually these people were members of the cause, other members carrying out unskilled labour such as hauling stone and making mortar. During the working week, the women often found time to cart stone or timber. Jane Griffiths carried stone on her back for the building of Horeb C.M. Chapel, Mynydd-y-garreg, Caernarfonshire  in 1841 (Rev. J. Morris, Hanes Methodistiaeth Sir Gaerfyrddin 1911), as well as fetching the pulpit from Llanelli. Usually, the walls of a chapel were built during the summer to avoid frost or rain damage to the mortar. Once the roof was on, the joinery works could progress whatever the time of year.

In some cases, the minister designed the chapel. For instance, Tabernacle Calvinistic Methodist chapel, Arddleen, Montgomeryshire, was designed in 1839 by Rev. Evan Lloyd. (Rev. R.M.Roberts, The Story of the Tabernacle, Arddleen, Montgomeryshire, 1920)  (pic on Coflein) This tradition was continued later in the century by the prolific minister-architects such as Thomas Thomas and William Jones. As well as funds, building work required organization. It was common by the mid 19th century to appoint a building committee, usually comprising the minister together with members with some skills in business matters. Increasingly, however, committees turned to competent draftsmen or architects to design a chapel, either through direct contact, or advertising in the local press, as at Tabernacle, Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire, where a design was sought  for a chapel ‘not exceeding £1500’. (S. Hughes, Thomas Thomas 1817-88; the First National Architect of Wales 2003, pp 80-81)

By the later 19th century, many architects specialized in chapel design. A notable example was Richard Owens of Liverpool, whose papers survive as a remarkable archive of his work. Owens, like his contemporaries, dealt directly with the building committee. Correspondence usually started with a discussion of options in terms of seating capacity and costs. Once this had been agreed on, a detailed schedule of specifications was drawn up for further consideration. The next stage was the provision of tender documents, usually advertised in the local or building press. The tender documents tended to follow a set format, following through the various trades from excavation of footings to painting and decoration. Where members were able to supply or convey materials free of charge, such items were carefully noted. Once the successful tenderer was appointed, the architect was usually retained to oversee the works to completion.

Unsurprisingly, sometimes matters went wrong. Anxious to save money, a low tender from distant Aberystwyth builders was accepted for Hill Park Baptist Chapel, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, in 1888. The work was condemned by the architect, the contractor became bankrupt and the timber merchant sued the chapel for payment. Once the situation was resolved, it was calculated that the whole episode cost £14 more than the original highest tender. (W.J. Edwards, Three Hundred Years: the Story of the Church Worshipping at Hill Park, 1957)

In terms of costs, a chapel seating around 250 averaged at less than £200 to build between 1780-1810. By the middle of the century, comparable chapels were costing around £500-600. The more elaborate architect-designed chapels of the 1860s cost an average of £1200-1500 for a capacity of 250-300, rising to £2000-2500 for comparable examples in the 1870s and 80s.

Of the 6,427 known chapels in Wales, at least 2,295 were rebuilt once, 806 rebuilt twice, 213 rebuilt three times and 39 rebuilt four times. This gives a total of 9,780 chapel building projects for which congregations had to raise money for and organise building works.

Rob Scourfield