Chapel buildings in Wales fall within three broad categories. The earliest, known as ‘lateral entry’ or ‘long-wall’ chapels, have house-like façades with windows and doors arranged across the long wall. The majority of these long-wall’ chapels date from the period up to the mid 19th century , while from the 1830s, there was a trend towards ‘square-plan’ chapels and by the 1850s, the norm was for the façade to be at the short, gable end.
Until the 1689 Toleration Act, it was illegal for dissenters to meet for worship. Many congregations had met secretly in remote houses and barns at times of persecution, although a few simple meeting houses were built, including Llanfaches, Monmouthshire and Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, both by 1639. By 1715, some 38 chapels had been built, although many congregations remained in houses and barns until funds allowed otherwise. By the mid 18th century, the chapels of Wales were assuming a distinct form, regardless of denomination, size or location. Given the later pace of building, it is not surprising that very little survives from this date.
Only one early chapel, Maesyronnen, Radnorshire, survives in anything like its original condition. Converted from a barn before 1720, a handsome six-bay front was added, its symmetry proclaiming its status as a meeting house. The plan focuses on the all-important pulpit, which is placed in the centre of the long (rear) wall, typical of the period. The precedents for long-walled chapels like Maesyronnen are difficult to pin down. The Reformation placed stress on the pulpit in Protestant churches, as evidenced by the Calvinist churches in late 16th century France, the Netherlands and Scotland The post-Reformation Scottish kirks with their prominent pulpits and galleries (for example, East Cromarty church, Ross & Cromarty) provided a good model for the early chapel builders. The first generation of post-1689 chapels in the north of England, such as Rivington Unitarian chapel, Lancashire, built in 1703, owe much to Scottish precedent in their planning and simple symmetry. This evidence suggests that from an early date, the builders of Welsh chapels were aware of new developments in chapel-planning elsewhere – and whilst some early surviving chapels are often considered rustic, they were not when compared to the typical living conditions of the day.
By the mid 1700s, there was a trend towards more distinctive long-wall façades, which usually had a large central window providing light for the pulpit over which it was set. This is evidenced by descriptions of older chapels prior to their rebuilding. Bethel Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, Waun-fawr, Caernarfonshire was first built in 1785 for £150. Its original plan is schematically illustrated in the chapel history of 1946 (D.J. Lewis, Dau Can Mwyddiant Bethel M.C. Y Waunfawr, Arfon 1746-1946).
A small number still survive in unaltered form, two of the best being Nanhoron Independent Chapel, Caernarfonshire of 1770-72 and Capel Penrhiw, Llangeler, Carmarthenshire, converted from a barn by the Unitarians in 1777, which can now be seen at the St Fagans National History Museum, Cardiff. By the later 18th century, the symmetry of the façade became more formal, indicating greater confidence on behalf of the congregations, and a greater awareness of architectural style. Memberships and finances were growing, and there was a desire to make a presence felt – and perhaps to rival nearby congregations.
Blaenywaun Baptist Chapel, St Dogmaels, Pembrokeshire, built in 1795, had a front with doors in the outer bays and paired inner windows (B. Rees, Hanes Blaenywaun, Gerazim, Penuel, Tabernacle,1899). The chapel at Pontrobert, Montgomeryshire, built in 1806 is of similar form. As chapel-building accelerated, this form became commonplace across Wales, increasingly given some simple classical detail, especially in the use of round-arched windows to distinguish chapels from domestic buildings. Inside, to accommodate the rapidly growing congregations, paneled galleries were usually set around three sides, facing the pulpit.
Long-walled chapels were advantageous in their ability to be scaled up or down to suit funds and congregation. A small model with a central door and outer windows such as Cae-bach, Radnorshire (1804) could be utilized for causes with few members or little money, while a larger variant involved lengthening the façade by the addition of upper windows lighting the gallery stairs.
An early survivor of this form is Gellionnen Unitarian chapel, Glamorgan, built in 1801, and by the 1820s, the type was favoured by larger congregations across much of Wales, as at Capel Adfa, Montgomeryshire, built for the Independents in 1820. Windows were typically sashes, with intricate glazing within the arched heads. Roofs were gabled, with hipped roofs becoming increasingly fashionable in line with late Georgian houses.
Evidence suggests that all of the main denominations built similarly planned long-wall chapels, there being relatively little difference in their operational needs. The spread of design ideas via word and mouth among clergy and members travelling around Wales is evidenced by the similarity of Nanhoron and Penrhiw chapels, built at opposite ends of western Wales within a decade of one another. As a building type, they were easy to copy.
Maesyronnen is the earliest and most intact interior in Wales. The pulpit is set against the rear wall and there are large enclosed family pews set against both front and rear walls. The centre of the chapel is occupied by open benches and tables, one used for taking communion. Interiors became more standardized by the later 18th century, by which time the norm was for a centrally placed pulpit, set against the front wall between two matching doorways. The pulpit was back-lighted by a window or, more commonly by c1800, a pair of windows.
The paired windows allowed for some embellishment of the wall between, giving the pulpit more prominence. This could be in the form of a moulded or pedimented frame, or a painted scriptural verse such as at Soar y Mynydd, Ceredigion The doorways led into internal lobbies, these framing the enclosed sêt-fawr or ‘big seat’ which the deacons or elders occupied. Senior deacons usually occupied chairs set below the pulpit, while the rest occupied benches built into the paneled enclosure. Earlier pews were generally of the ‘box’ type with paneled sides and backs to help prevent draughts. Typically the layout of the pews was straightforward with two aisles dividing the centre rank from the side bays. The pews in the side bays were occasionally angled to provide a better view, or set perpendicular to those in the centre in collegiate fashion.
Galleries were commonplace, being the most economical way of increasing the seating, as well as setting apart areas for use by Sunday School scholars or non-communicants. The earlier examples have paneled fronts set on timber columns. The gallery usually occupied three sides of the chapel, facing the pulpit. Occasionally the galleries had canted corners with the pews angled correspondingly, giving a theatrical appearance. Smaller chapels tended to have single galleries at the entrance end. In some un-galleried chapels, the floor was steeply raked up to the rear, allowing a good view of the pulpit (for example, Troedyrhiw Independent, Ystrad Aeron, Ceredigion, 1861).
By the 1850s, the long-wall model was old-fashioned though some were still being built into the early 20th century, such as the slightly Art Deco Ebenezer chapel, Llanfair Caereinion, Montgomeryshire .
In some remote areas, later examples exist such as Nanternis Independent, Cardiganshire, built in 1867 and entirely untouched by Victorian taste. Square-plan, and increasingly, gable-plan chapels were soon to become the norm and a number of existing chapels were entirely remodeled to provide a more fashionable gabled entry, as at Tŷ-Newydd Calvinistic Methodist chapel, Cynwyl Gaeo , Carmarthenshire (1837, altered 1907).