First National Architect of Wales
The most prolific of the known chapel architects of Wales, Thomas is reputed to have had a part in the building, restoration or extension of some 1,000 chapels in Wales. He was particularly associated with building for the Welsh-language Congregationalists / Independents, or Annibynwyr, one of the four largest of the Nonconformist chapel denominations of Wales. He was successively a deacon and then a minister for the Welsh-language Independents. This use of prominent members of a particular denomination to design religious buildings mainly for their own congregations was a characteristic of Welsh Chapel architecture in the middle and late 19th century.
Thomas was born and grew-up near Ffair Fâch, at Llandeilo, in Carmarthenshire and became a deacon in the Welsh-language Independent Chapel there in his teens. He worked with his father in his carpentry business and left to live in Swansea. Without any formal theological training he was appointed as minister to Hebron Welsh Independent Chapel in the coal-mining village of Clydach, in the lower Swansea Valley, in 1848.
It is unclear how many chapels he may have designed in the 1830s and 1840s but the redesign of his own chapel at Hebron was almost certainly one of his 1840s designs. The attribution of a design to Thomas can often be made on the basis of the design of the chapel name & date plaque which in his early chapels usually consists of a rectangular stone plaque with curved indents scooped-out of each of the four corners and the plaque supported on two stone brackets or corbels. Such a plaque has been remounted on the Sunday School at the side of the later rebuilt chapel at Hebron.
The richest congregations in the mid-19th century were around the international centre of the copper industry in Swansea. Many of the senior managers of the copper works were deacons of the surrounding chapels and the Welsh Independents were the predominant nonconformists of this affluent area. The biggest copper works in the world was the Hafod Copper works, closely followed by the adjacent Morfa Copper works, and many of the workers and managers attended the neighbouring Seilo Welsh Independent Chapel. It was this congregation that asked Thomas Thomas to become their Minister in 1851. Surprisingly he also carried on being minister of Clydach, and of Cadle (Fforestfach) Independent Chapel to the west, until 1853. He redesigned Seilo Chapel and built nearby Bryn Villa as a manse for himself and a branch Sunday & Day school in Brynhyfryd.
About a quarter of the members of the Congregational Union of England & Wales were ministers based in Wales and there were many Welsh Chairmen of the Union. As inward migration and English language schooling accelerated many Welsh-language congregations helped in the provision of English language chapels, particularly in Monmouthshire. When we plot the location of Thomas Thomas designed chapels in the period up to 1849 three-quarters were in the area of what were the largest ironworks in the world in the Heads of the Valleys area of Monmouthshire and two-thirds were English rather than Welsh-language chapels.
The enthusiasm generated by the great religious revival of 1859-60 accelerated the building and rebuilding activity in all Welsh denominations. The number of chapels designed by Thomas Thomas soared. It is difficult to identify which particular chapels were designed by Thomas, largely because congregations were much more concerned with spirituality and religious matters than with the structures that contained the worship activity. However, in the period from 1850 until 1869 his known focus of activity shifted back to the area in and around the Swansea copper-smelting area of south west Wales. These chapels were mostly for Welsh-language Independent congregations but he also designed about half the same number of chapels for English-language congregations in the Swansea area.
The slate quarrying area centred in Gwynedd and Anglesey in north-west Wales was also strongly supportive of the Welsh-language Independent or Congregational cause. Thomas seems to have designed almost as many chapels in this area before 1869 as he did for the Welsh-language congregations in Swansea. In this period his distinctive designs became so well-known that many of the richer urban congregations throughout Wales wanted their chapels designed by Thomas. This transcended both denomination and language and admirers of his Congregational chapels in the ironworks communities of south-east Wales were a considerable source of demand for his work.
By 1875 he became one of the few chapel architects to be named on the foundation-stones of his buildings and mentioned in the Welsh-language newspapers. However, in that year he resigned as a minister. At that time, Wales’s first slum clearance to improve access to Swansea Station for the copper-masters living around Swansea Bay revealed that he was owner of almost 40 properties used as brothels. He was granted compensation for their demolition and retired to a large house near Swansea Bay where he joined the local English-language Congregational Chapel and continued to design chapels until his death in 1889.
He is known for popularising the great arch in the gable-front of chapels as a design feature. It is possible to prove that he borrowed ideas from Thomas Oliver Junior, a professional architect, engravings of whose great arch designs were published in the Yearbook of the Congregational Union of England & Wales. These Great Arch Chapels were much admired and the local builders who assisted Thomas often then built their own versions of the same in the surrounding areas.
He also experimented with a range of other designs, versions of each one appearing all over Wales built in a range of local building materials. Much to the consternation of some local Nonconformist congregations he also experimented with Gothic and evolved some original designs of tracery. His largest chapel was the great twin-towered Tabernacl Newydd at Everton in Liverpool, built for a Welsh-language congregation in a mixed Romanesque and early Gothic style where he was assisted by the locally based chapel architect Richard Owen. His largest building in Wales was the Brecon Congregational Memorial College with a soaring gothic tower and spire dominating what is now a block of flats.
Stephen Hughes, ‘Thomas Thomas, 1817-88: the first national architect of Wales’, Archaeologia Cambrensis 152 (2003), pp. 69-166.