Moriah Chapel, Coelbren
The family was keenly connected to and would have been instrumental among other local families in the building of the new Moriah Baptist Chapel at Coelbren in 1910, the foundation stone laid by Gwenllian Morgan of Coelbren House, again maybe to save the Baptists’ feet from the walk to Nant-y-Ffin, but the latter was small and the cause was in the ascendant following the turn-of-the-century Revival. This new chapel at Coelbren was large and imposing, bigger even than the established Coelbren Church and was established as a branch of Nantyffin. Before a purpose-built structure was erected in 1908, Coelbren School also had its inception in the then Sunday School next door, known in the usual literal Welsh way as “Ty Zinc” due to the hasty, cheap – but altogether contemporary – method of its construction. It was built originally as a vestry and Sunday School for Nantyffin. This arrangement would have been easily facilitated by the presence (Davies, 1994) of Daniel Jones acting for the Chapel and father-in-law Richard Morgan acting for the school. With the chapel went a whole calendar of social life: teas, concerts, recitals and other events are reported regularly in the minutely observant press of the time.
Lacking much exterior embellishment, this does not appear to be a chapel of the “coal capitalist” type and was probably financed mainly through local public subscription. This was the chapel for the new industrial village of Coelbren: only a mile and a half away from Nantyffin, but a century distant in progress and perception. Its adherents' ardour is evident in the building: unlike the small mother chapel, Nantyffin (above), nestling almost organically in its pretty glade, Moriah is strictly no-nonsense in practical design, simply rising straight up from the probably donated farmer’s field (almost certainly, the Lewis family) in the almost entirely grey cement dressing which coyly hides rubbly local stone. The field still reaches the walls, and there were no trees or shrubs planted here at 800 feet to soften the straight, uncompromising lines. It dominates the landscape, and appears massively overgrown for the surroundings. This was a deliberate and open declaration of the style of expected faith reflected in architecture: big, straightforward, public and unadorned. Nowhere to hide and no reason to want to would be the rejoinder.
Below: Photo of foundation stones by G. Jones, 2014; newspaper extract from The Weekly Mail, 29 January 1910.
Richard Jones (born in 1893) of Coelbren House, assisted usually by his cousin David (Dewi) Jeffreys (Penygraig), both grandsons of Richard Morgan, seems to have been particularly busy organising Eistedfoddau – musical and literary festivals – and Cymanfa Ganu – hymn singing festivals – at Coelbren through the early years of the twentieth century. The newspaper advert is from the Brecon County Times of 1919. That special trains from Neath and Brecon were organised to bring visitors, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, to these events in Coelbren defies modern belief. The same local family names recur in church records: Lewis, Jones, Jeffreys, Kemeys and Evans – showing how intertwined these Baptist families had become.
More detailed information on Moriah Chapel can be found on the Ystradgynlais History website at: http://www.ystradgynlais-history.co.uk/moriah-coelbren.html
Not all of the area, however, would have been in thrall to the Baptist, any other chapel or indeed the established church unless for the spasmodic rituals of birth, marriage or death. Much of the population may have had neither no history of, nor instruction in any religion, or chose to ignore such. An elastic spectrum of opinion and belief also allowed chapel and public house to exist simultaneously in some people’s minds and the pendulum would hold in different positions according to the family.
There is perhaps a danger in eulogising just how benign and improving an influence the Welsh non-conformist tradition actually was. One early twentieth century commentator was the author Caradoc Evans – generally reviled in Wales as a traitor when he published a series of stories in the early twentieth century, although he received good reviews from the local “Labour Voice” newspaper – Llais Lafur. He dared to choose as his main target the dual and linked hegemony of chapel and the dominant Liberal politics of the time, which reached its apotheosis in the election of David Lloyd George to Prime Minister. While not irreligious, Evans rails, in his perhaps rather laboured and repetitive stories, against an abusive and essentially hypocritical form of religious practice, although it is unclear which, if any, particular chapel denomination he had in his sights. “At every turn the Welsh peasantry are bled for funds to provide their pastors with salaries and to throw up unwanted chapels” (Capel Sion, 1916). Many of his stories are set in his native rural Cardiganshire where “he portrays debased religion as a weapon of social control, used to bludgeon, disgrace and humiliate, and always in the service of the powerful, the monied farmers chosen to be chapel deacons” (introduction by John Harris to Evans (2002)). Sola Fide – Faith Alone – seemed to Evans to excuse many chapel leaders of practising what they preached. Later, Evans discusses the growing militancy of the Rhondda Valley miners where, “No one can accuse the religious leaders of the Rhondda Valley of aiding and abetting the miners to strike. The chapels are erected with the money of coal capitalists and upholstered with grocery, leather and drapery money. The men in the pulpits are the paid servants of their employers, and often the paid agents of Liberal politicians. ‘Respect your rich betters’ seems to be the motto of the coalfield preacher.” (quoted by Harris, in Evans (2002)).
By 2014 (photo by G. Jones), Moriah Chapel needed more and more repairs and was becoming unsafe. The very small congregation found the prospect unsustainable. The trustees sold the chapel and it now awaits re-development as a private house. The remaining Baptists agreed upon a weekly time to worship by themselves in Capel Coelbren (Church in Wales).
This suggestion that a growing political militancy is beginning to be decoupled from the chapel questions somewhat the oft dispensed and possibly rather mythologised narrative that holds every coalfield community as a tightly-knit, universally-believing group with chapel at its homogenous core. Clearly, we have to consider the variations in belief and practice between different chapel denominations – a vast task in itself– but this is simplified perhaps for our present purpose by noting that some members of this particular family did not appear to have difficulty reconciling their own Baptist faith and religious practice with later more radical Labour party politics, as Liberal dominance declined. Evans seems to have been pleading for a truly radical form of non-conformism, requiring matching deeds worthy of the professed faith, and not the imitations of the – supposedly rich and corrupt - established church that he saw many chapel denominations had become. In simple terms, Caradoc Evans’ work just reflects the beginning of the general decline of the Liberal-non-conformist hold over the working-class from the beginning of the twentieth century, as the new Labour party, Trade Unions and the Communist party began to offer a more convincing credo to many. Of course, the Tories and their sympathisers simply continued in the established church.
Left: re-developed Baptist Vestry and Sunday School (for Nantyffin) at Coelbren, known as “Ty Zinc" This was also the original site of Coelbren School, whose founders were practically all Baptists. A new vestry, behind the chapel building, was opened on the 13th of March 1935 : Davies (1994) notes that “fifteen children of the Baptist faith were dismissed early from school that day so that they could join their parents at the opening ceremony.” The old vestry later became a
Cooperative food shop and then a private ate house, as shown. (photo by G. Jones, 2014).
Below: all interior photos have been taken from the publicly accessible sales particulars for the chapel, distributed online in January 2014. The warm pitch pine interior provides another remarkable chapel contrast to the rather grey and austere exterior.