Merthyr’s Chapels: Bethesda Chapel

Over the years, Merthyr has been home to over 120 chapels, and they became one of the mainstays of life in the town. Every month I would like to post a history of a different chapel. Let’s start with one of the most famous of Merthyr’s chapels – Bethesda Welsh Independent Chapel.

Bethesda Chapel

In 1807, the minister at Zoar Chapel, Rev Daniel Lewis, embarked on a visit to London and other large towns to solicit gifts of money from sympathetic benefactors to help clear the debts at Zoar Chapel.

Even though this was the custom at the time, some members of the congregation took exception to the trip and to the expenses incurred by the minister, and instigated an investigation into the affair by senior ministers from surrounding areas. When the investigation exonerated Rev Lewis, his accusers, unhappy with the outcome, left to start their own church.

The congregation originally met in an upstairs room of a smithy near the spot where Salem Chapel now stands in Newcastle Street, and called it Philadelphia. After two years larger premises were necessary and the congregation moved to another blacksmith’s forge between Zoar Chapel and the Morlais Brook and called it Beth-haran.

It was while they were at Beth-haran that the congregation extended an invitation to Rev Methusalem Jones to come and preach at their small meeting. He eventually became their minister and the congregation decided to build their own chapel. They obtained a piece of land on a lease from Mr W Morgan, Grawen, for £5 per annum rent. They built the chapel at the start of 1811, and Rev Jones licensed it at Llandaff court on 23 July 1811.

Under the guidance of Methusalem Jones the congregation had grown from 90 to almost 300, thus a larger chapel was needed, and a new chapel was built in 1829 at a cost of £1,002. Whilst under Rev Methusalem Jones’ ministry, Bethesda became mother church to many other chapels including:- Bethania, Dowlais; Saron, Troedyrhiw; Ebenezer, Cefn Coed; Salem, Heolgerrig. Rev Methusalem Jones continued to minister to the congregation at Bethesda until his death on 15 January 1839 at the age of 71.

Following Rev Jones death, Rev Daniel Jones was invited to become Bethesda’s minister in 1840. At the time that Daniel Jones became minister, there was an influx of people coming to Merthyr from Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire seeking work in the various iron works; as Daniel Jones was known in those counties, a large number of the people coming to Merthyr started going to Bethesda Chapel thus greatly increasing the congregation.

Two years after becoming the minister however, Rev Jones had to have his right arm amputated, but because of the support and kindness he received from the congregation, he made a swift recovery and continued to preach at Bethesda until he left in 1855 to join the Anglican church.

It was at this time that the world famous composer Dr Joseph Parry was a member of Bethesda Chapel. He attended the chapel with his family until he emigrated to America in 1854. Indeed, Dr Parry’s mother, Elizabeth, had been working for Rev Methusalem Jones as a maid in her youth, and moved with him to Merthyr when he became the minister at Bethesda.

Following Daniel Jones departure, Bethesda was without a minister for three years, but the cause continued to flourish, and it was at this time that a number of members of Bethesda started a new cause at Gellideg Chapel.

By the late 1870’s it was decided to build a larger and more comfortable chapel, and on 24 June 1880 the foundation stone was laid by Mrs W T Crawshay, wife of William Crawshay the owner of Cyfarthfa Ironworks.  The architect was Mr John Williams of Merthyr and the builder was Mr John Francis Davies of Dowlais. The chapel was completed in 1881 at a cost of £1,200.

Following its closure due to a diminishing congregation in 1976, Bethesda Chapel was used as an arts centre for several years. The building then began to fall into dereliction until it was finally decided to demolish the building in 1995.

The site of Bethesda Chapel has now been landscaped and a mosaic by Oliver Budd based on a painting by the renowned local artist and historian Mr Dewi Bowen has been erected as a memorial to the chapel.


Mount Pleasant Spitfire Crash

On 7 July 1941, five people were killed in Mount Pleasant in Merthyr Vale as a result of a terrible accident involving two Spitfire fighters.

At about 6.30pm on Monday 7 July 1941, two planes were seen flying over the hills behind Aberfan at an altitude of approximately 600 feet. The planes were Spitfires of the Royal Canadian Air Force on a training exercise from No 53 Operational Training Unit, based at RAF Heston. The planes were piloted by Sergeant Gerald Fenwick Manuel (R/69888) aged 25, from Halifax, Nova Scotia and Sergeant Lois “Curly” Goldberg (R/56185), aged 27, from Montreal.

From eye-witness accounts, the one plane overshot the other and their wing-tips touched, resulting in both pilots losing control of their aircraft. Sergeant Goldberg’s plane crashed into a field, killing him instantly, but the plane piloted by Sergeant Manuel crashed into a house at the end of South View in Mount Pleasant.

The house was the home of the Cox Family: James Cox, a shift worker at a munitions factory; his wife Alice aged 33, and their five children. At the time of the crash, James Cox was in bed, having just come home from a shift at the factory; his three sons Donald, Thomas and Len were out playing; and Alice and the two daughters, Phyllis aged 14 and three-year-old Doreen, had just returned from a shopping trip. Alice and the two girls were killed instantly, as was Sergeant Manuel, but James Cox had a remarkable escape as the impact of the plane threw him out of the rear window of the house, and he escaped with minor injuries.

Alice Cox. Photo courtesy of

William Brown who lived next door to the Cox family, and who’s house was also damaged, spoke of his own lucky escape: “I was coming out of my house with a bucket of water to go to my allotment when I saw the plane coming towards my house. Some instinct made me go back in, and when I was going along the passage something gave me a smack on the head. I managed to get into a room in the back and I saw the Cox’s house in flames……..There are usually ten to twelve children playing by the lamp-post directly outside the house, but today they were playing in the fields down by the river. My wife and grandchildren were in the back of the house, and they too were uninjured”.

Neighbours and local residents tried in vain to rescue Alice and the children, but the house had burst into flames immediately following the crash, and the heat was too great for attempts to rescue the family. The local police inspector paid tribute to the people, especially the women, saying: “The people of the district were marvellous. They all worked and spoilt their clothing, and never seemed to tire. The women-folk worked unceasingly, carrying water and sand while the men worked the stirrup pumps. They were magnificent and worked like Trojans”.

The bodies of Sgt Manuel and the deceased family members were buried two days later in the Ffrwd Cemetery, Cefn-Coed, while the body of Sgt Goldberg was interned in the Jewish cemetery at Cefn-Coed.

In 2007 a mural painted by local school children was unveiled in memory of the victims of the crash.

Mount Pleasant Crash Memorial Mural

Dr Dyke of Merthyr

Today marks the anniversary of the death of another very important in Merthyr’s History – Dr T J Dyke.

Dr T J Dyke

Thomas Jones Dyke was born in Lower High Street in Merthyr on 16 September 1816. His father, Thomas Dyke, a pharmaceutical chemist, had moved to Merthyr from Bristol in the early 1800’s and set up a business in the town, first in partnership with D S Davies and then on his own at a premises at Court Street.

Thomas Dyke Jr. attended the schools of William Shaw in Gellifaelog, Taliesin Williams in Bridge Street and William Armsworth in Swansea, before finishing his education at the Bedminster House Academy in Bristol. In 1831 he began a three year apprenticeship with Mr David Davies, the surgeon at the Cyfarthfa Works, before going to London in 1834 to further his medical studies. He attended Granger’s School of Anatomy and Medicine and also Guys and St Thomas’ Hospitals, and passed as an apothecary in 1837 and as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons the following year.

Returning to Merthyr, the now Dr Dyke set up practice, and in 1842 bought ‘The Hollies’, a cottage in Albert Street where he lived until 1894.

During the cholera epidemic of 1849 (see previous blog entry, Dr Dyke was appointed Medical Officer of Health of one of the districts into which Merthyr had been divided due to the epidemic. Dr Dyke actually contracted cholera himself, but after battling the disease for six weeks, he eventually pulled through. Cholera hit Merthyr again in 1854 and 1866, and Dr Dyke was at the forefront of the fight against the disease.

In 1863, Dr Dyke was appointed as the first permanent Medical Officer of Health to the Merthyr Tydfil Board of Health, a position he retained until his death, the Board of Health being replaced by the Merthyr Tydfil Urban Council in 1894.

In 1876 the Hospital for Sick Children was founded in Bridge Street, and Dr Dyke was put in charge of the medical care there. The Hospital for Sick Children would grow and eventually become the General Hospital in 1888.

Dr Dyke’s services were recognised when he was appointed High Constable of Caerphilly Higher (which covered Merthyr at the time) in 1876 and 1877; and in 1886 he was appointed as a Justice of the Peace of Glamorganshire.

The above facts do not give justice to the immense service he provided to Merthyr. Throughout his life Dr Dyke fought to improve medical and sanitary conditions in the town, and as Medical Officer to the Board of Health, he used his influence to facilitate many of these improvements. Through the auspices of the Board of Health, Merthyr received a reliable and clean water supply in 1861, and between 1865 and 1868 a system of new sewers was built in the town leading to a new sewage farm ensuring that very little sewage was deposited directly into the River Taff.

Thomas Dyke died peacefully in his sleep on 20 January 1900. In his obituary in the South Wales Daily News on 22 January 1990 was written:

“He was closely identified with Merthyr and all its works for the greater part of a century. The public came to recognise him as one who did something to the benefit of the community at large. No man did better life saving work in South Wales”.

Morlais Castle

Following of from Carl Llewellyn’s thoughts on the meaning of the word Morlais, here is a poem entitled ‘Morlais Castle’ that appeared in the Merthyr Guardian, that he has kindly transcribed.

by A.C. Luthman

I’ve climbed the hill where Morlais stands
And proudly looks on subject lands,
And though no more the banner tells
That there a belted chieftain dwells,
Nor stately dames nor maidens fair
Hold now their gentle revels there;
Nor minstrel wakes his love-notes sweet,
Or guides the dance of fairy feet,
Or sweeping strongly o’er the strings,
Of daring deeds of arms he sings.
Till fiercely up the warrior springs,
And calling for his spear and shield,
He deems himself in battle field
Nor fires beheld whose meteor ray
Gave dreadful promise for the day
Nor arms, that threw a sun like light
O’er vales enshrouded in the night;
Nor mingles with the eagle’s cry,
The trumpet’s tones of victory
Though all are gone, and Ruin’s hand
Hath swept her glories from the land.
Still sits she there in queenly state
And like a monarch struck by Fate,
She looks sublimely desolate
And hundreds to her mountain home
With wondering worship daily come,
And walk round where her bulwarks hoar
The wrath of heaven and mortals bore,
Till Time, the dread destroyer, came,
And shook to dust her giant frame;
One only spot his power withstood,
A temple of the living God,
Formed in its day with matchless skill,
And, though decaying, lovely still.
And one vast rock-hewn pit appears,
The wonder of successive years,
But whether used as druid’s cell
Or giant’s grave there’s none to tell.
I gazed around with heavy heart,
Then turned my footsteps to depart,
But ere I left I looked below
On vales now rich with sunset glow,
Vales where, by labour worn and soiled,
Uncounted vassals hourly toiled,
Or armed as faithful guards were set
Upon her massive parapet,
That Morlais on her rocky throne
Might rule in regal state alone
But oh how changed! Her power no more
Is owned by thousands as of yore!
The hinds are gone who once drew near
Her mighty gates with hearts of fear,
And now the peasant loiters by
And rarely upwards casts his eye,
Save when some passing stranger calls
And asks the way to Morlais halls,
When he replies, They once were there,
But now I scarce can tell you where.

The Glamorgan Monmouth and Brecon Gazette and Merthyr Guardian
25th July 1840

The Meaning of ‘Morlais’

By Carl Llewellyn

There are different opinions regarding the origin of the name “Morlais”. In 1932 there was a book published entitled “The Story of Merthyr Tydfil” compiled by the Merthyr Teachers Association (N.U.T),  the book translated Morlais, with “Mor” as “Great” and “lais” as sound or stream thus “Great Stream”, in the context of the Morlais,

I am sceptical of this interpretation. “Mor” is not the Welsh word for sea, if there was a circumflex over the “o” then “Mor” would be “Môr”, which is the correct Welsh word for sea. Of cource “Llais” can either be “Sound” or “Voice”.

I find it difficult to believe the sound of the sea could be heard in the vicinity of Morlais.

In my research the significance of the name, Morlais has Gaelic undertones. We all know there is a very close connection between Welsh, Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Breton and Manx, and that knowledge of the six languages would greatly assist to fully understand the various terminology of the Celtic parts of speech. I believe it is generally acknowledged that, those languages have their roots in an original language. Europe philologists divide those six into so called “dialects” with two principal families of languages: Welsh (Cymric) and Gaelic, but the philologists have not yet decided which of the two, Cymraeg or Gaelic, is the elder. They all, however, admit the other four to be the offspring of these two.

In the vitality of its tongue, the progress of its literature, its suitableness of the inherent force of language and its suitableness for the expression of human thought,  I think there can be no doubt that Cymric is the great Celtic mother, and that Gaelic is a daughter. Gaelic lingers among the Highlands of Scotland, but Cymric is over ten thousand years.

Mor is the Gaelic word for “big or great”, while the Welsh Mor; without the circumflex over the “o” means “How so” and “As” and the similarity of the names give one every reason to suppose they are from the same cognate root. Here we have Mor and Mawr in Welsh, but it seems that the Gaelic, (big or great) is Mor. This is, apparently, a corruption of Mawr.  Therefore in my opinion Mor refers to a greatness or expansive.

It seems to me there is conundrum with the word “Lais” (voice or sound) could “Lais” have been a corrupted form of Gaelic, or “Glas” (green) thus giving credence that an immense green countryside or greenery existed long before Morlais Castle was erected.

The fact is that Morlais originated with the Druids or Bards who named all the old localities of Wales in accordance with the valuable rule of distinctness or precision. These sacred men,  whose poetic licence almost certainly gave the description of the terrain as Morlais.

It is my belief “Morlais” was given its name because it depicted a vast countryside of lush green landscape.