Simon Sandbrook, J.P. (1850-1922)

Today we look at another of Merthyr’s prominent citizens, Simon Sandbrook, who died 95 years ago today.

Simon Sandbrook was born at Dolpwill, Pembrokeshire in 1850, the fifth son (of six) of Mr John Sandbrook. At the age of 18, he was apprenticed to Mr Levi James, an ironmonger in Cardigan, and following the expiration of his apprenticeship, he moved in 1872 to Pontypool to work with his brother William at the hardware business Davies and Sandbook.

In 1879, Simon Sandbrook moved to Merthyr and acquired the failing South Wales Ironmongery Company which had been established in the High Street. Within a short time, he had reversed the fortunes of the business, and established it as one of the foremost businesses in the town. In 1896, he took over the business of Mr John Sibbering, his father-in-law, a timber merchant which was located at the Great Western Station Yard. In addition he also became the agent for an important Midlands firm of builders and contractors.

Upon his arrival in Merthyr Tydfil, Simon Sandbrook became a member of Zoar Chapel, and within time was elected Treasurer, a position he held for 21 years, and later became senior deacon and trustee of the chapel, and throughout his life he made many gifts to the chapel, always quietly and unobtrusively, sometimes without his fellow deacons knowing. As well as his duties at Zoar Chapel, Simon Sandbrook also served as Treasurer of Brecon College and Treasurer of the Welsh Congregational Union.

Simon Sandbrook had five children – a son and four daughters. His son, Captain Rupert Sandbrook, served with distinction during the First World War, and fought with the 5th Battalion Welch Regiment at Gallipoli. His eldest daughter Gwladys became the wife of Henry Seymour Berry (later Lord Buckland) in 1905.

On 13 September 1922, just a month before his death, the deacons and members of Zoar made a special presentation of a solid silver salver to Simon Sandbrook in recognition of his service to the chapel. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to attend the service due to ill-health, but he was represented at the service by his son.

Simon Sandbrook died on 12 October 1922 and his funeral service at Zoar Chapel a few days later was attended by hundreds of people, the chapel being packed to its capacity and with people lining the streets. The service was conducted by Rev H E Rogers of Zoar Chapel; Rev Jacob Jones of Bethesda Chapel gave the eulogy saying:-

My dear friends, we are met under a shadow. He was a loving father, and an affectionate relative has crossed the bar. A friend whom we all loved is with us no longer. Our loss has been great. Mr Sandbrook of the Hawthorns is dead, and all Merthyr today is in tears, because we have lost one of our best and most influential citizens.”

Simon Sandbrook is now best known through the name ‘Sandbrook House’. Simon Sandbrook’s daughter Lillian moved into a house called Brynteg. In the mid 1930’s the house was converted into a rheumatic fever hospital and renamed Sandbrook House in honour of Simon Sandbrook.

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.

 

The Birth of Non-Conformity in Merthyr

by Steve Brewer

Religious dissent in the Merthyr area has existed since the middle of the 16th Century. In the 1540’s, a man called Tomos Llewellyn of Rhigos translated William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament into Welsh. Llewellyn travelled widely across North Glamorgan and left the seeds of his dissenting beliefs in what was then the village of Merthyr Tydfil. A number of the villagers adopted these beliefs and clung stubbornly to them when the persecution of the Dissenters got underway under the Stuart kings. No matter how stubborn they were in their beliefs, they still had to be converted. If they were found practicing their beliefs, they were given sentences of imprisonment or death.

It is unclear when exactly Non-Conformity started in earnest in Merthyr but we can be sure that it had firmly taken root by the beginning of the 1600’s. The most conclusive evidence regarding the birth of Non-Conformity in Merthyr can be found in the papers of Rev Nathaniel Jones, the rector of the Parish of Merthyr Tydfil between 1640 and 1662. Amongst his papers was found a manuscript, written at some time in the early 1650’s giving a history of the troubles in the town at the time of the Long Parliament – the English Parliament summoned in November 1640 by King Charles I to raise the money he needed to wage the second Bishops’ War against the Scots which eventually led to the English Civil War.

In the manuscript Rev Jones states: “We have, in Merthyr Tydfil parish, a fellowship of men and women, who have for some time been in the habit of holding conventicles, in which some have formulated an ecclesiastical constitution according to their own wishes, contrary to the prevalent laws and regulations of the State Church”. The document emphasizes that this had been going on for about 30 years, so it is safe to argue that the Non-Conformists started holding regular meetings in about 1620. It was then that Non-Conformists from both Merthyr and Aberdare started meeting at Blaencanaid Farm.

blaencanaid-farm
Blaencanaid Farm

Under the aegis of Oliver Cromwell, Parliament relaxed the laws against the Non-Conformists and they began to meet openly. Following the restoration of Charles II to the throne however, new stringent laws were passed against Non-Conformity, foremost amongst these was the Conventicle Act of 1664. The Non-Conformist worshippers, who now numbered between 300 – 400, had to return to meeting in secret at Blaencanaid. They were in constant danger of antagonism and arrest, so a number of men were elected as ‘watchers’ to keep watch whilst the meetings were taking place and warn the worshippers of any imminent danger. Despite all of their difficulties the congregation flourished, so a new meeting place was found at a barn belonging to Cwm-y-Glo Farm. As well as being larger, the new meeting place was more secluded and thus safer than Blaencanaid.

In 1689 the Toleration Act was passed which granted freedom of worship to all Dissenters. As a result the worshippers at Cwm-y-Glo decided to build a proper chapel for themselves. The landowner, Captain David Jenkins, granted them permission to build a chapel at Cwm-y-Glo which was completed in 1690. The congregation at Cwm-y-Glo at this time comprised of many different groups – Quakers, Presbyterians, Arminians and Anabaptists.

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The Ruins of Cwm-y-Glo Chapel

For many years, all went peacefully at Cwm-y-Glo until disputes arose over points of religious dogma, and a bitter argument followed. This is not surprising since the congregation of Dissenters comprised many different denominations. The main split came in 1741 when the Unitarians left to establish their own church at Hen Dy Cwrdd, Cefn Coed. In 1752, Cwm-y-Glo itself was closed when the remaining congregation moved to their new chapel in Merthyr town – Ynysgau.

ynysgau
Ynysgau Chapel

Non-conformity was firmly established by the end of the 18th Century. The Baptists established Zion Chapel in 1788 and Ebenezer Chapel in 1794, the Calvinistic Methodists established Pennsylvania (Pontmorlais) Chapel in 1793, and the Independents managed to establish Zoar Chapel in 1798 and Bethesda in 1807 as well as having acquired Ynysgau. Lastly, the Wesleyans established their chapel in 1796.

Between 1789 and 1850, at least forty places of worship were licensed in Merthyr, Dowlais and Penydarren alone.