We continue our series on Merthyr’s chapels with a look at one of the oldest causes in the Borough.
Hen Dy Cwrdd is the oldest chapel in the borough of Merthyr Tydfil. The chapel was originally built in 1747 when the Unitarians split from the congregation at Cwm-y-Glo and built their own small chapel at Cefn Coed.
This original building was built in a clearing in the wood between the Taf Fechan and the Taf Fawr rivers. It was a small barn-like structure, similar to the chapel at Cwm-y-Glo, with very small windows and a thatched roof. Indeed, the thatched roof wasn’t replaced by tiles until 1792.
In 1765, Anthony Bacon built the first furnace at Cyfarthfa Iron Works and the wood was stripped of trees, and a small village began to grow in the clearing which became Cefn Coed y Cymer. Just over a century later, amid the rapid population explosion, a new chapel was built to cater for the ever growing congregation. The architect was John Lewis of Vaynor. £434 was collected via subscriptions by the members of the chapel and the new building opened in December 1853.
This chapel was very badly damaged in a storm and major repairs were necessary. The opportunity was taken to carry out various alterations and the chapel was virtually rebuilt in 1894/5 at a cost of £750, and so the present building took shape.
Hen Dy Cwrdd is considered to be an outstanding building and in 1985 it was listed by CADW Grade II, as being of Special Architectural and Historic Interest, and they made a considerable contribution to extensive refurbishment work, and in 1995-7 the chapel was re-erected using the masonry and fittings of the 1895 structure and is an almost exact replica of that building.
The reopening in 1997 coincided with the celebration of the chapel’s 250th Anniversary.
Our Welsh laws refer to the “Tair Helfa Cyfarthfa” or the “Three Barking Hunts. The hunts were so called because the animals could either run fast, climb trees, or find safety in underground burrows, the hunter would bait his prey then send his dogs who would signal the position of the baited prey by barking.
Cyfarthfa has two meanings, either the ‘barking place’ as outlined above, or it could have been so called from the ‘echoes’ the rocky escarpment face of the Cyfarthfa Rocks made. We have been unable so far to trace any reference to the place name Cyfarthfa Rocks before the arrival of Anthony Bacon around 1765.
Another theory of the meaning Cyfarthfa was given by an old inhabitant of the Cyfarthfa district over 200 years ago. He stated that on the site of the Cyfarthfa furnaces there was formally a quarry with a fine echo, if a dog barked in the area it was repeated so strongly that one fancied that a large number of dogs had congregated in the locality.
The etymology of Cyfarthfa, according to Mr. Thomas Stephens, Merthyr poet, bard and chemist is the place of barking dogs – pretty well indicating the character of the place before the days of ironmaking. Game and vermin abounded, and the dogs held high revel there in the dense thickets and impenetrable copses.
Note that cyfar means ‘arable land’; cyfarth means ‘to bark’ or ‘to cough’ as a verb and ‘a barking’ as a noun; cyfarthwr means a ‘barker’ or ‘shouter’; cyfarch means ‘greeting’ or ‘request’ and cyfarchfa means ‘a hailing-place’.
The classroom where I taught in Cyfarthfa High School (Castle site) was at the back, looking on to an area, darkly shaded by old trees. They had been planted circa 1824 when the mock-Gothic edifice, Cyfarthfa Castle, was built by William Crawshay, the ironmaster of the Cyfarthfa works. Less than a century later the family and iron-making disappeared from Merthyr Tydfil and their magnificent, unwanted home became a grammar school.
In the 1970s, when I was appointed to teach French at Cyfarthfa, by then a comprehensive school, one of those old trees became a particular favourite of mine and I admired it often as I glanced, or even took some time to gaze, at the shady woodland scene, just outside the window of Room 15: it was a cedar of Lebanon, the tree that indicates that the landowner, who paid for it was seriously wealthy. In quiet moments in that room I would muse on the Mediterranean land, from which the tree had sprung and of the time when the millionaire owner had bought it and many other specimens of exotic trees and plants. These had been transported, at great expense, to Merthyr Tydfil, his ugly, industrial town, for the beautification of his estate. Thanks to those past extravagances we had the most wonderful – looking school, a grey stone turreted castle, with lawns and a lake in front of it and well- established trees and gardens all around.
My north-facing room was dark and the ceiling strip – lights were often switched on to lighten and brighten it. In the well-used fashion of making the classroom a pleasant place in which the pupils can learn and where the teacher can impart knowledge, I made sure that the walls of the dingy room were colourfully decorated with scenes relating to France: pictures of famous buildings and work that the pupils had spent time creating in class or at home. As time passed the walls of the room were pinned with a collage of memorabilia, which gave great delight to me and, I hope, to the children, entrusted to me. Some of my own postcards were there – of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Mona Lisa; a map of France was in the place of honour in the centre of the back wall and it was mounted by two crossed ‘Tricolore’ flags. These had been drawn, painted and cut out by some enthusiastic pupils in break times. They had tried not to forget that Mrs Owen had said “ the colours of the French flag are blue, white and red (bleu, blanc, rouge), in that order from the flagpole, not red, white and blue. You must get it right.” There were wine bottle – labels, cheese – box labels, Orangina advertisements, photographs of the annual 24- hour, autumn trip to Boulogne, with many pupils and several teachers and where, if my allotted group of eight pupils could order their drinks in good French at the first café stop up in the old quarter of the town, I paid the bill; there was Richard Probert’s print of the Sacré-Coeur, bought especially for our classroom, on his and his brother Michael’s family trip to Paris. They would not forget it in a hurry because their Aunty Norma’s handbag, with her money and passport in it, was stolen in that beautiful white basilica, overlooking the city.
Another aunty had been snapped colourfully for posterity by her eager nephew, Owain Rowlands, as she was eating her way through a huge dish of ‘moules’. She was in the restaurant of the Hôtel de la Plage in the harbour town of Dieppe. This town featured in the Longman’s textbook, which was the basis of French language learning in Mid-Glamorgan schools. Aunty Jean was not to know then that she would be up there on the wall in our classroom, eating those mussels for many years to come. She was a French teacher and she had entered into the spirit of the family trip with gusto. The photos were rushed to school at the end of the holiday and there in front of us were the hotel, the town hall, the church, the swimming pool, the harbour in Dieppe and Jean eating those mussels – more visual aids for learning the ten French words of vocabulary that were expected to be known at the end of each chapter. La plage, le port, l’hôtel, l’hôtel de ville, i.e. the town-hall, surmounted with two crossed French flags etc… And so it went on until the end of the book and there were always creative hands, ready to change the scene a bit and to add an item about France and the French language to our décor. There was a notice, written carefully in good, correct French, announcing to all that Mrs Owen’s favourite character in Coronation Street was Mike Baldwin and her favourite television programme was Only Fools and Horses.
One chapter was about clothes. The required new points of grammar were introduced and the ten words for articles of clothing were there, to be learned through looking, listening, saying, repeating, writing, drawing and even singing. And of course there were volunteers for drawings of shirts, trousers, blouses, skirts, dresses, shoes, socks, macs and hats. Teaching French, especially in the first years to children of eleven and twelve, some at the start of even becoming clever linguists is a delight. One amongst several of these, was Sharon Rogers, who found it so easy to master the tricky French ‘r’ sound as soon as she heard it. It usually took a great deal of practice.
The Grade II* listed Pont-y-Cafnau over the River Taff in Cyfarthfa is thought to be the world’s oldest iron tramroad bridge. An influential early prototype and is a unique survivor of its kind, it is also an aqueduct, with a water trough below the deck. Its designer was Watkin George (c.1759-1822), the chief engineer of the nearby Cyfarthfa Ironworks, which it served, and the bridge/aqueduct enabled the movement of limestone on its tram rails and a water supply, both for the ironworks. The limestone came from the Gurnos Quarries, and the water from a leat supplied by the Taf Fechan. The water was used to drive waterwheels to generate power to run machinery for iron smelting.
The structure was designed sometime in 1792 and construction began in January 1793 and the bridge was completed some time before 1796.
The distinctive appearance of the bridge is created by two large cast iron A-frames, which span the river, their raking ends embedded in the coursed rubble abutment walls on either side. The span measures 14.3m. Three transverse iron beams, at the halfway and quarter-points, connect the A-frames and support the deck. George was originally a carpenter and he used carpentry techniques for the ironwork – mortise-and-tenon and dovetail joints can be seen.
The deck consists of rectangular aqueduct trough, 1.9m wide and 610mm high, made of long iron plates. The trough is covered by an iron deck, cast in sections, on which was laid the 1.22m (4ft) gauge tramroad. Wagons ran on straight iron rails carried on iron chairs. Some chairs and sleepers are still in place along the full length and segments of rail survive at the southern end.
The cast iron handrails were supported at the centre and quarter points of the span. Most of the original cast iron railings have now been replaced.
In 1795, a second bridge was cast from the same patterns to carry an extension of the tramroad and aqueduct from the ironworks to the Glamorganshire Canal. This bridge, sadly, no longer exists.
Shortly after Pont-y-Cafnau was completed, the Gwynne Water Aqueduct (completed 1796) was constructed over the top of it. Gwynne Water was 185m long, built entirely of timber and used the cast iron uprights of the bridge for support. it supplied water to the 15m diameter Aeolus waterwheel, also designed by George, which powered an air pump for the blast furnaces. Presumably, the extra bracing that has been added to the bridge dates from this work. Nothing of the second aqueduct remains.
Pont-y-Cafnau is a Scheduled Ancient Monument as well as a Grade II* listed structure. The iron trough no longer carries water. However, its name means “bridge of troughs”, testifying to its former life.
The bridge influenced the construction of other, better known, aqueducts. In 1794, Shropshire ironmaster William Reynolds (1758-1803) made a sketch of it. Reynolds’ involvement in the rebuilding of Thomas Telford’s (1757-1834) navigable Longdon on Tern Aqueduct on the Shrewsbury Canal in 1796 seems to have led Telford to reconsider using stone and to opt instead for cast iron. It was also the prototype for Telford’s famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which opened in 1805.
Many thanks to prominent local historian Joe England for the following article:-
Who or what was the Puddler? He (always male) was a worker who in his day was central to the making of iron and a person of some importance in Merthyr and the other iron towns.
One writer reminisces: ‘One puddler I knew at Dowlais filled the chapel with his presence . . . a Cyfarthfa man stood in the Star parlour with his coat tails to the fire in the presence of Admiral Lord Nelson … another of the species used regularly every week to ride down to the seat of an influential county gentleman whose daughter he came very near marrying . . . it was by the merest accident in the world they found out, just in the nick of time, that the son-in-law elect was only a puddler.’
Puddling was a method of turning pig iron into much more malleable wrought iron. It was invented by Henry Cort but perfected by Richard Crawshay at Cyfarthfa in the 1790s. The puddler stirred the molten metal in a puddling furnace with an iron bar, working in conditions of tremendous heat and agitating the metal as it boiled and then gathering it at the end of a rod while the molten metal thickened.
This was arduous, strength-sapping work, but the puddler’s special skill was his judgement of when to bring out the congealing metal, a decision crucial to the quality of the finished product. He therefore held a key position in the manufacture of iron. They were usually young men in their twenties and thirties. By their forties they were physically burnt out.
In the early years of industrialisation their key position in the manufacture of iron made them workplace militants, although later they accepted the wage cuts imposed by the ironmasters. The reasons for that I have explained in my forthcoming book The Crucible of Modern Wales: Merthyr Tydfil 1760-1912. But the masters, nonetheless, were determined to find ways of getting rid of them. Puddlers were expensive and too powerful.
The opportunity came with the Bessemer process of making steel which would replace wrought iron in making rails. When the first steel rail was rolled at Dowlais in 1858 it broke while still hot ‘to the undisguised rejoicing of the assembled puddlers.’ But the writing was on the wall. Steel rails began to be successfully manufactured and by 1876 the iron rail was seen as a thing of the past. So was puddling. In 1885 the number of puddling forges at Dowlais was 19. There once had been 255.
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.
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.
Today marks the anniversary of the death of another very important in Merthyr’s History – 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 http://www.merthyr-history.com/?p=123), 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”.