Merthyr’s Chapels: Shiloh Chapel

The next chapel we are going to look at is Shiloh Welsh Wesleyan Chapel – one of Merthyr’s grandest chapels, but now probably better known as the Miners’ Hall.

In 1807 Rev Edward Jones came to the English Wesleyan Chapel in Pontmorlais to work alongside Rev J T Evans and to serve the needs of the Welsh speaking congregation there. That same year a group of worshippers left the English chapel to start a Welsh cause, and by 1811 they had built a small chapel in John Street.

By the 1850’s the Great Western Railway Company asked to purchase the land on which the chapel was built for their new railway station, and an agreement was made to provide a new chapel for the Welsh Wesleyans in Church Street. This new building was reputed to have been designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, though no documentation has been found to substantiate this, and it was opened in 1853.

Shiloh Chapel

In 1859 a religious revival took place in Wales, and in Merthyr the revival began at Shiloh Chapel under the guidance of Rev Watkinson, the minister there at the time, “where with great demonstrations and emotional excitement the converts were overcome by strong preaching and hymn singing”.

One of the most prominent ministers to officiate at Shiloh was Rev Thomas Aubrey (1808-1867). Born in Cefn Coed, Thomas Aubrey became a Wesleyan Methodist minister in 1826, and between then and 1865 travelled Wales as a minister at various chapels including Shiloh between 1846-1849. Rev Aubrey went on to be one of the most important preachers in Welsh Wesleyan history.

Rev Thomas Aubrey

Unfortunately, the new chapel proved too large and too expensive to run, so it was reluctantly decided to close it in 1912 and the Welsh and English Wesleyans amalgamated at Wesley Chapel. Shortly after this, plans were formulated to build a grand Central Wesleyan Mission Hall on the site of the old Drill Hall, but the plan never came to fruition due to the advent of the First World War.

The building was sold to the Miners’ Welfare Committee, and it was opened as the Miners’ Hall in 1921. It later became a nightclub and was destroyed by fire in 1992. The shell of the building now lies derelict.

The remains of Shiloh Chapel

Railway Accident at Merthyr Station

143 years ago today, on the afternoon of Saturday 16 May 1874, a scheduled passenger train left Brecon for Merthyr at 1.50pm, and following a few unavoidable delays arrived just after 3.25pm, eight minutes late, at the Great Western Railway Station at Merthyr Tydfil. The train was just reaching the end of the inner platform when it was hit by great force from behind by twenty-one fully-laden coal trucks.

At approximately 3.00pm that afternoon, a coal train of twenty-four fully-laden trucks had left the same platform at the Station heading for Swansea. At that time it was the policy of the Great Western Railway Company to work mineral trains going up the incline to the Aberdare Tunnel with an extra engine at the rear or at the front of the train to help propel the train up the incline. On this day, the train that had left Merthyr station was in one of these latter configurations.

On such occasions, it was the duty of the guards to be at separate positions at each end of the train to help operate the brakes with the brake-man. For some reason, the guard on this particular train was travelling with his colleague in the engine at the front, leaving the brake-man alone in the rear van. Shortly after the train had entered the Aberdare Tunnel, a coupling somewhere near the front of the train broke. The guards were alerted to this by the fact that the front part of the train suddenly accelerated. Having brought the train to a standstill the guards ran back along the track to find that more than half the train – twenty-one trucks in all had become detached from the train and had run back along the line on which they had just travelled. Between the Great Western Station and the Aberdare Tunnel, the railway line rises over three-quarters of a mile in a series of inclines ranging between 1 in 45 and 1 in 70 gradients, so this, coupled with the weight of the loads being carried, meant that the runaway trucks were accelerating the whole time along the track. The train was travelling at such a speed that the signalman at the Cyfarthfa Crossing and another signalman at the Rhydycar Junction, just half a mile from the station, were powerless to do anything to stop the train’s progress or to warn those at the Great Western Station.

Within minutes the trucks hit the passenger train. It is estimated that they were, by this time, travelling in excess of 40 miles an hour. They hit the passenger train with a force of approximately 300 tons of deadweight travelling at a mile a minute, and the sound of the crash was heard over a 300 yard radius. The force of the impact smashed the passenger coaches and forced the locomotive engine ‘The Elephant’ through the buffers at the end of the track, across the platform at the end of it, through the front of the station and into the road beyond before finally crashing into the high retaining wall at John Street, penetrating the wall to a depth of about four feet and damaging the foundations of the Grosvenor Hotel in John Street.

The first carriage on the train, immediately behind the engine tender, took the main force of the concussion that travelled along the train, and it was reduced to splinters, the only portion left for identification being the framework which was embedded beneath the guard’s van. Fortunately there were no passengers in this carriage – it is obvious that if there had been anyone in the carriage they would have been killed outright. Next was a composite (a mixed first and second class) carriage which came to rest on top of the guard’s van, amazingly the only damage this carriage sustained was broken windows and doors, and passengers in this carriage sustained only minor injuries, two further third-class carriages followed this, but the final third-class carriage which took the main brunt of the collision was almost totally demolished. It was in this carriage that most of the injuries occurred.

In all 52 people were badly injured, most people suffering from fractures and cuts and bruises. A large number of people also suffered from the effects of shock. The most serious injuries were sustained by the recently married Mrs Stephens of Pontypridd who suffered serious fractures to both legs, resulting in them both being amputated below the knee.

Miss Sarah Davies of Coed-cae Court, Twynyrodyn, also sustained fractures to both legs and needed one of her legs amputated below the knee. Mrs Elizabeth Morgan, aged 30, of Cefn Coed, also had both legs fractured and needed one leg amputated below the knee. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the doctors, Mrs Morgan’s injuries were far worse than originally thought, and she died of her injuries a week after the accident. It is miraculous that this was the only fatality. The driver of the train, David Humphreys, along with the stoker and the guard, managed to jump from the engine just as it crashed through the end of the station and sustained only minor injuries.

An artist’s impression of the crash from 1874

If you want to find out more, a fuller account of the crash appears in Merthyr Historian volume 26.

The Brecon and Merthyr Railway

By the second half of the 19th century, Merthyr was served by several railway companies, one of which was the Brecon and Merthyr Tydfil Junction Railway (B&M) which, as its name implies, ran from Brecon to Merthyr.

A 1905 map showing the Railways around Merthyr and Dowlais

As early as 1836, Sir John Josiah Guest, of the Dowlais Ironworks, had written of his proposal to construct a railway linking Dowlais to the valley of the River Usk, and possibly also running into Brecon. The line would have pretty nearly covered the same route as was eventually adopted by the B&M. A similar proposal suggested a line running up the Taf Fawr valley over the Brecon Beacons via Storey Arms and thence to Brecon.

The Brecon and Merthyr Railway Company was established by a Bill of 1859, financially supported by several prominent Brecon citizens, and the complete route from Brecon to Merthyr Tydfil was authorised the following year. The first section to open was a 6.75 miles (10.86 km) section between Brecon and Talybont-on-Usk in 1863, which reused a section of a horse-drawn tram line. The Beacons Tunnel at Torpantau opened in 1868. Officially named the Torpantau Tunnel, at 1313 feet above mean sea level, it is the highest railway tunnel in Britain.

The system eventually came to comprise two sections of lines:

  • The Southern section, effectively the consumed Rumney Railway, which linked Bassaleg (where there were connections with the GWR and the London and North Western Railway) and the ironworks town of Rhymney, near the head of the Rhymney Valley.
  • The Northern section linked Deri Junction by means of running powers over a section of the Rhymney Railway in the Bargoed Rhymney Valley to Pant, Pontsticill and Brecon via a tunnel through the Brecon Beacons. From the tunnel the line descended towards Talybont-on-Usk on a continuous 1-in-38 gradient known as the “Seven-Mile Bank”. For southbound trains this presented the steepest continuous ascent on the British railway network.
Pontsticill Station. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Initially, the only connection to Merthyr Tydfil was by means of a horse-drawn bus from Pant, but by 1868, a connection with Merthyr at Rhydycar Junction had been established by sharing lines with Vale of Neath, London and North Western and Taff Vale railways. This involved the building of nearly seven miles of single line from Pontsticill to Merthyr, with an almost continuous descent of 1 in 45-50, two complete reversals of direction, and the construction of two viaducts to carry the line over the Taf Fechan at Pontsarn, and the Taf Fawr at Cefn Coed.

North of the Pontsarn viaduct, a connection was made with the LNWR’s Merthyr Extension line at Morlais Tunnel Junction from where the latter’s double track entered the 1034 yard Morlais Tunnel and beyond routed along the double line to Dowlais High Street and thence to Tredegar, Brynmawr and Abergavenny. The sections from Merthyr to Pontsticill and Bargoed through to Brecon were laid as single lines with passing loops and usually locomotive watering facilities at principal stations. For those single lines, tokens were issued to drivers from signal boxes at such locations and being essential for safe working over single lines.

A train leaving the Morlais Tunnel. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

The line was eventually amalgamated with the Great Western Railway in 1923, and by 1958, the line was running three services each way on weekdays, increasing to four on Saturdays, taking around 2½ hours to run from Brecon to Newport. Although surviving nationalisation, the service had run at a substantial loss for most of its lifetime, and was an obvious candidate for closure. Passenger services were closed from Pontsticill Junction to Merthyr Tydfil in November 1961, with the remainder of services stopping at the end of the 1962. The line was closed completely after the withdrawal of goods services in 1964.

Towards the end of the 1970s, a private company, the Brecon Mountain Railway, began to build a narrow-gauge steam-hauled tourist line on the existing 5.5-mile (8.9 km) trackbed from Pant through Pontsticill to Dol-y-gaer. The initial section of 1.75 miles (2.82 km) from Pant to Pontsticill first opened in June 1980. After more than 30 years of hard work and extra-funding, passenger services finally extended to Torpantau in April 2014, bringing the BMR to a total of approximately 5 miles in length.

For more about the Brecon Mountain Railway, please follow the link below:

https://www.bmr.wales/

John Mathias Berry

Today marks the centenary of the death of one of Merthyr’s most prominent citizens – John Mathias Berry.

John Mathias Berry and Mrs Mary Ann Berry

Born on 2 May 1847 in Camrose in Pembrokeshire, John Mathias Berry was brought up in Haverfordwest in a strict non-conformist household, and as a young man he began working for the Great Western Railway as a clerk. On 24 May 1870 he married Mary Ann Rowe of Pembroke Dock, and in 1872 became a father to a daughter, Lucy Beatrice. In 1874, Berry secured a better position as a station-master with the Taff Vale Railway and the family moved to Merthyr Tydfil.

On 17 September 1877, Berry became a father for the second time when Mary gave birth to a son – Henry Seymour. As a sideline to his job at Merthyr Station and also to earn extra money, John Mathias Berry began selling tea in the town, and this led on to him becoming a commercial traveller. During this time his family grew and he became a father to two more sons – William Ewart in 1879, and James Gomer in 1883.

In 1894, at the age of 46, John Mathias decided on a career change and opened a new business as an auctioneer and estate agent in Victoria Street. Due to a combination of his remarkable personality, his energetic business acumen and the economic growth at the time, the business became a huge success, and Berry became a very prosperous and important person in Merthyr.

As a result of his success, John Mathias became very active in public life in Merthyr. In 1902 he was made a J.P. for the County of Glamorgan, and he also became a councillor for the Town Ward on the District Council and from 1905 Borough Council. In November 1908 he became an alderman and was elected as Mayor in November 1911, and as such was responsible for welcoming King George V and Queen Mary on the occasion of their visit to Merthyr and Dowlais on 27 June 1912.

John Mathias Berry reading the proclamation of the visit of King George V and Queen Mary on the steps of the Town Hall

Despite his business and public activities, John Mathias remained a staunch non-conformist, and became a member of Market Square Chapel soon after his arrival in Merthyr, and within time he was elected as a deacon of the chapel. It was in this capacity that he was instrumental in the founding of the Caedraw Mission Sunday School and also the Ragged School. When Market Square Chapel celebrated its centenary in 1938, William Ewert and James Gomer, the two surviving sons of James Mathias, paid for a magnificent pipe organ to be installed in the chapel in memory of their father.

The pipe organ installed in memory of John Mathias Berry in the old Market Square Chapel

Indeed, John Mathias Berry was known as much for his charitable work in the town as his business and public life. As early as 1875, during the great ‘Lock Out’, John Mathias was at the forefront of the movement to open soup kitchens for the relief of the poor, and throughout his life he gave unstintingly of his time and money to help the under-privileged of the town.

John Mathias Berry died on 9 January 1917 after a short illness.

Despite everything he did in his life, John Mathias Berry’s lasting legacy will be as a father to three sons who became hugely successful millionaires and peers of the realm:-

Henry Seymour Berry (1877-1928), 1st Baron Buckland

William Ewert Berry (1879-1954), 1st Viscount Camrose

James Gomer Berry (1883-1968), 1st Viscount Kemsley

There will be more about the remarkable Berry brothers in the future. In the meantime if you wish to read more about them, take a look at the link below.

http://yba.llgc.org.uk/en/s2-BERR-BUC-1847.html