Merthyr’s Chapels: Graig Chapel, Abercanaid

We continue our series on Merthyr’s chapels with an article about Graig Calvinistic Methodist Chapel in Abercanaid.

In 1846, a number of people from Abercanaid who attended Pontmorlais Calvinistic Methodist Chapel began holding meetings in the village. Rev Evan Harris, the minister at Pontmorlais Chapel at that time, supported the small group and was instrumental in arranging for a chapel to be built in Abercanaid.

In February 1847, Rev Harris and Mr Evan Jones, a tea dealer, led a deputation to the annual Methodist Association meeting held in Bridgend, and permission was obtained to build a chapel, chapel house and cemetery on Coedcaellwyd field in Abercanaid, next to the Glamorganshire Canal. The chapel was completed and opened for worship on 15 March 1848.

The original Graig Chapel

Over the years the chapel was renovated three times, including in 1897 at a cost of £365. However in 1899 it was discovered that cracks were appearing in the walls of the chapel due to the structure of the building being affected by the underground workings of Abercanaid Colliery.

It was decided to build a new chapel in the centre of the village of Abercanaid. The old chapel closed in 1903, and the new chapel, designed by Mr Charles Morgan Davies, was completed in 1905 at a cost of £2000. The cost of building the new chapel was helped by a compensation payment of £509, and the stone provided free by the colliery. In the period between the closure of the old chapel and the opening of the new chapel, services were held in Abercanaid School.

New Graig Chapel

In 1948, Graig Chapel celebrated its centenary with a series of events, but the celebrations were tinged with sadness as the old Graig Chapel was demolished in the same year.

With ever decreasing membership, Graig Chapel was forced to close and the building was demolished in 1996. A house has since been built on the site. The cemetery of the old chapel still exists but is badly overgrown, and is almost totally inaccessible.

There were two magnificent memorials, pictured below, to prominent members of the chapel situated behind the pulpit in the original chapel, and these were subsequently moved to the new chapel. They were the work of the renowned sculptor Joseph Edwards (see previous article – http://www.merthyr-history.com/?p=344). The memorials were removed before the new chapel was demolished and moved to Cyfarthfa Castle Museum.

The Cymanfa Ganu

In years gone by, the most important event for the chapels of Merthyr (and indeed all of Wales) was the annual Cymanfa (literally translated as assembly or festival). As well as the Cymanfa Bregethu (preaching festival) there was also, more significantly and more famously the annual Cymanfa Ganu or Cymanfa Gerddorol (singing or music festival).

The first ever Cymanfa Ganu was held in Aberdare in 1873, and was inaugurated by Rev John Roberts (Ieuan Gwyllt) formally of Bethlehem Chapel, Caepantywyll, and the first Cymanfa Ganu was held in Merthyr Tydfil by the Calvinistic Methodists in 1874 at Pontmorlais Chapel.

Rev John Roberts (Ieuan Gwyllt)

The Welsh Baptists held their first Cymanfa Ganu in 1886 at Zion Chapel, Twynyrodyn and the Welsh Independents followed two years later holding their first Cymanfa Ganu in 1888 at Zoar Chapel.

Traditionally, the Welsh Baptists held their Cymanfa on Easter Monday, alternating between Zion Chapel, Twynyrodyn and Tabernacle Chapel; the Independents held their Cymanfa on Easter Tuesday at Zoar Chapel (and later at Gellideg Chapel) and the Methodists held their Cymanfa on the first Monday in May at Pontmorlais Chapel until it closed and then at Zoar Chapel until 1984 and afterwards at Hope Chapel.

As well as this, the Dowlais Baptists and Independents held their own separate Cymanfa’s, with the Independents holding theirs on Easter Monday and the Baptists on Easter Tuesday – both Cymanfa’s being held at Bethania Chapel. This continued until the 1960’s when both denominations amalgamated their Cymanfa’s to hold a joint Cymanfa on Easter Tuesday.

The Treharris and district Baptists and Independents also held their own Cymanfa’s – respectively on Easter Monday at Brynhyfyd Chapel and Easter Tuesday at Tabernacle Chapel.

Below are copies of: the programme for the 1911 Cymanfa Ganu held by the Methodist Chapels of Merthyr at Pontmorlais Chapel 106 years ago today; a programme for the Merthyr Independent Cymanfa of 1918; a programme for the Merthyr Baptist Cymanfa of 1937 and a programme for the Dowlais Joint Cymanfa of 1972.

Methodist Cymanfa 1911
Independent Cymanfa 1918

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baptist Cymanfa 1937
Dowlais Joint Cymanfa 1972

 

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.