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.
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.
Our regular feature on the chapels in Merthyr continues with one of the oldest chapels in Dowlais – Caersalem Welsh Baptist Chapel.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, the Baptists of Dowlais had to travel to Zion and Ebenezer Chapels in Merthyr to worship.
In 1817 a Baptist Cause was founded and met in the old Bethel Chapel in the Lower High Street in Dowlais. In 1820 it was decided to build a new chapel, so a plot of land in Well Street, just under 300 square yards was leased from the Dowlais Iron Company for 99 years, at an annual rent of £1.14s.11d, and the chapel was built at a cost of £500. Within three years of opening, the congregation had increased and a gallery had to be built at a cost of £150. Caersalem was still considered as a branch of Zion until 1829 when it gained its independence.
As the congregation grew, a larger building was required and a new chapel designed by Mr William Lewis, foreman carpenter at the Dowlais Ironworks was built in 1833 at a cost of £509.9s.3d.
The congregation grew to such an extent that three new churches were established, originally as branches of Caersalem:- Elim in Penydarren, Hebron and Moriah in Dowlais, and Caersalem was itself refurbished in 1852 at a cost of £650. In 1863 a cottage situated underneath the chapel was converted into a vestry, and in 1873 a baptistery was installed.
By 1883 it became obvious that extensive repairs were needed to the chapel. The exterior of the chapel was redesigned and the interior refurbished and a new pipe organ installed in the gallery. Whilst the renovations were carried out, the congregation met at Tabernacle Chapel in Ivor Street (later Elim Chapel).
In 1906, as a result of the 1904 revival, the vestry beneath the chapel was extended by converting the chapel keeper’s cottage which was next to the original vestry. This work was done by members of the congregation at a cost of £245.
On 30 June 1924, the freehold of the chapel and the three cottages beneath the chapel were purchased from Messrs Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds. The chapel freehold was purchased for one shilling as it was a religious building, but the three cottages were bought for £30 each.
Caersalem Chapel was forced to close and was finally demolished in 1977 due to the redevelopment of Dowlais. A new chapel was built in 1977 in Pant and is still in use.
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.
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.
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.
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.