This paper was presented at an event held at the Workers Gallery in the Rhondda to coincide with the Chapel exhibition during April 2019. The exhibition formed part of Diffusion 2019, Cardiff International Festival of Photography.

The paper provides a brief overview of the development of chapels in Wales followed by an outline of the motivations and significance of photographing such landmarks. The paper concludes with a summary of the chapels selected for the project to date.

There is a significant body of scholarship relating to the development of religion from early Celtic Christianity through to the present diverse range of religious practices in Wales. It is not the intention to present a detailed review here, but rather to provide a number of examples that show how the places where people worshipped could evolve and, at times, change function to the benefit of the communities within which they were located. The buildings in which nonconformist Christianity has been practiced in Wales, were most often established, built and paid for by ordinary people in small communities. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the local chapel has maintained a special significance to communities.

The briefest of histories regarding chapels could start with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, following the English Civil War. It was a key moment for religion and would result in many clergy rejecting the ensuing imposition of strict religious practices to which their churches and congregations were expected to conform. In particular, the 1662 Act of Uniformity would result in some clergy being driven from their parishes – often they continued to conduct small religious meetings in venues such as private homes, barns and later (as these gatherings became tolerated by the authorities) public houses and purpose-built chapels.

Welsh nonconformists emphasised Y Gair (The Word) with the aim of interpreting God’s will through the scriptures. This would be particularly significant for the subsequent development of the Welsh language as an authoritative translation to Welsh of the bible had been made in 1600s and was therefore available to Welsh-speaking communities. Increasing literacy through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was enhanced by chapel Sunday Schools and the increasing availability of books published in the Welsh language. During the period nonconformist chapels became widespread, particularly in Wales.

The Blue Books of 1847, a three-volume government report into education in Wales, would be scathing in its view of the use of the Welsh language, nonconformist worship and the Welsh people in general. Subsequently, the use of the Welsh language in schools was banned (the infamous ‘Welsh Not’), and the key responsibility for the survival of the Welsh language largely fell on nonconformist chapels. Indeed, looking at the photographs of the existing chapels we can see the prominence of the Welsh language on the building’s façade such as Capel Y Bedyddwyr (Baptist Chapel) and Capel Yr Annibynwyr (Congregational Chapel). The short stories associated to the three chapels cited below provide some indication of how they were established and developed.

Tabernacl, Efail Isaf – I have selected this chapel as it is opposite my house. The chapel was built in 1843, but congregational meetings had been held well before this – for example, meetings were held in the Carpenters Arms (the pub at the end of my road) in the early 1840s. With a growing congregation, the chapel was rebuilt in 1870 at a cost of £830 – the transport of materials was undertaken by volunteers and the help of local farmers.

The use of English language was not introduced until the mid-twentieth century and then only in the Sunday School. During the 1970s and 1980s there was an increase in the number of pupils studying at the local Welsh Primary School – the Welsh language was starting to flourish again locally. To this day people passing my house, entering or leaving the chapel, converse in the Welsh language. The chapel has introduced an English language service, but this has a much smaller congregation than that in Welsh.

In its early days the chapel had stables to accommodate worshipper’s horses. In 2010 this outbuilding was further modified for community use at a cost of £450,000 funded by the Welsh Government and National Lottery funding. Each year, in June and July, the sound of choirs practicing for the National Eisteddfod often drifts across my garden from this building. The chapel is regularly used for the filming of wedding and funeral services for the S4C television programme Pobol Y Cwm [1].

Noddfa, Ynysybwl – I have selected this chapel as I had intended to photograph it but couldn’t because of its size and location in a narrow street – it does however have an interesting history. The chapel was built in 1890 to accommodate 650 seats - stones for the construction were carried by men and women from the nearby River Cyldach. The ‘cause’ had begun earlier with meetings and services being held in the kitchen of Gelli Wrgan Farmhouse. It is recorded that there were two baptisms in the River Cynon as early as 1786. During the late 1800s there were many converts to this particular chapel with baptisms taking place in the River Clydach – it is said that at times ice had to be broken before the baptisms could proceed [2].

As with many chapels, Noddfa eventually shifted denomination and moved from being an independent Welsh Baptist to the United Welsh Church in the 1970s. When I visited the site, it appeared to still be in religious use – in recent years it became home for Cor Merched Ynysybwl – Ynysybwl Ladies Choir.

Saron, Ynyshir – I have selected this chapel as I grew up in Ynyshir in the Rhondda Valley and spent my first year of ‘Junior school’ being taught on the stage in the chapel vestry. My mother worked in the vestry as a school dinner lady. Indeed, her family had previously lived in a house in South Street a few short steps from the back of the chapel.

The chapel was built in 1884 and was one of a number of substantial chapels to be built in Ynyshir. The others included Ainon Chapel (still active), Bethany English Baptist (still active), Bethel (now a private dwelling), Moriah Chapel (now a youth club), Penuel Chapel (now demolished) and Tabernacle Chapel (now a Royal British Legion club better known as ‘The Bomb’).

Saron’s onetime Minister is the father of Welsh photographer Aled Rhys Hughes – the family lived in the ‘manse’ on the corner of Church Terrace, Ynyshir. In more recent times Saron has been transformed into the Paul Kirner’s Music Palace – a museum of rare theatre organs. A unique Hammond LaFleur organ takes centre stage at the museum forty years after the instrument’s removal from the Capitol Theatre in Cardiff.

The reason for offering these examples is to show the remarkable stories that are often associated with chapels – many people living in Wales are likely to have some connection to such places. There can be little doubt that chapels have played a significant role in the development of a distinctive Welsh culture and have provided an important social focus for communities. Some however believed that chapels could be regarded as somewhat oppressive and claustrophobic. The writer Gwyn Thomas (who at at times taught adult education classes at Ynyshir Workmens’ Hall) could be less positive about chapels - he however recognised that chapels provided him with “marathon stints of piety that are the cultural paving stones of a Rhondda boyhood” [3]. Primarily built for worship, chapels and their vestries have also acted as soup kitchens, music venues, recording studios, performance theatres, community centres, art centres, commercial units and private dwellings.

Over several decades I have used photography to record landmarks in the south Wales Valleys. I have been motivated by the differences between my personal experiences of living and working in the Valleys, and the way in which the region has been represented in photography and other media. There are two main aspects to this: firstly, that a photograph only offers a representation of what is set before the camera and can be considered to provide nothing more than an illusion. Secondly, what I saw represented in many of the photographs by others didn’t align with my ‘lived’ experience of the place photographed. These concerns are not unique to me and have been considered and discussed throughout the history of photography by others, of course. These things are at the core of my fascination with photography.

The landmarks I have chosen to photograph are usually manufactured structures or artificial features in the Valleys’ landscape – some of these could also be considered local or national symbols. An important overarching aspect of my photography has been to show that life in the Valleys remains vibrant and continues to evolve. Basically, history did not stop with the closing of the coal industry.

The themes that I have engaged with have developed over an extended period with each particular project being researched in advance of the photographs being made. I find it almost impossible to do more than one project at a time. My earlier projects such as Monuments to Coal highlighted the changing face of the Valleys and the way perceptions of the former coal industry permeated the psyche of its society. Later works such as Powerlines responded to less-dominant histories of the Valleys and the historical photographic archives that had been produced by them. Transmissions, Forest and Poles engaged with notions of culture, language and globalisation.

My training in engineering has engendered my deep interest in the ‘how and why’ things are built the way they are. It is not surprising (to me at least) that I am interested in built structures and architecture, infrastructure and environments. I have mostly tried to avoid photographing the established clichés of Valleys life - where I have, it is always to challenge the orthodoxy regarding the subject. It is important to note that there are two important elements in my photographs, a structure and a landscape. I believe contemporary landscapes embody memory, experience and history so I actively seek to give them equal importance to the structures documented in the photographs. These two components provide differing points of reference, differing stories – when brought together in the frame, and then within a series, they resonate with a new significance that they might not otherwise have had. The Chapel project is somewhat different as there is a far greater emphasis on the structure itself. One of the surprising (and deeply satisfying) aspects of making the photographs has been to find that no two chapels are the same.

To some extent, the Chapel photographs celebrate buildings that could be said to form a manifestation of social and cultural resistance. As outlined above, these buildings have often been established by ordinary people in small communities – as society has transformed over several centuries, the purpose of chapel buildings adjusted and maintained significance for their communities. Despite a decline in worship over many decades, a significant number of these buildings can still be found in hamlets, villages and towns across Wales.

Chapels with names such as Zion, Nazareth and Tabernacle evoke their biblical referents whilst summoning visions of the great religious revivals in Wales. Other chapels with names such as Harmony, Rock and Gospel are more suggestive of oral traditions that include charismatic preaching and earnest congregational hymn singing. Their excellent acoustics make chapels ideal as musical performance venues, recording studios and locations for choral practice. It is this aspect that provided the opportunity to align the Chapel project with Diffusion 2019 responding to the theme Sound + Vision.

For the exhibition at the Workers Gallery in Ynyshir the photographs selected show chapels located in the Rhondda and adjacent valleys. However, it has to be noted that the development of this as a ‘project’ started in Pembrokeshire in West Wales. For a long time, I have been interested in the British artist John Piper (1903-1992) – particularly his collages, lithographs and photographs of religious architecture and his fascination with the chapels of Wales. I have previously written about this and presented the essay Church Crawling: John Piper, Photography and Wales (2017). During the last twenty-five years I have spent much time in north Pembrokeshire, in particular around Strumble Head where Piper had a small cottage. During one visit I photographed Y Ty Hwn chapel at Rhosycaerau – the chapel was an old and distinctive building with an unusual ambience. During this period, when in West Wales, I had started taking photographs in the style of British photographer Raymond Moore (1920-1987) as part of a research project (therefore the photograph I took looks nothing like the photographs in the current Chapel series). I quickly noticed looking through Piper’s work that he had also photographed this chapel – this prompted me to undertake further research into Piper’s photographs in Wales.

It was never my intention to undertake a photographic project on chapels – I believed that chapels were an obvious cliché and best avoided. However, I did start to explore what they might look like if I approached them in the manner applied to my other projects. Occasionally, such as with Harmony Chapel at Trefasser, it would work very well – most other times it would not. I therefore continued to reject the idea of such a project. However, whilst staying at Landshipping on the Cleddau Estuary in 2018 I visited Burnett’s Hill Chapel, a very small rural chapel located in remote countryside. I was astonished by its early history, its relationship to local industry and how it had been built by the local community through considerable communal effort. This was a turning point as I finally realised that these often-humble buildings conveyed so much about ordinary people and their communities – not least what was achieved by people working collectively with a common purpose. What these buildings represent now, in our contemporary society, is the most significant part of the project.

There are many potential chapels to photograph – it is not my aim to photograph them all. I am drawn to chapels at locations that have some personal connection, or those I have become aware of by looking at the work of others. Importantly, I decided to photograph ‘gable entry’ chapels only, as I believe this provides the best opportunity to capture a portrait of the building allowing comparisons to be easily made with others.

The list below provides examples of the chapels that have been photographed and are included in the exhibition at the Workers Gallery with an indication of their current use.

Horeb, Pentyrch – This chapel now functions as a recording studio and music venue. Renamed Acapella, the studio was established by the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch.

Rhondda, Hopkinstown – This chapel continues to provide religious services. The chapel’s principal claim to fame is it is where the hymn tune 'Cwm Rhondda' ('Guide me, O thou Great Jehovah') was first sung on Sunday 1 November 1907. The hymn was written by the local composer John Hughes.

Eglwysbach, Pontypridd – This chapel now functions as the home of a busy medical practice that was established in the building in 1990. The conversion of the building was award-winning at the time.

Bethania, Coedpenmaen – This chapel now functions as Trallwn Community Centre, a vibrant multi-purpose venue.

Bethel, Pontrhydyfen – This chapel is now a private dwelling. It is where the local memorial service for Richard Burton was held after his death in 1984.

Nazareth, Williamstown – This chapel is now the Nazareth House Day Centre run by Rhondda Cynon Taf council. It is where those over fifty years old can engage in social activities such as dancing, craft classes and indoor bowls.

Sion, Williamstown – This chapel now belongs to Sparesworld Ltd, a company that supplies car parts, accessories and undertakes vehicle maintenance.

Nebo, Glyncorrwg – This chapel is no longer in use and has been up for sale – planning permission for repurposing chapels normally requires bat/owl surveys to be undertaken.

Libanus, Gilfach Goch – This chapel is in the process of being converted for private dwelling.

At present (April 2019) over seventy chapels have been photographed for this project. It is the intention to continue in the coming months focusing on the southern half of Wales.

© Paul Cabuts 2019

[1] Huw Owen, D. (2012). The Chapels of Wales. Bridgend: Seren. pp.232-233
[2] Vernon Jones, A (2004). Chapels of the Cynon Valley. Llandysul: Gomer pp.8-9
[3] Huw Owen, D. (2012). The Chapels of Wales. Bridgend: Seren. p.13