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The History of Baran Chapel
1805-2005

 

 

 

Written and contributed by Eugena Hopkin (April 2006) - as originally published in the Swansea Valley Historical Society Newsletter


 

There is a certain inevitability about the passing of time - memories fail us, well trodden paths become overgrown and the once resplendent buildings of a bygone era are very often left to fend for themselves, to soldier on, and to fight the good fight against the elements. Yet this is not the complete story because history has a remarkable tendency to repeat itself, and when this happens we catch a glimpse of how our forefathers did things, and we relive in our present mode their struggles and sacrifices, and the values which were of the utmost importance to them.

Armed with the inspiration of the past, this is what a small band of dedicated members and friends of Baran Chapel succeeded in doing on a glorious Sunday afternoon on July 17, 2005.

The nine members and their interested compatriots were steeped in the history of their place of worship. They could have laid low and kept their heads down, hoping that nobody would notice that 2005 marked their bicentenary year. But that could never happen, and it would not happen. They had too much respect and admiration for their rich heritage, and so they set about making their preparations, in order to welcome friends and worshippers to Baran Chapel. And just as it was in days of old, Baran Chapel on July 17, 2005 was filled to overflowing.

There was in excess of 200 people present for the service. If you were lucky enough to have a seat in the Chapel itself, you could see and hear the personages taking part. The not so lucky ones had to contend with sitting outside in order that they might also:

'Clywed gyda'r awel
Salmau'r nef yn dod i lawr'.

That in itself was a sufficient blessing for all present, and the fellowship continued with light refreshments in the shade of the tent of meeting, a twenty first century style Tabernacle in the form of a marquee, erected in stark contrast to the ancient monument.

It seemed as if everyone had taken a step backwards in time, and that we were part of that rich vain of eighteenth and nineteenth century Puritanism intent on preserving the uncompromising Gospel of Jesus Christ for future generations. It was that very spirit which led to the founding of Baran Chapel.

In close proximity to Baran Chapel is Gellionnen Chapel, established in 1692 and which fulfilled the spiritual needs of the locality for miles around. But towards the close of the eighteenth century during the ministry of Josiah Rees, Gellionnen Chapel was going through something of a theological upheaval - Trinitarianism was giving way to Unitarianism. This development was not to every member's liking, and it caused a great deal of agitation and unsettlement amongst the worshipping community. At this time also there was a desire on the part of some members to recruit the services of Dr. Thomas Rees, Josiah Rees' son, to assist his father in the discharge of his duties. His theological training was coming to an end, he was a fervent Unitarian and his zeal and scholarship were beyond question. In the opinion of many, he was the ideal choice to share a joint pastorate with his father. But his suitability did not meet with the unanimous approval of all the members. Whilst some favoured Dr. Thomas Rees, others viewed the situation in a different light, and their choice was a certain Mr. Roger Howell who kept the school at Nantymoel Uchaf Farm on Carn Llechart Mountain.

Predictably, and an all too common occurrence within the tradition of Welsh Nonconformity, Gellionnen Chapel along with so many other chapels, suffered the ignominy of schism. As a consequence of these developments, Baran Chapel was established, and prior to its construction the disenchanted members met for Sunday worship, for a time at Llwyn Ifan Farm and later at Nantymoel Uchaf Farm. Presumably the services of this breakaway movement were led by Mr. Roger Howell, and it was primarily due to his and his son, John Howell's generosity in leasing a portion of land for 999 years which led to the building of the Chapel in its present location. Although the lease dates from October 1, 1805 the actual construction had been completed some time before then, and that the Chapel had opened its doors for services.

The very earliest members of the Chapel and its trustees are known to us, and these include:

David Howell, Cwmnant, Hopkin Evan Hopkin, Penlan, John Phillips, Trechwith, Hopkin Harri, Rhydyfro, Rees Thomas, Coedcaemawr, Harry Thomas, Rhydyfro, Philip John and Daniel John, Tresgyrch, Thomas Thomas, Maestirmawr, Samuel Thomas, Llwyndomen, Jenkin Jenkins, Cynghordy Fach.

The first deacons were:

Thomas Jones, Coedcaemawr, David Jones his son, David Jones, Nantmelyn, Hopkin Jones, Tresgyrch, John Davies y Gof.

The first precentor was Mr Owens, Brynchwith.

As for the Chapel itself, when first built it had no gallery and no striking features. It was plain but practical, with two large windows, a high pulpit, a stone floor, box pews and a fire place. A lean-to was the stable which like the Chapel itself had a stone tile roof. At a later date a school room was built, and attached to the rear end of the Chapel which was later used as a vestry and a committee room. It is thought that the gallery was installed in 1830, and in 1894 further renovations were carried out at a cost of 85-10-0 when slates probably replaced the stone tile roof, and the ceiling level was raised. Further improvements were carried out in 1906 when the box pews were removed, and a wooden floor was laid inside the Chapel. For the first time the outer walls were cemented at a total cost of 184-12-0.

The attachment of a school room suggests that Baran Chapel was also used as a place of learning for the children of the local community, a tradition which continued until the opening of the new British School at Rhydyfro in 1844.

Having secured a place of worship, the membership wasted no time in calling a minister. The obvious choice was Mr. Roger Howell and when the 'call' came, he readily accepted the invitation to be the first minister at Baran Chapel. He was ordained on March 14, 1805, and it is particularly noteworthy that in the congregation on July 17, 2005 was Mr. Huw Roberts, a sixth descendent of the Rev. Roger Howell.

For 38 years, the Rev. Roger Howell diligently and dutifully carried out his duties, as he tended to the needs of his flock. He was the ideal choice to be the first minister of Baran Chapel, because he was highly respected as a lay preacher in the locality and as a school teacher to the children of the local community, who attended his school at Nantymoel Uchaf Farm and the one which at a later date was associated with the Chapel itself. His fame as a preacher spread far and wide, and worshippers flocked to Baran Chapel from every direction. They came from such diverse communities as Cwm Gerdinen, Llandremoruchaf, Llwyngwenno, Penwaunfach, Cynghordy Fach, Cefn Parc, Llwyndomen, Craig Trebannws, Alltwen, Clydach, Hendregaradog, Ynysmeudwy, Pentwyn, Blaenegel and Betws to mention just a few. It must have been quite a sight to see people in their Sunday best and Bible black attire, crisscrossing the mountain landscape on foot, on horseback or by whichever means possible in order to attend a service at Baran Chapel. Indeed, the membership swelled to such a degree, that the Chapel was becoming too small for its rapidly growing congregation, and in order to accommodate everybody during this initial period of expansion, Baran Chapel was extended in 1830 when as previously noted, the gallery was installed.

This undertaking naturally was a source of great joy to everybody associated with the Chapel, but the next twenty years or so saw a downturn in the Chapel's fortunes. These can be summarized as follows:

1.The emigration of between 40-50 members of Baran Chapel to Pennsylvania in 1831, which considerably depleted the Chapel's membership. Having settled in their new country, they gave a 'call' to the Rev. Daniel Jones of Pentwyn, one of the three ministers who had been raised in Baran Chapel. He gladly accepted the 'call' and remained there for the remainder of his life. The other two ministers were the Revs. David Jones, Coedcaemawr and John Davies, Ynysmeudwy who also crossed over to America and ministered there. Of interest also is the fact that amongst the emigrant congregation a further two were raised to the ministry, who had connections with the school at Nantymoel Uchaf Farm, namely Llywelyn Hughes and J.H. Jones.
This movement which saw so many of the Baran Chapel community leave for Pennsylvania, preceded the Welsh Settlement at Patagonia by some 30 years.They were exciting times as outlined in a letter written by John P. Jones, dated July 28, 1890.

'If anyone would like to come out here to rent farms they can find them.
It is no trouble here to make money if he tends to his work. So come to
America where everything is free, where you can get plenty of land of
your own. I live within a mile and a half of the Welsh Church where all
the Welsh folks that lived here are buried.'

2.In 1840 the Rev. Roger Howell began to feel unwell and fearful of his condition the congregation decided to extend a call to the Rev. Rhys Pryse from Cwmllynfell to share a joint ministry with the Rev. Roger Howell. When the Rev. Roger Howell died on April 29, 1843, and naturally this was a tremendous loss to the Baran faithful, the Rev. Rhys Prys continued in his role as minister or as caretaker minister until 1844 when he decided to take up the pastorate of the new Chapel in Rhydyfro. Towards this time the membership of Baran Chapel was 181 members.

3.To help found Saron Chapel Rhydyfro in 1844 some 55 members were transferred from Baran Chapel to the daughter Chapel, thus depleting their numbers even further.

Thus after a seemingly uninterrupted period of success and expansion since its inception, suddenly the mountain top congregation had to deal with a number of issues, which would leave the Baran religious community considerably weakened. However undeterred by the loss of their minister and so many of their members, the Rev. D. Davies of Cwmaman was invited in 1844 to become the next minister of Baran Chapel. Like his predecessors, Mr. Davies gave himself totally to his new duties, and for fifteen years he proved to be a faithful minister to God, until he decided to take up the pastorate of a chapel in Ammanford in 1859.

His successor was the Rev. T. Davies from Morriston 1859-1888. It was during his ministry that a further departure of members from Baran Chapel took place in 1866 with the founding of Pantycrwys Chapel, Craig Cefn Parc. As a consequence of this development Baran Chapel's membership in 1871 stood at 65. The Rev. T. Davies was succeeded by the Rev. John Henry Davies, Alltwen, who began his ministry at Baran Chapel in 1890. He was affectionately known as 'Davies bach' or 'Davies Haleliwia', and having accepted the 'call' to Baran Chapel, his ministry lasted 26 years until it was tragically brought to an end in 1916. It was a particularly harsh winter's weekend, and having spent the Sunday at Penlannau Farm, John Henry Davies started out on Monday morning for Ammanford, to catch a train to Llanelli where he lived at the time. Unfortunately the cold weather and the heavy falls of snow proved too much for him, and his body was found by William Jones (Penlannau) and David Jacob (Bryn) and with his passing another chapter in the history of Baran Chapel came to an end.

At this time, Mr H.E. Roberts was the secretary of the Chapel, a position he maintained for 34 years, and the deacons were; David Jones, Nantmelyn, Dafydd Jones and William Jones, Nantymoel Isaf. The Chapel was ably served by William Jones, Penlannau as treasurer, and the above mentioned David Jones, Nantmelyn was the organist.

The unexpected ending of the Rev. John Henry Davies' ministry, led the congregation to 'call' the Rev. J.R. Price of Rhydyfro Chapel, to be the next minister of Baran Chapel (1917). Again he was a popular choice, and he ministered at Baran Chapel for 14 years until his health failed, and he had to resign his position. The Rev. J.R. Price's natural successor was Mr. J.T. James, Alltwen 1940-1963. He was a frequent visiting lay minister to Baran Chapel and first preached there in 1914. At the request of three local Congregational ministers; D.E. Jenkins, Idwal Jones and R. Gwynedd Jones, J.T. James was ordained at Baran Chapel in September 1940, and ministered there until his sudden passing in 1963. For a brief period after his death, the Rev. Robin Williams of Pantycrwys Chapel took over his duties, and it is pleasing to note that he was also present in the bicentenary celebration and took part in the service. After the Rev. Robin Williams' departure to Maesteg, the Rev. William Henry Jones, Danygraig was inducted as minister of Baran Chapel on September 3, 1964. He was the last minister of Baran Chapel, and since his death in 1974, the Chapel has depended totally on ordained and lay ministers to lead the services there on a monthly basis.

The first Sunday in September is a very important date in the calendar of Baran Chapel, because the Baran's Thanksgiving Service is held at that time. Usually a prominent minister is invited to take charge of the meeting, and it is considered a great honour to receive such an invitation. In recent times over a period of twenty years Mrs. Eunice Williams of Pontardawe, one of the founder members of the Swansea Valley Historical Society, has been mainly responsible for arranging the flowers to adorn the chapel for the occasion.

At its peak Baran Chapel was vastly different to the current situation. Today the Chapel's faithful amount to no more than nine members, with each one directly related to the community in which Baran Chapel is situated. Their names are, Mr. Islwyn Jacob, Mr. Gwyn Jacob, Mr. David John Jacob, Miss Janet Jacob, Mr. and Mrs.Islwyn Jones, Mr. Cyril Jones, Mrs. Gwendoline Probert and Miss Mary James. The present day officials are, Mr. Islwyn Jones, Secretary, Mr. Islwyn Jacob, Treasurer and Mr Cyril Jones, Organist. It is worth recording here that Mr. Cyril Jones is the latest in a long line of organists who have their roots in Nantmelyn/Hafod Y Wennol who have dedicated their musical talent to the benefit of the congregations of Baran Chapel.

It should be mentioned here that there has been much speculation as to the meaning of the name Baran. The most likely interpretation is that it has a Biblical connotation, deriving its name from the Hebrew El Paran in the Old Testament, meaning sanctuary. Worthy of note also is the fact that quite apart from its use as a place of worship, Baran Chapel was also used for other purposes.

No account of the history of Baran Chapel would be complete without a brief perusal of the social and cultural activities which were associated with it, and most notably its eisteddfodau, tea parties, pen cwarter (quarterly meetings) concerts and youth club.

Eisteddfodau

By all accounts Baran Chapel hosted an eisteddfod for fifty years, with the last one being held there in the early years following the close of the Second World War. We know for certain that an Eisteddfod was held at Baran Chapel on October 4, 1941. At that time Miss Marion Jones (Marion Pwllwatkin) was the Secretary and Miss Gwendoline Jones (Gwendoline Yr Hafod) was the Treasurer. The poetry adjudicator for the 1941 Eisteddfod was Mr. Abiah Roderick. The title set for the poetry writing competition was 'A Description of the Baran District'. The poem adjudged to be the best was composed by Mr. Charles Williams, Rhydyfro and it comprised of twenty seven verses. The following is an indication only of the main sections of the winning poem.

In the first part, the poem describes the natural beauty of the locality:

'Mae su yr awel dyner
Ar dannau'r yd mor fyw......'

'Ar ben y Baran caf fwynhau
Danteithion dydd o wledd.'

Secondly, the poem describes the various farms dotted on the mountain:

'Gwarchodlu pyrth y Deheu
Yw'r ffermydd cedyrn hyn
Y Llechart Fawr a'r Heolddu-
Amaethdy tlws Cwmbryn.'

In the third section, the poet describes the panoramic views which one can enjoy from the mountain top:

'Afrifed yw'r darluniau
A welwn ym mhob man,
Dim ond athrylith Duw ei hun
Fyth a ddychmygai'r plan'

Finally, the poem concludes with an appeal for those living in the shadow of Baran Chapel to uphold the values which it represents;

'Fe erys dylanwadau
Hen gapel pen y bryn,
Tra'r erys 'Baran' ar ei sail
A'r Clydach lifo'r glyn'

Although it is very difficult to remember the names of competitors, some which readily spring to mind are Hywel Davies, Pontardawe, Islwyn Jones, Yr Hafod and Thomas Charles Miller, Pantycelyn. Because there was no piano in the Chapel, it was left to Mr. William Williams, Corn Stores, Pontardawe to transport in his pick-up the piano back and fore to Nantygyfaelau Farm. Baran Chapel Eisteddfod was an eagerly awaited event. But not everybody was drawn to Baran Chapel because of their cultural interest but because it afforded the opportunity for one to accompany back home the person of one's dreams in the early hours of the morning. Many a courtship started in this way.

Tea party

Undoubtedly this was the highlight of the year and usually held at the beginning of June. The two basic means by which people arrived at the chapel were by foot, traversing such well trodden paths from the direction of Ty Ucha'r Felin, Penlannau, Llechart Fawr, Cwmgors and Rhydyfro. Secondly Mr. Samuel Jones of Hafod y Wennol (Sam yr Hafod) provided a shuttle service in his homemade bus, picking up passengers en route from Gelligron to the Chapel. Although on one occasion during the time soldiers were stationed on Carn Llechart Mountain they helped by using their trucks to ferry people back and fore. It was a real thrill to travel in such a truck with a beaming soldier at its wheel.

In order to ensure that there was a plentiful supply of crockery each family packed their best china, taking care that they were not broken or chipped in any way. Naturally each family contributed to the tea party by way of homemade bread and butter and fresh milk. However cakes were provided by Mrs. Phillips from the Post Office in Rhydyfro and water was carted from the well at Brynchwith. Pop and sweets were provided by Mr. and Mrs. Williams, Corn Stores, Pontardawe in a van conveniently situated outside the cemetery gate. Food was prepared and laid out on tables in the chapel tended by the local farmers' wives and people had to wait their turn for the feast. It was a social event in the truest sense, the children played on the mountainside whilst the older folk happily whiled the day away in the shade of the chapel.

Pen Cwarter

A pen cwarter is a service in which the members themselves take part. It was a very popular form of worship years ago and I daresay the custom still persists today in certain areas. A programme was arranged beforehand which included solos, recitations and Bible readings. The following is an extract from a newspaper account of a Pen Cwarter which was held at Baran Chapel on September 3, (1939):

'Hir gofir am Sabboth, Medi 3, mewn dau gyfeiriad - y newydd
torcalonnus am rhyfel unwaith eto wedi torri allan dros ein byd;
ond ni ataliwyd ein bwriad o gynnal Pen Cwarter y Bobl Ieuainc.
Dyma'r trydydd o fewn y flwyddyn hon, gan obeithio y medrwn cael
un arall cyn y diwedd. Y Llywydd oedd Mr James:- Wele'r rhaglen:-
Adroddiadau: Islwyn Jones, Daniel Joseph Morgan, Gwyn Jacob,
Islwyn Jacob, Tom Jones, Richie James, David John Jacob, Marian
Jones. Dadleuon: Islwyn Jones, D. Jacob Morgan, Ceinwen a Gwendoline
Jones, Islwyn, Ceinwen a Gwendoline Jones. Deuawd gan Gwyneth a
Evelyn Jones. Unawdau gan Gwyneth Jones, Evan J. Morgan, Islwyn
Jones a Ben Walters.'

Other Activities

During the bleak years of the Second World War, Mrs Rowena Snowdon established a night school at Baran Chapel, where the participants were taught to do 'sums'. This activity later developed into a youth club. It was during this time, that Mr. Harold Roberts constructed a stage to fit in the big seat for the purpose of holding concerts, dramas and 'Nosweithiau Llawen'. To assist with these productions, Mr. Abiah Roderick, Mr. George David and Mr. Terry readily gave of their time, in order to instruct the members in the art of performing. There was a very full account of one such 'Noson Lawen' in the local paper where we read:

'The second 'Noson Lawen' held this season at Baran Chapel
and contributed solely by the young people, took place amidst
great success.........no less than four buses ascended the road
which led to the mountain top, conveying patrons from Clydach,
Pontardawe, the Amman Valley and members of the farming
fraternity on the Gwrhyd Mountain......
Upon arrival at the ancient chapel, tea was ready for the
'hungry hunters' and which was well served at moderate charges
by the following inhabitants, Mrs. Sam Jones, Mrs Jacob, Mrs.
Walters, Mrs. Roberts, Mrs. Thomas, Mrs. McSauliffe, Miss D.
Griffiths and Miss O Sullivan and Mrs. Rev. J.T. James.......
The Rev. J.T. James presided and the guest artiste was the
well known poet and entertainer Mr. Abiah Roderick.........
The Baran artistes of course acquitted themselves
admirably........solos by Messrs. Cyril Jones, Willie Williams,
Danny Rees, T.C. Miller and little Miss Margaret Rowlands
Clydach ........a trio consisting of Mrs. Rowena Snowdon and
Messrs. Islwyn Jacob and Islwyn Jones .......... a St. David's Day
speech by Mr. Islwyn Jacob ......... a news item in Welsh by Miss
Ceinwen Jones.......a one act play (presented by) Miss Ceinwen
Jones, Messrs Islwyn and D.J. Jacob, Islwyn Jones and Elwyn
Davies. The accompanist on the piano accordion was Miss
Gwendoline Jones.'

On one occasion some of the soldiers who camped nearby attended a concert at the Chapel and insisted on taking part and by all accounts their contribution was a rousing rendering of 'She'll be coming round the mountain'.

Baran Chapel is only a mere dot on the surrounding landscape, but it is a very important dot, because it marks the location where countless generations during the past two hundred years have caught a glimpse of eternity and enjoyed a very special kind of fellowship. That in itself is sufficient reason for the present members of Baran Chapel to follow in the footsteps of their forefathers, and thus ensuring that the walls of this sanctuary still echo to the sound of Christian worship.

 


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