The Gwent Local History Council was set up in 1954 to encourage public interest in local history, to bring together societies and persons interested in the study of local history, to arrange lectures and publish the results of historical research. Their twice yearly magazine "Gwent Local History" has made a valuable contribution to the store of historical knowledge. Here Caerleon Net, with the full agreement of the Gwent Local History Council, is making available many of the articles from this magazine relating to Caerleon.
Please note: copyright exists on all texts.
Enquiries relating copyright should be addressed to the Gwent Local History Council.
Gwent Local History No. 64, 1988
Capel Zion, Ponthir, Gwent
by Primrose Hockey
In 1694 the first independent non-conformist Church in this area was opened at Llandegveth. It is now a private house, known as Brook House. In 1718 we are told that there were one hundred Non-Conformists in Llandegveth, and fifty in Llanfrechfa and Ponthir. (1) When one considers the size of these villages today it is indeed a large number.
In 1741 a dedicated Non-Conformist in the person of one Mrs. Hannah Williams came to live in Ponthir at an old Tudor farmhouse (now modernised) known as The Gilwern. Soon she had applied for, and obtained, a licence to enable her to use her home as a meeting place. People came from far and near, walking across the fields, and so forming the basis of the numerous footpaths even now in the area of the farm.
A few years later, in 1747, a Mr. John Griffiths of Abercarn purchased for the sum of four hundred and sixty pounds from Mr. Herbert Mackworth of Caerleon, the Weir and the Old Mill, which stood on the River Afon Llwyd below the woods to the west of Ponthir. (2)
It was on this site that the Ponthir Tin Plate Works were erected - the year when the "pickling of tin" had been invented, 1747. (3) This process was in use at Ponthir before Caerleon Tin Works were built in 1750. The owner of these works was Mr. John Butler.
In 1764, Mrs. Hannah Williams, together with the Rev. Miles Harrhy of Pontypool, assisted in the founding of Caerleon Baptist Church. The monies for this were provided, in the main, by the Tin Plate owners who were, at this time, Mr. John Jones and Mr. and Mrs. Hammon Davies. The Church was built so that these members and their wives could attend services conducted in the English language.
In 1770, Mr. John Jenkins, former manager of Caerleon Tin Plate Works and now of Ponthir works, took over the Works at Pontnewynydd. The latter was managed by Edward Jenkins, third son of John Jenkins, who, with George Conway, had come from Ynys-penllwch in Glamorganshire. This same George Conway married Jennet, a sister of John Jenkins, on September 17th, 1775. The descendants of these families also founded the Church at Pontrhydyrun and carried on the manufacture of tin plate in these areas for its entire life span. They were also associated with Ponthir Baptist Church as Sunday School Teachers and Deacons.
All went well at the Baptist Church in Caerleon for many years. Then, in 1800, disturbances and contentions arose, this was because the English speaking members of the congregation objected to the number of services being taken in Welsh. Having no satisfaction, these people, mainly the Tin Plate Owners, withdrew their support from Caerleon and founded a new church, Capel Zion at Ponthir.
The Church was built on land belonging to the Tin Plate Works, and was built adjoining a row of cottages which had been erected for the Tin Plate workers.
It opened as a mixed Church with nine Baptists and three independents, and adopted open communion. Baptisms took place in the Dowlais Brook, which flowed into the Afon Llwyd just above the Mill Weir.
The first pastor was the Rev. Walter David, who was dismissed after serving the community for five years. One of the first people to be buried in the Church was Mr. John Butler, the proprietor of Caerleon Tin Plate Works. He had been baptised in Caerleon in 1764 at the age of thirty-one years, and died in October 1808. He was buried in the Church, beneath the memorial tablet which bears his name. The Deacons at this time were Mr. John Jenkins, who died in July 1809. He was followed by his son, Mr. John Jenkins Junior, who later lived at Caerleon House and became High Sheriff of Monmouthshire. He died in 1860, and was buried in the family vault in Ponthir. His brother David Jenkins was also a Deacon.
The second pastor was the Rev. J. H. Davies who married Elizabeth Jenkins, daughter of Mr. John Jenkins. He died when young, in 1816, and was buried, at his request, as near to the south door of the Church as possible, so that he could be seen from the pulpit. His widow married the Rev. David Phillips of Caerleon. They emigrated to America in 1840, but after his death she returned to Ponthir. When she died in 1848 she was buried in the grave of her first husband.
After the death of Rev. J. H. Davies the Church was without a pastor for nine months. Then, on May 13th, 1817, a call was given to Mr. James Michael of Maesyberllan in Radnorshire, and he, his wife and son settled in Ponthir in October 1817. He had a long and successful ministry for forty years in Ponthir and died on February 8th, 1858 at the age of eighty six years. His son John died at the early age of twenty nine years, but his daughters Margaret and Rachael were both married and left descendants who also served the Church until the day of their death.
In 1834 the original Church was pulled down. Again the cost of rebuilding was borne by the congregation which included the Tin Works owners, managers and friends. The foundation stone was laid by Mr. Joseph Harris of Common Farm, Llandegveth, whose descendants still farm in the area. The Church was said to be forty-two feet long and twenty-eight feet wide with a roomy gallery at the west end. Beneath the floor, between the pulpit and the south door, was a well. One wonders whether this well was on the site of a former house or whether it had originally been sunk to provide water for the residents of the Upper and Lower Rows of houses, built for the Tin Plate workers. However, a Baptistry was built near the well, which water was used for the Baptismal Font and for cleaning purposes and was a new feature of the Church. A clock, made by Aquila Barber of Bristol was also introduced, as were the famous "Ponthir Hat Racks". This feature of the Church consisted of large wooden racks fixed to the Church wall just inside the main door, about six feet from the ground. On these racks were fixed wooden pegs, surmounted by large rounded ends painted to look like eyes. The male congregation all wore black top hats, which was a feature of Ponthir Tin Plate Workers and which they wore to all social functions, cricket and football matches. They were such an institution that the men who wore them were known as "Ponthir Toppers". A saying also arose around the hat pegs, so that any person having large eyes was said to have "eyes as large as chapel hat pegs". During Mr. J. Michael's ministry the Deacons included William Henry Jenkins, great grandson of John Jenkins. He later married Lady Caroline, daughter of George, Fifth Earl of Jersey, and spent most of his life after marriage at Frenchay in Gloucester. His nephew David Jenkins became Deacon after he moved to Frenchay.
After the death of the Rev. J. Michael in 1858, his assistant, the Rev. Rees Griffiths, was given charge of the Church. He married Mary, the daughter of a Mr. Davies of Glansirhowy Farm in Llanfrechfa. Her father had the house known as 'The Manse' built for them as a wedding present. It was known as 'Sunnyside Place' and stands in Lamb Lane, then known as Constitution Hill. The house was later purchased by the Jenkins family for the use of future Ministers of the Church.
The Rev. John Williams came to Ponthir in 1863 when the former pastor went to Bethany Baptist Church in Cardiff. He married Elizabeth Price, who had moved into Brechfa Farm, Llanfrechfa. It was her parents who presented the valuable Communion plates and cups to the Church, on the occasion of their marriage. Rev. Williams had a breakdown in 1875, and the Church paid all expenses for him to go on a Mediterranean cruise. In 1870 the spacious vestry was added to the Church under the careful eye of Rev. Williams. Mr. David Jenkins of Brodawel, Caerleon, laid the foundation stone.
The Rev. David Davies of Lindley in Huddersfield became the next pastor in 1878. Alexander Jenkins, fourth son of John Jenkins, was now Deacon. He had leased the Tin Works to the Conway family. He paid for the beautiful carved tombstone to be erected over the family vault. He also pensioned off a number of the older workmen. He later married Mary, daughter of Thomas Powell of Newport, and moved to London. Upon his death the body was brought to Ponthir to be interred in the family vault. His family presented the American organ to the Church for his memorial service. It was during this ministry that the Band of Hope was founded in 1879.
Rev. David Davies left in 1882 and the Church was without a resident Pastor until 1886, when the Rev. John George came from Gilwern in Breconshire. During his pastorate a coach house and a stable was added to The Manse so that he could keep a cow and a horse. A stable was also built near the Church and was used by those who travelled to church on horseback.
The Tin Plate industry was finished now in Ponthir, and the land owned by the traders was sold, as were the houses. The Church officers bought two of the houses which adjoined the chapel, and were known as Chapel Houses.
The Church was again without a Pastor for two years, and then an invitation was extended to the Rev. W. Ingli-James of Blackwood, whose recognition took place in May 1891. Now the Tin Plate works had closed, but the Church still had good friends, particularly Sir Clifford Cory of Llantarnam Abbey. The Rev. Ingli-James ended his ministry in July 1901 when he moved to Barry.
The ninth Pastor was the Rev. Thomas Reeves who came to Ponthir in 1902 from Michaelstone-y-Vedw. In the early part of this century Mr. Silvanus Edwards and his sister Miss Matilda Edwards came to live at Pantyrheos Farm, Llanfrechfa. He became a Deacon of Ponthir Church and, as he was a brother to Dr. Edwards of the Baptist College, Pontypool, Dr. Edwards was encouraged to preach at Ponthir from time to time. The Rev. Thomas Reeves was a popular man in the area, and during his pastorate, which lasted until 1913, he was able to pay off debts on the Church and houses belonging to the Church. Again trade came to the aid of Ponthir, for Mr. J. Griffiths, a member of the then well-known firm of Men's Clothiers which existed in Swansea, Cardiff and Newport, built a house in Ponthir called 'The Hafod' and came to live here in 1903. He and his family were Baptists and served the Ponthir Baptist Church for over fifty years. Mr. Clifford Cory, later knighted, of Llantarnam Abbey, was also a good friend to the Church at this time.
Fetes were held in the grounds of The Hafod and a new pipe organ was installed when a recital was given by Mr. Arthur Sims, a well-known Newport organist.
The Rev. George James Jenkins came to the Church eighteen months after Rev. T. Reeves left. His was a short ministry, but during his pastorate students from the then Caerleon Training College attended the Church and later took full control of the morning services. Amongst these students was Mr. Tom Stephens, to whom I am indebted for so much of the early history of the Church. He married Miss Eva Morgan, daughter of one of the last supervisors at the Ponthir Tin Works. The Rev. Jenkins' ministry is remembered by the close relationship which existed between the Rev. J. R. Phillips of All Saints, Llanfrechfa, and himself. This resulted in closer co-operation between the congregations of both churches.
Rev. Jenkins was an athlete and played rugby and cricket for the Ponthir teams. One of his last functions was a fete held at The Hafod, to obtain money for a wall memorial for those who died in the 1914-18 War. The heavy marble tablet commemorating these men was set in a beautifully carved oak frame placed over the door on the south side of the Church. The Rev. Jenkins resigned and moved to Oldham in Lancashire on February 23rd, 1925.
Again a period of two years, served by lay pastors, elapsed before a new minister arrived. This was the Rev. D. J. Davies of Argoed who came in 1928.
He was a very conscientious man and was liked by everyone in the village. He lived with his wife and daughter at The Manse and was devastated when his daughter, who appeared to be a strong healthy person, died in her twenties. He was one of the giants of the Baptist Church in the years following the war. The Rev. D. J. Davies stayed until 1943, when he resigned, but decided to stay in the area.
The Church again looked around for a new minister and, to the surprise of the congregation, a woman Lay Pastor was invited to take charge of the Church. She was Mrs. Gregory, who came to Ponthir when her husband found work in the area. They lived at No. 1 Station Villas, at the home of the Misses Laura and Edith Francis, descendants of the Rev. James Michael, a former minister. They then moved to The Lodge at Roughton where her husband was employed. They had one son and Mrs Gregory served the Church until 1950.
We know little of this period because of the untimely death of Mrs. Pat Taylor, who was the Secretary of the Church for many years. The records of the Church between 1934 and 1952 are missing, and so we have to rely on the memory of older inhabitants of Ponthir.
In 1952 Mr. O. G. T. Powell, a well-known member of the Baptist Lay Preachers' Association was invited to become the Lay Pastor of the Church. He was born in Cwmbran, and had worked in Pontypool, Caerphilly and Newport. He was a Deacon and Sunday School Teacher at Commercial Street Baptist Church in Newport. He made frequent visits to Ponthir between 1950 and 1952 before this invitation, which after some consideration he accepted. He continued to live in Newport until 1958, travelling to Ponthir for services, meetings and sick visiting. He and his family of wife and three children moved into The Manse and after the death of his wife he married one of his congregation, Miss Muriel Jenkins, whose family had served the Church for many generations. They continued to live at The Manse. In the autumn of 1962 he underwent a major operation and ill-health forced him to retire. In April 1964 he left Ponthir to retire to Malpas where he died in September 1966.
After his retirement the Ponthir Church joined with
Caerleon Baptist Church under the pastorate of the Rev. Trefor Jones,
whose inauguration took place on 29th September, 1964.
The Rev. J. H. Jones was invited to fill the vacancy. He accepted, but unfortunately died before moving to Caerleon.
In April 1967 the Rev. Howell Morgan was inducted to the Pastorate, and he remained until his retirement in 1969.
After this the officers and members decided to sever their connection with Caerleon and sold the house in Caerleon, the money being used to help defray the cost of repairs to the Church. They then linked up, in 1970, with St. Julian's Baptist Church in Newport, whose minister was the Rev. S. R. T. Inkley. He conducted afternoon services until he was called to the Pastorate of West Ealing Baptist Church in November 1974.
It was during this period that the Church was found to be full of dry rot. In 1970 an invited organist came to Capel Zion for a special service of dedication of an Oak Communion Table. This was donated by Mr. Reg. Jones of Pembridge House in memory of his wife and daughter. Whilst playing, the organist noticed that dry rot had appeared in the organ. Upon examination it was found to have run right through the Church. Experts were brought in, all infected wood was stripped from the walls and the walls chipped back to the original stonework. For three months during this period, the members of the Church moved to St. Julian's to services conducted by the Rev. R. J. Inkley.
At the same time a legal action was taking place. This was because of damage to the Church being caused by the Pontypool Rural District Council by the way in which they had pulled down the houses known as Upper and Lower Rows, of which the two Chapel Houses formed part. They were not careful enough in treating the exposed North Wall of the Church, which was where the dry rot had commenced. It was here that, once again, Trade and Industry came to the help of the Church.
Mr. W. Reynolds (Wally), a Training Officer and Public Relations Officer for Llanwern Steel Works came to live in Ponthir. He was a confident, optimistic character who loved his Church and urged its members to keep the Church going. He took up the fight with the Council, which had been going on for some years. Then, in 1974, because of local government reorganisation, the newly-created Torfaen District Council included the Parish of Lower Llanfrechfa, which included Ponthir. Because of Mr. Reynolds' efforts the Torfaen Council decided to settle the dispute between the chapel and their predecessor council and paid the sum of £7,500 towards the cost of repairs.
The adjoining schoolroom was cleared and renewed, and the congregation moved in for services. Mr. and Mrs. W. Reynolds presented the Church with a beautiful cross made of stainless steel and encrusted with coloured stones. In 1979 it was decided to send out an appeal to every home in Llanfrechfa and Ponthir for help towards the rebuilding of the interior of the Church. The target was £10,000 and, in a few weeks, almost £4,000 had been collected. Alterations were begun and the Church had a complete 'face-lift'.
The Moderator in charge during this period was the Rev. Robin Davies, who was the Pastor of Llanthewy Road Baptist Church in Newport. He was also a lecturer at Cross Keys College of Higher Education. He worked extremely hard during this period and was loved and respected by his congregation. It was partly due to his enthusiasm and energy and that of Mr. Reynolds that the work was done. In 1975 Mr. Reynolds had prepared a detailed document to enable the now closed graveyard to be cleaned and beautified. The Government Manpower Services now came to the aid of the Church. Under guidance of their leader and friends of the Church, a Garden of Remembrance was created and beautifully laid out; the remainder tidied up and the outside walls of the graveyard lowered, tidied up and beautified. However, more money was required, and a new appeal was launched whilst fund raising events were held because in 1979 a second attack of dry rot was found to have attacked the south side of the Church. Work began before the year was out, and all was completed by December 15th of that year.
Then came another disaster. Ponthir was flooded and so was the Church. Re-opening was prevented and the need for funds was emphasised. By this time the money target had been reached: all debts were paid and the Church was opened for services on Palm Sunday 1980.
Sadly the Rev. Robin Davies left the district. Now Rev. Hugh Pryce-Jones, Minister of Summerhill, came back as Moderator so that normal services could be held. He served from 1982-85. In 1984 it was decided to form a link with Crane Street, Pontypool, and in 1985 the Rev. James A. Hall was recognised as Joint Minister for the two Churches.
In 1981 the newly furnished and newly decorated Capel Zion was designated a listed building. With its new reading desk, its Baptism font beneath the front of the Chapel; its beautiful brick wall and pulpit and its new chairs in place of the old pews, it is a delightful Church. May it remain so for many years to come.
1. History of Zion Baptist Church, Ponthir by Tom Stephens, 1934.
2. Ref. G.W.Ro 260/569, Hanbury Documents.
3. Prof. J. F. Rees, The Tinplate Industry in South Wales.
Personal recollections and thanks to:
Mrs. Muriel Powell - widow of U. G. J. Powell