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Archaeology Matters

Welsh chapels in crisis

A building type as prevalent as the public house, every village has at least one. But the nonconformist chapels of Wales are in crisis.

Bethesda, Ton Pentre
‘It is already too late for some of our best chapel buildings’

Huw Edwards, BBC presenter and chapel campaigner

Welsh Chapels in Crisis

The chapel is perhaps the most characteristic of all of Wales' building types; they have been described by some as an essential part of the Welsh urban landscape, making every Welsh settlement instantly recognisable. They are visually the focal point of many communities and often the most architecturally significant building within a settlement.

Thousands of chapels were constructed in Wales over the last two centuries. They were built as a result of a huge outpouring of religious enthusiasm. It is said that at least one chapel was opened every week throughout the nineteenth century. Today the opposite is true.

Their numbers do them disfavour; for many people today, they fail to appear unusual or interesting. Due to shrinking congregations, few remain in their original use and those that do are struggling to stay open. For others the battle is already lost and they face the prospect of demolition if an alternative use cannot be found. Anthony Jones in his book Welsh Chapels published in 1992 described Welsh streets as being “littered with the decomposing hulks of chapels, hundreds of abandoned Bethels and Bethesdas”. 

But Welsh chapels are an excellent reflection of the architectural styles of the past two centuries. They are often the most impressive buildings in any community and they frequently used local materials and local labour to construct them. In addition to their religious role in the community, they had a social function, they were centres of education and many became centres for welfare, delivering food, clothing and basic education to the poor. The chapel-going community formed a major part of Welsh society, influencing social, political and cultural thinking.

The Council for British Archaeology values this heritage and feels that these buildings play a significant part in Welsh history and should be valued for their religious, social, historic and architectural heritage. But they are in severe crisis; congregations are struggling with upkeep, abandoned and rotting chapels are seen as a blight on communities. Where they have been lucky enough to find a new owner, they face the prospect of inappropriate conversion and loss of all character and identity.

As part of our Listed Building Casework we continue to receive applications for the conversion of redundant chapels. The CBA supports sensitive reuse, but will object to proposals which involve the ripping out of features and overdevelopment. We want to raise awareness of the plight of this building type. If you have concerns about a chapel in your community or want to share your story, then write to our Conservation and Community Officer for Wales, Bev Kerr.

Find out more

If you want to learn more about non-conformist chapels, Cadw (the heritage body of the Welsh Government) have written guidance on their conservation and conversion which available on-line.

The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW) have spent a number of years recording information about the nations 6,600 chapels, including their current status and condition. More information about this project is available on their website.

Information on individual chapels can be found on Coflein.

Capel is the Chapels Heritage Society in Wales. They ‘encourage the study and preservation of the Nonconformist heritage of Wales’. They also collate information about chapels under threat.

Addoldai Cymru/Welsh Religious Buildings Trust have acquired a number of chapels and continue to promote understanding, care and enjoyment of Welsh religious buildings.

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