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View of St Benet Paul's Wharf from Thames Street, 1943

​View of St Benet Paul's Wharf from Thames Street, 1943. Watercolour by Gerald Cobb.

London’s Welsh chapels

Huw Edwards takes us on his journey to understand the roots of the network of Welsh congregations in London and explains how the most valuable and fruitful source turned out to be London Metropolitan Archives (LMA).

The intriguing story of the Welsh in London spans a thousand years. In many ways, it is still largely untold. Defining Welshness in a London context is not straightforward. It never has been. Patterns of migration vary; language habits differ; social activities change; loyalties are tested.

But one thing is very clear. It is impossible to understand the story of the Welsh in London without appreciating the central place of organised religion. The Welsh Nonconformist chapels (and a small number of Welsh-speaking Anglican churches) were far and away the most significant centres of Welsh life in the city throughout the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.

As I researched an article - back in 2009 - on early Welsh congregations in London, I realised that without understanding the roots and functions of this religious network we could not possibly hope to appreciate the complex dynamics of the London Welsh community over the years.

That original article expanded and became, eventually, City Mission: the story of London’s Welsh chapels, the volume published by Gomer in October 2014. Books on Welsh chapels are not usually regarded as good bets by publishers, but I am pleased and relieved to say that this one will be reprinted in paperback later this year (2015).

My memories of the early phase of research bring back a mix of enthusiasm and confusion. The options were bewildering and it was difficult to know where to start. There were so many gaps in the narrative. I am still searching for answers to some basic questions, it has to be said.

Where to begin? The British Library? The National Library of Wales? Dr Williams’s Library? Lambeth Palace Library? The list went on… but I have no hesitation in saying that my most valuable and fruitful source turned out to be London Metropolitan Archives.

Let me explain a few things about the challenges I faced. The Welsh established a meeting room for religious services in Cock Lane, Smithfield, ‘around 1774’. This rough date was provided by accounts in the mid-nineteenth century. The congregation moved to Wilderness Row in ‘around 1785’. Edward Jones, the publican-turned-preacher, featured in very few official records. Records of the early chapels were equally elusive.

The wise advice received from LMA staff produced some genuinely exciting results. Images were found of old chapels and missions in Lambeth and Southwark. A petition was found which proved that Wilderness Row chapel was certified for use in 1788, not 1785. Entries for Edward Jones were found in insurance documents: he appears to have been the owner of several properties and he even insured the chapel in his own name. Maps and documents were found of Crosby Row where an octagonal Welsh chapel building was offered for sale in the nineteenth century. I was allowed to publish a lovely image of an engraving of the royal docks at Deptford, and of a magnificent painting by Gerald Cobb of St Benet, Paul’s Wharf, the Metropolitan Welsh Church. All of these elements enriched the book and I am extremely grateful for the patient support of LMA staff.

Welsh Chapel on Guildford Street, Lambeth, 1826.

​Welsh Chapel on Guildford Street, Lambeth, 1826.

​Religious Nonconformity redefined Wales and Welshness. In rejecting the state religion of England, Welsh people built a new identity for themselves. The same process also shaped the London Welsh community in an age when thousands of ‘Cymry’ made for the metropolis. It follows that the chapels are a vital element in the rich story of the Welsh in London.

Writing in 1947, the Revd Llywelyn Williams of King’s Cross regretted that only ‘a small percentage of the Welsh who come to London remain loyal to the religion of their homeland’. He criticised those who ‘shed their Welsh attire and pose as urban Englishmen’, while praising the minority whose ‘weekly programme includes the Sunday school, the service, the sermon, and the desire to be part of a Christian fellowship’.

The chapels no longer attract crowds of today’s London Welsh; their relevance as centres of religious and social life is hugely diminished; their visibility is minimal, to put it kindly. But something has changed appreciably since the start of the new millennium.

A growing interest in the story of Welsh migration around the world, the online availability of genealogical data, and the renewed focus on Welsh identity in a devolved United Kingdom - all of these have created a demand for gaps to be filled, for questions to be answered, for a credible narrative to be constructed.

The London Welsh Yearbook for 1938-39 lists no fewer than 31 Welsh-speaking Nonconformist and Anglican causes with an additional six Sunday School vestries. The membership lists of the central London chapels of Jewin, Charing Cross Road, King’s Cross and Castle Street each featured more than a thousand names.

The number of functioning chapels has now fallen to seven. Given the fragility of so many causes in Welsh cities, towns and villages, the survival of as many as seven Welsh chapels in London is surely admirable. But the prospects are patchy, and on current form the forecast for future witness must be unsettling.

Quite simply, the history of London’s Welsh chapels and churches deserves to be recorded. They have made an important contribution to the social and religious life of this great city. I am grateful to London Metropolitan Archives for helping to bring my City Mission project to fruition.

Huw’s book is available at LMA and other City of London Libraries. Search the library catalogue to find copies.

Published:
05 August 2015
Last Modified:
04 October 2018

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