chartist blaina | history
Salem Chapel and the Nant y Glo and Blaina Charter Group.

 

 

 

 

 

Salem Chapel and Chartist Exhibition Centre

  • Salem Baptist Chapel is to be found on Blaina High Street opposite the post office.
  • The Chartist Museum opens on Mondays, Tuesdays and  Thursdays 11 am till 4 pm.

 

The present chapel was built in 1848 as a daughter church to the Baptist Church in Abertillery. There was a previous Salem Chapel sited further up the street and it was at that chapel, following the Newport insurrection of November, 1839 that the Deacons decided to excommunicate four of their members for being card carrying Chartists and having taken part in the march.

On December 1st, 1839 the following were excommunicated from the church at Salem by the church meeting at Blaenau Gwent: Thomas Griffiths, Lewis Powell, David Richards and John Richards. The reason was, “because they were Chartists and took cards and went down to Newport where they were defeated and some were killed although they (the Chartists) were thousands in number, met at the Westgate Hotel by only 30 soldiers, who conquered them in five minutes.” At first sight it seems they were excommunicated because they allowed themselves to be beaten in so short a time by so few soldiers; of course the real crime was a breach of the peace.

Leaping forward in time to the year 2000, the Nant y Glo and Blaina Town Council heard about the proposed development of the retail park on the old Dunlop Semtex site. This could adversely affect Blaina Town Centre and so the council decided to take action to help maintain the economy of the town’s High Street and numerous ideas were put forward to provide an attraction that would hopefully bring tourists into the town.

Among the ideas put before the Town Council were:-

The Blaina Band. The first formed all brass band in the world. Often referred to as the Lancaster Band. Possibly a way of telling their story.

Nant y Glo and Blaina is the birthplace of three of the most important Opera Singers of their day, Arthur Fear, Mostyn Thomas and Parry Jones. Mostyn Thomas was born beneath Beriah Chapel which stands opposite what used to be the Blaina Inn, his mother was the caretaker but his father was killed in a mining accident about three months before he was born. Today Beriah Chapel is a Mosque. The Blaina Inn was used as a court room and as far as the Chartist story is concerned, witnesses were interviewed there and their statements taken. Parry Jones, (a solo tenor) sang at the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II, he also sang at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the House of Commons.

The third suggestion was Chartism, to maintain the link that Nant y Glo and Blaina had with the Chartist movement of 1839 and on. Further to that was the extent of the Scotch Cattle activities in the area, it has quite a history here, there is a reference to the Scotch Cattle in action over the decision of Russell and Brown, owners of the Blaina Iron Works, to reduce wages on the pretext of reducing cost in the truck shop. Incidentally, at that time Nant y Glo and Blaina was the largest iron producing town in the world

It was decided to document the Chartist movement as it affected Nant y Glo and Blaina and create a museum to the Chartist Movement. One of the Chartist leaders, Zephaniah Williams was the landlord of the Royal Oak pub at Nant y Glo. Born we believe in Argoed but claimed Merthyr as his birthplace. He was a successful mineral agent and he became involved in Chartism on arriving at Nant y Glo. Zephaniah’s son, Llewellyn Williams was also a card carrying Chartist Youth member and later in life probably could have been a Royal Harpist if not for his father’s involvement with the Chartist movement.

Let’s take a look at a little of Llewellyn’s story. Lady Llanover, married to Benjamin Hall he of the Big Ben fame. wanted Abergavenny to be the cultural centre in Wales. In an eisteddfod held at Abergavenny, Llewellyn won the musical section, a grand fee of two guineas. But because of his father’s high treason, the judges decided to award him only one guinea. He threw it back at them and (so we are told) took a key out of his pocket, ran it down the strings of the harp, making the most awful sound, snapping each string in turn. The judges ran from the noise. Additionally Queen Victoria had presented Llewellyn with a triple harp at a competition held at the opening of the Great Expedition at Crystal Palace.

Llewellyn Williams kept the Rolling Mill public house at Blaina in 1853, many years after the insurrection and the building is about a hundred meters up the road from Salem Chapel and it’s where Dr William Price addressed a meeting of the Chartists back in 1839.

 

Formation of the group

 

Leap forward to the year 2000 and the first Chartist exhibition was held at St Peter’s Church in the centre of Blaina town. The local schools had all been asked to contribute pieces for the show. The results are now part of the exhibits at the Chartist Museum. The exhibition was a success and was repeated annually.

At the same time there was the launch of the Nant y Glo and Blaina Charter Group with a play titled “The Trial of Zephaniah Williams”. The President of the group was Rowan Williams now the Archbishop of Canterbury. There was a documentary film made which can be viewed at Salem Chapel.

A local artist, Alan Broderick drew a series of 20 drawings depicting the Chartist movement in the Nant y Glo and Blaina area and they now form part of the display at Salem Chapel.

In the meantime Salem Chapel which was, and still is an active place of worship in the town had problems in obtaining trustees and this is where the Town Council of Nant y Glo and Blaina came in. They offered to buy Salem Chapel but would still allow the Baptist Union to worship by licence for forty years. The Town Council instigated the Nant y Glo and Blaina Charter Group as a registered Charity and they were offered a lease of the chapel. This is unique in Wales as the Town Council own a place of worship. A Town Council may not own or run a museum or library so it’s the Charter Group that provide a Heritage Centre in the chapel.

Today, there’s listed building consent obtained, there is an Interpretation Plan about to be submitted for a grant to redevelop and refurbish a vast part of the chapel within the guidelines of a listed building, a small grant has already been obtained and the intention is to create a mock-up of the Royal Oak public house which will double as the “tea room”.

Last year (2007) the Charter Group started a programme to bring schools into the museum to find out about the Chartists in the area, ran a series of walks around Nant y Glo and Blaina with the children to show where and why events happen and they visited schools to work with a class.

The Charter Group meet regularly for updates on the progress, volunteers man the chapel and new ideas are constantly being put forward. To return to the Deacons who excommunicated the four Card Carrying Chartists from Salem Chapel it’s quite fitting that today we remember the movement at that very same chapel. The Blaina Band mentioned earlier will soon get a place in the museum as will the three world famous opera singers; Arthur Fear, Mostyn Thomas and Parry Jones. All this is important to the town and to the inhabitants especially the children as they will find out about their heritage.

The Nant y Glo and Blaina Charter Group are making sure there will be a fine museum dedicated to the Chartists and the Movement at Salem Chapel.

 

Steven Bartlett/Eifion Lloyd Davies (2008)

 

 Aims of the group