Sunday 3rd September 1916 marked the invasion of Romania by the Central Powers during the Great War. The Battle of the Somme had been raging for two months, already claiming hundreds of thousands of casualties, and the British generals were pinning their hopes on their latest secret weapon — the tank — that will make its debut in just a few weeks’ time.
But the date also marked the first services of Trinity Forward Movement Chapel, Clydach. The Chapel came about because two men (Thomas Williams and Thomas John Williams) shared John Pugh and Seth Joshua’s vision for seeing new churches planted in English-speaking industrial working-class communities.
Until recently Clydach had little in the way of an English-speaking industrial working class. But 14 years earlier the German industrialist Ludwig Mond established a nickel refinery in the village. The factory was almost entirely responsible for the doubling of the population in the Parish of Clydach over the next 20 years, from 4,462 in 1901 to 8,789 in 1921, and many of these new residents were English-speakers.
The two Thomases were both elders in Salem, Faerdref (Vardre) — a Welsh-language Calvinistic Methodist Chapel on Lone Road, which sadly closed in 2008. The two men were concerned about the spiritual needs of the increasing number of English-speakers in the village. By 1916, Clydach had at least seven Welsh-language chapels or churches: Bethania and Calfaria (Baptist), Bethel (Wesleyan), Carmel and Hebron (Annibynwyr), Salem (Calvinistic Methodist), and St. John’s (Church in Wales). But there were only two English-language places of worship: a Wesleyan chapel on the corner of Quarr Road at the Morriston end of the village, and St. Mary’s Church in Wales on High Street.
The two men therefore petitioned the Forward Movement to establish an English-language chapel on the Pontardawe end of the village. The Forward Movement agreed, and Rev. James Blackstock Thompson was appointed as the first minister. The church began with a membership of 22, including the two Thomases: Thomas John serving as treasurer, and Thomas as secretary.
Thompson was the perfect choice to reach the English-speaking working-class — as a Scot, born in 1879 in Glasgow, he spoke no Welsh. He understood working-class men: like his father before him, he had worked in the Glasgow shipyards. But he left Glasgow for Cardiff, and by 1909 was living in Canton and working as a Calvinistic Methodist minister, possibly at Clive Road Hall, or perhaps even Memorial Hall. One wonders what brought him to Cardiff to serve with the Forward Movement. Sadly, the records don’t tell us. Is it too fanciful to speculate that as a young man he made the four-mile trip from his home in Dumbarton Road, Partick to the church of William Ross in Cowcaddens, and was there captured by the fervent gospel preaching of a visiting Welsh evangelist called John Pugh?
For the first five years of its life, Trinity met at the Public Hall opposite Quarr Road (now the Dynamic Rock Climbing Centre). Church records show the rent was two shillings and sixpence for a Sunday, and a shilling for a midweek meeting. Rev. Thompson was paid £10 a month from the Forward Movement’s Church Extension Fund.
By 1919 membership had more than doubled to 58, helped perhaps by the returning soldiers from the Western Front. But it was time for the church to say goodbye to Rev. Thompson who emigrated to Canada with his wife, Esther, and their four young children. His replacement was Rev. Llewellyn Evans, though he stayed only a little over a year before himself emigrating to Detroit.
By this time the congregation wanted a permanent home, and in 1919 they purchased a piece of land for £500, although it was a further two years until an ex-military hut was purchased from Aldershot, assembled on the new site, and officially opened in September 1921. The total cost of the building and land came to £1,964 — an enormous sum for a small congregation — and largely met through a loan from the Forward Movement’s building fund. The land itself was triangular in shape, on the corner of High Street and Vardre Road. The hut has long gone, but the plot can still be seen today, although its current use is not quite as distinguished as it once was: it is now home to Clydach’s public toilets!
The new building was built during an interregnum, as it wasn’t until August 1921 that Rev. Richard E. Jones (Portmadoc) became Trinity’s third minister. He served for five and a half years until his death in February 1927. A lady worker, Sister Lydia Lewis assisted him as a ‘sister of the people’ from 1920 to 1924, and during this period the church thrived numerically, with both the Sunday school and the Sunday congregation seeing rapid growth. One memorable Sunday in 1922 saw 230 children in the Sunday school – with only 12 teachers on duty!
Yet there are often downsides to rapid church growth, and Trinity was no exception. Sadly, the number of members in the church fluctuated rapidly during these early decades. Periods without a minister could see membership drop by almost half, only to pick up when a new minister was appointed. For example, membership rose from 48 to 89 in 1920-1921, and dropped from 101 to 42 in 1927-1928. Such a rapid rise and fall suggests that many in the church would not attend without the encouragement of a minister, and reminds us that despite the apparent numerical strength, the work was relatively fragile and still in its infancy.
Trinity’s fourth minister stayed only for a little over two years. Rev. John Harries, from Wrexham arrived in November 1928, but at the New Year’s Social in January 1931, his wife collapsed, and died within hours. The tragedy shortened his ministry, and he left to live with his daughter a few months later.
The inevitable sadness was tempered for the church when in that same year they called Rev. J. Lewis Evans from Llanilar, Cardiganshire (pictured overleaf). He continued the Wrexham connection, having previously ministered both there and also in Ely.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Trinity matured into a strong, developed church. There was pain along the way: in 1932 Thomas Williams passed away, and the church felt the loss keenly. But there were other, more positive changes. The temporary ex-military hut was not going to last forever, so a building fund was established in 1931 to be available when needed.
It wasn’t possible simply to rebuild on the existing site, as the increasing amount of motorised traffic on all three sides of the triangular plot meant the existing location was no longer suitable. That led, in 1938, to the purchase of two adjoining houses on St. John’s Road (numbers 14 and 16), near the junction with Sybil Street. The houses were both owned by Alderman W. B. Williams, Briton Ferry, who generously sold them to the church at cost price. (Alderman Williams was a relative of current Bethel member Huw Jones.) Trinity was particularly interested in the houses because both had very large gardens. The most part of two gardens were duly separated from the houses, and formed a very suitable plot of land, large enough for a church building with an entrance to Sybil Street. Number 16 was also earmarked as the church manse.
Work began on 22nd May, 1939, three months before the outbreak of World War II, and was completed in nine months, at a total cost of £4,278 7s. 2d. The building was officially opened on Wednesday 21st February 1940, by David Owen Evans, the Liberal MP for Cardiganshire and Chairman of the Mond Nickel Company. In the evening Rev. D. Wynn Davies, President of the Forward Movement preached. The majority of the funds for the new building again came from loans from the Forward Movement, though the congregation themselves raised £730.
During this period the church began regular evangelistic campaigns which would run for a week every year or so. One particularly memorable campaign was held in the autumn of 1943, fully supported by the members of the church. Two student missioners preached, J. Glyn Owen and Ernest J. Ridout, and that year’s annual report to the Forward Movement notes that their ministry was of great benefit to the church. J. Glyn Owen would go on to succeed Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones as the minister of Westminster Chapel, London, and concluded his ministry as the pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church in Toronto.
As the church continued to grow, more changes followed, not all of them welcomed. In 1946 came the news that the Presbyterian Church of Wales considered Trinity sufficiently well-established to leave the oversight of the Forward Movement, and become part of the denomination proper. This was not something the members or the minister particularly wanted. They were glad to be part of the Calvinistic Methodist Church, but it was the aims and ideals of the Forward Movement that they particularly treasured. Despite their appeals for a delay, the transfer to Presbytery took place in October 1946.
Then, in March 1948, Rev. J. Lewis Evans brought his 16½ year ministry in Clydach to an end and returned to Ely. After a short interregnum Rev. E. B. Goronwy was called in January 1949. In the same year, David Phillips was called to the ministry from Trinity. He was the third man to have done so, the others being J. Lewis Evans’ sons, Ieuan and Ceridwyn.
Like Rev. Evans, E. B. Goronwy (right) was a Welsh-speaker, a keen evangelical, and eager for church unity. He was particularly interested in the Keswick Movement, which meets under the banner “All One in Christ Jesus”, and was secretary of Keswick-in-Wales for many years. Relationships with other local churches had been good in the 1930s and 40s, with Christians from many local churches meeting regularly in Trinity for a Saturday night prayer meeting.
But whilst unity with other evangelicals in Keswick continued to be a joy, the 1950s proved more difficult for local unity. Liberalism was by now firmly established in many churches in Wales. When, at an inter-church service, it was discovered that the invited preacher took radically unbiblical views on the sufficiency of Scripture, and of faith in Christ for forgiveness of sins, Trinity realised that local unity may no longer always be possible. Unity in the faith was to be encouraged, but unity at the expense of the faith was a price not worth paying. Rev. Goronwy did not live to see the extent of Wales’ slide into liberalism. He had always had a weak heart, and he died in May 1957, aged just 50.
The growing weakness of Christianity in the nation and in the denomination showed itself not only in theology, but also in the numerical weakness of many of the churches. So a few months after E. B. Goronwy’s death, the Presbytery asked Trinity to discuss the possibility of a joint pastorate, and it was eventually agreed to join with Llansamlet. The Presbytery also insisted that the new minister must come from within the Presbytery, or be a student. The church itself drew up its own short criteria: top of the list was that the minister must be an evangelical. As the church had done throughout its history, the emphasis was on the authority of the Scriptures and clarity of the gospel: the conversion of sinners through faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ.
The combination of these strict criteria from the church and the Presbytery did not make the search for a minister straight forward, but in September 1959 the two churches (Trinity and Llansamlet) unanimously called Rev. D. Leslie Jones (Pentyrch, pictured right), who became particularly remembered for his pastoral care of those in need.
There was much to thank God for. During this period one of the church members was Annie Pugh-Williams, who provided yet another link to the early days of the Forward Movement — her father was John Pugh. In 1965, Geoffrey Fewkes (who was E. B. Goronwy’s son-in-law) was called to the ministry. By this time the church was debt free for the first time in 40 years. The next year, Trinity celebrated its 50th anniversary. Both David Phillips and J. Ieuan Evans were invited back to preach at the anniversary services. The commemorative booklet produced for the occasion ended with these words from D. Leslie Jones:
As we start a new period in our history as a church, our prayer is that we might know in deeper measure the glorious work of God the Holy Spirit in convicting men and women of sin, and in His work of conforming the believer to the image of Jesus Christ.