(scroll down for history)
The little church of Llandyfan lies about three miles outside of Ammanford and played an important role in the development of nonconformism in the Ammanford, Llandybie and Llandeilo areas. The growth of nonconformism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was so rapid and so great that nonconformists soon outnumbered established church worshippers in Wales.
It was at Llandyfan church that the three main nonconformist denominations of Wales—the Calvinistic Methodists, Independents and Baptists—first gathered before moving on to their own churches in the nearby area. It was here, too, that the Baptists first took root before building their own chapels in Llandeilo, Saron and then Ammanford.
Llandyfan church. The baptism well is just inside the front gate and just to the left of the church in this photograph.
The church, connected to the parish of Llandeilofawr, was originally used for worship by members of the established church, until it became a nonconformist chapel shared by four different denominations. Unitarians, Methodists, Baptists, and Independents (Annibynwyr) all worshipped here for a while before moving on (the Independents are the Welsh equivalents of the English Congregationalists). The building then reverted to the established church in 1838, where it remains to this day.
The history of Llandyfan church is instructive too about the inter-denominational disputes that took place between the various nonconformist, or 'dissenting', religious groupings of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Time has deposited such a thick crust of respectability on our churches and chapels that we can lose sight of the passions that were once unloosed as the early dissenters struggled to obtain a foothold in the midst of the much older and well established churches.
Outside Baptism well
The baptism well. Note the little wheel on the front edge of the wall which was used to lower the sluice gate and fill the well up for immersion, and also the steps down to the well.
The church is a short distance from Glynhir golf course in one direction and King's Road, Llandybie in another. At the bottom of King's Road, turning right by Blaengweche brings you directly to the Anglican chapel of ease at Llandyfân. It is a small church, plainly decorated inside, but all the more attractive for its lack of pretension. The distinguishing feature of the church is its outside baptistry, evidence enough that this was once a Baptist place of worship. The baptistry is a pool formed by the water that emerges from the spring underneath with steps leading down to it. The mechanism that lowered a gate to damn the water until it reached a depth for immersion is still there, though completely rusted up.
The well water emerging into the baptism pool. With disuse, water weeds have colonized the well floor.
Links to the Age of Saints?
Gomer Roberts is the authoritative historian of Llandybie and any history involving Llandybie in the pages of this website draws heavily on his Hanes Plwyf Llandybie (History of the Parish of Llandybie, 1939).
"Gwilym Teilo held that the name 'Llandyfan' commemorates Dyfan, a saint who came to Wales in the second century with Fagan, Meudwy and Elfan to proclaim the Christian faith to the Welsh. A saint whose name is linked with Merthyr Dyfan in Glamorgan, and perhaps, also, he says the name recalls Dyfnan, one of the sons of Brychan Brycheiniog (Breconshire). Evidently the church authorities must associate the chapel with Dyfan as 'St Dyfan's Church' appears on ordnance survey maps. But this is conjecture because the place was ever Llandyfân with the accent on the last syllable." (Hanes Plwyf Llandybie)
Dyfan will have to remain a legendary figure, but it's just possible that there were missionaries in Wales in the second century AD. As John Davies says in 'A History of Wales' :
"Christianity spread quite rapidly through the eastern parts of the Empire in the generations immediately after the death of Christ, and it was probably merchants and officials (and the wives of officials) from those parts who first introduced the religion to the west. Despite (or perhaps because of) periods of persecution including the martyrdom of Julius and Aaron at Caerleon Christianity had by 300 AD pulled ahead of the other mystery religions which were competing with it, at least in the more populous cities. Christians were allowed to worship without restriction in 313; the Emperor Constantine was baptised on his death-bed in 337 and all other religions had been outlawed throughout the Empire by 400AD." (A History of Wales: Allen Lane/Penguin 1990)
Gomer Roberts again:
"But it is the big spring that spouts a stream nearby the chapel that is the main attraction in Llandyfân, and it was there before the chapel was built beside it. Edward Lhuyd, the Antiquary, makes reference to it around the year 1696 'the name of a medicinal spring' in the parish of Llandybie, and he notes also that the river Gwyddfân springs from it too. Is it this river guid maun ('gwydd mawn') noted within the bounds of Maenor Myddynfych in the Book of St Chad, recorded and written towards the end of the eighth century? Incidentally, Llandyfân is in the parish of Llandeilo Fawr, on the boundary with the parish of Llandybie.
...... Richard Fenton was on tour in the area at the beginning of the eighteenth century and he saw the spring, enclosed in a square building without a roof, and steps leading down to it.
...... He also saw a small chapel connected to Llandeilo Fawr whose services were held once a month. Many resorted to the spring in olden times, he says, and many medicinal virtues were attributed to it. According to Thomas Rees's Topographical and Historical Dictionary of South Wales (1815) the spring had a reputation as a medicine for curing paralysis and similar ailments. In some old maps it is ascribed 'The Welsh Bath at Llanduvaen' and that would seem to suggest that the sick would be immersed in the water, as they did formerly in the Lake of Siloam. But no doubt the water was also drunk." (Hanes Plwyf Llandybie)
But the well was a destination for pilgrims much earlier than these reports indicate. In the late 16th Century, when Catholicism was a banned religion in post-Reformation Britain, it appears to have been a gathering spot for Catholics:
At Llandyfan, a well known as Ffynnon Gwyddfaen was a popular source of pilgrimage. A large number of pilgrims were apprehended there in 1592 and brought before a local magistrate and squire, Morgan Jones of Tregib. A Bill of Complaint was brought against him in the Star Chamber because he refused not only to imprison them but also to examine them. Jones considered their action harmless, viewing them as "poor, sickly persons who had gone to the well to bathe, hoping by the help of God thereby to have their health". Two hundred or more people remained unapprehended at the well, indicating its importance as a source of pilgrimage, a continuity of tradition and the sympathy of a local dignitary towards Catholicism.
...... A chapel had been erected at the well in Medieval times and survived until the end of the 18th century. It was later used by Baptists, and Soar Chapel was built near there in 1808. The well was believed to possess curative qualities and was described in 1813 by Nicholson as "efficacious in the cure of paralytic affections, numbness and scorbutic humours". (Catholic Llandeilo: A History of St David's Parish, by Alan Randall, 1987)
Curative properties of drinking from a human skull!
Another story related to Gomer Roberts by Mr D. L. Davies of 'The Bon' shop in Swansea (who was brought up at Glyn Hir Mill nearby) tells us that, as he had heard his father relate:
"Whosoever went to the spring and drank of its waters from a human skull, (as at Llandeilo Llwydarth, in Pembrokeshire) would be cured of his ills. But only an ordinary cup was used by Mr Walters who lived in the farmhouse beside the chapel.
...... It is not known exactly when the first chapel was raised by the spring, but according to David Jones's "History of the Baptists" (1839) the land surrounding the spring was in the possession of the Dynevor family and he maintains that the local gentry erected the chapel as a charitable gesture to the sick who visited the spring from all over. But it is unlikely that 'the spring was inside the building' as he claims. David Jones said also that some corpses were buried in Llandyfãn poor devils who had come to Llandyfãn for a cure but died of their ailment." (Hanes Plwyf Llandybie)
The first football hooligans?
We shall continue with Gomer Roberts:
"By the eighteenth century the spring had lost its distinction as a curative medicine, but the place continued to be a spot where the local country people would come and play diverting games, such as dancing and playing ball, especially on Sundays. That is the reason perhaps why the Methodist preacher Howel Harris of Trefecca came there in 1740, 1750 and 1751. He had a congregation there and an opportunity to evangelize and preach to the worldly. Things went from bad to worse there and one of the Mansels of Margam had to put an end to the sports and games on Sundays.
...... In the year 1748 Peter Williams, the (Bible) commentator, came there and was given permission by the local people to preach in the chapel of ease. Money was collected to buy a Bible, and to raise a pulpit in the chapel, and Peter Williams visited the area for the rest of his life. A school grew up there too and we know that one of Gruffydd Jones' circulating schools was there in the winter of 1766-67.
...... The Baptists themselves had a mission at Llandyfân, and David Jones believed that the ritual of baptism through immersion was performed as long ago as 1771. Nearer 1785, perhaps, is accurate. It caused a bit of a stir in the area when the first baptism took place in the spring. The Methodists objected to what they called 'this new religion' (their term) and there was much fuss as a result. The first recorded baptism was in 1785 and one Rees Jones has left an eye witness account of an immersion at Llandyfan:
"I, Rees Jones, was born on March 13th 1776 ... I remember a rather amazing time when I was about nine years old, when the Baptists came to preach at Llandyfan ... This started a great commotion in the district with much murmuring about the new religion, as it was called, far and near ... There were many Methodists in the district and they were very cruel against the new religion." (Hanes Plwyf Llandybie)
It is not surprising, really, for the Methodists to become cruel on seeing the 'new religion' taking the ground from under their feet and members from their congregations. Neither were the Independents (and they believed, like the Methodists, in child baptism) willing for this new order. But back to Gomer Roberts:
"In the meantime some Independents, including Thomas Coslett, preacher and manager of the Forge ironworks nearby, got permission to preach in the chapel.
...... A mixed congregation, thus, were here, Methodists, Baptists and Independents and 'the Chapel of Mixtures' (oats and barley) they called the place as a result. To muddle the situation further, by 1793 the Baptists had divided into two camps, Calvinists and Arminians: and through those the Unitarians got the chance to stick their heads in. By 1808 there were three ministers and three denominations competing with each other at Llandyfãn. Things came to a head when the Independents and Methodists claimed that they owned the chapel and it was announced at a meeting that on a particular day the door would be closed to all except themselves. The door was in fact locked and the bible removed but before nightfall a nearby publican complained to the steward of the owner and he ordered that the bible and the key be returned immediately." (Hanes Plwyf Llandybie)
But back to Llandyfan where, before long, deliverance from the confusion was at hand. The Independents built Tabernacle in Ffairfach and moved there in 1808; the Baptists the same year moved to the new chapel in Soar a mile or so away, leaving Llandyfân to the Unitarians. And so it stayed until 1838 when a teacher named D. L. Evans, a young man fresh from college, opened a small school in Llandeilo and became the new Unitarian minister at Llandyfan. This young man, by all accounts was so fervent in his opinions that he became an embarrassment to the church authorities at Llandeilo, causing them to take Llandyfan back from the Unitarians and leaving them homeless. Gomer Roberts in his 'Hanes Plwyf Llandybie' of 1939 reprints a letter from this 'fervent' Unitarian minister describing his distress:
Llandeilo, 21. Nov. 1838.
We know not what may happen in a day. Since I saw you last what I am going to inform you has occurred to me. We are deprived of Llandyfaen Chapel. We had notice to quit last Saturday; it is to be annexed to the Church. I do not know what motive induced them to make use of it now, more than before for that purpose.
......Next Sunday will be the last for me to preach in it. We do not know what to do henceforth; there is not a convenient house for use to rent in the neighbourhood. We must go from house to house, which will be very unpleasant: all the same we expect to see you the Sunday we agreed, then you shall know the particulars.
Your sincere friend,
We may well pause here for a moment and ask just who were these Unitarians who so incurred the wrath of other denominations. Unitarians were originally Christians who denied the Trinity, maintaining that God existed in one person only. They accepted the existence and importance of Christ but only as a teacher and prophet, denying his divinity. The Unitarians of Cefncoedycymer, Merthyr, even declared on their church facade that 'There is but One God, the Father', thus disinheriting the Son and the Holy Ghost in a most public manner. A Unitarian has been described, rather unkindly perhaps, as someone who believes there is but one God at most.
Unitarianism asserts instead the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of Man and freedom from doctrine and dogma. In England the founding father is regarded to be John Biddle (1615-62) and famous Unitarians have included the chemist Joseph Priestly, one of the discoverers of oxygen in the 18th century. Five presidents of the United States were Unitarians. Charles Dickens, Samuel Taylor Colerdige, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Gaskell and Ralph Waldo Emerson were notable 19th century Unitarians and the twentieth-century American poet Sylvia Plath was a more recent Unitarian.
Modern Unitarianism is not based on scriptural authority but on reason and conscience and includes agnostics and humanists amongst its members. There is no formal dogma or creed.
These distinctions may seem incomprehensible to us now but once they were the very stuff that religious disputation thrived on and we don't need to look far in the modern world to see what great passions can still be aroused by religion and the great harm that can be done it its name.
And so the Unitarians built Onnen-fawr chapel near Trap, moving there in 1838 and in 1838 also the old chapel of ease at Llandyfân returned to the care of the Established Church. The new Unitarian chapel of Onnen-fawr, Trap, was not as long-lived as those of the Baptists, Methodists and Independents, who had held services under the same roof as them for a while and who still have large if declining congregations today. Onnen-fawr closed its doors in 1888 and thorns and thistles replaced its worshippers soon after.
Although the building at Llandyfan reverted to the care of the established Church in 1838, in time the old chapel was pulled down and a new one raised at the expense of Lady Dynevor and Mrs Dubuisson of Glyn-hir. The chapel went through several transformations in fact and it was added to in 1808, 1819, 1849, 1864 and 1886. The spring was also renovated and in 1897 Llandeilo Town Council was given permission to pipe water from it to quench the thirst of the inhabitants of the town, for a payment of £10 a year to the parish church for the privilege. But the major renovation was undertaken in 1864-1865 as this survey of 1998 reveals:
"Anglican church, chapel of ease to Llandybie, rebuilt in 1864-5 to designs by R. K. Penson. There was an ancient chapel here, described in 1860 as still having 2 ancient lancets with cusps ornamented with flowers. It had been used by a nonconformist congregation before about 1840 and restored before 1860, but the present church is a larger (18.29m x 7.32m) rebuild on the original site. Lady Dynevor and Mrs Du Buisson of Glynhir were the principal donors. The interior had a low screen but this had been removed by 1868." (CADW 1998 see below for the full report)
R. K. Penson was an architect who had a considerable impact on the area. It was he who rebuilt Newton House, the ancestral seat of Lord Dynevor in Llandeilo, to its current mock-gothic design in 1856-58. In the grounds of Newton House is the mediaeval Llandyfeisant church which Penson completely rebuilt at the same time. And the fine Venetian-gothic lime kilns visible from the main road at Cilyrychen Quarry, Llandybie, are his work too, while Llandovery's town hall, another of Penson's creations, adds a touch of the exotic with its Italianate design.
The list of officiating ministers of the chapel that Gomer Roberts provides is far too long to go into here, but we'll single out one of them, whose rather splendid name of Zorobabel Davies gives us good enough reason to dwell on him for a moment. They don't name them like that any more, that's for sure. Zorobabel (New Testament spelling) or Zerubabbel (Old Testament spelling), is credited in the Old Testament with rebuilding the temple at Jerusalem when the Jews returned from their Babylonion exile in 536 BC. As recently as the 1950s a later Baptist Chapel in Ammanford had a Sunday school teacher by the name of Christmas Evans, his name a relic of days gone by when parents could quite unselfconsciously name children after biblical figures, places or festivals. In a thousand years, by contrast, puzzled family historians might well be wondering who was the Saint Kylie who gave her name to so many girls of the late twentieth century.
It is worth going into a little detail about our Welsh Zorobabel (what did his family and friends call him, we wonder?) as it tells us much about the area and the education system at the time. Very little is known of him; Gomer Roberts tell us he was not an ordained minister in 1831 but that he drew some notice as far back as 1827. He was the third son of one John Davies of Hendy Farm, Llandyfan and his elder brothers were named Isaiah and Ebenezer, continuing the Biblical theme. We know that John Davies of Hendy farm died in 1837, and in his will he wrote "Also I give, desire and bequeath twenty square yards of Land of the lower part of Caemawr part of Hendy Farm for the purpose of erecting a Chapel and Burying place, for the use of the particular Baptist denomination to be possessed and occupied by said denomination while water runneth in Lougher river..." (E-mail of 16th May 2007, kindly sent by Hugh Davies, an Australian descendant of Zorobabel Davies.)
Zorobabel Davies had kept a school for children in Llandyfan and it is very likely that he preached among the Baptist churches in the country at this time. He wandered about a great deal in his lifetime as he himself stated in his report before the Education Commission:
"I have kept school in the parish of Llandeilo Fawr; at St Clear's; Laugharne and now at St Clear's again. I have roamed about so much because I have combined preaching with school keeping and I have set up a school in each place to which I have been called as a preacher."(Hanes Plwyf Llandybie)
Around 1852 Zorobabel Davies moved with his two sons to Australia and later his wife and two daughters followed him. Before leaving he and his wife mortgaged the property Llety Shone (the portion of Hendy Farm which his father, John Davies, left to him) to Elizabeth and Ann Williams. It does not appear that the first four years in his new country were good ones but the following years saw an upturn in his fortunes, as we have a record of our Zorobabel after he reached Australia. He died in Pleasant Creek, Australia, in 1877. From a book called "Sheppards Gold, the Story of Stawell" by Charles Edward Sayers, we learn:
Davies was a Welshman, bellicose and voluble, who was early on the Pleasant Creek diggings. Week days he salvaged gold from the creeks and the alluvial leads. Sundays he sought to salvage souls from any pulpit that offered. He had the qualifications of some training in theology to make him an acceptable school teacher, and the even greater qualification (for that time) of a strong hand. These made him the first recognised school teacher on Pleasant Creek under the Denominational Board. With that appointment he joined lay reading for the Anglican community (taking his first church services in the school room), while continuing to lend a preaching hand to any as yet churchless community that was looking for fire and zeal in a preacher. This applied especially with the Welsh, for he was eloquent in tongue and lusty in hymn singing.
.....He was eventually headmaster of Pleasant Creek school, and he also made money on the goldfields, providing a parsonage for the Baptist church and becoming the proprietor of a newspaper. He was also an adjudicator at the Welsh Eisteddfod for several years. (E-mail of 16th May 2007, kindly sent by Hugh Davies, an Australian descendant of Zorobabel Davies.)
Gomer Roberts tells us he can remember eisteddfodau being held in the barn of Llandyfan church in the 1920s.
The little church, with its now unused baptism well, is still used for church services to this day. Services in English are held on the first Sunday of the month with Welsh ones on the third Sunday. It is still utilised for weddings and must make a charming setting for such ceremonies.
CADW Survey of 1998
Perhaps the age and history of Llandyfan church should be left to the Welsh ancient monument organization CADW who surveyed the building in 1998 (Cadw is Welsh for 'to keep'). Their report contains highly technical architectural language but is worth reprinting nonetheless:
Authority Carmarthenshire Record No 20912
National Park Brecon Beacons Date Listed 24/11/1998
Community Dyffryn Cennen
Locality Llandyfan Grid Ref 264100 217100
Name Church of St Dyfan
Situated immediately N of Llandyfan farmhouse, some 2 km S of Trap in valley of Afon Cennen.
Anglican church, chapel of ease to Llandybie, rebuilt in 1864-5 to designs by R. K. Penson. There was an ancient chapel here, described in 1860 as still having 2 ancient lancets with cusps ornamented with flowers. It had been used by a nonconformist congregation before about 1840 and restored before 1860, but the present church is a larger (18.29m x 7.32m) rebuild on the original site. Lady Dynevor and Mrs Du Buisson of Glynhir were the principal donors. The interior had a low screen but this had been removed by 1868.
Anglican church, single vessel with 3-sided apse in simple plate traceried style. S porch and N vestry. Squared snecked red sandstone with flush red sandstone dressings. Stone tiled roof with shaped rafter ends, with large timber and slate spirelet on the ridge between nave and chancel. Plain chamfered plate tracery, mostly 2 lights and roundel. Coped W gable with gabled kneelers and cross finial. Long 2-light W window. S porch is attractively hipped with main roof carried down and outswept. Battered base, moulded string and pointed red sandstone arch. Two cusped lancets to right, then single-step buttress with battered base marking chancel. Canted apse has moulded plinth, 2-light window in each of 3 sides. N wall has slate-roofed vestry with 2-light N window (without roundel) and shouldered-headed W door. Then nave has 2-light and single light similar to S side. Ridge spirelet is a most unusual design, essentially a steep slated pyramid with smaller version above and slated square base. Both pyramids have a double row of very low timber trefoil openings beneath, like dove-holes, with a slate pent roof on wooden brackets between the rows, giving a layered effect. Cross finial.
Plastered whitewashed walls, 6-bay boarded roof without chancel division, solid arch-braces to collar trusses with wishbone struts over. Windows are set in deep-splayed segmental pointed reveals. Red ashlar framing to cambered-headed S nave door and pointed N vestry door. Red and black tiles to nave floor, two steps to sanctuary with timber rails typical of Penson with cusped pointed openings and quatrefoil in each spandrel. Openings have iron stanchions with two gilded leaves. Some encaustic tiles by Maw & Co in sanctuary floor. Pitch pine stalls and pews. Six open-back pews at W end. S side pine pulpit, hexagonal with pierced quatrefoils in roundels in panels. Whitewashed octagonal font with quatrefoil panels on 4 sides and moulded quatrefoil shaft. Stained glass: the 3 apse 2-light windows by Hardman have pattern of circles on clear ground and designs of vine, lily and rose. Other windows have latticed glazing with fleur-de-lys quarries, made by Powells.
Included as an attractive Victorian small church retaining original fittings, of group value with the house and farm buildings at Llandyfan.
William Samuel, Llandeilo Past and Present, 1868, p 39;
The Welshman 10/8/1860, 30/6/1865, 14/7/1865;
Carmarthen Journal 1/4/1864.
Date this page last updated: October 4, 2010