New ‘Virtual Museum’ tells the story of Welsh Unitarianism and its architectural heritage

By James Murray | 10 June 2014

Welsh Unitarian Chapels have received funding for a new 'virtual museum' providing access to three-dimentional digital models and more than 1,000 photographs

Hen Dy Cwrdd (The Old Meeting House), built in 1751
Hen Dŷ Cwrdd Unitarian Chapel, built in 1751, is described as the Mother Church of Unitarianism in the Cynon valley© Courtesy History of Wales News
Y Smotyn Du (The Black Spot), a region of Ceredigion infamous for its staunch Unitarianism, has benefited from a significant Lottery Heritage Fund grant of £84,100.

The money has been allocated to The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and Addoldai Cymru (The Welsh Religious Buildings Trust) to help restore and re-interpret the most important of its Unitarian chapels, Yr Hen Gapel (the old chapel), in Rhydowen.

As well as restoring the building, about £60,000 has been allocated by Visit Wales to the creation of a ‘virtual museum’ website as part of its Digital Tourism Framework Programme, giving the public access to interpretation and GIS mapping covering all of the Royal Commission’s Unitarian chapel records.

Three-dimensional computer visualisations of the chapels, under the care of Addoldai Cymru, will also be made available, alongside 1,300 digital images already free to view on the Royal Commission’s website, coflein.gov.uk.

Another prominent chapel known as the “mother chapel” of the Arminian movement was founded in 1733.

The present building was completed in 1751, and was eventually complimented by nearly 6,500 non-conformist congregations across Wales.

The chapel also has a connection with the celebrated poet and playwright Dylan Thomas. His great uncle, William Thomas, was minister there during the 1870s, once famously preaching to a crowd of 3,000 parishioners while chained to the railings outside, having been evicted by the landlord.

Thomas’ great uncle is thought to have been the inspiration for Reverend Eli Jenkins, a character in his play ‘Under Milk Wood'.

These mostly 18th and 19th century buildings are facing an ever-increasing threat of redundancy and physical deterioration as congregations decline, but the Commission hopes that its programme of Community History Days, survey training and lectures, alongside the new website, will re-ignite local interest in their architectural and cultural significance.

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Yr Hen Gapel (the old chapel)
Yr Hen Gapel (the old chapel)© Courtesy History of Wales News
Bethania Welsh Baptist Chapel, originally built in 1832, and then rebuilt by the great chapel architect, William Beddoe, in 1908
Bethania Welsh Baptist Chapel, originally built in 1832, and then rebuilt by the great chapel architect, William Beddoe, in 1908© Courtesy History of Wales News
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