The Nonconformist Chapels of Wales: Recording, Interpreting and Engaging

The Nonconformist Chapels of Wales: Recording, Interpreting and Engaging

*by Susan Fielding

The Welsh chapel is one of the most distinctive building types in Wales, both in style, and in its contribution to townscapes and landscapes.

Zion English Baptist Church Newtown, Designed by architect George Morgan ©Crown Copyright: RCAHMW 2016

The wealth of variety that exists within chapel building, and principles of design that went into the great show-facade chapels, are now recognised as being on a par with other great public buildings of the late 19th century. In a time when the official language of education and the workplace was English, it was the ‘capel’ that allowed much of the Welsh population to run part of their lives in Welsh and ensured the survival of the language in to the early twentieth century.

The complexes of chapel, Sunday school and chapel house were centres of community life in industrial and rural areas alike and were used throughout the week.

The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, in conjunction with the Welsh Chapels Historical Society and Addoldai Cymru, The Welsh Religious Buildings Trust, has been at the forefront in recognising the cultural and social importance of these buildings in the heritage of Wales.

Penuel Independent Chapel, Montgomeryshire ©Crown Copyright: RCAHMW 2016

Today chapels are one of the classes of building most at threat of closure and neglect in Wales and, in repose to this situation, the Royal Commission has been carrying out a systematic programme of collecting and analysing information regarding these structures. Through the collection of data through field study, map and documentary searches, and the integration of historic surveys such as the 1851 Religious Census and the 1905 Royal Commission in the Church of England and Other Religious Buildings in Wales and Monmouthshire survey, the Commission now holds a database of information on some 6440 chapels. This database is supplemented by an ever increasing archive of photographs held within the National Monuments Record of Wales, over 1300 of which are available as digital images available on the Royal Commissions on-line database Coflein ( Key chapels across Wales have been surveyed by the Commission, providing invaluable records of chapels at risk or exemplars of their type.

In 2014, the Royal Commission and Addolai Cymru were the recipient of a £67k grant from the Visit Wales Digital Tourism Framework Programme for the creation of a ‘virtual museum’, Digital Dissent, telling the story of these chapels and the 300 years of Dissent that they represent. An important aspect of this project has been the ability to make easily available online the Chapels database in its entirety, fully searchable either through a keyword search, or through a faceted mapping interface. The latter allows the creation of distribution maps based on a wide range of individual fields or of multiple field queries.

Map showing location of all nonconfomist chapels across Wales ©Crown Copyright: RCAHMW 2016

Throughout the history of the project there has been invaluable support and enthusiasm from a wide community of volunteers and it was clear that there was a desire on behalf of the public to record and tell the stories of the chapels in their communities and that the platform need to enable people to be able to add their stories or upload their own photographs and archive. In addition to searching the database for information therefore, users can add their own ‘user comments’, supplementing or updating information in the database or uploading their own photographs and images. We hope that in addition to being able to flesh out the information we have already collected regarding the history of these buildings, we will be able to capture their present and future stories, stories which are valuable in their own right but which are also vital informing discussions of best practices in preservation, conservation and reuse.

A second element to the Digital Dissent project has been a series of digital resources on individual chapels held by Addoldai Cymru, providing accessible interpretation and engagement and promoting tourism to the sites. The Royal Commission created photographic tours of the exterior and interior of a number of chapels using Gigapixel imagery, allowing online users from around world to explore the buildings in high definition detail as well as accessing historic images and documents embedded at various locations throughout the tours. Laser scanning, which initially took place in conjunction with Aberystwyth University to provide conservation information, was used to create a series of fly-throughs. Although using something which is essentially raw survey data, the impact of these on the public has been extraordinary, and the images, which have variously been described as magical, ethereal and ghostly, have proved to very effectively capture the public’s imagination.

Laser scanned interior of Bethania chapel, Maesteg ©Crown Copyright: RCAHMW 2016

More detailed narratives of each chapel are told through interpretative animations; those for the chapels Bethania, Maesteg and Peniel, Tremadog tell the stories through 10 minute films using a mix of computer reconstruction, historical imagery and filmed footage, while two others, Hen dŷ Cwrdd, Trecynon and Hen Gapel, Rhydowen use more innovative technologies. Both of these chapels are presented as virtual environments through which visitors can move at their own will, exploring the buildings and, on their way, clicking on a series of objects or books that will provide text, images and audio telling the stories of the people, their politics, education and cultural life, all of which are so intertwined with the religious history of the sites.

In addition to the database and digital resources, the website contains an expanding number of short essays on different aspects of nonconformity and nonconformist chapels, as well as a great deal of practical advice and useful links. All of this can be found at

*Susan Fielding is Investigator for Historic Buildings at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments for Wales, a Welsh Government sponsored body which has the lead role in ensuring that the archaeological, built and maritime heritage of Wales is authoritatively recorded and interpreted, and seeks to promote the understanding and appreciation of this heritage nationally and internationally. Susan is leading on a number of projects relating to Places of Worship and also specialises in the use of digital technologies for the recording and interpretation of the historic built environment.   

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