THE ENGLISH CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
Long before the Viet Cong went to war in the jungles of Vietnam against American troops in the 1960s and 70s, Ammanford had its own version called the English Cong. But this wasn't a revolutionary Maoist group, waging a guerrilla war to liberate the town from the evil clutches of foreign imperialism (would that it was) but an English-language church founded in 1909. It wasn't long before the little English Congregational chapel built on Iscennen Road had its name shortened by the locals to English Cong, but with a Non-conformist, and not a Maoist, following.
The first Nonconformist chapel in Ammanford had appeared as early as 1748 when the Independents (Annibynnwyr) opened a small place of worship on High Street, today's Christian Temple. But the main chapel-building period in Ammanford's history was the nineteenth century, with another spurt in the first decades of the twentieth century under the influence of the 1904/5 Welsh Revival. During the years that all these early chapels (and one church) were being built the town was an overwhelmingly Welsh-speaking community.
The census of 1891 shows that 89.3 percent of Carmarthenshire's 112,685 population were Welsh speaking, of which 54.6 percent were Welsh speaking only. The Amman valley has always had the highest incidence of Welsh speakers in the county, so the figure was even higher for Ammanford, and two in three of everyone stopped on the streets would not have understood a word of English. Here is the progress of monoglot Welsh speaking for Carmarthenshire:
Census Year 1891 1901 1911 1921 1931 Welsh Speaking (%) 89.3 90.4 84.9 82.4 82.3 Welsh Speaking only (%) 56.4 35.6 20.5 16.5 9.2
Needless to say, all the chapels in this overwhelmingly Welsh community conducted their services in the Welsh language. In the nineteenth century only one of Ammanford's many places of worship held its services in English the English Wesleyan church. It was a migratory influence that attracted the Wesleyan branch of Methodism to the hamlet of Cross Inn, as Ammanford was called before 1880. A memorial tablet erected within the precinct of the English Wesleyan Church in Wind Street records its appreciation to one Samuel Callard. Its words announce that Samuel Callard: "with his father Thomas Callard came from Torquay in 1875, to erect this Church", also stating that "he was for 32 years, a most faithful worker as Trustee, Church Officer, School Superintendent and Preacher". Samuel Callard and his brother were involved with the management of the Amman Bridge Chemical Works in Pontamman and he died in December 1907 at the age of 60 years.
But by the early decades of the twentieth century enough English speakers had migrated into the Amman Valley to allow for more churches and chapels for the town's non-Welsh speakers, albeit with much smaller congregations than their Welsh-speaking counterparts.
Job opportunities in the rapidly expanding coal, tinplate and associated industries were the reasons for a steady migration into the area, and while most came from nearby Welsh-speaking counties, workers from the English shires, Scotland and Ireland were also drawn here. Many of these new churches were English-speaking versions of the existing Welsh denominations, most notably Independent, Baptist, Methodist and Anglican churches. But some lesser-known and much smaller faiths took root here as well, such as the Christadelphians, who built their first church here in 1892. Ammanford's Plymouth Brethren raised their Gospel Hall in 1911, but were careful enough to build it with a sloping floor to discourage its use for non-religious purposes (no dancing!). In 1915 All Saints church was built for the town's English speaking Anglicans (St Michael's had been built in 1885 to cater for the town's Welsh-speaking church-goers). In 1926 both Ammanford's Catholics and its Salvation Army built their first churches in the town.
And so it was with the Ammanford Congregational Church, the English-speaking counterparts of the Welsh Independents (Annibynnwyr). The Independents and Congregationalists are so-named because they are governed entirely by their own congregations and are therefore totally independent from outside rule. A governing body of deacons is elected by the membership of each individual church, who then oversee the running of its affairs. This includes the appointment of the church's minister, unlike many other churches where ministers are appointed by an outside agency. This is the case, for example, with the Anglican church (or the Church in Wales, as they're called this side of the border), where the Bishop of the Diocese appoints each vicar. When he can find one, that is, such creatures being in short supply in our less religiously-minded age. It's because of this shortage that Ammanford's All Saints Church recently went two years without any shepherd for its flock.
Curiously the English-speaking influence that created Ammanford's Congregational Church was not from across Offa's Dyke, where most English speakers hail from, but from here in Wales. A number of families who moved into the district originated from South Pembrokeshire, which was then, and still is, called 'little England beyond Wales'. South Pembrokeshire had been one of the earliest parts of Wales to have been invaded by the Normans, who conquered Wales by a process of raids and colonisation over two centuries. It was their English-speaking followers who brought their language to everyday Welsh life. Within a year of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Normans were building a castle at Chepstow and had begun their piecemeal conquest of Wales, a process which took well over 200 years. The conquest of Wales started with a series of devastating raids which by the end of the 11th century had affected almost every part of the country. The Welsh had not experienced anything like it since the Roman invasion. This time the invaders brought with them two languages, French and English. The Norman leaders spoke French; indeed the Welsh chroniclers of the period write not of fighting the English but of fighting the French. French words absorbed by Welsh at the time are evidence of the new powers barwn (baron) and gwarant (warrant) are just two examples.
However, it was the Normans' English-speaking followers who colonised the conquered lands and brought their language to Wales. One well-known example is south Pembrokeshire, long known as little England beyond Wales. The Chronicle of the Welsh Princes (Brut y Tywysogyon) states a colony was established in 1105 when Henry I allowed a number of Flemings from modern-day Belgium to settle in the area around Haverfordwest, who were later joined by English settlers. This led to the extinction of Welsh in the area, and a legacy of aggression towards the language which has only softened in recent times. North Pembrokeshire, in contrast, stayed firmly Welsh-speaking.
These Pembrokeshire emigrants, brought up and nurtured in the Congregational faith, were to be the founders in 1909 of the English Congregational Church in Ammanford. The first services were held in Ammanford Council Primary School in College Street with weekly bible classes and prayer meetings conducted in the vestry of Gwynfryn Chapel, the nearby Welsh Independents who had taken these English-speaking Congregationalists under their wing.
By 1911, encouraged by members of Christian Temple, the town's major Welsh Independent church, and their sister church of Gwynfryn, the elders considered there was sufficient support to venture into the construction of their own chapel, and so the project in Iscennen Road began.
Mr. Henry Herbert, a prominent engineer and industrialist, was commissioned as architect and on the 4th of September 1913 the English Congregational Church was officially opened by Mrs. W. N. Jones of Dyffryn House, Tirydail. Mrs Jones was the wife of local magnate William Nathaniel Jones who owned a coalmine, tinplate works and gas works in nearby Tirydail.
The debt on the project, (which by now was affectionately known as the English Cong), was cleared by 1920, and the little church next to the gates of Ammanford park still stands as testimony to the faith and dedication of those pioneers who worked so hard to establish a place to worship in a language they could understand.
A vestry, doubling up as a Sunday schoolroom, was added to the building in 1927, being mainly constructed through the individual efforts of volunteer members. Not one of the grandest buildings in Ammanford, nevertheless, the little 'English Cong' has so far survived the ravages of time, as well as the gradual drift away from religion that started in the post-war years and has since speeded up dramatically in our recent, more secular age.
Date this page last updated: September 28, 2010