St Matthew's Church at Dyffryn
St. Matthew's Church Dyffryn: a Short History 1871- 1971
by Jeffrey L. Griffiths
[The first edition was privately printed in 1971. This revised electronic version was produced in November 2009.]
Foreword by Dr. Glyn Simon, Lord Bishop of Llandaff and former Archbishop of Wales.
It is always a pleasure to write a foreword to a parish history. Works of this kind reveal all kinds of personalities and events never suspected. Mr. Griffiths has managed to find time to put together skilfully the various bits and pieces, of all shapes and sizes, which go to make up the completed jigsaw of Dyffryn Parish Church and neighbourhood.
There is the big house, and the prominent, generous and gifted landowner. There is the vicarage and the position and status of its occupiers, two of them in this case both unusual and gifted, occupying a delicate intermediate place between the local notabilities and the bulk of the parishioners. (But not many Welsh clergymen could have afforded five servants!) There are the chapels, numerous indeed, and holding the loyalty of most of the “ordinary folk”, particularly if they are Welsh-speaking. There is the architect, John Norton, one of the busiest Gothic Revival architects of his day. In this diocese he was responsible for St. David’s (Neath), Pontypridd, and Ystrad Mynach Churches, amongst others. His work was uneven and sometimes bizarre. Dyffryn may well be counted amongst his better efforts, and his schemes of interior decoration links this little Welsh parish with one of the major ecclesiastical interests of the Gothic Revival.
Mr. Griffiths’ work enables us to see the whole small-scale panorama of a way of life, which owed almost everything to coal. It was not a way of life, which lasted long. But while it lasted there was a completeness about it which makes its short story fascinating and full of interest.
Now the Gwyns, and lesser notabilities with them, have gone; so in large measure has the coal; the old vicarage had too much room to spare even for the vicar and his family. The Church they built has survived, and, more happily placed than some stands in an area of growth and variety of population. It must often in the past, rightly or wrongly, have been identified with the interests of the important local families, with the chapels concerned with those of the “ordinary folk”. Both church and chapels now face the challenge of profound social, moral and religious changes. Both must face it together, each using for the common cause the wisdom of their particular and varied experiences. May God guide us aright in all that lies ahead.
+ Glynn Landav
I am greatly indebted to a number of people for the help which they have given me in the preparation of this parish history. I should like to express my thanks to the following for the contributions that they have made towards this booklet: the Lord Bishop of Llandaff, Dr. Glyn Simon, who kindly consented to write the foreword; to the Vicar, Rev. D. Grenfell Rees, for having given me the opportunity to write this history and for the help and encouragement he has rendered in its preparation; to Mr. Philip R. Davies, Bryncoch, who is responsible for all the photographs in this publication and who has also aided me with enthusiasm in the collection of a pictorial history of the parish; to Mr. Elis Jenkins, who read the manuscript and made valuable comments; to Miss Doreen John, who undertook the typing of the manuscript, and to Crown Printers, Morriston, for their assistance in the publication of this booklet. I also wish to acknowledge the help received from colleagues at the University College of Swansea; the Hon. Librarian and members of the Neath Antiquarian Society; Miss Nelmes and Mr. Grant-Davidson of the Royal institution of South Wales, Swansea; Mr. John Bunt of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea; and to Vidua, Windsor Road, Neath.
The researches of Messrs. Richard D. Till and Wilton D. Wills have proved most valuable to me, and I acknowledge a debt of thanks to them and to the other authors mentioned in the bibliography. I am, above all, grateful to those many parishioners, villagers and others who had connections with Dyffryn for having given me their valuable aid in numerous ways. There are, I regret, too many of these good people to mention by name. The fund of knowledge they possess and their generosity in sharing these memories has made the task of compiling this history a pleasure. They have proved to be a rich source of information and will, I am sure, also be my most severe critics. I apologies for any errors and omissions there might be in this centenary history and ask forgiveness as one who is not a native of this parish and who was not even born until the grass grew thick upon the site of Howel Gwyn’s residence.
Jeffrey L. Griffiths
History of the Church and Parish
On September 21 1871, the Church of St Matthew, Dyffryn was consecrated by the Lord Bishop of Llandaff Dr. Alfred Ollivant. A hundred years have now elapsed in the life of this church which was built by the great philanthropist and Church stalwart Howel Gwyn on his Dyffryn estate. In this short history an attempt is made to record some of the main events which have occurred in the life of this parish over the last century.
One need hardly state that life in the nineteenth century was very different from what we know today. It will be valuable, therefore, to make a brief survey of society in this locality in order to appreciate the different mode of life which prevailed midway through the reign of Queen Victoria.
The 1870s was a time of growth and expansion in the Neath district. The area had been a centre of the smelting industry and of coal mining for over two hundred years, and was now experiencing the changes brought about by that epoch making series of developments known as the Industrial Revolution. In 1831 the population of Neath had numbered just over 4,000; by 1871 it had more than doubled. In the 1850s the railway had arrived at Neath, facilitating communications and providing a stimulus to growth. The canals, however, were still managing to compete, with coal, ore and other heavy goods being carried between the Neath Valley and Port Tennant. Road transport was by coach or carriage until the opening in 1875 of the horse tramway. Gas trains were first introduced in Neath in 1897 and proved quite successful, even if passengers had sometimes to push the tram up Skewen hill. Gas works had first been erected at Neath in 1832. In 1866 a new Gas Company was formed, and Dyffryn Clydach is mentioned among the parishes served by this undertaking. Electricity did not become feasible until the invention of the carbon filament lamp around 1880, and Neath received its first supply of electricity in 1901. Oil lamps and tallow candles remained the only means of illumination for many people in the mid 1870s. Only after the arrival of Superintendent John Phillips in 1860 could the borough police force (created in 1835, following the example of Sir Robert Peel’s London ‘Bobbies’) be regarded as a competent body of men. Perhaps this is why the stocks were still in existence outside St Thomas’s Church, Neath, until about 1872.
It was after the 1840s that coal began to dominate the commercial life of the area, a development closely associated with the demand generated by the development of railways and shipping. In fact, it was the expansion of coal mining activities in the Bryncoch area, and the consequent increase in population, which was one of the main reasons which led Howel Gwyn to found a church upon his estate.
Coal mining in the Bryncoch area is first recorded in 1772 when a “Coalery at Warndee” (Wernddu) is mentioned. Iron making was also carried on at Bryncoch from the early eighteenth century. Thomas Pryce of Longford Court manufactured munitions for the British government at the Bryncoch Furnace. Customs records for 1708 - 1760 show that cannon and shot were being manufactured at this furnace and then shipped from Neath to Woolwich Arsenal. The name ‘Old Furnace’, still a place name in the village, recalls Bryncoch’s link with iron making. In 1806 the Pwll Mawr pit was sunk in Bryncoch for the Quakers, Fox & Company, by William Kirkhouse, the engineer and canal constructor. This is reputed to be the first deep pit (200 yards) put down in this country. The Main Colliery Company was formed by Edward Acland Moore and his son John Newall Moore as a result of the amalgamation of a number of small collieries, such as Cwrt Herbert, Bryndewi, Cwmdu and Brithdir, which had been worked in this area. It was this company which obtained a lease to mine the minerals on the Dyffryn estate, purchased by Howel Gwyn in 1853, and which eventually provided work for over 500 men at Bryncoch.
The Moores were a Devonshire family who settled in the Skewen area and embarked upon colliery enterprises. Edward Acland Moore resided at Lonlas House, and an area in Skewen known as Mooretown perpetuates the name of the family who were the ground landlords. Howel Gwyn’s wife, Ellen Elizabeth, was the sister of Edward Acland Moore. Moore’s son, John Newall, resided at Longford Court (Cwrt Rhydhir) and became managing director of the Main Colliery Company. He died in 1905 and is buried in Dyffryn churchyard. John Newall Moore built the Mooretown Mission Church, later known as All Saint’s Church, Skewen, in 1884. He was prominent in politics and was the first County Councillor for Dyffryn Clydach and Coedffranc on the Glamorgan County Council. Joseph Edward Moore succeeded to the title and estate of his uncle, Howel Gwyn, in 1900.
What was happening in the Bryncoch and Neath areas in the 1870s was part of a pattern which was occurring throughout South Wales, and should be viewed as such. The increasing demand for coal and iron led to a dramatic social revolution which had profound repercussions on organised religion. The most important aspect of this industrial and social revolution was the substantial increase in the population of the South Wales counties, especially Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. Migration from other counties in Wales, from the west of England, and Ireland to the South Wales coalfield took place on an intensive scale after 1831. To quote some figures, between 1801 and 1871 the population of Glamorgan rose from 70,879 to a staggering 397,859. Locally, the parish of Neath increased from 2,502 in 1801 to 9,258 in 1871. This phenomenal growth rate presented the Victorians with social, economic and political problems on an unprecedented scale. It also confronted the Established Church with the necessity to reorganise and extend its pastoral facilities to meet the needs of an expanding society. Fortunately, the diocese of Llandaff contained imaginative clergymen possessed of administrative skills, together with benevolent landowners and Church supporters who were willing to supply the means to rectify these deficiencies. Of the latter, no better example could be found than Howel Gwyn, the Squire of Dyffryn.
Howel Gwyn was born on June 24, 1806 in a house facing the Gwyn Hall, Neath. His father was William Gwyn (died 1830), probably the finest solicitor of his time in the Neath Valley and an ex-Constable of Neath Castle. The Gwyns were an ancient family from Brecknockshire, and a namesake of Howel Gwyn was High Sheriff in 1603. It seems that his forefathers were as attached to their Church as Howel Gwyn was, and a story is told of how one of them caused a large swamp to be filled, over which he crossed every Sunday to attend his parish Church. The family moved to Abercrave at the top of the Swansea Valley, and then to Neath where the great-grandfather of Howel Gwyn set up in practice as an attorney. The family accrued considerable landed interests and Howel succeeded to a number of large estates in Glamorgan, Brecknockshire and Carmarthen. The Neath estate consisted of a number of valuable properties in the centre of the town, including the present Orchard and Queen Street areas. He was thus a landowner of considerable wealth from his birth. Howel Gwyn was also a man who was keenly aware of his stewardship of such property, and throughout his life lie ploughed his riches back into the locality to the enrichment of all. Howel Gwyn obtained his education at the Rev. D. Davies’s School in Neath (a Unitarian foundation to which the well-to-do of the valley sent their children) and at Swansea Grammar School. He then went up to Trinity College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1829. In 1832 “in order to complete his education and observe for himself, foreign manners, customs amid politics” he went on the ‘Grand Tour’, travelling abroad with two friends and visiting Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey and Hungary. He also visited Russia, the travelling conditions of those days necessitating a journey of three weeks from St. Petersburg to Moscow. An account of these travels is recorded in a collection of diaries which give an indication of the writer’s curiosity about the different aspects of society in various countries. After returning home he studied at the Bar for some time, which, we are told, helped to develop that judicial mind in which the people of Neath had such confidence when he became chairman of the local magistrates’ court. Howel Gwyn then spent his bachelor days at Baglan House, where he lived from 1835. Whilst at Baglan he was appointed High Sheriff of Glamorgan for the year 1837-38. It was in 1853 that Howel Gwyn purchased the Dyffryn Estate and set about building the mansion. Although the name of the Gwyns is inextricably linked with Dyffryn, it is worth recalling the connection of the Williams family with this area. The genealogy of this ancient family is engraved upon a copper plate in the vestry of Llangatwg Church, Cadoxton. It is an extraordinary record, indicative of the desire of the Welsh to preserve the memory of their forebears and of the pride which they take in their family history. This epitaph to the Williamses of Dyffryn aptly illustrates the old Welsh adage, “as long as a Welsh pedigree”. Members of this family had acted as stewards of the Manor of Cadoxton, a part of the old Neath Abbey estate, and lived in a mansion near the site where Howel Gwyn was to build his residence in the 1850s. Maria, daughter of John Williams, married Captain Frederick Fredericks in June 1821. She sold the Dyffryn estate to Howel Gwyn and moved to Abermellte, Pontneddfechan, where she died childless.
An interesting story is related with regard to Capt. Frederick Fredericks. It appears that he was one of the young ‘men about town’ who used the Castle Hotel, Neath, as a rendezvous. About 1845 a wager was made by Capt. Fredericks of Dyffryn that hecould fire a revolver through one of the hotel’s mirrors without breaking it, save for the bullet hole. The bet was taken and won by Capt. Fredericks. This mirror still remained at the Castle Hotel in the 1930s, the bullet hole having been disguised by a small Royal Arms. The long suffering licensee at this time was Jenkin Savours of Tyn-yr-Heol House (died 1878), whose elegant chest tomb stands in Dyffryn churchyard by one of the hundred year old yew trees at the intersection of the two paths leading to the Church porch.
Thus it was that Howel Gwyn became the Squire of Dyffryn and commenced the building of his new residence. Dyffryn, a Gothic style mansion with forty-seven rooms, was built by about 1855. The stables, still in existence and bearing the date 1862, and other outbuildings on the estate followed. So began a close and happy association between the Gwyns and the village of Bryncoch, a small but expanding community which was to benefit greatly from the generosity of the Squire of Dyffryn and his successors. Once again it becomes necessary to view the wider picture of developments in South Wales between the 1850s and 1870s in order to comprehend fully the events which occurred in Bryncoch. Victorian society was faced with the need to adapt itself to the new problems created by the industrial revolution, not the least of which was the provision of education for the working masses and the reorganisation of the religious denominations in order to evangelise those who seemed deprived of the Christian message as a result of the expansion and migration of the population. One of the most significant developments in the first half of the century was the growing strength of the non-conformist religious denominations in the South Wales coalfield. The growth and popularity of the Dissenting bodies at this time had been largely gained at the expense of the Established Church which, in some respects, had failed to make religious provision for a rapidly expanding society. The churches were too few in number, and often distant from the growing communities, there were insufficient clergy, and the approach of the Church leaders was too conservative to match the vigour and appeal of Welsh non-conformity.
It was around 1850 that the Established Church began to face its responsibilities and to reorganise and expand its resources. What happened in the parish of Cadoxton-juxta-Neath at about this time is a fair reflection of what was taking place throughout the diocese of Llandaff. In 1801 the Parish of Cadoxton consisted of nine hamlets, including Dyffryn Clydach, and extended from Skewen in the south-west to Glynneath in the north-east. By the middle of the nineteenth century, in a rapidly growing industrial area, a parish of such dimensions was clearly impracticable and in need of reform.
In 1837, the year that Victoria ascended the throne, the Rev. George Hanmer Griffiths, a graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, was appointed Vicar of Cadoxton. The new incumbent of Llangatwg perceived the need for a reform of the parochial structure in this locality and was to play an important part in bringing about the formation of the ecclesiastical parishes of Skewen, Dyffryn Clydach and Aperpergwm, as well as in the establishment of schools in these areas. We have a record of a speech made by him at a meeting of the Church Pastoral Aid Society at Neath Town Hall in 1848. In the course of his address he said, “I was inducted into the parish of Cadoxton-juxta-Neath in the year 1837; a parish sixteen miles long, averaging five miles in width, containing nine hamlets, extending over an area of 32,000 acres. I found my Parish Church and both Chapels of Ease in a very dilapidated state; no day schools in connection with the Established Church, but one Sunday School ...”
This energetic and far sighted Vicar of Cadoxton, who was a Justice of the Peace for Glamorgan and Brecknockshire, and who became Rural Dean, set about the task of reorganising his overlarge parish. It was a project in which Howel Gwyn and other local landowners, by their generosity, were to prove instrumental.
The story of Bryncoch Church School has been ably recorded by the late Councillor John Thomas Evans, J.P., in the souvenir booklet published in 1957 to commemorate the School centenary. Suffice it to say that, following the report of the Royal Commissioners on the state of education in Wales (the “Blue Books” controversy of 1847), public attention was aroused to the need for better educational provision in the Neath Valley. During the next twenty years the British School Society and the National Society encouraged the foundation of a number of new schools. The parish of Cadoxton-juxta-Neath witnessed the opening of schools at Cadoxton itself (1849), Bryncoch (1857), Glynneath (1861) and Lower Skewen (1868), thus providing the opportunity of an education to the children of ordinary working folk in this locality. It was Howel Gwyn of Dyffryn who, in December, 1857, gave the site of the Bryncoch National School and, by his will, endowed the sum of £100 for the use of that establishment. One might also note that he built schools at Cilybebyll, Pencae (near Abercrave), and Llandilo-Talybont, as well as donating the site of Alderman Davies’s School, Neath, and contributing towards its subsequent upkeep.
The Church in South Wales had been given a new sense of urgency by the appointment in 1850 of Dr. Alfred Ollivant to the see of Llandaff. Dr. Ollivant, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and a former Vice-Principal of St. David’s College, Lampeter, possessed a precise, judicial mind and administrative skills which he employed in the cause of Church reorganisation and extension. It is interesting to note that Howel Gwyn, who had entered Parliament in 1847 as the Conservative Member for the United Boroughs of Penrhyn and Falmouth, a constituency he represented for ten years, made his maiden speech in the House on June 7, 1850, on the question of Dr. Ollivant’s appointment. Apparently, an attack had been made on the Prime Minister for his appointment of Dr. Ollivant as bishop of Llandaff. Several erroneous statements were made in the course of the debate, at which Howel Gwyn jumped up and refuted them. It is reported that Disraeli patted him on the back saying, “Well done, Gwyn, you have done capitally”.
Dr. Ollivant and Howel Gwyn worked together in the Llandaff Diocesan Church Extension Society, formed in 1848. Howel Gwyn was one of the prominent members of the social order in Glamorgan who pledged their support to this organisation, which devoted itself to the provision of extra churches and clergy in the diocese. He was appointed Treasurer in 1850 and, for his own part, did an immense amount of work to fulfil the aims of this diocesan Society.
In 1843, Parliament passed the New Parishes Act, the object of which was to subdivide existing parishes into new separate districts in areas where the population had outgrown the parochial system. These new districts were assigned to an incumbent who conducted his religious services in hired rooms and unconsecrated buildings licensed for divine worship by the bishop. These districts were often given the name of “Peel parishes” or “Peel districts”, in honour of their originator, Sir Robert Peel. It was this process of sub division in the parish of Cadoxton which produced the new districts, and later the parishes, of Skewen, Aberpergwm and Dyffryn Clydach.
About 1844, the ecclesiastical district of Skewen was formed, and, through the generosity of Lord Dynevor, a new church was erected near Neath Abbey. It is interesting to note that the ‘district of Skewen’ included Coedffranc and a portion of Dyffryn Clydach, and thus it came about that one of the first two church wardens of St. John’s, Skewen, which was consecrated in 1850, was Howel Gwyn of Dyffryn. The people of the Bryncoch locality had, therefore, for a time, the choice of attending divine service at either Cadoxton or Skewen. In 1860 we find a record of the Bryncoch schoolroom being licensed for worship. The Llandaff Church Extension Society made a grant of £50, in that same year, to the parish of Cadoxton for the employment of an additional curate to serve the Bryncoch area, and it was estimated that £30 had been raised locally to the same end. The formation of Dyffryn parish followed the same pattern as that of Skewen, and a map of 1871 delineating this further subdivision of the ancient parish of Llangatwg describes it as the ‘Dyffryn Church district’. Even as late as 1883, in a publication called the ‘Clergy List’ (a forerunner of Crockford’s Clerical Directory) one still notes that the entry for Dyffryn reads ‘see Cadoxton-juxta-Neath’, under which the newly formed ecclesiastical divisions of Aberpergwm, Dyffryn and Skewen are still grouped.
This is the background to the creation of Dyffryn parish. The foundation of St.Matthew’s Church was not an isolated event but followed a pattern which was occurring throughout the diocese of Llandaff from the mid-nineteenth century. It is not to be wondered at that Howel Gwyn, patron of so many churches and other good works, should perceive that the mining activities taking place on his own estate were resulting in the steady growth of the population of Bryncoch. He thus undertook to make provision for the spiritual needs of the people in the form of a church in the same way as he had provided for their educational needs some fourteen years earlier by having a school built in the village.
The architect of St Matthew’s Church was John Norton, of Old Bond Street, London, who was also responsible for St. David’s, Neath and was later to act as architect for the Gwyn Hall, and the Constitutional Club Neath. The work of erecting the church was entrusted to Mr. Rees Roderick of Margam. (A description of the Church will be found later in this booklet.) The new church of St. Matthew, Dyffryn Clydach, was consecrated on September 21 (St. Matthew’s Day), 1871 by Dr. Ollivant, Lord Bishop of Llandaff. Describing the scene on this day, The Cambrian News states that, ‘‘sometime before Divine Service commenced the churchyard was covered with the inhabitants of the district, while the road between Neath and Duffryn (sic) was thronged with visitors to the new Church”. Among the large number of clergy who met the Lord Bishop at the Church door, were the Rev. John Griffiths, Rector of Neath, one of the most prominent Welshmen of his time, and the Rev. John Charles Thomas, the newly appointed Vicar. After consecration by the Bishop, morning service was commenced and, it is reported, ‘the choral part of the service was exceedingly well rendered by the new choir. Mr. Arthur Gilbertson, a gentleman residing in the neighbourhood, most ably presided at the organ, the choir being led by Mr. Seeton, the Organizing Master for the diocese. His Lordship preached an admirable and appropriate sermon, selecting for his text the 18th, 19th and 20th verses of the 28th chapter of St. Matthew.’ The celebration of Holy Communion then followed. The Cambrian comments that ‘‘the congregation far exceeded the limits of accommodation in the Church, many standing throughout the whole service’’. Afterwards, the Squire of Dyffryn entertained the clergy and gentry at his residence, while a luncheon was provided for ‘the workmen, tenants and others connected with the estate’ in a large marquee erected on the grounds in front of the mansion. In the evening a Welsh service, which we are told was ‘extremely well attended’, was held in the Church, the sermon being preached by Rev. Edward Thomas, Vicar of Skewen, in his day, one of the most eloquent preachers of the Welsh Church.
The first incumbent of Dyffryn was the Rev. John Charles Thomas, M.A., a man who was to serve as Vicar to this parish for over half a century. John Charles Thomas, who had received his early education at Swansea, graduated from St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1868 and was ordained in 1869 by the Bishop of Litchfield. He served London curacies at St Peter’s, Walsall, 1868-71, and St. Matthew’s, Kilburn, 1871, before being offered the living of Dyffryn by Howel Gwyn. The first vicarage in Bryncoch was Ty-cerrig, situated near the Church School, and the footpath which leads from this point across the fields to Dyffryn Church became known as the ‘Vicar’s Walk’. In 1884, he removed to the Tudor style vicarage, adjacent to the Church, which Howel Gwyn had had built and generously gave to the parish. The same year witnessed his marriage to Margaret Laura, daughter of Mr. Griffith Lewis of Alltycham, Pontardawe. The vicar of Dyffryn had the unusual distinction for a clergyman of publishing his own banns, and the couple were married in Cheltenham on St. Valentine’s Day, 1884. There were two sons and one daughter by the marriage, and they showed early evidence of intellectual promise. The two boys were excellent organists. One of them, Howell Lewis, became competent in the recently developed science of photography and is also reported to have introduced electricity into the vicarage at an early date. The other son, Gilbert, qualified as a physician. Their interest in scientific matters was undoubtedly encouraged by their father, who, it seems, was particularly interested in horology and things of a mechanical nature. He was also a competent musician and an ardent educationalist.
The first Vicar of Dyffryn served his parish for an amazing total of 52 years, and at his death in 1923 was the oldest incumbent in the diocese. He was Rural Dean, 1902-1911, and was a candidate for higher honours in the Church. He ministered constantly at St. Matthew’s for practically 42 years until he obtained the assistance of the Rev. A. R. Davies, Cwmavon, in 1913, as curate at Dyffryn. John Charles Thomas was a man of forceful personality and a winning disposition. A pronounced churchman, he was, notwithstanding, on happy terms with the Nonconformists of the district. In 1921 the dual jubilee of the consecration of St. Matthew’s Church and the incumbency of its Vicar were celebrated. The sermon preached that day, and preserved in pamphlet form, gives us an insight into the changes and developments which were experienced in the first half-century of the Church’s history. The population of the parish had increased from 420 to over one thousand in this time. During his incumbency, John Charles Thomas had ministered to successive generations and had left a deep impression upon the people of Bryncoch, who held him in high esteem. He had experienced momentous changes in his own lifetime, having been born before the Crimean War and having lived to see the dark days of the Great War, and its aftermath, in Europe. In his person he represented the Church in this locality for over 50 years, and his works and achievements were of the highest order. The parish of Dyffryn can well feel proud to have had such a man as its first incumbent.
Howel Gwyn, the generous landlord who had built the Church and patronised the living, died on January 25, 1888. The Squire of Dyffryn had lived to the age of 82, never ceasing in his good works. He led an active and extremely useful life, and received many honours in recognition of his great public service. Howel Gwyn served as High Sheriff for the three counties of Glamorgan (1837), Carmarthen (1838), and Brecon (1844). He was also a Justice of the Peace for these three counties and Deputy Lieutenant for Glamorgan and Carmarthen. He was the Member of Parliament for Penrhyn and Falmouth, 1847-57, and for Brecon Borough, 1866-69, standing as a Conservative in both cases. He was elected a Neath town Councillor in 1838 and served in that capacity for ten years. In 1848, he was appointed an Alderman and retained that position until the time of his death. He was mayor of Neath in 1842 and 1844. In 1834, Howel Gwyn was elected the first President of the Neath Philosophical and Antiquarian Society. He also served as Chairman of the Board of Guardians, 1853-88, and of the Gas Light and Coke Company in the town.
Howel Gwyn’s munificence to the Church, to charities and to his political party must of necessity be summarised, so great was his generosity to the numerous causes which sought his assistance. In 1886, having been struck by the spiritual destitution of the Alltwen district, Howel Gwyn built the Church of St John the Baptist to serve that community. A school house (the Gwyn Hall) was erected by his wife in 1893 to hold Sunday School and for social events. The Squire of Dyffryn assisted in restoring the following churches, St. Thomas in Neath, Llantwit, Cadoxton, Cilybebyll and Abercrave, in addition to Llandaff Cathedral and other churches. He also assisted new churches at St David’s in Neath, Skewen, Gorseinon, Ystradgynlais and Llansamlet, among many others. He gave the sites for various Nonconformist chapels, and, to mark the jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign, he reduced the ground rents of all the chapels on his estate to the nominal sum of one shilling annually. He supported a large number of charities, including those caring for widows, orphans and poor clergy. The Cottage Homes for children were opened in Bryncoch in 1876 and each Christmas the children were generously feted by Mr. and Mrs. Howel Gwyn. He was also a loyal member of the Conservative Party and, besides giving the site on which the Neath Constitutional Club stands, was liberal in his aid to the local and county associations of his party. Henry Nathaniel Miers J.P., at a meeting of the Neath Constitutional Club after Howel Gwyn death in 1888, expressed ‘regret that our Gracious Sovereign did not confer some special mark of favour on our dear friend and neighbour. Richly he deserved it ...’
Prior to his death, Howel Gwyn gave the land on which the Gwyn Hall, Neath, was built. The valuable location in the centre of the town was on the site of the orchard from which the street takes its name. The foundation stone was laid with considerable ceremony on June 21, 1887, the date of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. In that same year the ‘Corporation Field’, on which Cadoxton Cricket Club had played, was converted into the ‘Victoria Gardens’.
Mrs. Howel Gwyn also presented the town with a fine organ for the Gwyn Hall. Her husband’s death in 1888, after a brief illness, was mourned by the whole community. The Cambrian said of him in its obituary, ‘Mr. Gwyn was a type of fast fading squirearchy of the eighteenth century. He had that peculiarly patriarchal feeling which made all around him instinctively feel that he was head, and he was, above all things, benevolent ... To Neath he was a father, loved, respected and obeyed and as such lie will be long remembered and, by not a few, long mourned for.’
Howel Gwyn’s funeral took place on January 31 1888, the very elements seeming to ‘harmonise in solemnity with the mournful proceedings’. It was a wet, cloudy day and the mist hung low on Drumau mountain. The bishop of Llandaff was present, as were the Mayor and Corporation of Neath, as his coffin was borne to the graveside by tenants from his estates in three counties and laid to rest amid a heavy fall of snow. It was suggested that a monument be raised to his memory, and the principal residents of the neighbourhood and County subscribed for a statute which was erected in 1889. The fine bronze statue of Howel Gwyn, standing on a granite pedestal, was made by Signor Merio Raggi of Regent’s Park, London, an eminent sculptor who was responsible, amongst many other public statues, for that of Lord Swansea (Sir Hussey Vivian) which now stands near the Patti Pavilion in that city. The statue of Howel Gwyn was unveiled on September 26 1889, by Sir John Llewellyn.
One can obtain an impression from a number of sources of what life was like during the first fifty years of Dyffryn’s history. The Church registers record the cycles of birth, marriage and death in the community. The Easter vestry minutes highlight some of the more important events each year in the Church and the locality. A particularly valuable source of information has been a collection of parish magazines dating from 1908 to 1920, with a few omissions, which give an illuminating picture of events each month as seen by the Vicar, J. C. Thomas, and, later, by his curate, A.R. Davies. To these may be added the reminiscences of older parishioners whose youthful days were passed in the period of which I will attempt a description.
Today one sees Bryncoch as an expanding suburb of Neath which, nevertheless, manages to retain something of its village atmosphere and rural charm despite the rapidly sprouting housing estates. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, the village was a mining community dominated by the colliery workings at which most of the men folk found employment. Great black tips can still be seen at the site of the old Main Colliery, near the present Bryncoch Sports Club, and, to a lesser extent, at Fire Engine pit, close to where the road bridges the river Clydach. The siting of the old pits, distant from the areas of population settlement and masked by the geography of the land, is such that one could be forgiven for thinking that agriculture had been the sole industry in this locality. There are, however, signs which reveal that this was a coal mining community. Some of the footpaths which radiate from the village follow the line of the old tramways, such as that which runs alongside the Stanley and Darran Woods to the Highlands of Skewen. Along this line would pass the trains which took coal to the Neath Abbey railway sidings and wharves, and to the old Mines Royal Copper Works. It is only recently that the bridge conveying the tramway over the Wernddu road has been taken down. The old ‘‘counting house’’, situated near Brick Lodge, has also disappeared in the last few years. At this point each passing train was recorded in order that the Dyffryn estate would receive its due royalties from the Main Colliery Company.
In the Church registers of this period one also finds ample evidence of the village’s dependence on the coal mining industry. The entries ‘collier’, ‘haulier’ and ‘engine man’ describe the occupations of a majority of the men folk. As with any mining community, the village people suffered the frequent agony of lives lost and bodies mangled, a reminder of the high price which men pay for coal. In 1859, an old working of the Fire Engine pit was pierced, with the consequent flooding of the Bryncoch main pit. Twenty-five men lost their lives as water rose 80 feet in the drift. In 1896, seven miners died when gas ignited in a heading of the Main Colliery. A relief fund was set up by the Mayor of Neath, donations to which included £100 from the Main Colliery Company, £25 from Mrs. Howel Gwyn and £10 from Sir John Llewellyn. The Main Colliery Company also owned steamers in which they shipped cargoes of coal to various coastal ports. In January, 1878, one of these boats, the “S.S. Pioneer ‘, skippered by E. J. Nicholas, went down with all hands off Padstow, Cornwall. A special Church offertory was made to the widows and families of the crew who perished. Reports of death and maiming in the collieries punctuate the annals. It is well to remember, as one gazes across the green fields of Bryncoch, that the prosperity and livelihood of this community was formerly dependent upon those who toiled beneath the ground.
Bryncoch was a small, close knit village which, prior to the days of mass entertainment, provided its own communal recreations. One finds frequent mention in the parish magazine of virtuoso performances at numerous concerts held in the Church School and, at times, in the Gwyn Hall. A Band of Hope was started in 1906 and a Mothers’ Union branch was founded by the beginning of the First World War. The Whitsun teas, held in the old ‘Plough and Harrow field’, provided much merriment for church and chapel alike. Fetes and flower shows were held in the grounds of Dyffryn, on which occasions marquees were erected in front of the mansion. Mr. Henry T. Bradley, head gardener at Dyffryn, is frequently commended for the beauty of his floral displays in the Church on festive occasions. At Eastertide, the Rev. A. R. Davies would lead a procession of hymn singing parishioners up the Drumau mountainside. The Dyffryn family generously entertained members of the Day and Sunday Schools, the Choir and Bell ringers, to various treats, including Christmas parties with traditional fare, and outings. It is reported how excited villagers would “board brakes” and set off for a day’s excursion to Porthcawl, Aberavon sands, or the most popular destination, Mumbles. The Cottage homes, under the superintendence of Mr. & Mrs. Sair from the year 1894, and described as “the best managed institution in the whole of Wales’’, was the scene of a Boxing Day party given by the Squire and his lady.
Dyffryn can be proud of its connexions with sport in this locality. Both cricket and rugby were, to a large extent, introduced into Wales in the nineteenth century by young men returning from English public schools and universities. This can be clearly seen in our district. The Dyffryn Cricket Club had associations with the Gwyns from the days of its inception, as the club’s crest and very name testify. A well maintained private cricket ground existed on the Dyffryn estate near Footpath Lodge (Swiss Cottage), and older parishioners remember a team of gentlemen, calling themselves ‘The Glamorgan Gypsies’, playing fixtures there. Joseph Edward Moore, who succeeded to the Gwyn Estate in 1900, was educated at Winchester public school and had great enthusiasm for both cricket amid rugby. His name appears among those present at the first meeting of a committee of the Glamorgan Cricket Club at the Angel Inn, Cardiff, in July 1888. In 1899, he is recorded as President of the Neath Football Club and Athletic Association, which also arranged the cricket fixtures at that time, and in 1903 is reported to be the captain of the first XI. Dyffryn also has links with the early days of rugby in this district through Dr T. P. Whittington, who lived at Glyn Clydach and was a Church sidesman. A medical practitioner, Dr. Whittington was reputed to be the founder of Neath Rugby Football Club, which also celebrated its centenary in 1971. He is remembered as Neath’s first international rugby player, although it was for Scotland that he was capped in 1873, and is also the first recorded captain of the Neath Cricket team. He died in 1919 and is buried at Llantwit cemetery.
In these early days the Church choir numbered upwards of fifty voices and competition for a place in the choir stalls was keen. Practices were frequent, and the choirboys were rewarded with a silver three-penny piece on the first Saturday of each New Year. Two men who rendered outstanding service to Dyffryn in respect of church music and choral activities were the Choirmaster, David Lewis, and Joseph Thomas, who was Organist and Foreman bell ringer for 56 years. A notice which was kept in the bell tower and entitled ‘Rules for the Association of Bell ringers’ is of interest. Dated Epiphany 1876, it contains a list of instructions for the operation of the bells, regulations for the conduct of the ringers, and the resolution by the fourteen men whose names are appended (they include Howel Gwyn and James Hodgson as Churchwardens, and Joseph E. Moore as foreman of the ringers) that they should aim ‘‘not only to become good ringers, but also to maintain our character as a respectable body of men’’. One might note the following extracts from these regulations, and the scale of fines imposed for any transgression of the thirteen rules which are boldly stated on the notice:
No drinking, smoking, spitting, wearing of hats, swinging on the ropes, or using profane language ... shall be allowed in the Belfry.
On the death of a parishioner, the tenor after the striking slowly of the other Bells in rotation (three times each for the death of a man and twice each for that of a woman) is to be raised and rung for about five minutes. This is to be the duty of the Sexton, and his remuneration (one shilling) shall be taken out of the Ringing Fund at Christmas.
For using profane language, smoking, drinking (or being intoxicated) in the Belfry.
First offenceOne Shilling
Second dittoTwo and Six
For wearing of hats, swinging on the ropes, or spittingSixpence
For being late at practice or at other appointed time, due notice of ringing having been given by the Foreman (time to be taken from the Church clock)
Fifteen minutes late attendance Three pence
Thirty minutes late attendanceSixpence
Absence altogether, unless a reasonable and satisfactory excuse has been sent to and received by the Foreman or his deputyOne Shilling
For being late for Service ringing, Sundays or Week days
Five minutes late attendanceTwopence
Ten minutes late attendanceSixpence
Absence altogether One and Six
The parish magazines record the impact of the First World War upon the community, describing the patriotism that was displayed and the suffering which was experienced when the young men of the village became embroiled in the conflict. They contain a sad catalogue of the fifteen men who died and of others who bore the scars of battle upon their return. The heroism of those who fought may be judged from the five Military Medals and a Distinguished Conduct Medal awarded to men of the village. Captain (later Colonel) Howel Moore-Gwyn, son of the Squire, received the Distinguished Service Order, the Military Cross, and the Croix de Guerre for his bravery. Naval Captain C. B. W. Young, son-in-law of Mrs. Price, Brynglas, commanded H.M.S. Andes which captured the German armed raider, Grieff. Two brothers from the village sailed under the command of Captain Young whose outstanding war record was recognised by the award of the Distinguished Service Order, and the Cross of the Legion of Honour, one of the highest awards bestowed by France for valour. A holder of the Victoria Cross was married in Dyffryn, soon after the war, to a village girl who had served in the forces. The people at home formed the Bryncoch Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Reception Committee, whose secretary, Thomas Howel, worked tirelessly to produce concerts and organise receptions for returning servicemen. Mrs. Edith Moore-Gwyn, the area commandant of the Red Cross, was responsible for three cottage hospitals in the Neath locality during the war years, and she received the Order of the British Empire in recognition of her nursing activities. Those who lost their lives in both World Wars are recorded on the war memorial, a pillar of grey Cornish granite bearing a Crusader’s sword, which stands at the east end of the Church.
It was in 1908 that the Vicar J. C. Thomas, announced he was “venturing upon the experiment of a Parochial Magazine”. The magazine, priced at 1d a copy, contained news from the parish on the inside of the covers, while inset was a publication called ‘Home Words’. One might reflect that, even in this first decade of the twentieth century, the magazine was recommended as ‘good wholesome reading’ which would ‘counteract in some measure the pernicious effects of the more common literature with which the country is flooded - a large proportion of which is distinctly of a downward and irreligious tendency’. Interesting insights into local society can be gleaned from the contents of these parochial news items. John Charles Thomas, it might be noted, did not hesitate to use the magazine for the forthright expression of his views when he considered Church interests were under attack. This can be observed, in particular, on the subjects of politics and local educational matters, which were causing controversy at that period. The question of the Disestablishment of the Province of Wales was a burning issue for many years before it became a reality in 1920. Much fiery prose is expended on this issue in the magazine and it is reported that Joseph Edward Moore-Gwyn acted as chairman at local ‘Church Defence’ meetings. The employment situation in the area is reflected in some of the remarks that are made, such as the comment at the beginning of 1910, ‘Never before have we known such slack times in the industries of this parish, with so much poverty and distress.’ In April 1912, it is reported that, because of the Coal Strike and the consequent difficulty of obtaining gas coal at Dyffryn, Mr. and Mrs. Moore-Gwyn, ‘who have generously supplied the Church gas gratuitously for so many years, have been very reluctantly obliged to discontinue the gas until they can procure fresh supplies of coal’. This resulted in the Sunday Evening Service being held at 3.30 in the afternoon instead of the usual 6.30 p.m. In 1912, it was decided to form the ‘Dyffryn, Bryncoch and Rhos Nursing Association’ in order to obtain the services of a qualified nurse in the district. In these pre-National Health Service days, the residents of a community would subscribe towards the salary of a nurse to serve the area. The members of the Bryncoch area Association agreed to a subscription of 2s. 6d. annually and, by May 1912, Nurse Vaughan had taken up her duties. She was succeeded, in 1914, by Nurse Lilian Garland, who, during her long years of service in the village, tended many hundreds of patients and probably brought not a few of our parishioners into the world. In the year 1918-1919 alone, it is reported that she paid 3,531 visits to a total of 202 patients, 26 of them being midwifery cases. The high death rate among infants, prior to improvements in medical care, is graphically illustrated in the burial register. This shows, for instance, that, of the 75 recorded interments between 1872 (the year of the first burial at St. Matthew’s) and 1892, nearly half the deaths were of children of five years and under. The National School at Bryncoch is reported to maintain a very high standard under the direction of Roger Howel, who was Headmaster from 1888 to 1901. The Diocesan Inspector, in his annual reports, invariably classed the school as ‘excellent’ in all respects. Members of the Bryncoch Sunday School had been rewarded for regularity of attendance by the Dyffryn family since the erection of the National School in 1857. Reports of the annual presentations appear in the magazines, and there are still in the possession of villagers many of the book prizes signed by the Moore-Gwyns.
There is a reference in the parish magazine of July 1920 to wedding customs which were then practised in the village but which have now long fallen into disuse. The parishioners are admonished and advised to exercise greater care and judgment in practicing the customs of ‘roping’ and the ‘firing of salutes’. The first custom refers to the confronting of a wedding couple with an impediment to their progress in the form of a chain of flowers or hempen rope, to escape which the bride and groom were forced to pay a toll. The ‘firing of salutes’ was the discharge of shotguns which, the parishioners are warned, should not be done ‘at a late hour of night, or at an abnormally early hour of the morning, in such a way as to startle the weak in health, the aged, or seriously ill’. The Moore-Gwyns of Dyffryn were the first family in the area to possess a motorcar, after the turn of the century. A newspaper report in 1905 tells how Mrs. J. F. Moore-Gwyn and her son, Joseph Gwyn, were being driven by their chauffeur through the village of Margam when a bull, ‘infuriated by the (car) lights, lowered its head, and with a savage roar charged the car.’ Although their vehicle suffered serious damage, the occupants were only shaken, and were able to proceed on their journey after some delay. The bull, we are told, ‘evidently both surprised and hurt, dashed into a field and disappeared’. In November 1912, an eight-year-old girl was knocked down by a motor van in Bryncoch and died soon after, perhaps one of the earliest road fatalities involving a motor vehicle in the district.
A hundred years ago the majority of the villagers in Bryncoch probably spoke, or at least understood, the Welsh language. In 1891, it was estimated that three quarters of the population of Neath and district had the ability to speak Welsh as a primary means of communication, even if they did not all make use of it. Anglicising influences were apparent in education, and as a result of industrialisation. The middle class element of Neath were largely English speaking by this period. As we have seen, a Welsh evening service was held on the occasion of the consecration of St. Matthew’s in 1871, and Welsh continued in use for Church services at Dyffryn at least until the end of the century. In 1895, it is reported that the Sunday Evening Service was held alternatively in Welsh and English. The Vicar, John Charles Thomas, stated in his ‘Jubilee Day’ sermon in 1921 that, although neither Mr. nor Mrs. Howel Gwyn was conversant with the Welsh language, ‘they yet attended for several years all the Welsh Services that were held there, for the sake of showing a good and encouraging example to the people of this parish’. Both the first two incumbents of St Matthew’s were able to speak Welsh as, presumably, were many of the native villagers in the first half century of the Church’s existence. A number of English people were introduced into Bryncoch by the Squire of Dyffryn to serve in the mansion. This was not due to antipathy towards the Welsh people, but simply because the Gwyns obtained some of their domestics by recruitment through an Oxford servants’ agency. Local people from the district were also employed in different capacities at the Dyffryn mansion. Many of the English people who were in service under the Gwyns settled in the village, which accounts for some of the names, unusual to these parts, which appear on the headstones in Dyffryn churchyard. Likewise, a study of the small number of gravestones bearing Welsh inscriptions, noting the dates of decease, will give a general indication of the submergence of the Welsh language in favour of English which has occurred in this district.
It was in 1900 that Joseph Edward Moore succeeded to the Dyffryn and Abercrave estates of Howel Gwyn. Mrs Ellen Elizabeth Gwyn died on 24th January 1900 having survived her husband, Howel, exactly twelve years. Joseph Edward Moore was the eldest son of the Rev. Joseph Moore, Vicar and Rural Dean of Buckland in Berkshire, who was brother to Mrs. Gwyn. Joseph Edward Moore was born at Buckland in 1850, educated at Winchester College, and was married in 1876 to Edith Fotheringham, eldest daughter of the Rev. W. Jephson, Rector of Hinton in Berkshire. On 6th September 1900, he assumed by Royal Licence the additional name and arms of Gwyn in compliance with the will of Howel Gwyn. Joseph Edward Moore-Gwyn followed his uncle in maintaining the prestige of this ancient Brecknockshire family and in enhancing their reputation for usefulness in public life. He became closely associated with Brecknockshire and served on the County Council. In 1902 he was High Sheriff of Brecon and also served as Deputy Lieutenant for the County. He was a Justice of the Peace for both Brecknockshire and Glamorgan. Like his uncle, he was a Conservative in politics and a staunch Churchman with a strong attachment to St. Matthew’s, Dyffryn, where he served as Vicar’s Warden for 34 years. He was a patron of many outdoor sports, cricket in particular. His wife, Edith, became President of the local branch of the Red Cross Society at the outbreak of the First World War. She organised three small hospitals in the Neath area, at Gnoll Park Road, The Laurels, and at the Gnoll Schools and was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her nursing activities. She was also a Justice of the Peace.
Joseph Edward Moore-Gwyn had two sons, Joseph Gwyn and Howel Gwyn. The latter was a highly decorated soldier who suffered gas poisoning during WWI and who’d served in a number of theatres, including France and Salonica. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the Military Cross, the Croix de Guerre, and was mentioned in dispatches on three occasions. Howel Gwyn Moore-Gwyn attained the rank of Colonel and commanded the Second Rifle Brigade. He was also a talented sportsman, especially at the game of racquets, being Army champion on numerous occasions. It is interesting to note that Howel married Winifred, a daughter of Arthur Gilbertson of Glanrhyd, Pontardawe. The Gilbertsons were the family who controlled the great metallurgical complex at Pontardawe and who are closely identified with the founding and early development of Swansea University. Joseph Gwyn, brother to Howel, married Olive Gilbertson, while two of their three sisters also married into this same family. Small wonder that Mrs. Edith Moore-Gwyn is reputed to have exclaimed “Is there no one but the Gilbertsons?” when told that yet another of her brood was to marry into this neighbouring family.
The man who followed John Charles Thomas as Vicar of Dyffryn in 1923 was his curate, the Rev. Alfred Richard Davies. The second incumbent of St Matthew’s had started upon a career in medicine but had to abandon his studies in this direction. His father was the manager of a Cwmavon tinplate company, where A. R. Davies had himself worked for a time. He was ordained in 1902 at Llandaff and returned to Cwmavon where he served a curacy from 1901 to 1913. He was highly regarded in this community by people in all walks of life and across the denominations. In 1914 he came to assist the ageing John Charles Thomas in the parish of St Matthew’s, Dyffryn. The Rev. Alfred Richard Davies, like his predecessor, gave loyal and devoted service to this parish, remaining for 37 years at Dyffryn until his death in 1950. He was a man of unwearied diligence in his pastoral work and was revered by his parishioners. He was remembered for his eloquent preaching, love of conversation and his prolixity of expression. He accompanied some of his entries in the burial register with a few apposite remarks, a practice which has proved invaluable in supplying factual and biographical details of parishioners. Alfred Richard Davies was intensely proud of his priestly vocation and was often seen about the village dressed in the biretta and gaiters which he customarily wore. Although he lived frugally himself, he was generous to those in need and many were the stories told to illustrate these facets of his character.
The second Vicar of Dyffryn had the distinction to serve successively as Chaplain to the High Sheriffs of two counties. He was Chaplain to Theodore Gibbins, High Sheriff of Glamorgan in 1928, and also served in that capacity to Colonel John Mayberry Bevan, High Sheriff of Carmarthenshire in 1929. Alfred Richard Davies continued the tradition of devoted and diligent service to the parish set by John Charles Thomas, to whom he proved a worthy successor. His incumbency in this parish spanned both World Wars, and after his death at the age of 83 in February 1950 he was buried near the war memorial in Dyffryn churchyard. During the years that Alfred Richard Davies was Vicar, profound changes took place in the Bryncoch area, changes which included the closure of the Main Colliery Company and the razing of Dyffryn mansion.
The magnificent residence which Howel Gwyn had built, unlike the Church he founded upon his Dyffryn estate, did not endure for a hundred years. Dyffryn mansion was erected in 1855 on an elevated site which commanded a fine view of the surrounding countryside. The Cambrian in 1871, declared that “the noble residence of Howel Gwyn ... is situated on one of the most beautiful spots in the district and, at considerable expense, Art has added to what Nature had done before’’. The mansion, built in the neo-Gothic style which was popular in the Victorian era, was constructed of sandstone with Bath stone dressing. The house was spacious, there being over forty rooms, including ten principal bedrooms, a billiard room, library, smoking room and servants’ hall. There were garages, stables,and other outbuildings in close proximity. The estate had its own gas-making plant, operated for over 36 years by Williams Cooke who was also the blacksmith at Dyffryn. There were two lodges to the estate, both of which still stand, the Front Lodge and main drive to the mansion being adjacent to the Church.
The Dyffryn estate consisted of some 322 acres which, in addition to the buildings mentioned, also comprised Plas Newydd (the home farm), pasture land, woodlands and cottages. The grounds were beautifully kept, consisting of tree groves, shrubberies, water gardens with artificially constructed-waterfalls, a fernery, iris walks and avenues of rhododendrons. Older parishioners recall that a cork tree grew in the gardens. A portion of the bark would be cut from this tree and used as a base for a wreath of flowers floated upon the font in Church on festive occasions. There were four tennis courts with a pavilion, and also a private cricket pitch. Pheasant and woodcock, grouse and snipe were bred on the estate, and shoots were regularly organised.
The mansion was frequently visited by the surrounding gentry, the Gilbertsons of Pontardawe, the Lloyds of Cilybebyll, the Vaughans of Rheola, the Llewellyns of Penllergaer, and the Vivians of Singleton, Swansea. These affluent and influential families formed a closely knit group in society, and often, as we have seen in the case of the Moore-Gwyns and the Gilbertsons, intermarried with one another. The great opera singer, Madame Adelina Patti, frequently came to Dyffryn, and the Gwyns, in turn, visited the ‘Queen of Song’ at Craig-y-Nos Castle in the Swansea Valley. Lloyd George paid an impromptu visit to the mansion in 1918 when the National Eisteddfod was held at Neath, on which occasion the Premier was awarded the Freedom of the Borough.
One must recall that this was a hierarchical, deferential society, with the landowning class enjoying a style of living which was largely to disappear between the world wars. The Dyffryn family employed a large number of domestics in the mansion and a photograph taken after the turn of the century shows sixteen servants, including a butler, housekeeper, maids, coachman, groom and chauffeur. There were, in addition, gamekeepers, gardeners, and other ancillary staff engaged about the estate. These were the days when the Gwyn family and their servants would occupy the first five pews on the south side of St. Matthew’s Church, and when a person’s standing in the village could be gauged according to the proximity of his pew to the chancel. The Gwyns also owned Abercrave House on the heirloom estate, where the Gilbertsons came to live. The first Vicar of Dyffryn, likewise, maintained a comfortable style of living at this period. The patronage of Howel Gwyn, together with the wealth inherited by his wife, Margaret Laura, who owned a number of collieries in the district, enabled the Rev. John Charles Thomas at one time to employ five servants in the Vicarage. Mr. David Prout, a loyal Churchwarden at Dyffryn for many years, was once chauffeur to the first Vicar. Clerical dignitaries were often entertained in the splendidly built Vicarage, which was surrounded by its gardens and orchard, at Dyffryn.
Significant changes occurred, both nationally and locally, in the 1920s. The Disestablishment Bill passed through Parliament in 1920. The economic depression of this decade eroded the fortunes of many families and, in 1927, Dyffryn mansion, which had already been vacated for a few years, and its estate were offered for sale. Plans were formulated in the county to transform the mansion into a hospital or similar institution, as happened with Drymma Hall, but these failed to materialise. The estate was divided into lots and sold. The fixtures of Dyffryn mansion, which had once contained splendid furniture, fine paintings, choice examples of biscuit porcelain made at Swansea, and a large library, were disposed of in 1931. The organ from the mansion was given to Abercrave Church and the busts of Mr. and Mrs. Howel Gwyn came to Dyffryn Church. By 1932, the proud residence had been demolished, some of the stones being employed to build houses at Tonna, near Neath. The Moore-Gwyns resided at Longford Court for a few years and then moved to Hampshire. The Main Colliery ceased operations in 1929, and the Easter vestry minutes of 1930 record the fact that the pit-head machinery was being dismantled. The most influential family and the main industry of the village had thus faded within a decade, while the Church in Wales was presented with new problems and challenges arising from disendowment.
Many links with the past had therefore been sundered by the end of the Rev. Alfred Richard Davies's incumbency. In 1937, Major Joseph Gwyn Moore-Gwyn died at Waunceirch House while visiting this locality. He had been a Justice of the Peace for both Glamorgan and Brecknockshire, and had served in World War I. His son, Howel Joseph Moore-Gwyn, a Major in the Welsh Guards, was severely wounded by a German flying bomb during World War II and died in September 1947. Joseph Gwyn Moore-Gwyn and his son, Howel Joseph, were buried in Dyffryn churchyard. In 1956, the cremated remains of Colonel Howel Gwyn Moore-Gwyn were interred in the Gwyn burial plot near the south porch of St Matthew’s. They were men who, in the words of Alfred Richard Davies, ‘were faithful to (the) best traditions of (the) Church and distinguished ancestry’. For eighty years and more the Gwyn family and Dyffryn had been intimately linked with the Bryncoch area. While future generations may not fully comprehend the nature of this association, it is only fitting that the history of the Gwyn family should be viewed as a complementary part of the history of St Matthew’s church which the Squires of Dyffryn had founded and patronised.
The wooded slopes and green fields in the area bounded by Drummau and Blaenhonddan, along the floor of which runs the river Clydach, have made this district a pleasant location in which to settle. The Bryncoch area, situated near to the Neath and Swansea Valleys, with ease of access both to the coast and inland, offered the same attraction a century and more ago as it now does to the many new residents who have settled here recently, and who commute to their place of work. Most of the land in this district was once divided between the Dynevor, Tennant and Gwyn estates. A number of influential families came to live in the area, many of them having made their fortunes in the mining and metallurgical industries. They resided in. large houses, most of which still stand. Bryn Glas, once the home of the Prices and later of Mr William Gilbertson, was only demolished some five years ago. These families were frequently loyal Church supporters, as well as being important members of local society, and their contribution to the history of the parish is worthy of record.
Mr Osborne Sheppard, an estate agent, lived in Glyn Clydach. He was a Churchwarden of St Matthew's from 1889 until his death in 1899. (A complete list of Church wardens will be found later in this booklet.) John Birch Paddon, who is buried with members of his family at the southwest corner of the Church, was a south of England gas works proprietor. Around 1890 he bought Drymma Hall, Skewen, out of Chancery, where it had been the subject of controversy for over 50 years. He became a local Justice of the Peace. His son, William Vye, was an Army Captain who distinguished himself in the Egyptian and other campaigns. Mr Stephen Earle, of Gilfach House, was an industrialist who came of clerical lineage, one of his uncles having been a bishop in the Church of England. He served as a Parochial Church Councillor and sidesman at Dyffryn for many years. Mr Theodore Gibbins of Glynfelin was a tinplate manufacturer and a member of the family, many of them Quakers, who had been notable captains of industry in the Neath and Swansea areas. Theodore Gibbins J.P. was High Sheriff of Glamorgan, 1928-29, a Member of the Welsh Church Representative Body, and an Officer of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Both he and his brother, Edward Joseph, were Churchwardens of St Matthew’s. Colonel John Maybery Bevan of Glyn-Clydach, who was awarded the Military Cross while serving in World War I, was another noted industrialist who settled in this area. Colonel Bevan, a Church sidesman, was High Sheriff of Carmarthenshire, 1929-30, and also served as Deputy Lieutenant for Glamorgan. He was a member of the local Magistrates’ Bench and Chairman of Glamorgan County Cricket Club from 1942 tip until 1958.
The Rev John Charles Thomas stated, in his Jubilee sermon, that the first funeral at St. Matthew’s was that of Owen Owen of Trenache Farm in this parish. He was of father of a remarkable family of sons who distinguished themselves in the commercial world. One of the sons founded the Ely Paper Mills, Cardiff. Another was a Member of Parliament for a constituency in the south of England. The name of Owen is still to be seen on a chain stores in the Liverpool area where a third son became one of the merchant princes of his time. Two Neath men who were Under-Sheriffs of Brecknockshire, Albert Jestyn Jeffreys (founder of a well known Neath firm of solicitors) and his son, William Howel, are also buried in Dyffryn churchyard.
There had only been four Vicars of Dyffryn during the first one hundred year history of St Matthew’s Church. In 1950, the Rev. Ivor Thomas Bidgood became the third incumbent of the parish. He graduated from University College, Cardiff, in 1918, and then trained at Sarum Theological College. He was ordained a priest at Llandaff in 1920. Ivor Thomas Bidgood had wide experience in the diocese, serving at Cardiff; Ebbw Vale and Port Talbot before becoming Vicar of Llandough with St Mary church, in 1939. He had the distinction of being Rural Dean of Cowbridge and was also Diocesan Inspector of Church Schools between 1944 and 1954. Ivor Thomas Bidgood was Vicar of Dyffryn for ten years. He died in September 1969 and is buried in Dyffryn churchyard. In 1960, the Rev. David Grenfell Rees was inducted to St Matthew’s Church. David Grenfell Rees was educated at Swansea Grammar School, St David’s College, Lampeter, and Queen’s College, Birmingham. He was ordained at Llandaff in 1944 and served curacies at Llangeinor, Cadoxton-juxta-Barry and St. Andrew’s Major. During the last two decades the task of meeting new challenges while retaining old traditions has been ably fulfilled in the upholding of the Church’s ministry in this parish.
An enormous growth of population has occurred in the district during the last decade, more rapid even than the expansion which led Howel Gwyn to found a Church upon his Dyffryn estate. The population of the parish was about 1,400 during the incumbency of the Rev. Ivor Thomas Bidgood. Since the beginning of the 1960s, the Bryncoch area has become a popular residential suburb, and the number of people in the parish of St Matthew’s has now soared to well over 3,000.
Such has been the history and development of the Church and parish of Dyffryn Clydach during the last hundred years. A close knit village has become largely a community of car-borne commuters. Horses are now ridden, for recreation, along the line of the old dramways. Old landmarks and green fields have, in some cases, disappeared. The home of the Squires of Dyffryn has been razed; its shrubberies and rhododendron walks are overgrown, the ornamental ponds demolished. The remains of the mansion, lying among the trees, are like the vestiges of a lost civilization. New traditions are, however, being forged, and a sense of identity is emerging in the modern Bryncoch. Old and new have been tastefully blended, and the essential character of the village has been safeguarded. The Church today, just as it was a century ago, is presented with fresh challenges and opportunities in this changing atmosphere. The parish has a proud and interesting history, but memories fade. I hope that this record will help preserve an impression of the past, and serve as a tribute to those men and women who have worshipped at the Church of St Matthew, Dyffryn, during the last one hundred years.