Beulah United Reformed Church
Rhiwbina

URC

 

Beulah's History

THE BEULAH STORY, 1849-2000

Beulah began as a Welsh Independent (Congregational) church in what was then a rural and predominantly Welsh-speaking area in the parish of Whitchurch. Nonconformist families in the locality had considerable distances to travel to their places of worship and would sometimes meet together in one or other of the farmhouses. The Reverend Griffith Hughes, minister of Groeswen chapel, is known to have conducted services from time to time between 1812 and the 1830s at Briwnant, Rhiwbina and Ton-yr-ywen farms, and no doubt at other places too. The move towards establishing a Congregationalist church seems to have emerged from a group of families meeting in this way at Cornel-y-waun farm, Wauntreoda, Whitchurch, where the Revd John Jones of Bethlehem (Gwaelod-y-garth) and Rudry frequently officiated. In 1848 this group acquired a cottage, previously used as a smithy, at a rent of four pounds ten shillings per annum. The first sermon was preached there on Christmas Day 1848, and in 1849 Beulah Church was formed with John Jones as its minister in addition to his other two pastorates.

By 1850 the congregation felt confident enough to embark on a building project and obtained a 999-year lease at £1 per annum on a site adjoining the cottage for the purposes of a chapel and graveyard. On Whit Tuesday 1851 the new chapel, which cost £138, was opened. The trustees appointed by the church were named as:

Edward Daniell, Whitchurch, Yeoman
William Brown, Whitchurch, Tin Packer
William David, Whitchurch, Labourer
George Pike, Pentyrch, Forgeman
William Russell, Pentyrch, Forgeman.

The occupations listed reflect both the agricultural character of the immediate area and some of the industry already established around it.

In 1851 an official Census of Religious Worship was taken throughout the country (for the first and only time), recording attendances on Sunday 30 March. The returns listed under Whitchurch Parish include:

‘Beulah, Dissenters.
Erected: 1848
Space: free 60; standing 40.
Present: aft. 80; even. 60.
Average (12 months): aft. 80; even. 60.
[Signed] John Jones, Minister, Rhudry.’

Some comments on this entry:

(1) In the returns from South Wales, most Independent churches are so described. It is interesting that John Jones chose the term ‘Dissenters’, which had been used since the 17th century for worshippers outside the established church. Was he making a point of emphasizing his own and his congregation’s long tradition of nonconformity?

(2) The date of the census was shortly before the opening of the new chapel, and the details given (including the 1848 date) presumably apply to the adapted cottage, which must have been rather crowded! Sunday School would have been held in the mornings.
 

John Jones was succeeded as Minister by William Russell, who was already a deacon at Beulah and a recognised local preacher before being ordained; but in August 1857 be suffered a ‘paralytic seizure’ which deprived him of speech and so ended his ministry. However, he continued to attend Beulah until his death in 1891, and was buried in the Beulah graveyard.

In 1858-9 there was a religious revival in South Wales and Beulah felt its influence. In 1860 the membership stood at 49 (the attendance figures in the Religious Census must have included a number of adherents), and in February of that year a young man from Carmarthen College, John Lloyd Jones, was ordained as Beulah’s third minister. He was an author and poet under the nom-de-plume Clwydwenfro. Soon after his arrival it was decided to extend and refurbish the church, which was reopened in April 1861. He remained in Beulah until October 1869, when he moved to Dowlais.

From this time on, a prominent figure in the life of the church was John Phillips of Cornel-y-waun farm, who was elected Treasurer in October 1869 and held that office until his death in June 1894. He also served as a deacon, as precentor, and as Sunday School superintendent, and was generous in his financial support. In addition he was an influential local citizen.

In 1872 Beulah extended a call to ministry to a student of Brecon College, W Meurig Rees, who was ordained on 4 July. However, he was to die of consumption (tuberculosis) in June 1874.

In 1875 further improvements were made to the church and a call was then extended to the Revd D Gwernydd Rees of Witton Park, Durham, and a native of Swansea. Thus began, in January 1876, a ministry which was to last until March 1917. Gwernydd Rees also served Watford Church from 1877 to 1919.

From the mid-1850s to the early 1880s, some of the Beulah congregation were associated with a Sunday School held somewhat spasmodically, along with occasional services and prayer meetings, on the premises of the College Ironworks in the district then known as Llandaff Yard.

In 1879 the freehold of the chapel site was acquired, the old cottage demolished, and a new vestry and caretaker’s cottage built. Then in November 1889 a church meeting was called for the purpose of ‘discussing whether, having regard to the fact that the present building has become quite insufficient to accommodate our present congregation and also to its very dilapidated condition it is not advisable for us to have a new chapel built’. The meeting, attended by 30 members, decided in favour of a new building. A lease of 999 years was negotiated on a plot of land on the opposite side of the road from the old chapel, building began in March 1890, and the new church opened in February 1891. One of the foundation stones was laid by John Phillips who contributed so much to the life of the church until his death in June 1894.

It appears that it was intended at first to demolish the old chapel and use the materials in the new building. Fortunately, however, the church was dissuaded from this course of action by Dr W T Edwards, a prominent Congregationalist and a public figure of considerable standing in Cardiff and, indeed, farther afield – among other things, he served as President of the British Medical Association. Although Beulah was not his own church, he himself contributed the estimated value (£25) of the materials that might have been used, and so saved an historic building which, with successive adaptations through the years, has been of great service to the church and to the Rhiwbina community.

When the new chapel was opened the church had 112 members, a total congregation of about 200, and a Sunday School of 160. By this time, only Sunday morning services were entirely in Welsh, while the afternoon Sunday School and the evening service were mainly in English. In 1898, for an experimental period of three months, morning sermons were preached in English and at the end of that year it was decided to make this a permanent arrangement. In 1904 Beulah transferred to the East Glamorgan English Congregational Association. However, it has always kept something of the ethos and character of a Welsh chapel, even though many of the congregation come from quite different backgrounds. Until the later decades of the twentieth century the tradition continued of holding a Welsh service once or twice a year on a Monday evening; and the occasional Welsh hymn is still sung with enthusiasm on a Sunday.

In 1903 or 1904 a few members of Beulah began to take steps towards establishing a Congregational church in Llandaff North, a developing suburb of Cardiff and adjacent to Whitchurch. The Revd D Gwernydd Rees agreed to oversee this development and Beulah made a contribution of £80. Initially, services were held in the local Infants’ School, and a committee was set up to find a site for a church. Quite early in these discussions there seems to have been some dissension in Beulah about their minister’s involvement and the financial implications, and the Llandaff North people were told that Beulah could not undertake any further responsibility. A small chapel/schoolroom was nevertheless opened in 1905 and named Christ Church. Gwernydd Rees relinquished his oversight of this church in 1906.
The 1904-05 revival had its effect on Beulah. The minister’s annual message to the church for each of these years refers to the fervour manifested and to ‘the earnest and strenuous spiritual life amongst our members, especially amongst our young people’. However, at least in statistical terms, these results do not appear to have been long-lived. In 1903 the church membership was 114; in 1905, 143; in 1906 it reached a peak of 178; then fell each year to 109 in 1910.

In 1912 a Society was formed to establish a garden village on a site described as ‘Rhubina Fields’, adjacent to Rhubina Halt on the Cardiff Railway and Rhubina Road, later called Heol-y-deri. (This is not the occasion to discuss local place-names, their spelling, or their derivation!) This site was on Beulah’s doorstep, and the scheme augured a substantial expansion of the local population. Perhaps in anticipation of this, Beulah embarked on enlarging and adapting the old premises and installing electricity in the church. This work was completed in December 1914. By that time the first batch of Garden Village houses had been built, and by the end of the First World War the total had reached 70.

In May 1915 a new set of trustees was appointed for the church premises. Their descriptions perhaps reflect some changes in the nature of the church community by that time:

‘James Henry Hicks, Tinplate Worker.
Thomas Hicks, Tinplate Worker.
John William Jenkins, Commercial Clerk.
Margaret Ann Jones, Spinster.
Wm. Samuel Jones, Schoolmaster.
David Llewelyn, Quarry Owner.
Ernest Victor Parsons, Builder.
Elizabeth Ann Phillips, wife of Wm. Phillips.
Edward John Price, Poor Law Clerk.
Sarah Hannah Price, wife of E.J. Price.
Theodore Salmon, Tinplate Worker.
George Edward Samuel, Assistant in Corn Stores.
William Hamer (Llanishen), Gentleman.
David Williams, Colliery Proprietor.’

The Revd Gwernydd Rees having retired in 1917, a call was extended in 1919 to the Revd Samuel Jones, who started his ministry in August of that year. In 1925 a long-cherished plan was realised when an organ chamber was added to the church and a pipe organ installed. There was a new spate of house-building in the 1920s, and Rhiwbina changed from a rural to a suburban community. In 1918 the membership of Beulah was about 120 while its total income was only about £200. When Samuel Jones died in 1940 after a fruitful ministry of 21 years, the membership was about 200 and the various church funds amounted to some £600. That the church was by no means inward-looking at this period is illustrated by the fact that in 1934 Mrs Lilian Oldfield-Davies formed a Junior Branch of the League of Nations.

The growth of Rhiwbina led to the opening of other places of worship: All Saints Church, Rhiwbina Baptist Church, Bethany Baptist Church, Bethel Methodist Church (now, though not originally, Welsh-speaking), Bethesda Chapel, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Over the years, good ecumenical relationships have been formed between Beulah and a number of these churches, together with others in Whitchurch and Birchgrove.

Samuel Jones was succeeded as minister by the Revd Elfed Jones, inducted in November 1941 following a pastorate with the Union of Welsh Independents. Under his leadership the church continued to make progress; he had particular success working with young people and started a Junior Church. In 1946 he moved to a post with the YMCA, and subsequently to a lectureship in Religious Education.

The Revd T George Phillips followed in 1948 until in 1950 he accepted a full-time hospital chaplaincy in Carmarthen.

Beulah’s next minister, from 1952 to 1958, was the Revd Clifford O Thomas. He had served as an Army chaplain in the Second World War, including a period as a prisoner of war, and was a committed supporter of the Toc H movement. He earned great affection and appreciation from his congregation before moving to his next pastorate in Hinckley. During his time at Beulah, in October 1957, a weekly Men’s Meeting was started. To facilitate the work of the Sunday School and of organisations meeting during the week, extensions were added in 1957 to the Assembly Rooms on the site of the original church.

In 1959 the Revd T Glyndwr Jones, minister of Christ Church, Rhyl, and Secretary of the North Wales Congregational Union, accepted a call to Beulah. He was well known as an eloquent preacher of liberal outlook, wide reading, and considerable originality, and he contributed to the work of the wider church by serving on some of the central committees of the denomination and the Council for World Mission.

Mrs Lilian Oldfield-Davies was an active and much-loved member of the church who took a leading part in the Sunday School, in drama productions, and in numerous other activities. In 1960 she introduced Beulah to the work of the Welsh Friends of Refugees, a charity which had recently been set up in support of an international effort to meet the needs of many people throughout Europe who were still displaced and dispossessed as a result of the Second World War. Beulah agreed to ‘adopt’ Frau Magdalene (Helene) Krobath and her young daughter Waltraud in Austria, and formed a Refugee Committee to organise fund-raising and keep in touch with this little family as they gradually settled into a new home. Friendships were soon formed through correspondence, and in the summer of 1963 Helene and Waltraud were invited to Rhiwbina and spent a month with Dr Alun and Mrs Margaret Jones. Many members of the church shared in various outings and activities during their stay, and personal contacts continued through the decades that followed. (Helene died in 2010).

The Refugee Committee expanded its remit in order to help other charitable causes and by 1963 had adopted the name Kindred in Need (KIN). This has developed into Beulah’s major outreach organisation.

Wilfred Lee, church organist and deacon, died suddenly in 1963. At Christmas 1965 an organ screen was dedicated in his memory; this was made by another member of the church, John Weston Thomas of Gwaelod-y-garth, a skilled carpenter and harp-maker.

March 1968 saw the start of a Luncheon Club in the Beulah Assembly Rooms, organised by members of the WRVS. In 1971 the Youth Fellowship undertook for the first time what was to become an annual Christmas Day dinner, tea and entertainment for elderly and lonely people from all over Cardiff.

In 1970 a programme of renovation and redecoration was carried out in the church. After long planning and preparation, May 1972 saw the opening of a further extension and adaptation of the Assembly Rooms, which included installing an upper floor.

Over a number of years the Congregational Church in England and Wales (formerly the Congregational Union) and the Presbyterian Church of England had been developing a closer relationship, and in October 1972 the two denominations joined to form the United Reformed Church. Beulah celebrated this union in two services on Sunday 15 October.

The disused burial ground behind the Assembly Rooms was constantly overgrown and difficult to keep in good order. A proposal was made in 1974 to turn this land into a garden as a memorial to James Horsburgh, formerly leader of the Youth Club for 12 years up to 1961. The necessary consultations took place, a fund was organised by past and present members of the Youth Club, and the first shrubs and roses were planted in December 1975. Since that time, the garden has become well established as a peaceful and valued space, cared for by volunteers from the church and open to the community.

In 1975 a member of Beulah, Miss Gaynor Rees, was commissioned to serve the Council for World Mission on the staff of Moeding College, Botswana, and so provided the church with another opening for its outreach overseas.

All in all, the 1970s proved to be full of challenges, responses and achievements in the life of Beulah’s own fellowship and in its wider relationships. As the decade drew to a close, so did Glyndwr Jones’s pastorate. He retired in 1979, after several years during which he had suffered periods of illness, along with the grave and progressive illness of Anne, his wife, who died in July 1978. He remained in Rhiwbina after retirement until his death in July 1984.

Glyndwr Jones was succeeded in September 1980 by the Revd Kenneth Graham. For the first time, Beulah had a minister whose roots were not in Wales or in Congregationalism: he had been ordained in the Presbyterian Church of England, had ecumenical experience, and introduced Beulah to some fresh approaches to worship. During his ministry close bonds were formed between Beulah, Bethany Baptist, and All Saints’ Churches in Rhiwbina.

There were already friendly informal relations with the other two United Reformed Churches in North Cardiff: Bethesda (Tongwynlais) and North Llanishen (later named Bethel). In January 1981 a Steering Committee was formed to further the intention of working more closely together. This led to a strengthening of ties until, in 1992, a North Cardiff Group of churches was formally inaugurated.

Early in his ministry Ken Graham initiated a Midweek Meeting Point: an informal opportunity to meet in the church on Wednesday mornings for prayer, reflection and fellowship. This has become an established feature of every week for the church and the village.

In July 1984, largely inspired by Ken Graham, a Rhiwbina Festival was held for the first time and with great success, culminating in a joint service of worship in Beulah. The Festival has since been an annual event, though not without its difficulties and changes, and is one example among many of how the life of the church and of its surrounding community can be integrated.

The process of dismantling barriers continued over the years in a variety of ways, some of them quite literal. The stone wall and gates which had surrounded the church since its construction were removed, merging the forecourt with the public pavement. Glass doors were installed at the main entrance and clear and engraved glass in the vestibule screen, bringing the interior of the church into view. From October 1985 the church has been open each morning for private prayer and meditation.

In May 1987 the URC General Assembly met in Cardiff in St David’s Hall and many Beulah people participated in the organisation, stewarding, information desk, Traidcraft stall, hospitality, music, and especially in an inspiring evening’s ‘Celebration’ when the hall was filled to capacity.

In 1990, two members of the Beulah church family were ordained and inducted to the ministry: Gethin Rhys at Brecon and Philip Webb at Blackburn.

A new extension to the church building was initiated in 1991 and completed in June 1992. This was the Margaret Whittaker Lounge, named in memory of a faithful church member who left her house as a bequest to the church, enabling this and other projects to take place. The work involved reconstructing and enlarging the area previously occupied by the organ chamber and two small vestries and installing a purpose-built coffee lounge, toilets, a utility area, a vestry room, and a small upstairs office. The alterations also created the opportunity to have a more flexible interior space at the front of the church, with moveable platforms and pulpit. A committee was set up to organise and manage the use of the lounge, and a large number of volunteers joined a rota to keep it open to the public and serve light refreshments for five mornings a week. From the outset it has proved its worth as a friendly and comfortable meeting place for members of the church and the community. The room originally intended as a vestry was in fact made available to the Rhiwbina Good Neighbours scheme as an office.

Starting at Christmas 1991, volunteers from Beulah and other local churches took part in a ‘Bread Run’ each Saturday to collect unsold bread, rolls, buns, cakes and savouries from bakeries and deliver them to the Cardiff Action for the Single Homeless hostel. In due course this scheme was succeeded by others such as the Paradise Run helping to feed homeless and other needy people.

In 1992 the North Cardiff Group, already mentioned above, was established by the URC District Council. The three churches maintained their separate identity while sharing the services of a ministerial team, including two stipendiary ministers, Ken Graham and Kristin Ofstad (who served until 2000 and was succeeded in February 2002 by Patricia Clamp). The Group continued to function till 2006, when it was wound up because of increasing pressure on ministerial resources and the three churches reverted to their individual status.

Another community development encouraged by Ken Graham was the formation in 1997 of the Rhiwbina Civic Society, which has used the Beulah premises as the base for its meetings and activities.

As the millennium approached, the church decided to embark on a major community project starting in 1997 involving further substantial development of the Assembly Rooms. Fund-raising was put in hand in all kinds of ways, including the efforts and donations of many individuals. A notable example was Nance Leaver, a church member who, like Margaret Whittaker a few years before, left her house to the church and was commemorated in the naming of the upper hall in the refurbished building. The project was still proceeding when the church celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1999, and was completed in September 2000. The building was re-named ‘Canolfan Beulah – Church Community Centre’ and has since been in use every day of every week for activities of the church itself and of the Rhiwbina community.

This community project was a fitting climax to the ministry of Ken Graham, who retired in January 2001. Later that year, the Revd Dr Peter Cruchley-Jones succeeded him in the North Cardiff Group. As this brings us to the start not only of the twenty-first century but also of a new and on-going chapter in the story of Beulah, it seems an appropriate point at which to pause, for now.


John Rhys
March 2011

 
 

This page last updated: 17 March 2015

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