Saturday, 20 February 2016

37 The Wesley Chapel

37. The Wesley Chapel – 20 Feb 2016 (photos: Wesley Chapel in 1848 & 1941 ruin)

On the south side of College Street it is easy to miss a head-high plaque between two shops which states: ‘To the glory of God this tablet indicates the site on which the Wesley Chapel, College Street, was situated.  Opened February 1847, destroyed by enemy action February 1941’.

The building stood at the corner with Goat Street (roughly the top part of present-day Princess Way), opposite the old Synagogue and Sidney Heath’s original draper’s shop, believed to be the site of the birthplace of ‘Beau’ Nash. 

In the eighteenth century Church of England minister John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, made nine visits to Swansea, preaching on occasions in the courtyard of The Plas (as illustrated by a Dunvant Junior School pupil on Castle Square plaque  number 4).  The Plas, then owned by the first Calvert Richard Jones, was Swansea’s finest mediaeval house, and stood on the site later occupied by the Ben Evans Store, then by Castle Gardens and now Castle Square. 

A Methodist Society was established in Castle Street in 1769, and subsequently a chapel was built on the corner site of College Street and Goat Street.  Wesleyan Methodist chapels were also being erected in anglicised parts of Gower, in villages like Oxwich, Horton, Reynoldston and Port Eynon.  Following Wesley’s death in 1791, Methodists separated from the Church of England to become a distinct Christian denomination. 

Swansea’s Methodist chapel was rebuilt in 1824-25, and as the congregation grew so work commenced on a much larger chapel on that site - its foundation stone was laid in June 1845.  But the builder went bankrupt, and the building was left roofless for over a year before eventual completion and opening in February 1847.  The 1851 Guide to Swansea stated that ‘the style is Italian, and the building is graced with a handsome porch and a fine lofty steeple, having a circular aperture in the tower for the purposes of a clock’. 

It could accommodate 1,000 people, and was filled in June 1925 for the visit of the evangelist and singer Gipsy Smith, then aged in his seventies.

But in the Second World War the building, like much of central Swansea, was destroyed by aerial bombardment during the ‘Three Nights Blitz’ of February 1941.  Its large schoolroom was being used as an air-raid shelter, and the rumour persists to this day that when incendiary bombs fell on 21st February over a hundred people inside were killed: in fact this did not happen.  In times of stress and danger events can get exaggerated and distorted, and of course such disasters occurred, though not at Swansea’s Wesley Chapel.  As the bombardment increased, all those sheltering in the schoolroom were evacuated and guided initially to the Welcome Lane shelter, and from there to the arches under the Strand, as borne out in the wartime memoirs of Elaine Kidwell.  She was then Britain’s youngest air raid warden, having lied about her age to join up, hoping as a Girl Guide that her first aid skills would be of use.  Elaine joined in February 1941, during Swansea’s most intense time of bombing with those three solid nights of bombardment on the 19th, 20th and 21st. 

For a while the Wesleyan congregation met in the Ragged School in Pleasant Street, but members gradually dispersed to chapels in the suburbs.  The Wesley Chapel was not rebuilt, so Brunswick Chapel in St Helen’s Road became Swansea’s main Wesleyan place of worship.  The £54,000 of war damage compensation was used to build Wesley Memorial Chapel on the Townhill estate in 1953, though it was later sold to the Council to become a gymnastic centre. 
With post-war rebuilding of the town centre both Goat Street and Waterloo Street (which was roughly parallel to it) were replaced by a new dual carriageway, named by the then Princess Elizabeth as Princess Way.

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