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Going the way of the dairies

27 February 2015

Leigh Hatts on Welsh worshippers' homes from home in London

City Mission: The story of London's Welsh chapels
Huw Edwards
Y Lolfa £24.95
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HUW EDWARDS has written a thorough and absorbing history of Welsh churches in London. He tells the story from the arrival of the first Welsh preachers, who in the 18th century lodged opposite Lambeth Palace and celebrated St David's Day, to the dramatic rise and decline of membership in the 20th century.

The drift from Wales of young people looking for work resulted in the need for friendly places of worship. The first wave included dairymen who set up their own businesses and, controversially, worked on Sundays. Soon, big houses needed maids: the late Queen Mother's housekeeper worshipped at the now closed Charing Cross Road chapel. Department stores required assistants; so D. H. Evans, who was a Baptist, and Peter Jones both supported chapel life.

Preachers were called from Wales to serve the exiles. David Lloyd George's first public speech as Prime Minister was at the Welsh Baptist Chapel near Oxford Circus, where membership was hundreds strong and embraced several denominations.

The final chapter looks at the Anglican Welsh-speaking church in London. The Welsh were given St Benet's by Queen Victoria after the congregation had been forced out of St Etheldreda's by an allegedly crooked solicitor. In 1898, the National Welsh Festival evensong filled St Paul's Cathedral, but by 2000 it was at St Benet's with just 80 people. There is some detail of disputes within the diocese of London after the death in 2001 of the vicar Alfred Pryse Hawkins, who left a tiny and mainly non-Welsh congregation. Within a few years, Dewi Sant, the daughter church in Paddington, was closed.

Many closed churches, including King's Cross Welsh Tabernacle, are now in the hands of African congregations. The two chapels in Holloway are now Lefebvrist and Greek Orthodox, while the one in Hammersmith has become an Islamic centre.

But the Borough Chapel in Southwark Bridge Road, which planted landmark missions, including King's Cross, survives like a part of lost Wales. On the wall is a notice ordering passers-by to "commit no nuisance". The Jewin Church in the City of London is today's flagship, where the author and leading London Welsh-speakers such as Ffion Hague defiantly gather at Christmas for a plygain service.

Edwards has undertaken an honest study of traumatic change just before memories and even records are lost. One of his conclusions, having looked at the wider picture, is that earlier co-operation and amalgamation would have been wise. Here are maybe difficult lessons for Anglicans and Methodists still planning for a future.

Leigh Hatts is a writer and an online journalist.

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