Just over two hundred years ago, in February 1813, a noble lady came to visit Swansea, apparently by accident. Diana, Baroness Barham had left her home in Kent, to visit her married daughter in Somerset. However when she reached Bristol, she received a letter – her visit would have to be delayed for a fortnight. Her ladyship, not knowing how to spend this time, consulted a map, and Swansea came to her attention. She made up her mind to go there accompanied by William Hammerton, who was her private secretary.
While in Swansea she met Revd Mr Kemp, minister of the Countess of Huntingdon’s chapel. He often preached in Gower, so with him she travelled around the peninsula and became very concerned at the spiritual destitution of the people. When the time came for her to leave Swansea and continue her journey, she remembered the darkness she had seen in Gower and felt sure that she could do something to help the people there if she went to live amongst them.
So it was that nine months later Lady Barham returned to Gower and settled at Fairy Hill, a mansion in beautiful surroundings near Burry Green. She was again accompanied by Mr Hammerton and a Mr Bridges who relates that while driving over Cefn Bryn on this occasion, her ladyship suggested that they pray for God’s guidance. So there, at the top of the hill, she ordered the carriage to stop while they knelt and prayed.
Lady Barham was the only daughter of Sir Charles Middleton, and on his death in 1813 had inherited both his title and a considerable fortune. She was also a committed Christian and she now set about using her inheritance to help dispel the darkness she had found in Gower. Soon after her arrival at Fairy Hill she made enquiries into the ‘religious condition of the district’ and found that a few Christian believers were preparing to set up a small Meeting House on the edge of the Green, just a quarter of a mile from her new home. After talking with them she found that she and they held views in common, and she asked if they would allow her at her own expense to erect a considerably larger building than they had proposed, and a Manse as well. This was Bethesda Chapel as we now know it, and its Manse (at one time called Barham House).
Howell Harris had earlier described Gower as a ‘dark and pagan place’ and another of Lady Barham’s evangelistic efforts was to establish schools so that people could learn to read and then, of course, read the Bible. Most of these schools were linked with the chapels as was the case at Cheriton, where the school prepared the way for the forming of a church. The teachers were chosen as much for their piety as for their ability and the evangelistic purpose of the schools is made clear by the equipment provided which included Bibles, Testaments, catechisms and tracts.
Having settled at Fairy Hill Lady Barham contacted the Association of Calvinistic Methodists to find an evangelist for Gower. (Mr Rees Jones was already engaged as a preacher at Penclawdd). William Griffiths, employed by Lady Barham, came first to Penclawdd and then to Cheriton where he was teacher by day and preacher in the evenings and on Sundays.
The little company of evangelical Christians, meeting in private houses but with no regular ministry, was ready to become the first membership of Bethesda Chapel, Burry Green. They, the original ‘church without a building’, considered themselves Calvinistic Methodist as did William Griffiths who continued to live and minister in Gower after Lady Barham withdrew her patronage in 1822. In 1824 he was ordained, and in December of that year, under the patronage of Lady Barham’s son, he became resident minister at Burry Green. In 1855 Lord Barham gave the chapels, at William Griffiths’ request, to the Calvinistic Methodist Connexion.
For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men….not many noble are called (1 Corinthians 1:26)
The Countess of Huntingdon once commented that she was grateful for the letter in this verse for had it been not any noble, then she herself would have been excluded from the kingdom! We are glad that this also applies to Lady Barham and that her name is commemorated, to the glory of God, in Bethesda, her first chapel in Gower.