Hermon’s inheritance

Some information for the handful of callow interns who make a living trying to concoct click-bait listicles for the South Wales Echo: firstly, the building on the north side of Splott Bridge that collapsed last month was not a ‘Church’, and secondly, it was not called the ‘Citadel’. Quite apart from the fact that the only three-syllable words in common usage round these parts are ‘pawnbroker’, ‘bookmaker’ and ‘takeaway’, it was actually the Mount Hermon Primitive Methodist Chapel that fell to earth, killing a demolition worker in the process.

Methodism, founded as a breakaway from the Church of England in 1738 by George Whitefield (1707-1788) and brothers John Wesley (1703-1791) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788), quickly fragmented into a multitude of mutually hostile splinter groups, amongst which were the Primitive Methodists. Founded in 1810, they were a purer-than-thou reaction against mainstream Methodism’s steady drift back towards the very conservatism, complacency and gilded hierarchies of the Anglicanism that had been rejected a century earlier. With an unequivocal damnation/salvation message, passionate, revivalist style, emphasis on democratic control, and willingness to tackle political and economic issues, Primitive Methodism found a foothold in poor and working-class areas and gradually spread across the UK from its birthing cradle in northern England. It never made much headway in Wales, where the Calvinistic Methodism of Hywel Harris (1714-1773), Daniel Rowland (1711-1790) and William Williams Pantycelyn (1717-1791) was unassailable, but did establish a significant presence in rapidly-anglicising Cardiff. The cult arrived in 1864 with Bethesda Chapel (Severn Road, rebuilt 1895), followed by Bute Street Chapel in 1870, Mount Tabor Chapel (Moira Terrace) in 1875, Dalton Street Chapel in 1887, Mount Hermon Chapel at Splott Bridge in 1892 and finally Mount Zion Chapel (Aberdovey Street) in 1896. In this period Mission Halls were also opened at Brydges Place (Cathays), Elm Street (Roath) and Milford Street (Splott). From then on it was all decline as the Primitives made precisely the same mistake the Methodists had done; abandoning early radicalism and fiery conviction to become just one more bureaucratic, authoritarian, Protestant sect with delusions of grandeur.

In any case, lingering faith in the whole point of Christianity was soon laid to rest by the industrialised mass slaughter of WW1, with Primitive Methodism as hard hit by the resulting rise in secularism and collapse of theism as any of Nonconformism’s multitude of subdivisions. Incidentally, to show I’m not picking on Nonconformism, Protestantism, Christianity or indeed religion itself (he dissembled), I will add that all this ludicrous divisiveness over pressing issues like how many grains of elf-dandruff it takes to fill a leprechaun’s pouch is by no means restricted to religion. The human propensity to disagree with other humans, even those ostensibly on the same side, is manifest in every single aspect of humanity’s affairs. We seem congenitally incapable of accepting that, far from being ‘individual’ and ‘special’, we’re all more or less exactly the same. To give just one example take dance music, a small sub-genre-within-a-sub-genre. It currently splinters into the mutually contemptuous tribes of drum’n’bass, house, garage, UK garage, techno, disco, cheese, funk, electronica, bass, grime, jungle, hip-hop, dubstep, soul, acid, reggae, roots, R&B, mashups, bassline, brainmelt, dancehall, electro, retro, Afrobeats, samba, synth, old skool, post-disco, deep house…and that’s just a provisional list! And only one is made up!

Mount Hermon was the first of the six Primitive Methodist Chapels in Cardiff to close – in 1917, at the height of the War with congregations down to single figures rattling around the large edifice. It had lasted a mere 25 years since being founded by the members of the nearby Mount Tabor Chapel. Designed by the Tredegar Estate’s in-house architects Habershon & Fawckner, the rather unusual Pennant sandstone hexagon inserted onto an awkward site hard by the mainline railway was an idiosyncratic, mock-gothic mish-mash with gables, apses, lancet windows and a seductive spirelet. When brand new it must have looked magnificent, a 375-capacity concoction steepling over the 1850 railway and road bridge, the 20-year-old streets of southern Roath (now Adamsdown) and the just-completed pristine terraces of northern Splott. In 1899 Splott Bridge was widened and extended, meaning half the Chapel became effectively sunk below ground level, while Roath Station was opened on the opposite side of the Tin Street/Pearl Street/Splott Road junction, with its platforms stretching under the Bridge almost to the Chapel walls.

Primitive Methodism’s tenure of the building ended in blood and chaos. In 1917 Roath Station was closed to passengers to become a reception centre for wounded troops. On the platforms the hideously injured, maimed and mutilated were sorted into priority order before being carried, stretcher by stretcher, over the Bridge to the imposing 1882 Splott Board School (demolished 1980, replaced by the architectural atrocity of the STAR centre, now itself earmarked for demolition) which was acting as an emergency hospital. In the midst of scenes of extreme misery, the cries of anguish echoed through Mount Hermon’s deserted galleries. The end was nigh for Primitive Methodism in Cardiff. In 1932, facing the stark reality of shrinking congregations and surplus buildings, and long having forgotten what all the angry schisms were about in the first place, much of Anglo-Methodism reunited to form the Methodist Church of Great Britain. Primitive Methodism was absorbed into the new body and their Chapels in Severn Road, Bute Street and Aberdovey Street were closed while Moira Terrace and Dalton Street followed suit after WW2. Those in Bute Street and Aberdovey Street were demolished so, following the collapse of Mount Hermon, three are still left today: Severn Road, offices, Dalton Street, a day care centre, and Moira Terrace, which became Cardiff’s Reform Synagogue in 1953 and it thus the last with a religious function.

Mount Hermon was not vacant for long; the Salvation Army took over as the War ended. Another Methodist splinter group, founded in 1865 by William Booth (1829-1912), this particular sect came with the uneasy mix of creepy moralism, self-reinforcing wishful thinking and rampant hypocrisy common to all bible-bashing Protestants, redeemed only slightly by an authentic, albeit conditional, willingness to get their hands dirty among the really poor and destitute – of which there were growing numbers in Cardiff as the coal boom went bust in the 1920s. Unlike Roath Station, which never re-opened (the rear of the Old Illtydians Club covers its entrance on Pearl Street), the Chapel still had 60 years of life ahead. The Sally Army kept on proselytising and rattling those tambourines right through the Depression, WW2 and the Swinging Sixties before they abandoned the high-maintenance Chapel in 1977 and moved to much smaller and cheaper to run new premises on Walker Road, a low-grade eyesore built on the site of the 1890 Splott Police Station.

After a spell as a bargain carpet warehouse Mount Hermon was vacated for good in 1980. And so, for THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS, the signature building as one enters Splott was simply left to rot. A succession of owners did the maths and concluded that restoration and rehabilitation for whatever purpose would reduce the subsequent profits by far too much over far too long a period to make it worth the investment and effort. In Cardiff, you see, it’s all about a fast buck – to hell with the civic sphere, who cares about the social impact, fuck the future. A contemptibly hideous towerblock for students can go from drawing board via planning permission to opening in less than a year, despite being entirely unwanted by anyone except the private equity funds, pension schemes and offshore hedge funds drooling at the vast profits to be made from milking the student loans of 650 gullible 18-year-olds squashed into a gulag at £600 a month each. Yet something as basic as a Bus Station is kicked into the long grass indefinitely – there being few ways to make easy money out of people waiting for a bus. This is contemporary Cardiff, in all its ugly, venal shallowness.

Having been left empty and shaken to the foundations by a century of heavy-duty goods trains and roaring passenger trains on the mainline, Mount Hermon visibly crumbled for years, an accident waiting to happen. Inner floors caved in, cracks widened, chunks of masonry tumbled, mature shrubs grew out of the walls and roofs, yet still nothing was done. Well, it was only Splott. When Network Rail began the Paddington to Swansea electrification in 2014 (now merely the Paddington to Cardiff Central electrification, the Tories having robbed Wales yet again – I told you so!), the Chapel’s appalling condition could be tolerated no longer as it posed a direct danger to workers rebuilding Splott Bridge. The permission to demolish that a sequence of speculative developers had craved for decades was finally granted in 2016, and it was during the demolition process that Jeffrey Plevey, 55, was killed. Mount Hermon imploded and he had no chance. His two workmates were lucky to get out alive. So far nobody has accepted responsibility and nobody has been arrested. But don’t worry, the Health & Safety Executive and South Wales Police have launched a joint investigation. No, I’m not reassured either.

Picture: Wales News Service