"People of the Poorest and Dirtiest Class." - Caepantywyll.

Girl in a graveyard, Bruce Davidson - 1965.

Many of you will recognise this photograph taken by American photographer Bruce Davidson in 1965. Part of the 'Welsh Miners' series, it is one of many taken during his tour of the South Wales Coalfield with poet Horace Jones. Images from Davidson's 'Welsh Miner' series can be found here.

A few months ago, while on Twitter, I came across a thread of photographers keen to discover where the above photograph was taken. I suggested researching the names of the headstone that the young girl is stood next to. Those names were 'Sarah' and 'Roger Christopher.'

From the information on the headstone, I managed to trace the location of the burial ground to Capel Bethlehem, Caepantywyll.

Unfortunately, not much is known about Caepantywyll. What little we know has been drawn from census records, sanitary reports, and newspaper articles. I've decided to focus on the period when those named on the headstone were in their prime. 

An area of early worker's housing, Caepantywyll was situated just below Brecon Road at Cyfartha.
The first homes in this area were built in the early 1800s to house the works of Cyfarthfa Ironworks. By the mid-1860s, Caepantywyll was home to over 2400 men, women and children. At that time Caepantywyll had 20 streets and 509 houses!

The Report on the Sanitary Condition of Merthyr Tydfil (1867) gives an interesting snapshot of the area of Caepantywyll during this period. At that time, Caepantywyll was classed as being in the Division of Tydfil's Well. 

The report notes that the fourth outbreak of Cholera at Merthyr started on the 23rd of August 1866. Abercannaid, Caedraw, and Cae Harris were first areas to infected with the disease. By the next day, the 'filth' had spread to Penydarren, Georgetown, and Caepantywyll.

  • 278 people died of 'Cholera Morbus' in Merthyr in 1866. 
  • 41 of those deaths were in the Division of Tydfil's Well. 
  • Fifteen Streets in the Division of Tydfil's Well were infected with Cholera and Diarrhoea.
  • The average age of death for a person living in Merthyr was 24 ½ years. 

The report also notes statistics from previous years.

  • In 1849, 267 people died of Cholera in the Division of Tydfil's Well. 
  • In 1854/5, 55 people died of Cholera in the Division of Tydfil's Well.
  • In 1852, the average age at death for Merthyr was 17 ½ years. 

Capel Bethlehem

Capel Bethlehem was opened on the 24th of May 1841. Described as “commodious and well built” the chapel was of Welsh Calvinistic Methodist denomination and is noted as being one of the oldest of that denomination in Merthyr. The chapel was erected at a cost of over £1000, with £50 being collected on the day of its official opening.

Rev. John Roberts
Although the chapel was built in 1841, the first recorded burial in the chapel burial ground was in 1812. This could either be an error or a suggestion that there was a previous chapel on the site of the later Capel Bethlehem.

One the ministers at Capel Bethlehem was Rev. John Roberts, more commonly known by his Bardic
name 'Ieuan Gwyllt.' He was a well-known musician and was the founder of the Cymanfa Ganu. He was asked to become the minister at Capel Bethlehem in 1851 and was later ordained at Newcastle Emlyn on the 7th of August 1861. He went on to become the minister at Capel Coch in Llanberis and editor of many Welsh language newspapers/periodicals.

William Morris, the assistant to the Education Commissioners of 1846/7, was an active member of Capel Bethlehem Congregation. He was Master of two private schools: one at Caepantywyll and another at Cefncoedd-y-cymmer.

An interior view of Capel Bethlehem - Alan George
In 1846/7 it is reported that there were 37 private schools in Merthyr and Dowlais. In Caepantywyll there were three 'front room' schools and a further six schools that were held in public houses.

As stated at the beginning of this post, not much is known about Capel Bethlehem.

Once described as a hotbed of disease, Caepantywyll no longer exists. During the second half of the 20th-century Caepantywyll fell into decline. Some residents abandoned their houses and other gradually moved to the new housing estates. This led to the houses and Capel Bethlehem being demolished.

Outside Capel Bethlehem, c.1900.

The Christopher Family of Merthyr Cynog

As well as being able to trace the location of Bruce Davison's photograph, I decided to trace those who are remembered on that now famous headstone. 

Sarah Hughes, the daughter of William and Margaret Hughes was born at Llanfairbryn, on the 2nd of January 1819. She was later baptised on the 17th of January at Pentretygwyn Chapel.

Sarah married her first husband, Thomas Davies at Salem Chapel, Llandovery on the 26th of August 1843. Although they were married in Llandovery, it seems that the couples Banns were read at St. David's Church, Tirabad, 10 miles north of Llandovery.

Sarah and Thomas had three children:

  • David, born on the 13th of August 1843: Born at Llanfairbryn. 
  • Thomas, born on the 18th of April 1847: Born at Merthyr Cynog
  • John, born on the 2nd of May 1850: Born at Merthyr Cynog 

The Census of 1851 tells us that Sarah, who is listed as a pauper and former wife of a labourer, was now living in Merthyr Cynog with her three children. By that time, it seems, that her husband Thomas had disappeared.

Roger Christopher was born on the 13th of March 1803 at Ysclydach. The son of David and Elisabeth Christopher, he was later baptised on the 20th of March at St. David's Church, Llywel.

Roger married his first wife, Mary Powell on the 13th of November 1827 at St. David's Church, Rhyd-y-bryw. The marriage Banns show that neither Roger or Mary could write. The witnesses to their marriage were Lewis Powell and Owen Evans.

Marriage Banns of Roger and Mary

Roger and Mary had one child, David who was baptised on the 18th of January 1829. It would seem that he was born a week or so before his baptism as Mary was buried at St. David's Church on the 12th of January that same year. From this, we can assume that she died as a result of childbirth. Mary died aged 27 years.

  • The Census of 1841 shows that Roger, now a widower, was living in the village of Pentrefelin with his mother and son David. At this time Roger was a labourer working on the Turnpike Road.
  • The Census of 1851 Census shows that Roger and his son were now living with his brother and his family in the village of Pentrefelin, At this time Roger is listed as an agricultural labourer.

Roger's son, David was buried at St. David's Church, Rhyd-y-briw on the 6th of May 1858. He died aged 29 years.

Roger and Sarah were married at St. Cynog's Church, Merthyr Cynog on the 7th of March 1859. Again, the Marriage Banns show that neither Roger or Sarah were able to write.

This time the Banns list the both their father's occupations: Roger's father, David was a Tailor and Sarah's father, William was a Labourer. The witnesses to their marriage were William Davies and James Price.

Marriage Banns of Roger and Sarah.

Their first son, Roger Christopher, was born on the 25th of January 1860 at Merthyr Cynog.

  • The Census of 1861 tells us that Roger and Sarah were now living at Merthyr Cynog with their one-year-old son Roger and Sarah's 11-year-old son John Davies. On this occasion, Roger is listed as being a navigator. 

Their second son, Edward was born at Merthyr Cynog in August 1863.

  • The Census of 1871 tells us that Roger and Sarah were now living at 'No.6 Pontfaen Villiage.' They lived here with their sons, Roger aged 11 and Edward aged 7. At this time Roger is listed as an agricultural labourer.

On the 11th of April that same year, Roger Christopher died at Pontfaen Village aged 68. Unfortunately, I cannot find a record of Roger's burial.

Three years later, on the 2nd of July, their son Edward died aged 11. Edward was buried at Capel Bethlehem, Caepantywyll. Edward's place of death, Brecon Street, suggests that after the death of his father, the family moved close to Cyfarthfa Ironworks.

  • The Census of 1881 shows that by that time, Sarah and two of her children had moved to 40 Pontycapel Road. At this time Sarah is listed as a Domestic Servant. He son Roger now aged 21 is listed as a coal miner with his half-brother Thomas, aged 32, listed as an Iron Refiner. 
  • The Census of 1891 shows the Christopher family living at the same address, 40 Pontycapel Street. Sarah lived here with her son Roger who is listed as a collier. 

On the 6th of September 1900, Sarah died at 40 Pontycapel Road, aged 81. Sarah was buried with her son at Capel Bethlehem, Caepantywyll. The probate records show that on her death, Sarah left all of her effects to her son Roger. This amounted to £115 3s. 6.d.

  • Both the 1901 and 1911 Census tell us that Roger (Sarah's son) was still living at 40 Pontycapel Road. On both these occasions, Roger is listed as a Coal Hewer. 

On the 6th of November 1912, Roger died at 4 South Terrace, Cefncoed-y-cymmer, aged 52. Roger was buried with his mother and brother at Capel Bethlehem, Caepantywyll. Probate records show that on his death, Roger left all of her effects to Evan Lougher secretary to the friendly society. His effects amounted to £736 18s. 1d.

Girl in a graveyard Bruce Davidson - 1965.

(Sources: Bruce Davidson - LLGC - Peoples Collection Wales - Alan George - Merthyr Burial Board - Merthyr Board of Guardians) 


  1. Thank you for this research into the lives of ordinary people. No surprise at so many cholera deaths given the number of people packed into small houses and very poor sanitation.


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