Building » Dowlais – St Illtyd

Dowlais – St Illtyd

Off Balaclava Road, Dowlais, Merthyr Tydfil, CF48 3BT

The first Catholic church of modern times in the valleys, this is a striking design built for the Benedictines in phases by three of the major Catholic architects working in Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: J. J. Scoles’ original stone-built chapel of 1844-7 was radically transformed with contrasting brick additions by Edmund Kirby in 1894, and there were further additions by F. R. Bates in 1920. The church has many fine furnishings, including an elaborate high altar and good stained glass.

Merthyr Tydfil takes its name from St Tydfil, a fifth century female martyr. In the first half of the nineteenth century Merthyr and Dowlais became the industrial capital of Wales, the principal centre for coal mining and iron smelting. It was also a centre for the Catholic revival in South Wales. Growth of the Catholic community started in the early nineteenth century with an early influx of Irish labourers to the local ironworks and collieries and by 1850 the Catholic population of Dowlais was around 1,200, out of an estimated total population of 10,000 in Wales. This was the third largest concentration after Newport and Cardiff (Attwater, 1935, p. 82).

A mission was established around 1828 by the Rev. Patrick Portal. By 1840 Merthyr Tydfil had its own resident priest, the Rev. James Carroll; he lived in a workman’s cottage, his school for fifty children a stable. He said two Masses each Sunday, one at Merthyr Tydfil in a granary over a slaughterhouse and the other six miles away in a public house. Around 1844 Fr Carroll was given four cottages in Dowlais by a Mr Daniel Fortune. One was retained as the priest’s residence and the other three demolished to free up land for a church and school. The architect of the stone-built church was J. J. Scoles, and construction took place in 1844-7. An entry in the 1847 Ordo states: ‘Dowlais, Merthyr Tydvil, Capel Iltyd, Church of St. Iltudus, Rev. Mr. Carroll. A church has been opened in this long destitute mission. A mission-house is nearly completed and a school-house is in progress. No Mission Fund! The incumbent is dependent for a scanty support, and for means of education upon his very poor congregation’. Fr Carroll died in June 1847 and was buried in the church; the spot is not marked. In 1859 the mission of Dowlais and Merthyr was divided and in 1873 the Benedictines who had already constructed the church of Our Lady and St Michael in Abergavenny (qv) were asked to take on responsibility for Dowlais.

Dom Cuthbert Pippet OSB (brother of the ecclesiastical artist and designer Joseph Aloysius Pippet) was at Dowlais from 1880-96, and was responsible for the extension of the church and the building of a school. In a rare excursion into South Wales for the architect, Edmund Kirby’s 1894 alterations and additions involved changing the orientation of the church and adding brick transepts and a polygonal apse at the former west end.

In November 1919 Oswald Smith OSB, Abbot of Ampleforth, laid the foundation stone for two stone-built aisles, almost doubling the seating capacity in the church. These additions were designed by F. R. Bates of Newport, and the contractors were Jewell & Son, also of Newport. The blessing and opening of the enlarged building was conducted on 19 September 1920 by Cardinal Francis Gasquet OSB.

The Benedictines remained at Dowlais until 1930, when responsibility for the parish passed to secular diocesan clergy. In 1996 the church was restored and the crypt adapted to form a parish room to mark the 150th anniversary of the construction of the original church. Today St Illtyd’s is one of the four churches of the parish of Merthyr Tydfil, served from St Mary’s, Merthyr Tydfil; at the time of writing the presbytery is let.


The church and some of its more important furnishings (notably the high altar) are described in the list entry (below). The historical section states that the church was built in two phases, but in truth there were three: by Scoles (in 1844-7), Kirby (1894) and Bates (1919-20). The following further points can be added:

  • Five stained glass windows in the apse depict, from left to right, St Illtyd, St Patrick, St David, and St Benedict (the central panel is obscured by the pinnacle of the high altar). They are Baroque in style and not dated or signed, but appear to be c1900.
  • In the north aisle two pairs of stained glass windows, the first depicting the Assumption and Ascension, the second St Brigid and St John the Evangelist. They are Gothic Revival in style and not dated or signed, probably early twentieth century.
  • Stations of the Cross are nineteenth century and probably by Mayer of Munich; they have lost their oak frames.
  • Octagonal alabaster and green marble font, presented by the Catholic Young Men’s Society in memory of the men of the parish killed in the First World War.
  • Slate memorial in the nave commemorating the men of the parish killed in the Second World War.
  • Brass memorial in the nave listing the Benedictine Fathers who served the church from 1857-1930.
  • A painting in the south transept entitled I Blant Fy Mhlant – To My Children’s Children, by the artist Kevin Sinnott, to commemorate the 150th anniversary in 1996.

Mention is made in A Brief Sketch of the Catholic Church in Dowlais (1919) of a silver pre-Reformation chalice housed in the church and said to have been in use in Wales during penal times. An inscription in French and Welsh on the underside reads: ‘The poet Dafydd Ddu o Hiraddug, son of Gruffydd ap Meredydd, had this chalice made at Paris to pray for these souls. April 1469 a.d.’ How the chalice came to be at Dowlais is unclear, but it is believed to have been in the possession of a local Catholic family during penal times before being acquired either by Fr Carroll (who served the mission from 1835-47) or Fr Millea (1851-73).

List description

Reference Number: 11517
Grade: II  
Date of Designation: 16/08/1990  
Date of Amendment: 12/11/2002  
Name of Property: St Illtyd’s Roman Catholic Church  
Unitary Authority: Merthyr Tydfil  
Community: Dowlais  
Town: Merthyr Tydfil  
Locality: Dowlais  
Easting: 306177  
Northing: 207787  
Location: Reached by a lane on the SW side of Balaclava Road; on steeply sloping site.  

History: Catholic church of 2 periods and materials, rubble stone nave and N aisle with S porch of 1844-6 by J J Scoles and large addition in hard red brick with transeptal gables and octagonal-roofed apse of 1894 by Edmund Kirby of Liverpool. Fr M Carroll, the pastor in 1844, initiated the building of the original church which was partly endowed by Sir Josiah John Guest of Dowlais Iron Works. It was the first Catholic church built in the Valleys. Fr Carroll died of cholera within a year of its completion in 1846 and is buried in the church.  

Exterior: Church, the older part in rubble stone with Bath stone dressings, the later additions in red brick with terracotta dressings. Slate roofs. Plain original church of nave and n aisle, with white-painted rendered W end, the nave gable with stepped triple lancet (the right light with higher sill) and the aisle gable smaller with traceried 2-light with segmental pointed head. The rubble stone S side has similar 2-light to left of gabled large porch and single lancet to right. Porch has coped gable and cross finial, segmental-pointed arch with hoodmould over inset pointed doorway, the recess with splayed sides, all in ashlar. Double boarded doors. Small lancet vent in gable. N aisle has 4 2-light windows in chamfered segmental pointed surrounds with 2-step buttresses between. The addition of 1894 is to a much larger scale. S transept projects a short way and is very broad with basement, 2 bays above and big rose window in corbelled-out gable. A mid pier divides the bays, the basement with cambered-headed window to left and door to right, the floor above with 2 big cambered-headed windows with triple lancet tracery. Moulded brick cornice over basement, corbelling under gable storey, and hoods and surrounds to windows. Inset projection or stair turret in angle to nave with W lancet and hipped roof at right angles to transept roof. Ground floor W door in angle to nave. Another more distinct stair turret on transept E side on brick corbels with three-sided shaft in angle to chancel rising to octagonal turret with pyramid cap. This is in angle to a smaller parallel transeptal chapel with S basement door and first floor lancet. The SE corner is chamfered with corbelling at upper corner and there is stepped brickwork in gable. Chapel E side has 4 blank panels above and 2-light basement window below. Chancel is octagonal on German model with octagonal slate roof and 5 large lancets recessed in stepped brick surrounds with hoodmoulds in bays divided by angle piers, with corbelling under eaves and deep stepped brickwork below sills down to cornice over 2-light basement windows. N transept has similar parallel E chapel but transept gable is simpler, broad with 4 large lancets and mid pier. Transept is flush with N aisle.  

Interior: Nave has ashlar 4-bay arcade with round columns and pointed moulded arches, and similar arch of 1894 into N transept. Nave 4-bay scissor-truss roof with wall-posts on corbels and arched bracing. Similar aisle roof. 1894 addition has double moulded brick arches to transepts on single polished granite column, with vesica piercing in gable above. Larger similar brick arch to chancel, arches on moulded corbels, but chancel arch on column shaft on a crocketted canopy-head. The crossing roof is boarded and 8-sided, the transept roofs are similar to nave roof. Single brick pointed arch off each transept to parallel E chapel. In the chancel boarded steep roof with ribs radiating from a pendant. Pointed arch each side into transept chapels and brick diaper patterning over then apse has marble dado under 5 lancets, with moulded brick surrounds and black marble ringed shafts with carved angels on capitals. Plain gallery across W end of both nave and aisle. Stone columned altar table reset in crossing. Very ornate carved stone and marble high altar. Altar table has 4 marble columns with moulded caps and bases, moulded shelf behind, and reredos itself is an openwork confection of canopies and crocketted finials on 2 levels, and in 3 bays, the centre feature altogether more lavish, with marble shafting. Numerous carved angels. Stained glass of c1900 in 2 aisle 2-light windows and 5 chancel lancets. Alabaster octagonal font on marble shafts.  

Reason for designation: Included as a historically early Catholic church with 1894 addition of unusual architectural quality with fine surviving fittings, including the very ornate high altar.

Heritage Details

Architect: J. J. Scoles; Edmund Kirby; F. R. Bates

Original Date: 1847

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II