An Edwardian Country Parson

Barbara Lewis Webb writes My maternal grandfather, the Rev. Jonathan Marsden, was Vicar of Llanllwch, Carmarthen, for a total of 53 years, from 1869 to 1922. To see other articles by Barbara see Sir Thomas Picton and The First Picton Monument.

The Parish of Llanllwch was originally part of the parish of St. Peter's Carmarthen. In 1843, the parish of St. Peter's was divided into three districts - St. Peter's, St. David's and Llanllwch; and in 1857 these were made into three separate parishes. The tower of Llanllwch church is probably 15th century but the remainder of the church fell into a ruinous state in the 18th century and was largely rebuilt. It was later restored twice - in 1862 and 1865 - before my grandfather became Vicar.(1)

My mother was born in 1890, the third of four children, and she had fascinating memories of her childhood at Llanllwch. Her father's stipend at the time was 300 a year, plus 100 for being chaplain to the Joint Counties Asylum - and he had to pay his curate's salary out of his own money!

My mother's mother was a good deal younger than her father, but she and her brothers and sisters never gave this much thought until one day when they were playing in the churchyard they discovered the grave of their father's first wife - no-one had ever told them that their father had been married previously.

Grandfather was a fluent Welsh speaker and took the services and preached in Welsh, but my grandmother was English and never took the trouble to learn the language. The children were supposed to be taught Welsh by the maids, but naturally enough the maids found it much more convenient that the children shouldn't be able to understand them, and my mother's Welsh never got much beyond 'bara caws' and suchlike phrases.

As chaplain to the Asylum, Grandfather visited there frequently and he often took mother with him. For a number of years the Carmarthen Journal reported Quarterly Meetings of the Joint Counties Lunatic Asylum, including Grandfather's annual reports. In 1894 he reported: 'I have much pleasure in being able to say that the behaviour of the patients at Divine Service has been very satisfactory. Very seldom has anything occurred to cause the slightest unpleasantness . . .'

Patients in the wards of the main building, as well as those at Rhydygors and Jacob's Well, are regularly visited and every such occasion is availed of to converse with the patients with a view of administering instruction and consolation; to comfort the sick and desponding, and generally to give such spiritual advice as may seem necessary in each particular case.'(2)

The following year, he gave a rather touching account of his visits:

'. . . that the duties pertaining to his charge had been regularly and carefully discharged during the year and he was sincerely glad to state that many of the poor and afflicted inmates of the asylum had again and again expressed their thankfulness for the many efforts to minister to their spiritual need . . .'

During his frequent visits on the wards he had taken advantage of every opportunity to help the patients to bear their burdens by playing and singing to them, reading and translating their letters, reading verses and sometimes playing draughts and other games with them; while the more serious and important duties of his office had not been omitted.'(3)

As well as being Chaplain to the Asylum, Grandfather was Chaplain of St. Peter's Lodge of Carmarthen Masons. For a dinner held at the Ivy Bush hotel in December 1907, to celebrate the installation of F.J. Finglah as Worshipful Master, the programme include photographs of my maternal grandfather as Chaplain and my paternal grandfather, B.A. Lewis, as a Past Master.

Harvest Festival was the great occasion of the year. It was held on a weekday, not a Sunday, and there was one service in the morning and another in the afternoon, with a special preacher at each. There was a harvest lunch and a harvest supper, to which the local clergy and various neighbouring notables and their families were invited. My mother and her older brother would help by waiting on the visitors at the lunch and supper.

Grandfather and his wife gave an annual treat for the Sunday School children at the end of August or the beginning of September, mostly taking the form of games and a tea in the Vicarage garden.

When my mother was ten, she joined her older brother and sister at school in Carmarthen, and they had to walk two miles there, two miles back at lunchtime and the same in the afternoon. Her father was very strict about school attendance and they had to walk even if the rain was pouring down in torrents. While she was at school my mother had a halfpenny a week pocket money, while her older brother and sister had a little more. She remembered her father putting the coins out on the sideboard for the four of them every Saturday morning.

During my grandfather's ministry the disestablishment of the Church became the burning issue of the day. The Anti-State-Church Association had been formed in 1844, and in 1853 it was renamed the Liberation Society (the Society for Liberating the Church from the State). Although this Society deployed a considerable amount of its resources in Wales, its aim was the disestablishment of the Church of England in its entirety.(4)

An impetus to this movement was given by the disestablishment and disendowment of the Irish Church in 1869. Two bills for the disestablishment of the Welsh Church were put before Parliament over the next few years but both failed, though the second, in 1886, by only 12 votes. Resentment over the payment of tithes came to a head in the 'Tithe War' of 1887, with unrest in the Tywi valley and violent protests in North Wales. In 1891 the responsibility for the payment of tithes was transferred from the tenant to the landlord, which helped to reduce the resentment. But the argument for and against disestablishment rumbled on, with the government attempting to defuse the situation by setting up a royal commission to inquire into the provision of religion in Wales. It took four years before the report was issued in 1910. Feeling ran particularly high round Carmarthen, and my father (one of the ten sons of B.A. Lewis of Carmarthen) used to tell the story of how, when the disestablishment party was addressing a crowd from the balcony of the Guildhall, a group of those opposed to disestablishment (including, he said, some high dignitaries of the church) stormed the balcony and held their own anti-disestablishment meeting instead.

In 1912 another Bill, removing established status from the Anglican Church in Wales and two-thirds of its endowments, was introduced into Parliament, and it eventually received the Royal Assent in September 1914. As World War I had broken out in August, implementation of the Act was postponed and it did not come into force until April 1st 1920.(5)

Up until that time, my mother recalled, many in my grandfather's rural parish still paid their tithe dues in the form of chickens, geese and produce.

The were no pensions for clergymen in those days, so my grandfather really couldn't afford to retire, and he actually died in harness at 88 years old. He was still very active in mind and body and he died quite suddenly from pneumonia after catching a chill.

Among my mother's papers there was a letter of condolence from one of my grandfather's former curates (then Rector of Brechfa). He wrote that in his time at Llanllwch, the Rev. Jonathan Marsden was 'greatly beloved and respected in the parish where peace, unity and concord reigned supreme'. It is no wonder that my mother treasured those kindly words about her father and kept the letter for the whole of her long life.


--(1) The Story of Carmarthen, Joyce and Victor Lodwick,

St. Peter's Press, 1994 p.394.

--(2) The Carmarthen Journal January 26th 1894.

--(3) The Carmarthen Journal February 8th 1895.

--(4) A History of Wales by John Davies, Allen Lane 1993.

--(5) A History of Wales as above.

Barbara Lewis Webb

Reproduced from THE FRIEND August 1999