City Church’s link with Cardiff’s Friend of Freedom

City forefather who dared to tangle with the BATCHELOR Butes.

Some City folk know that I have been writing the story of City URC – that goes back some 400 years! – for a history journal. Then while the journal was in production, David Meek, who kept me straight on the financial side, told me he had seen a note on the internet that John Batchelor, whose statue in the Hayes – often decorated with a traffic cone and favoured by seagulls – we all know so well, was involved in founding our forefather Charles Street Cong. Something I had missed completely!

John Batchelor’s statue on The Hayes

Charles Street Congregational Church was the partner with Windsor Road Presbyterian Church in establishing City URC after the United Reformed Church was founded in 1972 by the union the Congregational Church of England and Wales and the Presbyterian Church of England. So, of course, it was imperative I look into this new information. My few findings were too late for the history journal. But

I thought I would share them with other City people now through Link.

As I came to know more of the life and work of John Batchelor, I was quite moved. He was a typical 19th century Congregationalist-Liberal industrialist, whose campaigns won him the epithet Friend of Freedom that is engraved on his statue. And though there is, surprisingly, no mention of him in the detailed account of the Charles Street church written to mark the founding of the URC, he was deeply involved in the life of Charles St Cong.

John Batchelor came from a Newport Congregationalist family and at the age of 19 was inspired by the Chartist Uprising there. He and his brother James Sydney Batchelor came to Cardiff as young men and set up as Batchelor Bros, timber merchants and ship builders.


Opposed to the mighty Bute family, who virtually controlled Cardiff, John Batchelor was involved in the creation of Penarth Docks, which broke the Bute family’s stranglehold on the coal export trade and part of the group who founded the Mount Stuart Dry Dock. He served as Cardiff Mayor and as president of Cardiff Liberal Association. He campaigned for proper sewerage and drainage in the town.

Batchelor was a devoted Congregationalist and member of Trinity Church in Womanby Street that could trace its origins way back to 1640 when, in the run-up to the Civil Wars over the authority of Parliament and religion, the radical cleric the Rev William Erbery became the first man in Cardiff to separate himself from the Church of England to found the first Independent church in the town – and only the second in Wales.

It was in the flowering of Nonconformity in the 19th century that some members of Trinity Church decided it was time that a rapidly growing Cardiff would soon need another English Congregational church and left Trinity to form a sister church that became Charles St Cong, which opened for worship in 1855.

John Batchelor was among the group seeking to establish this new Congregational cause. Glamorgan Archives has a record of a lease dated May 1855 on the site of the Charles Street church to build a chapel but no other building, the lease to be held by James Sydney Batchelor and Lydia Mary and Annie Gertrude, the then young daughters of John Batchelor.

John Batchelor earned the anger and opposition of the Bute family as a businessman, a politician, and a Nonconformist. As well as breaking the commercial stranglehold of the Butes, he successfully spearheaded the election of Liberal-Nonconformist industrialist Walter Coffin as Member of Parliament for Cardiff – the first Nonconformist MP elected in Wales – to end the reign of the Butes’ favoured long time Conservative MP J D C L Nicholls.

But, of course, the Butes could make life extremely difficult for John Batchelor and they slowly forced him out of business until he was virtually bankrupt. When his business collapsed, a collection for him raised £5,000,


possibly today the equivalent of a much as £350,000, an amazing tribute to the esteem in which he was held.

On the matter of Charles Street Congregational Church, John Batchelor was a prime mover, contributing significantly in financial terms. Married twice with 12 children, he lived in several different houses.

When he was living in Penarth, he still travelled to Cardiff to attend the Charles Street meetings, there being no English-speaking Congregational church Penarth at that time. His funeral service at Cathays Cemetery was taken by Rev Joseph Waite, then minister at Charles Street.

Tribute is paid to Batchelor’s life and work by David Edward Pike in his popular Welldigger blog on Welsh history. He says: ‘Today, it seems most people in Cardiff have no real idea of who John Batchelor was, or what he represented. Yet he was one of the prime shapers of the culture of the town during a period of immensely important growth and development.

‘But it is his contribution to the cause of justice and freedom for which he most needs to be remembered, and as a godly man who fought for what he knew to be right in Christian terms instead of seeking his own ends.’

At City URC now we can remember him especially for his great contribution to our own little patch of church history.

Jean Silvan Evans

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