Certain poor shepherds
“The first Nowell the angels did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay” so the well-known Christmas Carol goes. It’s these ‘poor shepherds’ who feature in our eighth article of faith: a reredos above the High Altar. Within its brush strokes we explore the friendships and fortunes of Cardiff, the reality of poverty, and a Priest’s calling.
The million pound question
Much is made in our reading of the nativity narratives of Jesus of the poverty of the shepherds. It’s a story from Luke’s gospel where the poor take precedence, and the Beatitudes boast they are blessed. What better image from the gospels, then, to be installed in a church which stood at the crossroads of poverty and opulence?
The industrial boom of Cardiff Docks made some men very rich indeed. Less than thirty years after this reredos was painted, the first million pound cheque would be signed – just down the road at The Coal Exchange. Such deals provided employment to many but the docks, like other industrial towns, was also the place where people, at times, struggled to make a living.
This was the century of Shaftesbury’s campaigns and when Dickens came into his own as a champion of the poor. It wasn’t until 1872 that the working time of children was reduced to no more than ten hours a day, and then, thirty years later, a law was passed prohibiting them from working underground in the mines which fed Cardiff Docks with coal.
It was within the midst of both the poverty and opulence of Cardiff Docks that its clergy moved.
‘Souls are even more beautiful’
“We stood on the terrace in front of his house (he was always fond of flowers),” wrote Revd . J.O. Evans, a friend of Fr Jones – the Vicar of St Mary’s from 1872 – 1903.
Fr Jones was about to set off from the rural parish of Llanegryn at the foot of the Snowdon mountains for Cardiff Docks.
“The day was bright and beautiful, and as we looked across the valley with the Bird’s Rock in the far distance I said, “How can you leave this lovely home?”
He replied, “Souls are even more beautiful.”
“He had always a flower in his coat, at home and abroad,” reads his biography. A reminder that beauty can be found wherever we go, even in the grime and sweat of a growing, creaking industrial town like Cardiff, just under our nose.
Perhaps, as a fanciful aside, one can imagine him, on that day, picking a flower from his garden, holding it to his face, and then placing it in his lapel as he makes his way south to Loudoun Square, and his new home, looking for beauty.
Unstudied Simplicity and Saintly Lives
In the second half of the eighteenth century, Loudoun Square in Butetown had been designed from reclaimed marshland as a large square of three-storey decorative houses, surrounding a green, tranquil park. At first, it was home to mariners and merchants, brokers and builders and ship owners.
However, by the 1880s the wealthier residents had moved away to the new suburbs, and Loudoun Square became overcrowded as residents took in tenants to help pay the high rents.
“The feature which would probably first strike a stranger in the Clergy House was its interior dinginess and the simplicity of its furniture,” wrote one of the curates, Fr Smallpiece, in 1895. “The Vicar rented two houses in the corner of Loudoun Square, and had them thrown into one to form the Clergy House, where he and the assistant clergy all lived together.”
“We did not, indeed, go in for sanded floors; but the carpets, furniture, wallpapers, paint, and whitewash all presented an air of venerable age and unstudied simplicity. Unstudied, for I do not suppose that the Vicar ever thought it a merit not to have things nice about him: there the things were, and he simply never thought about having them different.”
“They were good enough for him, and I don’t suppose it ever occurred to any of us to question their being good enough for us also.”
“He is a man who has worked in most unostentatious fashion in the worst parts of Cardiff for many a year,” wrote the Times in 1895. “His work is among the people, and he feels it to be his duty to live among them – that is all. In the midst of brothels and shebeens the clergy in whose parishes are these sins of iniquity live and work, and their work is done with effect.”
When considering the circumstances in which people of the parish lived and worked – in a bubbling, bulging industrial community, one of the clergy could say with conviction: “I assure you that there are men and women living in the midst of this wickedness who live saintly lives.”
Deep in the docks was The Havannah, an industrial ship for boys who attended St Mary’s on Sundays. Year after year, twelve to twenty of these boys were presented for Confirmation after instruction by the clergy who held classes on board.
The Vicar took great interest in these boys as he did in all the children of his parish, and he was renowned for his love of them. However busy he was, he made a rule of joining the annual Christmas treat given to the ‘Havannah Boys’ by his friend and, for some time, Churchwarden, Sir Edward Hill, of Rookwood in Llandaff.
It was this Sir Edward Hill who decorated the apse of St Mary’s with its reredos.
At the time Sir Edward Stock Hill was a well-known figure in South Wales. He and his brother were partners in Charles Hill and Sons, shipbuilders and ship owners from Bristol. Edward had come to Cardiff to supervise the acquisition of a dry dock and shipbuilding yard on the west side of East Bute Docks.
Born in 1834 in Bedminster, Bristol, he became a Conservative Member of Parliament for Bristol South from 1886 to 1900.
A colonel in the 1st Glamorgan Artillery Volunteer Corps, he was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in the 1881 Birthday Honours and a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath a year later, and also served as High Sheriff of Glamorgan.
He built his plush and opulent family home of Rookwood in Llandaff in 1866, the year he married Fanny Ellen Tickle but he didn’t forget the ‘Havannah Boys’ of the docks!
He died in London in 1902, his funeral celebrated at Llandaff Cathedral accompanied by a large and impressive procession from his home with full military honours. Thousands lined the route.
Bankers, Businessmen and Grimy Hands
Painted by Philip Westlake of Westlake & Barraud, a firm producing stained glass windows, the reredos donated by Hill to the Church in which he worshipped and served as Churchwarden shows the Blessed Virgin and her Divine Child sitting on her knee and reaching out to accept the homage of those ‘certain poor shepherds,’ the first to receive the angels’ greetings of a new born king.
His brother Nathanial Westlake painted the door of the Tabernacle beneath the reredos, highly decorated with vine-leaves and grapes, along with a Chalice and Wafer according to the design of Edmund Sedding who redesigned the whole apse.
Hanging in the sitting room at Loudoun Square Clergy House was a print of the Rood Screen from the Church in Llanegryn. “The screen,” he had said, “is magnificent.” Perhaps he often reminisced about his time in that beautiful rural parish, and perhaps even recalled the conversation he had with his friend in the garden who asked how on earth he could leave such a lovely home, carried with him, maybe, the belief that “souls are even more beautiful.”
“He was a man of love,” wrote George Body, a friend of Fr Jones. “In him strength was tempered with love, and especially with pastoral love that flows into the true pastor out of the heart of the Good Shepherd, a love as beautiful as it is unique.”
“How he loved his people and bore with them and sympathized with them in the specially difficult and dangerous moral conditions of his parish! He knew his people, and they knew him. He called them by name; he gave his life for them. And they knew it, and gave him love for love.”
After his death, The Western Mail spoke of his love for children and their love for him. “It was a sight to see him pass along the streets, with the children running up, crying “Vicar, Vicar!” and clinging with their grimy hands to his cloak.”
He could move with ease between the streets of Tiger Bay and the plush rooms of the Town Hall. He was as eager to bend down to help a seafarer pick up his belongings from the dirt or dart to a guarded prisoner at a Railway Station as he was to spend a day out with his friends on Flat Holm or enjoy the company of Businessmen and Bank Managers, like Mr Watkins who was the Manager of the London and Provincial Bank in Cardiff. Their friendship deepened over the years, and Fr Jones delighted in accepting invitations to his son’s Cumberland Estate for grouse shooting, a sport he’d enjoyed since his former rural days. One of the boys who carried his birds for him in Llanegryn, Robert Hughes, later became the first Lord Mayor of the City of Cardiff.
Amongst his good and faithful friends, too, was the well known and financially successful Sir Edward Hill, whom he visited often in his plush home at Rookwood.
That is all
The Parish has changed much since those days. The heavy industry has been heavily reduced, and the working docks are now much smaller, pushed at a distance across the bay.
Cardiff Bay is now the seat of Welsh Political power, as well as the administration of local politics at City Hall. It’s a place where people gather for leisure and pleasure, for entertainment and the arts but it’s also a place with areas characterised by poverty and social inequality. Butetown has the highest child poverty rate in Cardiff.
The story which unfolds with the reredos painting is a story for our time too where the gap between rich and poor widens, and where 1% of the world’s richest people own 82% of the world’s wealth.
Times and circumstances have changed, of course, and our experience of poverty is different but, as Jesus prophesised, ‘You will have the poor with you always.” Today, despite the gap between rich and poor, many people of different degrees of wealth – as well as those who have little – continue to be generous in their giving and serving of those certain poor shepherds in our midst.
Communities aren’t simply creations of themselves but are also shaped and shifted by external factors whether social or political, commercial or economic, national or international.
Then, as now, different priests are called to a variety of settings and circumstances whether it’s an affluent, leafy suburb or the hefty heart of a Council Estate, a sprawling country parish with a dozen churches or a post-industrial living in the valleys.
No matter in what kind of parish a priest and pastor lives and moves, they walk between the lives of so many different people regardless of wealth or power, affluence or privilege, keeping before them the pattern of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
Pope Francis said that ‘Shepherds should smell of their sheep.’ As the Press said of Fr Jones at the times so may it be said of parish clergy today: “His work is among the people, and he feels it to be his duty to live among them – that is all.”