Nostalgia: Remembering John Jenkins | Argus of South Wales
UNDER an impressive gray gravestone in the cemetery of the Baptist Chapel of Ponthir is the remarkable story of a non-conformist who, in the 1820s and 1930s, rose to prominence and held three of the most prestigious positions from the country.
This imposing memorial bears the name of John Jenkins, a fervent Baptist and very successful businessman who managed a tin factory in Ponthir in addition to being interested in the canals and docks. He is credited with having played a key role in the development of Caerleon.
His solid reputation and high reputation in the community was recognized by his appointment in 1825 to the post of Deputy Lieutenant for the County, a role which encompassed supporting the Lord Lieutenant who is the Queen’s personal representative.
He was now on the threshold of a period of public service that was to last more than 30 years.
But therein lies a mystery: this honor, while well deserved, was normally reserved for members of the Church of England. Jenkins, as a longtime Baptist, was reportedly barred by law and social custom from holding this position.
As a chapel enthusiast, he had great sympathy for the goals of the Mavericks who had no independent right to hold office. It would take another three years before the law was amended with the repeal of the Test Act in 1828.
So was the decision made under the guise of sealed orders or was there a real loophole that presented an opportunity that worked to its advantage?
Historian Mrs. E Kennerley in a 1975 archival article describing his rise to stardom, implying that he had “jumped the gun”.
However, given his unwavering moral background and never to be turned away from a Christian point of view, it is unlikely that he was involved in a process that would have been “on the windy side of the law.”
The Baptist cause came to a head when an opportunity presented itself following a dispute within the community of Caerleon over the use of the Welsh language.
This conflict of opinions is documented in the well-researched book The History of the Baptist Church of Ponthir by Reverend Nigel Burge, a popular figure, who served as a minister from 1992 to 2005.
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He recorded that a dispute arose when it was suggested that the faithful of Ponthir preferred services through Welsh and this became the catalyst for the founding of the Sion Chapel which opened in 1803 with a congregation of nine Baptists and three Congregationalists.
John Jenkins was the nephew of the founder of the Baptist Chapel at Ponthir, also John Jenkins, who along with his personal friend John Butler donated two plots of land and organized the construction of the new chapel. The use of the Welsh language by parishioners was confirmed when a hymnbook published in 1815 contained 125 hymns in Welsh and only five in English.
It was the custom in 1837 to preach the morning sermon in Welsh and the evening sermon in English.
This led a minister who used to give the usual number of sermons to conclude that increasing the number presented him with a challenge. Embracing this bilingual culture, he noticed that in a previous chapel “Three sermons a month was enough but now at least ten are needed”.
A feature of the new building was a hat rack with elongated ankles to fit the top hats in fashion at the time and worn by the pewter Ponthir men who were known as the Ponthir Top Hatters.
Controversy surrounds the Prime Minister as Reverend Burge reveals: Rev. Walter David’s tenure lasted five years. “We know his ministry ended in inglorious fashion when this young minister had to ‘be silenced.’ His inconsistent behavior revealed to the church that his character was not worthy of his profession. His ministry ended abruptly on October 29, 1808 ”.
Temptingly, no details are available and it would be pure speculation to assume that his crimes were related to the company of women.
John Jenkins watched with pride the spiritual growth of the region, especially during the tenure of Reverend James Michael, who set a record of 40 years of service from 1817 to 1858, when he died at the age of 86 years.
John Jenkins’ service to the community and a strong desire to seek justice without fear or favor was further recognized when he became a justice of the peace and in 1829 he sat in the Quarter Sessions in Usk, Monmouth with the Right Honorable Lord Granville Somerset, MP and small Caerleon sessions.
The duty of a magistrate then encompassed a wide range of municipal administration as well as the regulation of prisons and local police in addition to responsibility for roads and bridges.
He continued to chart a course in public life and one that would define his association with the Baptist movement in the most positive way.
A few years earlier the Mavericks were active throughout the county and at a meeting in Pontypool ministers, deacons and Baptists formed an influential group of Protestant dissidents and one of its members was John Jenkins .
Its association with the Ponthir Chapel coincided with a resurgence of faith within the community and by 1840 the congregation numbered 113, the Sunday School had 80 on the register plus the support of 12 teachers.
The peak of his career came in 1838, the first year of Queen Victoria’s reign, when he was appointed High Sheriff of Monmouthshire, a role to which he was admirably suited, involving the Lord Lieutenant’s support on royal visits and High Court judges, but mainly offer encouragement to those working in the voluntary sector and award rewards, especially law enforcement agencies and those concerned with crime reduction.
In May 1860, he died at the age of 83 after a life of service to the community with a triple honor that surely places him in the category of unique characters in the history of the county.