BENEATH an impressive grey tombstone in Ponthir Baptist Chapel graveyard lies the remarkable story of a non-conformist who in the 1820s and 30s rose to prominence and held three of the most prestigious offices in the land.

This imposing memorial bears the name of John Jenkins, a devout Baptist and highly successful businessman who managed a tin works in Ponthir in addition to interests in canals and docks. He is credited with playing a key role in the development of Caerleon.

His sound reputation and high standing in the community was acknowledged with the appointment in 1825 as deputy lieutenant for the county, a role which encompasses support to the Lord Lieutenant who is the Queen’s personal representative.

He was now poised on the threshold of a period of public service which was to last more than 30 years.

But therein lies a mystery: the honour, though thoroughly deserved, was normally reserved for members of the Church of England. Jenkins, as a lifelong Baptist, by law and social custom would have been restricted from holding this office.

As a committed chapel goer he had great sympathy for the aims of Non-conformists who had no independent rights to office. It would be another three years before the law was changed with the repeal of the Test Act in 1828.

So was the decision made under the cover of sealed orders or was there a genuine loophole which presented an opportunity that worked to his advantage?

Historian Mrs E Kennerley in an archive article in 1975 describing his rise to stardom implying that he had “jumped the gun”.

However, given his steadfast moral background and never one to be deflected from a Christian perspective it is unlikely that he would have been involved in any process which was “on the windy side of the law”.

The Baptists’ cause reached a defining moment when an opportunity arose following an argument within the Caerleon fellowship over the use of the Welsh language.

This clash of opinion is documented in the well researched book The History of Ponthir Baptist Church by the Rev Nigel Burge, a popular figure, who was minister from 1992 to 2005.


He recorded that a dispute arose when it was suggested that the worshippers from Ponthir preferred services through the medium of Welsh and this became the catalyst for the founding of Chapel Sion which opened in 1803 with a congregation of nine Baptists and three Congregationalists.

John Jenkins was the nephew of the founder of Ponthir Baptist chapel, also John Jenkins, who with his personal friend John Butler donated two plots of land and organised the construction of the new chapel. The parishioners’ use of the Welsh language was confirmed when a hymn book published in 1815 contained 125 hymns in Welsh and a mere five in English.

It was the custom in 1837 to preach morning sermon in Welsh and the evening sermon in English.

This caused one minister who was used to giving the usual number of sermons to conclude that increasing the number presented him with quite a challenge. Embracing this bi-lingual culture he remarked that in a previous chapel “Three sermons a month were sufficient but now at least ten are necessary”.

A feature of the new building was a hat rack with extended pegs to fit the tall top hats fashionable at the time and worn by men from the Ponthir tin works who were known as the Ponthir Top Hatters.

Controversy surrounded the first minister as the Rev Burge discloses: the Rev Walter David’s term of office lasted five years. “We know that his ministry came to an inglorious end when this young minister had ‘to be silenced’. His inconsistent behaviour revealed to the church that his character was not worthy of his profession. His ministry became to an abrupt conclusion on 29th October 1808”.

Tantalizingly, no details are available and it would be pure speculation to presume his misdemeanours were related to female company.

John Jenkins watched with pride the spiritual growth of the area especially during the tenure of Rev James Michael which created a record 40 years’ service from 1817 until 1858 when he died age of 86.

John Jenkins’ service to the community and a strong desire to seek justice without fear or favour was further recognised when he became a Justice of the Peace and by 1829 he was sitting at the Quarter Sessions in Usk, at Monmouth with the Right Honourable Lord Granville Somerset, MP and at the petty sessions in Caerleon.

A magistrate’s duty then encompassed a wide range of municipal administration plus the regulation of prisons and the local constabulary in addition to a responsibility for roads and bridges.

He continued to chart a course in public life and one which would define his association with the Baptist movement in a most positive manner.

A few years earlier Non-conformists were active throughout the county and at a meeting in Pontypool ministers, deacons and Baptists formed an influential group of Protestant dissenters and one of its members was John Jenkins.

His association with Ponthir Chapel coincided with a resurgence of faith among the community and by 1840 the congregation numbered 113 with the Sunday School having 80 on the register plus support from 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 support to the Lord Lieutenant on royal visits and to High Court judges but principally to offer encouragement to those who work in the voluntary sector and make awards especially law enforcement agencies and those concerned with crime reduction.

In May 1860 he died at the age of 83 after a lifetime of service to the community with triple honours which surely places him firmly in the category of unique characters in the county’s history.