The Spiritual Landscape of the Helman Tor Area: Chapels and Meeting Places

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Helman Tor

Colin C. Short writes the first of a short series of articles by different authors relating to the cultural heritage of the Helman Tor area of Mid-Cornwall. 

A succession of buildings from four different branches of Methodism creates a series of overlapping spiritual landscapes in the parishes adjacent to Helman Tor – roughly the parishes of Luxulyan, Lanlivery, the south of Lanivet, the east of Roche and St. Austell/Treverbyn.  These buildings are both Chapels – buildings dedicated to the worship of God without a residential component – and Meeting Places – buildings which had primarily a residential function, but also places where regular religious meetings were held. The latter category can sometimes be difficult to identify today. The Chapels never the less provide a visual identity, some being still in use, and thus still a testimony to, and landmarks in, a Spiritual landscape. Others have ceased to function as religious buildings, but still give testimony to a one-time presence of a Spiritual activity. There are some who would assert a continuing Spiritual sense associated with some of these places. Their present usage may be varied. Examples (not all from this area) include … residential, industrial (part of a food-processing company for instance), commercial (a carpet salesroom), recreation (a public house); occasionally there may be use by another religion.

The succession of Chapels in the area illustrates how the different ways of being Methodist sought to occupy the area, and to compete for worshippers – although they would probably only admit it in two cases. The succession might also illustrate population movements and waning Chapel-focused Spirituality. The four-tier Methodist pattern forms a series of cultural palimpsests, written in turn as a palimpsest on Anglican Parish structures. There is also a significant industrial palimpsest in the area, to which the Methodist palimpsests relate to a varying extent.

The initial Methodist layer was written by Wesleyans, beginning with John Wesley himself. He came to Methrose in Luxulyan in August 1755. This former home of the Kendalls was a favourite Meeting Place before there were more than a handful of Chapels in Cornwall. Wesley stayed there often, and held the September 1765 Quarterly Meeting for the Cornwall Eastern Circuit there [1]. John Pascoe, tenant farmer, led the Class Meeting and later the Society meeting at Methrose. This served the many Church Methodists in the area, that is, those who aligned with John Wesley’s wishes and worshipped on Sundays in their Parish Church, but also met mid-week in their Meeting Place for teaching and Spiritual growth. Other traditions were drawn in: the Quaker Tammy Lawry attended Methrose from her home at Mena in Lanivet. She became Tammy Bryant after marrying William senior of Gunwen Farm, in time becoming the mother of young William, who from 29 June 1818 was known as William O’Bryan [2].

The Methrose Society declined as other Societies emerged. Among these was one at a Meeting Place at Bokiddick, not far from Helman Tor. The Bryants of Gunwen Farm attended Bokiddick [3]. It was replaced in 1801-4 by the first Chapel at Lowertown. Largely funded by young William, on his land, he called it after his home, Gunwen Chapel.

Other Societies arose in the broad area around the Tor: the initial Wesleyan layer spread quickly. The first Chapel at Bodmin is quoted as 1778, although a Society must have preceded any Chapel [4]. A Chapel at Roche – if “St. Roch” in an 1813 list is correctly identified as Roche [5] – existed from 1790, and thus a Society from before that. A more secure date relates to a Chapel opening in Manchester Square in 1810 [6]. The Society from Methrose later occupied a Chapel at Rosemelling from 1834; often Meeting Places ceased to function if the ownership of the property changed. There was a Wesleyan Chapel at Lanivet by 1842 [7] and a Society much earlier. Lanlivery had a chapel up the valley from the church town by 1877, while the Wesleyan Chapel at Sweetshouse – “Ebenezer” – is given the same date [8]. As will be seen, there was an earlier Chapel or Meeting Place at Sweetshouse.

The Wesleyan palimpsest was written by these chapels: a Wesleyan Spiritual landscape had been defined. Yet none of these early Wesleyan Meeting Places and Chapels lay in the area now known as the Clay Country, not least because the industry did not really develop until the opening of the St.Austell – Bodmin Turnpike in 1836 and its crossing at Molinnis by the Treffry Tramway [9]. This initial Wesleyan work was interacting with the early-modern palimpsest that had held sway for some centuries. The land on the high commons was poorly drained and such small settlements as existed “were on the dryer slopes of the marshy valleys of the Luxulyan and Par Rivers, or on what were in effect island sites within the marshes” (Molinnis and Rescorla for example, which enter this story) [10]. Wesleyanism continued to lay down Meeting Places and then Chapels as the Clay industry developed, the population grew and villages emerged, notably at Stenalees (1862) and Penwithick (1913-4) [11]. The Wesleyan palimpsest was responding to the industrial palimpsest.

Of these Wesleyan Chapels only Gunwen, Roche and Stenalees remain open in 2018. Bodmin is a Wetherspoons pub (the Society uses shop-type premises near-by); all the others are private houses. Yet even in their present use they are self-evidently Chapels, and testimony to a Spiritual heritage.

The next Methodist palimpsest to be written on this landscape is due to the Bible Christians. Their date of origin is 1815, in the Tamar borderlands of north Cornwall-Devon, soon after William Bryant had been expelled from the Wesleyans for a second time [12]. Their arrival in this area dates from 1817, but at Ebenezer, Luxulyan [13] we have the heir to the earlier work of William Bryant, evangelist of Gunwen Farm [14].

For in November 1810, William Bryant, Local Preacher in the Bodmin Wesleyan Circuit, was refused a Class Ticket at their Quarterly distribution, in the very Chapel that he had had built. In effect, he was denied Wesleyan membership and no longer recognised as a Local Preacher. The reason was that he would not keep to his prescribed preaching appointments on the Quarterly Preaching Plan, believing himself to be called by God to go somewhere new to preach the Gospel, as an evangelist.

His reaction was to go his own way. He began a preaching round in the area, writing a new, small, free-evangelical yet Methodist-in-form palimpsest on the landscape. Thus from 1810 he was leading small Societies at Gunwen Farm and Lockengate. He also preached at Bodwen and Treskilling in the open air. It seems that the group at Bodwen later met in a Meeting Place at Ebenezer Cottage, a few hundred yards north east of the present building [15].

In 1814 William Bryant was reconciled with the Wesleyans and his Societies and Meeting Places were integrated into the Bodmin Wesleyan Circuit. What happened to the newly-evangelised Bryant locations is now unclear. Yet it was not long before Bryant was expelled a second time, while working as a lay evangelist in the Wesleyan Stratton Mission. He and his followers adopted the title Bible Christians. When that movement arrived in the Luxulyan area in 1818, a Chapel was very rapidly opened in the vicinity of Menadew. O’Bryan identifies this Chapel as Ebenezer [16].  As Chapels do not arise out of nowhere it seems probable that this was the same Society as the one established in 1810-11 – and thus a relict of William Bryant’s earlier evangelism.

Very soon though other new Bible Christian Societies and subsequently Chapels were being written onto the landscape alongside the Wesleyan palimpsest. By and large they occupied new locations, distant from the Wesleyans. In one sense their palimpsest was filling gaps. Yet this could not be said for Lanivet. William O’Bryan preached there in early 1819, and a Society was soon formed [17]. There was, of course, already a Wesleyan Society in the village. There was a Bible Christian Chapel by 1843, and the 2018 Chapel is essentially this building.

In the other places they came into new areas. Early preaching in the rural area between Roche and Bilberry led to a Meeting Place at Chillbrook Farm. Harry Major preached there in early 1819, but Margaret Adams, one of the Bible Christian female ministers, had preceded him [18]. The Bible Christians called the chapel opened in 1884, Tremodrett. It remains, as a private house.

In the vicinity of Luxulyan church town, the Bible Christians had begun preaching in 1817 at Tregonning, just south of where the Wesleyans later established Rosemelling Chapel in 1834. Later the Bible Christians had a Meeting Place at Treskilling, and moved into a second Meeting Place in Bridges in 1820. When the owner died, and the new owner did not want a meeting in his home, the Society reverted to Treskilling. But the new owner was soon converted, and the Meeting Place reverted to Bridges. The first Chapel was opened in 1846, and the present building in 1885; it is now being converted to a private house [19].

Along the road from Treskilling, at Bowling Green, another Meeting Place existed in 1869 [20]. Very little is known about it, but it was written onto the palimpsest in another gap. It was also written onto what was emerging as Clay Country. The Bible Christian Spiritual landscape was now departing from the early-modern and beginning to merge with the industrial landscape.

Bugle lies a little further on, and there a similar process would happen but in a different way. Bugle itself is a village of the industrial palimpsest, being the development resulting from the coincidence of the Turnpike and the Tramway [21]. Thus the first Chapel in the area was at Gracca, interacting with the older early-modern palimpsest by being on the well-drained hillside south-west of the (present) Bugle Inn. In March 1819 William O’Bryan preached there, and the following day he and Margaret Adams went from house to house, counselling the people touched by that meeting [22]. The first Meeting Place was a thatched cottage on Gracca Green, and in 1836 a Chapel followed opposite Gracca Terrace [23]. Yet this interaction with the early-modern palimpsest would soon refocus to interact with the industrial palimpsest in Bugle itself.

There had been a Primitive Methodist Chapel at Molinnis since 1852, or soon after, as will be soon described. In 1858 the Bible Christians opened their new Chapel between the new Bugle Inn and the former northern Goonbarrow branch railway bridge. Population growth and shift of the industrial palimpsest had made a new site necessary, and initially the new building was called Gracca. Later it became Bethesda [24].

To the south of Roche the Bible Christians had a Chapel at Trezaise. Now converted with its Sunday School to two houses, it carries still on the north end the date-plaque 1853. Regrettably, little information has been recovered about this Chapel’s origins; it closed in 2001 [25].

On Innis Downs and north west of Lockengate is the still-isolated Innis Farm, and the still extant (2018) ex Bible Christian Innis Methodist Church. Here the Bible Christian palimpsest was written on another, older, religious palimpsest: that written by the Quakers, the only such in the area. William O’Bryan’s mother Tammy had been a Quaker, and he valued that heritage. In 1819 Quaker links had seen the former Quaker Burial Ground at Innis given to O’Bryan; it became his family responsibility to maintain it. O’Bryan took further land alongside the Burial Ground and built the Chapel [26].

At Bugle and possibly Bowling Green the Bible Christians were responding to the developing industrial palimpsest. Trezaise seems to be a little too far north to reflect that however. By and large, and like the early Wesleyans – they were fitting into the early-modern palimpsest and, with the exception of Lanivet, gap filling with respect to the Wesleyans. However when they did move into Bugle they were overlapping with an existing Primitive Methodist society as will soon be seen.

The Primitive Methodists had their origins in the Staffordshire Potteries in 1811. They are not to be considered ‘original’ Methodists. The Methodist branch arrived in Cornwall after a dissident Bible Christian at Redruth invited them in 1825 [27]. Primitive Methodist preaching began in St. Austell in 1832, and in 1833 they rented a Chapel at Menadew. The source of this ‘Chapel’ is unclear; it may have been only a Meeting Place; the Society ceased in 1838. A more permanent Society was established at Bodwen in 1844, in ‘Mr. Grose’s barn’ – another Meeting Place, but it failed in 1861 with the loss of the barn. A brief preaching presence from 1839-40 at Rescorla – one of the ancient island sites in the marshes [28] – did not persist at the time [29]. These were palimpsests on an early-modern pattern, in the area through which a pre-Turnpike St.Austell – Bodmin route passed, and competing with the Bible Christian Chapel at Ebenezer.

After the Turnpike opened in 1836 and Bugle began to develop, Primitive Methodism became the first branch of Methodism to engage with the industrial palimpsest in that village. A Society was formed in 1852, in a privately built Chapel at Molinnis (another of the ‘islands’), alongside the Treffry Tramway / Cornwall Minerals Railway [30]. Thus when the Bible Christians ‘came down the hill’ from Gracca in 1858 they were potentially competing with the Primitive Methodists. Evidence for that competition when the Primitive Methodists wanted to move into the centre of the village, and the engagement of Wesleyans in Bugle – they never did build a Chapel here – may be found in Probert’s study [31]. No trace remains of either the Molinnis building, or the later Chapel on Rosevear Road: the engagement of the Primitive Methodists with the Spiritual landscape of Bugle is lost.

Meanwhile the Primitive Methodists had returned to Rescorla, with open-air preaching from 1849. It was not until 1873 that a Chapel – the present Rescorla Centre – was built [32]. It alone remains to bear witness to the Primitive Methodist palimpsest in the area.

The final Methodist palimpsest came with what was often known in the nineteenth century as Free Methodism, but was officially the United Methodist Free Churches from 1857. The story of the reform movements in Methodism from the 1830s through to the early 1850s in an age of social and political reform will not be told here [33]. This palimpsest was small, but complicated. There were just two UMFC Chapels, very close to each other, both at Sweetshouse in Lanlivery [34]. One has been called New Ebenezer [35] and the other took the place name, Redmoor; one might walk from one to the other in 15 minutes, and pass eight houses [36].

The parish has always been thinly populated, reaching a maximum of 1809 in 1841 [37]. This happens to correspond to the beginning of Methodist Reform in Cornwall at Camelford [38], and the identification of the reforming parties with the Wesleyan Methodist Association. The WMA had reached St.Austell by late 1834, culminating in a secession of several Wesleyan members [39]. At some subsequent date New Ebenezer must have seceded. This suggests that the Wesleyan Society in Sweetshouse was called Ebenezer. The date quoted for the former Wesleyan Chapel (on the main road; now a private house) is 1877 [40], which implies that there must have been an earlier Chapel or Meeting Place. New Ebenezer is on side roads to the west, and is also a private house. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the two Societies did not enjoy harmony, that there was often considerable animosity between them, seeking to outdo each other in Harvest Festivals for instance [41]. Ebenezer closed in 1963 and New Ebenezer in 1986 [42]. Redmoor is a riddle wrapped in a mystery [43]. No information seems to survive, except that it closed in 1932 [44].

This final palimpsest was marginal, both in its location and in its influence. Wesleyan Reform was never to gain a major hold in the area. As regards the witness of this palimpsest, both Ebenezers remain; yet to those who know the story it can only be described as very negative. Perhaps it is better not well known. It engaged with only the early-modern palimpsest.

The Methodist Spiritual landscape of the greater Helman Tor area has been described in this article as a set of religious palimpsests on several other palimpsests. That set engaged with the early-modern – the land and field and track pattern of the period prior to the exploitation of China Clay – and with the industrial palimpsest that the Clay Industry brought. It engaged very little with the other religious palimpsests: the Anglican and the Quaker. Yet its monuments – its Chapels, and where they can be identified, its Meeting Places – even when no longer open for religious purposes, testify to a significant social and Spiritual presence pervading society as it has evolved in the area around Helman Tor.


Notes and References 

1 References in any of the editions of Wesley’s Journal, but see John Pearce, The Wesleys in Cornwall Truro: D.Bradford Barton: 1964, p.119 for first visit and footnote about the Kendalls; thereafter see the index.

2 Thomas Shaw and Colin C Short, Feet of Clay Porthleven: Colin C Short 2007, p.97. The usage here uses Bryant up to 29 June 1818 and O’Bryan thereafter.

3 Shaw and Short, op.cit, pp. 8-10, 21.

4 William Myles, A Chronological History of the People called Methodists: London: [Wesleyan] Conference-Office: 1813, p.428f. Wesley does not mention a Bodmin Chapel.

5 Myles, op.cit. lists St. Roch as a Cornish Chapel. There is though a Parish Church dedicated to St. Roch in Somerset. John Wesley had declined to preach for many years in Cornwall’s Roche parish because the vicar in 1768 was an Anglican evangelical, and an old friend of John (Wesley’s Journal September 14, 1768). As we shall see, the first layer of the palimpsests to emerge with a Chapel in Bugle was not Wesleyan.

6 Cornwall Industrial Settlements Initiative / Roche, Truro: The Cahill Partnership and Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County Council: 2005, p.14. The same work also makes reference (p.12) to the Trethewey family of Trezaise who were ‘early supporters’ of John Wesley, and who had a Meeting Place at their home – but without quoting dates. The Trethewey name was associated later with the Bible Christians: Shaw and Short op. cit: see the index. The present Chapel dates from 1836 (R. Symons, The Rev. John Wesley’s Ministerial Itineraries in Cornwall: Truro: [author]:1879, p.135.)

7 Symons loc cit .

8 Symons loc cit . Quoting the same date for both Chapels is suspicious. The valley Chapel site ‘feels’ earlier, hidden as it is.

9 Cornwall Industrial Settlements Initiative / Stenalees, Truro: The Cahill Partnership and Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County Council: 2005, p.13. Care must be exercised in describing the landscape features in terms of palimpsests. The undoubted industrial operation of tin streaming had occupied many of the valleys (consider the name, Stenalees for instance) in the time of what is called here, the early-modern palimpsest, and did not entirely die out until after the beginning of China Clay exploitation. It is that industry that constitutes what is called the industrial palimpsest here.

10 idem p.11.

11 Colin C Short, ‘Stenalees: Local Chapels and Clay History’. An unpublished illustrated lecture in its second form as delivered at the Rescorla Centre, 9 February 2018.

12 Shaw and Short, op. cit, pp.57-71.

13 The 1859 Chapel became part of the property of Roach Foods Ltd (Danish Crown).

14 See Shaw and Short, op cit .

15 Whether the original name of the cottage was Ebenezer is unclear. It seems more likely that it took its present name from the later Chapel.

16 James Thorne, Jubilee Memorial Volume, Shebbear: Bible Christian Book Room 1865, pp. 48, and William O’Bryan ‘The Rise and Progress of the Connexion of people called Arminian Bible Christians,’ Shebbear: Arminian Magazine 1825, p.148.

17 William O’Bryan. op. cit, p.145.

18 William O’Bryan. op. cit, p.109. The present Chapel, now a private house, dates from 1884.

19 James Thorne, op. cit, p.189ff. John Rowe, Methodism in Luxulyan: a brief history of Methodism in the parish of Luxulyan, Typescript in Cornwall Studies Library, Redruth; 2001.

20 The meeting appears in the annual list of donations to the Bible Christian Missionary Society, often bound with the annual Minutes of Conference.

21 Cornwall Industrial Settlements Initiative / Bugle, Truro: The Cahill Partnership and Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County Council: 2005, p.10ff.  Carnsmerry was an early name of the settlement that grew around the Bugle Inn, although properly associated with a different place. Bugle 2005, p.16.

22 William O’Bryan. op. cit, p.149. In 1904, when the Bible Christian Conference met in St. Austell, Rev. Tom Jacob, who hailed from Bugle, wrote ‘The Conference Town,’ the annual Bible Christian Magazine article introducing the area to its readers (pp. 385-395). There he quotes William O’Bryan ‘writing in the “Arminian Magazine”’ about a visit to Gracca, perhaps thinking it to be the first one. However, Jacob inserts the wrong year into the quotation: “the Lord’s Day, March 7th, 1818”. The first report of work at Gracca on 3 March 1818 appears in the 1825 Magazine as referenced above. What Jacob quotes refers to 1819 – when March 7 was a Sunday: it wasn’t in 1818. The quotation used by Jacob may be found on O’Bryan, op. cit, p.183f.

23 Short, ‘Stenalees’.

24 See Short, ‘Stenalees’ for a discussion of these names. “Bugle Chapel” only appears to have been adopted after parts of the Bodmin Circuit were absorbed into the St. Austell Circuit in 1992.

25 David P Easton, Methodist Chapel Closures in Cornwall 1932-2003: A Statistical Survey, St. Mary’s Scilly: private publication 2004, p.25.

26 William O’Bryan. op. cit, p.149.

27 The standard study of Cornwall’s Primitive Methodists is John C.C. Probert, Primitive Methodism in Cornwall, Redruth: privately published: 1966. This work is the source of most of what appears here.

28 Cornwall Industrial Settlements Initiative / Stenalees, Truro: The Cahill Partnership and Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County Council: 2005, p.11.

29 Probert op. cit, p.95f.

30 idem p.87.

31 idem p.88.

32 idem p.90.

33 See two works by Oliver Beckerlegge, The United Methodist Free Churches A Study in Freedom, London: Epworth: 1957, and Free Methodism in Cornwall, Probus: Cornish Methodist Historical Association: 1961. For St.Austell see, Colin C Short, ‘The Origins of the United Methodist Free Churches in St.Austell,’ The Journal of the Cornish Methodist Historical Association, Vol.11, No.5 (2013), pp.186-192.

34 The existence of both (rather than the names being alternative names for the same Chapel) is confirmed by their separate listings in Edwin Askew, Free Methodist Manual … 1898, London: Crombie: 1899, p.271, and by Easton ascribing separate closure dates. op. cit pp.25.28.

35 Easton op. cit, p.25. Askew op. cit p.271 does not call the UMFC Chapel ‘New’.

36 The Chapels were so close that it is tempting to believe that one might have been Wesleyan Reform Union and the other Wesleyan Reformers; that is to say, the situation found at St..Austell may have been replicated here (see note 33). In the current absence of information the issue cannot be resolved: the deposited Circuit records do not appear to cover any of the Lanlivery Chapels.

37 Accessed 30 Nov 2018.

38 Tom Shaw, Methodism in the Camelford and Wadebridge Circuit 1743-1963, Private Publication 1964. Shaw does not mention Lanlivery.

39 Short, ‘St.Austell’, p.188.

40 Symons op. cit, p.135.

41 Reported to author while he was serving in Porthleven.

42 Easton op. cit, p.25.

43 Winston Churchill, referring to Russia, October 1939.

44 Easton op. cit p. 28.


Rev. Colin C. Short is Chairman of the Cornish Methodist Historical Association and is from East Cornwall. Sent to his first appointment in 1980, he served in County Durham and Kidderminster before returning to Cornwall in 2001 to Penzance and then Porthleven. He retired in 2010. A Methodist historian, he specialises in Cornwall and the Bible Christians. His books cover the Bible Christians in County Durham, Bible Christian hymnody, and a biography of William O’Bryan the Bible Christian founder. He edited the 1991 edition of A Methodist Guide to Cornwall and has published many journal articles.


1 thought on “The Spiritual Landscape of the Helman Tor Area: Chapels and Meeting Places

  1. I’m honoured to be conflated with the Rev Tom SHAW, but the family is really SHORT, Colin C of that Ilk, out of North Hill.
    Mistakes happen !

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