Michael Tangye (Whythrer Meyn) of Redruth brings us a story of excessive religious fervour that was all too common among many Methodist congregations in our villages and towns.
1824: King George the Fourth reigned. The mining town of Redruth had not yet reached the height of its prosperity. Its shallow, immensely rich copper loads had rapidly raised many shrewd miners and investors from their working-class status to that of the middle class. Yet the majority of what was then an almost entirely Cornish population lived out their drab lives in poverty.
Each morning they arose in their overcrowded, unhygienic courts and small cottages, washed hands and faces in the meagre portion of cold water from the nearest well or mine addict, ate a frugal breakfast, donned clothes still wet from the previous day’s rain, and trudged wearily to one of the many mines which provided them with work.
The majority was Methodist, many of whom had been directly inspired by the preaching of John Wesley. He had often positioned himself in the streets of the town, and at Gwennap Pit, to address the masses who had drifted away from the uninspiring influence of the Church of England.
Methodism, with its stirring hymns, appealed to the Cornish. On Saturdays the population cast aside their dowdy working-clothes and donned their Sunday best. Bal maidens, who had toiled throughout the week breaking ore, asserted their femininity, being transformed with expensive silk dresses and decorative hats – as one reporter wrote, “larvae of the earth during the week – butterflies in the sunshine on the Sabbath”. An English minister attending a service at Redruth was disappointed at what he thought was the absence of the working class!
It was at a time before compulsory education; the majority of the population was illiterate and rapidly influenced by the vivid comparisons between heaven and “hell, fire and damnation”, forcibly expounded by ministers and local preachers from chapels, great and small. Revivals, termed “an outpouring of the spirit” were therefore held about every ten years for the saving of souls. One such revival was held at the Redruth Wesleyan Chapel over a continuous period of six or seven weeks in January and February 1824. The meeting house was kept open and used for two or three days both by day and night. One of those who attended was Emma, or Amy, George, a 19-year-old Bal maiden who lived at West End, Redruth, in a house divided into four tenements, near the poor house, which still survives. Unfortunately, she suffered from mental illness which was to manifest itself with the most horrific result. The revival, and the ensuing tragedy, was widely reported in Cornish newspapers at that time, and it is research of these on which this article is based.
The chapel was crowded, the congregation stirred into a frenzy of religious fervour by the monotonous rhythmic incantations of the preacher. All around Emma, people cried out in an extraordinary manner using violent gesticulations; many had completely lost control of their emotions – some laughing, others crying. Some “fell on their knees, and with uplifted hands and their bodies working to and fro, called as loud as they were able to the Lord for help”.
“Oh! Christ! Pardon me my sins! Oh Lord, give me grace!” Their conduct was wild and extravagant, and “altogether out of the mild decent course of addressing the Almighty usually observed in places of worship – the kind of excitement that was likely to operate on weak minds”.
Emma herself was caught up in this fervour, and when she had not arrived home by 10:30pm after entering the chapel at 2:30pm her mother went to fetch her. She found her amongst the crowded congregation lifting up her hands as high as she could and throwing herself backwards and forwards violently.
On seeing her mother, she began to cry for her parents to pray for themselves, as they were unaware of the danger they lived in – meaning danger from her. Ignoring this, and dragging her by the hand, her mother forced her way through the mass of people and pandemonium to search for, and retrieve Emma’s cloak, shoes and bonnet, which she had discarded in different parts of the chapel.
Emma attended again the following night, and on returning to her home prayed “violently and outrageously for her parents,” her mind filled with the knowledge imparted that the ultimate experience was for anyone to be with their Lord.
It was probably the following day, the 4th of March, when Emma returned from the mine. Her mother had gone to chapel leaving Emma’s seven-year-old brother, Benjamin, in her care. She was particularly fond of Ben, and on sitting down to her meal gave him some of her food. Then, smiling at him, she calmly asked, “Should you like to go to heaven, Dear?”
The child replied, “Yes when I die”.
She then got up, singing a hymn, placed a black silk handkerchief round his neck, tied with a running knot. “Is it too tight dear?” she asked.
The child looked up and smiling said “No”. Still singing a hymn she then lifted him up and suspended him from a crook on the door!
Francis Hodge, a witness at the subsequent trial, later said that he was surprised when Emma wandered into his room, obviously troubled, and sat down. On asking what was troubling her she blurted out, “Ben’s behind the door hanging from a crook”.
In the meantime, Samuel Gribble, another tenant, had seen the body suspended from the door. He shouted for Francis Hodge and together they cut the noose and placed the body on a bed. Returning to his room Hodge exclaimed, “Amy what have you done?”
She replied, “I have hanged my little brother to send him to heaven”, and grabbing a knife, added, “and I will cut my throat to go with him!”
Both men succeeded in wrestling it from her grasp and called John Cocking, the constable, who took her into custody.
At her trial at Launceston, on 30th March 1824, her state of mind became evident. She had explained to John Cocking that she had an urge to murder someone, particularly her mother, who had hidden knives away from her. One day, when eating her lunch at the boiler house of the mine, she was tempted to throw a small boy into a shaft. She had similar thoughts on seeing children playing near a shaft at Back Lane (later Wesley Street).
Margaret Osborn gave evidence to say that Emma had been very unwell, “her brains were turning”. She appeared “vicious with eyes rolling”. Both her mother, and John Cocking gave damning evidence on the effect of the revival on Emma, and on others. The judge observed that Emma had been under “strong religious excitement” and urged that pastors and teachers “should suppress these extravagant reactions against their weaker listeners”- or else steps will be taken against them.
Emma was acquitted, with a verdict of insanity. The judge ordered her to be detained in custody, assuring her family and friends that it would only be for a short period. It must have been longer than anticipated as in March 1826, it was reported that Emma was still confined in Launceston Gaol “as a dangerous lunatic”. During the brief absence of her guard, she had suspended herself by her garters from a nail on the wall, “but she was found before dead, and resuscitated”.
The revivals continued into the Victorian period. If a doctor, or paramedic, was called to such a scene today he would probably diagnose the actions of those within the chapel as mass hysteria.
We still find certain aspects of this behaviour manifesting itself amongst Methodists and other denominations as the so-called Toronto Blessing, described by psychiatrists as being possibly a psychiatric disorder known as disassociation, where people with a personality split, act out of character. The Methodist conference has itself raised concern about the raucous laughter, growling, barking, trances, drunken style behaviour such as stiff-jerking and falling down that occurs when the congregation is affected with religious fervour. However, catchers and carpets are provided to cushion those who fall backwards!
Such hysteria occurs in a chapel not far distance from Redruth, the congregation there would perhaps agree that they had been possessed by the Holy Spirit, but now candle holders, historic features of the chapel fabric, have mysteriously been removed “as works of the Devil”, although an inquiry has failed to reveal who is responsible.
Let us hope that there is not another potential Emma George amongst the congregation!
Michael Tangye is a well-known historian and author having published many Cornish books and articles over the years.