The Plain-an-gwarry at St Just: its conservation and restoration

Categories History1 Comment

First published in the Old Cornwall Society Journal Vol. XII, No. 4 in Spring 1999.


The Plain-an-gwarry in 1996. Note the evidence in the granite stones of Feast Day hand drilling contests (Photo: Michael Tangye)


Michael Tangye (Whythrer Meyn) of Redruth brings us an intriguing story of a conflict which could have led to the loss of the Plain-an-gwarry at St Just-in-Penwith.


Those who wish to conserve historical sites for the sake of future generations are frequently accused of hindering progress by those whose chief aim is to benefit from any subsequent development. Passions were therefore aroused at St Just-in-Penwith in 1836 when, at a vestry meeting, a decision was made, following much opposition and debate, to build a market house “within the ancient circle which adjoins the churchtown”.1 The promoter of this controversial development was James Trembath junior, who was probably representing his father, James Trembath Esq., of Mayon Barton, Sennen, who owned land in the churchtown.

The mediaeval Plain-an-gwarry needs a full description here; William Borlase described it in 1769 as being circular, 126 feet in diameter with an external ditch. Its interior had six steps, or stone benches, “with one on top of all where the rampart is about seven feet wide, all somewhat disfigured by the injudicious repairs of late years”.2

The correspondence which ensued gives us a further insight into the history and archaeology of this ancient amphitheatre. In a letter to the West Briton on the 14th October 1836, an enlightened gentleman, signing himself Tre, made an impassioned plea that the Plan-an-Guare should be preserved in its entirety for future generations. James Trembath junior, immediately responded, supporting the decision to build within its confines.

He argued that, although the triangular space in the churchtown was the most eligible site, it was rejected by a large majority; “it would deprive the town of St Just of a clean and open area in the centre of the town where a market house would over shadow adjoining houses”. The same site should also be reserved for carts laden with potatoes, for the sale of fruit, vegetables, and other commodities as were not always included within a roofed market.

He added that until 1834 another site, the Quarry Pits, would have been available near the amphitheatre, but since that time the owner “had built neat and commodious houses” upon it. He also stated that he did not totally disregard the historical significance of the site, having said at the vestry meeting “that in the erection of a market house attention would be paid to preserve the form of the foundations of the amphitheatre which still remains in the Plain”. He also intended that a suitable plaque be erected to mark the past history of the site.

He went on to argue that traditional sports held there were now meeting with opposition. From time immemorial it had been used “as a goal for hurling, a place where fowls were staked on Shrove Tuesdays” and as a prize ring for wrestling. “It has been usual to have the wrestlings on Saturday afternoons, when the miners hold holiday – within the last few weeks men have returned to their homes with broken and dislocated shoulders” and on shrove Tuesday the barbarous custom of tying fowls to a stake had been written of by Mr Drew. “Are these the customs which should be perpetuated for future generations?”3 No doubt in his criticism of wrestling, James Trembath was attempting to win favour and support from the non-conformist in this hotbed of Methodism.


Yet Tre was not deterred by such a response, indicating that the letter contained a series of excuses to support the development, and that there were sufficient resources capable to build on another site. He queried the proposal to retain the circular shape of the Plain-an-gwarry, wondering how long it would remain, and suggested that future education would enlighten the public as to its history and importance. He also stressed that building the market house would not stop the wrestling and hurling, and that, if these were not indulged in, then the St Just men “would find vent in excitement of which morality and sound sends must alike disapprove”. He ended his letter with a final statement “But assuredly, such relics are the property of posterity, as well as the present generation. They are heirlooms which no one has a right to destroy or injure”.4

James Trembath, eager to have the last word, now attacked the legacy of neglect which the amphitheatre had experienced since described by Borlase in 1762. He asked, if it was of such great importance, why had it not been better preserved: “Where are the seats? Where now the inner circle which described the area? They are all gone, and in the comparatively short period of 70 or 80 years”. He added that the wall of the Amphitheatre was to be repaired: “Its dilapidated fence, which for many a summer has not prevented pigs from turning over its surface with equanimity” would be “rescued from oblivion”. He also criticised the content of the mediaeval miracle plays once enacted in the Cornish language, asking “What moral advantages the people were likely to get from the theatrical prostitution of sacred subjects”. He ended his letter by reiterating the custom “of tying fowls to stakes and torturing them with the utmost cruelty”.5

Thus, the correspondence ceased. Perhaps due to the pleas of Tre, James Trembath abandoned his plan, and in 1840 constructed his market house near the church, where it is today represented by the Wellington Inn. J Buller described it in 1842 as a “spacious and convenient market-house, lately built by James Trembath Esquire of Sennen, the proprietor of the surrounding land, which on Saturdays, the market day, is well supplied with butcher’s meat and vegetables of all sorts”.6

The Plain-an-gwarry had been saved, but although still used “as a wrestling ground, a stopping place for brush vans, travelling theatres, etc,” its structure continued to deteriorate. In August 1878 it was reported that restoration was contemplated, and a meeting was arranged. “Mr W C Borlase has kindly consented to preside. As the present condition of the Plan is such that tourists can scarcely recognise it, we hope the meeting will not end in talk!”7 A committee was formed, led by Mr W Copeland Borlase, the prominent archaeologist, Mr R Boyns and the Reverend H S Fagan who aimed “to restore the Plain to its original condition, as far as may be, having respect to vested interests”.8 That November it was reported that work had commenced, and several men had been employed to discover the old wall and to dig a drain, etc. Subsequently “the old wall is laid bare, and a trench brought up from the Back Lane to the centre. Several loads of stone have been hauled up from Boscean to build with”.9

They were obviously rebuilding the exterior with a bank which must have, at one time, been walled with stone. The wall around the Townplace was capped with quarry stone and “the part from the corner of the shop kept by Mr G Trenery to Back Lane is in a forward state, and the men are busily engaged in riddling and laying the foundation from thence to the corner of Mr Thomas’s stables. Meanwhile shovels and wheelbarrows have been busy levelling the area inside, which has made the space appear much greater”. It is a pity that the descriptions of today’s archaeology were not applied, but “a discovery was made in that part of the hedge which adjoins the Old Garden,” a recess of rather small quarry stones, built without mortar, and semi-circular in shape with a “large flat stone partially covering or hiding the entrance… front of hedge to back of recess equals 3 1/2 feet to 4 feet width the same. A resident recalls a Duck’s House there, when a boy. Another recalls that his family, who lived nearby and occupied the garden, kept both pigs and ducks in places that were excavated under the Plan-an-guare and covered with flat stones. The one found here must have fallen from the roof”.10 These were obviously typical West Cornwall crows many of which were built into the thickness of hedges elsewhere in St Just.

By December 1878 a considerable part of the wall had been completed, the coping laid, the top of the bank covered with rab (decomposed granite), and the steep slope, from the parapet to the interior level, laid over with turf. “The central area has been levelled and laid with broken (spal’d) stones, which have been covered by a layer of good Rab”.

There was at this stage some disagreement as “Captain Rowe has withdrawn from the Directorate because of his inability to do what he considers to be the right thing”.11 In January it was reported that “the difference of opinion with Captain Rowe is settled and work will now progress. A stile is to be placed near the Market-house, for entering and leaving on that side, and a stile and gateway on the Bank-Square side. The granite posts, about two tonnes each, are already prepared for their place, and will, by the kindness of Mr Copeland Borlase, be sent up to Larrigan in a few days. A good cast iron gate is to be procured”.12

It was finally completed in February 1879. If it had not been for the pleas of the unknown Tre it would long have been replaced with buildings.



  1. 1. West Briton, 10. 1836.
  2. Borlase, William. Antiquities … of Cornwall bracket 1769 bracket, P. 208.
  3. West Briton, 28. 10. 1836.
  4. Ibid, 18. 11. 1836.
  5. Ibid, 25. 11. 1836.
  6. Buller, J. Statistical account of St Just in Penwith (1842)
  7. Cornish Telegraph, 13. 8. 1878.
  8. Ibid, 20. 8. 1878.
  9. Cornishman, 14. 11. 1878.
  10. Ibid, 28. 11. 1878.
  11. Ibid 19. 12. 1878.
  12. Ibid, one. Two. 1879.


Grateful thanks to the Cornish Studies Library, Redruth, and the Courtney library, Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, for access to sources.




Michael Tangye (Whythrer Meyn) is a well-known historian and author having published many Cornish books and articles over the years.






1 thought on “The Plain-an-gwarry at St Just: its conservation and restoration

  1. Thanks for a fascinating take on this site. The group did well to defend the space from being built over and going on to restore it. I like the tales of its lively and sometimes unsavoury uses! I wasn’t aware of the site and I will make a point of stopping by to see it when I next make it down to the beautiful Penwith area to which some of my ancestors had connections.

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