Billy Bray: Methodist folk hero

On this day in 1794 William Trewartha Bray was born in the hamlet of Twelveheads, tucked away at the bottom of the Poldice valley between Redruth and Penryn. His father died when he was young and the family then moved in with a grandfather. On his death in turn in 1811, William, by now known as Billy and a miner as his father had been, journeyed to the Tavistock district of Devon. There he worked for seven years, but in that time, according to his contemporary and biographer F.W.Bourne, Billy became a drunkard with a reputation as a bit of a tearaway.

On his return Billy, now married, became increasingly dissatisfied with life. Eventually, in 1823, he underwent the experience of conversion familiar by this time to the majority of Cornish Methodists. But this was no ordinary conversion – a few months of pious living followed by the inevitable backsliding and the relegation of religion in the everyday struggle to make ends meet.

Billy became an enthusiastic lay preacher for the Bible Christians, quickly appearing on their Local Plan (the programme of preaching) in 1824. Until his death in 1868, he then kept up an unremitting evangelical enthusiasm. When Billy was in the pulpit, the chapels rang with spontaneous shouts while he danced with joy. His was an exuberant religion, verging on what to our eyes might seem close to hysteria.

For all the excitement, Billy’s sermons were laced with practical metaphors and a sharp wit. All this, delivered in a Cornish accent, added to his growing popularity with the mining population in which he was firmly rooted.

Extrovert religion was accompanied by incredible energy. Juggling his work as a miner with tending his smallholding and regular preaching, Billy still found time to organise the building of three chapels. The first was at Cross Lanes, near Twelveheads, the second (and only survivor) at Kerley Downs, while the third was at Carharrack.

Perhaps his approach to life was best summed up by Reverend William Haslam, Vicar at Baldhu Church, describing the day, sometime in the 1850s, when he first met Billy. Hearing someone ‘praising the Lord’

I rose from the breakfast table and opened the door to see who my happy, unceremonious visitor could be; and then for the first time beheld this queer looking man. I asked him who he was. He replied, with a face beaming with joy –

“I am Billy Bray – be you the passon?

“Yes,” I answered.

Converted, be ye?”

“Yes, thank God” ….

After a time, Billy joined us again in the dining room, to take, by invitation, some breakfast; but before he sat down he approached me and suddenly put his arm around me, and took me up, and carried me around the table, and then, setting me down at my chair, rolled on the floor for joy, and said he was as “happy as he could live”.

Billy Bray’s chapel at Kerley Downs

3 thoughts on “Billy Bray: Methodist folk hero

  1. What an incredibly lively and rich account by Rev. Haslam. I wish we had more such accounts from the past. Wonderful. And what a character this chap was, what a delight. I can imagine he must have been pretty exhausting company though.

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  2. I remember the Billy Bray chapel at the bottom of Fore St, Carharrack, becoming a builder’s store in the late 1960s. It had a text on outside “The Lord Loveth the Gates of Zion”, and I never did find out why it said that, or indeed who Billy Bray was. Thank you for answering a question from nearly 60 years ago!

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