Gwennap Pit

Gwennap Pit, tucked away in the quiet lanes between Redruth and the former mining villages of Carharrack and St Day, is a trim and neatly circular grassy ampitheatre. It wasn’t always so. It took on its present form in 1807, when local Methodists reconstructed it as their own outdoor cathedral. Before then, the site was a chaotic cavity, a large disorderly pit squeezed between stony mine burrows and smoking engine houses, through which the lane from Redruth to Carharrack meandered.

Gwennap Pit now, manicured and respectable

However, this chasm provided a perfect location in which to address large crowds. And this is what John Wesley began to do in the later eighteenth century. Wesley made his first journey to Cornwall in 1743. He then visited Cornwall almost annually until his death in 1791, making his last visit to the Pit in 1789. His simple message of salvation through faith struck an immediate chord among a population seeking consolation in a world that was rapidly changing. The growth of copper mines, the prosperity of which flowed from anonymous and unpredictable price movements, added new uncertainties to the more familiar foes of weather and disease. People increasingly dependent on the mine for their wages sought spiritual solace in Wesley’s preaching.

A drawing of the Pit in the early 1800s

In England, Methodism grew slowly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century through the teaching of devoted converts to small groups in barns and houses. In contrast, in Cornwall Methodism grew in sudden spurts of excitable revivalism.  These usually involved emotional outdoor mass meetings, accompanied by histrionic moanings and hot fanaticism. Gwennap Pit, now so calm and orderly, is in fact a monument to that earthier, more basic, more public and primitive Methodism in Cornwall – appealing to passion as much as reason.

A more apocalyptic rendering of the Pit in Wesley’s days

One thought on “Gwennap Pit

  1. My grandmother and great grandparents, from Manchester, were primitive methodists. My great grandmother (Effie, who I only recall having met once in the 1970s) worked in the cotton mills. Despite ten hours days she took an evening course in needlework and later married a man of similar aspiration, Thomas Wolstenholme (who grew up in a mining family – many of his direct relatives,uncles etc, were killed in mine accidents and I understand all too well why he wanted out). In time they became wealthy people, at least for some of the time.

    Thomas and Effie were the parents of my gran, of course, and also Kenneth Wolstenholme (football commentator – they think its all over). I don’t associate them with fervency at all, but rather measured, careful, quiet lives. Effie spent much of her life creating support in Manchester for primitive methodism (and then methodism when primitive methodism closed down). Primitive methodism especially was open to women as preachers and very important to the incredibly poor working class in the C19.


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