Hallelujah! Helston praises the Lord

Religion played an inescapable part in the lives of the Cornish of the Victorian period. By modern standards attendance at church or, more usually, chapel was incredibly high, although contemporaries were appalled that only around a half of adults attended church in 1851 when there was a religious census. A wealth of social events were organised by the churches and the Sunday Schools fulfilled a wider role at a time when schooling was neither free nor universally available. Helston was no exception, with a ’very handsome’ Baptist chapel, a Wesleyan and a Wesleyan Methodist Association (later United Methodist Free Church) chapel gracing its streets, in addition to the Anglican church.

The trades directory description of Helston’s church and chapels in 1856

Some lives were touched by religion to a greater extent than others however. Joanna Mary Susan Tudor was born in 1850 at Oxford, intellectual epicentre of the Church of England. She was the third child of Richard and Joanna. Richard was a clergyman, obtaining posts first in Oxfordshire and then Dorset before arriving in Helston at the end of the 1850s to serve as curate at the town’s Anglican church.

Despite their relatively well-off background – Richard’s father was a landowner and the family employed three servants – Joanna’s two older brothers both died at a young age, one aged 17 and the other just four. Another brother born in 1862 only survived a year and a sister born in 1858 just a few months. Fortunately for the family this sad mortality rate improved somewhat thereafter. Four more brothers and three sisters followed, all surviving into adulthood and two or three into old age.

Three of Joanna’s younger brothers eventually joined the family business and became Anglican clergymen. Meanwhile Richard Tudor became vicar of Frampton in Dorset and the family left Helston before 1866 after only a short stay. After a spell in Dorset Richard was then appointed vicar at Swallowcliffe in Wiltshire in the 1870s. He died in 1882 and his wife followed him to the grave in 1889. Joanna, who had not married, was left with her youngest sister Katherine living at St Ann Street, Salisbury for the remaining 36 years of her life. As a footnote a servant, Jane Sydenham, 17 years old in 1871, stayed with the family and then the two sisters for over 40 years until at least 1911.

William John Wills was born a year before Joanna but in more humble circumstances. His father was a stonemason from Helston who had been working in the north of England. While at Liverpool he had married Ann, originally from Birmingham. In 1850 the couple, with their five children in tow, returned to Helston. By 1861 William was apprenticed in the same trade as his father. His career as a stonemason was however cut short by the death of his father soon after the 1861 census was taken. Ann Wills then left Helston and went back to Liverpool, taking her children with her. In 1871 the family was living in Everton in Liverpool and William had become a printer, a growing trade in Victorian towns as literacy rose.

In 1873 William married Martha Hall at the Primitive Methodist chapel at Collyhurst in Manchester. He was obviously a deeply religious man as, from that point on he gained his living as a ‘scripture reader’, moving from Manchester across the Pennines to Saddleworth in Yorkshire before arriving in the Barnsley area of south Yorkshire around 1883. William remained in that district for the rest of his life, although by the time of the 1911 census he was no longer making a living as a scripture reader, but as secretary to a company providing pit ponies to the local coal mines. Had he lost his religion by then? Or had demand for scripture readings fallen as the new century dawned?