LIFE OUTSIDE WORK: Methodism
The visits of John and Charles Wesley in the mid-eighteenth century led to a dramatic change in the religious beliefs of the people of Cornwall. By the following century it was the Methodists who had emerged as the largest religious group in the region in stark contrast to Anglican dominance in southern England. The so-called ‘Higher Quarter’ above St Austell was an obvious area for Methodism, as with only isolated parish churches at places like Roche and St Dennis the Anglicans were ill-equipped to compete with religious nonconformity. With a growing rise in the population as a result of the tin and china clay industries this led to a process of chapel building that continued into the twentieth century. Yet in contrast to the Wesleyan dominance in the mining districts of West Cornwall it was the Bible Christians, Primitive Methodists and other Free Methodists who were able to attract a popular following. Only in the early twentieth century did the Wesleyans regain a foothold in some of the other settlements.
Methodism also played a prominent role in the wider life of the clay villages. A. L. Rowse concluded that industrialisation created ‘egalitarian’ communities with ‘their whole social and cultural life … centring upon their Methodist Chapels’ (A. L. Rowse, St Austell Church: Town: Parish, St Austell, 1960). Traditional customs were co-opted into the social mission of the chapel alongside chapel anniversaries and tea treats. Methodist support also helped to sustain the survival of the Liberal party in some of the eastern clay villages in the 1930s and 1940s. Although Methodism may now be in long-term decline, its vital contribution to the area’s cultural heritage can still be seen in the physical landscape of local chapels.