"The people's bitterest
the distinctiveness of Cornish Methodism to 1850
© Maxwell Adams 2005
You might also like to read Mad dogs and mackerels: Chartists at St Ives
Methodism in Cornwall was distinctive, though perhaps not in the way usually thought.
In much of England, Methodist Christians in the nineteenth century, in contradistinction to most Anglicans, largely supported the movements for progress and reform, the efforts by working people and middle-class radicals to gain political and social justice. This seems to have applied to all Methodists to some extent whatever particular branch of Methodism and social class they belonged to.
Examples abound of individual English Methodist association with reform. In 1813 seven Luddites executed at York died singing a Methodist hymn by Charles Wesley (Peel 1895, 263). Most of the Tolpuddle agricultural trade unionists of Dorset, transported in 1834, were Methodists; in 1839 William Thornton, a Methodist preacher, opened a huge Chartist rally in a natural amphitheatre in Yorkshire with a prayer (Harrison 1984, 282). The association should not be overstated. Several of the radical Chartists left the Methodists: two examples are Joseph Rayner Stephens, a former Methodist minister in Lancashire, who actively, even aggressively, supported Chartism (Engels 1845, 255-256) and who has an enduring reputation as a social reformer; and Thomas Cooper, a Wesleyan for much of his life and leader of the Chartists in Leicester, who began and ended his Chartist meetings with prayer and who was for a short time a Chartist MP. From the 1850s by and large the Methodists, now respectable and, especially if Wesleyan, often bourgeois, supported the cautiously mitigatory Liberal Party rather than the Conservatives or the montagnard radicals. When a stone cross in Church Lane at Lelant was vandalised in 1877, apparently by anti-emblematic and anti-Catholic Methodist fishermen from St Ives, the paints used were the colours of the Liberal Party (Cornish Telegraph 1877 and 1878).
In Cornwall, in the first half of the nineteenth century at any rate, it was indeed distinctly different. The Methodists here seem to have been reactionaries. Two caveats. We know only what the Cornish Methodist leaders thought; we do not know what the everyday Cornish Methodist thought about social and political reform though many of the people who enthusiastically attended Chartist meetings here would have been ordinary chapel attenders too. And it is not clear whether the description Wesleyan is applied by outsiders specifically to that, the most conformist and socially aspirant group of Methodists, or to Methodists generally.
Let me here say that what is not true is that the Cornish working class were uniformly quietist and unmilitant at this time though most of the radical leaders seem not to be miners. In 1837 there was a demonstration in Camelford against the poor law and a riotous demonstration in St Ives against moving the local poor to the workhouse in Penzance (Royal Cornwall Gazette); there were food riots in the 1840s as there had been in the eighteenth century; and the response of the existing authorities to two Chartist missionaries in spring 1839, while professing that everyone was content with the present political and social arrangements, showed a lively concern for the supportive reaction of the workers to Chartism, large numbers attending the meetings (PRO 40/41). Local Chartist branches survived into the 1840s, including one formed at St Ives in 1845 (Jenkin 1982). From the research of Alfred Jenkin we know the names and some of the deeds of around forty Cornish radicals of the late 1830s and the 1840s, shamefully forgotten and uncelebrated (Jenkin 1982).
A Methodism that was politically reactionary and quietist seems, however, to have reinforced among many Cornish miners a political disinterest that the prevailing tribute system of work among Cornish miners perhaps encouraged. The tribute system might have given them a perception of themselves as workers which was removed from the collectivist view of workers elsewhere. Perhaps they did not see themselves so clearly as antagonists of employers; they did not see themselves so clearly as a socioeconomic working class with particular interests (Rule 1970). Their indifference contrasts starkly with the awareness and robust activity of the coal miners of the north of England. However, many workers in Cornwall were not miners.
It is difficult to understand why Methodism itself was different in Cornwall but let us now look at several examples of its reactionary spirit. Richard Treffry, junior, a Wesleyan Methodist minister in Cornwall, wrote to his father of the successful attempt in 1832 to extend a little the parliamentary vote: "I trust that so awfully democratic and revolutionary a measure will never pass" (Treffry 1835, 71). Democracy for him is undesirable and he uses the word pejoratively. Treffry's is a thoroughgoing reactionary response couched in extravagant language and shows what he thought of the people in his congregations, including those at Lelant where he said there had been "some meetings of amazing power" (Treffry 1835, 103). The 1832 reform was a modest one. It did not give the vote to most adult Britons; working-class men and all women still could not vote. It gave the vote to perhaps only an extra two hundred thousand prosperous males, the richer middle class males. After the "revolutionary" measure only one in seven men could vote.
Treffry's reactionary beliefs spilled over into vile religious bigotry. Roman Catholics were not allowed to be MPs or hold most other public offices, a hangover from the days of the faith wars and mutual loathing among Christians in Britain. In 1829 the discriminations against Catholics were largely removed. Treffry called the law which removed the discrimination an "atrocious measure"(Treffry 1835, 71). His father, also a Wesleyan Methodist minister, reported these reactionary political and religious views without comment so we can reasonably assume that he shared them. The religious bigotry was not only in Treffry but apparently in Methodist leaders in Cornwall generally. Richard Polwhele, the Cornish Anglican priest who had earlier feared wrongly that Methodists in Cornwall were revolutionaries, acknowledged and welcomed their opposition to Catholic emancipation (Field 1997, 75-89).
I have written earlier about the democratic reformers, the two Chartists Robert Lowery and Abram Duncan visiting St Ives, Hayle, and west Cornwall in 1839 (Adams 2000). Duncan walked around St Ives and told Lowery, "I don't think there can be much love of liberty here; it's too full of Methodist chapels, and they are too priest-ridden to like freedom" (Lowery 1856). Lowery wrote that Duncan was wrong because a large number came to their meeting but both clearly associate a Methodist chapel and Methodist leaders in Cornwall with reactionary anti-democratic views.
Of their final Chartist meeting in Cornwall at the natural amphitheatre of Gwennap Pit on 1 April 1839 the Royal Cornwall Gazette said with glee that the "the senior minister of the [Methodist] circuit very properly repaired to the spot, with the parish constables, and kept the gates against all intrusion" (5 April 1839, 2,3). The Falmouth Packet and Cornish Herald reported that the Chartists had their meeting "at the pit, not in it, in consequence of a prohibition notice having been stuck on the gate by a Wesleyan preacher in the neighbourhood" (6 April 1839, 8, 4). When the local Anglican priest, Thomas Phillpotts, wrote on 17 April 1839 to the home secretary in London about the Chartists he added his "very sincere approbation" of the local Wesleyans whose leaders had worked with him to try to thwart the Chartists and their Cornish followers (PRO HO 40/41). The Methodist leaders' hostility to democracy and social reform is unmistakable. Whatever positive religious significance Gwennap Pit may have for presentday Christians, this history means that it is also a symbol of political and social oppression.
During their time in Cornwall Duncan and Lowery wrote letters and in one of 22 March 1839 from Penzance they said that the Methodist "leaders are against us" (Lowery and Duncan 1839). Lowery was a Christian and used religion in his arguments for democracy which makes the adverse comments on religious leaders more telling. He is not anti-Methodist and comments in a friendly way about John Wesley's Christian missionising (Lowery 1856). However, his memoirs are consistently unflattering about Methodist leaders in Cornwall and their influence. He described a Methodist revival meeting in St Ives in embarrassingly damaging detail and also commented shrewdly that Methodist preaching worked upon the emotions of working people but lacked "the Presbyterian reasoning to cultivate their understandings" (Lowery 1856). Methodism, I think he is saying in these last two items, did nothing to educate people for the world but encouraged an emotional and volatile approach to life.
Some of the antagonism of the Methodist leaders was self-serving: the Chartists well might poach their people for their earthly cause; a hundred years before the Anglicans in St Ives had charged the Methodists with religious poaching (Charles Wesley 1743). However, it undoubtedly also reflected a genuine reactionary rejection of political democracy which in turn suggests an unsavoury negative view of the working people who filled their chapels. This is puzzlingly incoherent. Methodism at this time encouraged ordinary men to become lay preachers and to take responsible positions in their church: this was an empowering of working people which helped them in their secular radical campaigns. The rule in Cornwall seems to have been Good enough to help to save people's souls but not good enough to vote. A political and social focus on improving material life in the here-and-now was perhaps seen as working against celestial interests and Methodists seem to have been encouraged to accept earthly suffering and misfortune as part of the journey to eternal bliss. And, frankly, it was probably pleasanter and less demanding to get heady emotional satisfaction from a religious ceremony that got you through the week than to toil for political reform which must often have seemed about abstract human rights, very often ended in defeat, and which certainly carried a risk of penalty: WJ Guscott of Penzance, with a wife and four children, was dismissed by his employer for being a Chartist (Jenkin 1982). Perhaps Marx was right and religion was the opium for working people, taming the restive and making suffering bearable (Marx 1843), sentiments which the Anglican socialistic priest, Queen Victoria's chaplain, Charles Kingsley half-echoed (Kingsley, 2).
Perhaps most damaging of all to Cornish Methodism was the comment of a local Chartist. The Northern Star, a Chartist newspaper, reported that HJ Longmaid of Truro said at a Chartist meeting in Redruth in 1840: "The Wesleyans, too, as far as my experience goes, are the people's bitterest enemies. The preach up peace and contentment as the only true test of their being in the right road to heavenly bliss, while the preachers themselves receive their hundreds a year"(Northern Star 2 January 1841, cited in Jenkin 1982, 64). The charge against the Cornish Methodist leaders is hypocrisy and reactionary quietism which worked against freedom and justice for working people. The phrase used against Methodists has an ironic aspect, though I doubt Longmaid knew it. "Our bitterest enemies" was a phrase used by Charles Wesley to describe his Christian opponents at St Ives in 1743.
The distinctiveness of Cornish Methodism in the first half of the nineteenth century is that its leaders actively opposed projects for radical political and social reform and encouraged their people to put up with social and political injustice rather than actively tackle it. The incident at Gwennap Pit and Longmaid's damning them as "the people's bitterest enemies" ring loudly down a century and a half. Elsewhere in England, Methodists did not resign themselves to earthly suffering but stood up for progress and reform and were often the people's friends.
ADAMS Maxwell (2000) Mad dogs and mackerels
Cornish Telegraph 17 April 1877 and 12 March 1878
ENGELS Frederick (1845) The condition of the working class in England (Pages as in the Panther edition 1969)
FIELD Clive D (1997) 'The mania of Methodism reconsidered' in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall for 1997, Truro
HARRISON JFC (1984) The common people Fontana
JENKIN Alfred (1982) 'The Cornish chartists' in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall for 1982.
KINGSLEY Charles Letters to the Chartists
LOWERY Robert (1856) 'Passages in the life of a temperance lecturer' in Weekly Record of the Temperance Movement 15 April 1856-23 May 1857 (Copy at the British Library Newpaper Library, Colindale, London).
LOWERY Robert and DUNCAN Abram (1839) British Library Additional Manuscripts 34245A, folio 148. Letter of 22 March 1839 from Lowery and Duncan (British Library, St Pancras, London).
MARX Karl (1843) Introduction to A contribution to the critique of Hegel's philosophy of right
Northern Star 2 January 1841. Also the formation of the St Ives branch is reported in the Northern Star on 25 January 1845. (Copy at the British Library Newpaper Library, Colindale, London).
PEEL Frank (1895 edition) The risings of the Luddites, Chartists, and Plugdrawers
PRO HO 40/41 pages 49-52 and 902-911. Three letters from Cornwall magistrates about the Chartist mission of Lowery and Duncan.
PRO HO 40/41 pages 908-911. Letter from Thomas Phillpotts about Chartists at Gwennap Pit (Public Record Office, Kew)
PRO 40/41 pages 912-914, a letter of 26 August 1839 from William Hockin, the Phillack rector, about a Chartist placard put up in Hayle
Royal Cornwall Gazette 31 March 1837. Demonstration at Camelford.
Royal Cornwall Gazette 21 July 1837, page 2.5 and also West Briton 21 July 1837 page 2.7. Workhouse demonstration in St Ives.
RULE J (1970) 'Methodism and Chartism among the Cornish miners,' a summary of a lecture to November 1970 annual conference of the Labour History Society, and published in its Bulletin. (Copy at the local studies library, Redruth)
TREFFRY Richard, Senior, (1838) Memoirs of the reverend Richard Treffry, Junior John Mason, London (Copy at Morrab Library, Penzance)
WESLEY Charles Journal "Our bitterest enemies" is used in the entry for 23 July 1743; the accusation by the Anglicans at St Ives that the Wesleyans were "taking the people from the church" is in the entry for 24 July 1743.