Gwennap Pit

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Gwennap Pit is a preaching pit at Busveal in the west of the former parish of Gwennap, about one mile east of Redruth. It is the oldest (and probably the original) of several such pits in Cornwall, those at Indian Queens and Newlyn East being constructed in imitation of Gwennap in the 1850s. Another pit near the summit of Tregonning Hill overlooking Mounts Bay is still in use at Pentecost. The pit at Whitemoor, not documented before 1871, has a less certain origin.

The original Gwennap Pit was probably the result of early mine workings: the ruins of Chengenter Mine engine house are visible to the south and an engine house of Grambler & St. Aubyn Mine a little to the north. (Chengenter Mine subsequently operated under the name 'Cathedral Mine', echoing a local name for the Pit, 'Wesley's Open Air Cathedral'.) John Wesley first used the location on 5 September 1762, when he had to seek shelter from a high wind that inhibited his open-air preaching. He used it on seventeen subsequent occasions, the last being in 1789.

The Pit's form is much changed since then, when it was probably two half-bowls on either side of a road running through it in a depression. The once-famous Geller engraving, depicting a vast excavation with Wesley standing high up on a rock, is totally erroneous. Terracing seems to have been added to the natural bowls quite early on, but in 1806, under the direction of local miners, the whole was remodelled into the present concentric circles as a memorial to John Wesley. The road was re-routed and the size reduced. A further renovation in 1934-1936 effected little real alteration. Wesley's maximum estimate of 34,000 hearers must be doubted. An estimate of 1,200 in 1802 seems more realistic for a post-Wesley service in the original layout. In its present form, the maximum capacity is about 1,900.

One of the paradoxes of the Pit was that it was in private ownership for many years. At the time of the 1806 remodelling it was held as a tenement in the Manor of Tolcarne and was in the hands of John Williams of Scorrier House, two miles north-east. Williams was a successful mining adventurer and a Methodist, who became known as 'the King of Gwennap'. His influence with the owners made the remodelling possible and seems to have established the principle that it was 'regarded by the lord of the manor as in the possession of the Methodists and for their exclusive use'. In practice, this meant control by the Superintendent of the Truro and, from 1848, of the Gwennap Circuit. However, formal leasing arrangements were not in place until 1936 and the lease was renewed annually until the freehold was secured in 1978.

The venue became a popular preaching place which, not being in Methodist ownership, was used by others in the 18th century, including preachers from the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion. From 1807 WM has held an annual Whit Monday service, originally to raise funds for the missions. The form of a 'preaching service' was deliberately re-established in 1834. The annual service moved to the Spring Bank Holiday in 1975 and more recently Sunday services have been introduced throughout the summer, with Gwennap Pit being included on the Redruth Circuit plan. Use of the Pit has also been offered to the Scout and Guide movements, the Salvation Army and other ecumenical partners. WM oversight did not inhibit PM use of the Pit for Camp Meetings. Hugh Bourne recorded 'two powerful Camp Meetings [held] in it' in 1832. However, when in 1839 aChartist march was advertised as terminating in a rally at the Pit, the WM Superintendent effectively prevented this, an action for which he was widely commended. The suggestion of a public disputation there in connection with the WR movement was turned down and the Reformers do not seem to have sought further use of the location. More surprisingly, there was no BC use of the Pit until 1936, when George P. Dymond of Plymouth was the preacher. Two or three years previously, less creditable use had been made of it when anti-Anglo-Catholic rallies were held and resolutions reflecting a rather uncharitable spirit were passed, though nothing seems to have come of them.

A chapel and visitor centre are located adjacent to the Pit. Busveal chapel was built c.1836 for a society with its roots in the previous century. In due course, the Busveal Church Council became the Managing Trustees for the Pit. The visitor centre was opened on 13 April 1991, together with the 'Wesley Panels' designed by Clive Buckingham RIBA and executed by Guy Sanders, at the entrance to th Pit. When the society ceased soon afterwards, the local Managing Trusteeship passed to a Gwennap Pit Management Committee appointed by the District. The Pit was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2006. As part of the 250th anniversary of Wesley's first preaching there, the Pit was chosen for the first time as the venue for the Diaconal Order's ordination service during the 2012 Conference.


John Wesley's Journal:

September 1762: 'The wind was so high at five that I could not stand in the usual place at Gwennap. But at a small distance was a hollow capable of containing many thousand people. I stood on one side of this amphitheatre toward the top, with the people beneath and on all sides, and enlarged on those words in the Gospel for the day (Luke X.23, 24), "Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see, and … hear the things that ye hear."

September 1766: 'The congregation in Redruth at one was the largest I ever had seen there; but small compared to that which assembled at five in the natural amphitheatre at Gwennap, far the finest I know in the kingdom. It is a round, green hollow, gently shelving down, about fifty feet deep; but I suppose it is two hundred acrss one way, and near three hundred the other. I believe there were full twenty thousand people; and, the evening being calm, all could hear.'

September 1770: 'At five in the evening I preached in the natural amphitheatre at Gwennap. The people covered a circle of near fourscore yards' diameter, and could not be fewer than twenty thousand. Yet, upon inquiry, I found they could all hear distinctly, it being a calm, still evening.'

September 1773: I preached … at five in the amphitheatre at Gwennap. The people both filled it, and covered the ground round about to a considerable distance. So that, supposing the space to be four-score yards square, and to contain five persons in a square yard, there must be above two-and-thirty thousand people; the largest assembly I ever preached to.'

  • WHS Proceedings, vol. 4 pp.86-7
  • Thomas Shaw, Gwennap Pit (Busveal, 1992)