John Wesley first visited the area in 1743, but does not mention preaching in the town. In 1744 he writes of preaching and 'regulating' a society near Gulval to the north-east. However, the first permanent society in the town was not established until 1767, with 34 members. At that time Penzance was part of the parish of Madron, whose vicar, Dr. Walter Borlase, had at first been an active opponent of the Methodists, although his opposition had ceased by 1748.
Early meeting rooms are unknown. The first chapel was in Queen Street, later occupied by the WMA and now by the Salvation Army. This was probably the chapel described by Wesley in 1789 as 'considerably the largest and, in many respects, far the best in Cornwall'. Chapel Street church (1814; listed II*) was extended in 1864 and has a profusion of stained-glass windows, notably by H.J. Salisbury (brother of Frank O. Salisbury) of London and St. Albans (1914) and memorials to Richard Treffry jun., the banker William Carne and Maria Elizabeth Branwell, mother of the Brontë sisters. The Branwells lived in Chapel Street, named after St.Mary's, chapel of ease of Madron parish.Other WM chapels in the Penzance Circuit included St. Clement's, Mousehole (1784; rebuilt 1833; listed II*), Newlyn (1832; II*, but now out of use), Wesley Rock, Heamoor (1898), where the pulpit stands on a granite block from which John Wesley and others preached between 1743 and 1760, Gulval (1884; listed II) by Hicks of Redruth, and Richmond (listed II), built in 1907 in the 'arts and crafts Gothic' style.
The BC origins in the area are thought to be due to the work of the ex-WM John *Boyle. Their earliest activity was at Heamoor. They entered the town in 1851, taking over a former Unitarian chapel in Alverton. This was succeeded by an ex-WM building at St. Clare, before their High Street chapel opened in 1879. BC Conferences were held there in 1890 and 1900.
Primitive Methodism arrived in the town in 1826 or 1827 and their first chapel, on Mount Street, was opened in 1839; it is now a furniture warehouse. Ebenezer PM chapel on Boase Street, Newlyn (1835) was replaced by Centenary Chapel (1928).
The WMA schism reached Penzance in March 1836. The first chapel occupied was the former WM building in Queen Street. Parade Street UMFC (by Oliver Caldwell) opened in 1890, closed in 1967 and became a theatre and arts centre. Mount Zion UMFC (1867) at Mousehole originated as Teetotal Methodist; it closed in 1987 and is now a gallery and house.
The last branch of Methodism to arrive was the MNC, but many of the details of its history in Penzance are obscure. Sheffield chapel in the parish of Paul was originally Teetotal Methodist before it became MNC, and may have been WMA at some stage. The denomination had arrived in the town by 1883, and perhaps as early as 1863. It originally met in rooms and then at a chapel in Abbey Street (off Chapel Street) , until Alexandra Road chapel (by James Firth of Oldham) opened in 1903. This closed in 1995 and is now housing.
John Wesley's Journal:
September 1762: 'I preached at one on the cliff, near Penzance.'
September 1766: 'At one I began preaching in a meadow adjoining to Penzance. The whole congregation behaved well. The old bitterness is gone, and perhaps, had it not been market-day, I might have had a quiet hearing in the market-place.'
September 1768: 'Surely God will have a people even in this place, where we have sao long seemed only to beat the air.'
September 1773: ' I preached in the town hall in Penzance. It was soon filled from end to end; and it was filled with the power of God. One would have thought that every soul must have bowed down before Him.'
September 1774: 'When the people here were as roaring lions, we had all the ground to ourselves; now they are become lambs, Mr. S---b and his friends step in, and take true pains to make a rent in the society. But hitherto, blessed be God, they stand firm in one mind and in one judgement! Only a few, whom we had expelled, they have gleaned up; if they can do them good, I shall rejoice. In the evening I took my stand at the end of the town, and preached the whole gospel to a listening multitude. I then exhorted the society to follow after peace and holiness.'
August 1776:'I preached at Penzance in a gentleman's balcony which commanded the market-place, to a huge congregation, on "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord."The word fell heavy, upon high and low, rich and poor. Such an opportunity I never had at Penzance before.'
August 1780: 'It is now a pleasure to be here, the little flock being united together in love. I preached at a little distance from the preaching-house. A company of soldiers were in town, whom, towards the close of the sermon, the good officer ordered to march through the congregation. But as they readily opened and closed again, it made very little disturbance.'
August 1781: 'In the evening I preached in the market-place at Penzance. I designed afterwards to meet the society; but the people were so eager to hear all they could that they quickly filled the house from end to end. This is another of the towns wherein the whole stream of the people is turned, as it were, from east to west.'
September 1787: [Returning from the continent in September 1787, the ship in which Wesley and Coke sailed brought them into Penzance Bay.] 'We appeared to our friends here as men risen from the dead. Great was their rejoicing over us, and great was the power of God in the midst of the congregation, while I explained and applied those words, "Whosoever doeth the will of God, the same is My brother, and sister and mother." [Next morning] 'Dr. Coke preached at six to as many as the preaching-house would contain. At ten I was obliged to take the field by the multitude of people that flocked together. I found a very uncommon liberty of speech among them, and cannot doubt but the work of God will flourish in this place.'
August 1789: 'About eleven I preached at Newlyn, and in the evening at Penzance; at both places I was obliged to preach abroad… [Three days later] 'We had a rainy afternoon; so I was obliged to preach in the new preaching-house, considerably the largest, and, in many respects, far the best in Cornwall.'