By David H. Thomas, BA, DAA, president of Camborne Old Cornwall Society.
Also available is a guided walk around the church.
The Parish Church in Camborne is dedicated to two saints, St. Martin, Bishop of Tours in France (died A.D. 397) and popular mediaeval saint, and the Celtic St. Meriadoc (Meriasek in Cornish) who may have lived around the seventh century and is also honoured in Brittany, where his bell is preserved and his holy well is situated at Stival. He was also Bishop of Vannes. In mediaeval times both saints were honoured in Camborne, but it was only in 1958, following a period of disuse of the dedication to St. Meriadoc, that the Church became officially known as the Church of St. Martin and St. Meriadoc. The life of St. Meriadoc, rediscovered in Wales in 1869, as the play “Beunans Meriasek”, tells the story of the saint coming to Camborne and founding a church beside the chapel of St. Mary of Camborne.
Development of the Church Buildings
Until the seventeenth century (1671) two churches stood within the churchyard walls, the main parish church as well as a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was once an important shrine. The chapel fell into disuse at the Reformation, but was renovated in the 1630s and again neglected in Cromwell’s times. In 1671, the stones from it were used to build the parish poor house in what is now Pendarves Road.
It is uncertain when the present parish church was first constructed, but the site could well date from the Celtic and pre-Norman period. The church appears to have been originally cruciform with transepts leading off what is now the present nave and chancel aisle and may date from the 12th or 13th centuries. The north and south aisles and tower were added probably in the 15th century, in the perpendicular Gothic style. From evidence in the Churchwardens’ accounts it would appear that the east end of the north aisle was not added until the late 1530s, when the east wall of the chancel was also rebuilt to incorporate a new window. The lower exterior walls of the chancel and its side wall to the north exhibit rubble masonry from the pre-15th century church. In 1735, the Basset family of Tehidy added a small transept onto the south aisle for use as a family pew. This was swallowed up by the new outer south aisle added in 1878-9. The existing church was gutted and the box pews and galleries removed, together with a new roof built in the great restoration of 1862, costing 1,500. The vestry was erected in 1879 and the modern church hall in 1963.
In 2009 a re-ordering scheme was carried out at a cost of some £120,000. A new tiled floor was laid west of the chancel steps, a new heating system installed and three rows of pews removed from across the three main aisles to provide a flexible worship space at the front of the church.
The Parish Registers and Churchwardens’ Accounts
The Camborne Parish Registers comprise 54 volumes and record baptisms from 1591, and marriages and burials from 1538 when registers were first ordered to be kept by Thomas Cromwell, Vicar General of Henry VIII. It is one of the largest collections of such records in Cornwall and reflects the growth and prosperity of Camborne with the mining industry in the 19th century. The older records are housed at the County Record Office, Truro for safe custody. (Telephone 01872 323127 for an appointment to view them.)
There are three volumes of Churchwardens’ Accounts covering the period 1535-1657, 1675-1780 and 1819-1922. These form a very fine series for tracing the parish’s religious and social history. The first volume contains Guild Accounts for the Tudor years. There were some eleven religious Guilds in the pre-reformation period. An early volume of Overseers’ Accounts for 1647-1717 is also at the County Record Office.
The Church Plate
The parish church is fortunate to possess a very varied selection of communion plate, there being seven chalices and seven patens in all. The oldest pieces consist of a silver chalice of 1732 and a silver paten of 1707 (inscribed 1710), and a large silver flagon of 1727. Other items date from the 20thcentury, the most recent being chalices and patens of 1987 and 2004. There are also two brass alms basins and a handsome box for the sacramental bread, as well as two private communion sets.
Ancient Crosses and Monuments
The tall cross by the South Porch was discovered by Joseph Holman at the head of Crane Well in 1896 and was erected in a cross base already in the churchyard; the top of that cross may be that now built into the exterior east wall of the outer south aisle. This can be seen by turning left at the church gates and by going round to the rear of the church. Attached to the base of the cross by the south porch is an iron staple to which the parish stocks for the correction of offenders were once fastened.
Opposite the belfry door is another cross which was originally a parish boundary stone between the parishes of Gwinear and Gwithian. It was brought to Camborne in 1904 and erected in its present position. This stone was called the “meane cadoarth” or battle stone in 1613. Its name may indicate a far off battle at Reskajeage in Camborne parish. The stone has panels of dots and the tradition is that each dot represents one life killed in the battle.
By the tower door also rests a mediaeval “lych”, or coffin stone, which was moved from the south entrance of the churchyard in 1815, when the graveyard was extended. Bodies were rested here by the bearers before proceeding into church for the funeral service. In a large parish such as Camborne, long walking funerals were once common-place with bodies being carried underhand quite long distances.
The original mediaeval burial ground only covered the area immediately around the church and under the church hall. It may have been circular in shape, as shown by the curved wall on the east side. With the rise of the population, encouraged by the growth of the mining industry, the graveyard had to be extended to cope. The first enlargement took place in 1816, with subsequent additions in 1839, 1875, 1907 and 1955. The older parts of the churchyard were closed by Order in Council in 1874 while today the entire churchyard covers nearly four acres.
The oldest headstone dates from 1761 and may be found east of the Church. Close to the south porch lies the large tomb of the Vivian family, while south of the modern church hall is the grave of Andrew Vivian, who was a partner with Richard Trevithick in the making of the first steam locomotive, which ran through Camborne on Christmas Eve 1801 and was patented by them in 1802. Other memorials, some beautifully executed, refer to mining accidents and deaths of Cornish emigrants in foreign mining fields. Perhaps the saddest memorial of all, is that of 1868, to the three children of William, and Ann Walter, who were all killed by an explosion of gunpowder at Dolcoath Mine, whilst at play. The stone lies against the East wall due south of the Parish Vestry Room.
The Parish Vestry room was built in 1820 on Glebe land. The upper room did duty as a school as well as for parish meetings while the ground floor area included a “clink” for the temporary incarceration of malefactors. Rates were also paid at the Vestry room at one time.
In the pre-reformation years, apart from the parish church there existed seven chapels or oratories in the parish for religious worship. These were the Chapel of St. Mary in the churchyard, St. Meriadoc’s well-chapel at Rosewarne, St. Mary’s chapel at Penponds, St. James’ chapel at Treslothan, St. Ia’s chapel at Troon, St. Derwa’s chapel at Menadarva and a further chapel at Crane. The churchwardens’ account book for 1535-1657 refers to nearly all these chapels and their guilds by name.
The 19th Century
With the immense growth of the population, the parish of Camborne had three new ecclesiastical districts taken out of it in the 19thcentury. This led to the building of the churches of St. John the Evangelist at Treslothan in 1842, All Saints at Tuckingmill in 1845 and Holy Trinity, Penponds in 1854. In 1884 a mission room was also opened in Trelowarren Street, but this ceased to be used for worship in 1919.
In conclusion, it should be said that our Parish Church, though the focal point for the history of the Parish, is no museum. It is the place where Sunday by Sunday, and week by week, the truths of the Christian Gospel are proclaimed, the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered. This is its proper purpose and for which it was raised to the Glory of God.
David Thomas, March 2010