Horace Keast


Snow fell heavily in Cornwall during the Holy Week in 1853 but Good Friday dawned with a cloudless sky. The 14th century snow-clad church of St. Hilary, set among the tall gaunt trees and the few houses of St. Hilary Churchtown, set a picturesque scene in a white landscape glistening in the weak rays of the early morning sun. Much earlier that morning, however,  while it was still dark, miners and bal maidens from Churchtown, Relubbas, Roseudgeon and the other hamlets of the parish had joined their fellow-workers trudging through the slush of the lanes to the local tin mines – to small mines with quaint local names, as well as to the aptly named Wheal Fortune, which had made handsome fortunes for their owners. Now, in the early morning light, the farm workers were anxious for their horses and cattle, and the landlord of the inn of the Jolly Tinners at St. Hilary Churchtown, within a few yards of the village church, was cleaning up after the night before.

Parson Thomas Pascoe (a good old Cornish name) did not expect many people to Church that day; although it was Good Friday. He was in the 40th year of his ministry in the parish but there were seven Methodist chapels in the hamlets. Methodism had been the dominant religious influence for several generations, but he still had his faithful remnant.  Moreover, although he had left Oxford twenty years before John Keble preached his Assize Sermon of 1833, the ripples of the Movement had reached even remote St. Hilary. He knew of Parson Coope of Falmouth and Parson Williams of Porthleven, both of whom had gone so far as to restore the use of the traditional Eucharistic vestments. He would not go that far but he would hold Morning Prayer and say the Litany on that Good Friday morning. The sexton lit the primitive wood-fired stove to warm up the church.  How many people came to church that morning? We don’t know. After the service, the sexton locked the church but he must have left some smouldering embers in the antiquated stove. Suddenly that night Parson Pascoe, standing at his vicarage window, saw a pillar of flame rise up from the church.  He rushed out to investigate and beheld that the interior of the church was a raging furnace. Sparks from the primitive stove must have set alight to the ancient timber, which must have been dry as tinder. The fire was now completely beyond control. There was nothing to do but to watch and wait.

Parson Pascoe had fortunately left his own eye-witness account of the event. He wrote, “A more awfully beautiful sight it would be impossible to imagine than the destruction of this pile, set as it was in a frame-work of snow-clad trees. Its own spire from base to summit, vied with the same pure substance, glittered like silver in the rays of a brilliant cloudless morn. From the excessive dryness and the nature of the wood, there was no obscuring smoke within, which was one flowing vault of fire, in which every pillar, nook, and seat, and text onthe wall, was distinctly visible, the south window being burnt out, and the great door thrown open and on fire. It was the saddest and sublimest sight I ever saw.”

“We have lost many beautiful remains of a past age. The carvings which the axe of the Puritans had only partially destroyed, are, alas! totally destroyed; not a vestige being left of the open seatings of the reign of the seventh Henry, enriched as many of them were with heraldic and other devices, as well as with the roses of the rival houses of York and Lancaster. The humiliation, passion and crucifixion of our blessed Lord, were told in a series of carvings, beginning with those of the basin, ewer, and towel.”

Only the 14th century tower and spire, actually built before the main body of the church, survived the disaster.


The elderly vicar of St. Hilary lost no time in arranging for the rebuilding of the church. Although it was before the time of general insurance against fire, there does not seem to have been any difficulty about money. Pascoe was himself one of the co-patrons of the advowson and the others were wealthy landowners who had made much money out of the tin mines of St. Hilary. An architect was engaged and he designed the present building in the Victorian concept of the pointed Gothic style. He skillfully incorporated the old tower and spire and used much of the stone of the old building, including the window mullions, in the new church. It was consecrated in 1857, just four years after the fire.

Although it cannot be claimed that the building is of outstanding merit, it is nevertheless a comely sanctuary with an individuality which is enhanced by the transeptal lantern-style roof light. The church stands on high ground and from the sea, the spire is visible to the approaches of both St. Ives on the north and Mount Bay on the south. For many generations, therefore, it was regarded as a useful landmark for mariners and fishermen. It was limewashed annually to enhance its visibility.


It has long been a puzzle to historian as to why this remote parish and church in Cornwall should be named after St. Hilary, the 4th century Bishop of Poitiers, who was famed for his learned defence of orthodoxy against the Arian heresy. There are only two other churches in England dedicated in his honour and nearly all the ancient parish churches of Cornwall are named after the local Celtic saints who first evangelised the county in the 5th and 6th centuries, before the mission of St. Augustin from Rome. Their names read like a litany through every letter of the alphabet from St. Austell down to St. Zennor. Indeed, the parish of St. Hilary is an enclave surrounded by St. Piran, St. Breage, St. Germoe, St. Erth and St. Ludgvan.

In the opinion of the present writer the clue to the solution of this question lies in St. Michael’s Mount; which was a centre of monastic life from early Celtic times. A small community of Benedictines had their home there on the Mount during the reign of Edward the Confessor and he endowed them with the revenue of a vast stretch of land  from the Lizard all along the coast to Penzance. William the Conqueror, however, gave Cornwall to his half brother, Robert, Count of Mortain and Count of Poitiers. Robert had the symbol of St. Michael emblazoned on his shield at the Battle of Hastings. St. Michael’s Mount reminded him so much of Mont Saint Michel in his native Normandy that he gave the Mount together with estates around Mount’s Bay, to the Abbey of Mont Saint Michel. The Cornish monestry therefore became a subsidiary priory subject to the Norman abbey and the monestry on the Mount was tenanted by monks from Normandy. With the development of the parochial system, these monks became responsible for the pastoral care of the people on their mainland manors. When the time came for the building of a parish church it was natural that they should chose a French saint as its patron and to them St. Hilary of Poitiers was almost a local saint. Moreover, their civil patrons were not only earls of Cornwall but they claimed the title of Counts of Poitiers. The Norman monks also chose a French master-mason to build the Cornish church. There are only a handful of Cornish churches with spires and in every case they indicate a French connexion. The monks enjoyed the rectorial tithes of the new parish and the Bishop of Exeter gave them the right to nominate the vicars, who were endowed with the vicarial or lesser tithes. The association of the priory with the church was so close that the land adjoining the glebe was known as “the Prior’s Fields”, which still survives as a place name on some editions of ordnance survey maps.

PATRONAGE OF THE ADVOWSON The story of the patronage of the advowson of St. Hilary is one of the most intriguing in the by-ways of ecclesiastical appointments. The Abbot of Mont San Michel in Normandy acting through the Prior of St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall held the patronage until the dissolution of the monastries under King Henry VIII. The Mount, including the advowson of St. Hilary, was then given to Sir Humphrey Arundel. Together with most of the Cornish, Sir Humphrey accepted the Reformation up to the end of Henry’s reign. The Protestantism of Lord Somerset who was regent for Edward VI and the innovations of Archbishop Cramner, however, were too much and the introduction of the first Book of Common Prayer in English in 1549 was the signal for the great Cornish Rebellion of that year.  The Cornish were led by Sir Humphrey, who had secretly trained a contingent of local troops on the Mount. With Arundell as Governor of the Mount it meant that most of the younger men of St. Hilary would be recruited to his standard. The total Cornish army has been estimated at about 4,000 and a high proportion came from West Cornwall. It would seem that at least 200 men were secretly trained and equipped at the Mount. The armour consisted of a metal helmet and collar, together with a leather or canvas jacket, lined with pieces of metal. It was aptly named as harness.  About one-third of the force had this equipment and the remainder used whatever protective clothing they could find. The secret training at the Mount was undoubtedly the main topic of talk in every cottage in St. Hilary in mid-summer, 1549. The Rebellion had the nature of a crusade.  Most of the people of St.Hilary spoke only the old Cornish tongue and could not understand the new English services, which the petition  scathingly described  as being like a Christmas play. They were audacious and “demanded” the restoration of the Mass in Latin and numerous Catholic practices. The men of St. Hilary and district joined up with their fellow Cornish comrades from St. Keverne and the Lizard and marched behind banners bearing symbols of the old religion. It is a pity that the name of the parish priest of St. Hilary undoubtedly attended Mass in the parish church before setting off on their crusade. He may have marched with them, like many other Cornish priests. After some initial success, however, the rebellion was crushed at a battle near Exeter, largely by the foreign mercenaries recruited by Somerset.

After the defeat of the revolt, all the property of Sir Humphrey was confiscated and he was hung, drawn and quartered. The Mount and its property, included the advowson of St. Hilary was granted to a Cornish supporter of Somerset, who died leaving all his estate, again including the advowson of St. Hilary, in equal portions  to his six daughters. Thus, in theory, each daughter had a one in six right of nomination of the parish priest of St. Hilary. As a result of marriages among the Cornish county families and the sale and resale of property, these rights of one in six turns of presentation led to many complications involving numerous landowning families. On at least one occasion, a descendant of Sir Humphrey Arundell had a turn of presentation and the Cornish family of Godolphin, represented by the Duke of Leeds, acquired the right to three turns out of six. The patronage became even more complicated in the 19th century, when the township of Marazion was carved out of St. Hilary to form a separate parish, with the incumbent of St. Hilary being the patron of the benefice of Marazion. More, recently however, the situation has been further complicated. The parishes of St. Hilary, Marazion and Perranuthnoe, have been amalgamated into a plurality with the parish priest of St. Hilary being rector. The patrons of St. Hilary and Perranuthnoe are the Bishop of Truro, the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral and a lay patron, acting jointly, but the rector of St. Hilary remains patron of Marazion, which is part of his own cure!


The parish church of St. Hilary achieved national prominence in the late 1920s, when the broadcasting of the parish Nativity play became a popular event in the Christmastide programme of those early days of wireless. A more unwelcome publicity came a few years later, when the church became the victim of legalised vandalism by an outside organisation of the so-called “Protestant Underworld”. But this chapter in the story of St. Hilary begins in 1912, when the Rev. Bernard Nicolo Walke was appointed  to the living on the nomination  of one of the lay patrons, whose turn it was in the complicated patronage. Church life at St. Hilary was at a low ebb in the parish. Methodism was still the predominant religious influence and it was still the age, now happily bygone, of bitter hostility between Church and Chapel. Father Walke was already widely-known in the diocese for his advanced Anglo-Catholic views and the only clergy who attended his institution were the vicar of St. Mary’s Penzance, his two curates, and Father Sandys Waron, the controversial vicar of Cury-with-Gunwalloe. such was the inauspicious beginning of what proved to be one of the most remarkable ministries in Cornwall. Father Walke has himself told some of the story in his autobiographical “Twenty Years at St. Hilary”, first published in 1938, but recently re-issued as a paperback.

Walke was uncompromising in his Catholic teaching and practice but he also had a gift of making friends among people in all spheres of life, both outside and inside the parish. His integrity was respected even when he supported unpopular causes, such as his strong pacifist campaign in the First World War. He gradually built up an active Catholic centre in a rural community. He acquired a large house in the hamlet near the church. It was formerly “The Jolly Tinners” inn of mining times, and he converted it into a home for destitute children from London. (It must be kept in mind that this was still the age of widespread poverty for which the old Poor Law was the only official relief). In furnishing and adorning the church for Catholic worship, Father Walke had firm ideas. He did not wish to use the commercial firms of ecclesiastical furnishers, but aimed at utilizing local resources in the medieval spirit. He was fortunate in this quest. There was plenty of local stone and good masons and other craftsmen. In addition, however, his wife, Annie Walke, was a talented artist and the couple had many friends among the internationally-famous group of the nearby Newlyn school of artists. Some of them freely gave their talents to beautifying the interior of the church, thus making it one of the most notable shrines in the country.

Walke himself, wrote the nativity play of “Bethlehem” as an act of worship for the people of the parish. The dialogue was in the local dialect vocabulary, the scenes were localised in the medieval manner and the action took place in various parts of the church, culminating in the service of Benediction at the High Altar. It became one of the most notable events in the Christmastide festivities in the district. It so happened that one of Walke’s friends was Filson Young, musical director of the then infant B.B.C. He regularly motored  down to St. Hilary each weekend for a period in order to play the organ for the Sunday service. It was he who suggested that the B.B.C. should broadcast the play and at the end of the first broadcast he made a personal appeal for the home of “The Jolly Tinners”. The public resonse was so great that the Post Office at Marazion had to hire a horse and cart to take the bags of mail to St. Hilary vicarage. Father Walke wrote several other plays for broadcasting by the parishoners of St. Hilary but none approached “Bethlehem” in popular appeal. To the congregation it was an act of worship. Moreover, all the actors were pledged to say daily the Pater Noster, Ave Maria and a prayer for blessing during the weeks of preparation and all went to confession and Holy Communion before the actual presentations.

While the church of St. Hilary was receiving popular acclaim nationally, clouds were beginning to appear in the parish. A well-known and wealthy Protestant organisation, notorious for formenting agitation and disturbances, began to make St. Hilary as its target. Organised groups were brought to the church services to sing hymns to drown the voices of clergy and worshippers. The police brought prosecutions for brawling, but the Chairman of the Penzance magistrates was himself a member of the Protestant organisation. The cases were dismissed, but the police authorities appealed to the High Court. The magistrates were instructed to reconsider their earlier decisions but they imposed only nominal fines. The Protestant organisation found an embittered resident of St. Hilary who agreed to act as an “aggrieved parishioner” in an application to the Consistory Court for a faculty for the removal of all the altars, images and other ornaments in the church. The plot was adroit.  The application was in the name of the “aggrieved parishioner”, with the organisation kept in the background. Moreover, it is known in advance that Father Walke would refuse to recognise the jurisdiction of the court or plead before it. He took the view that its jurisdiction was invalidated by the fact that the appelate function was vested in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. He was in the same tradition as those priests who had resisted the Public Services Regulations Act, 1874. Again, the organisers knew that the case would cause embarrassment to the Bishop of Truro, Walter Frere, C.R., the first monk to become an English diocesan bishop since the Reformation. The Bishop supported the vicar of St. Hilary but was unable to help him in the legal proceedings.

As Father Walke refused to be represented at the hearing, the Consistory Court inevitably gave a judgement in favour of the “aggrieved parishioner” and ordered the removal of the altars and ornaments. The vicar and churchwardens ignored the order but the petitioner was now armed with a legal document which authorized  her personally  to remove most of the articles which were included in her faculty application. One day in August, 1932, a coachload of hired labourers descended on the church and gained admission by the leader posing as a friendly priest. They then began the work of destruction, demolition and sacrilege. Stone altars were attacked by axes and hammers, the baroque reredos and canopy of the high altar (the work of an eminent artist) was ruthlessly cut down and portable objects were taken away. Some of the images had been rescued by the parishioners before the raid and within a few days the church was cleared up and as much restoration as possible was made. There was a large congregation of supporters at the Mass of Reparation on the following Sunday. Services were continued according to the traditional  Catholic pattern but the persecution continued by one legal action after another for the next three years.  Exhausted in health by the persecution, Father Walke was compelled to retire.  He was succeeded by Father Geoffrey Roffe-Silvester but the damage had been done.  The Consistory Court granted a faculty for the retention of some ornaments, statues and pictures as long as they were not used in services. After a few efforts to attempt conciliation, another incumbent was appointed who may be said  to have represented the typical Low Church outlook. The congregation was dispersed to neighbouring parishes and church life at St. Hilary once again fell into a low ebb.


In 1973, however, another new chapter was opened in the story of the parish church. Father Reginald Mackenzie was appointed to the living and he immediately set up restoring the church to its former glory. He founded the Friends of St. Hilary and gained nation-wide support. Step by step, the church was restored, the services resumed according to the Catholic standards and a congregation built up. The church is now very similar to what it was in the days of Father Walke; but the Friends of St. Hilary, in co-operation with the parochial Church council, are continuing to support the work. Father Mackenzie retired in 1981 and is now living in Truro. He was succeeded by Father Desmond Curson, who also has charge of the parishes of Marazion and Perranuthnoe. The old vicarage, just across the road from the church, has been converted into an hotel but a new residence for the parish priest has been built on land just behind the old vicarage.

Now it is time to enter the church.


As one goes inside the church by the main porch, a small granite bowl will be seen built into the wall on the right hand side. It was the front of the old church but now serves as a holy water stoup. Still keeping to the right, the small image in a window ledge is a replica of Our Lady of Walsingham. It is a recent addition to the church and was given by the present parish priest, Father Curson, who has been closely associated with the Norfolk shrine. It is particularly appropriate that St. Hilary should have a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. There has been a close relationship between the Cornish and Norfolk parishes ever since the restoration of Walsingham began in 1921. After the retirement of Father Walke, the St. Hilary Home for Children was transferred from “The Jolly Tinners” to Walsingham, where it continued for many years. In the shrine church of Our Lady of Walsingham, the chapel of the Nativity was registered as the Chapel of the Children’s Home and it is graced by the hand-carved statute of the saint.

Still keeping to the right, we come to the picture of St. Joan of Arc. The stone altar in honour of the saint fell victim to the legalised vandalism of 1932, but traces of the stonework still remain. The picture was the work of Annie Walke. The shrine was set up shortly after the canonisation of the Maid of Orleans in 1920 and friends of Walke were mildly critical of his action. He had strenuously supported the pacificism movement in the 1914-1918 war, when St. Joan had been regarded as the patron saint of the French army. His reply was characteristic. Walke held that the actions of the French army were no business of his but he venerated St. Joan for her religious virtues and her dedication to her visions. Bernard Shaw visited the church a few years later to see the “Bethleham” play. His own play “St. Joan” was at that time enjoying international acclaim. Standing before the picture, he said “Ah, this is my St. Joan”. Annie Walke replied, “Oh, no, Mr. Shaw, this is the real St. Joan”.

Further along this side of the church there are the images of St. Anne (14th century French Gothic) and St. Joseph (17th century Spanish baroque). Both statutes were bought by Walke with money he had received as fees for the broadcasting of the St. Hilary plays. Although Walke was unaware of the fact, he was restoring devotion to St. Anne, mother of Our Lady, which had been encouraged by the monks of St. Michaels’s Mount in medieval times. The French monks built a chapel of St. Anne in the parish at about the same time as this statue was being carved in France. It is unfortunate that even the site of this chapel has been forgotten and the only reference known to the present writer is an entry in the registers of Bishop Lacy of Exeter, whereby he licensed a chapel of St. Anne in the parish of St. Hilary in the year 1422.

At the end of this aisle is the chapel of the Sacred Heart. The small picture in the centre of the reredos has been attributed to Quinton Matsys, the 15th century Flemish painter. The picture was bought in Florence by Walke’s grandfather round about 1840 and the authenticity was not considered until it was identified by Roger Fry, the artist and art critic in the 1920s. The granite reredos in which the picture is framed is of local granite by local craftsmen and is an allegorical representation of the City of God. The faces of angels looking from the windows and to the fascination