St. Just is a former market town located at the western end of the A3071 main road, which itself branches away from the A30 trunk road at Penzance. It is situated in the former Penwith area of Cornwall, and has a current population of about 4,500. Land’s End Airport, which provides an air link to the Isles of Scilly, lies about 2 miles south, beyond which is Land’s End another 4 miles away. Local features include Cape Cornwall, originally thought to be the most westerly point on the mainland, and the Coastal Footpath which ultimately extends from Bude to Saltash. There are numerous locations where archaeological remains and geological features offer tantalising glimpses into the history and heritage of the area.
The oldest buildings in this town contain elements and features which date back to about 1200AD, mainly to be found in the Parish Church and those buildings immediately nearby. It was in the late 1800’s that the town found itself to be at the centre of the local mining industry, which had expanded to exploit the rich seams, or lodes, of tin and copper. At that time, this town supported a population of about 9,000 people crammed into about two-thirds of the current housing availability, with whole families living in two-up, two-down terraced houses, with no bathroom, and with the most basic of other facilities, if any at all. The observant visitor will notice the lack of footpaths, the close proximity of the rows of terraced houses, the nature of the local materials used for housing construction, and the contrast between this older housing and that built after World War 2. The only means of transport then was on foot, and poverty was rife. Working hours were long, working conditions were extremely hard, and life expectancy was short, especially for men working in the mines.
It was against this background that Revd. John Wesley made numerous visits to the area to promulgate the virtues of his new Methodist Church, to be met with a population who was eager to hear his message. With St. Just being the main centre of population in West Penwith, the opportunity was taken in 1830 to build the large Methodist Church in what is now Chapel Road, arguably the largest such chapel in Cornwall, capable then of seating about 2,500 people. It was at about the same time that dissention was becoming evident within some elements of the Methodist Church on a national level, fuelled by the desire for some local congregations to be more self-governing instead of having to endure the dictates from unknown people “in authority” elsewhere in the country. It didn’t take too long before some of membership formed break-away groups which organised themselves into new denominations, including those which became known variously as Bible Christians, Strict Methodists, Zion Methodists, and the Wesleyan Reform Union of Churches, within this last group of which our Free Church is one. In 1859, a parcel of land was acquired on what was then the edge of St. Just for the express purpose of constructing a permanent building to replace what had become known as the “Tent Church”, later to become the Free Church. This building later acquired another epithet of the “Pump Church” when a hand operated water pump was installed in the northeast corner of the site. Sadly, no records or artifacts of this feature survive.
Sadly, many of the smaller chapels which sprang up in almost every hamlet and village throughout the Cornish countryside have now closed for worship to become private houses, or to be found other uses, or have simply been abandoned to fall into dereliction. This period of decline was precipitated by two collapses, one fiscal, and one physical. The physical collapse was that of a man engine at nearby Geevor mine. This man engine was a massive mechanical contraption used to convey mine workers up and down from the depths of the mine, and which collapsed one morning when the mechanism at the top failed, causing huge loss of life, and the ultimate closure of this, one of the most extensive mines in the area. The fiscal collapse was that of the international prices of tin and copper in the face of the rapid availability of much cheaper foreign materials. The results of this were firstly to put many Cornish mines out of business, and secondly to cause many Cornish miners to seek employment abroad. Within a few years, the local population had plummeted to less than half at its peak, with properties of all shapes and sizes being deserted. Two world wars and consequent periods of recovery also left their mark.
Over the last decades, the emphasis regarding employment has shifted from dependence on nature, as in farming and fishing, to that of the less predictable industry of tourism, and the usual trickle of service industries. This interest in tourism has not been confined to UK nationals. In the last few years, there has been a noticeable increase in holiday makers visiting from various other countries, and for an equal variety of reasons. Some come here simply to explore the countryside. Others come to satisfy their curiosity through historical, literary or artistic interests, and many to investigate their ancestry. “Wherever there is a hole in the ground, you are bound to find a Cornish man down there!”