Named after the small village of Gwennap located just outside Redruth in Cornwall, the Gwennap Pit came into existence as a natural depression formed by a collapse into an abandoned underground mine shaft. The massive pit was a chaotic cavity of stone and earth in a disorderly array. How long it existed as such is unrecorded, but what we do know is when its future as an amphitheater was established.
Methodist founder John Wesley had been visiting Cornwall since 1743 to spread his message of salvation through faith in Christ. Altogether, Wesley visited Gwennap thirty times over a span of 45 years. On September 6, 1762, Wesley preached to a crowd from the Gwennap Pit, the first person recorded to ever use the location for this purpose.
“The wind was so high that I could not stand at the usual place at [the village of] Gwennap; but a small distance was a hollow capable of containing many thousands of people. I stood on one side of this amphitheatre towards the top and with people beneath on all sides, I enlarged on those words in the gospel for the day, Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see… hear the things that ye hear.” ~John Wesley’s Journal, September 1762
Was Wesley the first to discover the pit’s excellent acoustics? Had anyone else ever used the site as an open-air amphitheater? While it is perhaps possible another person or group may have done so, Wesley is the first documented, and his popularity and importance to history established Gwennap Pit.
John Wesley preached at Gwennap Pit eighteen times between 1762 and 1789. Below are three bits from his journals, in addition to his opinion of the Pit as, “the most magnificent spectacle this side of Heaven.”
“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 across one way, and near three hundred the other. I believe there were full twenty thousand people; and, the evening being calm, all could hear.” ~John Wesley’s Journal, September 1766
“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.” ~John Wesley’s Journal, September 1770
“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.” ~John Wesley’s Journal, September 1773
Wesley died in 1791, but his connection to Gwennap Pit, and to the towns of Redruth and Busveal in Cornwall, did not die with him.
Between 1803 and 1806, local miners cut the 13 circular terraces into the pit, forming grass-covered seats which can comfortably accommodate up to 2000 people. A flight of steps were built into the terraces on the west side. On the north side they placed a pair of stone posts with a rectangular stone between them, forming what is named “Wesley’s Pulpit.” From this pulpit is preached the annual Whit Monday services (an annual Methodist rally), which have continued since 1807. The project was done specifically as a memorial to John Wesley.
The redesign by the miners, including a re-routing of the closest road, reshaped and reduced the size of the amphitheater. Historians agree that Wesley’s estimates of the size of the pit, and of the crowds, were wildly overblown, although probably because he wasn’t good at such calculations rather than a purposeful exaggeration. Whatever the precise numbers, the Gwennap Pit after terracing is smaller than it was originally, yet far from a tiny structure!
During this period, the site was under private ownership of John Williams of Scorrier House, a successful mining adventurer and Methodist who knew John Wesley. His influence and control aided in Gwennap Pit being considered as “in the possession of the Methodists and for their exclusive use.” However, while it continued to be a popular preaching site for Methodists, particularly for Whit Monday, it was also used by others during the 19th century, including preachers from other religions.
Busveal Chapel, a Methodist chapel located adjacent to the Pit, was built in 1836. Inside the plainly decorated chapel is a bust of John Wesley, as well as portraits of Wesley, wife Susanna, and brother Charles. A visitor center was opened in 1991.
A few minor disputes arose over the next century after John Williams died, as to who had ultimate control over how the amphitheater was used, but the property itself remained in the Williams family until 1978 when it was purchased by the Methodist Church. Aside from the annual Whit Monday event and Sunday worship services during the summer months, Gwennap Pit has always been used for a wide variety of events, including music concerts, theatricals, charity walks, scout activities, weddings, and much more.