No. 129 - Railton Wesleyan Church - 'Horses Tails and Cathedrals'

The histories of many rural churches are unremarkable and go largely unrecorded. The Wesleyan [later Methodist] church at Railton is typical in that reports about it in the local newspapers reflect the rhythms of rural life: harvest festivals; Sunday school events; fundraising; temperance meetings; weddings and funerals. This brief history will focus on two contrasting events, each giving a very different insight into rural religious life.

The first event is the opening of the Wesleyan church in 1879. This reflects the humour, generosity and dedication of religious communities. A report from the Launceston Examiner tells the story:

“The opening tea meeting [was] a great success…. about 200 people attended…The meeting was addressed by the Rev. Mr Thomas, who warmly eulogised the liberality of Mr William Winter, as evinced by his gift of the site and a piece of land for a burial ground, in addition to his handsome subscription of £10. The building, he said was designed for the twofold purpose of a church and a school...”

The Reverend Cowperthwaite then addressed the meeting:

“In an appropriate speech he eulogised the plan and execution of the work of the building, describing it as unique among country places of worship. He termed it the Cathedral, ….One thing alone was required to make it complete, and that was an organ…He alluded humorously to a remark of Mr Thomas that he considered the Railton Church as his child, and said that his brother minister had the advantage of him, as he could not place his hand upon the ridge board of any building and call it his child, inasmuch as he was only a miserable bachelor; but he had been so moved by what he had seen that day, that he really thought he would reform”.

The first image lends itself to a rosy view of a rural idyll; a community defined by charity, commitment and piety. But rural life had a very different side.  The second event comes from a letter to the Examiner written by “A Sufferer” who paints a more earthy picture of the experiences of the religious at the hands of the ‘larrikins’ of Railton a year after the church’s opening:

“It was only on…last Sunday night week, that two horses went home from the Wesleyan Chapel minus their tails; at least what hair was left on had rings cut upon it like a winding staircase, and I was told a third horse was taken out of a stable and turned into a paddock, for the owner to find him the best way he could – all this took place during chapel hours. …Previous to these offences being committed, … some obstacle in the shape of a log or piece of timber had been placed in front of the chapel door, in order to throw people down at night”.

These two vignettes perhaps make our understanding of rural life more real and familiar. The Wesleyans and later Methodists survived and thrived as Railton grew from a hamlet to a small town. While the old church has survived, the Methodist community has not. But at least we have some stories left to remind us of a colourful and rich country life.

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018


Devon Herald Saturday 21 June 1879, page 2

Launceston Examiner Saturday 21 June 1879, page 3

Launceston Examiner Saturday 28 August 1880, page 3


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