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When Walke battled the Kensitites

By This is Cornwall  |  Posted: March 17, 2011

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AT FACE value St Hilary is no different from any other parish church.

Situated in the heart of the old village, there appears to be nothing out of the ordinary about the structure, largely rebuilt after it was gutted by fire in the Victorian era.

But hidden beneath its 13th century spire and stony exterior is a narrative which has captured the imagination for centuries.

Sat upon a hill top, visible from both the channel and the Atlantic Ocean, the church's spire has acted as a day mark for ships in St Ives and Mount's Bay for over 700 years.

It is also the burying place of John Carter Richards, the son of the notorious smuggler John Carter, dubbed the King of Prussia, due to his fascination with Frederick the Great.

But it really accelerated to fame in the early 20th century when the remarkable and often controversial priest Bernard Walke came to St Hilary.

For 23 years, from 1913 to 1936, Walke was the vicar of the parish and through the latter part of that period made its name famous on a national scale.

Yet, although his influence was once considerable he is latterly remembered for just two things.

Firstly, his play Bethlehem, which was broadcast from the church by the BBC from 1926 till 1934 – with a more recent transmission to an audience of over a million on BBC Radio 4 in 1997.

Its original popularity made St Hilary fashionable, almost famous; Bernard Shaw was one of a number of notable visitors to the church, some more welcome than others.

On August 8, 1932 a group of protestant fundamentalists, known popularly as the Kensitites descended upon the church and proceeded to trash its interior.

Followers of JA Kensit, they had been campaigning against idolatry for years and the Anglo-Catholic Walke, who was not averse to lavish decoration, had become the object of their hostility. After several attempts to strip St Hilary of its ornate contents through the Diocesan Consistory Court, to which Walke paid no reverence, the group resorted to more brutish methods.


A mob of 50 attacked the church and its contents, including its medieval altar; Walke in an attempt to stop them was locked in the church but he had the last laugh.

Pre-empting the strike the wiley vicar had swapped much of the church's contents for cheaper imitations.

Following a battle with illness Walke retired from the church in 1936. However, much of the remnants of his tenure are still visible today, including work by the revered Newlyn School of Art of whom Walke's wife, Anne, was a member. Much of Walke's experiences are encapsulated in his autobiography Twenty Years at St Hilary.

But there is no substitute to uncovering first hand a vibrant piece of west Cornwall's history at the most unassuming location.

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