Mount Zion Chapel, Bere Alston

Mount Zion Chapel: some notes

Mount Zion Chapel Harvest, September 1909

The chapel in the early 1900s

There was a Wesley Guild at the chapel and in the 1930s a Junior Guild was formed. At the opening meeting Pastor W.S. Seagar brought his lantern and showed Bible and topical pictures.

There were annual church outings to places such as Exmouth (by train), as indeed there were at most of the local chapels.

The following item from Mount Zion Chapel appeared in the East Cornwall Mission Magazine (cost 2d!) in December 1933:

... On October 24th we continued our ancient custom by having the annual Roll Call. The chairman ws Mr. R.W.Sleep, the pianist Mr. H.Colwill, and Miss G. Spry, our Roll secretary, called the Roll and each Guilder responded with a text or verse. Our President, the Rev.J.T.Williams of Gunnislake, addressed the meeting, cleverly dealing with three vital beliefs ofJohn Wesley's life: amd thence proving that God is indeed with us, as Wesley believed Him to be...

Some thirty members attended the Guild Rally at Plymouth on November 1st... The large gathering proved that Methodism is far from being a dead branch of the Church. Let us strive to make it stronger!

The British and Foreign Bible Society meeting held in the schoolroom on Tuesday November 7th ws by far the best Bible Society meeting we have ever had. The room was packed and each section well represented...

An interesting insight into local preachers in days gone by is afforded by another East Cornwall Mission Magazine of the 1930s (Mount Zion belonging to that circuit until the 1960s):

The late Mr. Walter James of Saltash was examined as a local preacher in 1863. He travelled thousands of miles in performing the duties of his office. In an age when almost every local preacher was a horseman, Mr. Lawry produced the longest and most shiny pair of leggings in the Circuit; in an age of fine beards (said by some to be worn for the protection of the preacher's throat) his was surely the longest, curliest and blackest, while his sermons could be cut short enough on occasion to satisfy a child.

Talking of children, there were said to be 55 children attending the Sunday School at various times in 1966.

1952 saw the renovation of the organ, for which there was a grand re-opening, as this programme indicates:


There was no longer any need for an organ blower!

In 1974 there were 30 members and average attendance at the Sunday School was 10. It was in this year an approach was made by the United Reformed Church - who were losing their minister - to enquire about the possibility of forming a United Church. This suggestion was not considered favourably at that time by members and was left in abeyance. It only took 20 years to happen!

1975 saw the repair and redecoration of the chapel. In 1976 the Sunday School Superintendent of 25 years - Mr. Skinner - stepped down.

An interesting note about improvements to the lighting appears in the minutes of 1979:

Mr. Dyer to put the globes on the remaining lights and to higher the central one so that it did not cover the preacher's face while standing in the pulpit.

Some might say the latter was a good idea!

In 1980 a Council of Churches was formed in the parish, with two members from each church being on it. Also interestingly in that year it appears that water was paid for by way of a meter, which was removed resulting in a rediction in water bills from £40 to £10 per quarter. The minutes books have some lovely titbits in that year, including: "It was requested that the toilets be opened each Sunday before service and in winter the water to be switched on"! Elsewhere matters are reduced to: "The usual questions were then asked and answered." Oh to know more!

There was said to be no hope of the Sunday School restarting in 1981, a year in which the front wall of the building was damaged by water. There is a report in 1982 that no Church Unity meetings had been held recently. But soem joint weeknight services were to be held with other local churches. Despite previous pessimism, the Sunday School restarted in 1983, but chapel services in that year were reduced to just one per Sunday.

In 1984 the idea of sharing a building with the URC was looked at again. Mount Zion was said to be in need of considerable renovation (estimated cost £40-50,000) together with £30-45,000 for plans and £4,000 for a new organ. Of the members, only three were working; the rest were Senior Citizens. The possibilities of sharing with the Church of England were also considered, but it was decided to follow the URC option.

The last service held at Mount Zion was on Saturday 12th October 1985, when the preacher was Rev. Andrew Champley and the organist was Harvey Colwill. Hymns were Methodist Hymn Book nos. 7, 528, 980, 757, 667 and 69. The first service at the United Reformed Church was on the following day with Rev. Champley and Rev. Girling (URC minister), the hymns being MHB 12, 615, 213, 701 and 10. At this time the Methodists held their service in the morning and the United Reformed in the afternon.

The organ was given, at closure, to Milton Abbot chapel (which has also since closed in recent years) and was dedicated on the 12th December 1985. The piano and stool went to Bere Ferrers chapel. The harmonium and pews were sold and the carpet went to Morwellham chapel. The Sunday School forms were sold to the Monkey Sanctuary near Looe! In the minutes the following list of items was noted to be taken to the URC building:

2 door mats, small table in porch, collecting bags, hymn books, flet-covered notice boards (3), wall plaques, vases, hymn board, wall clock and plaque, water glass and tumbler, communion rail, Bible and hymn book, kneeler and font, service books, vacuum cleaner, carpet sweeper, carpet if desired, table in schoolroom, possibly heaters, 30 moulded plastic chairs, folding screen, fire extinguishers, cradle roll, electric fire, crockery, table cloths, buckets, communion sets, kettle, teapots, water boiler, cupboards.

The sale of the chapel was finally concluded in 1987 for £15,950.

The Methodists continued as a separate church in the URC building until 1989, when there were 29 members.

Some memories of Mount Zion told to me by the late Connie and Harvey Colwill are as follows:

In connection with the above photo of the Wesley Guild Ladies' Evening, apparently the event caused some controversy, as they put on a 'mock wedding' which entailed one of the ladies dressing up as a man!

The organ came from a private house and was installed about 1918. Harvey could remember walking into the church as a young lad after the organ was installed and wondering how they got it in through the small door! He became organist in about 1930/1, teaching himself to play it as he went along. He continued as organist until the chapel closed and continued to share that position at the URC building, only stepping down as official organist in 1994, when he was awarded a Certificate from the Methodist Music Society for his long service. The organ, after the chapel was closed, went to Milton Abbot Chapel, where it was still in use when the chapel closed.

Services, as far back as Havey could remember, were at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., with the Sundau School meeting at 3 p.m. Ministers frequently came up from Plymouth be train on Saturday and stayed overnight, and preachers were always given dinner and tea. Several came across from Calstock by boat, walking the rest of the way to the village. One lay preacher, Mr. Will Hockin from Calstock, was a fruit grower and always brought some of his tomatoes with him, with instructions that they should be "eaten with sugar". Mr. Davy, from Launceston, used to preach in Bere Alston in the morning, have dinner, then walk to Cotts to preach in the afteroon, returning to Bere Alston for tea. Rev. Darlington was the last minister prior to the church being moved to the Tavistock Circuit.

As years went by, after the time when Mr. Guy the schoolmaster held office, it became more difficult to find people to take office. Mr. Skinner was Sunday School Superintendent for many years. Before the war, Sunday School trips were to Ezenridge Party Field, just below Bere Alston station. After the war they became braver and went to Paignton by train. (Holy Trinity Sunday School, the church that Connie attended before her marriage, also went to Paignton, although they sometimes went by coach. Before the war they had gone to the Bere Ferrers Party Fields, sometimes by farmers wagon.)

During the Second World War, at the time of the bombing of Plymouth, a large number of the inhabitants of Plymouth left the city each night to sleep in surrounding areas. Some ended up in Mount Zion for the night, having come to Bere Alston by train.

Harvey was a member of the Callington Brotherhood, and form 1959 to 75 was a member of the 'Brotherhood Nine' - a group of members who went around singing and, if required, taking services. Their visits totalled over 300, including some to Bere Alston church and chapels. He also played cornet in the Bere Alston Band which used to practice in the Ebenezer Chapel building.

Ann Parsons