A Midnight Encounter by Rev. Thomas Shaw

St. Blazey Gate Methodist Church which was built in 1824 stands on the left-hand side of the road from St. Austell to St. Blazey at the junction which is signposted “Luxulyan”. It is a typical Wesleyan Chapel of the period but the simple magnificence of its interior furnishings would lead one to suppose that its building committee and the later trustees believed that nothing, but the best was good enough for St. Blazey Gate. That may have been so but its chief benefactor Sir Francis Layland Sanaa, M.P. who was High Sheriff of Cornwall in 1897, and who was chiefly responsible for the beautifying of the church in 1904 when its mahogany rostrum and panelled gallery frontage was a member of a family who had been devoted members of the society over the years. His grandparents, John and Charity Williams of Blue Gate were members when it was opened in 1824 as they had been when the society had met in a converted barn on Blue Gate.

Leed Seed Chapel

Close to the front door of the present church there is an altar tombstone which simply commemorates:

It is this stone which is significant in the history of the chapel and not its later embellishment. It is not Sir Francis Layland Barratt but William Stephens, “the old gardener”, who was to become the patron saint of the church and who has given it its popular name, the Leek Seed Chapel – and all because of his strange actions one midnight hour.

William Stephens was born at Widdecombe in the Moor in 1742 and as a youth found his way to London. In the dockland there one day he was persuaded by a stranger to accompany him to an inn. After a drink with his new companion the man rose and left him but soon after he had gone a trap door opened in the floor beneath him and he fell precipitately into a cellar below; and he found himself a prisoner in the hands of a press-gang and was soon on board a ship sailing for India to be enrolled in the army there. Against the odds he survived this horrific enlistment and some six years of near slave labour before he was eventually able to return to his country, to Devon, where he married his sweetheart who had waited six long years for him, and then to Cornwall where he became a gardener for the Canyons at Tregrehan near St Austell and settled with Mary on an allotment or farm place, at Blue Gate Hill.

By this time he had joined the Methodists but at first there was no Methodist meeting place at St. Blazey Gate. Faced with this challenge William and Mary had an old barn which was on their land fitted up for services and class meetings and added to the St. Austell plan, to which preachers were appointed and which his name soon appeared as local preacher.

The gardener at Tregrehan had become the founder of a new society at St. Blazey Gate which he was to serve as a class leader and little doubt in course of time he held all the other offices open to a Wesleyan layman as well. He continued in this way for some sixty years up to the time that the trustees decided to build a new chapel to replace the old one that had become too small. William Stephens seems to have taken the lead in raising the money required and as it mounted up, he kept it under his own roof and nobody saw anything unwise about that. How many of his neighbours would have opened a bank account anyway?

William Stephens was sitting on the front hedge of his four-poster bed close on midnight one day – if the detail in the engraving can be relied on – counting the money on the table before him. Where his wife was at that hour, or whether she witnessed the scene that followed is not clear. Her husband felt safe enough for there were no thieves about or expected. But there were three young men, college students on vacation who were out for a lark, rather like the future Parson Hawker of Morwenstow and his companions when they were staying at Boscastle.

The three youths at St. Blazey prepared their plan. They had no nefarious purpose in mind and planned to be “gentle robbers like Robin Hood” but they must have known that they were going to scare the old gardener out of his wits and create a nine day’s wonder. They put on white wagoner’s frocks, blackened their faces and waited till the church clock struck twelve, before moving swiftly into the unlocked cottage of William and Mary Stephens. The room they entered was darkened but through the bedroom doorway they could see the treasurer with his grizzled beard, wearing his check shirt, flannel jacket and worsted night cap, bending over the table and counting his money by candlelight.

“Give us your money,” demanded the leader as they entered, “And no harm shall befall you.”

Thinking quickly the old gardener, who was also an old soldier, answered with a strong voice, “You shall have no money from me. All the money in this house is the Lord’s, take it if you dare.” As he spoke, he grasped a steel and moved it toward a pile of gunpowder. The gentle Robin Hoods looked on horrified as his hand moved slowly towards the gunpowder. Was he going to blow them all up? – after all you never knew what a fanatical Methodist might do to defend the Lord’s money. But Stephens’ hand halted and, changing his tone he asked them why they wanted to rob him, miserable sinners that they were. “Repent and you may be saved,” he told them. “You will be soon in another world.” He then prayed and prayed – presumably with his eyes open and fixed on them – till they were all exhausted. He then told them that he had got nearly enough money to build the chapel and his captives must share his thanks to the Lord by singing the 100th Psalm with him. They were not free to go till they had done that.

On the following Sunday William Stephens addressed the congregation and one of the young robbers, no longer disguised, was among his hearers and listened to him telling in detail the story of the midnight encounter down to the Psalm of thanksgiving at the end. He told the congregation he had never before seen black faces pray with such devotion though he had some doubt whether their prayers were quite heavenward. And as for the “gunpowder” – he explained that it was his whole year’s stock of leek seed.

Footnote: Hawker and his friends left their beds early one morning before the people of Boscastle were up and went through the village quietly unlatching every pig sty they could find to free “the gentlemen who paid rent”. The high-spirited students then walked around enjoying every minute of the mayhem and consternation that followed. When the church clock struck midnight.

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