Beside a busy road in the centre of Redruth the shell of a once elegant building goes mostly unnoticed by the passing traffic. But some say that this old ruin actually marks the beginnings of the town. You see, this was once the site of St Rumon’s Chapel one of the Redruth’s first buildings, most likely its first church. But the life of this unusual corner of this old mining town did not end there . . .
The Medieval Chapel
The site of St Rumon’s has had many incarnations over the centuries but its origins date back more than 600 years. A scattering of buildings and a ford once marked the beginnings of what was to become Redruth, those houses standing close to where the crossroads of Fore Street and Penryn Street meet today. The name of the settlement, ‘red’ meaning ford, ‘ruth’ meaning red, probably referred to the colour of the water in the area which is often stained by the abundance of minerals in the ground.
A short distance away from this early community on slightly higher ground a small church was built, St Rumon’s. The license to build the chapel was granted to Reverend Nicholas Oby on the 14th September 1400 and there is some suggestion that as well as serving the local community it was also a stopping off point for those making a pilgrimage across Cornwall to St Michael’s Mount.
“The Chapel of St Rumon served by itinerant priests for the benefit of Pilgrims, this being the old pilgrim way to the Mount. The chapel survived the Reformation but becoming ruinous was abandoned in c1700.”Charles Henderson, Cornish Church Guide, 1925
It is unclear what this medieval chapel would have looked like, as far as I am aware no contemporary descriptions survive but there are the some clues in the form of large pieces of worked granite that were found on the site during more recent building work.
The lovely St Rumon’s Cross is also believed to have been connected to the original chapel.
This ancient cross was lost and then re-discovered in 1939 by local builder, Mr N. Thomas, built into a stable wall belonging to the Rose Cottage Pub on Chapel Street. It stood in the pub’s garden for a while before being re-erected on Cross Street beside St Rumon’s Gardens.
So, who was Saint Rumon?
Saint Rumon, sometimes called Saint Ruan, Rumonus or Ronan, was an missionary born in Brittany in cAD515. He is thought to have studied scripture in Ireland and some say that he met Saint Breaca there and accompanied her when she returned home to Cornwall. Rumon is said to have established a hermitage near Falmouth in the 5th or 6th century. Where exactly that hermitage was is a mystery but there are some likely candidates. As well as St Rumon’s chapel in Redruth we can also find traces of this saint in other Cornish place names, such as Ruan Lanihorne on the Roseland and Ruan Major and Ruan Minor on the Lizard.
“In Cornwall we have three parishes called Ruan, doubtless from a saint of this name. This name also occurs among Princes. One Prince of this name was son of Maglocunus who reigned in the latter end of the sixth century. I find three Princes more of the name Rûn from the year 808 to 1021 and Rouan and Rouanes is amongst the Britans a name of Dignity and signifies Royal, not improbably derived from the name by which the Britains distinguished the Roman people.”William Borlase, 1769
Craig Weatherhill translates these names from the Cornish perhaps giving us some clues to the life of this illusive saint. Ruan Lanihorne is said to mean “Rumon’s [Rihoern’s] church enclosure” while Ruan Minor was once called ‘Ruan in Woone’ meaning “St Rumon in the Downs”.
After establishing these religious communities in Cornwall Rumon, who was said to be the son of a king, is said to have returned to Brittany. But after his death however there is a suggestion that his body was brought back to Ruan Lanihorne for burial and then subsequently moved to Tavistock and reinterned in the abbey there in AD960.
The Druid’s Hall
There are some that think that the ‘steeple-house’ that the diarist George Fox visited in Redruth in 1655 was St Rumon’s but it is generally agreed that by the late 1600s the building had lost its roof and that by c1700 the chapel was in such poor repair that is was abandoned completely. The congregation moved to worship at St Euny Church just outside the town.
From then on the site remained pretty much ruinous and was noted as occupied by “a pile of buildings” used as “Public Rooms” in the early 1800s. It was in the mid-19th century that the town decided to clear the site and build a new hall to be called Saint Rumon’s Hall.
Construction began in 1859 and it is the façade of this hall that we see today.
“In Penryn Street are the new hall and public rooms erected in 1860 by a limited company, it was built in the Elizabethan style of native stone with Bath stone dressings. The interior comprises the Public Library, news room, billiard room and the parish offices. On the second floor is a spacious hall ceilinged with panelled wainscoting. The front of the building displays the Clinton Arms and the words ‘Redruth Public Rooms AD1859’.”Lakes, Parochial History of the County of Cornwall, 1872
According to an article in The Cornish Telegraph in October 1867 some of the stones used for the foundations of this new hall were from the original medieval chapel.
It was to be “a noble hall available for almost every kind of exhibition or entertainment . . .” and it certainly sounds like it soon fulfilled those ambitions. Part library, part cultural centre the newspapers throughout the years that followed were filled with announcements of upcoming events and reports on the latest lectures, concerts, balls or auctions that had taken place.
A couple of years after it opened St Rumon’s Hall was renamed the Druid’s Hall. It is unclear why this change happened and not everyone was in agreement as this letter to the Royal Cornwall Gazette in February 1868 illustrates:
[St Rumon’s] is now henceforth and forever to be called Druid’s Hall . . . they would have nothing to do with the name of an obsolete monk of the Roman Calendar, preferring to go back to heathen times, at the same time adopting the traditional antiquity of the name of the town.”
The Arrival of the Talkies
By 1908 the Druid’s Hall had become a cinema, presumably utilising in the large theatre/ball room on the second floor. There were at one point 450 seats in the auditorium: 331 in the stalls and 119 in the balcony and the proscenium or scene was 7.5m (23ft) across.
At first it was run by Messrs. Cocks and Baker and in 1910 was known as the ‘Picturedrome’. It was taken over by Mr H Burrow in 1912 and then by William Henry Jenkin in 1917.
When Jenkin died in 1926 his wife, Clara, continued to operate the cinema until September 1935, when it was acquired by Gwyther Eastlake Prance. It was Prance who changed its name to the Gem Cinema.
At first the ‘Picturedrome’ seems to have combined live performances with the latest silent film but by the 1920s Redruth’s picture house was showing the biggest films of the day, such as ‘The Christian’ with Richard Dix in 1923.
In the 1930s the ‘talkies’ arrived and there were two films showing every day apart from Sundays. Between the main attractions there would be shorter often cartoons or amusing short films such as The Bees Buzz which was on the programme in June 1930 (see below).
According to the Kinematograph Year Book, the seating capacity had been increased to 484 by 1949, with the renamed Gem Cinema now under the control of Cornwall Circuit Ltd. The Gem was in operation until the late-1950’s when the old Druid’s Hall underwent yet another transformation.
In 1981 brothers David and Thomas Dunstan bought the building which had fallen into disrepair and sank their life savings into renovating it and turning it into the Zodiac Bingo Hall. On Sunday 21st January 1984 around 150 punters had enjoyed an evening there before the brothers locked up at around 11pm. Not long after the alarm was raised – St Rumon’s was on fire.
More than fifty firemen from five different towns fought the blaze and although they did manage to stop the fire spreading to neighbouring buildings by morning the hall was completely gutted. The Dunstan brothers were understandably distraught and the damages were an estimated £250,000. Initially however they said that they hoped to rebuild and even renewed their gaming license in March that year. But by September 1984 the building or what was left of it was up for sale. The Dunstan brothers confirmed to the West Briton that the cost of rebuilding was just too great.
St Rumon’s Gardens
The hall was never rebuilt, in fact there had been plans to demolish it entirely as the walls became unstable. Eventually the top floors was removed because of fears they would collapse and the site was bought by Kerrier Council in 1985. St Rumon’s Hall then lay in ruins and was for many years considered “an eye-sore”.
There were briefly plans to turn it back into a theatre in the mid-90s but this idea was shelved because of the expense. Then in 1998 the council proposed a ‘Millennium Gardens’ at an estimated cost of £65,00. These unusual community gardens were opened to the public in 2000 with the site’s old name reinstated.
Today St Rumon’s Gardens remains a calm and quiet space away for Redruth’s high street with park benches and a small stage for performances, echoing its days as a theatre and entertainment spot. The relics of the medieval chapel are there too, a solid, if small, reminder of a distant past.
As a child I used to pass the ruins of St Rumon’s every week on my way to swim at Carn Brea. Sitting waiting at the traffic lights, looking out the window at the boarded up shell of a building I was unaware of its history. To me then I think it was just another indicator of the poverty of the town, what I could see had once been such a grand building was now an ugly ruin. It upset me.
Of course I now realise that there was so much more to all of it than that.