Westheath Avenue, Bodmin PL31 2QT
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The history of St Lawrence’s Church is inextricably bound with the history of St Lawrence’s Hospital (the ‘County Lunatic Asylum’), built to care for the mentally ill, and which received its first patients on 25 August 1820.
For the first forty years of its life, the hospital had no separate church or dedicated chaplain. In 1856, the Lunacy Commissioners decided that this arrangement was unsatisfactory, for religion was considered to be ‘a very essential feature of the treatment of the insane’¹. An appeal was launched through the Cornish papers and wealthy benefactors were encouraged to donate. In May 1859, tenders were invited to construct the church. The land, north east of the hospital, was acquired for £475 and the stone used to build the church was brought from the hospital’s own quarry nearby. The building, in Early English style, was completed in early 1861. In March the Visiting Committee (the magistrates and subscribers who managed the project) agreed to appoint a full-time Church of England chaplain at a salary of £150 per annum. In addition to holding two Sunday services (‘with short sermons’), there would be services on other specified Holy Days and the chaplain would read prayers every morning, except Sunday, to ‘officers, servants and such patients as were deemed fit’¹.
Shortly after it was built, the church was found to be inadequate – the maximum number it could accommodate was 140 and both services were always full. In 1867 it was decided to extend the building by constructing a south aisle, at a cost of around £300, plus £70 for a new organ. These years represent the high point of the church’s activity. By 1892, the Commissioners reported, regretfully, that ‘last Sunday only 228’ attended, out of a possible 387’¹ and thereafter numbers slowly declined. The church continued to be used until the hospital was taken over by the National Health Service. The Visiting Committee met for the last time on 28 June 1948, after 128 years of service.
St Lawrence’s (named after the patron saint of the poor, sick and neglected) is now owned by Bodmin Town Council and run by a trust as a community church. The building may not be of any particular architectural distinction, but it is light, bright and welcoming and its close association with the former hospital makes it a rare survivor.
¹C T Andrews, The Dark Awakening A History of St Lawrence’s Hospital, 1978