The story of playwright and controversial priest Bernard Walke at St Hilary Heritage Centre

By Ralph Gifford Published: 04 October 2011

a pencil portait of a man with short hair
Dame Laura Knight's portrait of Bernard Walke.© The artist's estate. All Rights Reserved 2010 Courtesy Penlee House Gallery and Museum
Why the name of a third century Gaulish saint who turned from Paganism to Christianity became dedicated to a church and small village in West Cornwall is unknown, but in April 2011 a Heritage Centre opened in St. Hilary that brings the rich history of the church and the parish to life.

Based in the Victorian Old School building next to the church, the centre was the brainchild of local people who after three years fundraising were able to see an end product their hard work.

Today it boasts a collection of items significant to the church’s history. Of note is a collection of original play scripts written by Bernard Walke who was the Parish vicar from 1913 to 1936.

In her own words, Lesley Michell, one of the group who helped restore the heritage centre, tells us the surprising story behind these scripts and the vicar who wrote them - a man who was not your average man of the cloth.

“He left his mark in many ways, some good, some not so good, but he was well loved as a vicar because one of the most remarkable things he did was to write plays for his parishioners to perform in the church.
A close friend, Filson Young, was quite high up in the BBC at the time and he wanted Bernard Walke to let them broadcast the plays he had written from the church in St Hilary.
a photo of three manuscripts
Bernard Walkes original play scripts.© Photo Ralph Gifford
Bernard had always said that the plays were an act of worship, not a performance, which is why he was at first unwilling for them to be broadcast but Filson somehow managed to persuade Bernard to let them do it.

His Christmas story play ‘Bethlehem’ was broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1927 and it was the first ever BBC Radio drama to be broadcast from outside the BBC studios. 

The play was performed moving around the church, sort of like outdoor theatre. I don’t think the audience would have moved – the action moved around them – so it would have been tremendously atmospheric. There was no electric light, it all was all candlelit and it was a huge success.

It was actually so well received on the radio that for eight years the BBC broadcast further performances of the play at Christmas from St Hilary. Subsequently they also broadcast another of Walke’s plays called ‘The Eve of all Souls’ and we have the recording of that from 1941.

It’s an interesting story with some element of mystery about it. In the heritage centre we have the original scripts which the players used for learning their lines, we have photos from the early productions and we have the Radio Times entry about the broadcast which is featured as a photo story. Obviously photos at the time were not used very much so it was quite something.

a photograph of a page from the Radio Times
A copy of the Radio Times promoting the Nativity Plays.
© Photo Ralph Gifford
Bernard Walke wrote other plays but I’m not aware of them being broadcast. However they were very widely known in this area at the time and people often come back to find out about them and indeed other things to do with Bernard Walke because he was also responsible for introducing into the church a large number of paintings by Newlyn School artists.
His wife Annie was herself a painter and their friends were many of the artists who were at the time part of the Newlyn School so St Hilary Church has a significant collection of paintings by artists such as Ernest and Doc Procter and Norman Garstin.

Walke was noted down as a pacifist, which didn’t go down well at the time of the First World War, he was also an extreme Anglo-Catholic and although much loved by most of his parishioners, who went along with the way he did things most of the time, he was in fact in breach of Church of England Canon Law. 

Eventually some people who objected to the way he did things brought a court case against him, which he subsequently lost. However he refused to accept the authority of the court and did nothing to stop the practices and remove the objects he was supposed to.  In the end protesters came with a couple of coach loads of people and entered the church destroying lots of the things in it. The whole episode reached the national press.”

  • St Hilary Heritage Centre is open every day during the week. Admission is free.

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