Portishead URC: Moves on
Changing times and changing circumstances - the story continues . . . . .
It was agreed that the small congregation could no longer afford the upkeep of the large Church at Cabstand. After much prayer and discussion, in October 2010, the Trustees were asked to sell it. Although this was a sad time in the life of Portishead URC, it was with much joy and gratitude that an invitation was received from our Anglican friends to share St. Nicholas Church in Nore Road. After more prayer and deliberation, this offer was gladly accepted - and since November 2010 that church has been our home. The generosity of welcome that we have received has been beyond all expectation and we believe that God is working in and through both our churches. Although we still retain our own identity, we are sharing projects, outreach work and cultivating friendships which will enable us all to be an effective force for God in the local community. Yes, Portishead URC is still very much alive - just using a different building!BeginningsThe tradition passed down over the years is that the church began in the home of Mrs Rebecca Waterman. She lived in a cottage on West Hill, long known as ‘Ebenezer’ but afterwards called Jasmine Cottage. It was at a meeting there on 6th March 1840 that the new church was formed. The meeting was attended by Rebecca Waterman, Lucy Mitchell, James and Ann Brebner, and Andrew Vernon.No church records survive from this time, but the 1841 census for Portishead allows us to add a few details. Rebecca lived with her husband George, a labourer, and they were both in their early fifties. Lucy Mitchell lived a few doors away in Zion Cottage. She and her husband Samuel (another labourer) were a younger couple, in their thirties. Andrew Vernon, who was still in his twenties, was part of the Mitchells’ household, and his occupation is given as ‘Dissenting minister’. The Brebners were more of an age with the Watermans. James was a shoemaker and originally from Scotland. It has to be said that the earliest record still in the church’s possession gives a slightly different slant on the beginning. A church membership roll, compiled c.1866 but going back to the start, lists the first five members of the church as Joseph Williams, Ann Brebner, Rebecca Waterman, Lucy Mitchell and William Kitchen. The first four of these are said to have been received in May 1841 by ‘Revd Lucy’ (probably the Revd William Lucy of Lodge Street Chapel, Bristol); the fifth by ‘Revd [Andrew] Vernon’ in June 1841. The next entries are January 1843 - members received by the Revd J James.
Some mystery surrounds the status of Andrew Vernon. Although referred to as the minister, and given the title ‘Revd’, his name does not appear in any official list of Congregational ministers. Whether or not he was ordained, however, his ministry was clearly effective, and as the congregation grew there was an urgent need for a building to house it.
The Chapel on the Hill
The land for the building of a chapel was generously given by Rebecca Waterman, and was a site on West Hill not far from her cottage. Support came from Nonconformists in Bristol; in particular ‘Five gentlemen of Bristol’ gave £50 each. One of these was Mr H O Wills (Henry Overton Wills of the Wills tobacco family, who were staunch Congregationalists) who maintained an interest in the Portishead church all his life. He came to Portishead to lay the foundation stone, along with Sir Culling Eardley Smith (later Sir Culling Eardley Eardley), a religious philanthropist who, amongst other things, became a founder member and president of the Evangelical Alliance. The chapel was opened on 16th September 1840, free of debt. It had cost £600. (The building still stands today, though it is now a private residence, having been sold in 1947 in order to purchase a manse.)
It is not clear what became of Andrew Vernon. Perhaps he died young? At any rate, in 1841 or 1842 the Revd James James took over as minister of the fledgling congregation. He was succeeded in 1846 by the Revd Edward Griffiths, who stayed until 1850. He subsequently went to Australia, and died in Brisbane in 1891. Several ministers followed in fairly quick succession: the Revds James Moreton, Ebenezer W Finch, and William Thomas Bull, BA. Mr Bull came in 1856 and left in 1859. He died in Seaton, Devon, in 1899. The Revd Henry A Tanner was next, arriving in 1860. He had been a Wesleyan minister, and left the pastorate in 1864 to join the Baptists.
The Revd Edwin J Hartland, speaking in 1877, makes a tantalising reference to the time ‘nearly twenty years ago...when he had come [to the Portishead church] to mediate in a division between pastor and the people.’ Quite what was the cause of the dispute is now lost in the mists of time.
Expansion and a new church
The circumstances of the call of the next minister are set out by his successor, the Revd F W B Weeks, in a letter to the church in 1927:
The Revd Andrew Brown Paton found himself unequal to the strain of a northern ministry, and the Revd Urijah Thomas [of Redland Park,Bristol] suggested that Portishead was a place of healing, and that he might take the pastorate of Union Chapel, then vacant. Mr Paton regarded the suggestion as an “open door” and Mrs Williams, of Fallowfield, gave him her motherly care, so that he was able to maintain quite a scholarly ministry which grew in importance.
Andrew Paton began his ministry in Portishead in 1865. During his time the schoolroom of the church was enlarged, a new vestry added, and other improvements made, at a cost of £300. It is also interesting to note that on Easter Monday 1867 it was resolved that weekly offerings would be substituted for pew rents.
In January 1869, however, Andrew Paton felt the need to resign because of his ill-health. The congregation prevailed upon him to continue for another year if he could have the help of an assistant. His brother, Principal Paton of the Nottingham Congregational Institute, had a student in his fourth year of training who he felt would benefit from a year’s practical training. Thus it was that Frederick William Baker Weeks came to Portishead, to work alongside Andrew Paton as co-pastor. When Mr Paton finally resigned at the end of the year, the church members invited Mr Weeks to continue as their permanent pastor, and he was ordained on August 10th 1870. One of those giving an address on that occasion was Mr H O Wills. Shortly afterwards Mr Weeks married.
There now began a particularly significant period in the history of the church, for it was during Mr Weeks’ ministry that the new building (the present church) was erected. The motivation for undertaking this project seems basically to have been a need for larger accommodation, though the precise nature of the problem is described in various ways in the sources available to us. The Bristol Daily Post, for example, in its report of the opening of the new building, explained the necessity of a new church had been due to
The accommodation of [the Chapel on the Hill] having become too limited, and the situation being somewhat isolated from the increasing population in the vicinity of the site on which the new building now stands.
Fifty years later, at the time of the church’s jubilee, Weeks himself suggests there was a particular issue with the work of the school which the church ran:
Then political changes developed. Education came to the front, and the position of the day school was imperilled. Extensions of the building and playing ground were impossible; yet our members felt that the loving work of the past and all the sacrificial care of the Church would not be lost, and by the help of Miss Mills and later of Miss Morrish (now Mrs Selvey), the school was kept up.
One way or another, Mr Weeks felt that:
A crisis had arrived, and that we were bound to go forward or drift back into the shadows of failure. This feeling all the members shared, and it was decided to “arise and build”.
The congregation turned for help to friends in Bristol, particularly Highbury Chapel,whose minister, the Revd David Thomas, was supportive of the idea of a new building. A letter dated January 12th 1875 indicates the process of approval by the wider church community:
The Church at Portishead, feeling the necessity of increased accommodation, took counsel with the members of the Bristol churches and at a general meeting on the above date the following resolution was passed: - “That this meeting having heard from Mr Weeks the facts and statements with regard to the work and attendance at the Chapel on the Hill at Portishead, it was deemed desirable to find a more suitable piece of land on which a new place of worship should be erected. It was resolved that some immediate steps be taken to accomplish that object.”
A site was selected - a commanding position at the junction of Woodhill Road and ‘the Hill’ (i.e. what is now Cabstand and Nore Road) ‘close to the lodge gate, in full view of the station road’, and plans submitted. Despite bitter opposition from certain members of Bristol Corporation, the application eventually succeeded and the work began.The foundation stone was laid on 9th December 1875, again by a memberof the Wills family - this time Mr W H Wills, MP (later Lord Winterstoke). In the centre of the stone was placed a copy of the Bristol Daily Post and the Western Daily Press of that day, together with a number of current coins and a statement of the circumstances of building.
The appointed architects were Messrs. Wills and Voisey of Bristol, and the builder Mr W Bennett. Their statement that ‘only the best craftsmen and materials went into its building’ has been borne out by the opinion of later experts. Looking back, at the time of the jubilee in 1927, Weeks remarked,
Those who watched the process of erection and knew something of architecture wondered that such a small company of Nonconformists could erect a building of such cost and magnitude; but Mr Voisey, who had charge of the work, was a real genius, and spared neither time nor expense to put up the best possible building that should be suitable for Nonconformist worship, and, at the same time be a link in the chain of historic worship.
He also recalled his own endeavours:
When I look back over that time I do so with increasing wonder. I preached every Sunday at the Chapel on the Hill, I spent four days out of every week at Bristol collecting money, I cared for the flock and watched over the new building. Yet I never wearied, I was never refused an interview and a gift.
The new Union Chapel was opened for public worship on 24th April 1877. It had cost £3344 to build, and within 12 months the last remaining debt (a loan from the Congregational Building Society) had been cleared. The officiating ministers at the opening ceremony were the Revds E J Hartland, L HByrnes, F W B Weeks (the pastor), Geo. Wood, and Dr Allon of Islington Chapel, who preached the sermon. As the Bristol Daily Post remarked,
The Congregational body not only of Portishead, but of Bristol and Clifton and neighbourhood have reason to be proud of the new building, ...[and] every reason to be gratified with the marked success attending the opening services.
A couple of years later, in October 1879, an organ was installed at thecost of £200 ‘to improve the order of worship’. The instrument came from ‘the old jail in the new cut’ in Bristol, and was financed largely thanks to the generosity of Mr George Corner who was then appointed organist.
Mr Weeks continued at Portishead until 1881 when he resigned to take up a pastorate in Grantham.
1881 to First World War
Within a few months the Revd Robert McAll began his ministry at Portishead. It was in this period that that the church first decided to elect a Diaconate in place of a Committee of Management. (The old Chapel on the Hill had been managed by a Finance Committee. In the new Union Chapel, the title was changed to Committee of Management.) On November 26th 1884 the first Deacons were elected. They were Messrs. Bessell, George Corner, Edward F Frowd, Jones, Joesph Miller and Joseph Selvey. Edward Frowd had been treasurer of the old Committee of Management since 1878. He now assumed the office of Church Treasurer - a post he was to hold until 1928. (A window and tablet in the church are dedicated in his memory.)
At the end of 1885 the membership of the church stood at 140.
Robert McAll left in 1887 to work with his cousin, the Revd R W McAll, who was the founder and superintendent of the Protestant Mission in France.
A history of the church penned c. 1957 makes the underwhelming assessment that ‘the story of the church from now on shows no startling developments’. Reminiscences of older members at that time suggested that the ministries of the Revds F W B Weeks, R McAll, T G Horton, T A Carritt and T J Lander ‘were outstanding’. All of these except Lander were prior to, or during, the First World War. ‘Since that time,’ the 1957 historian declares, ‘ “the way of the prophet has verily been very hard.”’ Thomas Galland Horton came to Portishead from Bradford, though he was Australian by birth. Arriving in 1888 at the age of about sixty, his ministry at the Union Chapel lasted almost thirteen years. He died on December 18th 1900, within 5 weeks of his last services at Portishead, and a memorial tablet in his name can be found in the church.
As well as being the church’s pastor, for seven years Mr Horton also took the role of secretary. In contrast to the straightforward succession of treasurers, the history of the church’s secretaries is less clear. Speaking in 1927 Walter E Shearn, the then church secretary, commented:
Several gentlemen held the office for short periods, and two of them, the late Alfred Smith and the late Mr R Holmes - appear to have taken two or three turns each. Sometimes there were two secretaries in office at the same time - one for the church and one for the deacons.
Mr Shearn had himself taken the office in 1913, when his predecessor, Alfred Price (who had been appointed in 1902) departed to Bristol. Walter Shearn was to continue as church secretary for 25 years, and was followed in the post by his wife.
Thomas Galland Horton was followed by the Revd William F Durant. He came to Portishead in 1901 from Hadleigh, Suffolk, and left in 1907 to become secretary of Western College in Bristol. In was in this period, in 1905, that the church purchased the old lodge and the ground rent of the church. Mr F W Sinnock was instrumental in raising the £700 needed to achieve this.
The ministry of the Revd Thomas A Carritt took the church through the period of the First World War. The Church Meeting minutes largely deal with routine matters: with regard to cleaning the chapel, for example, Mr Frowd suggested (in 1915) that ‘owing to the scarcity of labour, a vacuum cleaner be used this year and the walls left unswept’. But there are glimpses too of the way the war impinged on the church. Members were involved in work among soldiers in Portishead, and there are rereferences to ‘parcels [being] sent to our lads in H M Forces’ - 25 being despatched on one occasion ‘to soldier and sailor friends’. Mr Carritt went sometimes to preach in Bristol, under a scheme to help Bristol churches whose pastors were on active service as chaplains, and a collection was made on behalf of prisoners of war in Germany. From time to time, inevitably, the Carritt memorial was news of young men killed or wounded - men known to the congregation as sons, nephews or members of the Sunday School. The pastor’s own - and only - son, Captain H W Carritt, was killed at Contalmaison in 1916 at the age of 27. Church members and other friends erected a tablet in the church in his memory. After the war Thomas Carritt retired from the ministry and,returning to his roots in the eastern side of the country, settled in Ipswich. His parting shot to the congregation at Portishead was to chide them for not yet having women deacons - a development which had already been adopted in Ipswich, and which Mr Carritt clearly believed was the way forward for the church. He died in 1928.
1919 to 2010
In the years between the end of the war and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the new church there were just two ministers. The Revd Reginald G Ashman served from 1920 to 1925, when he accepted a call to Olton, near Birmingham. He was followed by the Revd Philip H Smith, whose ministry was tragically cut short when he died suddenly just 14 months later. The writer of the 1957 history commented, ‘All who remember him are agreed that “his Master lived in him”, and that being in his company was a rare privilege.’ One legacy of Philip Smith’s brief ministry at Portishead was the erection of the oak screen (designed by Ronald Jameson) between the church and the apse.
So it was that the pastorate was in vacancy as the church celebrated its Jubilee in 1927. But celebrate it did. The secretary of the Bristol Free Church Council, the Revd D W Edwards, was the guest preacher on Sunday 23rd April, and the following Tuesday a special meeting was held, under the chairmanship of yet another member of the Wills family- this time Mr T Thornton Wills. The speaker on that occasion was the Revd David Walters, Moderator for Wales. Walter Shearn, the church secretary, recounted the church’s history, and remarked, ‘Although there are no sensational successes to report, I am thankful to say there appear to have been no periods of stagnation, depression or schism.’ It is also perhaps worth noting his comments on the ‘excellent understanding and friendly feeling which exists between other denominations in Portishead and ourselves’.
The history of the church from that time to the present has not yet been researched in detail, though some facts can be given. The ministers up to the Second World War were the Revds W G Taylor, T J Lander, MA, F J Shaw and E Bevans Barton. In 1947 the Revd Cyril J H Hamblin was called, and during his time the old chapel was sold to buy a manse and, in 1949, Mr Thomas Coles bought land opposite the church and gave it, together with a sum of money, for a Sunday School Hall. Following Cyril Hamblin came the Revds Henry Stanley Light, Glyndwr Thomas, J B Thomas and Arthur Williams. Arthur Williams was the minister at the time of the formation of the United Reformed Church (a union between the Congregational Church and the Presbyterian Church of England). In 1975 the Revd T Roy Jones, a Baptist minister, came to minister part time to the congregation. During this time the baptistery was installed. Roy Jones was followed by John Vickers, who was ordained and inducted in 1986 and stayed until 1990. Since then Portishead URC has had four ministers - the Revds David McGown, Hazel Martell, Wendy Baskett and Chris Searle. Following the untimely death of Revd Chris Searle in 2013 the church is currently 'in vacancy' but ably guided by Revd Ken Marsh - Interim Moderator.
Manual of the Union Congregational Church, Portishead, 1889
Manual of the Union Congregational Church, Portishead, 1902
Union Congregational Church, Portishead (Manual? c.1957)
(Unnamed newspaper) December 9th 1875
Bristol Daily Post, April 25th 1877
The Clevedon Mercury and Courier (?), October 4th 1919
The Clevedon Mercury and Courier, May 7th 1927
South Avon Mercury, 22nd April 1977
Bristol Congregational Monthly, vol. 6, no.62, February 1930
Bristol Congregational Monthly, vol. 6, no.63, March 1930
Church Meeting Minutes books
Deacons/Committee Meeting Minutes books