A History of Christ Church Congregational Church Southsea:
✎1In May 1913 a contributor to the Hampshire Telegraph was sufficiently impressed with Christ Church Congregational Church in Southsea to describe it as ‘perhaps the prettiest of all the Nonconformist places of worship in the town.❜ Whether by ‘town’ he meant Southsea or Portsmouth as a whole is not clear. What is evident, however, is that his visit had been prompted by the arrival of a new pastor, Rev. Crawford Stanley, Christ Church’s sixth since the establishment of the cause in the 1860s. At the time, there were six Congregational churches on Portsea Island and Christ Church was one of the most prestigious. In what follows, it is intended to review the origins of Christ Church and survey its history during its eleven pastorates. The long demise of the Church, following its destruction during an air raid in 1941, is the subject of the final section.
✎2 For source material, a heavy reliance has been placed on local newspapers and the official obituaries of Christ Church’s ministers published in Congregational Year Books. To date, none of the official records of the Church, such as the minutes of church meetings, or church magazines have been found.❜ Nonetheless, it has still been possible to construct an informed narrative.
✎3 The initial steps towards the founding of Christ Church were taken in the mid-19th century. At the forefront of this initiative were members of Highbury Chapel, one of Portsmouth’s oldest Independent places of worship, and of King Street Chapel. They were keen to establish a Congregational presence in the rapidly growing area of Southsea, described by Patterson as ‘a Victorian seaside resort … [with] piers, hotels, ornamental gardens and a railway line’.❜✎4 According to Offord, ‘The first small church [which was to become known as Christ Church] was built in 1865 in Ashburton Road. The congregation rapidly grew, and a large new church was built in 1871 on the corner of Ashburton and Kent Roads’.❜ An account, published in an October 1900 edition of the Portsmouth Evening News, indicates that ‘the first small church’ was in fact the school-room opened in 1868:
✎5… [it] was the result of an effort commenced in 1865 … [When] a Committee was formed, and the site on which the church and school buildings was secured. Mr Stent of Warminster, prepared the plans, and the school-room, which was also to serve as a temporary chapel, was built and opened for worship in December 1868.❜
In due course, Henry Arkell was appointed to be the Church’s first minister.
✎6Henry Arkell 1870 to 1881: ‘a period of happy union, work and fellowship’❜
✎7In his mid-twenties when he moved to Southsea,❜✎8Arkell had previously been co-pastor at Trinity Congregational Church in Poplar serving alongside Dr George Smith.❜✎9This had been Arkell’s first pastorate and although ‘it was a strenuous time … it developed and disciplined his powers so that when … he received a call to Christ Church Southsea he was not daunted by the difficulties awaiting him including the erection of a new sanctuary’.❜ In the summer of 1869 he supplied the pulpit at Christ Church and as reported at his recognition service in March 1870 ‘his preaching left a deep impression on many minds, and the attendance on the Sabbaths as well as on the week days greatly increased.’ In the light of this, ‘it was unanimously resolved to invite him’ to serve as Christ Church’s first pastor. Notwithstanding what was described as ‘a feeble hope of securing him’, after ‘a few weeks careful and prayerful consideration’, Arkell accepted the post.
It is noteworthy that, from other comments made at his recognition service, the emphasis was very much on collaboration between churches in the area. In the words of Rev. Joseph Gelson Gregson, minister of King Street Baptist Church, Portsmouth:
✎10… the work in which they were engaged was too high and noble to admit of jealousy or competition. With a population of 120,000 there was room for more labourers … There should … be sympathy between … [churches] but no meddling, kindliness of spirit but not interference, and there should be faithfulness and common honesty in speaking of each other, and not sycophantic hypocrisy.❜
This theme was pursued by other ministers including Rev. Frederick Baldey, the Vicar of St Simon’s, an indicator of the ecumenical spirit already prevailing in Southsea.
✎11During the first few months of Arkell’s pastorate, one of the principal tasks was the construction of the new church. Soon after his arrival in September 1870, the foundation stone was laid on November 3rd by John Kemp-Welch of Sopley Park. ‘In a cavity beneath the stone a bottle, containing a copy of the Times, the Nonconformist, the Hampshire Telegraph, the Portsmouth Times, a statement of the history of the church and some copper coins, were placed.❜
The new church building was formally opened by Edward Miall MP in July 1872. However, at this stage it was still incomplete as far as some of the detail was concerned:
The church, which is in the late early English style of architecture, consists of nave, transepts and aisles, with an apse formed by counter-arches. At the south end of the nave, an organ chamber is also formed by a similar series of arches on the east side of the apse. In the back is a spacious school room and vestry, which has for the last two years been used for worship. The arcades on each side of the nave are carried on granite shafts, with Bath-stone bases and caps. The latter have been prepared for carving; but the funds have not yet come in, they are left unfinished … No pulpit has yet been erected, a small platform being occupied by the preacher; nor has any furniture been provided for the apse, in consequence of the lack of funds. For this cause also there is no organ, a harmonium being used for the musical portion of the services.
✎12The new church could accommodate 650 worshippers. In his sermon at the morning service, held to celebrate the Church’s opening, it was highly appropriate that the visiting preacher Rev Dr. John Stoughton, Professor of Historical Theology at New College, should stress that ‘all material architecture was subordinate to the spiritual house not made with hands’.❜
Nonetheless, there was much rejoicing in late 1878, when it was reported in the Church minutes that the debt incurred in building the Church had been extinguished. In the following year:
✎13… the trustees were requested to raise a sufficient sum to purchase the two houses in Ashburton-road adjoining the schoolroom, pay for the organ recently placed in the church, erect a gallery and the boundary wall, carve the remaining caps of the columns, and complete the upper end of the church.❜
Of course, a church is far more than its buildings and in September 1872 a Sunday school had been formed and opened a month later with 42 scholars and nine teachers present. In addition, other organisations were started in keeping with the doctrine that was to become known as the ‘institutional church’.
The effectiveness of Arkell’s pastorate, which lasted until 1881, in making Christ Church a ‘spiritual house’ was attested in comments made at his farewell meeting by one of the deacons, Mr A.J. Sapp:
✎14The result of the [pastor’s] beneficent teaching upon the congregation, both in the church and in the [Sunday] school, was to be seen in the Dorcas Society, the Young Men’s Improvement Society, and in the visits which had been paid to the sick, to the outcasts, and to the dying.❜
✎15Thus, the church had already made its presence felt in performing not only a spiritual role but also a social one. It is also worthy of mention that representatives of other denominations were again present at this event. Thanks were expressed more tangibly in the form of gifts of £80 and ‘a silver tea and coffee service and silver salver, on which the engraved inscription was: “Presented to the Rev H.E. and Mrs Arkell with a purse of money, as a token of the affectionate esteem, by the church and congregation, on the occasion of Mr. Arkell leaving the pastorate of Southsea Congregational Church, after eleven years of faithful and valued services, April 8th, 1881.” ’ The reference to Mrs Arkell was an acknowledgment of the important contribution that pastors’ wives frequently made to the effectiveness of their husbands’ ministries.❜✎16As recorded in his official obituary, Arkell ‘always regarded the building and building up of … [Christ Church] as the work of his life, and never ceased to be grateful for the strong and lasting friendships of his Southsea pastorate [emphasis in the original].’ ❜✎17 Sadly, it was a ‘nervous breakdown’ that convinced him of the need to find ‘a less enervating climate than Southsea.’ In all the churches that he served he preached what was described as a ‘full-orbed Gospel – a saviour crucified and risen’.❜
✎18As was often the case with Congregational churches, following Arkell’s departure Christ Church was without a minister for a considerable time before a successor could be found.❜ During this period, a number of potential candidates ‘preached with a view’ to being selected, in the event the choice fell on George Sandwell, preaching his opening sermon as minister on the first Sunday in October 1882.