Christ Church Ashburton Road

19George Sandwell 1882-1889: a believer ‘in quiet and unostentatious work’

20Originally a Baptist, Sandwell had transferred his denominational allegiance to the Congregationalists in the early to mid-1870s, subsequently serving three churches before moving to Southsea. Thus, at the time of his appointment he already had considerable ministerial experience.
21At his pastoral recognition in December 1882, Sandwell described himself as being of ‘broad views’ but one who ‘held with great tenacity the cardinal truths of religion, which he hoped to preach with earnestness and simpleness in their midst.’ He believed ‘in quiet and unostentatious work’ and that he wanted to be not simply their teacher ‘but their friend at all times’.22 It would appear that he succeeded in fulfilling these lofty aims, since at an event held in April 1889 to say “Good-bye”, the chairman, who was again Mr Sapp, ‘spoke of the high and thoughtful tone of … [Sandwell’s] ministry, and of the commanding influence he had maintained for nearly seven years in the borough’.23 The fact that he was presented with a beautiful clock plus a purse of £50 is a clear indication of the esteem in which he was held. Furthermore, he had been recruited to ‘the pastorate of a large and prosperous church in Toronto’, an appointment which confirmed his standing as a minister.
Following Sandwell’s departure in the spring of 1882, Church members were able to secure a successor more speedily than had previously been the case. By December of that year, John Oates had been offered and accepted the pastorate.

24John Oates 1889-1896: a preacher with ‘the old Methodist fervour

John Oates

25The seven year ministry of John Oates appears to have been as successful as that of his two predecessors. He had been born in South Africa to Methodist parents.26 Having been engaged in Christian work from an early age he offered himself for the ministry to the Congregational Union of South Africa. This resulted in him being sent to New College in London for training. There followed a co-pastorship at Doddridge Chapel in Northampton and seven years as pastor at Trinity Congregational Church in Reading, where he was regarded as ‘one of the leading Nonconformist ministers in Berkshire’. His pulpit style was described as ‘broadly evangelical and earnest … his voice … musical, his manner intense, and his delivery easy and fluent.’ In short, his preaching retained ‘the old Methodist fervour’.27 This is confirmed by references in his official obituary to his ‘striking and quite distinguished appearance … clear and flexible voice … [and] unusual power of eloquence and dramatic expression.’28 The move to Southsea, rather than to a church in a more urban environment, was primarily for health reasons. As recorded, ‘his eloquent preaching soon attracted a large number of people to the church.’

29At the time of his departure in September 1896 much was made of his happy memories; the fulfilment of his ‘duty as a Christian citizen’; and ‘the peculiar kindness which he had received from the clergy of the Church of England’.30 Once again a substantial amount was collected for his leaving gift. On this occasion Christ Church was without a minister for an exceptionally long period. This lasted for the whole of 1897 and it was not until the summer of 1898 that members were able to welcome their fourth minister, Robert Clegg.

31Robert Clegg 1898-1906: ‘a man of character, who wore the white flower of a blameless life’

32Clegg was a Yorkshireman, who had trained for the ministry at Yorkshire United College. His first charge was Priestgate Congregational Church in Peterborough and it was from there that he moved to Southsea. A sense of continuity was created with John Oates speaking at Clegg’s public recognition. During his address, he referred to the fact that Clegg ‘was known to be a good preacher, a good worker, and a man of character, who wore the white flower of a blameless life’. In short he was a worthy successor.

A fuller picture of Clegg’s personality and approach to ministry can be gained from his official obituary:

33 He was not one who desired to be in the public eye, or who would be classed as one of the “popular” preachers of his day. He abhorred “stunts” but wisely preferred to build his church on a rock, only introducing changes which were based on sound reason … In the pulpit his voice had a fine range of tone and volume, yet it was those softer passages which perhaps held the deeper attention of hearers. He was truly a kind, friendly, and lovable gentleman, one who must be ranked amongst the great and good men who have served … [Congregationalism] … he was a great reader and a deep thinker, and carried out his pastoral duties … effectively ….

34 Clegg was to lead Christ Church into the twentieth century by which time, of the Congregational churches on Portsea Island, it was second only to Buckland in the size of its membership. Indeed, under the first few years of his ‘leadership the church … [grew] in membership and influence.’

From the late nineteenth century, Congregationalists, influenced, in part, by other Nonconformist denominations, started to collect and publish statistics on an annual basis. Although it is inappropriate, not to say invidious, to make comparisons and judge the fortunes of churches solely on the basis of quantitative data, nonetheless these now afford historians with a useful source of evidence to complement more qualitative indicators. Figures for Christ Church covering the period when Robert Clegg was minister are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Membership and Related Data for Christ Church Congregational Church 1899-1906
Year Members Sunday School
No 3 Year Average Scholars Teachers
1899 223 230 36
1900 240 231 220 30
1901 231 236 237 16
1902 236 239 282 20
1903 250 244 215 24
1904 247 248 184 16
1905 247 243 184 16
1906 236 228 138 12

a. Most of the data in this table have been taken from the Yearbooks of the Hampshire Congregational Union [HCU] (Hampshire Record Office [HRO]: 127M94/62/44 to 51).
b. The three year moving average has been calculated to even out sudden changes in the figures for individual years.
c. It seems likely that the return for 1905 was not submitted with the figures for the preceding years simply being repeated.
d. For comparative purposes the membership figures for Buckland were 1899, 578; 1900, 536; 1901, 506; 1902, 425; 1903, 441; 1904, 449; 1905. 449; and 1906, 453.

As can be seen, although the membership figures remained fairly steady, there was a dramatic decline in the number of Sunday school scholars between 1902 and 1906. The reason for this is not clear. It may have been due to new Sunday schools being established in the area or the movement away of a number of large families.

35In order to sustain Christ Church’s ministry to adults, one of Clegg’s innovations were sermon series based on an underlying theme. In February 1904, this was “Doubts and Doubters” with Clegg’s first sermon being reported at length in the Portsmouth Evening News’ ‘Voice of the Pulpit’ feature.36Later in the year, the theme was: “The relation of Christianity to life and thought today”, with sermons on “Christianity and the World”; “Christianity and the Poor”; “Christianity and Jesus Christ”; and “Christianity and Creed”.37In early 1905, Clegg initiated a series of special one hour services on Sunday evenings designed to attract those who did not normally attend public worship. These enjoyed considerable success and were characterised in the ‘Voice of the Pulpit’ series as ‘simple, bright, appealing to the artistic, intellectual, and religious mind. Above all the spirit of worship … [was] most manifest’. At the inaugural service, Clegg preached on the subject of “What is Man” which again was reported at length.38‘The innovation appears to have been well received, with Clegg being quoted as saying that he was ‘extremely gratified … [that] congregations had grown rapidly, and the services seem[ed] to be greatly appreciated.’39In April 1906, another of Clegg’s sermons was reported in detail. This time the subject was Millet’s famous painting “The Angelus”.

Later in the year, Clegg accepted a call to Fish Street Memorial Church in Kingston-upon-Hull. As reported, there were mixed feelings on the part of the Congregationalists of Portsmouth over his impending departure:

40… while congratulating him on his advancement in the denomination …[they] regret the loss which Portsmouth will sustain of one of the most popular Free Church ministers. Mr Clegg … [had] won the sincere regard of his congregation and he … [had] been greatly esteemed throughout the borough … his abilities inspired such confidence among his fellow Free Churchmen that he was elected President of the Free Church Council. He [had] also been President of the Sunday School Union and the local Christian Endeavour Union. As a preacher he … [had] always attracted large congregations and as a speaker he invariably proved himself a strong exponent of Free Church principles.

41All of which served as a solid foundation for his 25 year ministry in Hull. According to his official obituary, this was ‘his finest and most successful … he built up an honoured and successful church endearing himself not only to his own people, but also becoming a respected friend of many in other denominations.’ At Christ Church, the vacancy created by Clegg’s departure was filled, on this occasion, relatively speedily, with the appointment of John Wills being made during the first half of 1907.

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