Christ Church Ashburton Road

42John Wills 1907-1912: ‘a preacher of outstanding ability’

43John Wills hailed from Cornwall. Like one of his predecessors, John Oates, Wills had a Methodist background and had trained for the ministry at Handsworth Wesleyan College. He moved from Methodism to Congregationalism in the early 1890s having two pastorates, one in Peckham and the other in West Croydon, where he had served from 1894 to 1907, before coming to Southsea.

44His reputation was such that at his recognition service a telegram from the deacons of his previous church simply stated: ‘May Croydon’s loss be Southsea’s gain.’45For his part Wills ‘assured his congregation that he would ever do his best to honourably fill his post.’ One of his attributes was his preaching ability. Indeed in 1908, in commenting on his sermons a reporter from Portsmouth Evening News wrote that he was ‘steadily adding to his reputation for being a very able preacher.’ While in his official obituary he is described as ‘a preacher of outstanding ability’. Thus, once again, Christ Church had obtained the services of someone who could make his mark in the pulpit.

That said, it was during his pastorate that there appears to have been a dramatic fall in the Church’s membership, especially between 1911 and 1912, as the figures in Table 2 illustrate.

Table 2: Membership and Related Data for Christ Church Congregational Church 1907-1912
Year Members Sunday School
No 3 Year Average Scholars Teachers
1907 202 213 159 12
1908 202 203 159 12
1909 206 199 141 15
1910 190 196 107 12
1911 191 169 109 18
1912 126 148 138 18

Notes
a. Most of the data in this table have been taken from the Yearbooks of the HCU (HRO: 127M94/62/52 to 57).
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 1908 was not submitted with the figures for the preceding year simply being repeated.
d. For comparative purposes the membership figures for Buckland were 1907, 463; 1908, 476; 1909, 494; 1910, 500; 1911, 525; and 1912, 525.

It is possible, however, that the figure for 1912 was incorrectly recorded or reported, since although the total membership for 1913 is still shown as 126, by 1914 it had risen to 205 and by 1915, 210 (see Table 3).

46There is nothing to suggest that there were difficulties with Wills’ ministry, such as discord in his relations with deacons or the members more generally. Indeed, when it was announced at the beginning of 1912 that he had accepted a call to a church in Birmingham, it was reported that he had been a ‘popular minister, and his scholarly and earnest preaching … [had] been greatly appreciated in the church.’ Reference was also made to his involvement with the Portsmouth and District Free Church Council and Hampshire Congregational Union [HCU]. At the same time, not unusually for a Congregational minister, he had ‘shown himself to be a strong Liberal’, but he had ‘not allowed politics to enter into his pulpit utterances.’

47Wills moved to Birmingham at the end of January 1912 and in 1921 to his final charge, prior to retirement, in Chesterfield. For Christ Church there was another lengthy period when it was without a permanent minister and reliance had to be placed on the pulpit being ‘supplied’ by a succession of visiting preachers. Wills’ successor, George Helliwell Crawford Stanley, did not commence his pastorate until May 1913.

Crawford Stanley 1913-1916: a man who ‘always displayed a large amount of public spirit’.

48Stanley was born and bred in Essex. He was a “Son of the Manse”, his father having been a Congregational minister. Stanley trained for the ministry at New College and his first charge was in Stafford from where he moved to Southsea. In reporting his arrival, the Portsmouth Evening News quoted extensively from the comments of a Stafford contemporary of Stanley:

George Crawley Stanley

[He] has always displayed a large amount of public spirit. Intensely interested in the great social questions of the day, he has locally assisted every good work in the town that has claimed his support. A strong temperance advocate he has acted as Secretary to the United Temperance Council ever since its formation. The Guild of Help attracted him from the beginning of his career, and he has all along been one of the most active members of the executive. He has also rendered good service to the town upon the Secondary Education and the Free Library Committee. It will be the earnest wish of the large number of friends whom Mr and Mrs Stanley have left behind, that they may be long spared to render useful service to every cause that makes for the moral and spiritual uplifting of the nation.

49In the light of this and the ultimate accolade that he had ‘exercised a ministry which …
[had] been high in its tone, inspiring in its character, broad in its sympathies and rich in its results’, it is not surprising that the congregation of Stafford Congregational Church expressed ‘very deep regret’ at his leaving.

At Christ Church first impressions were extremely favourable as the following account of the services he conducted at the commencement of his ministry testify:

50… in Mr Crawford Stanley, Christ Church possessed a man who would preach and work to develop its spiritual life. He is a young man with a good presence, a strong arresting face, and a cultured style. He creates the impression that he is a man with strong convictions. Possessed as he is of a clear, resonant voice, a power of simple direct expression which often verges on the poetical, the gift of speaking extempore, the faculty of impressing his sincerity, one experiences a desire to hear him again. There is a deadly earnestness, allied to deep sympathy and a kindly simplicity which enables everyone to follow his thoughts, whilst his slightly dramatic action adds its own emphasis to the spoken word.

51Praise indeed, with some of the traits evident in the contributor’s report being echoed in his official obituary, which recorded that Stanley ‘was always popular; admired for his splendid physique and his eager, vigorous personality, and he was loved for a certain unobtrusive humility’. 52However, his pastorate was to be cut short by the intervention of the First World War and his desire to contribute as a chaplain to the Forces. In 1917 he was awarded an MC ‘for devotion to duty.’

Table 3: Membership and Related Data for Christ Church Congregational Church 1913-1917
Year Members Sunday School
No 3 Year Average Scholars Teachers
1913 126 152 138 18
1914 205 180 1138 18
1915 210 142 12
1916 no report
1917 185 141 22

Notes
a. Most of the data in this table have been taken from the Yearbooks of the HCU (HRO: 127M94/62/58-61).
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 1913 was not submitted with the figures for the preceding year simply being repeated (see Table 2).
d. For comparative purposes the membership figures for Buckland were 1913, 515; 1914, 515; 1915, 457; and 1917, 450.

The data in Table 3 indicate that Stanley was able to restore the membership to that of a few years earlier. However, as will be seen, 1915 was the last year in which Christ Church had a recorded membership of over 200.

Stanley’s departure was followed by a period of approximately two years when Christ Church was without a minister. During this period a heavy burden fell on the shoulders of the Church Secretary, Mr C.S. Hopkins. Eventually, William Woods was appointed to fill the vacancy.

53William Duxbury Woods 1918-1924: ‘a fine inspiring and penetrating preacher’

54Although Woods had been a pastor since 1901, Christ Church was only his second charge, his first being Meeting Street Congregational Church in Ramsgate, where ‘he [had] wielded a powerful ministry and made a considerable reputation as a preacher and thinker’. 55Born in Leamington, Warwickshire, he was exceptionally well qualified having a degree from Oxford University and having studied for the ministry at the prestigious Mansfield College.

William Duxbury Woods

Notwithstanding the apparent stability of the membership while Woods was pastor (see Table 4) as note 4 suggests it is probable that little attention, if any, was given to checking the accuracy of the church roll between 1919 and 1923. Similarly, it would seem that this also applied to the records of the Sunday school, with the almost halving of the number of scholars between 1918 and 1919 being a considerable cause for concern. That said, again this may have the result of the changing demographics of the Church’s catchment area with even fewer families now living in the district served.

Table 4: Membership and Related Data for Christ Church Congregational Church 1918-1923
Year Members Sunday School
No 3 Year Average Scholars Teachers
1918 180 185 114 9
1919 189 186 67 9
1920 189 189 67 9
1921 189 189 67 9
1922 189 189 67 9
1923 189 186 67 9

Notes
a. Most of the data in this table have been taken from the Yearbooks of the HCU (HRO: 127M94/62/62-67).
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 neither the membership roll nor the books of the Sunday school were revised during the pastorate of William Woods.
d. For comparative purposes the membership figures for Buckland were 1918, 482; 1919, 458; 1920, 458; 1921, 535; 1922, 538; and 1923, 538.

56A notable feature of church life during Woods’ pastorate was a programme of regular monthly musical services held on Sunday evenings. Much of the music was of a sacred character57and during the services there were devotional exercises led by the minister. The final musical service at which Woods presided was held in November 1923, by which time he had accepted a call to a church in Luton, ‘after six years of good service’. 58According to his official obituary he ‘was a most lovable personality, friendly, eager to serve, capable, essentially a scholar’, traits which would undoubtedly have been evident during his time at Christ Church.

59Thus, once again, Christ Church was faced with the task of finding a new minister. During 1924 an exceptionally well qualified young man, still in training for the ministry, Howard Stanley, was invited to preach ‘and after his first visit the Church gave him a most hearty and unanimous call to become their minister as soon as his college course was ended.’ The call was accepted and on Wednesday July 8th 1925 he was ordained at Christ Church.

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