A History of Churches in Portsmouth

By Tim Lambert

Churches in the Middle Ages

Before the town of Portsmouth was founded in about 1180 there were 3 villages on Portsea Island, Fratton, Buckland, and Milton. There has been a church on the site of St Marys in Fratton since the 12th century and probably before. St Marys was probably the parish church for all three. It was rebuilt in the year 1889 after the village of Fratton was swallowed up by the growing city.

Around the year 1128, a church was built within the walls of the Roman fort at Portchester. It was dedicated to St Mary. In 1133 King Henry I gave it to some Augustinian monks. They were led by a prior so the church became St Mary’s Priory Church. However, in the mid-12th century, the monks moved on to Southwick. A man named Jean de Gisors founded the town of Portsmouth about 1180 and he decided it needed a church. He gave an acre of land to the monks who lived in Southwick. They built the church in 1185 and it was dedicated to St Thomas a Becket who was martyred in 1170. For centuries it was a parish church. It became a cathedral in 1927.

The building we now call the Garrison Church was built in 1212. It was called the Domus Dei (house of God) and was a hostel for the sick where monks looked after them as best they could. Also, pilgrims came from Europe on their way to visit the shrine of St Swithun in Winchester. Some came via Portsmouth and they could stay the night in the Domus Day.

In 1450 the Bishop of Chichester was murdered in Portsmouth. Sailors in the town had not been paid for a long time. According to one account, the bishop brought some money but not enough to pay the sailors all they were owed. (In another account he decided to fine them all for misbehaving in church). At any rate, when the sailors found out they were enraged. The Bishop was in the Domus Dei (the ‘hospital’ for poor and sick people). A mob dragged him out and stabbed him to death. For this crime, the whole town of Portsmouth was placed under an interdict. This meant that mass could not be heard in the town and no other sacraments could be performed. It lasted until 1508.

Churches in the Reformation

In the 16th century, the Reformation swept England. Henry VIII closed the monasteries but made few changes in doctrine. In 1540 he turned the Domus Dei into an armoury where weapons were stored. Later it became the governor’s residence. The Domus Dei became the Garrison Church in 1767.

Meanwhile, Henry VIII was succeeded by his son Edward VI (1553-1558). Under him, England became a truly Protestant country. Priests were allowed to marry and pictures or statues of Mary or the saints were removed from churches. Mary (1553-1558) tried unsuccessfully to restore Catholicism. Then Elizabeth (1558-1603) restored Protestantism but of a moderate kind.

By law, everyone was supposed to belong to the Church of England but in the 17th century, some people called separatists formed their own congregations. There were Baptists in Portsmouth by the 1640s. At first, they had to meet in secret. They faced persecution until 1689. The first Baptist Church in Portsmouth was built in Portsea in 1704 (it was destroyed by bombing in World War II).

In the 18th century, a new suburb grew up at Portsea. Dockyard workers built St Georges Church in 1754.

John Wesley visited Portsmouth 22 times. The first time was in 1753. He wrote: ‘After a little rest, we took a walk around the town, which is regularly fortified; it is, I suppose, the only regular fortification in Great Britain or Ireland. Gosport, Portsmouth, and the Common (which is now all turned into streets) may probably contain half as many people as Bristol and so civil a people I never saw before in any seaport town in England. I preached at half an hour after six, in an open part of the Common adjoining the new church. The congregation was large and well behaved; not one scoffer did I see, nor one trifler’. Wesley last visited Portsmouth in 1790 shortly before his death.

In the 18th century, there were a small number of Roman Catholics in Portsmouth. In 1791 they opened a chapel in a private house. It was replaced by a purpose-built chapel in Prince George Street, Portsea in 1796.

Churches in 19th Century Portsmouth

In the 19th century, Portsmouth was growing rapidly and new churches were built. All Saints Church was built in the new suburb of Landport in 1828. A Congregational Church was built on Queens Road, Buckland in 1869. It is now Buckland United Reformed Church.

Meanwhile, a new suburb grew up in Southsea. St Judes was built in 1851. St Simons was consecrated in 1868. Immanuel Baptist Church was first built on Victoria Road North in 1899. It was bombed in 1941 but was later replaced by a modern building. Trinity Methodist Church was built on Albert Road, Southsea in 1901. The same year, 1901 St Swithuns RC Church opened in Waverley Road, Southsea. Meanwhile, St Peters Church in Somerstown opened in 1883 (it now houses Kings Church).

North End became built up in the late 19th century. St Marks Church was first built in 1874 on the corner of Derby Road and London Road. (It was replaced by the present building in Derby Road in 1970). Corpus Christi RC Church was built on Gladys Avenue in 1893. The Church of the Ascension was built on Stubbington Avenue in 1914. The church is noted for its reredos (an ornamental screen behind the altar) depicting the ascension. St Nicholas in Battenburg Avenue, North End was built in 1930.

Stamshaw also became built up at the end of the 19th century. St Saviours Church was built in 1914.

Milton remained a separate village till the beginning of the 20th century. St James Church was first built in 1841 but it became too small so it was rebuilt in 1913. A Congregational Church was built in Milton in 1861 (it is now Milton Community Centre). It was replaced by a new building in 1913 which was bombed in 1941. It was replaced by a third building in 1955, which is now Christ Church United Reformed Church. Eastney Evangelical Church was formed in 1918.

Copnor was also a village till the beginning of the 20th century. St Albans Church opened on Copnor Road in 1914 and St Cuthberts opened on Hayling Avenue in 1915. Meanwhile, St Josephs RC Church on Tangier Road was built in 1914.

Meanwhile, in 1865, a new Christian movement was formed by William and Catherine Booth – the Salvation Army. (At first, it was called the Christian Mission. It was named the Salvation Army in 1878). The Salvation Army first came to Portsmouth in 1869. At first, Salvationists were vilified by some people but they were gradually accepted. The Citadel in Lake Road was bombed in 1941 but a new building opened in 1958.

Churches in the Modern Era

In 1920 the boundary of Portsmouth was extended to include Cosham and Wymering. The parish Church of St Peter and St Paul in Wymering was built about 1125.

Cosham was a tiny place until the 19th century when it grew larger. The first Baptist church was built in Cosham in 1871. St Colmans RC Church opened on the corner of St Colmans Avenue and Havant Road in 1928. St Philips C of E Church was built in Hawthorn Crescent in 1937.

Meanwhile, St Francis Church in Hilsea was built in 1936.

In 1932 the boundary of Portsmouth was extended to include Drayton and Farlington. There has been a parish church of St Andrew in Farlington since at least the 12th century serving both Farlington and Drayton. It was rebuilt in 1875. Until the 20th century, Drayton was a small village but in the 1920s it was growing rapidly and needed its own church. The Church of The Resurrection was built in Brecon Avenue in Drayton in 1930.

After 1945 a new estate was built at Paulsgrove. St Michaels and All Angels was built in 1948. The Baptist church was built in 1954. St Pauls RC Church was built in 1970.

More churches were founded in Portsmouth In the 20th century. The Grand Cinema in Arundel Street closed in 1930 and it became a Pentecostal church. It is now called The Oasis Church. Meanwhile, Tangier Road Baptist Church was built in 1937. Jubilee Pentecostal Church opened in Somers Road, Somerstown in 1947. Family Church began meeting in Portsmouth in 1997.

New churches began in Portsmouth in the 21st century. Cornerstone Church began in Southsea in 2016. Harbour Church Portsmouth also began in 2016. Meanwhile, Portsmouth Street Pastors began in 2007.

A view of Portsmouth Cathedral
Portsmouth Cathedral

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