St John Forton Recollections and Remembrances George Paxton

From St John Forton Recollections and Remembrances By Mr George Paxton

In 1829 Forton was a quiet village within the Parish of Alverstoke with its Church of St Mary the nearest church. On 14th July 1829 there is a record of the purchase and consecration of a piece of land for the building of a Chapel of Ease to be called St John the Evangelist.

The first church was built and consecrated in 1831. The Priest in Charge, the Rev. H.A. Veck became its first Vicar in 1841. He died at Bishops Waltham on 3rd June 1866 and is buried in Elson Churchyard – that at St John having been closed. His successor was the Rev. C.P. Hutchinson and it was during his incumbency that the church was thoroughly renovated and free seats provided to replace the old pews, for which pew rents used to be paid.

The Royal Marine Light Infantry were allowed to use the church for their parade services in 1869.

The Rev. C.P. Hutchinson resigned the living in 1888 and the Rev. Jacob Stephenson became the third Vicar. He was in for a strenuous time. He carried out badly needed renovations at St. Luke’s Mission and then turning his attention to the Parish Church found that its condition was very serious and expert advice showed that tremendous effort and enthusiasm would be needed to raise funds to execute the necessary repairs and improvements. Eventually, however, it was decided to build a new church – a very wise decision because the roof of the old church collapsed before the new building was completed .

The foundation stone was laid in 1891 and in the following year the nave and aisles were completed and conscrated. The cost (£4,760) had been defrayed – with the promise of £55 towards the Chancel Fund. The consecration of the Sanctuary, Chancel and Vestries took place on 29th September 1906 and thus we have the church as we find it today.

The stonework of the window above the altar in the Lady Chapel is a memento of the first building having been the east window of that church. The glass, unfortunately, was destroyed by bomb blast in December 1940.

My first recollection is not of a building but of small stones — stones for the mosaic pavement of the Sanctuary and Chancel — somehow, strange to say, a number of these came into the possession of the infant school children — what an ideal set of five-stones?

The Day School was used for the Sunday Schools. A normal Sunday consisted of meeting in the school before Mattins. Above infant age one was expected to recite a verse of a hymn and the collect for the day — learned (?) during the week before.

In church the children sat in the side aisles. The afternoon was a normal Sunday School although I can recall being in church for a baptism. The Red Letter Day in the year was the annual Sunday School Treat. This began with a service in church attended by all the Sunday School children of the parish. Each child had to provide a cup or a mug and one can imagine the noise of crashes and bangs which went on during the service resulting in not a few broken cups as well! After the service all formed up for THE GRAND PARADE! When all were in an orderly formation we all marched with flags flying to the Marine Field, now St. Vincent School Playing Field.

On arrival tea was served and a great time was had playing cricket or running races.

The great attraction on Sunday mornings was the Parade of the Royal Marines who marched to church for their parade service. Many people made this their normal Sunday morning activity and were joined by others to watch the return march to Barracks and to enjoy the music of the band on the parade ground. If the weather was inclement buglers were sent to various parts of the town to inform the marines due to parade that greatcoats were to be worn.

In 1910 Canon Stephenson left the parish to become Rector of Droxford. He was succeeded by the Rev. C.S. Carey who was inducted to the Living in July 1910.

In 1911 a Teaching Mission was held — conducted by Father Gerard Samson of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield. This was the beginning of our long association with that Community. It was at this time that the ‘Kensit’ crowd arrived — a body of men lead by a Mr. J.A. Kensit, a London Bookseller. Their object, so they declared, was to maintain the ‘Protestant Faith of the Church of England’. They tried to interfere with outdoor processions and carried banners with the words ‘Roman Catholic Monk preaches in St. John’s Church’ written on them. However, they faded away gradually and seem to have had little, if any, influence on the life of our church here.

In 1913 the Holy Week Mission was started and church life began to flourish in the Faith. The sung Mass on Saint’s days was begun and the Sunday school children were encouraged to attend to act as the choir — the reward was breakfast at the Vicarage!

On Whitsunday 1912 the Sung Mass replaced Mattins at 11 o’clock — a move well received generally. Mattins was still the service used at the Parade.

In 1915 the Mission Church of St. Francis was opened in Melville Road by the Dean of Winchester. In these days it was possible to reach Melville Road by footpath, which is now Coulmere Road, Lee Road and across the ‘cabbage field’. This ,was quite pleasant in fine weather but in the winter and wet weather this could prove hazardous, there being no lights and for part of the way a ditch ran alongside the path. The other approach to that part of the parish was by way of Forton Road, Mill Lane and San Diego Road — a very long way round but certainly more pleasant in inclement weather.

In the Summer of 1914 Fr. Sweet, the Assistant Curate, left to become a Naval Chaplain. Sad to say, he was killed on H.M.S. Natal in December 1915. The-Tabernacle on the Lady Chapel altar was given in his memory.

In February 1916 Fr. Play foot, who was priest-in-charge, died. Who will forget his funeral? After a Solemn Requiem in the morning the Committal took place in the afternoon. This was attended by most of the clergy in the town and Deanery, as well as many priests from Portsmouth. After the service in church a procession was formed and went to Anns Hill Cemetery — followed by the congregation.

Fr. Carey was offered the living of The Sacred Trinity, Salford in 1918, but the Bishop of Manchester refused to induct him unless he promised not to use eucharistic vestments and for two years the case was being heard in the courts. Judgement was eventually given that vestments were legal but that altar lights were illegal! Lights were used at that time in Manchester Cathedral but not vestments!

November 11 1918 saw the signing of the Armistice between the Allies and Germany. To celebrate this happy event a great service of Thanksgiving was held in the evening and the following morning a High Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated in gratitude to Almighty God that hostilities had ended and in remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives for their country.

Fr. Carey left the parish to become vicar of St. Saviour’s Church, St. Albans in 1922 and in December of that year the Rev. R. O’Gorman Power became the fifth vicar of St. John’s.

In these days we were in the Diocese of Winchester and it was only on rare occasions that the congregation was able to meet its Diocesan Bishop. Such a meeting took place when the Right Reverend Theodore Woods visited the parish in May 1925. He preached at Solemn Evensong and afterwards met the faithful at a social gathering in the Parish Hall. Before leaving on the following morning he was the Celebrant at a High Mass. A Red Letter day indeed for the Parish.

1927 saw the division of the Diocese of Winchester into three — and the Dioceses of Guildford and Portsmouth duly formed. The Bishop of the Diocese now became a person to know rather than some remote figure one met once or twice in a lifetime. We were delighted when the first Bishop of Portsmouth — Dr. Neville Lovett — visited the parish in November 1928 and met parishioners, after preaching at Evensong, in the parish hall.

The Centenary of the Parish — 1930. This was celebrated from 6 July to 13 July 1930. The programme of events comprised a High Mass of Thanksgiving and Solemn Evensong at which the preacher was Fr. Carey; and the Pageant first presented in 1914 was repeated on the Wednesday Thursday and Friday of that week. The writer and producer of the Pageant was Mr. John Ray, Headmaster of St. John’s School, later to be ordained. The Pageant took place, as in 1914, on the vicarage lawn. The weather was fine and all went well until the Friday evening when, during the third episode, a thunderstorm broke out. The audience, actors and all ran for cover. The storm over, everyone returned to their places and everything carried on as if it had been a natural break.

In October the parish suffered a sad loss in the death of Fr. Aldridge the assistant priest — the crucifix over the pulpit is his memorial.

September 1939 saw the beginning of the second world war and in August 1940 the first bomb dropped in the parish. The Balloon Barrage party in St. Vincent Field were all killed and extensive damage was done to houses mainly in Christchurch parish. In December 1940 a bomb fell between the church and Moreland Road and houses and shops severely damaged. The Parish Church was put out of action. The side aisle was damaged, doors to the sacristy and vestry were blown off and the roof of the aisle was parted from the main building. Fr. Philips removed the Blessed Sacrament and the church was closed. So the Mission Church of St. Lukes became the Parish Church for the ensuing years. Immediately after the bombing, action was taken to prepare St. Lukes for services for the following Sunday. A party of boys from St. Vincent together with members of the congregation removed furniture to a safe part of the church. The Vicarage and the Parish Hall also went up in smoke.

Although St. Lukes Church was old and in need of repair it was fit to be used for services, weddings and funerals and the life of the parish was able to continue — in spite of many disadvantages — cold, rain, leaks and the noise of raindrops on the tin roof! The children, together with their teachers, had been evacuated and the congregation was certainly depleted but the faithful carried on resolutely looking forward to the time when they would be able to return to the Parish Church.

During the years following — until 1951 — new life returned to the Parish. The Sunday Schools grew, a children’s guild was formed and a number of the parishioners formed themsleves into a group to consider the work of evangelising in the parish. An outcome of this was the setting up of a Youth Club for the youth of the parish who did not come to church. This demanding venture came about after much thought, prayer and study with the help of Mr. Tom Williams the local Youth Officer and the Club opened in 1950. The Club flourished for about three years.

The Children’s Guild, however, carried on and met weekly under the direction of Fr. Chare who amongst other things, wrote and produced two pantomimes.

Fr. Chare had St. Lukes Room fitted out with electric light — a great boon to parish activity in the place. However, during the day when a missionary play was to be performed there it poured with rain and St. Lukes Room was under one foot of water. The play was cancelled for that day but was produced at a later date.

Meanwhile the Evangelistic Committee planned a house to house visitation of the parish in consequence of which some 30 people visited every road and street in the parish — two calling at each house to deliver an envelope and, where possible chatting with the resident. Another call was made on each parishioner when the envelope was collected.

Then in October 1951 came the day — the one for which we had waited so long — the day on which the re-hallowing of our church was to take place. This was performed by the Lord Bishop of the Diocese, the Right Reverend Lancelot Fleming assisted by Bishop Kitching in the presence of a large congregation which included the Mayor and Corporation in their robes.

The bishops were greeted with a fan-fare by buglers from H.M.S. Siskin and during the service the font and altars were re-hallowed. A reception was held after the service in the Sloane Stanley Hall.

The war was over, the anxious times past. We were, once again, home in our Parish Church.

But the period between 1951 and 1955 was to prove a difficult one. The Vicar, Fr. Power, was a sick man and Fr. Chare had left to become vicar of St. Philip’s Camberwell. Thanks to the Archdeacon of Portsmouth — Fr. E.J. K. Roberts (later to become Bishop of Ely) — we were able to come through a very strenuous time.

Fr. Power retired in July 1955. He died in 1956. The St. Francis Chapel was dedicated to his memory.

The Rev. L. C. G. Munro was inducted to the Living of Forton in December 1955.

The years from 1955 were to see many changes in the worship and ceremonial of the church. The Church of England through its Liturgical Commission revised the structure of the Eucharist presenting us with Series 1, 2 and 3 in due time.

The positioning of the celebrant at the Eucharist was one such change. The re-siting of the High Altar which before was separated from the congregation by a vast space allowed the laity to be able to take a greater part in the liturgy (service).

Probably the greatest change was that the Eucharist was now celebrated in the evening — totally unheard of in the past. We seem to have settled down to the changes.What of the Parish during these years?

The Parish, once a quiet village, had become part of a large town. In 1918 the Crossways became the first housing estate and reached as far as Lee Road. In 1930 it was extended to Avery Lane School. Southcroft Lane and the Grange Estate had been built on farm land. After 1950 the Admiralty built their own housing estate at the top of Cambridge Road.

More recently we have seen development around the church. Flats have been built on the old prison site and another Admiralty estate built in the Crossways. The old Royal Marine Barracks which, after the removal of the Marines to Eastney, became St. Vincent, has taken on a new lease of life as St. Vincent School.

The St. John’s School which was founded in 1832 has now taken over larger premises in what was Grove Road School — leaving the old building to be taken over by a Tyre firm. The church is flanked on the other side by a Car Sales firm and a petrol station and Mr. Crossland still carries on his business in the midst.

While we offer our thanks to Almighty God for all past priests and benefactors and congregations of St. Johns we hope in our turn to leave our mark upon the Parish for future generations.

    • George Paxton