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A Brief History of St. Cuthbert's Church.

Article text
St. Cuthbert's from the air circa 1955.

St. Cuthbert’s,
at its inception, was part of the large parish of St. James’ Church, Milton.

In 1908, Rev Samuel Taylor was placed in charge of the Copnor part of the parish, which initially contained about 300 people, using a small unoccupied house in Dudley Road as a meeting place until a mission church was built on what is now the site of Lindisfarne Court in Hayling Avenue.

The building would serve as a church, a schoolroom and a concert hall. It was dedicated to St. Cuthbert on June 10th 1910 with Rev George Hope as Curate-in-charge. The population had grown to over 5000 and it was decided to add an extra room onto the building and this was opened on 16th April 1914.

Meanwhile, the decision to build a church had been taken and St. Cuthbert’s was selected as one of the Bishop of Winchester’s “Six Churches”, to be built from a fund of that name. A grant of £6,500 was given, £600 of which was to be used to purchase additional land for the siting of the church. However, Rev. Hope received a letter from the Bishop stating that Mr Heath Harrison who had been a donor of £5000 to the fund would like it to go to one church, so that he could take an interest in it. After hearing about the parish and its needs, he decided to donate a further £5000 so that the church might be completed straight away.
Edwin Stanley Hall, a contemporary of Rev. Hope at New College, Oxford, who later designed Liberty’s in London, was appointed as architect. The foundation stone was laid on May 9th 1914 by Mr. Heath Harrison and the Church was consecrated sixteen months later on October 1st 1915.

The architect, Mr E Stanley Hall, designed the original building, using the basilican plan of the early Christian church. It was based on the Byzantine style found in the churches in Ravenna and the islands of the Venetian lagoons in Italy. Buildings of this style are characterised by the round arch, the round headed apse, the circle and above all, the use of the dome. The chief glory internally is the wonderful display of marbles and mosaics.
Locally, there was no building stone available, so it could only be used sparingly and where necessary for strength or protection. Furthermore, the island of Portsea was covered with a layer of brick clay, so that a ready supply of bricks was at hand. Most of the bricks used in the erection of the original church were made from clay excavated from the actual site.

The first damage to the church buildings occurred on November 10th 1940, when a high explosive bomb fell, tearing a hole in the North side of the nave. Because part of the roof was open to the sky, the congregation had to bring umbrellas on rainy days. On April 17th 1941, a landmine in Hayling Avenue destroyed the East end of the church, severely damaging the rest of the building and completely flattening the Parish Hall (the original Mission Church). The following day, the vicar erected a large wooden cross on the rubble and nailed to it a victory V.

The church building was classified by the authorities as “plain substitute building”, meaning that it was, in effect, destroyed and would have to be rebuilt in a much reduced and simplified form. For the next eight years, services were held in the hall of Langstone School, where there is now a plaque, and in a study at the Vicarage which was converted to a chapel. The Vicarage itself was also affected by bomb damage, and the vicar found himself confined to one room for several years.

The task of rebuilding the church, classified by the Diocesan Office as “extensively destroyed”, was immense. The sanctuary, vestries, Lady Chapel and eastern bay of the nave were destroyed. In the North wall of the nave was torn a large hole. Doors and windows were broken, and the plaster domes were battered and hanging from the roof. Most of the floor, furniture and hangings were destroyed.
Tiles were blown off the roof and the whole roof structure was badly twisted. For several years, it stood exposed to the elements and the building suffered further deterioration. Roof timbers became rotten and the brickwork even more unsafe.

In October 1948, a license was granted for partial restoration. The work permitted was the restoration of the nave of the church, and the blocking up of the East end with a temporary wall at the chancel steps. Linked with this work was the clearing up of the East end itself and the demolition of all unsafe masonry abutting Hayling Avenue.
On Friday 25th November 1949, the church was rehallowed by the Bishop of Portsmouth.

The final stage of rebuilding the church was started when a faculty was issued in March 1957. Unfortunately the funds made available from the government for the rebuilding were not sufficient to cover the cost of restoring the church to its former glory. As so much money would be needed for the internal furnishings, it was decided to rebuild the church on modified lines.

The roofs of the chancel, the Lady Chapel and the parish room were all lower than the original building. The chancel and the Lady Chapel both had squared-off ends and the third dome which was destroyed, was replaced with a barrel vaulted roof. Where it was possible, use was made of the existing fabric. The stained glass window, which was installed in the temporary wall in 1953, was erected in the new East wall, along with two complementary windows.

The oak panelling behind the altar was also reused. New rails were made for the High Altar and an oak tester above it. The final rehallowing was on July 30th 1959.

In 1999, the Parochial Church Council took the decision to reorder the vast building, which was only used on Sundays, to create community rooms, a doctors’ surgery, a pre-school and a smaller place of worship. As it was a Grade II listed building, English Heritage made certain specifications; nothing should be done to the structure of the building that would prevent it from returning to its original condition, and the place of worship was to maintain the full height of the building. The congregation moved out and began worshipping in Langstone Junior School Hall on 30th November 2003.

The first stage was the conversion of the north end of the church into a Doctors’ surgery, a community hall above with associated facilities and the “communications tower” comprising lift and stairs. This was opened in 2005 and at the same time, Portsmouth Housing Association, having purchased the site, demolished the old church hall and began to build nine apartments.

The next stage involved building a steel structure to support four floors of community rooms in the centre section of the church. These were opened in November 2007, although the first floor, which is used by Portsmouth College, was not fitted out until 2009. This centre section is run by The St. Cuthbert’s Trust. The Trust was fortunate to be awarded a grant from the Big Lottery of £300,000 as well as several smaller grants.

The last stage was to complete the place of worship with underfloor heating and a new entrance. This was opened in 2012. Since then, the stained glass windows from the Hayling Avenue end have been moved to the new place of worship and there is a new moveable font. The congregation is pleased to be back in our flexible home.

Sue Walker