Congregationalism in Edwardian Gosport 1901-1914: Character and Personalities by Roger Ottewill
There was something inexpressibly simple, yet at the same time interesting and impressive, in the evening at the Gosport Congregational Church on Sunday. Whether it was the winning earnestness of the Pastor … or whether it could be ascribed to the heartiness with which the congregation vied with the choir in the singing, it would be difficult to explain … the members of the congregation showed by their presence in large numbers on so wet an evening that rain was no deterrent to their observances of the Sabbath.
So began a report from a 1905 edition of the Portsmouth Evening News in its ‘Voice of the Pulpit’ series.(1) It captures something of the character of Congregationalism, in general, and of Gosport Congregational Church, in particular, during a period which some argue was the denomination’s ‘golden age’. (2)
In Gosport the Congregational or Independent Church, as it was originally known, had been founded in 1663, a year after the so-called Great Ejection, when approximately 2000 clergy left the Established Church because they could not subscribe to all the tenets of the new Act of Uniformity. In all probability the Church began as a gathering of followers of one of the ejected ministers, Walter Marshall. In 1913, the Church celebrated, with a degree of pride, its 250th anniversary. By now and in keeping with the principles of Congregationalism, it was self-governing and self-financing with members taking all the key decisions, such as those relating to the choice of pastor and fund raising.
Located on the High Street, the building in which Gosport’s Edwardian Congregationalists worshipped had been constructed in 1784 and enlarged in 1870 at a cost of £4000.(3) With seating for 800 it was the second largest Congregational church in the Eastern District of the Hampshire Congregational Union (HCU), exceeded only by Buckland Congregational Church in Portsmouth.
As the Church historian John Hern has pointed out, many of its pre-1941 records were destroyed ‘when the Church was gutted by fire bombs’ during the Second World War.(4) Thus, for source material a heavy reliance has to be placed on newspaper reports
By the early years of the twentieth century, the Church was required to submit to the HCU statistics relating to various features of church life.
Table 1: Membership and Related Data for Gosport Congregational Church 1901-1914
|Year||Members: No||Members: 3 Year Average||Sunday School Scholars||Sunday School Teachers|
Source: Yearbooks of the HCU (Hampshire Archives 127M54/62/46 to 59).
With respect to membership, the pattern was similar to that for many other Congregational churches, with increases up to the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century followed by a gradual decline. When the growth in Gosport’s population is taken into account, between 1901 and 1911 there was a slight fall in membership density from 1.5 to 1.4 (that is the percentage of those aged 18 and over who were members of the Congregational Church).
The substantial reduction in the number of Sunday school scholars after 1911 may have been due to some transferring to the King Street Mission where there was an increase. In October 1913 it was reported that in connection with the Church’s 250th anniversary ‘some five hundred belonging to the Sunday School attended a lantern lecture given in the school room.’(5) Almost certainly, this would have included scholars from King Street (with a reported figure of 239) and Clay Hall (82), as well as the main church (296).
Pastors and Pastorates
At the opening of the Edwardian era the Church’s pastor was Walter Lovell. His pastorate had commenced in 1891. In his official obituary he is portrayed as ‘a man of scholarly mind, of intense sympathy and of profound faith.’(6) With Gosport being his first pastorate it is likely that these qualities would have been seen in embryo rather than fully developed. In 1901, he accepted a call to Newton Abbott in Devon. As Hern records, Lovell conducted his final service in July and his farewell meeting closed with the hymn “God be with you till we meet again”. Following retirement in 1928, he and his wife returned to Gosport.(7)
Lovell’s replacement was Robert Teasdale from Amble Congregational Church in Northumberland. Aged 38 and ‘although still a young man’ he had had ‘several years experience as a minister.’(8) A bachelor when he arrived in Gosport, Teasdale married in September 1903. The manner of his appointment is of interest for two reasons. First, women members were allowed to participate for what appears to be the first time. Second, Teasdale was unhappy with the number who had voted on the initial resolution to invite him to become pastor and he requested a postal ballot of all church members and subscribers (i.e. seat holders), who were not church members. This required the distribution of 271 ballot papers, with 261 voting yes; 3 no; 1 neutral; and 6 left blank.(9)
Teasdale’s six year ministry at Gosport appears to have been a memorable one. He had an established reputation as a popular preacher and his first sermon ended with the peroration ‘Let us, therefore, unitedly resolve before our common Lord that this Gospel shall be the testimony which we will henceforth give to the world.’(10) A notable event of his pastorate was the decision to relocate the King Street Mission, which had commenced in 1887, from rented to purpose built premises. At an estimated cost of £650, a Mission hall was opened in March 1905. In March 1908, at a farewell gathering, a ‘very high tribute’ was paid to ‘Mr Teasdale’s abilities’ and ‘regret’ was expressed at his departure with he and his wife being given a number of gifts.(11) Efforts had been made to persuade him to stay rather than accept what was subsequently described as ‘a flattering invitation to a Watford church,’(12) but it was acknowledged that he ‘had the ambition to work in a wider and larger sphere.’ (13)
Teasdale’s successor, Ernest Franks, was a Yorkshireman, who had begun his ministry as a missionary in India, before being forced to return to England due the illness of his mother. Prior to taking up the Gosport pastorate he had charge of the Congregational church in Sherborne (Dorset). In his obituary he is described as ‘an evangelical preacher and a faithful pastor … [who was] greatly beloved by his people because of his sympathy in all their concerns, especially in their troubles.’(14) Elsewhere he is characterised as being ‘insatiable for Church work)… [and] never happy on a Sunday out of a pulpit.’(15) Franks indicated that he had accepted the invitation to Gosport ‘because of the spirit of unity prevailing in the church.’(16)
In January 1914 he was profiled in a Hampshire Telegraph series on Gosport clergymen. By then his achievements included the building of the Nicholson Memorial Hall; clearance of the debt on the King Street Mission Hall; raising £220 as a contribution towards the Congregational Central Fund for ensuring a minimum salary of £120 for pastors; and the renovation of the church and Sunday school premises to mark the 250th anniversary in 1913. Mention was also made of his interest in the Sunday school and indeed that of his wife who had ‘rendered much appreciated service in connection with the training of teachers’; his involvement in the ‘Free Church life of the neighbourhood’, and his contribution to the work of the HCU, especially arranging the Summer School of Theology for evangelists mainly serving in rural parts of the county.(17) Franks remained in Gosport until 1917, when he moved to Woodford Green.
In leading the Church the pastor was assisted by a team of deacons.
Table 2: Gosport Congregational Church Deacons in 1901
|John Blake||55||Manufacturing ironmonger||Alwardstoke, Spring Garden Lane||2|
|Henry Blake||47||Outfitter, shopkeeper||n.k.||n.k.|
|S.M. Burch1||49||Pastry cook||100 High Street||0|
|George Cooke||54||Provision merchant||The Gables, Spring Garden Lane||3|
|Edwin W Lapthorn||40||Sail manufacturer||Glenelg, Willis Road||n.k.|
|Benjamin Nicholson2||72||Ship/yacht builder||Stanley House||3|
|Carus Wilson3||42||Tailor and outfitter||125 High Street||0|
Source: 1901 Census Returns and Kellys Directories
The most distinguished deacon was John Blake, with his profile being the first in a series on prominent Gosport townsmen published in the Hampshire Telegraph of 1913. This covered his public service as a district and county councillor and chairman of Gosport Education Committee as well as his religious commitments.
The great interest that Mr Blake has always taken in Nonconformity is well-known. He became the first lay president of the Free Church Federation in Hampshire and was also Chairman of the Hants Congregational Union, of which important organisation he was also treasurer for seventeen years. For a very long time Mr Blake has been a member and deacon of Gosport Congregational Church, and though … so active on behalf of the Free Church movement he is by no means a bigot, and has always held wide and charitable views.(18)
Blake undoubtedly exemplified an inclusive outlook, a trait shared with other leading Congregationalists.
Closely following Blake in terms of his standing was George Cooke, for whom there was also a profile. Although it acknowledged his commitment to public service no reference was made to his involvement with the Congregational Church.(19)
Another of the deacons profiled was Edwin Lapthorn. Described as ‘a much esteemed member of the Gosport Congregational Church,’ reference was also made to his role as treasurer of Gosport Town Mission ‘a most helpful organisation to a large number of Gosport women.’(20)
Benjamin Nicholson had died in 1906 but as his obituary records ‘no one was more highly respected at Gosport.’ Notwithstanding his business interests and association with the public life of the town, ‘it was with religious and philanthropic work … that … [his] name was always so closely connected.’ Not long before his death, Nicholson contributed a substantial sum for the ‘building of the Congregational Church at Lock’s Heath ...’(21) At the 1906 autumn gathering of the HCU reference was made to ‘his high probity, his genial personality … and his free handed generosity in contributing to the needs of struggling churches.’(22) Thus, it was entirely appropriate that he should be memorialised in the erection of the Nicholson Memorial Hall. On a tablet unveiled at the opening of the Hall were the words ‘[he] strove to live worthily – to leave to the men that come after a remembrance of him in good works.’(23) Something of the high regard in which he was held by his employees can be gained from a letter written by five of them on the occasion of his golden wedding:
Alike as Husband and Father so have you always been the kindliest, the most amiable and considerate of Employers … be … [our] service short or long we assure you that we are only voicing the feelings of the whole Firm when we say that it has been a servitude of pleasure, your sterling qualities, helpful advice at all times and admirable leadership having indeed endeared you to the hearts of everyone of us.(24)
Clearly he was a model employer and one seeking to apply Christian principles in the workplace.
In keeping with the norms of the period, Nicholson and his fellow businessmen were associated with the Liberal Party. Indeed, it was during the Edwardian era, especially in the years leading up to the general election of 1906, that links between Congregationalists and the Liberal Party were particularly strong.
Alongside regular services, the Church sought to provide ‘a cradle to the grave’ experience for members and others who enjoyed the opportunities for fellowship it provided. Particular attention was given to children and young people. The Church and its mission stations had thriving Sunday schools, which served the needs of an increasing percentage of local children aged between 5 and 17. It also had a flourishing Christian Endeavour Society, with around 60 members in 1902.(25) This was intended to serve as a bridge between Sunday school and full church membership and a training ground for future church leaders.
Given the reliance which Congregational churches placed on the contribution of women, who constituted approximately two-thirds of the membership, it is not surprising that there were groups specifically for them. Hern records that in 1903 a Women’s Guild was established, which was ‘still going strong’ when he published his history of the church in the 1980s.(26)
It was partly to facilitate the work of these affiliated organisations that in 1910 the Church erected the Nicholson Memorial Hall.(27) Located on the corner of St Andrew’s Road, the cost of the site and building was about £2000, to which the Nicholson family contributed £700. Fittingly, the Hall was formally opened by Mr Nicholson’s eldest daughter, Mrs A.S. Blake. As Ernest Franks explained ‘they felt it their duty to have some place there for their work and their services, and they had built these rooms especially that the modern methods of education in Sunday Schools might be carried out.’(28)
Other landmark events in the life of church were hosting the spring meetings of the HCU in 1903 and autumn meetings in 1912. These brought together delegates from across the county to discuss various concerns, such as religious indifference and temperance. On the second occasion, the new chairman of the HCU, William Miles, pastor of Buckland Congregational Church in Portsmouth, commented in his vote of thanks that ‘meetings … depended upon the atmosphere of the church to which they came, and there was a warmth of feeling amongst the Congregationalists of Gosport.’(29)
Relations with the Wider Community
The Church prided itself in not only being situated within the local community but also engaging with it. As previously mentioned, amongst the members of the Church were a number of key figures in the life of the town. John Blake, for example, was well known for his campaigning yet conciliatory stance on slum clearance and issues concerning the provision of education. While George Cooke was renown for ‘his genius in matters of finance’; his ‘invaluable work’ in education; and ‘his services on the Bench’.(30)
Alongside the contribution of individuals were church activities, such as the provision of musical events and bazaars, which had the dual role of fund raising and community engagement. Thus, a bazaar held in the Nicholson Memorial Hall in November 1912 to raise funds for the King Street Mission Hall Building Fund, provided an opportunity for the Church to entertain members of the community at large. Described as ‘very pretty and well organised’, the Hall was attractively decorated and lit with ‘coloured electric lamps and an illuminated Christmas tree adding to … [its] cosy appearance.’ In addition to the usual stalls ‘well laden with goods’, the bazaar incorporated an ‘art gallery, concerts by the members of the Congregational Church and King-street Mission choirs and lectures on “Old Gosport” (written by Mr J.W. Blake, J.P., CC).’(31)
With its High Street location and distinguished leadership, Gosport Congregational Church was, during the Edwardian era, well placed to afford a spiritual home for those who wished to belong to a lively Nonconformist church and to contribute more broadly to the life of the town. Its status was confirmed by the reputation of its pastors and deacons and the attention it received from the local press. Thus, there can be little doubt that it attracted a considerable amount of respect and goodwill from the community at large and there would have been few in Edwardian Gosport who were unaware of the character of the Congregational Church and of its key personalities.