St. Peter's History
St Peter’s Church, Portishead
St Peter’s, Portishead, is a living building with something going on every day and along with St Nicholas, Redcliffe Bay, the home of the present generation of the Church of England in Portishead. It may show signs of that! It is not a museum. It is a treasure inherited from the past to be handed on to the future.
The building has been constantly changing in its 600-year-old history. The interior you see today – chairs, wood block floor, individual kneelers, the new roof – dates from only 1980. Even since then a cracked bell has been recast, a kitchen sink installed, a lavatory added (after 600 years!). The exterior stonework receives constant attention and renewal.
So it has been in every generation, as Christians have used, loved, altered and adapted this house of God.
As you face the altar, the east window (1 on the plan) provides a fine focal point and is the earliest in style, contemporary with the building of the nave and chancel in the early 14th century. The fine Victorian stained glass of 1866 shows scenes from the life of our Lord. At the apex of this wall, a tiny window contains the last fragment of medieval glass.
Cut into the thickness of the right hand wall of the chancel, near the east end, is a piscine (2), a basin for washing the vessels used at Holy Communion. The two face masks nearby on the south wall were probably used in medieval times to support the veil over the ‘sepulchre’ where the Holy Rood or Cross would be laid on Good Friday. On Easter Day the rood was restored with joyful ceremony to its place on the rood screen which then stood at the front of the chancel.
(Photograph courtesy of Pat Copper Photography).
On the right side of the chancel arch the List of Rectors (3) shows an unbroken line from 1320. There is evidence however that the parish had the services of clergy for a century before that. Of interest are the three Rectors in 1348-9 (the Black Death), three in 1488-9, and five in 1543-55 in the troubled times of the Reformation. In contrast, John Lovell and John Shipton each served for almost half a century.
In the main body of the church, the nave, the fine stone pulpit (4) was probably set up around 1600. The unusual stone steps leading up to it and cut into the thickness of the wall once led up to the top of the rood screen but were utilised to give access to the pulpit (not for the stout!).
Visitors will have entered the church through the main south porch (5). This was built at the same time as the nave. In the porch to the right of the entrance door is a stoup for holding holy water, originally to be used on going into the building. High on the west wall of the porch a beautifully carved niche would at one time have held a statue of Portishead’s patron saint (not necessarily St Peter – the ancient dedication may have been St Mary).
A small door in the opposite wall leads to a gallery over the porch which at one time faced outwards as a similar gallery still does in the nearby church of Weston-in-Gordano. These galleries were used for choral singing on special occasions such as Palm Sunday. At Portishead, early in the 19th century, the gallery was reversed so that it was open to the interior of the church and was used to house the church’s first organ (a barrel organ acquired second-hand in the 1820’s).
Between the entrance doors of the church and the tower is a stained glass window (6) erected in 1928 in memory of the Weatherly family of Portishead. Fred E. Weatherly (1848-1929) was the most famous member of this musical family. A Bristol barrister, he wrote the words of many of the best-known Victorian and Edwardian songs and ballads. Roses of Picardy and The Holy City are known to all, as are the words of Danny Boy (Londonderry Air). His 1500 lyrics also include The Boys of the Old Brigade and The Green Hills of Somerset. He collaborated with many composers, such as Stephen Adams and Eric Coates, and with singers such as Dame Clara Butt (who stayed in Portishead for a time). The window shows St. Cecilia, for the music, and St. Luke for the words.
The finely carved oak screen at the back of the nave (7) which now forms one side of the clergy vestry under the tower, was moved there in 1973. It had originally stood from 1907 at the chancel step, where it complemented the screen of the same date which separates off the choir vestry at the east end of the north aisle. Above the clergy vestry, in the tower, is a gallery set up in 1815 and still fitted with seating probably of that date. This is reached by a spiral stair through the small modern door in the tower wall, the same door giving access to the belfry above and the top of the tower, where there is a fine view over Portishead.
On the further side of the church is the Norman font (8), set centrally at the west end of the north aisle. This must be the oldest piece of carved stone in Portishead. It was in use in the original chantry chapel of around 1100 AD which predated the building you now see around you. It is a rough adaptation of Ionic volute design. In the middle of the 19th century, it was supplanted by a Victorian font but was restored and placed in its present position in 1979.
On the north wall near the font is Portishead’s handsome War Memorial (9) to the 64 men who gave their lives in the First World War and the 32 in the Second. The bronze on which the names are inscribed is framed in black marble and the base of the tablet is of Hopton Wood stone. The memorial was first dedicated on 4 August 1921, seven years to the day from the outbreak of World War I. On the outside wall behind the War Memorial the original north doorway of the church can be seen. Children are told that this is the Devil’s Doorway – it is a blind doorway, so he cannot get in!
The two larger arches separating the nave from the north aisle (10) were formed when the north aisle was built around 1500. The third, smaller arch was made when the chancel was rebuilt in 1880 to lengthen the nave by 11 feet. There were originally steps down into the church. The floor was raised in 1815 and again in the 1970’s so that the full proportions of the pillars cannot now be appreciated. The unusual strainer arch (11) with its unique carved head (in late 15th century dress) was inserted at the time of the north aisle building to help support the nave arches. At one time it defined that part of the church which held the tombs of local leading families, the Mohuns and the Fusts. These tombs were covered when the floor was raised in 1815 but traces of them were found when the present modern wood block floor was laid.
In the choir vestry there is an interesting wall monument (12) just inside the door, a memorial to Rector Shipton’s son who fought at the battle of Waterloo.
Viewing the exterior of the church, the tower (13) is one of the finest in the district, 98 feet 9 inches high and erected about 1450. It is a good example of the workmanship of the Guild of Masons who built towers at Dundry, Wrington, Chew Magna and elsewhere. The pinnacles and parapet at Portishead, however, are more elaborate than others of the North Mendip group and bear comparison with the towers at Evercreech and St Stephen’s, Bristol City. The plain double buttresses, placed on each side of the tower corners, leave the angle itself free to carry the line to the pinnacles at the top. The string course of the walls is continued right around the buttresses, a feature usually found in towers in Gloucestershire.
There is a fine peal of eight bells, regularly rung. Six of these were recast by Bilbie of Chew Stoke in 1772, the others added later. After recent work all are now on roller bearings. The first-ever peal of 5040 changes by a band of ladies all from one tower was rung on these bells in 1915. The clock was installed in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 and is an excellent timekeeper. There is no face on the western side – it is said that the people there would not contribute towards the cost.
The sanctus-bell in its little cote on the roof of the chancel is medieval (Norman, one authority asserts) and is still rung regularly to mark the consecration at Holy Communion.
While looking up at the tower and sanctus-bell, one can see the carved stone gargoyles on the north aisle parapet (14) which were used to conduct rainwater from the roof. Each is different and the original stone carvers must have enjoyed designing them. Particularly well-preserved is a representation of a boar’s head. On the exterior south wall of the chancel a small blocked doorway (15) is of 14th century date and gave the priest access to the chancel without using the main nave entrance.
Scratched into the wall near the priest’s door are lines for a primitive sundial, called a Mass Dial. These relics of the past are now rare. In the days before clocks the shadow of a peg or pin would have told the priest when it was time for the service. (What did the priest do if it was raining?)
Near the main porch is sited the Portishead Village Cross (16) which as in so many villages stood at a road junction – originally in this case where Church Road South joins High Street, once the heart of the village. Like the church font, this is a very ancient piece of carved stone, of unknown date in this case.
Portishead churchyard has its share of interesting monuments. The oldest named tomb surviving (17) is that of John Hobbes, Yeoman, who died in 1624. This is across the path from the Village Cross. Near the steps in the northeast corner of the churchyard is one of two gravestones (18) marking the graves of boys from the Training Ship ‘Formidable’. This old wooden warship, moored off Portishead, was used as a reformatory from 1869-1906 for up to 300 boys from the streets of Bristol, who were trained as seamen at the National Nautical School, Redcliffe Bay. With the other stone on the southwest corner of the churchyard, this bears grim tribute to Victorian child mortality and the rigours of life on board.
Between the steps and the church vestry is an impressive sarcophagus monument (19) carved with laurel wreaths and upturned torches symbolising life extinguished. Here lie Thomas Jones and his wife; he was founder of Bristol’s leading department store, bombed in the war and rebuilt to become the present Debenhams. Nearby lie the Heaven family who owned Lundy Island.
In the more modern part of the churchyard, near the entrance gates further up Church Road North, are situated (20) the graves of Percival Victor Halliwell who was killed during the Blue Bird Speed Trials on Lake Windermere in June 1930, and of Commander E.G.L. Robinson, whose aeroplane crashed on the beach at Redcliffe Bay in 1938.
Lord, we thank you for all who have loved and served you here through the long centuries. Bless those, clergy and people, who worship you now, and all who visit this place, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In producing this information, we are most grateful to Rodney Challands for his Historical Research.
Floor plan of St Peter's Church