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Our Churches and Parishes
- a Brief History

Original Text by E. E. Woodhouse, W. T. Orme and Phillis Bulbeck

Drawing of St Helen's Church

In the beginning ...

In the year 704 A.D., Bishop Wilfred (c.633 to 709) sailed to the Island and landed at Brading Haven. A few years later, his chaplain, Hildila, built a church on the Duver at St. Helens, as near as possible to Chichester from whence they had come. Little is known of the early history of the beginnings of Christianity in St. Helens or of the appearance of the earliest church, but it was almost certainly a wooden building.

When Ethelred (the Unready) was King, in the year 998, the Danes gained complete mastery of the Island. They left a trail of destruction, laying to waste villages in their path and burning, killing and pillaging. Any priests, or other men, who stood in their way were slain. It is probable that, during this incursion, the little wooden Church of Hildila was burnt to the ground.

Links with the Priory

Between the years 1090 and 1106 - possibly in the reign of Henry I (1100 to 1135) - it is probable that the Priory at St. Helens was founded. (Father S. F. Hockey in "Quarr Abbey and its Lands" suggests that St. Helens cell was founded between 1071 and 1086, in William the Conqueror's reign.) The Priory was occupied by Cluniac monks, who built a Church, which was also to serve as their chapel, replacing the structure built by Hildila, not in wood but in stone. The Chancel - about 26 feet wide and 45 feet long would have been made suitable for the Monastic Offices. (The dimensions quoted are to be found in a document of 1638 deposited with the Isle of Wight County Archivist. The Church site was a mere 40 paces square.) The monastic buildings were adjoining on the south side of the Church with a hall, chamber and cells. The Church itself was, apparently, in the south-east corner of the churchyard and would have been in the Norman style. Surprisingly, the sea was nearest on the south side of the Church, slightly further away on the east and well away on the north side. It seems that there were also fields in the area towards the site of the present fort.

In 1248, the Prior of the Monastery was called Robert. From the time of Bishop Wilfred's chaplain, Hildila, until 1250 there was no ordinary parish priest but it is probable that the Prior had often doubled as one. In 1250, Philip de St. Helena was appointed Chaplain for the Parish, the Priory having been dedicated to St. Helen (mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine) at the time of its foundation and Philip, as was customary, took up the name of his place of domicile remaining, it would appear, until 1291. However, it was most likely during Robert's time as Prior that the tower was built. All we know for sure is that the tower, much of which still remains, was built during the reign of Henry III (1216 to 1272).

The garden at the rear of the old Church tower was the parish burial ground from the time of the first Church until the 18th Century.

During the reign of Henry V (1413 to 1422) alien monastic orders were suppressed. Although there had been many grants of land to the Church, there does not appear to have been any Glebe land distinguishable from the Priory land as all was taken as Priory land at the dissolution Order in 1414. The Crown held the revenues until, Henry VI (1422 to 1461 and 1470 to 1471) granted them to Eton College on its foundation in 1440 but the lands were still under grant from the Crown and, in 1461, soon after his accession, Edward IV (1461 to 1470 and 1471 to 1483) granted the Priory to William Beaufiz for ten years and renewed the grant the following year for twenty years - but, in spite of this, the King granted the land to Eton College in 1467.

The decline of the Duver Church

In the reign of Edward VI (1547 to 1553) Sir John Oglander of Nunwell, near Brading, Isle of Wight, reported that the north aisle of the old Church was in such a bad state that it had to be taken down.

Little attention appears to have been given to the remaining structure as, in 1559, during the early part of Elizabeth I's reign (1558 to 1603), George Oglander, the Island historian, reported that "having been evil served and worse repaired, it is almost utterly decayed, so that one may look in at one end and out at the other which causeth the whole realm to run in slander, for it joineth hard by the sea-side where all sorts of nations coming aland for water or vittals, seeing the shameful using of the same, think that an other churches within the realm be like used, and what they have said in their own country God knoweth."

Queen Elizabeth herself is reputed to have remonstrated with Archbishop Parker that "It breedeth no small offence and scandal to see and consider on the one part the curiosity and cost bestowed by all sorts of men upon their private houses; and on the other part the unclean and negligent order and spare keeping of the House of Prayer."

Froude's History of 1561 records that "The Church was a ruin through which wind and rain made free passage. Joyning as it did to one of the chief roads (anchorages) of England, where all sorts of nations were compelled to take succour and touch, the shameful using of the same Church caused the Queen's Council and the whole realm to run in slander."

However, a lengthy Bill of Presentment (now deposited with the Isle of Wight County Archivist) by the Churchmen and Quartermen of St. Helens about the decay of the Church, sent to the Provost and Fellows of Eton College in 1565, mentions the north aisle as being in need of repair, so this aisle could still have been there at that time!

By 1638 the Church had deteriorated to an appalling state and the parishioners prepared a petition requiring Sir Bevis Thelwell, together with the Lord of the Manor (of Eddington) to refrain from moving blocks of stone from the beach adjacent to the Church, as this appeared to be weakening the structure. (Sir Bevis Thelwell was the son of a Welsh farmer and brother of the Principal of Jesus College, Oxford. He had become a courtier in James I's reign (1603 to 1625). Regarded as an energetic innovator and speculator, he attempted, at great personal expense, to build an embankment across the harbour but it only lasted about ten years.)

Despite these comments and the action of the parishioners, little seems to have been done to remedy the situation. Cromwell's Commissioners reported in 1656 that the "Church is washed by the sea to the foundations; fearing the fall thereof there have been endeavours to secure it with great charge". They recommended that "it be taken down ere it fall and set up in the midst of the Parish." The Commissioners' Report confirmed the measurements of the Chancel (26 feet wide by 45 feet long) quoted earlier and continued:

"The said East end of the Churchyard from the Chancel towards the North doth contayne 92 feet in length - And the South side of the Church and Churchyard from the West or p'te of the Chancel toward the West lying likewise against the sea is in length 117 feet." The building fell into a state of almost complete ruin and beyond repair and, with the exception of the tower, was eventually washed into the sea. Local legend has it that a major portion collapsed during the great storm of 20th November, 1703, when Winstanley's lighthouse was washed away from the Eddystone Rock. Sailors removed pieces of stone for scouring the decks of their ships and the term "holystones" is said to have its origins here in St. Helens. The remaining portion of the tower was bricked up - as a seamark - and remains to, this day.

Photograph of Old St Helen's Church on the Duver

The present St Helens Parish Church

After waiting more than sixty years for permission to replace their Parish Church, the villagers obtained a brief for the erection of a new Church, which was commenced on the site of the present Parish Church "on the hill" in 1717 and completed in 1719 during the reign of George I (1714 to 1727). Bishop Trelawney, Bishop of Winchester, consecrated the new building on 27th June, 1719 and presented the Parish with a flagon, chalice and paten engraved with his coat of arms. These gifts are still listed in the parish inventory and the chalice and paten are in regular use. The flagon is at present on loan to the Museum at Carisbrooke Castle.

The new Church had box pews and a three-decker pulpit which dominated the interior. The chancel had a relatively low, plastered ceiling and the windows, with clear glass, were smaller than those seen to-day. The sanctuary appears to have had no altar, probably only a small credence table. The inscription "As oft as ye eat this bread and drink this cup ye do shew forth the Lord's death till he come", the symbols of Alpha and Omega, together with the ten commandments and the Lord's Prayer carved on tablets (now painted over) on either side of the east window, were visible to worshippers. The bell, which dates from 1610 and is inscribed "W. B. IH T. G. R. W. 0191" (the latter figures evidently being the inverted stamp of 1610) was probably transferred from the old church tower.

Photograph of St Helen's Altar

Rebuilding St Helen's

Rebuilding of all except the chancel took place in 1830 to 1831. The latter date is recorded on a stone in the south side of the exterior of the tower. Barber recorded in his "Picturesque Illustrations of the Isle of Wight" (1834) that "the part lately rebuilt is distinguished by a transept with a handsome window at each end." The chancel was rebuilt in 1862. The date of the stained glass window over the altar depicting the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Ascension, is not known but it was possibly provided at the time the chancel was rebuilt, or soon after.

Photograph of St Helens Church

The present building is, apparently, much the same as it appeared after the rebuildings but the box pews and the three-decker pulpit have been replaced. The chancel stalls were the family pews of the Grose family, whose ownership of the Priory dated from the time of James II. Some of the floor slabs in the north and south transepts and in the transept crossing are obviously gravestones removed from the old church burial ground on the Duver. The inscriptions are still legible and the oldest dates from 1707.

St Peter's Seaview

It was in 1858 that William Anthony Glynn 'demised' a plot of land, known as Six Acres, for an annual rent of £9.7.6d and 2.6d in lieu of Tithe Rent, to erect a good and sufficient stone or brick building to be used as a Church or Chapel of Ease, in connection with the Church of England only. This was also conditional upon the building not being consecrated without the consent in writing of W. A. Glynn, a requirement that was to cause some trouble later on.

At that time Sea View (as it was then known, but later altered to Seaview in order to save the cost of having two words in a telegram), was part of the far flung parish of St Helens, which extended from Bembridge Harbour to Brading and to the other side of St John's Church, Ryde.

During the winter months, those of Seaview who were unable or unwilling to make the journey to the Parish Church of St Helens, met for their services in West Street Cottage. The services were conducted by by Andrew Daish, one of the churchwardens of St Helens.

The regular summer visitors to Seaview from the mainland wished the church to be built on the hill where Pandora Lodge now stands, so that it would be a landmark for ships. Ultimately the offer of Six Acres was accepted, but on completion of the building the donor refused to hand over the deeds until he had been made 'patron' of the living.

The following article from the 'Isle of Wight Observer' gives an interesting description of the church soon after it was built.

`Considerable improvements are to be effected at Seaview Church, which was built some few years ago, but has not yet been consecrated. Its fittings are not of the most advanced type, a reading desk facing West, a capacious pulpit, and a diminutive font placed almost under the Chancel arch, being among some of its most striking features. A new order of things has, however, been gradually setting in. Some laymen in the parish have started a choir: this, hitherto at the West end is about to be transferred to the Chancel which is being fitted with stalls and seats for the men and boys who, it is needless to say, will be surpliced. The pulpit will be removed from its present position into the South-east corner of the Nave, and the font to a fitting place at the West end. It is also in contemplation to add a new organ instead of the present harmonium. We still regret the absence of some other alterations. For instance, a square four legged deal table, of the value of about five shillings, is hardly suitable as a place whereon to celebrate the Divine Mysteries, and the chilly aspect of the whole church cries aloud for coloured stained glass and decoration.'

In 1874 it appeared that the Vicar of St Helens had given permission for the Reverend F.R. Fincher to perform Divine Service in an 'unconsecrated proprietary Chapel' at Seaview, with the permission of the Bishop, but when the Vicar died his successor at St Helens refused such permission. He later claimed that 'without his permission and leave, and contrary to his instructions Fincher continued to hold Services and collect offertory monies in an unconsecrated building within the Parish of St Helens'.

The matter came before the Court of Arches and Fincher in his defence stated that, in the belief that he was the permanent Minister to St Peter's Chapel, Seaview, he had built a chancel to the said Chapel, which together with other adornments had cost over £600, and had provided some 20 Services a week (!) for the people in the 'Conventional District', his congregation often comprising 200 people. However, judgement was given that:

1. The Bishop had no authority over any unconsecrated Chapel.

2. No Clerk in Holy Orders could legally minister there without the licence of the Bishop, nor had he such powers without the consent of the Incumbent of St Helens.

3. That such Incumbent is in no way bound by any consent which may have been given by his predecessor.

So things remained until 1902, when a letter from parishioners and visitors was sent to the Incumbent of St Helens asking for his consent for a fit and proper Minister of the Church of England, nominated by Mr Glynn, to take the services on a temporary basis. The letter also indicated that they felt 'he had been ill advised in instituting legal proceedings against the Lessees of St Peter's Proprietary Chapel'.

It was about this time that a difference arose between the Patron and the congregation, the outcome being that the Patron locked and barred the Church after removing all books, registers and ornaments, and the church remained closed for several months.

By a Deed of 1904 Trustees were appointed, with Mr Glynn entitled to nominate a Minister subject to the consent of the Vicar of St Helens. If for six months no nomination was made, the right to appoint would pass to the Bishop. Power was also given to the Trustees to form a new Ecclesiastical District.

There followed an appeal to the Bishop of Winchester from a large number of `visitors to Seaview' to support a Scheme laid before the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to form such a district. They believed 'that it is urgently required as the means of putting an end to the repeated difficulties that have arisen in providing Church of England Services'.

The result was an Order in Council published in the London Gazette of 15th February 1907, assigning 'a District Chapelry to the consecrated Church of St Peter.' The consecration had been made by the Bishop of Southampton in the previous November, and the Patronage vested in William Anthony Glynn. The boundary of this new district was fixed as the Sea on the North side, thence the stream up Gully Road, Priory Lane (now Prior Drive), across the main road to the footpath from 'Iron Latch' (now renamed Longlands) to Bullen, from there the road to Crossways, and then Oakhill Road to the (former) Toll Gate.

Photograph of St Peter's Seaview Banner

In the following year the Commission `in consideration of a benefaction of £700 from Mr Glynn and John Oglander towards a certain house and premises as a Parsonage', granted another £700 for the erection of the Vicarage.

So it was that the independent Parish and Church of St Peter in Seaview began.

The first Vicar, the Revd Rowland Dawson, was inducted by the Bishop in 1907, when it is interesting to note that the Bishop was assisted by the Revd Neville Lovett, then at Shanklin, who in 1927 became the first Bishop of the new Diocese of Portsmouth.

The building of St Peter's and its alterations

The church was designed by the architect Thomas Hellyer who was responsible for a number of churches on the Island of a similar period, including Holy Trinity Bembridge, St Peter's Havenstreet, St John's Ryde and St Saviour's on the Cliff at Shanklin.Photograph of St Peter's ChurchThe foundation stone of this church was laid by Miss Bessie Ridley of The Castle, St Helens and building work was started in 1859 by a local firm using stone from Swanage with ashlar dressings, fine slated roofs with a bell mounted under a small spire. In 1959 the spire had to be removed due to its instability, leaving the bell cote as it is now. The simplicity of the internal plan was enhanced by a Gothic style iron screen installed in 1902. Photograph showing the Gothic Screen in St Peter's Church

In 1921 it was intended that the church should be enlarged by the addition of the South Aisle and Lady Chapel. The cost of the work was partly funded by a grant from the Free and Open Church Society as a memorial to the men of the village who had lost their lives in the 1914 - 1918 war. Owing to lack of funds the aisle was not completed at the time, but the 1967 edition of the church booklet (priced at 1/6d) formed part of the plans to raise the further £4,000 needed. The aisle was eventually completed in 1969 and incorporated two choir vestries. The two windows on the South aspect of the main aisle were removed, the openings bricked up and the windows reinstalled in the South wall of the new extension. In 1973 the partition between the two vestries was removed in order to make one large room, suitable for holding meetings. Twenty years later the partition was reinstated to create a clergy vestry, releasing the previous clergy vestry behind the organ for use as a storage area for choir, organ music and spare robes.

Iron entrance gates from Church Street were fitted during the mid 1960s as the result of a bequest from a former Vicar, the Revd Darcy Blackman.

In 1973 the flower vestry on the North elevation was completed. The porch, linking the West door of the Church and the Church Hall, was built in 1984 in memory of Mary Mason (1912 -1981) and designed by Andrew Mankowski.

St Catherine-by-the-Green

The chapel of the Isle of Wight College, Ryde was given to the Parish of St Helens when the College closed in 1905 and the building moved to where the Community Centre is now located. It was used as a Mission Church and Instutute, and became a feature of parish life for most of the twentieth century. As the church had never been dedicated, a dedication ceremony was performed by the Rt. Rev. John Phillips, M.A., D.D., Bishop of Portsmouth on the 5th December, 1968, when it was appropriately given the name of St. Catherine-by-the-Green.

Photograph of St Catherine's Chapel

The Mission Church and Institute became dangerously dilapidated and in 1989 were demolished and a new chapel and Community Hall erected in their space. This was mainly financed by a very generous legacy left to the Church by the late organist, Lilian Jacobs who had held the post for over fifty years.

Our Parishes

The Parish of St. Helens was originally part of the Parish of Brading but as the first church here was built before any record appears to have been kept by the Diocese of Winchester, the exact date of separation is uncertain. Richard Worsley wrote in his "History of the Isle of Wight" in 1781, that "this small parish comprehends the north-east extremity of the Island; it is bounded on the west by the parish of Newchurch; by the sea on the north and east; and by the parish of Brading on the south. The chief part of the parish consists of a manor and farm, called the Priory, formerly a cell to an Abbey in Normandy. The convent built a small church here, which they supplied from their own body, until the canon required to be constantly resident. It is recorded in the register of Winchester, that, in consideration of the smallness of the parish the Bishop licensed the Prior of St. Helens to celebrate mass and administer the sacrament, until a vicar should be established. In Cardinal Beaufort's valuation of the spiritualities in his diocese, the church is rated at 30 marks."

The parish of St. John's, Oakfield, Ryde, formerly part of St. Helens parish, was established in 1844. The Vicar of St. Helens was the patron of the living of St. John's until 1979, when the patronage was transferred to the Portsmouth Diocesan Patronage Board.

After the somewhat stormy history described above, the Parish of Seaview was formed out of part of that of St. Helens in 1907. The two parishes then had separate Vicars and Vicarages until an Order was made at the end of November, 1980, under Section 13 of the Pastoral Measure 1968, which empowers the reorganisation of parishes and arrangements for the effective deployment of manpower. This was for the benefices henceforth to be held in plurality and for the Revd D. M. Low, B.A., already Vicar of St. Helens at the time, to become the first Incumbent of the plurality, with his residence "in the parsonage house (vicarage) of the benefice of St. Helens." The plurality became effective on 1st December, 1980, following the retirement of the Revd N. Attrill from the incumbency of the benefice of Seaview, and the induction of the Revd D. M. Low as Vicar of Seaview took place on 17th February, 1981.

With the coming of the new incumbent, the Revd Mark Hill-Tout in 1989 the old Vicarage situated on the hill out of the village of St Helens was sold and a new building erected in the grounds of the Church which made it equidistant between the two villages. After six years, the Revd Mark Hill-Tout was succeeded by the Revd Howard Barker, who during his stay achieved much re fund-raising as St Helens Parish Church was in danger of subsidence - many thousands of pounds were raised and the Church restored to safety. Also during this period the Revd Kath Abbott served as Curate. In 2002 the Revd Mary Strange was appointed as Vicar of the two parishes. She was succeeded by the Revd Robert Wynford-Harris who was licensed as priest-in-charge of the joint benefice of St Helens with Seaview on 12th May 2014 and served until 27th August 2017. Although now a joint benefice, the two parishes are otherwise unaffected, each retaining its separate Parochial Church Council and electoral roll.

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