Diocese of Portsmouth

    Colourful church history explored in talk

    19 Sept. 2023

    SHE is a self-confessed geek who loves researching church history and genealogy.

    Charlie Stevenson has been discovering how her church – St John’s in Fareham – was created as it celebrates its 60th anniversary. And she’s uncovered a fascinating story about a Victorian church created on the site of an old circus.

    The Circus Church attracted thousands of people when it first opened in 1857, offering accessible worship in a wooden structure that had recently hosted an equestrian circus. It then moved to a permanent building and flourished for decades.

    But after the church was bombed during the Second World War, the costs of restoration proved too high. The site was sold and the proceeds used to build St John the Evangelist in a newly-developed part of Fareham.

    Fareham mum Charlie has extensively researched the fascinating story that links the two churches. She’ll be delivering a talk delving into the human stories behind this history and showing exhibits from the Circus Church on September 24.

    You can join her as she journeys from the poverty-raged 1800s to the bombed-out buildings of the 1940s, to the new hope of a post-war Fareham housing estate, using historical documents, newspaper archives, history books and oral histories.

    “I am a bit geeky about all of this, and I think I’ve probably done more research on this than on my university dissertation,” she said.

    “And I’m really fascinated by the parallels between the 1850s and the present day. The Circus Church was originally set up because people felt isolated, in poverty, powerless, and feeling that church wasn’t for the likes of them. There were church leaders who reached out with love and compassion to those who felt on the outside of society. It doesn’t feel a million miles from where we are now.”

    Charlie Stevenson outside St John's, Fareham, with a table, chair and Bible holder that came from the Circus Church

    Back in the 1850s, the Circus Church’s visionary founder, the Rev John Knapp, was vicar of St John’s Church on Prince George Street, Portsea – a church that no longer exists. He saw that poorer families in his parish didn’t come to church, often because they didn’t feel worthy enough.

    An entrepreneur had created several circuses housed in wooden structures, including one at the corner of Fountain Street and Lion Gate Road (now Edinburgh Road), just off Commercial Road. This circus was not a success and closed, but the structure still stood. John Knapp secured the building for nothing and decided to create a new church there – meeting on a Sunday evening.

    His congregation put up posters and handed out thousands of leaflets. They promised to use language that people understood, and said it didn’t matter what people wore. At the first service in June 1857, 2,000 people turned up. By 1859, the Circus Church’s Sunday School had 324 children attending, being taught by 41 teachers.

    It continued to be successful, not least under the next vicar, the Rev John Cutlack Martin. He had inherited wealth, so built a new brick building in nearby Surrey Street, as the wooden structure had become unsafe. He was vicar for 40 years.

    In 1939, there were significant alterations to that church, including a new organ and arresting stained-glass window. But in January 1941, the church was extensively bombed, and the vicarage destroyed. Much of the furniture was stored in nearby St Luke’s Church, and some reconstruction took place in 1949.

    But by 1951, the church had decided it would be too expensive to restore the whole building. The site was sold for £10,500 and the proceeds used to buy land at St Michael’s Grove, Fareham, for a church to serve a new development there. St John’s, Fareham, first started meeting in the current church hall in 1956, and the new church was consecrated in November 1963.

    Charlie has recently discovered a charred Bible holder that was probably inside the Circus Church when it was bombed in 1941, plus an elaborate table and chair. She thinks there may be a charred Bible that was rescued and brought to St John’s, but she can’t find it.

    Charlie’s talk happens at 2pm on Sunday 24th September, at St John the Evangelist Church, Upper St Michael’s Grove, Fareham. It is free of charge, there is free parking, and refreshments are available. If you have any exhibits or stories that might shed more light on what happened, do contact her via office@stjohnsfareham.org.uk.

    St John's, Fareham

    1A Upper St Michael's Grove, Fareham,, PO14 1DN

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