St Nicholas Church
The Church of St Nicholas was originally built in 1911, using stone from the quarry owned by the Chappell Charity. St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors and young boys. Mr Harry Fedden, a Bristol philanthropist, had been instrumental in setting up the National Nautical School in October 1869, aboard T.S. Formidable, loaned by Admiralty and moored in the Channel off Portishead, "to train boys who would otherwise through poverty or parental neglect, or being orphans, be left destitute and homeless, and in danger of being contaminated with vice and crime". The Reverend Charles Kingsley of Water Babies fame was present at the opening.
In 1906, the school moved to its new building and the opening ceremony was attended by Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein. Her sister, Princess Henry of Battenburg, had laid the foundation stone in 1904. Fedden, to whom "a poor boy was a sacred trust", was determined that the new school should have a chapel and a chaplain. The Right Hon. Sir W. H. Wills, of the tobacco family, gave £1,350 towards the cost of £6,500 for site and building. Other members of the Wills family gave £2,000 and the remainder came as smaller gifts. The foundation stone was laid by the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt. Revd. Henry Kennion, and he was also present at the dedication ceremony on 14th May 1912.
It must have been a glittering ceremony. As well as the Bishop, the Archdeacon of Bath and the Rector of Portishead, Predendary Jukes, there was Vice Admiral H.S.H. Prince Louis of Battenburg as principal guest, and also the Lord Lieutenant of Somerset, the Marquis of Bath. There were many other luminaries present, mainly naval officers of exalted rank. The first chaplain, Rev. N de Jersey, occupied his stall for the first time. The position was at first an honorary one, but was later endowed with £4,000 in 1922 by Mrs Rowcroft.
The Bishop used a special collect at the ceremony, which expressed the ideals, not only of the Nautical School, but of Christians: "Grant, O Lord, that the boys brought up in this school may diligently learn all such knowledge as shall befit them to be ever faithful in their duty to their God, loyal to their Sovereign, diligent in serving their country and useful in their generation, and grant them so to walk before thee in holiness and righteousness for life, that they fail not to inherit thine everlasting kingdom."
The chapel became the centrepiece of school life. Attendance at early communion services was voluntary, but other Sunday services were ceremonial parades with band, choir, servers and readers, all of which required week-day practice. In addition to the usual Sunday services, there were baptisms and confirmations, and daily services after Divisions.
From the beginning, the boys were instructed in the Christian faith, and the Chaplain says in a report, ‘Fear God, Honour the Queen on our ship’s bell is no empty motto. The managers have already stressed the importance of spiritual training because English moral standards, based as they are upon the Ten Commandments, assume a Christian training which many boys have never received before coming here.’ He goes on to report that about 80% of the boys became 'assets to the country' when they left school.
In the Annual Report of 1905, the Captain is instructed: "While enforcing strict discipline, he shall...instil into their minds Christian principles...and the importance of leading a life of duty and usefulness". That this teaching was effective is shown by the number of "old boys" who still come back to tell us of their careers and how much they owe to their old school.
It seems a pity that such a useful establishment should be closed down, but in 1982 the school was vacated and the remaining boys were sent to a school in Bristol.
There are many reminders of the school in the chapel, such as the altar, made from some of the timbers of T.S. Formidable.
A previous chaplain tells us that the fine oil painting of T.S. Formidable which hangs in the church was originally presented to Henry Fedden, and the heraldic shields around the walls were partly made by the boys in the school workshops.
The East window is unusual with its mixture of saints and sailors: Our Lord, St Paul and St Andrew, with Sir Francis Drake and Lord Nelson; also pictures of warships of 1st, 10th, 16th and 20th centuries with that of T.S. Formidable. This window was given in memory of Henry's son, Vincent. At the West end, Captain Robert Scott's expedition to the South Pole is commemorated,in a window dedicated to A. Romilly Fedden.
The standard which Scott carried around the world still hangs beside his window. Scott, who died the year the chapel was built, faces the River Severn where, a few miles upstream, his son Peter created a sanctuary for water-birds at Slimbridge.
There is a small war memorial on the South wall of the nave which records the names of past pupils who were killed in two wars, usually in the Merchant or Royal Navies. Those who returned often had medals to prove that the school had indeed instilled in them "the importance of leading a life of duty and usefulness". The National Nautical School can be as proud of its pupils as they are of their school.
When the Mardyke School in Bristol closed, its remaining pupils joined the Nautical School and its War Memorial was placed in the South West corner of the nave, where it remains.
Today the church is used as fully as it was in the time of the school. There are not only Sunday services, but it provides a meeting place for organisations on weekdays and evenings. We have even had a wedding reception! Many visitors comment on the friendly atmosphere, and visitors and new worshippers are always welcome.
Every Sunday at 9:30 a.m. there is a Communion Service followed by coffee and biscuits. Additionally, there is a low mass (the Walsingham Mass) held in the side chapel, generally at 10:00 on the last Saturday of the month. Occasionally the time and date of this mass may vary but any changes are shown on the website.
Since the closure of their own church building, we have been pleased to welcome the congregation of the United Reformed Church of Portishead, who now hold their 11:15 Sunday service at St. Nicholas