Underhill history

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"By Stuart Morris ©" written 1972-2015

The fine building formerly known as 'Brackenbury' is now the centre of Methodist activities in the Underhill area of Portland. This chapel and its predecessors have been the nucleus for the development over 200 years of Methodism on Portland, with which no less than ten other chapels and three schools on this Island have at some time been associated. The visit of Charles Wesley in 1746 can be said to have been the beginning of Wesleyan Methodism on Portland, but the movement relapsed somewhat after a number of years. The key to the revival and undoubted success of Methodism here lies in the name 'Brackenbury', which although no longer remaining in this chapel's title will stay indelibly part of its history. For the impact of Robert Carr Brackenbury on the early Methodist community was immense, and the influence of his teaching was felt long after his death in 1818. He was undoubtedly a man of considerable vitality who set out to completely reform the rather self-centred thinking of the close-knit society that existed on this Island in the late 18th century.


1793 Licence Methodist Worship-Brackenbury, Fortuneswell

Whilst Portland may not have been quite the den of vice with "drunkenness, cock-fighting, lewdness and immorality of every species" that Brackenbury's friends described, there was certainly much to be improved. Robert Brackenbury came to Portland by apparent chance. Having been ordered to move to the South Coast for medical reasons, it is reported that he took "the first coach that drew up" and arrived at Weymouth in 1791. Portland must have had quite a bad reputation on the mainland, for in no time at all he was urged to come to this Island "which is all darkness". The house Brackenbury bought was a fine building that stood near the top of Fortuneswell village; it was demolished in 1959 to allow road widening. It was here that the first meetings were held. So popular did they become that a nearby hall had to be hired to accommodate all those who wanted the experience of hearing the sermons of Mr Brackenbury and his friend George Smith. So noisy were the proceedings that locals called the place 'Bedlam' — a name which stuck to this corner of Fortuneswell for a century and a half.

Naturally it was not long before the idea of a permanent chapel was mooted, and such was the enthusiasm of the fast-growing band of followers, that within a year a chapel was erected. It was built on the site of the manse house in Fortuneswell, in the shadow of the majestic Verne Hill, where the flocks of the famous Portland sheep grazed. The construction did not go smoothly, as people loyal to the conventional church did all they could to prevent the dissidents establishing themselves, even to the extent of trying to sabotage the work. Although the new church was regularly filled to capacity the opposition reached violent proportions, with riotous interruptions of the meetings. However this unfortunate episode appears to have quickly faded on the conviction of two ringleaders at Sherborne Quarter Sessions, and the chapel went from strength to strength on into the 19th Century.

It is difficult to believe that Robert Brackenbury resided on Portland for only four years, such were his achievements. He was, however, followed by a succession of highly respected and influential ministers. These mostly resided in the house that was erected on the rising ground near the chapel, again at Brackenbury's own expense.

1810c Brackenbury-Chapel, Fortuneswell


An important and natural development was the Sunday School. Once established at Fortuneswell, it soon became very popular, as shown by the membership in 1819, which is recorded as 156. For many children at that time, particularly the girls, this was the only formal education they ever received. In common with other denominations the Methodist Society realised the importance of good general education for all children, and so on 15th May 1845 the first Methodist Day School was opened at Fortuneswell. The unpretentious stone building that was erected for the purpose is still serving as part of the Brackenbury Infants' School, having accommodated countless thousands of children over the 127 years. A free library was formed at this time for Sunday scholars, and among other developments a small burial ground was laid out adjoining the chapel in the grounds fronting the Manse.

With the death of her husband in 1818, Mrs Brackenbury, who was already very much revered, continued the work and went on to achieve probably as much in the Methodist Society at Portland as any woman could in the pre-Victorian period. Among other things she initiated and financed the first chapel at Tophill in 1825.

The mid to late 19th century saw a great increase in the population of the Island. This was due mainly to the construction of the Breakwaters and the massive Verne Citadel, but also to the ever-expanding stone industry. This increase is reflected in the congregation figures at Brackenbury's Fortuneswell chapel, for this became the centre for non-conformist worship for the many Government Naval and Military personnel based at Portland. The regular colourful parades through the streets to the church, later led by bands, must have been the highlight of the week for many young onlookers.

In spite of internal alterations, the need for a new building for meetings and worship became pressing by the 1890's. Firm proposals were made at this time for a new building and in order that services could continue uninterrupted, the decision was made to demolish the Minister's house and to erect the new church on that site. After a competition architect R. Curwen of London was commissioned to produce the design, and the principal foundation stone of the present building was laid on Whit Monday 30th May 1898.

1898 Stone-laying-Brackenbury-Church

Brackenbury Memorial Wesleyan Church was to be its title, and the names of those whose efforts helped the project to fruition are permanently recorded in 26 foundation stones in the front and flank elevations. The cost was £3,200, most of which had been raised by the time the work, by local builder and Methodist John Patten was finished. Only one year after the foundation ceremony, Whit Monday 1899, the inaugural service was held in this impressive new building, and in a further three years a fine organ was installed at a cost of £450. The now disused old chapel was demolished in 1903 to make room for a new double-fronted Manse, providing appropriate accommodation for the minister of such a large and thriving church.

At this point it may be of interest to mention that among those buried in the graveyard that now bordered the approach to the new church, are the bodies of a Methodist missionary and his wife who died with 15 others in a schooner which was shipwrecked on Chesil Beach on 29th November 1838. The Reverend and Mrs E Peard had only recently been married and were en route to their mission in West Africa when the tragedy occurred. At first no-one at Portland was aware of the identities of the bodies and they were all interred in the Parish Churchyard, but after further inquiries had revealed they included the Missionary and his wife, the two bodies were exhumed and re-buried in the chapel graveyard at Fortuneswell.

The dawning of the twentieth century saw the Brackenbury Church in a strong position. A spacious place of worship, the 700 seats of which were regularly filled to overflowing; a fine organ; a strong choir and above all an enthusiastic following of local people led by capable ministers, all of which contributed to the right atmosphere for expansion of Church activities.

1920c Brackenbury-Church, Harvest-festival

The Sunday School went from strength to strength, celebrating its centenary in 1903. Children continued to look forward to the annual 'treats' as others had done since the first recorded Sunday School Treat in 1823. That early outing had been all the way down the hillside to the Crown Hotel at Chiswell, where beef and plum pudding were given to the eager youngsters!


The introduction of motor 'char-a-bancs' early in the 20th century enabled horizons to be extended, and strawberry cream teas at Upwey Village, beyond Weymouth, became extremely popular.

In 1908 the 'Portland Men's Own Brotherhood' was formed. In advertising the first meeting of this a notice was posted at the entrance to the Common which read more like an army recruiting campaign --



This as it turned out was a gross underestimate of the need for such an organisation, for by 1909 there were no less than 218 members.


1910c Brotherhood Carnival Laundry cart horses

The zeal and energy of this body of young men was reminiscent of Robert Brackenbury's enthusiasm over a century earlier. Within a short period the Brotherhood formed a Sick Benefit Club, a Coal club, a Social Committee, a 'Practical Sympathy' Committee, -and a string band. The enterprise and originality shown by this group of men is quite amazing. For instance, in 1912 it arranged a unique parade of the fledgling Portland Fire Brigade through the streets of the Island. They organised frequent social evenings for youngsters, which in one form or another were to become part of the Brackenbury Church life for the succeeding 50 years. They also held lectures with subject ranging from 'Alcoholism' to 'International Peace'.

1908-1909c Brackenbury-Brotherhood Orchestra

The onset of the First World War of course disrupted life throughout the country, and the effect on the activities at Brackenbury was soon felt. There was an immediate reduction in the numbers of young men, and some never returned from the war. However, in spite of this one of the most successful events organised by the Chapel's youth was the annual Brotherhood's Carnival in aid of Hospital funds (there being no NHS then). The ones in 1912 and 1921 were quite spectacular. Whilst there had been many formal parades and processions on Portland, nothing quite like these carnivals had been seen before on the Island. (In fact it has probably not been equalled here since.). To quote from a contemporary report in 1921:-

"...As a Spectacle, nothing approaching the wonderful pageantry of the mile long procession had been seen in Portland or neighbouring towns before..". Colourful floats were mounted on cars, vans, horses and carts, and led by two bands. Entries were attracted from far afield, and national newspapers and such firms as 'Robins Starch', Quaker Oats' and 'Life Buoy Soap' also contributed. But none surpassed the local efforts. So memorable was this occasion that many older folk today 1972 recall that bright day in what was for many a very depressing time. Even this success, however was not enough to replenish the depleted numbers of the Brotherhood after the Great War, so in the 1920's this gave way to the 'Young Peoples' Society' -for both sexes. This society was to continue the organisation of many social events for the youth of the Church. These apparently superficial activities however had deeper and more lasting significance.

1912 PMOB Carnival Procession

As previously mentioned, the Navy and Army men regularly visited the Brackenbury Church in great numbers, and many of these young men formed their initial connections with the church through the meetings and Social Evenings. Genuine friendships were formed, and contacts with the regiments such as the Green Howards and the Lincolns stationed at the Verne Citadel in the years before the Second World War were frequent. Activities were resumed after the war in the form of the Brackenbury Youth Club, a source of fun and invigoration throughout the 1940's and '50's, giving the youngsters opportunities of making new friends and enjoying badminton, socials and concerts.

Throughout the inter-war years the church remained in a strong financial position, due in no small way to the Sunday collections and frequent fund-raising events. Perhaps the main such event was (and still is to this day 1972) the Annual Bazaar, held in the capacious school hall, with a large temporary proscenium stage, curtains and lighting. Well-produced concerts were produced, displaying surprising talents, with all age groups of the church community taking part, the hall itself being every year lined with busy bazaar stalls — the result of weeks of dedicated work.

It was at the Bazaar in Easter 1928 the "Brackenbury Memorial Gift Fund" was inaugurated. This proved a valuable asset in the years to come, attracting many substantial donations and legacies from church members and friends far and wide. It was a legacy by Rebecca Siggs in 1929 that provided a sum to be used for augmenting the wages of the caretaker and for the maintenance of the 'Ladies Parlour' which Mrs Siggs had financed three years earlier in memory of her husband George. This small but homely 'Memorial Hall' attached to the back of the church has certainly proved its worth over the years, being ideally suited to meetings and parties.

Since the late 19th Century there had been three flourishing Methodist chapels in the Underhill district of Portland; Maidenwell Chapel at High Street (Bible Christian); the Primitive Methodist Chapel at the lower end of Fortuneswell, and the Brackenbury Memorial Church (Wesleyan). By the late 1960's, however, some 40 years after the long-divided national Methodist Movement was united, it was becoming increasingly uneconomic to maintain all three buildings and their associated rooms and halls.

After much negotiation and discussion, it was jointly decided that the best and only practicable solution was to consolidate the activities in on centre and to sell off the other premises. The choice for this centre was to fall on 'Brackenbury' for a number of reasons. Not least of these was that its building is undoubtedly the finest of the three, although the others had notable characteristics and had served their purpose admirably. Brackenbury also had the advantage not only of being the newest and largest of the buildings, but of being in a picturesque setting in spacious grounds containing many mature trees.

The decisive event that enabled the transition to be made at an early date was news of a substantial and most welcome legacy from an old and loyal member of Brackenbury Church who had emigrated to the United States of America in the 1930s. Robert Bruce Monger had made several return visits to his native Portland in recent years and his death occurred only a few months after his last in 1969. It came as no real surprise to those who knew him that he should remember so generously the old church for which he had such affection. The use to which this windfall should be put took many months of deliberation by the Trustees. Among the plans considered was the conversion and extension of the large hall into an attractive dual-purpose Community Centre with modern facilities. The outcome (not without some dissent), was an ambitious plan to transform the 1899 chapel into a more modern, light and airy place of worship. Architects were duly appointed, and the builder set to work on the alterations in 1970.

The interior of the church has thus been dramatically transformed. The large and dominant galleries were removed, creating a brighter and more spacious interior, and allowing the coloured glass side windows to be seen to better effect. Controversially the elaborate organ was screened from sight and the choir now sit nearer the congregation. Although the fine stained timber organ screen, carvings, and huge gilded pipes are now hidden from view behind a simple hessian screen, the new lighter interior has brought a relief from the rather drab decorations which had many years before replaced the original imaginative and ornate colour scheme.

Many refinements were incorporated, including a new communion dais, and new heating was installed. The new spacious glass-walled vestibule provides a pleasing preview of the nave through to the alter-screen backcloth.

Whilst the original pseudo-Gothic interpretation has been abandoned in favour of 1970s modernism inside the building, the careful proportions of Curwen's imposing Portland Stone facade have been wisely retained. The two deeply recessed former doorways to the side of the main door now contain windows, and new glass doors in the central entrance certainly extend more of an invitation than the heavy wooden ones they replaced.

Many people over many years have made and left their mark on the buildings, and their good influence on the community around them. Inspiring leadership has been given by the resident ministers (see attached list). Numerous people from the lay preachers, choirmasters, Sunday school teachers, trustees, organists -including Miss Ethel Hilliar who was appointed to the post in 1920 and hardly missed a service until her retirement in the 1960s; to the organisers of the societies, clubs and the Sisterhood, all in their different ways helped to enrich the Underhill community throughout the 20th century, as their predecessors did over the previous 180 years.


1995 Underhill (Brackenbury) Church
© Stuart Morris 1972


1908 Portland Men's Own Brotherhood (Photograph)

Committee (and Orchestra) Members outside Brackenbury Memorial Church, Fortuneswell, circa 1909

R.(Scotty) MacKenzie: A. Russell: ?

Chas. G.(or J.) Burden: Watson White: Naboth Patten: A. Jackman: G. Holloway: J. Durston: Asst. Secretary

Walter Comben: William H. Morris: Edward Comben (Ned) Sansom: Rev. Wilkes: R.(Bob) Patten: Mastr. Gunner Dovey: P. Clark Gen. Secretary Vice President Vice President Minister Vice President President Treasurer

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