Ryde Social Heritage Group research the social history of the citizens of Ryde, Isle of Wight. Documenting their lives, businesses and burial transcriptions.
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St James’ Church, Ryde

St James’ Church in Lind Street, Ryde, a Proprietary Episcopal Chapel built in the Gothic style, first opened its doors for divine worship on 1 July 1827. The internal painting and decoration was not finished until the following spring.

The Church built by William Hughes Esq., Barrister at Law and at one time MP for Oxford, cost £6,000. The Church held 650 people including 200 free sittings, situated in the galleries, for the poor. The architect was Greenway Robins of Walworth, Surrey, and the first incumbent was the Rev Augustus Hewitt (brother to William Hughes). It was licensed to the Bishop of Winchester.

The Church has had many ministers over the years, but one who stands out is the Rev Richard Waldo Sibthorp MA BD, who purchased the Church from its founder. He was the incumbent from 1830 to 1841, and during his time, St James’ became well known for its evangelical preaching and high church ritual, attracting many notable families, who were holidaying in the town, to the services. One such family was that of the Duke of Buckingham from Buckingham Lodge, Ryde. In Peter Clarke’s “From Ryde to Rome” he states, even “military and naval officers from Portsmouth would frequent the Church”.

During his time as minister, Rev Sibthorp oversaw several alterations to the building. The organ placed in the western gallery was enlarged, and the flat ceiling over the nave moved to give the present open roof. Choir stalls were installed, and shields painted on the gallery beams.

In 1840 the Rev Thomas Jones, an 88 year old rector of Creaton, Northamptonshire, visited St James’ and said in a letter it was “the very image of the beast” being fitted up in a very gaudy manner, like a theatre, and morning service lasted three hours with the organ taking up one hour of the three. Another person noted the organ played 33 times during the evening service. Rev Jones thought many attended for entertainment, and others to vent their sighs and sorrows. He did report the chapel was very full on Sundays and there was preaching in it nearly every day.

An article in the Hampshire Telegraph in January 1839, reported Rev Sibthorp, “should be praised for, despite the cold and rain during the winter months, people are attending his services two or three times a week to worship, even as early as 8 o’clock.”

At that time the galleries were reserved for domestic staff of the many large houses in the area; menservants on one side and maids on the other.

While serving as the minister of St James’ Church, Rev Sibthorp must have proved a mystery to his congregation as he changed from the Church of England faith to become a Roman Catholic, then returned to the Anglican Church, until finally in 1841 he left St James’ to become a Roman Catholic again, leaving behind a sad and confused congregation.

After the upheaval caused by Rev Sibthorp’s hasty departure had died down, Rev Augustus Hewitt, his predecessor, purchased the chapel and returned for his second incumbency.

In a rare book published in 1843, it states the Church is strictly proprietary and belongs to the officiating Minister. At the time, services were held at 10.30 am, 3.30 pm and 6.30 pm on Sundays, and at 7.00 pm on Thursdays. People who attended the Church had to pay with ‘sittings’ priced as follows:

  • Middle aisle, in the body, per annum £1- 4s- 0d
  • Sides under the Galleries £1-1s- 0d
  • Front seats in the Gallery 15s- 0d
  • Back seats in the Gallery 10s- 0d

There was also a proportion of Free Seats.

On 11 March 1903, during the incumbency of the Rev R R Cousens, an indenture conveyed the land and premises of the Church, dwelling house and vestry house to a group of Trustees – The Church Association and two local people, for the purposes of more effectively promoting Protestant and Evangelical doctrines. The present patron is The Church Society.

Another minister worthy of mention is the Rev Ernest Green, who served the Church for 40 years from 1934 to 1974, ably assisted by his wife. He served the Church during the difficult years of World War Two when some of the congregation were killed when a Portsmouth ferry, the Portsdown, struck a mine, and others died while on active service.

After the war, he initiated many important developments, the choir increased in size and special services were introduced such as, The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols by Candlelight. The first of these took place in 1945 and they became an annual event.

In contrast to the opinions of Rev Jones in 1840, when Sir John Betjeman visited Ryde in 1954, and particularly asked to see the Chapel, he exclaimed, “There’s a wonderful period piece for you”.

During Rev Green’s incumbency, extensive improvements were made to St James’ with a special appeal launched in 1968 to fund the alterations.

The Church hall was the first area to be renovated. Warm air heating was installed, a kitchen, committee room and cloakrooms were constructed and repairs to the roof and windows carried out. Work then started on the Church at a cost of approximately £16,000.  The roof was renewed, and alterations made to the west front that is now adorned with a giant fish (the secret sign of early Christians).

Alterations inside the Church included warm air heating, a new choir vestry, a foyer for the bookstall, the nave shortened with a screen allowing passers-by to look into the Church, and the interior was completely redecorated. The architect for the project was Mr R P Thomas DFC of Portsmouth and it cost almost £22,000, much of which was raised at The Church Shop, High Street and by generous donations. In December 1969, a service of thanksgiving for the restoration of the Church was held at which the Bishop of Portsmouth preached.

Early in 1972, Rev Green’s health started to deteriorate giving cause for concern, and in July of the same year, his wife suffered a fatal stroke. At her funeral service many people paid tribute to her devotion and dedication to the church. Rev Green rallied for a while and preached to a full Church for the last time at the 1973 Carols by Candlelight Service. He passed away in March 1974.
Excerpt from RSHG’s book Ryde’s Heritage: Our Town, Your Histories published June 2008