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A tale of three churches… and a pirate graveyard

Michael Handy looks at the various problems that faced the parish church of Portland over the years

St George, Reforne: a beautiful church that has been extensively restored now, but which was no longer big enough for the expanding parish

St George, Reforne: a beautiful church that has been extensively restored now, but which was no longer big enough for the expanding parish

As Oscar Wilde would no doubt have said about Portland’s parish churches through the ages: to need one new parish church is unfortunate; to need two looks like carelessness.
But the story of how Portland’s parochial needs changed – and how events influenced the success or otherwise of the churches – is also a tale of the development of the Isle  of Portland itself.
Along with the romance of the first of these – a ruined church at the foot of a romantic pathway, stuck between two castles – comes a child’s delight: it is that mystical place known throughout the county as Portland’s pirate graveyard.

One of the 'pirate' graves with skull and crossbones  is shown on the left here

One of the ‘pirate’ graves with skull and crossbones is shown on the left here

Those who wish the younger members of their family to continue believing in this romantic historical interpretation might care to direct their charges to read something else for a few paragraphs.
Gravestones of a particular vintage (and there are a few scattered around Dorset, including, for example, at Charlton Marshall) used to indicate the mortality of the man beneath the headstone rather than the piety of the deceased. They did this by means of a carved skull and crossed bones on a headstone. That pirates may have chosen an image of mortality as their own symbol to strike fear into those they were capturing has a high believability factor. Certainly it is higher than that the families of piratical criminals (whose days tended to end quickly, violently and often at the end of a Caribbean or London noose, rather than at home in rural North Dorset), would choose to commemorate such a death and indeed such a life on a headstone.
When taking the pictures for this piece down at the first of our churches, my visit coincided with that of a group of little people. ‘I can’t see any pirates,’ said a fearless four-year-old with evident disappointment. ‘That doesn’t mean they can’t see you,’ I said in my lowest, most gravelly and sinister voice.
On visiting the pirate graveyard with her children,  a friend of mine had been surprised when they saw egg timers on the headstones, not skulls and crossed bones. She told them this represents the fact that prirates were very keen on getting their soft boiled eggs just right and they got fearfully upset when they overcooked them, whence pirates’ fearsome reputation.

The arch at the entrance to the site of St Andrew's Church

The arch at the entrance to the site of St Andrew’s Church

The reason why St Andrew’s Church is so romantic though is relatively banal; it’s a ruin. As the cliffside started to give way, it was clearly time for the Isle of Portland to have another parish church and so, in the year 1754, the Church of St George, Reforne was built, well away from the cliffs. In fact it’s built well away from quite a lot of things, but reflects that there had been population expansion on the island on the other side. It took a dozen years for the church to be completed and it is, architecturally, almost four different churches depending from where it is viewed.

Inside the magnificent former parish church of St George, Reforne showing the beautifully restored (if initially problematic) box pews

Inside the magnificent former parish church of St George, Reforne showing the beautifully restored (if initially problematic) box pews

As a means of ensuring the construction costs of the church could be paid for, the freehold of the box pews were sold to parishioners. In the short term, this was a stroke of genius; it gave those attending church, literally, a sense of ownership and a feeling that their position in the parish and in the bosom of the church was permanent. It was only later on that the flaw in the system began to make the box pews more a hindrance than a help, as freeholds were split or passed on through marriage and issue to people who no longer lived in the island.
Throw in the fact that the church was impressively difficult to heat and costly to maintain and the inevitable decision to move on from St George’s was taken. The fact that once again the population centre of the island had shifted once again made the building of a new church in a new location in Easton the proposed plan.

The current parish church of Portland: All Saints in Easton by Crickmay

The current parish church of Portland: All Saints in Easton by Crickmay

So between the years 1914-1917 H R Crickmay’s Perpendicular style church was built. If these dates seem fairly familiar given the centennial commemorations of World War 1, it is not difficult to imagine that these were not ideal church-building times.
100 years and a month ago, the Dorset County Chronicle printed the following extract from the March Portland Parish Magazine: ‘The War, which alas still rages, has brought in its train many inevitable consequences, one of which is the closing of all outside sources of material assistance to the New Church Building Fund. Had we, in the month of May 1914, but dimly anticipated that Europe would quickly be thrown into an exhausting war, we should probably have postponed the beginning of our building operations. Now, however, that we have begun to build, we must as far as labour and means permit, continue and, if God allows, complete the work. We are thrown back upon our own resources and upon Him. Yet with our depleted manhood – for over 1,100 of our Portland men are serving with the Colours – and with almost a cessation of our stone industry, our faith and confidence are tried and tested to the uttermost. Lord, to whom shall we go but unto Thee? Today we have to bring the needs of His new church to God, and we must again plead “undertake for us”. We in Portland have done, and will in His strength, continue to do our utmost, but the burden of raising £1,356, though with willingness, yet with anxiety borne. I do most earnestly beseech those who have a measure of this world’s goods to lend them to the Lord.
“For look, whatsoever he layeth out it shall be paid to him again.”
The Biblical quotes, earnest beseeching and entreating language certainly did its job. Within a year of the appeal, the church was completed, World War 1 or no World War 1.
As with the graveyard at the original parish church, it appears that whenever a parish church in Portland iis built, it is not quite as it seems. What is clear is that over the years, whether in terms of honouring their dead or their maker, the people of Portland have always gone that little bit further than one might have expected them to.

Another 'pirate' grave with the church ruins beyond

Another ‘pirate’ grave with the church ruins beyond

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