In the 1850s, the principle church in Portsea was St John's, but the parson, Rev. John G.F. Knapp was unhappy about existing class divisions which meant that his church was used very largely by the middle classes. Reverend Knapp decided to provide a place where the Gospel could be preached to all persons, free of charge and without collection. The site he chose was most unusual in that it was a wooden version of a circus big-top.
The building was just outside the parish of St John's on Lion Gate Road, at the junction with Fountain Street (now Edinburgh Road), on land later known as the site of The Arcade. It was never consecrated but it drew crowds in their thousands from the moment it was opened on June 7th 1857. By 1859, the Circus Church Sunday School had 41 teachers and 324 children attending.
In 1859 Reverend Knapp was joined by the Rev. John Cutlack Martin who at a meeting in 1863 agreed to co-ordinate the construction of a new church. In fact Martin largely paid for the new brick church himself and continued to run the church for 42 years without pay until his death in 1904.
The new Circus Church was built in Surrey Street and was completed in 1864. It had seating for some 1700 people and had galleries on three sides, one of which held the organ. In 1939 significant alterations were made but just two years later the church was bombed and extensively damaged.
Although some reconstruction took place in 1949 by 1951 it was decided that the cost of full restoration was too high and that those served by the church could be equally well served by other local churches. This is supported by the fact that on the World War 1 memorial in the church there were many names that also appeared on similar memorials at nearby churches.
The site was sold for £10,500 and the money used was later spent on building St John's in Fareham. A plaque now stands on the site of the church. It is situated to the right of the staff entrance to the Nat West (formerly National Provincial) Bank, on Surrey Street. See the Memorials in Portsmouth website for further information.
"The Portsmouth That Has Passed" by William Gates
Various Correspondents, including Peter Rogers