The original Unitarian Church in High Street, Portsmouth was destroyed in the blitz of 1941. It's replacement, the John Pounds Memorial Church was not opened until 1956. It's resurrection was largely a testimony to the zeal and determination of John Sturges the incumbent minister.
John was born to Frederick and Maud Sturges towards the end of World War 1, the middle child of three. Frederick was a serving officer in the Royal Navy and though originally from Oxfordshire he had moved to Portsmouth and married local girl Maud. They brought up their family in Bradford Road, Southsea. Both parents were devout Methodists and instilled in their children the importance of education. John attended City of Portsmouth Boys School, leaving at the age of 16. He took with him a keen desire to further his learning which he accomplished during frequent visits to Portsmouth libraries.
Education, and later the ministry, became the cornerstones of John's life alongside his devotion to Connie, his wife. Always a man of great principle his greatest test came at the outbreak of World War II, when he had no hesitation in joining the Peace Pledge Union and declaring himself a conscientious objector, a decision that would estrange him from his father. With the help of his friend Charles Cole, minister at the Presbyterian Chapel, John found work as a carpenter in the Dockyard, a position he held throughout the war.
With the destruction of the Presbyterian Chapel and the nearby Baptist Church in 1941, the two congregations had no permanent meeting place and so largely dispersed. At the end of the war Reverend Charles Cole resigned and handed responsibility for services to John Sturges. These were held at various unsuitable premises including the Masonic Hall at Fratton Bridge where the congregation was reduced to just six members. Even with such limited resources, John was determined that the High Street church should be rebuilt and he set about achieving it with two members of his congregation, Annie Brackley and Mabel Hepplewhite who led the fund-raising effort.
Annie and Mabel were staunch Unitarians, regulars at the High Street Chapel from as early as 1910 and Chapel committee members from before the second world war. It is said by Mabel's daughter Edie that it was Mabel who persuaded John to become a minister. When fund raising got slack, Annie would make coconut ice and chocalate cream sponges whilst Mabel would make cream doughnuts, all to sell in aid of funds. When Annie died in 1965, John Sturges the minister conducted her funeral at John Pounds Memorial Church, saying that 'The foundations of this church were built on coconut ice, chocolate cream sponges and cream doughnuts'.
The foundation stone for the new church was laid by Sir Adrian Boult in 1955 and the fund-raising continued. A year later the church, now named the John Pounds Memorial Unitarian Church, was complete and opened to the delight of the congregation. John Sturges, his wife Connie and their three children moved into the flat above the church and the congregation began to grow. Amongst his many subsequent achievements, John persuaded the church committee to offer marriage services to divorced couples, the church becoming the first to do so in Portsmouth.
In addition to his role as minister at the church John worked for the local Workers Education Association, lectured on Social Sciences at Portsmouth Polytechnic and became a magistrate. Eventually his outside interests took up so much of his time that he resigned as Minister to become a permanent lecturer at the Polytechnic and to support the training of magistrates. He was called back to the church in the early 1990s where he again worked as minister for 18 months.
One of John's outstanding ambitions was to construct a replica of John Pounds' workshop within the grounds of the church. Sadly he did not live long enough to see this project come to fruition, but he had already put in motion the process which would see the workshop opened in 2004. John's legacy is written in his own words on the stained glass window above the church entrance - "It is we who must make all things new".
Tim Backhouse
'Unitarianism in Portsmouth', a monograph published by Portsmouth Grammar School
Pat Isted's memory of her two aunts Annie Brackley and Mabel Hepplewhite