Avalanche Memorial Church

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Not to be confused with St Andrew's Church, Portland.
Avalanche Memorial Church

The Avalanche Memorial Church, also known as the Church of St Andrew, is a 19th-century Anglican parish church, located in Southwell village, on the Isle of Portland, Dorset. It was built in 1879 and remains active to date, as part of the Portland Parish - a host of three churches; the other two being St. John's Church (St John the Baptist) and All Saints Church.[1] The church, along with its boundary wall, has been a Grade II Listed building since September 1978.[2] It is not to be confused with the ruins of Portland's first parish church, the 13th century St Andrew's Church.


Avalanche Memorial Church and surrounding area.

In September 1877, two ships, the SS Avalanche of the Shaw Savill Line and the SS Forest, collided off Portland Bill. The Avalanche was a three-year-old, three-masted iron clipper of 1160 tons. Captain Williams and his 34 member crew were taking 63 passengers, men, women and children, to their homes in New Zealand. The Forest was a wooden vessel of 1,423 tons with a crew of 22 at the time of the disaster.[3] As a result of the tragedy, 106 people, including whole families, perished that night.[4] Shortly after daybreak, local fishermen of Portland were successful in rescuing the few survivors. Amongst a number of bodies washed ashore onto Chesil Cove, the fishermen launched a lerret boat to reach another small boat flying a distress flag. A second lerret, containing another seven men, was launched soon after to assist in bringing these survivors ashore. Despite stormy weather the 12 survivors were safely brought ashore.

Once the disaster, and its surrounding events, became national news, much sympathy and general response from the public resulted in a national subscription. Those affected by the disaster in New Zealand and other countries, through the loss of loved ones, suggested that a memorial be erected on Portland. At this same time the Portland rector Rev. J. A. Beazor was alerted that increasing demand was being made for a new church within the island's southern-most village Southwell. A celebratory event followed in October 1877, at St John's School in Fortuneswell, to highlight the heroic actions of the Portland fishermen, when saving the few survivors. During this event Rev Beazor announced the plan for a new Southwell church, which would be a memorial to those lost in the disaster. This idea was welcomed by many, including Shaw Saville and Co, owners of the Avalanche, and the family of the ship's master Captain Williams.[5]

The next step was to raise enough funds to build the church. Rev Beazor made an appeal in the Standard newspaper, and this proved to be a success. A total of £135 2s. 8d. was donated to the cause.[6] The donations did not just come from Portland and England, but also from the affected families in New Zealand.[6] Amongst those who contributed to the fund was Queen Victoria and the writer/poet William Barnes.[5] The overall appeal raised £1,900 and Weymouth architect and diocesan surveyor C.R. George Crickmay designed the plans.[2] In May 1879 the church was completed, and Rev Beazor formally announced the church was named Avalanche Memorial Church. With a cost of approximately £2000 in total, Dr. Moberly, Bishop of Salisbury, consecrated the church on 3 July 1879, where it was dedicated to St. Andrew. A year later further funding allowed the addition of a church organ.[5][6][7]


The church features memorials to those drowned and testimonials to the bravery of the local fishermen. Some of the windows, the lectern, and the pulpit were originally funded by friends of those who were drowned. In addition to this artifacts have been recovered from the tragedy, and these are displayed in the porch, as well as a model of the Avalanche set in a glazed recess on the north side of the nave. There is a picture of the Avalanche, an artist's impression of the two Portland lerrets coming into land after the rescue and a framed copy of the testimonial presented to William Flann. There is also a brass tablet listing the names and, where known, the descriptions of the passengers and crew of the Avalanche.[6] The most notable artifact is the large anchor of the Avalanche. Divers located it in 1984 and, after seeking permission, managed to raise it and donate it to the church, where it lies outside to this day. Inside the church, stained glass windows display scenes from the tragedy. Today, the church remains well-maintained and is open to the public during the peak season.[2][8]


The church was built of Portland stone by Lynham and Bayliss of Portland, featuring rock-faced stone, windows and buttresses, and a two-bell turret. The stone used to construct the church was all dressed by the kivel, a traditional pick-shaped quarryman's tool. It is a small church with seating for approximately one hundred people; the inside length is 71 ft. and the extreme breadth 24 ft.[6] It was built with rock-faced random-squared coursed stone with ashlar dressings and has a bright red clay tile roof. The church's unplastered 4-bay nave features arch-braced trusses and two purlins, as well as a bell-cote to west gable, north porch, south baptistry and lower chancel. It is designed in a simple Early English style with lancets, buttresses and coped gables throughout. The west front has three stepped lancets under statue niche and double bellcote, along with a boiler house to its left and double plank doors under statue niche; stone stack. Inside, the baptistry has a single lancet to east and west, and triple lancet to south. There is a double-chamfered segmental-pointed chancel arch, and the north side has lancets with colonnette screen and a decorative tile floor. The round stone carved pulpit sits on short marble columns and the font is found at the west end of the nave. The windows are locked in deep embrasures to flat segmental heads. All remaining stained glass is of the 19th century except the south side nave by chancel arch, which features centenary glass by Jon Callan of Southwell from 1981. The window was formerly blocked by a pipe organ, which was removed in 1974. The former baptistry, now vestry, has a boarded ceiling and heavy marble columns to responds.[2]


  1. ^ "Find Us". Portlandparish.org. Retrieved 2014-05-01. 
  2. ^ a b c d "The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". List.english-heritage.org.uk. 1978-09-21. Retrieved 2013-02-14. 
  3. ^ "Collision of the FOREST and AVALANCHE 1877". Old-merseytimes.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-02-14. 
  4. ^ "Churches in Weymouth and Portland in Dorset, UK". Visitweymouth.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-02-14. 
  5. ^ a b c Morris, Stuart (1985). Portland: An Illustrated History. Dovecote Press. p. 93. ISBN 978-0946159345. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Scribbles. "The sinking of the Avalanche and the Forest". Pbenyon.plus.com. Retrieved 2013-02-14. 
  7. ^ The Dedicated Partnership - promoting tourism - http://www.dedicate.co.uk. "Avalanche Memorial Church in Portland". UK Attraction. Retrieved 2012-09-15. 
  8. ^ "Southwell, Portland". Geoffkirby.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-02-14. 

Coordinates: 50°31′50″N 2°26′35″W / 50.5305°N 2.4431°W / 50.5305; -2.4431