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. Minutes before, the fishermen had discovered four or five bodies washed ashore and, notwithstanding the sea, the fishermen launched two boats, called "lerrets", each crewed by seven men, and set off towards a boat some distance out flying a distress flag. After battling with the waves for some time the fishermen discovered in the boat 12 men, whom they brought ashore. The survivors were given the greatest attention and were taken by the 11:40am train to the Seamen's Home at Weymouth.

The entire disaster, along with the bravery of the local fishermen, resulted in a national subscription. Relatives and friends of those who were lost in the Avalanche requested that a memorial be erected on Portland, to which they wished to contribute. A suggestion was made to the Rev. J. A. Beazor, the rector of Portland, that there was need of a church in Southwell, the small village nearest the site of the disaster. The bravery of the Portland fishermen was rewarded and they were given testimonials at St John's Schoolroom in Fortuneswell, during October 1877. It was at this event that Rev Beazor made the announcement of the plan to build a small church as a memorial to those who died on both ships. The proposed site at Southwell, which was in view of the point of the disaster, was already purchased. Both Shaw Saville and Co, owners of the Avalanche, and the family of her master Captain Williams promoted the idea of building a church as a memorial.[5]

Once the rector of Portland made an appeal in the Standard newspaper for testimonials to be presented to them, the public readily responded. A total of £135 2s. 8d. was contributed.[6] The public subscription saw with donations from both England, including locals of Portland, and families of lost ones in New Zealand.[6] In addition to this, other donors included Queen Victoria and the poet William Barnes.[5] The appeal raised £1,900 and Weymouth architect and diocesan surveyor C.R. George Crickmay designed the plans.[2] The builder Job Lynham laid the top stone in May 1879, and this was the point when the Rector formally named the church Avalanche Memorial Church. Although the majority of the cost had been raised by the time the church was dedicated to St. Andrew on 3 July 1879, organist Henry Smith had to initially use a harmonium until an organ was built for the church the following year.[5][6][7]


The church features memorials to those drowned and testimonials to the bravery of the local fishermen, whilst artifacts recovered from the tragedy 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. ^ "Home". 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