The history of Above Bar Church goes back to the 1870s. Today the church is very committed to sending out and supporting mission partners both in the UK and elsewhere. This is highly appropriate, not just because it’s what the New Testament expects of every church, but also because Above Bar Church was started by an American missionary.
The early years
Henry Samuel Earl (pictured) was born in Northampton in 1831, but emigrated to America with his family when he was seventeen. He became a Christian in 1853 (baptised by someone called Andrew Page), and five years later became a minister in the Churches of Christ.
He became a prominent evangelist, spending three years back in the UK before moving to Australia in 1864, where he saw very significant growth in the congregations he preached to. He returned to the USA in 1873, but within two years he had become convinced that he must ‘open up a work on American lines’ in Britain.
Earl’s strategy seems to have been to make a big initial splash in a city, preaching to large congregations in major public venues. He visited Bath, Birmingham, Reading and Plymouth searching for a suitable hall, and finally found one in Southampton. Right in the heart of the city was exactly what he was looking for, and at a reasonable rent: the Philharmonic Rooms (on the site of what later became the Odeon cinema and is now Waterstones), with a 1500-seat capacity.
Section of map from 1870 showing the Philharmonic Rooms
Earl started preaching in the Hall in February 1876, the month before Alexander Graham Bell made his first telephone call and General Custer made his last stand. Benjamin Disraeli was the Prime Minister and Queen Victoria was in her fortieth year on the throne. Earl found a local choir to lead the singing and the widow of a Congregational minister played the organ. More than seven hundred people came to the first service, and even more the following week despite heavy snow. On the third Sunday, the hall was completely full. The majority of these people were members of other churches, of course, but a regular congregation began to develop.
Henry Earl rented a small Baptist church that was being used as a warehouse and furnished it to seat around 300 people. As well as filling this building to capacity on Sunday mornings, Earl was soon also running week-night services and started a Sunday School. A church was formally established in August 1876 with an initial membership of 33.
As well as being supported by the Foreign Christian Missionary Society of the Churches of Christ, Henry Earl received some very generous support from an extraordinary man, Timothy Coop, a wealthy clothing manufacturer who lived in Southport. Coop had been associated with the Church of Christ since around 1845, having founded a church on similar principles in Wigan four years earlier. He seems to have been involved in setting up a number of chapels in the Wigan area, where his factories were. At some point, he had met Henry Earl and had supported him (as well as others from the Churches of Christ) financially. In 1880, he offered £3000 towards the cost of buying land and constructing a permanent building.
Next to the Philharmonic Rooms was a sixty foot-wide plot of land, which Earl bought for £1000. The snag was that the plot wasn’t long enough, since it only went back sixty feet from the road. Three more lots in Ogle Road were bought, however, for £300. One of these, apparently, was a skating rink and the other two had been part of the grounds of a large mansion, Ogle Hall, which stood where The Marlands is now. Intriguingly, on the map of 1870 (above), there is no sign of the skating rink or even Ogle Road, which means they must have been built in the early to mid-1870s.
Section of map from 1846 showing Ogle Hall
This was, of course, a time of major development for Southampton: the Itchen quays were still quite new, the Empress dock was being built and horse drawn trams had recently been introduced. 1880 was also the year in which Southampton Football Club was founded. Volunteers from the church dismantled the skating rink and used the bricks and windows for the new church building, which opened in 1880. On 17 August 1886, a Trust Deed was signed, passing the ownership of the site and building to the trustees of ‘Church of Christ, Above Bar’.
Henry Earl stayed in Southampton for less than ten years (though it seems he didn’t return to the USA until 1891), by which time he had baptised around four hundred people and the membership of the church had grown to over 100. Earl handed over leadership of the church to Aurelius Glidden, who stayed just two years, but who saw continued growth.
There were six more ministers, mainly Americans, during the next 25 years, often with considerable gaps between them. The church continued to grow gradually, and by 1900, the Sunday School rooms had been built at the back of the church. There were a hundred ‘scholars’, of whom 81 were boys. They would undoubtedly have been excited by the arrival of electric trams that year, first running from Shirley to Southampton Junction.
The church became increasingly independent of the Foreign Christian Missionary Society in America. This created financial difficulties, though. Interestingly, there was a suggestion for shops to be built on the church forecourt way back in 1909. The idea was rejected, as was an invitation to join the United Methodist Churches in 1911. Then, in 1912, the church entered a new era with the appointment of Frederick Phillips, who stayed for the next forty years.
Following the departure of Henry Samuel Earl, the founder of the church, in around 1886, there were seven ministers within 26 years. It seems that there was some steep decline in attendance towards the end of this period. After all this change, the church entered a long period of stability, with just two minsters spanning the next 67 years.
The longest-serving was Frederick Phillips, still remembered very fondly by a number of older members of the church. He was appointed as minister in June 1912 (on an annual salary of £120) and retired forty years later, aged 82, having seen the church through both World Wars.
Frederick Phillips was born in 1870 and moved to Southampton from Bristol when he was a child. He grew up to be an electrical engineer at a time when electricity was only just becoming a familiar part of life. He was seventeen when Southampton’s first electric street lights were switched on. As a young man Phillips was a member of Above Bar Congregational Church (which was towards the Bargate on the opposite side of Above Bar Street, where Primark is now; there’s a plaque by the back door), and was a deacon there for nine years. In 1909, he left his work to pastor a mission church in Winchester (Highcliff Evangelical, perhaps?), where he spent three years.
The final break with the American-based Churches of Christ (also known as Disciples of Christ by this time) came during the First World War. The denomination held that baptism was an act of obedience to Christ which is essential for salvation. In other words, if you haven’t been baptised, you’re not really a Christian. Phillips, in common with the vast majority of evangelical Christians, believed that baptism is an outward sign of personal faith, and not something that is essential to it. So when, in 1917, the British Churches of Christ were offered the opportunity to either join a national federation or become independent, the Southampton congregation decided to cut the ties and become an independent evangelical church.
The effects of World War I on British society were enormous, contributing to the decline in faith which marked most of the twentieth century. But between 1914 and 1918, the congregation grew, and by the early 1920s the membership had risen to 400. The church appointed a Mrs Smith as a District Visitor, on twelve shillings a week, to share some of the pastoral load. The idea of health and safety was hardly a concern back then: on Sunday evenings, the church was filled to capacity with extra chairs down the aisles and young people sitting on the upstairs window sills.
When he retired in 1952, Pastor Phillips recalled a time when the morning service had a congregation of only twenty, and commented that, ‘It is really wonderful how God has brought it up’. Another minister remarked that he didn’t know another church for miles around that had seen so many people clearly converted to Christian faith.
After Frederick Phillips retired in 1952, Leith Samuel was offered the challenging task of stepping into his shoes. Mr Samuel was an evangelist among university students with Intervarsity Fellowship (now Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, UCCF), speaking at student missions across the UK and overseas. He was also a speaker at the Keswick Convention, and so was already well-known as a Bible teacher. Mr Samuel was inducted in February 1953 and was the minister for the next 27 years. He had an enormous impact on many people, through his preaching, pastoral care and through the consistent example of Christian living which he and Molly demonstrated. Leith Samuel (sometimes known to students as ‘Lethal Sam’) was always a gifted evangelist and saw many people come to faith during his life.
The 1950s was a decade of rapid development and rebuilding in Southampton. A huge programme of council house building in Millbrook, Thornhill and Harefield began in the mid 50s, and slums were demolished in Northam, Chapel, Shirley and Bitterne. This was also a period of major development in the church, which was renamed Above Bar Church. There was a growing commitment to world mission, the establishment of home Bible study groups, and a growing team with the appointment of assistant ministers and pastoral workers. Central to it all, though, was Leith Samuel’s commitment to systematic expository preaching: opening the Bible passage by passage and book by book.
Above Bar Church experienced a remarkable stability for a very long time in the twentieth century. Between them, the ministries of Frederick Phillips and Leith Samuel cover almost half of the church’s history – 67 of its 133 years. Leith Samuel was the senior minister between 1953 and 1980, a period which saw some of the most radical changes to western society. In 1957, just three years after the end of food rationing, Harold Macmillan declared that we’d ‘never had it so good.’ Along with rising prosperity came lifestyle changes, the rise of youth culture, and changing attitudes to truth and morality. The swinging sixties brought a permissive society, student revolutions and hippies. Despite these cultural shifts, the church maintained, and even strengthened, its convictions of the centrality of systematically opening up the Bible week by week.
However, towards the end of the seventies, a major change became necessary. The church building had been built on a tight budget a century before, and now it was really showing its age, with a large crack appearing in the ceiling in 1976. Repairing the building would cost £150,000, but was it worth doing? It was a very traditional, large Victorian Church with fixed, hard pews and a high pulpit, which made it very inflexible in its use, as well as feeling old-fashioned. Added to that was the problem of limited additional rooms for groups and smaller gatherings. Rather than simply patching it up, a more radical solution was called for. But how could the church possibly afford to completely rebuild?
Property developers had, in fact, been approaching the church for some time. Occupying a prime location on Southampton’s main shopping street, it was a site with plenty of commercial potential. Confronted by this crisis with the old building, the church decided that a scheme which allowed for shops at street level would be a good idea. It appointed Robert Potter, a Christian architect with experience of major church projects (including the restructuring of All Soul’s, Langham Place), to produce the designs. Royal Insurance bought into the scheme, as part of their investment in property, and covered a substantial proportion of the building costs. The final service in the old building took place on 1 July 1979, the same day on which Sony introduced the first Walkman.
For two years after the closure of the old building in 1979, the congregation met in other venues: the old Mountbatten Theatre at Southampton Institute and the main lecture theatre in Southampton University’s Boldrewood Medical Sciences building. It was an exciting time of growth as the congregation lived out the conviction that the church is the people, not the building. In 1980, David Jackman took over from Leith Samuel as Senior Minister, having joined the staff team as Assistant Minister in 1976 after six years working with UCCF. Andrew Page joined the church around this time as an Assistant Minister, staying until 1984 (when he left for London Bible College, and subsequently Austria), by which time Peter Baker had arrived to become the new Assistant.
The new building opened in 1981 and provided much better facilities than the previous one. The auditorium has a seating capacity of around five hundred, though this is less than in the old building. The basement, which was nearly left out of the project, has around the same space as the previous church hall, while the top hall is rather larger. The organ, built by Copeman-Hart, was first installed in the old building for a few months before demolition. Back in the late seventies, the idea of an electronic organ being a good replacement for a pipe organ was still quite radical.
David Jackman, like his predecessor, was very highly regarded as a Bible teacher. This was a key factor in the church’s continued growth during the 1980s, which resulted in the first period of having two morning services. At this point there was not enough room for the children’s and teenagers' groups, so one group met in Pizzaland (now Bella Italia) on Above Bar Street. David’s great desire was to train people in preaching, and he ran various courses in the church. Eventually, it became apparent that David needed to give himself to this role without having the responsibilities of leading a church. So in 1991 he moved to London to start the Cornhill Training Course as part of the Proclamation Trust, of which he was President until 2009.
For various reasons, most of the staff team left Above Bar Church for new opportunities around the time that David left. One of these was Peter Baker’s successor as Assistant Minister, Trevor Waldock, who took a team of people to plant a new ‘seeker-friendly’ church, Waterfront (later called Exilio), in the city. The next five years were an extremely difficult period for the church with some strongly opposed ideas as to what the future direction should be. David Abernethie came to act as moderator during the search for a new minister, and he provided some much-needed stability. It was at this point that the church changed from having a diaconate, concerned with both the direction of the church and practical matters, to a team of elders who lead the church along with the staff team. Deacons now are leaders of teams within the church which have specific practical responsibilities, and are called ministry leaders.
The long search for a new minister came to an end when, in January 1997, Dr. John Balchin commenced his seven-year ministry. Since then the church leadership has shifted to an even more strongly team-based approach. John Risbridger (who arrived in late 2005) and Paul Webber (who joined the team in 2011). They are simply designated Ministers, and they work closely alongside the elders. Andrew Page returned to Above Bar in 2007 as a Minister, before stepping down in 2011 – with the wholehearted support of the leadership team – to work full time for The Mark Drama. Paul Allock, who had been in the church for more than 40 years and a minister since 1999, retired at the end of 2013 after which they worked with the Africa Inland Mission in Mbarara, Uganda, for two years. Tim Sutton joined the team as Minister for World Mission in the summer of 2013, leaving in 2015 to be the pastor of Westward Ho! Baptist Church. Read more about our leadership team, staff and ministry leaders on our People page. Chris Webb became a minister in 2019, and Paul Webber left in 2020.
Recent years have seen the church embracing a revised statement of vision and values. These values are firmly in the tradition of what Above Bar Church has long stood for, and also go further to include all aspects of church life and its place in Southampton and the wider world. In 2012–2013, the possibilitiy of taking over the two shops below the church was explored by the leadership team and others, but it soon became apparent that the practical difficulties were so significant that the cost would be prohibitively high, and the plans were abandoned. What came out of the process, though, was a strong realisation that the vision of the church is about engaging with people in a wide range of practical, social and ultimately spiritual ways, not about developing building (our Big Breakfast community, for example). Formation School (originally the School of Missional Disciple-making) was launched in autumn of 2012, in partnership with Living Leadership, partly to train and equip leaders of our missional communities.
In 2014, the Refresh project was launched to both extend the church’s ministries and to refurbish the building. The first phase enabled the establishment of the CAP debt centre and the appointment of both a CAP centre manager and a social action development worker. Phase 1 of the refurbishment saw the redevelopment of the church lounge and new branding for the church in September 2015. Phase 2 enabled a new entrance, new signage, and a glazed corner over the entrance to enhance the church’s presenc on Above Bar Street, as well as new windows on the front and side, and major lift repairs.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the church was very actively involved in Love Southampton, a partnership of a number of local churches to help the marginalised and needy in practical ways.
This is an exciting time for Above Bar Church, with a sense of progress and development. It has some strong foundations for building on in the future but, as always, further progress will only come while the church continues to trust in Jesus Christ and his gospel, rather than in itself.