ON Sunday 22nd August 1841 a congregation of Scottish Episcopalians met in the room of a house in William Street, where Divine Service was solemnised by the Very Rev William Routledge.
Their first church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, opened on the site of the present St Michael's Church in 1843.
It was described in The Guide to Helensburgh as "standing embosomed in trees and shrubbery" — and was Tudor in style.
In 1851 a day school was added to the chapel, lying at right angles to it, on ground at the east end. Its inception was due mainly to the Rev John Bell, an ardent educationalist who undertook the duties of schoolmaster as well as Rector.
In 1857 the present Rectory, or Parsonage as it was then called, was built, the date being recorded in the etched window panels of its front door. In the same year, the railway arrived in Helensburgh and the town's population increased so rapidly that by the mid 60's the congregation had outgrown Holy Trinity and urgent appeals were being made for funds to build a bigger church.
By 1866 these — including a contribution from W.E.Gladstone — had been promised.
Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, a prolific architect and pupil of George Gilbert Scott, chose the style of the Gothic Revival for the church and under his guidance the new church was erected by a local builder, James McKinnon. The external stonework of red sandstone was from Comcockle, Dumfriesshire, and the internal limestone from Caen in Normandy.
The new church was dedicated to St Michael and All Angels after a pre-reformation chapel at Faslane, and it was consecrated on 7th May 1868.
The earliest wall memorial is a handsome marble tablet commemorating a man who died in 1857, before the present church was built, and the latest was put up in 1967.
The most striking feature is that nearly half commemorate those who died on military service. Of the rest there are two incumbents and three organists. Many have a story to tell.
Captain Thomas Maling Greensill was killed by 'friendly fire' because of a change of sentries while serving as field engineer at the time of the Indian Mutiny during the siege of Delhi in 1857.
He was a cousin of General Lord Roberts and so related to Rosamond Skottowe, nee Roberts, who was organist at St. Michael's for 35 years and is commemorated in the Chapel window. His father was Indian Army. The Skottowe connection no doubt explains why he is commemorated in St Michael's.
Captain George Stuart Nicholson died as a result of an illness contracted during service in India. A year before he died he was married in St Michael's to a local girl, Beryl Hamilton of Armadale, Rhu, daughter of General Sir Iain and Lady Hamilton. His father served in a different regiment in India.
Dr James Henry Digby Watson graduated in medicine from Edinburgh University in 1913 and was serving as temporary Surgeon on board the cruiser HMS Hawke when she was sunk early in the First World War.
He was a gifted rugby player, a reserve for Scotland before being capped twice for England. He also distinguished himself as a boxer, an athlete (representing Scotland in long jump), and cricketer. His family were closely related to the Raeburns.
Alfred Anthony Douglas Raeburn died at the battle of the Somme in July 1916. He was the youngest son of William Raeburn, a successful shipowner and generous benefactor to the church. Alfred did a practical course in shipbuilding before entering his father's business.
George Mayhew Vereker Bidie was the son of Lt Col Bidie, Indian Army. He spent much of his childhood in Rhu with his grandmother, Mrs. Gillatt, two of whose sons are commemorated in Rhu Parish Church.
He married a girl from Rhu, one of the Hoggans of Ardenvohr, the house which later became the Royal Northern (later Royal Northern and Clyde) Yacht Club, only a few months before he was killed.
He joined the Royal Scots and thereafter the Royal Flying Corps. His funeral was at St Michael's and the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times reported that "during the service an aeroplane circled round the vicinity and continued to hover over the town till the funeral was concluded."
The Roll of Honour is interesting both as a record of those who enlisted and as a work of art. It was designed and painted by William Hole, a distinguished Edinburgh artist who collaborated with Rowand Anderson on church projects.
He died in 1917 so this may have been one of his last commissions — particularly poignant as he had by this time lost one son on active service and had another serving in the RAMC.
Much care was taken over the design of the First World War Memorial, which was not in place until 1931. The local paper mentioned each of those who lost their lives as news of their death came through.
Christopher Hughes was a keen athlete who rowed at Henley. He took up an apprenticeship at Beardmores before he enlisted in the ranks in the Shropshire Light Infantry with a group of friends from Shrewsbury School.
David Robertson was a choirboy but went to live in Australia before the war. He was wounded in the landing at the Dardanelles and invalided to Helensburgh, but killed on his return to duty.
Ralph Robb died in the attack on Loos when 23 out of 25 officers were killed or wounded.
Hedley Lyle was in Argentina when war broke out and at once returned and enlisted. His job at the front was with the Pioneers wiring and clearing trenches.
Fred Stone was a seaman cook who served in a minesweeper.
Harold Duncan was an observer with the RFC and was badly wounded in an air fight over German lines. He was awarded the MC just before he died a day later.
George Thomson (who is featured in the Military section of this website) was the most highly decorated. He brought down 21 German aircraft and in 1918 was awarded the MC in March, the DSO in April and also held the DFC. He died when his plane crashed in England in May. He attended Hermitage and Allan Glen's Schools.
Of the men commemorated on the Second World War Memorial, David McDonald was Helensburgh's first loss. He had been a leading stoker for twelve years before leaving the navy to join the local Post Office.
Ian Gordon Farquhar was killed in a flying accident. He served with the colonial administrative service in Nyasaland, now Malawi.
Among the remaining memorials, all modest brass tablets, two are for Rectors, the Rev John Syme and the Rev Canon Beard, who between them served for 82 years from 1861 to 1943, and three organists, all of whom died in harness.
Tom Stanton's death was particularly sad, resulting from an accident on the Cardross road, when he was found unconscious having fallen off his bicycle. He died 24 hours later.
The fact that three organists and an exceptional chorister are commemorated draws attention to how important music has always been at St Michael's.
The organ was commissioned from a French builder fairly soon after the church was built and added to in 1906 to increase its range, with further renovations in 1927, 1968 and 2000 — organs require to be overhauled every 30-50 years. Evening Service is still sung on most Sundays.
Some Gifts to the Church
The elaborate decoration of the Chancel is almost entirely thanks to the generosity of one man, R.D.Jackson, who served on the Vestry for many years but whose address was in London. So far, we have been able to discover nothing more about him.
Over a period of about 20 years after the church was built he gave the mosaic and alabaster reredos, the pulpit, the choir stalls, the Chancel screen and brass gates, the lavish and unusual scheme of tiling on the east wall around the altar and, last but not least, the large east window and two lancet windows on the north wall.
We do know from Church records that the architect, Robert Rowand Anderson, was consulted and involved in the design and commissioning of all these gifts in turn. We would like to think that they were part of his vision for St Michael's in the first place and were introduced as finances allowed.
The chancel windows were designed by Stephen Adam, an eminent Scottish stained glass artist, but the tiles came from the centre of encaustic tile-making in Shropshire and have been identified and dated with authority and according to recent research.
The theme of the central diamonds on either side of the altar is the fourth chapter of Revelations . . .
4.5: "And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God."
This scheme was designed and used in several churches he built or restored by an English Gothic Revival architect, John Pollard Seddon. We do not know why this particular design was chosen by Anderson but it is tempting to wonder whether he acquired a liking for such tiling schemes when working as assistant to Gilbert Scott at the beginning of his career.
The tiles have not always been to the taste of the Rector, as appears from this comment in a newsletter of 1972: "The new lighting has brought out the beauty of the altar, but at the same time does show the drawbacks of the patterned tiles on either side of it.
"It has been suggested we experiment with some sort of cover for these tiles that could be put up or taken down easily — so that we could see what the effect would be of a plain background. It will be interesting to see how this turns out.
"I am personally doubtful about the durability of curtains and wonder whether in the long term we ought not to think about taking up the light oak motif from the front of the chancel and the chapel in some sort of panelling round the sanctuary."
The pulpit was given by Mr Jackson in 1885, four years after the windows. Made entirely of polished alabaster it stands out as an important element in the furnishing of the church and complements the alabaster surround of the mosaic reredos. The three female faces represent St. Paul's virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity.
The handsome brass lectern does not appear to have been part of the overall design, although the local paper felt its "singularly chaste design" was "in keeping with the very chaste decorative art of the chancel." The choice of adjective seems curious in both cases.
The lectern was given by Vice-Admiral Edye in September 1888. About 20 years later, in 1915, William Raeburn's memorial to his wife was described at the time as "a comprehensive scheme for the treatment of the exterior and interior of the west entrance along with the decoration in stonework of the interior of the west gable."
It was in three parts. The exterior element was the finely carved tympanum above the entrance door. The second element was a new entrance porch carved in Austrian oak in elaborate Gothic Revival style — 80 years later this was replaced by a larger porch which let in more light. The Raeburn porch has now been placed by the north door.
The third element of the memorial was the two stone statues, of St Andrew and St Mungo, placed in niches below the rose window on either side of the porch.
In 1930, when the tower originally designed for the church was at last built, William Raeburn gave the bells, a carillon of eight mounted in the newly built tower, and a large triptych painting of St Michael as a further memorial to his family — his wife and four of his children.
The painter, Ancel Stronach, was an RSA and Professor of Mural Painting at the Glasgow School of Art until 1939.
William Raeburn was one of Helensburgh's most distinguished citizens: he received a knighthood in 1918 on his retirement as President of the British Chamber of Shipping, chaired the Clyde Trust from 1919-29 and was MP for Dunbartonshire from 1918-23. He became a baronet the same year.
He was also involved in many local charities such as the chairmanship of the Helensburgh Dwellings Company which provided social housing in Maitland Street.
The most recent memorial to adorn the church is the West Porch given by George Jones in 1996 in memory of his wife, Edith Carty-Jones. Its buttresses of light oak and copper pinnacles echo the gothic architecture of the church.
The beautifully engraved glass panels both let in light and allow visitors to see as far as the chancel. The inlaid decoration of the ceiling completes a design which richly enhances the entrance to the church.
Items of interest in the church
By Lindsay Watkins
1. Oak panelling round Font. Presented in memory of Janey Nicholson Henderson, of Glenpulan, Shandon, in 1932. Designed by Messrs Rowand Anderson & Paul and executed by Scott and Morton, Edinburgh.
2. Font. Sculpted stone with carved oak cover, with counter balance mechanism. Font, given by the "children of the congregation" in 1868, has four panels, including the Baptism of Christ. The carved cover was given by Edith Black in 1919 in memory of her husband and 7 year-old daughter.
3. McCav Cowan Window. C.E.Kempe 1890. The Risen Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene (Note: The stained glass in St Michael's is thought to be one of the best collections in the West of Scotland. A beautifully photographed booklet, describing the windows in detail, is available, price £5.
4. North Porch. Of Austrian oak, being part of the original Raeburn Memorial on the West Facade. Given in 1915 by Sir William Raeburn of Woodend. Moved to this position in 1996 to make way for new West Porch.
5. Cowan Window. C.E.Kempe 1894. St Luke and St Paul.
6. Triptych of St Michael and Angels. Painted by Ancell Stronach. Given by Sir William Raeburn in memory of his "dear ones" in 1930. Angels thought to represent his wife and other relatives.
7. Ruddock Window. Shrigley & Hunt after 1876. The Risen Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene.
8. Fletcher Window. Charles Gow c.1887-91. Dorcas clothing the naked/Good Samaritan.
9. Pulpit. Given by R.D.Jackson around 1872. Alabaster, showing Faith, Hope and Charity.
10. Screen, Brass Gates, Choirstalls. Given by R.D.Jackson. The Screen and Choirstalls around 1872 and the Brass Gates in 1892 in memory of his mother. Oak candleholders in choirstalls given in 2001 by Russell Knott in memory of his parents. The work of local craftsman Shaun Hoey.
11. Lancet windows. Showing St Michael and John the Evangelist. The work of Stephen Adam. Given by R.D.Jackson 1881.
12. Reredos. Given by R.D.Jackson around 1872. Of glass mosaic and alabaster. Shows the Crucifixion with the three Marys, John the Evangelist, the Virgin Mary, soldiers and the Centurion. Side panels show angels with the Instruments of Passion.
Encaustic tiling on east wall shows lamps and seven lights symbolising the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, being Wisdom, Intellect, Counsel, Strength, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord. The border is of vines and wheat. In the lower left corner one of the tiles is upside down; it was common practice in Victorian churches to create such "deliberate mistakes" as nothing could be seen to be more perfect than God.
13. East Window. Stephen Adam 1881. Given by R.D.Jackson. An outstanding example of his work. Central light shows Pentecost, Ascension, Resurrection. Side lights show angels from the Old and New Testaments.
14. Vesica window. Stephen Adam 1881. Christ in Glory surrounded by angels. Given by Thomas Watson of Ardenlee (later St Bride's School).
15. Organ. Built in 1906 by A.Gern, foreman to Cavaille-Coll, builder of organs at Notre Dame, St Sulpice and Paisley Abbey. Restored to good effect in 1999/2001.
16. Nave altar. The work of Shaun Hoey, a current church member.
17. Brass Lectern. Given by Admiral William Henry Edye in 1888.
18. Chapel. The South Choir aisle was converted to a chapel and dedicated to the Holy Trinity in 1958.
19. Skottowe Window. C.E.Kempe 1902. The Visitation. Kempe's signature of a wheat sheaf can be seen in the lower left corner.
20. Oak screen and double doors at entrance to chapel, given by John Sharp of Holmglen.
21. First Smith Window. Date and artist unknown. Scenes from the Life of Christ.
22. Gore Booth Window. Attributed to Clayton and Bell after 1889. The King of Love my Shepherd is.
23. Donald Window. C.E.Kempe 1889. Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Christ.
24. Boyle Window. Date unknown. By Francis Philip Barraud. Annunciation and Nativity.
25. War Memorial to those who gave their lives in two World Wars. First World War memorial bronze Christ thought to be the work of prolific sculptor Charles d'Orville Pilkington Jackson.
26. Second Smith Window. Clayton & Bell after 1889. Presentation of Christ at the Temple.
27. Hodge Windows. Alexander Walker after 1896. Christ stilling the storm/And Jesus called a young child unto Him. These two windows house the finest glass in the church.
28. Rose Window. C.E.Kempe 1889. Given by Sir Alex Dennistoun. Each lobe shows an angel carrying a scroll with variations on the theme "Praise the name of the Lord".
29. West Entrance Porch. James Anderson 1996. Given by H.G.Jones in memory of his wife. Of light oak and ornamental engraved glass. Look up also to see the exquisite work of the craftsmen.
30. Niche Statues of Saints Mungo and Andrew. Sculptor unknown. Part of the Raeburn Memorial.
31. Nave Capitals. Of Caen Limestone, each capital is different.
32. External West Portal. Sculptor unknown. Given in 1915 by Sir William Raeburn in memory of his wife. The sculpture is newly restored. Tympanum shows Christ in Glory surrounded by musician angels, below which are the symbols of the Four Evangelists and the Episcopal Church. Attractive lizards on the capitals.
33. Bell Tower. Built in 1930 with a full carillon of eight bells. Erected by Sir William Raeburn in memory of his wife and four children, who tragically predeceased him.
The colourful hassocks are the work of the congregation.