Every Christmas we are reminded of Southampton’s well-known hymn writer Isaac Watts by the singing of his carol Joy to the World.

Watts is commemorated with a statue in the park named after him and in listening distance of the Civic Centre clock which rings out the tune to his popular hymn O God our help in ages past several times each day.

Associated with Southampton is another profoundly religious man who left his mark on our city in several ways but whose achievements are not quite so well acknowledged. That man is Basil Wilberforce.

Basil was the Rector of St Mary’s, Southampton’s mother church, from 1871 until 1894 and was the grandson of William Wilberforce the politician and philanthropist who successfully headed parliamentary campaigns which eventually led to the abolition of the slave trade.

St Marys Church.

The old St Mary's Church.

William Wilberforce was an evangelical Christian whose sons were also active in the Church. Samuel, his third son was an excellent public speaker and served as the Bishop of Oxford, the Chaplain to Prince Albert and as Bishop of Winchester. He was Basil’s father.

Basil attended Exeter College, Oxford where he trained for Holy Orders. On becoming ordained he was appointed curate at Cuddesdon in Oxfordshire in 1868.

In 1871 Samuel Wilberforce now the Bishop of Winchester appointed his son Basil as Rector of St Mary’s in Southampton. This was a position of great responsibility and a substantial challenge for Basil.

With Basil’s excellent voice and manner St Mary’s congregation grew, various women’s societies were introduced and one for young men which led to the formation of Southampton Football Club.

St Marys Church

The current St Mary's Church without the steeple.

Basil devoted much time visiting the schools in his parish all of which enhanced his growing popularity.

A great tragedy was to overtake Basil’s life in July 1873 for his father was killed in a riding accident. His father had been well respected and memorials to his name soon appeared.

Basil decided that a new St Mary’s church should be his and Southampton’s memorial to his father.

Basil asked George Edmund Street, the eminent diocesan architect, for an appraisal of the existing church and his report described the building as mean, ugly, inconvenient and ill suited for use as a church. The fabric of the building was so poor that refurbishment would be too costly.

St Marys Church

St Marys Church as it is now.

Street was regarded as one of the finest architects of the 19th century. He was appointed diocesan architect by Basil’s father in 1850.

Having been articled to Winchester architects Owen Brown Carter, Street worked as an assistant to George Gilbert Scott the designer of St Pancras Station and St Denys church in Southampton.

One of Street’s finest achievements was the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand and he also designed Samuel Wilberforce’s tomb in Winchester Cathedral.

At Basil’s request Street set about designing the new church in his favoured Early English style – known as Victorian Gothic today – with the first stone laid in August 1878 by the Prince of Wales. A medal was struck to commemorate the occasion.

In 1879 the partially completed church was consecrated by the Bishop of Winchester with a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

At evensong on the same day the Archbishop of York also preached a sermon at St Mary’s, the only known occasion when both Archbishops have preached in the same church on the same day.

Fundraising continued apace.

The church was completed in 1884 with the tower and spire yet to be added but this would be completed in 1914 through the efforts of Rector Canon Lovett who personally placed the cross on the completed spire.

Watts Park 1865.

Watts Park in 1865.

New bells were donated in 1914 by Mary Wingrove in memory of her late husband. These bells became famous as the inspiration for the song The Bells of St Mary’s also associated with Christmas.

Canon Basil Wilberforce left St Mary’s in June 1894 to become the Archdeacon of Westminster and Chaplain to the House of Commons.

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Godfrey Collyer is a tour guide with SeeSouthampton.co.uk .