The present church is the third church built on this site. In 1164 AD, the Norman lord of the manor, Baldwin de Portsea, informed Henry de Blois, the bishop of Winchester, that he was giving the church of St. Mary, together with some land, cattle, sheep and hogs to the prior and canons of Southwick Priory in memory of his
father, Alexander.

In the Domesday Book of 1086, it is recorded that 31 men and their families lived on the island in the Saxon hamlets of Bocheland (Buckland), Copennore (Copnor) and Frodintone (Fratton). The church is the ‘Mother Church of Portsea Island’. The drawing of the first church below is dated about 1800. The tower was built in Tudor times and on the extreme right can be seen the vicarage at the turn of the 19th century.

A settlement at the south west corner of the island was now growing in importance and a chapel was built there dedicated to St. Thomas, being a dependency of St. Mary’s until the 14th century.  This was to become the fortified town of Portsmouth.

St. Mary’s church remained in a rural environment surrounded by fields and farms until the middle of the 19th century, but then the dockyard began to develop and, as the population around the church began to grow, the need for a larger church became evident.  A gallery was built in the church, but in 1843 it was decided to pull the old church down apart from the Tudor tower.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the famous engineer, was baptised in the first church of St. Mary on 1st November 1806 and Charles Dickens, the author, was baptised there on 12th March 1812.   The old font is now to be found at St. Alban’s Church, Copnor.

Thomas Ellis Owen, the architect who built most of Southsea as a garden city, including St. Jude’s, built the second church of St Mary in the Early English style.  This second church proved to be deficient in both light and ventilation.  In 1887 it was demolished and the present church was built.

The then Vicar, Canon Edgar Jacob, was originally going to raise £15,000 to build a new church, but when an anonymous layman offered to give the same amount that the parish raised, new plans for the present church were presented to Sir Arthur Blomfield, the diocesan architect.  When W. H. Smith MP, P.C., First Lord of the Admiralty, died on 6th October 1891, it was revealed that he was the anonymous layman.  He gave £28,000 out of a total of £44,000 it cost to build St. Mary’s Church.  He was the founder of W. H. Smith, the booksellers.

The second church was completely demolished and a temporary iron church was erected at the north side of the churchyard.  The present church is built in the Perpendicular Gothic style.  The tower is 50m high (165 feet), the total external length is 63.2 metres (210 feet).  It is built of concrete faced with flint, with quoins and dressings of Doulton stone.

The foundation stone was laid by Victoria, Princess Royal, representing Queen Victoria, on 9th August 1887.  The church took just over two years to build and was consecrated by the bishop of Winchester on 20th October 1889.

The spacious interior, with its hammerbeam roof, large pulpit and beautiful reredos, is impressive.  The stained glass windows are particularly beautiful; those on the north side depict scenes from the Old Testament, those on the south side scenes from the New Testament.

The church’s Great East Window features Christ in Glory.  During the Second World War, this window was blasted out by a bomb dropped in Woodland Street. All the main lights were destroyed except for the one containing the figure of Christ.  

Canon Jacob’s vision was to build several mission churches around the parish, with a substantial church – St Mary’s – at its centre. His vision was accomplished with the building of St Barnabas, St Faith’s, St Mary Mission, St Boniface, St Stephen’s and St Wilfrid’s.

During the Second World War, the missions of St Barnabas, St Faith’s and St Stephen’s were destroyed by enemy action.  St Stephen’s used its church hall as a church but a new mission church was built in Crasswell Street named St Faith’s with St Barnabas in 1957. Due to the financial situation facing the parish in 1961, the missions of St Stephen’s, St Mary’s Mission and St Boniface were closed.

Many of the vicars of St. Mary’s have become archdeacons and bishops.  The most notable of these was Cosmo Gordon Lang, vicar from 1896 to 1901, who became the Archbishop of York in 1908 and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1928 to 1942.  Cyril Forster Garbett, vicar from 1909 to 1919, became Archbishop of York in 1945.

In 1927, the Diocese of Portsmouth was formed from part of the Diocese of Winchester and St. Thomas’ Church became its cathedral.  There had been many debates previously as to whether St. Mary’s should become a temporary or pro-cathedral for the new diocese but, owing to its commitment to its mission churches, it was not considered feasible.

The history of St. Mary’s Church is fascinating and several booklets are available from St. Mary’s shop. Heritage boards in the church provide further information.