Dibden Church, Destruction, Resurrection and Roger Pinckney

Exterior of the church before WW2

In the peaceful fields a little to the north of small settlement of Dibden, on an elevated ridge, was built in the early middle ages, the parish church of Dibden. Its location precisely reflects that chosen for most New Forest parish churches: Minstead is on a little hillock and the same for Brockenhurst, Boldre’s is on a ridge above the Lymington River and Bramshaw stands on a ridge north of the main settlement, Eling lies just south of the river on an eminence overlooking Southampton Water. I would suggest the reason for siting the churches in such locations was based, at least in part, on a desire to be more or less central to the geographic centre of the parish as initially defined; none served a nucleated settlement or village. The forest land, mostly of mediocre quality, and the way in which it was used precluded the development of settlements, with the exception of Lyndhurst which, uniquely, had from earlier times an administrative role physically demonstrated today by the Queen’s House, nestling to the east of the hill on which the church was built and which was a chapelry of Minstead.

Architecturally speaking these early churches were basic in character, yet individually each exhibits a kind of wayward charm and even delight to those who visit them today. And all were added to or modified in various ways during the progress of the centuries a feature which adds incrementally to their simple loveliness. Dibden was one of their number, though I think the modifications, such as artificially raising the floor, carried out during the nineteenth century, somewhat detracted from its charm.

The enemy strikes

On a clear starlit summer night in June one of the Southampton wardens recorded, “At 11.17 on June 19th, 1940 all was clear then, just two minutes later, at 2319 hours the air raid warning was received.” The town was due to get its very first pounding by high explosive and incendiaries bombs and, less than a mile to the west, just across the Test, lay the Royal Navy’s magazine at Marchwood, which was evidently another prime target and, just a mile south of that, quietly lay Dibden church. Presumably, a slightly off-course bomber off-loaded a number of incendiaries which landed on both the church and the adjoining mansion of Dibden House.

So it was that Dibden church entered the annals of our history by being the first church in Britain to be destroyed by enemy action.

Contemporary descriptions described how fire spread through the roof of the church, from near the chancel arch, westwards along the nave and into the tower which was described as “acting as a flue.”

The Hythe fire services must have passed this scene en route to help deal with the fires started at Marchwood. However, it was the owner of Dibden House, whose roof was ablaze, who telephoned the distress call and in the early hours of Thursday. The Hythe fire-fighting appliances shortly arrived at the scene and were soon supplemented by those from Beaulieu, Brockenhurst and Fawley. Just as an aside I should mention that the Fire Brigades Act 1938, was not implemented in the boroughs of Christchurch, Lymington, Wimborne (and some others) until an agreement was concluded on 21 August 1940 (details in HRO 27M74/DBC257).

When the fire appliances arrived at the scene it was found that the fire had too firm a hold so that little could be achieved because the timbers of the church roof and all the wooden fittings were so well ablaze. The fire-fighters did what they could and remained well into the following day damping down the smouldering ruins. The stone work was very badly affected by the heat and much was in a crumbling state. Some evidence of this can be seen on a visit today. Eventually, the walls of the nave separating the north and south aisles either collapsed later or were subsequently demolished. Fortunately, the effect of the fire had been just a little less severe in the chancel and the stone window tracery was pretty well intact. I suppose somewhat defiantly and despite this near total destruction a Sunday service led by the The Rev. Cyril Forster Garbett, Bishop of Winchester, was held in the hastily cleared ruins of the church on the Sunday following the raid—just as well it was summertime.

The rebuilding

Exterior of the church today

Although during the war years some thought was given to ways of restoring the ruins nothing could actually be done and it fell to the Rev. Reginald ‘Reg’ Miles, who entered the living as rector in 1946, to examine the various options and come to a conclusion.

On 9 August 1945 a public meeting had been held for parishioners giving them an opportunity to air their views and assess various proposals. The government body responsible for giving funds for the rebuilding of churches destroyed or badly damaged by enemy action, called the War Damages Commission, wanted to be aware of what feeling was locally regarding possible rebuilding. Because the bulk of the parish population was now housed in Dibden Purlieu many felt that a replacement church should be erected there and the old All Saints church should only be retained as a cared for ruin, surrounded as it was by an extensive graveyard, and entered through a fine timber war memorial lych gate bearing the names of the fallen in the two World Wars. Understandably, government funding was first directed towards housing, commercial and industrial sites and it was not until 1952 that the Commission was prepared to release funds for church repair and rebuilding.

It was not until September 1953 that, after deliberation, it was decided to rebuild the church but without the north and south aisles. The site of the south aisle was to be redesigned as a remembrance garden. The decision was made to engage the partnership of Pinckney and Gott, with offices in London to undertake designing the new church in accordance with the general guidance of the rector and a committee of the PCC. Roger Pinckney, FRIBA (1900-91) already had a considerable reputation for church design, and had carried out work on Beaulieu Church. Both the architects were well-established and both had served long apprenticeships in the offices of the late Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1811-78). Most of what I will now set down is from notes left by Arthur Gott (1884-1958) which provide considerable insight to the whole process.

He starts by stating, “This work was entrusted to my partner (Pinckney) and myself and was a job we found particularly interesting. The church was of very ancient foundation but, oddly enough, the oldest relic is the font. This is a square Purbeck Marble bowl with a simple geometric design, probably of the eleventh century…Before the war it stood in the base of the tower but when the church was burnt the eight bells fell and smashed it to bits. Fortunately the pieces were carefully retrieved… the base was beyond repair but the bowl has been perfectly and most sympathetically restored.” He continues by suggesting the church was mainly 13th century in date—“anyway the nave and south aisle.” He points out that the original north aisle was rather later and, in any case, had been rebuilt in the nineteenth century. The tower, which except for its roof survived the bombing, “had been rebuilt about 1880.”

“Until the destruction there was quite a lot of 14th and 15th century glass in the south windows of the sanctuary (chancel). I think mostly fragments collected and put in these windows. Of course, they were all broken up in the fire though fragments have been collected and preserved in a box. They are quite shattered and, I fear, of no use now. There were also some beautiful 18th century barley-sugar communion rails said to have been made from a yew tree in the churchyard.”

“We now come to the problem of rebuilding. The War Damage Commission, like all government bodies, works to rules. They are very generous with houses and offices but have been more cautious over churches…Your old church may have had a capacity for 800 seats and been a splendid 15th century building with elaborate hammer-beam roof but the church authorities must first declare how large a congregation they may expect to collect and having established that, the Commission will then pay for what is called a plain substitute building to seat that number…Now Dibden used to seat about 350-400 but by being isolated at one end of the parish and as most parishioners are in Dibden Purlieu, a guaranteed congregation of only 100 could be claimed…So at first the Commissioners offered us a new plain church to seat 100 people. This seemed a rather dull and a poor way to replace an old and interesting church. The tower being fairly modern was really in quite good order and the sanctuary, which was the most interesting part of the church, did not appear to be too bad. So we suggested pulling down all the ruins of the nave and aisles, reroofing the tower and sanctuary and building a new aisleless nave to seat 100 people. This the Commission, after some thought, accepted, at first reluctantly and, finally, with glee when they realised that as there had once been a tower even the plain substitute building was entitled to another one so adding to the cost. Thus our proposal was probably the cheaper and here, I must say, that once the principle was accepted no one could have been more co-operative and generous than the Chief Assessor at Southampton. He really let us do thing properly.”

Gott goes on to explain how at some time “in the dim past the church floor had been raised about 1ft 6ins. to 2ft which quite spoiled the internal effect. The proportions of the arches looked nonsense and the fine 14th century piscina was level with the floor of the sanctuary. I grubbed up the floor in places and found the old bases of the shafts, etc., and other sundry evidence. It was not possible to get back quite to the old level, and we have been guilty of a little forgery in certain places, but we did drop it 1ft 6ins. with a most satisfactory result inside.”

The furnishings should next be considered and we are told, “the rector wished to have a good solid Cromwellian-type communion table, rather like the one at Milford, so this set the style for all the fittings which have been designed to conform…the nave seating has been done by J.F. Gamble of Lyndhurst, all to our designs. In some things we have been restricted but not many: we were only allowed a plastic-tile floor in the nave…there was enough old bell metal saved to get two new bells for nothing—one good, big ½-tonner and a small tinkler with the best of materials. The sanctuary woodwork was by Green and Vardy of London, who did the House of Commons…” Gott goes on to extol the general contracting work carried out by E.H. Burgess of Southampton. During the floor lowering they came across the Lisle memorial and its motto, ‘A Joyful Resurrection’ was revealed and is quoted above the entrance door to the church. The Rev. Reg Miles reported that the church plate, comprising a chalice of 1553 and a paten of 1697, had been locked in a fire-proof safe and escaped unharmed, “though the parish registers were in a sorry state.”

The final rebuilding was completed in 1955 and the church was re-consecrated on Saturday, 2 April of that year. In my view the end result is entirely successful. Roger Pinckney, did not attempt a medieval pastiche, which he might easily have done, but provided a modern architectural interpretation that captured the ancient mood and so presented an interior which is in every way satisfactory. There is a splendid and quite detailed short history of the church by Graham Parkes, Chairman of the Waterside Heritage, available in the church.

Postcard of re-consecration of Church on 2nd April 1955

This article was written by the President of the LDHS Jude James. We are grateful to him for allowing us to use publish it on our website. It should be noted that this was first published in the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times on 27 Oct 2017.