Portsmouth, at one time, was known as Hatter’s Bay, a small settlement, it was described in 1832 as being … “brush to the water’s edge.” Eventually this little place of no importance became a bustling water front village famous for its hotels and its proximity to Kingston Penitentiary. It was in Portsmouth that St. John’s Church was eventually built and some of the finest limestone buildings in Frontenac County constructed. In a survey by John Collins in 1783- 84 and by the drawing of lots by those colonists who were loyal to the English crown and who fled to Canada during the American Revolutionary war, we find why and where these people came from. The beginnings of the Church of England in Upper Canada dates from these years.
In the belief that Church and State were bound together and that good churchmanship involved loyalty to the Crown, the British Government contributed very substantially for many years to setting up the Church in the colonies. The influx of loyalists into Canada led to the beginnings of the now vast episcopate of the Anglican faith. Many of the loyalists, military and civil, had fled to Sorel in Quebec, and when they numbered thousands, the British authorities gave them parcels of land in the uninhabited wilderness to the west, and lots were drawn for these by the new settlers.
By 1833, a site of 100 acres with water access and close to many fine limestone quarry sites, convenient to the town of Kingston was chosen for the Provincial Penitentiary. Besides the great stone penitentiary, Portsmouth grew because of its beautiful natural harbour, where wharves, two ship-building yards, a brewery and tannery etc. were built. In the years 1834-50, many wealthy Kingstonians moved out to the country and had large stone mansions built by an influx of stone masons brought from Britain to build the Rideau Canal.
These people who became the native aristocracy had built up their wealth through shipbuilding, large breweries, grain and transportation etc . Previously, they lived above or adjacent to their establishments or warehouses in Kingston which was becoming a principle port on Lake Ontario. Most of these large country estates were built between the town of Kingston and the village of Portsmouth and mostly along the Front Road, now called King Street, West.
To supply this building expansion, limestone quarries were opened up and developed in Portsmouth. A 700 foot pier was built into the natural harbour in 1840. Land values increased tremendously when Kingston was chosen as the first capitol of Upper Canada in 1841, and one can imagine how Portsmouth must have grown, especially when the home of the new Governor General was just up the hill at Alwington Place.
This accounts briefly for the growth of the little community. Now what about a church for the people?
Early church services were held in a barrack room at the Garrison Fort, using a drummer boy and his drum to call the people to service. Out of a population of 500, only 7 were actual members and 19 were professed members of the Church of England. Others were Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Quaker or Scottish Presbyterian.
The war of 1812-1814 brought on a tremendous growth in population, due mainly to the naval and army Garrisons and their families, also private shipbuilding enterprises. All this caused a boom in building and prosperity, so the church grew. By 1825, the corner stone was laid for the new church of St. George on its present site in downtown Kingston.
1841-1844 marked the years of greatest expansion. Kingston was chosen as the first seat of Government of Upper Canada and, with the growth in population, more churches were needed. First of all came St. Mark’s in Barriefield in 1843.
St. Paul’s Church (Queen and Montreal Sts.) was built in 1845 in memory of the Rev. Robert David Cartwright first assistant at St. George’s under the Rev. George Stuart. He died in 1843, and his widow moved to Portsmouth. She and her family were much involved in the funding and founding of St. John’s Church there in 1849.
In the meantime, with the establishment of the large country estates along the Shore Road, the subdivision and building in the village of Portsmouth, there was need for a church in the district. Funds were collected amongst the wealthy and not so wealthy families of the Church of England Communion to found St. John’s Church in 1849. A parcel of land, Lot 4 and part of Lot 3 in the village of Portsmouth was offered by a Richard Scobell as a site for the church, with the provision that he and his descendants be granted a pew in the church. This offer was accepted in preference to a site (almost opposite) which eventually became the Penitentiary Quarry, now a park. The deed was recorded on 6 July 1849. Plan No. 54.
The small church was of simple Gothic style, it was built of local limestone, probably quarried on the site. Until the church was built, services were held in a house near the water behind the Portsmouth Town Hall. Two clergymen shared the duties of the new Parish, the first being the Rev. Ephraim Patterson who was ordained in 1850 and came to St. John’s that same year. According to the 1850 report of the Kingston Branch of the Midland Society, “his ministrations were to extend to Wolfe Island”. This would be Trinity Church Parish founded in 1845. Evidently the two parishes were considered one pastoral unit until 1852.The work was shared by the Rev. Wm. Herchmer, assistant in charge at St. George’s following the Rev. Robert David Cartwright. Previously, he was also a minister at St. Paul’s Church, 1845-48.
The little stone church held two services a Sunday, one at 10:30 a.m., the evening service
at 4 p.m. By 1852, according to a report to the Kingston Branch of the Church Society, the congregation felt blessed by their improved situation. At this same meeting, it was announced that the Rev. T. W. Allen was appointed incumbent for a year.
In 1852, the Rev. Francis W. Dobbs came to St. John’s from Ireland as its first Rector and stayed until he retired in 1901. The Cartwright family was instrumental in bringing Rev. Dobbs to St. John’s. The big stone rectory near the church, recorded as Plan 168 on Lots 6, 7 and 8 was designed by William Coverdale and started in 1855. Until it was completed the Rev. Francis Dobbs stayed at Rockwood Cottage with the widow and family of the Rev. Robert David Cartwright.
In the 167 year history of St Johns we have had only 9 rectors.
St. Johns was enlarged in 1863 by adding transepts and a chancel to accommodate a growing parish. A large church hall was built in 1897, it was built of the same local limestone and blended well with the church, being in the same simple Gothic style. These buildings were joined in 1966 by a building with a choir room, Sunday school office and classrooms. The rectory was sold in 2008.
The village of Portsmouth still retains pride in its roots, even though it was annexed by the city of Kingston in 1952 many living in this area think of themselves as living in Portsmouth Village and not in Kingston.