Sunday, July 13, 2008

Places of worship # ?

It's been a while since I remembered to post one in this series, so I have lost track of what number it is.... this is St Mary's Anglican Church down in the city centre.

It has quite a checkered history, as it goes back to the very earliest days of Port Elizabeth. (And it is WAY too fascinating to stop at just 1 photo!)

The town began in 1820 when boatloads of British Settlers arrived. Quoting from the historian Redgrave, who wrote Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days in 1947 (and now itself a collectors item)....

"Up to 1824, no minister of religion had been appointed to Elizabeth Town, as the place was commonly called in the early days. There was no place of worship and the few ministers who had arrived with the settlers had proceeded with them to their respective settlements in Albany where they were more than fully occupied tending to their spiritual needs. Preachers from the neighbouring Bethelsdorp Mission Station came over occasionally to hold short services and then returned to their native settlement above the Salt Pan. To remedy this state of affairs, Captain Evatt convened a meeting of religious minded persons in a room of the Red Lion Tavern in Evatt Street and headed the list of subscriptions towards the erection of an Anglican Church. In 1825 the Reverend Francis McClelland, one of the British settlers, was appointed Colonial Chaplain of Port Elizabeth, and having built the rectory at the top of Castle Hill (now a museum which we have featured recently) busied himself with the erection of St Mary's Church, the foundation stone of which was laid in the same year, but it was only completed and opened for worship in 1832."
In this early photograph from the 1800s, you can see that the tower was much simpler than it is now.

Again quoting from Redgrave:
"Upon its completion, the Church of St Mary's did not present a very imposing appearance with its plain oblong building and triple tile red roof supported upon great teak pillars. During the War of 1834 it was used for garrison purposes..... When peace was resored, the hideous red tiled roof was removed and Mr E Slater of Grahamstown replaced it by a neat roof of slate. A few stringed instruments, including the violincello and a seraphin, appear to have been used in the old singing gallery in the early days.
In the 1850s it underwent an upgrade, but in 1895, disaster struck, in the form of a pyromaniac, Miss Frances Livingstone Johnson, who set it alight, and it was gutted by fire. Many irreplaceable treasures and records were lost. (She subsequently burned Holy Trinity down, and also tried to burn St Augustines.) St Mary's was rebuilt the following year and looked grander than before (hence the extra detail on the tower) but Frances again tried to burn it and , according to Redgrave "was caught by detectives again in St Mary's, seeking a fresh point of attack to fire the church. She was taken to gaol and sentenced to Robben Island where she nearly succeeded in burning down the entire Government buildings there whilst the officials were giving an evening party."
Development of the town has resulted in the once proud old building being sandwiched between large modern buildings....

This is as it looked at the beginning of this year, nestled between the Public Library and a relatively new office block, while the upgrade to the city centre was in full swing.


  1. A very interesting history. Neat to see the changes through the ages.

  2. Very interesting post. Great to see the various images over the years.