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St John's Anglican Church
Bathurst, Eastern Cape

People:

Charles Cornwallis (alias Collier) MICHELL: Architect

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Date:1832
Client:Anglican Church
Type:Anglican Church
Style:Austere Neo-Classical
Status:Extant
Street:Donkin Street


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33°30'07.03" S 26°49'11.90" E
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Historical background

St John's Church at Bathurst was, designed by Major Charles Cornwallis MICHELL of the ROYAL ENGINEERS in 1829.

The original site for the Bathurst Church was fixed on the north side of the town, at the top of the central hill. But after the growth of the town was halted when the magistracy was moved to Grahamstown in 1822, the majority of the houses that had then been built were on the south of the hill. When, in 1810, the proposals for the erection of a church were quite far advanced, Governor Sir Lowry Cole visited Bathurst and granted a new site for the church in a position dominating the existing town, on the brow of the hill. It would seem that the church was at this time already designed, and that the original design was fairly strictly adhered to when the church was built on the new site. Michell, now Surveyor-General and Government Architect in Cape Town - one of the most versatile of the architect-engineers to serve in that capacity at the Cape.

Funds for the building were obtained partly by the sale of 104 £5 (R10) shares in the church, interest to be paid from the pew rents and offertories! The contract for the stonework was signed on 21 December 1831, with the settler Samuel BRADSHAW. He undertook to build the walls and the tower for £390 (R780). In March, 1832, the first sod was turned and in May the foundation stone was laid. BRADSHAW used stone from the Freestone Quarries and worked so well that the shell of the building was completed by the middle of 1833. The masonry was completed by May 1833, and tenders were then called for the carpenter's work in the roof, that accepted being tor £156 (R312). In December 1833 the bell was hung in the tower. In October, 1834, tenders were invited for the roof. In the meanwhile the Rev. James Barrow succeeded the Rev. George Porter. Tenders for roofing the building with zinc sheeting were called for in November 1834.

The outbreak of the Sixth Xhosa War in December, 1834, stopped all work on the church. The Settlers on the outlying farms were instructed to go to Bathurst. The safest place there was the uncompleted church, so the women and children took refuge in it while the men mounted guard around it. On Christmas Day a large force of Xhosa attacked the church and the cattle kraals which had been hastily erected around it. But the settlers and the troops sent from Grahamstown resisted the attacks on that and the two succeeding days. Repeated attacks on the church by the Xhosa were beaten off until the inmates could be evacuated to Grahamstown by means of a convoy of ox wagons. Three weeks later the church was re-occupied as a military post at which punitive patrols were based. But the building continued to be attacked, a fierce struggle taking place there on 6 February. After that the attackers were gradually driven out of the district, and with the signing of a peace treaty on 17 September it was possible to reconsider the question of the completion of St John's.

The roofing, glazing and internal fitting out of the building took place during 1836 and 1837, and the church was opened for worship on 1 January 1838. In April, 1846, peace was again disturbed by the outbreak of the War of the Axe. Once again the Church became a refuge. The windows were blocked with sandbags and about 300 people lived in the church until the end of the war in January, 1847.

Bathurst now became a parish of the new diocese of Cape Town. The building loan was redeemed by the shareholders transferring their shares to the Bishop in October, 1848, and in the same month the Bishop consecrated the church.

In December, 1850, the Xhosa once again invaded the eastern districts and for the third time the church had to serve as a place of refuge for the inhabitants. Fortunately the peace that was concluded in March, 1853, brought the turbulent period in the history of the church to an end.

Shortly after the establishment of the Diocese of Grahamstown in November 1853, the church was dedicated to St. John.

(Adapted with minor alterations from LEWCOCK, 1963: 271-4 and additional information from Oberholster, 1972: 147-9).

Architectural appreciation

That its beauty did not go unappreciated by the settlers is borne out by many contemporary journals and records, from which I have chosen that of Rev. William Shaw, Wesleyan missionary. 'Erected on a conspicuous and well-selected site ... it is built with such just proportions, and in such an appropriate style of architecture . . . that this village church, together with the character of the surrounding scenery and buildings, serves to remind an Englishman of many a rural spot in his own country of surpassing beauty.'

It is one of the few churches in this area with any real pretensions to genuine architectural character. The chief pride of the Bathurst church is its western front, which includes the tower. This remarkable design is, in spite of its basically contemporary character, reminiscent of the designs of Nicholas Hawksmoor and the early Vanbrugh. There is the same firm handling of form, the same delight in contrasts of light and shade, straight lines and curves. It is interesting to conjecture whether in designing it MICHELL did not have in mind some particular church in England, or at least some aesthetic quality which he admired in the buildings of that time. Yet St. John's has also much in common with the later work of George Dance the younger and the neo-classicists. While the detail of the pilasters and entablatures is freely interpreted, the orders frame sculpture niches, and in the tower, arcades. Only in the execution is the design wholly unconventional. For here the material takes command, the rough golden freestone rubble running continuously from column to niche, plinth to cornice, welding the facade in a dappled texture the varied richness and beauty of which contrasts magnificently with the implied geometry and sharp arrises of the neo-classicist mouldings. (Adapted with minor alterations from LEWCOCK, 1963: 271-4).

The plan is simple, a rectangle with a sturdy, square western tower with four arched openings, and an entrance porch below. The walls were constructed of a coarse-grained, sandy limestone taken from a local quarry and laid in the Cotswold manner in random rubble with smoother masonry for the quoins and openings. Originally they were cream-coloured but have weathered to a golden brown. The walls and mouldings are roughly dressed, the tool marks still plain to sec; these walls were strong enough to provide protection for hundreds of Settlers from the surrounding district who took refuge there against attacks made during the 1834—5 war. Later the church was used as a military post.

The pride of the church is the original treatment of the classical tower, the western front and the porch. This essay in the Classical Revival has no counterpart in South Africa; although the arrises and mouldings of the pilasters, niches and arcades are clearly defined, there is nothing of the usual smooth connotations which are usual in the finish of buildings designed in the Classical Revival manner. It is unique. (Greig, 1971: 77-8)

Click here to view a copy of a pamphlet on the church history published in the 1960s. (2,948 KB)
(Submitted by William MARTINSON)

All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.

Writings about this entry

Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pg 48, 77-78, 77 (ill. [incorrectly named St George])
Hartdegen, Paddy. 1988. Our building heritage : an illustrated history. South Africa: Ryll's Pub. Co. on behalf of the National Development Fund for the Building Industry. pg 56

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