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Church of the Good Shepherd
Robben Island, Western Cape

Sir Herbert BAKER: Architect

Type:Anglican Church
Style:Arts and Crafts


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33°48'20.00" S 18°22'36.03" E Alt: 10m


The design of this small Anglican church has been attributed to Herbert Baker - with the costs apparently paid for by the (then) chaplain on the Island, Rev. W. V. Watkins. The Church was constructed to serve the Male lepers living on Robben Island. A separate Anglican Church served the Female lepers, but this has since been demolished.

The Church of the Good Shepherd remains the property of the Church of the Province of South Africa and is one of the very few physical reminders of the extensive leper colony on Robben Island - besides the numerous extant leper graves.

Built in 1895 in a modest Arts and Crafts style using a local stone, the interior of the church is plain and largely undecorated. The simple plan form of rectangular nave with small entrance porch, small vestry polygonal apsidal chancel and a wide chancel arch. The interior of the nave was relieved with heavy exposed roof timbering expressed in a black finish below the white painted ceiling.

Rev. Watkins acquired a statue of the Good Shepherd from Obergammerau in Germany which was mounted on an ornate bracket on the first truss above the entrance porch, but the statue has been removed.

The church stood vacant from 1931 when the lepers left the island until it was reconsecrated as the Naval church in 1942. The Prisons Service apparently used the building as a store. The church was refurbished internally in 1999.

An engraved brass plaque has been installed in the church which records the following inscription:


ON NOVEMBER 12th 1999 BY

Architectural description

The church has a double pitched corrugated fibre cement roof (probably replacing the original corrugated iron sheeting) over the nave with a half-hip over the northern end. A small scale decorative hardwood cross was mounted at the south end of the ridge of the nave. A large triangular louvred timber ventilator is located under the apex of the south end of the roof of the nave. A small scale square louvred bell tower originally surmounted the ridge at the north end of the nave but this has been removed.

A similar double pitched roof covered the wooden framed entrance porch on which another hardwood cross was mounted. The polygonal chancel and vestry were both roofed with hipped roofs. The gabled roof edges with finished with a timber fascia with a simple moulded bottom edge.

The eaves were carefully detailed with painted 76 x 76 mm rafters at close centres, with fret sawn moulded ends. A cast iron ogee gutter was originally fixed to the eaves - presumably on a timber fascia - but these have all been removed. The original dimensions of the cast iron ogee profile gutter (4" [101mm] wide x 3" [76] deep) and the cast iron down pipe (2" [51] dia) were established from a portion of gutter with an outlet nozzle lying at the base of the wall. Indistinct paint marks on the stone walls define the positions of the original cast iron downpipes - now removed.

The external walls were constructed as hammer dressed local stone worked to a consistent but slightly uneven external surface, and laid in irregular coursing with flush mortar joints and projecting raised rectilinear pointing. The base of the external wall was formed as a projecting plinth with a champhered top course in a blue slate forming an angled transition to the upper wall, co-incident with the floor level within.

The building corners are formed with informal quoining using dressed blue slate blocks - the salient corner's all formed with a carefully chiseled edge. Some of the corner stones to the plinth are marked with a small incised triangular mason's mark - formed with three carefully placed chisel cuts. The exact function of these marks has not yet been determined. Simple cast iron air-bricks - each with a series of narrow vertical slots - ventilated the sub-floor space and the walls below the windows in the apse. No foundation stone has been located.

A covered porch protects the entrance door. The porch was flanked on either side by a low wall with two built in benches the walls forming the backrests which in turn supported heavy carbolineum treated 'Tudor style' timber side frames and a heavy trussed roof.

The entrance door to the church comprises a substantial framed, ledged and battened hardwood door with slightly rounded head. Rows of square-headed bolts on the external face mark the positions of the horizontal ledges within. The entrance door to the vestry is of similar construction and detailing but smaller in scale. A wide flat slate block formed the external threshold to both doors.

A hardwood timber frame was provided to both external doors with the frame detailed with a substantial quadrant mould on the exposed edge with decorative stop-champers at the base of the door frame. Stonework over the entrance door supported with simple stone voussoirs and central keystone. Stonework over vestry door supported with simple plastered voussoirs.

One of the conditions of a patient with advanced leprosy was apparently an offensive odour and the design for the church presumably catered for this with the provision of numerous louvred ventilators.

All the windows to the church are framed in hardwood. The largest window occurs on the north elevation with an integrated arched semi-circular louvre surmounting a composite set of four three-paned windows, each of which has a simplified trefoil motif at the head of each window.

The windows to the nave (seven in total) are narrower and each comprises a composite sets of two three-paned windows with a simplified trefoil motif at the head of the window and the pair surmounted with a semi-circular louvre. The windows to the chancel and vestry (a total of seven) are the smallest and comprise a single paned window with a simplified trefoil motif at the head of the window.

All of the windows are framed externally by a plastered window surrounds with ruled coursing and radiating voussoirs. A plastered and painted sloping cill with moulded projecting edge forms an integral part of each window surround.

Internally the church was provided with a suspended floor with tongue and groove timber floor boards. The internal walls were plastered and painted. The windows had deep internal reveals with sloping plastered and painted internal window cills.

A matched lining-board ceiling - now painted white - was set above substantial exposed 'Tudor' style timber trusses with a black carbolineum finish. Ornate metal light fitting with glass light shades were suspended from the trusses.

Site features

A low scale dry-stone retaining wall on the street side of the church has with flat mortar topping and forms the east edge of the site. The retaining wall returns inwards for a short distance on either side of a narrow entrance stair formed with generous treads and shallow risers. A path on the east side of the church is formed of sea pebbles set on edge with a walking surface of a layer of loose sea-shells.

Remnants of a 'dished' stone apron occur on the west side of the church, which appears to have channelled the rainwater discharge from the downpipes around to the east side of the building.

Heritage Value

The heritage value of the Church of the Good Shepherd lies in its historical associations with a significant architect, as a good example off a small scale Anglican church, as an example of an building designed for a particular user group - the Male Lepers - and as an architectural landmark on Robben Island.

Statement of Significance

The Church of the Good Shepherd is closely associated with the use of the Island as an institution caring for lepers. The building facilitated the dissemination of religion under the auspices of the Anglican Church.

The Church of the Good Shepherd is a good example Arts and Crafts ecclesiastical architecture. The scale and volume of the church, careful use of hammer-dressed stone work, the finely detailed and crafted heavy roof structure, all create a distinctive visual impact.

The Church of the Good Shepherd is marker of the historically important medical institutions and medical care that existed on Robben Island.

Character Defining Elements

The heritage character of the Church of the Good Shepherd resides in the following character-defining elements: The Arts and Craft architecture, the simple rectangular nave with fine exposed timber trusses, the simple chancel arch between the apse and the nave, the dressed stone construction with fine dressed corner margins and raised rectangular pointing, the arched windows, the louvred timber ventilators, the heavy timber doors, the prominent siting and its landmark qualities.

William Martinson, Osmond Lange Architects, December 2019.

Books that reference Church of the Good Shepherd

Bassett, BW, Rudner, J & National Monuments Council. Division of Professional and Technical Services . 1986. An annotated survey of buildings and sites of architectural, historical and contextual importance, and recommendations concerning a conservation policy for Robben Island. Unknown: National Monuments Council. pg 11, ill between 11 and 12
Deacon, Harriet Ed. 1996. The island : A History of Robben Island, 1488-1990. Cape Town: Mayibuye Books David Philips Publishers. pg 76 Map
Riley, Patricia . 1993. Robben Island Conservation Survey. Cape Town: National Monuments Council. pg Map Sheet 6: Item 6.14