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Garrison Church
Robben Island, Western Cape

John (Lt-Col Sir) BELL: Architect

Style:Gothic Revival : Commissioners Church


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33°48'40.11" S 18°22'43.91" E Alt: 12m


Robben Island has many fine buildings, one of which is certainly the Garrison Church. Hans Fransen noted that, “This handsome little church is the oldest extant building on the island; it also predates most Anglican churches in the Cape.” Picton-Seymour - a respected architectural historian - wrote that: “The square-towered Cape Gothic church was built in 1841 and is now an interdenominational meeting place. Startlingly white and washed by sea salt, it is one of the prettiest examples of this type of church building.”

Designed in 1840 by the Secretary to Government, Sir John Bell, the building work was executed entirely by prisoners under the direction of Captain Richard Wolfe, the Commandant on the Island. The first service was held on Sunday 10 October 1841 by Rev. Hough., the Senior Colonial Chaplain. Services were held monthly by Hough until the appointment of a resident chaplain.

The church is a small scale, early example of the Cape Gothic style, with plastered walls, buttresses, a crenelated parapet, a square tower above the entrance from Church Street on the east end and an apse at the west end.

During WWII some renovation work to the church was carried out - probably with the aid of Cape Corps servicemen. The bell was refurbished and the existing bell platform dates from this period. By this date the two small canons were already planted facing downwards and leaning against the salient corner of the two corner buttresses of the bell tower.

During the years of the Maximum Security Prison, predominantly Afrikaans speakers were attending the Church and it was changed from a purely Anglican place of worship to an interdenominational one. In about 1964 the church was renovated by the Prisons Service under the direction of the Historical Monuments Commission (the predecessor of the National Monuments Council). The extent of this renovation work has not been established.

The (then) National Monuments Council attempted to visit the Island in 1973 to investigate the declaration of the Church as a National Monument. Perhaps predictably, permission was refused with the reasoning that too many changes had occurred on the Island for any building to have any historical significance.

A standoff ensued, following which the Prisons Service then formally undertook to ensure the upkeep of the Church without declaration. They apparently did however remove the two cannons from the front of the tower and placed them on wooden gun carriages in front of the Church - but in other respects they kept up the repair and maintenance using prisoner labour.

Members of the Vernacular Architecture Society of South Africa visited the Island in April 1983 - possibly the first time that members of an external organisation had inspected and photographed the Church since the take over by the Prisons Service in the early 1960’s.

Architectural Description

The external elevations of the nave are sub-divided into three bays with the use of stepped buttresses. The corners of nave, the church tower, the sacristy and the chancel are provided with splayed buttresses set on the diagonal. Each diagonal buttress is surmounted with a substantial stepped plastered finial. The building is capped with a substantial crenellated parapet wall.

The church has a double pitched corrugated iron roof over the nave with a matching but smaller scale double pitched corrugated iron roof over the apse. The church tower is roofed with a flat roof. Linear box gutters are concealed behind the parapet wall. A series of geometric cast iron air bricks ventilate the suspended floor space.

The windows to the Nave are pleasingly proportioned 4-over-4 pane bottom-hung inward opening timber windows surmounted with a fixed 4-over-4 pane window with additional upper glazed panes arranged in a variant of a pointed gothic window. All window openings and blind window openings were provided with an arched plastered hood mould. The external cills are formed as sloping plastered cills.

The shaft of the clock tower is divided into three sections - each section marginally recessed from the preceding one. A circular black clock face is mounted at high level in the clock tower above the entrance door. Both the north and south faces of clock tower were provided with blind door openings at ground level, and blind arched window opening at first floor level.

A commemorative stone in black slate recessed into the wall above the entrance door and with a v-cut inscription, reads:


The entrance door is a varnished hardwood double inward opening framed door, each door leaf with 4 panels, the upper three flat fielded panels surmounting a flush panel. Both leaves were provided with a moulded weatherboard. The entrance door opening was provided with a flat arch hood mould. Two single side doors on the north elevation both had varnished hardwood inward opening framed ledged and battened doors with semi-circular heads and wrought iron bolts expressed in two double rows across the doors marking position of ledges within. All external doors were hung in varnished hardwood timber frames.

The north and south faces of the clock tower - at the upper level - were provided with large arched louvred vents with plastered hood moulds over. The west gable of the nave was provided with two small arched louvred vents.

Blue Robben Island slate paving forms the interface between the road and the church tower. The balance of the site is covered with a dense layer of closely packed sea shells. A wood floated concrete apron surrounds the church - sloping to a half-round channel.

A low plastered and painted perimeter boundary wall, was segmentally curved in plan on either side of church tower and followed the site boundary on the other three sides. The top of the wall is elaborated with a double pitched capping with a horizontal string course on the external face marking the interface between the vertical wall and the capping. The corners of the boundary wall are defined with an elaborate plastered finial - matching the design of the plastered finials on the church.

The edges of a perimeter path around the church are defined with sea pebbles set on-edge within the sea shell surface. Various isolated historic gravestones are sited in on the west side of the site.

2000 Restoration

In 2000 Adler Price Architects (APA) was commissioned by Robben Island Museum for the restoration of the Church and the adjoining Resource Centre. Their specific recommendations formed part of the permit application submitted to SAHRA on 8 March 2004. Comments from the RIM in a letter dated 22 September 2003 were also submitted with the permit application.

A permit was issued by SAHRA on 29 March 2004. The permit specified work to be carried out as per the Provisional Bill of quantities and the plans submitted. The permit recognized Neville Price as the architect. A number of conditions formed part of the permit.

During the work various items changed from what had been specified. The timber front door had to be replaced instead of the minor repairs initially envisaged. The damaged valley gutter was replaced. Cast iron gutters were replaced with replicas manufactured from fibreglass because of cost constraints of using cast iron. The existing windows were replaced entirely with Iroko. The ‘Canadian’ pattern asbestos cement roof was replaced with pre-painted corrugated iron. By 2005 it was reported that the exterior and interior paint had started peeling.

The church has more recently been repainted in what appears to be a poor quality PVA paint.

William Martinson, Osmond Lange Architects, February 2020.

There is also an article by Ron Viney on the Heritage Portal.

Books that reference Garrison Church

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 8, ill between 8 and 9
Deacon, Harriet Ed. 1996. The island : A History of Robben Island, 1488-1990. Cape Town: Mayibuye Books David Philips Publishers. pg 76 Map
Gaylard, Shaun & McDougall, Brett . 2022. RSA 365 : 365 Drawings of South African Architecture. Johannesburg: Blank Ink Design. pg 44 ill
Radford, D. 1979. The architecture of the Western Cape, 1838-1901. A study of the impact of Victorian aesthetics and technology on South African architecture. Johannesburg: Unpublished Ph.D thesis. Dept of Arch. University of the Witwatersrand. pg 180