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St John's Mission Church, (Second Pro-Cathedral)
Mthatha, Eastern Cape

Luyanda MPAHLWA: Design Architect

Date:1900 : 2014
Type:Anglican Church


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31°35'04.59" S 28°47'47.34" E Alt: 688m

New additions in 2014 by Luyanda MPHALWA of DESIGN SPACE AFRICA.

A short reference to the consecration of this building appeared in a monthly paper produced by the Anglican Church at the time, namely The Southern Cross of November 15, 1900. The following announcement was made:


The Bishop, before leaving for England, consecrated the new Pro-Cathedral at Umtata, Dean Booth and some others of the clergy being present. This building will become the College Chapel for the Native Institution, when the new Cathedral proper shall have been completed in stone, in Umtata itself. This building is of brick, and is put up on St. John's Mission 120 yards (109,7m) from the tumble-down tin church which did duty as Cathedral for so many years."

The Bishop was Bishop Bransby Lewis Key, who had been in Umtata from 1886. On 18th July 1900 Bishop Key was injured in the eye when the cart he was in overturned in an accident, and by October it was reported that he had left for England for treatment. Bishop Key subsequently died while there, and his successor as Bishop was Joseph Watkin Williams who was at Umtata from 1901 -1923. Since the October issue of The Southern Cross reported that Bishop Key had left for England, the consecration reported in the November 1900 issue, must in fact have taken place before 15 October 1900.

The "tumble-down tin church" mentioned above was the first Pro-Cathedral, built of wood and iron and the first church in the very new Umtata. This was dedicated on June 24th, 1876 and built while Henry Callaway was Bishop.


Anglican Church The Southern Cross. Vol. XI, No. 11. November 15, 1900.

Green, Dora Stanier The first hundred years -The story of the Diocese of St John's South Africa 1873-1973. Paul's Mission Press, 1974. Umtata.

Thanks to Liz de Wet of the Cory Library, Grahamstown for providing the above information.

[Submitted by William MARTINSON, April 2011]



The red-brick church of St. John's in Mthatha was designed in a neo-gothic style, but the name of the architect responsible for the design has unfortunately not yet been established. The church was erected as the second Pro-Cathedral of Mthatha and was consecrated early in 1900 by Bishop Bransby Lewis Key and served as the pro-cathedral until the completion of the sandstone Cathedral of St. John The Evangelist in Mthatha, circa 1907. After this date the church became the College Chapel for the St. John's Mission of Mthatha.

The church of St. John's has a simple cruciform plan with the length of the nave oriented in an east-west direction. The primary entrance into the church was from the western end, through an opening surmounted by a pointed arch into a narrow lobby (flanked on either side by a small cellular space) and thence into the nave. A secondary entrance was formed on the south side - at the west end - with a small lobby attached to the building - now adapted for use as a disabled entrance. A third entrance door was inserted on the north side - at the west end - but this had no additional lobby space, and opened directly through the wall into the nave. An entrance door was also provided into the west face of each of the transepts. The large number of doors was presumably related to the processional nature of the services at the time - thereby permitting a route around and through the building.

Internally a feature of the building is the eastern, altar end which has a substantial pointed arch which frames the altar within the facetted apse. A finely crafted octagonal baptismal font (carved in sandstone) was placed at the west end and is notable for the quality of the surface carvings, including a hexagram (a six pointed geometric star). The dark stained hammer beam trusses and the original matched lining board ceilings with decorative fret-sawn detail all add significantly to the fine quality of the internal space. A modern steel framed mezzanine gallery has been inserted into the west end of the church. A number of commemorative plaques mounted internally add to the layered history of the building.

The external face-brick walls were carefully constructed in a tuck-pointed English Bond on a slightly projecting hammer-dressed sandstone plinth. The bricks were presumably made at a brick yard in Mthatha and have a variegated reddish colour and a fine hand-made quality. The external walls are enlivened by the heavy brick buttresses on a regular beat. The two salient corners of the west end of the nave were each provided with a splayed buttress. The windows and louvred openings are all framed with pointed arches which were then enlivened by a hood mould in a purpose made moulded brick echoing the pointed arch below. The hood moulds were connected to one another with a brick string course. The triple groups of window openings (and in places 'blind' window openings) have simple sloping sandstone window cills - almost modernist in their detailing.

The simply detailed corrugated iron roof is enlivened with changes in roof pitch and with various gables. Two small triangular roof ventilators were placed at high level on each face of the roof over the nave to ventilate the narrow ceiling space. A bulls eye ventilator was provided on the east gable and narrow lancet louvred ventilators were placed at high level on the north and south gables of the transepts.

A cast bronze Church Bell is mounted at low level on a hammer dressed tuck-pointed square stone base to the south of the church. A pair of heavy angle iron frames support the bearings which in turn support the horizontal shaft about which the bell rotates. A heavy timber beam provides the base for the bolted connection of the bell to the shaft.


An important part of the social and cultural history of Mthatha and the Eastern Cape;

An important early example of a religious building in Mthatha;

A fine example of brick and timber craftsmanship;

A memory of the substantial Missionary activity that took place in the Eastern Cape - now largely absent;

A marker of the strength of the Anglican faith in Mthatha and the Eastern Cape;


A substantial addition is currently being planned to the east end of the church by the Architects DESIGN SPACE AFRICA (of Cape Town) to significantly increase the capacity.

(William MARTINSON, 2012, January)

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.