The “Methodist Cathedral” – Commemoration Church in Grahamstown
The 1820 Settlers arrive
On the 10th April 1820 the first party of British settlers, brought to settle in the eastern border of the Cape Colony with a view to consolidating the colonial hold over the indigenous amaXhosa people, arrived in Algoa Bay (now known as Nelson Mandela Bay).
Between April and June of 1820 some 4000 mostly poor British people landed and took up farms in the area which became known as Albany, centred around the still small village of Grahamstown, founded in 1812 by the ruthless Colonel John Graham. Graham had used what he termed “a proper degree of terror” to clear some 20000 Xhosa out of the Zuurveld (literally "sour veld", named for the type of grass which grew there), the area which became Albany.
The British settlers of 1820 were expected to move into the newly-cleared land to become buffers between the amaXhosa and the colony.
One of these settlers was an energetic and articulate young Wesleyan (Methodist) minister, the Reverend William Shaw. Shaw arrived with his wife Ann, but without their first-born child who was left at home in Britain in terms of an agreement with Ann's mother, who had insisted that Ann could only go to Africa if a child was left with her so that if, in Shaw's words, “...we perished in the sea or in the deserts of Africa they might at least have this relic of a lost family remaining, to whom they might show kindness and love for our sake.”
Shaw began missionary activity soon after arriving, creating a string of mission stations in the Eastern Cape, many of which still survive.
By the time the 25th anniversary of the landing of the 1820 Settlers came around Shaw was a leading figure in Albany and so when the Settlers in 1844 began discussing an appropriate way to commemorate their arrival Shaw's proposal of a commemorative chapel was enthusiastically taken up.
Thus it came about that on the exact date of the arrival of the first party of settlers, 10 April 1845, Ann Shaw laid the foundation stone of the church which would become well-known and well-loved by Methodists all over South Africa, so much so that it has been nick-named the “Methodist Cathedral”.
A lead casket was laid underneath the stone which contained a complete set of colonial coins and "Specimens of the languages : English, Dutch, Kaffir (by which the writer meant isiXhosa) and Sichuana (seTswana), used by the Wesleyan Missionaries in Southeast Africa".
The church was not completed until late in 1850 because a Frontier War broke out on 31 March 1846 and lasted until 17 January 1848.
As Shaw noted in his letters, “However, as soon as circumstances favoured a recommencement, new contracts were made, and the chapel was at length so far completed, that we were enabled to dedicate it for the worship of God on the 24th of November, 1850.”
The building had cost more than originally anticipated and the costs had been driven up by the war. Shaw was clearly deeply concerned about the costs and the debt the church had incurred: “The large collections at the opening services, and the further efforts of the people, greatly reduced the otherwise serious amount of debt arising from a heavy expenditure up to the time of opening the building, inclusive of the cost of the ground. This debt had been further increased by the amount of interest paid on borrowed money before the chapel was opened, and therefore previously to its yielding any revenue.”
The church was designed by Thornley Smith and the drawings done by Royal Engineer Sergeant Hopkins. The cost of the church as initially built was £9000, of which £5000 was still outstanding when the church was inaugurated, giving reason for Shaw's concerns.
Author Désirée Picton-Seymour describes the church as “Delightfully Neo-Gothic though classically proportioned” in her book Historical Buildings in South Africa (Cape Town: Struikhof Publishers, 1989), while Shaw himself described it thusly: "The building is in the pointed style, well sustained in all its parts. The front, from the level of the floor, is seventy feet (21.34m) high to the top of the central pinnacle, and it is about sixty-three feet (19.2m) wide, including the buttresses. The interior dimensions are ninety feet (27.43m) long by fifty feet (15.24m) broad, and from the floor to the ceiling it is thirty-four feet (10.36m) in height. There are two side and one end galleries; and the building is capable of accommodating in great comfort a congregation of about fourteen hundred persons. Altogether, this place of worship is probably the most commodious and handsome of any building of the kind occupied by any English congregation in Southern Africa." (Cory Library Ref: MS 15 841).
The interior of the church is notable for the box pews which still exist, each section with its own little door. These pews were rented in Victorian times but the rents no longer apply.
The organ in the church was installed in 1875 and is the third-largest pipe organ in South Africa.
There are ten commemorative stained glass windows and many plaques, including one in memory of Rev Shaw and his wife.
Generations of school children from Kingswood College (for boys) and Victoria Girls' High have attended services in the church. The boys sat in the gallery upstairs while the girls sat downstairs. Generations of boys have carved their names on the ends of the pews in the gallery, to the great annoyance of the church elders.
Inside the church is dominated by the high pulpit and the huge organ pipes behind it while the light is filtered and coloured through the ten stained glass windows.
The box pews are rather unusual these days but add a particular feel to the interior. One can almost hear the rustling of crinoline dresses and see the high feathered hats of the ladies.
The upper gallery forms a huge "U" shape.
From the high pulpit the preacher had a commanding view of the assembled congregation.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2011