Friday, 6 May 2011

The Church in the Country

Once again I am indebted to Edward Cannan’s “Churches of the South Atlantic Islands” for the outline of this post and to Barry Weaver’s St Helena Virtual Library and Archive for four of the pictures used.  Janisch, as always, provides some detail.
Wathen, Plantation House and St. Paul's Church, 1812

The present St. Paul’s, which became the Cathedral in 1859, is the third church built in this area of the island since Captain Dutton arrived in May 1659 to take possession of and fortify St Helena on behalf of The East India Company.

The first building was insubstantial, Janisch recording that:

Oct 26, 1691.—The Church in the Country in bad repair—the windward part much decayed it being all done with Boards.  St James’ was in no better condition: The Chappel in Town in bad repair and the Roof in danger of falling.

July 6, 1697.—Country Church to be rebuilt by an Assessed Rate. The Company contributing £20.

April 20, 1699.—and whereas the Church in the countrey is much decayed being made all of Timber it was thought convenient that it be rebuilt with stones and for that end the day's work be for the gathering of stones towards the rebuilding of a new Church.

Sept. 30, 1732.—Churches.  Churchwardens letter to Governor.  Vestry meeting concerning ruinous condition both of the Chapple in the Country and the Chapple at the Fort the former of which has laid level with the ground for two or three years past, and the latter is so much out of repair that it’s shameful a place set apart for the celebration of divine service and in the open view of all strangers especially of foreign nations.

A new stone church was eventually built south-west of the present Cathedral.  Wathen’s view, above, was painted in 1812, but only published in his “Views of St Helena” in September 1821, to no doubt capitalise on the interest generated following Napoleon’s death in May of that year, shows the new church behind Plantation House which itself had been built in 1791-92 as a country residence for The Governor.

This map which seems to be a copy of Read's 1817 map shows the Country Church with a spire.

It could not have been very well built.  In April 1844 GW Melliss, the Surveyor General of the Island, and perhaps most well known for supervising the building of the inclined plane for the St Helena Railway Company in 1829, now called Jacob’s Ladder, produced what is evidently his second report on the state of the Country Church. 

In a former memorandum that I furnished on the subject of the country church, I alluded to the defective state of east and back walls; but as other parts of the structure are of the same inferior description of masonry, and would not correspond with new work so as to form a substantial edifice, and moreover as additional accommodation is required, which, in this climate, could not be properly obtained without a greater area than the present church affords, I am of opinion that the most advisable plan is to rebuild the country church.

A considerable sum of money will certainly be required to accomplish this object, the amount of which will of course vary much according to the size and style of the new building; but supposing a plain substantial church, containing about 100 more sittings than the present one, be approved of, in such case I do not apprehend that the outlay would so far exceed the cost of thorough repair and addition to the present church as might at first be supposed.
By attention to the small repairs mentioned in my former paper, particularly to the street at the east end, the present building may be used for some time longer, during which period a fund could be raised for either " rebuilding or repairing the country church."

The accompanying plans and elevation of the church were prepared to assist the present consideration of the subject. Attached thereto is a ground sketch of an idea that occurred to me of enlarging and repairing the present building, so as to take advantage of such parts of the walls as were sound. Instead of a tower or steeple, a small bell turret was intended to be erected on the west gable end; the accommodation was calculated at an increase on the present of 50 free and 50 pew sittings; the congregation would face the pulpit, and the approach was to have been made from the westward. I have, however, merely mentioned this circumstance, as it was one among other plans of alterations that suggested themselves; but they do not in the least dispose me to alter the opinion that rebuilding the country church is the wisest plan.
(signed) G. W. Melliss.

On the 17th December 1846 the Minister and Churchwardens wrote to the Governor, Patrick Ross:

My Lord, We, the minister and churchwardens of the parish of St. Helena, most respectfully solicit your Lordship's consideration of the difficulties we are called upon to encounter in consequence of the dangerous state of our parish church, and the severe pressure of our rates.

A grant, authorized some time ago by a predecessor of your Lordship, from the Colonial Treasury, in aid of a voluntary subscription on the island, was the means of effecting important alterations in the church of James' Town, for which we offer our grateful acknowledgments; but we trust your Lordship will honour our present application in behalf of the church in the country, by viewing the case on its separate and peculiar merits.

The benefits of the former church are limited to the town by high and precipitous crags on every side, and thus the Governor of this colony, with his establishment3 and more than 2,000 of the rural population, are dependent upon the country church for the public services of religion.

It has been therefore usual for the Government to extend generous assistance towards the reparation of this church.  For example, £698 in the year 1806, when the costs of repairs amounted to £1,396 and again, when repairs were effected at the cost of £380.  In the year 1825 we find the parish recording a grant from the Government of £200. towards that object.

These facts are not advanced merely in excuse for our present importunity, but as proving to your Lordship, when viewed in connexion with the existing state of the fabric, that all attempts to arrest its steady progress towards decay have been hitherto unavailing. The parish authorities have expended a considerable sum on repairs even during the last seven years; and yet our attention has been for some years past specially called to a fissure in a principal angle of the church, immediately over the Governor's pew. Its progressive enlargement has excited anxiety and examination, issuing in an official report that the foundation of the building is impaired, and that the materials generally are in a loose and decayed state.
The report (by GW Melliss) shows that repairs, combined with the requisite enlargement, cannot be professionally recommended, and that a new church (the materials to be all prepared in England) would eventually be attended with less expense, far less inconvenience, and no interruption whatever to public worship.  As a parish, my Lord, we labour under most serious disadvantages, compared with the parishes in England, especially those which form the peculiar property of the Crown.

We have reason to believe that by having all the ornamental parts of a church executed in England we could erect a new building, holding 450 persons, adequate to our wants in respect of religious worship, at the cost of £2,000, postponing the steeple till additional funds will admit of its being erected.

When we find, my Lord, that in less than 30 years, the repairs of the country church have cost nearly £3,000, we very respectfully implore your Lordship to view all these circumstances with kind consideration, and to place at the disposal of his Excellency the Governor, in conformity with the precedents above stated, one moiety (£1,000) of the amount required as a grant, and the other moiety as a loan, on the security of the pew-rents, and of the fund above-mentioned, as being the only means of applying the prompt and decisive remedy demanded by the state of our church, and of preserving on the spot, where our friends, relations and fathers, have worshipped, and where their ashes now repose, those religious services which form the best inheritance of ourselves and our children. We have, &c.
(signed) Richard Kempthorne, C. Chaplain, J. Torbett, Thomas Charlett, Churchwardens.

Ross was very much in favour and, acting quickly, on the 23rd December forwarded the request to Earl Grey in London:

At the request of the minister and churchwardens of St. Helena, I have the honour to submit to your Lordship's attention the accompanying memorial, representing the dilapidated and dangerous state of the parish country church, adjoining the Governor's official residence.

I have made a minute examination .of this building, and I am decided in opinion, that any attempt to repair it would be only incurring expense, without any permanent benefit, and I therefore take the liberty to support the prayer of the petition, viz:
A Government Grant                          £1,000
And a Loan of                                   £1,000
and to express my hope that by such aid as your Lordship may be pleased to recommend on the part of the mother country, the island may have the advantage of a safe and permanent building, capable of accommodating a congregation of at least (500), five hundred people.

Were it practicable to repair the present church with any degree of safety to the inhabitants, they would of necessity be deprived for a considerable period of any means of public worship, whereas by an adjoining site having been already obtained for the contemplated edifice, the old building can, by the means of wooden buttresses be used, though not without insecurity, till the other is complete.
Under these circumstances, I take the liberty to urge strongly your Lordship's favourable consideration and support of a measure so important to the welfare of the colony.
I have, &c.  (signed) Patrick Ross, Governor.

The favourable consideration sought was, alas, not forthcoming.

Sir, Downing-street, 1 March 1847.
I have received your despatch No. 56, of the 23d December last, forwarding a memorial from the colonial chaplain and churchwardens of St. Helena, representing the dilapidated state of the parish country church, and praying for a grant from the public treasury of 1,000 I. and a loan of equal amount for building a new church.

I regret that I cannot comply with this application. In this country and in the colonies, churches have been erected by different communities entirely from their own resources, and where those resources have been very limited in amount, the community has been contented with a plain and moderate structure proportionate to their means.

This course should be followed by the inhabitants of St. Helena; or if they cannot raise the necessary funds for a new church, they must provide, by voluntary contributions, the means of effecting such repairs in the present building as will keep it from further dilapidation; I can hold out to them no hopes of assistance from the British Treasury.
I have, &c. (signed) Grey.

The money to pay for the new building was eventually found, Cannan citing the St Helena Gazette of March 30th 1850:  Tenders invited for loan of money (£1,000 or any part) stating interest, for the building of Country church - repaid over 20 years.

Having taken the decision to rebuild, in July 1848 the building committee wrote to Benjamin Ferry, a well-known London architect of the time requesting him to “furnish us with a design and a working plan of a Church capable of containing Four Hundred and Fifty persons together with a Chancel, Tower, Vestry and Registry Office.  Finding the plans acceptable the foundation stone was laid by The Governor, Sir Patrick Ross, on Wednesday 6th February 1850.  With the exception of the main part of the walls which were of local stone, some from the old country church, the stone for doors and windows was hewn into form and shipped from England by Winsland and Holland of Duke Street Bloomsbury on the barque Glentanner.  The roof and other woodwork, ironwork, paving slates, pulpit and seats followed later on board the Juliana.

It is indicative of the links built in the EIC trading days that this report of the exportation of the church appeared in the Straits Times and Singapore Journal of Commerce of 30th April 1850.

Cannan describes the work of construction.  It was a work of some months to transport all the stone and timber to the site 580m above sea level.  Every empty vehicle going towards the church was pressed to help and all the long timbers and curved roof trusses had to be carried by manual labour.  Some of this was voluntary and the Governor lent a considerable number Africans recently liberated from a captured slaver who were rewarded with tobacco and refreshed with wine and water in the sober proportion of one bottle of wine to a pail of water. Stones for the foundations were gathered from the neighbouring hills and there was some difficulty in obtaining qualified masons.. The only one in the island who had ever seen a similar work was a soldier.  The clerk of works was the adjutant of militia, though he knew nothing either of the qualities of materials or of construction, and the lava plinths were dressed by a gang of five French masons accidentally left on the island who proved quite a godsend for two or three weeks.
GW Melliss, Plantation House, St. Paul's Church and Burial Ground, 1857

GW Melliss, St. Paul's Church, 1857

   JC Melliss, St. Paul's Church, 1875

On Wednesday3rd September 1851 the Church was opened, though Governor Ross was not there to see it, having died on the 28th August 1850.

Not everyone liked the completed building. Emily Jackson opined much later that “St. Paul's is utterly devoid of architectural beauty outside or in, but it is commandingly situated on a hill above and at the back of Government House, and is surrounded by the cemetery”.

Mr Scott in the February 1851 issue of The Ecclesiologist was scathing about the incongruity of sending a ready-made stone church, all natty and nice with its trim neat windows and a cocky little spire to such a place.  Lady Ross recently widowed and by then lately arrived from St Helena replied that “She notices that Mr. Scott in his interesting " thoughts on Tropical Architecture," objects to the First-Pointed style of church lately sent out to S. Helena by Mr. Ferrey, on account of its incongruity with the landscape scenery.  The truth is, she observes, that the scenery amidst which the church is placed, is with its hills, fields, and hedge-rows, exactly of an English character; so similar, that it might be well taken for a rural scene in one or other of the English counties.”

I can only concur with Cannan who concludes that “on the whole we agree with Lady Ross”

St Paul's Cathedral, May 2010


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Mind blowing post. Perfect description of the churches. I'm just planning to visit there. Churches are like treasures for the country. So we should always maintain it properly. Financial support is not the problem we usually think if you refund to maintain it by help of our church loan provider.