Some people gain fame, and possibly fortune, through charity, good deeds and hard work whereas Miss Francis Livingstone Johnson only gained notoriety through setting fire to numerous buildings in Port Elizabeth in the mid- 1890s. The reason for burning down churches was an apparent irrational hatred of altars.
The blog covers the wayward and abnormal career of this atypical female.
Main picture: The Cleghorn, Harris and Stephen’s building, next to where the present Port Elizabeth Public Library was later built, burnt down on Wednesday night 6th May 1896.
It was 3 am on Thursday 1st April, 1897, that Holy Trinity, the richest and most popular church in the Anglican diocese of Grahamstown, went up in flames.
The Herald of the time reported that the church was completely burnt out. The reporter then indulged in that dangerous journalistic practise, forecasting. Reporting that detectives had been put in charge of the case, he remarked gloomily “though owing to there being no organised Detective Department, it is impossible that any result will come.”
The ink was scarcely dry, however, when an arrest was made by Sub-Inspector Wynn, of the Police. The culprit was Miss Francis Livingstone Johnson, “a woman of strange appearance and manner”, who had attracted attention to herself during the few days she had spent at the Masonic Hotel. The strangeness of her appearance seemed to be limited to the fact that she wore her hair cut short. Otherwise, she appears to have been a neatly dressed woman of good education.
The wires hummed between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, and the Herald, with fine disregard for the law of libel or contempt of court, reported that Miss Johnson had recently been a governess in the Ceres area, but had left her job abruptly. She went to Paarl, where she was arrested on suspicion of attempting to set fire to the goods shed at the railway station. “But on being found to be a lunatic she was released”.
Friends apparently put her up at the Royal Hotel, but from there she vanished and had last been heard of in Worcester.
Her derangement appears to have been mainly religious. She disapproved very strongly of altars in churches, though she also seems to have had an obsession against railways and harbours.
Her behaviour during the few days she spent in Port Elizabeth was indeed strange. First of all, she turned her attention to the jetty. In the early hours of the Thursday morning, the night watchman there was astonished to see a woman on one of the cranes. He got her down and ejected her.
The following day she made her way to St. Augustine’s where she accosted a highly suspicious Rev. Monsignor Eagan, asking him some peculiar questions. He saw her off.
Then she went over to St. Mary’s rectory where she met Dr Augustus Wirgman and Dr Hewitt, of Holy Trinity. She asked for a note to enable her to obtain medicines from the hospital. Dr Wirgman was not too helpful. He said he was unable to provide a note since he was not a member of the Hospital Board. He suggested she try one of the members, but did not say who they were, or where they could be found. In short, she was rebuffed.
At 3 am the following morning, the Holy Trinity Church went up in flames. The Herald reporter enthused over the great beauty of the scene, with the blackened rafters starkly seen against the ruddy flames after all the tiles had slid off the roof.
The same afternoon Augustus Wirgman received his own thrill of horror. Only two years earlier St. Mary’s had been gutted. The rebuilding was almost complete with workmen still busy on the tower. The foreman hurried over to report that he had just foiled the evil designs of a crazed incendiary.
Smelling burning, he had hurried down the tower to discover the altar in flames. Candles, a kneeler and the bishop’s Glastonbury chair had been moved to the altar to give the fire a good start. As Archdeacon Wirgman wrote years later, “If the loss of a colour is a great blow to a regiment, it will be appreciated how much more mortification we, as custodians of St. Mary’s felt at the loss of our altar.” The foreman also reported having seen a woman with short hair enter and leave the church just before the fire.
Sub-Inspector Wynn thought it was time to put a watch on the odd Miss Frances Johnson. He assigned detectives Orchison and Archer to the case, hoping to catch her red-handed. They booked into the Masonic Hotel, and, with the aid of a Mr. Fugard, overheard a conversation that put the identity of the arsonist beyond reasonable doubt. But how to nail her? They need not have worried. The next morning she played right into their hands.
Miss Johnson set off with her escort and entered the grounds of St. Mary’s where she wandered about until she found the debris of the altar fire. She picked up the charred hassock and flung it down with an exclamation of disgust.
She then tried two church doors but found them locked. At the request of the detectives, Dr. Wirgman sneaked into the church and unlocked another door. Obligingly Miss Johnson entered. The detectives removed their boots and followed on tip toes. Orchison concealing himself in the pulpit.
However, before the arsonist could be caught red-handed, Dr. Wirgman blew the whole thing. In a feverish state of anxiety, he revealed himself. Miss Johnson fled.
Sub-Inspector Wynn arrested her outside the Town Hall. Curiously, the entire local clergy were then allowed to interview her. Though doctors Hewitt and Wirgman were roundly abused by Miss Johnson, and as her hatred of altars became plain, no confession was forthcoming.
Later she was convicted and sent to Robben Island. But her incendiary activity was not over. There, while the staff was at a junket one night, she attempted to set fire to government buildings.
Whatever else Miss Johnson may have been, she was certainly persistent.
St. Mary’s Church – First incident
This incident occurred on the night of Saturday 9th March 1895, the church was consumed by fire and destroyed. From then on, until a new church was built, the Town Hall and a school room were used for Sunday Services. Sydney Stent drew up plans for a new Church, retaining the original walls with Mr. G.W. Smith supervising the work. Donations for the rebuilding were received from numerous sources far and wide including Paul Kruger and Cecil Rhodes.
On 12th September the foundation stone was laid with Masonic honours and a year later on Sunday 6th September 1896, the church was opened for public worship.
After Francis Johnson was identified as the culprit of the 1897 attempt at arson on St. Mary’s Church, many rumours alleged that she had also been responsible for the previous successful attempt. As she only arrived in South Africa from Australia during the latter part of 1896, this assumption is pure speculation
Holy Trinity Church
All that remained of Trinity Church after it was burnt down, only the tower and the school room surviving intact.
What is not recorded is whether the rebuilding plans of William White Cooper conformed largely to the original design or whether like St. Mary’s Church which had also recently been enflamed, he took the liberty of improving or embellishing the initial design. What is stated on the churches website is that “the Gothic building with magnificent stained-glass windows that stands today dates back to 1898.” Hence one can safely assume that the current church bears little if no resemblance to the original church.
Sir Alfred Milner, one-time Governor and British High Commissioner, laid the Foundation Stone in September 1897 and in the following year, the new edifice was dedicated by Dean Holmes of Grahamstown. It was at this point that the Church was re-christened with his current name: The Holy Trinity Church.
The Cleghorn, Harris and Stephen’s building, next to where the present Port Elizabeth Public Library was later built, burnt down on Wednesday night 6th May 1896. Police Constable Maxwell was killed when stone copings fell onto him while firemen tried to put out the fire. In spite of the Fire Station being two blocks away at the bottom of Military Road, they were unable to save the building.
Possibly with undue haste, the building was rebuilt. As events would prove, this building had to be demolished at a later stage in order to widen Whites Road.
As might be predicted, Francis Johnson has also been accused of being responsible for this blaze. On two counts, this supposition is probably incorrect. Firstly, at this stage, she was still residing in Australia and secondly her aversion only extended to altars.
St. Mary’s Church – Second incident
Luck was on St. Mary’s side. If she had employed her standard modus operandi of striking at night, the recently rebuilt church would have been burnt down yet again. Instead it was a Saturday afternoon and workmen were on site. It was them that derailed her malicious stratagem.
On the 7th April 1897, Francis Livingston Johnson was charged with burning down the Holy Trinity Church and later that same day of attempting to torch St. Mary’s Church.
To paraphrase an old saying, “one cannot keep a good arsonist down.” Even after being incarcerated in the asylum on Robben Island, Miss Johnson reportedly still felt the urge to practice her craft even at the risk of killing herself. Fortunately this attempt was in vain when prison warders extinguished the blaze timeously.
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The Herald dated 24 January 1979 “Roundabout by Keith Sutton – She Loved burning Churches” regarding the fire in the Holy Trinity Anglican Church Port Elizabeth.
Rootsweb.com information published by Becky Horn during March 2005
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine