Port Elizabeth of Yore: Destruction of St. Mary’s Church by Fire in 1895

The destruction of the St. Mary’s Church was devastating for the community in Port Elizabeth. Not only was it the first church to be erected in the town but it was also the focal point of many activities in the town as well as being the mother church for all the sibling Anglican churches.

If there was any beneficial effect of its destruction is that it afforded the congregants an opportunity to transform a non-ecclesiastical oblong building devoid of architectural merit into a building befitting its status and not just a building fit for purpose.

Main picture: St Mary’s church the morning after the fire

1895 before the fire

The residents of the Cape Colony awoke on the 1st January 1895, a Tuesday, to be notified that henceforth it was compulsory to register all births, marriages and deaths in the Colony.

The original oblong unappealing non-ecclesiastical St. Mary’s Church

As the second largest town in the Colony, Port Elizabeth was either at the forefront of the introduction of innovations or it was introduced to them shortly after Cape Town. One such innovation was the Kinetoscope of Thomas Edison. This was an early motion picture exhibition device. The Kinetoscope was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peephole viewer window at the top of the device. During February 1895, this device was shown in Market Square and its film was described as “a picture of actual life, with all the persons living and moving”.


The last memorable service in the old St. Mary’s Church was held on Sunday, 10th February 1895. It witnessed another parade service of the Prince Alfred’s Guard on the occasion of the unveiling of a memorial tablet to the men who fell in the Basutoland Campaign, 1880-1881. The parade was commanded by Colonel Gordon, an interesting feature being the presence of members of the F.C.R. and M.I. from Grahamstown, under Major Tamplin, and seventy-three veterans of the Basuto War, under Major H. M. Smith. At the time appointed, Colonel Gordon took up his position in the space between the choir stalls, drew his sword in fine style and smote upon the ribbon which drew the check-pin, and the curtain, a large Union Jack slid up in graceful folds beneath the canopy surmounting the monument.

Members of Prince Alfred’s Guard form up on the field at St George’s Park in 1907

Conflagration on a Saturday night

The service, apart from its solemnity and beauty, was a memorable one, being the last outstanding event in the life of the church before the great fire of 9th March 1895. This conflagration left nothing of the old church standing but the fire-blackened walls. Memorials, flags, ornaments, vestments, were all destroyed within the space of two hours. The handsome Communion Service and the Bishop’s Staff were discovered beneath some beams which fell and buried them. They were as black as the charred beams themselves. The vessels were afterwards restored, the flagon being made into a second chalice and a ciborium by a Birmingham firm of silversmiths. The eagle forming the top portion of the lectern, being cast iron gilded, became a black eagle looking mournfully out from a burden of heavy timbers which imprisoned it, suggesting in that awful black wreckage Wren’s famous “Resurgam”.

The safe in the vestry, which later became the Church Library, withstood the heat, and the old registers were saved. The choristers’ small vestry was saved, and the cassocks and surplices, after much cleansing, were in use for some years afterwards. The clergy lost every vestment they possessed­. This was a great personal loss, as these were uninsured. The subsequent burning of Holy Trinity Church and an attempt to burn the altar in new St. Mary’s, suggest that the fire was caused by a deranged pyromaniac, Miss Francis Livingstone Johnson, who was eventually caught, charged, and imprisoned.

What that awful fire meant to the clergy and parishioners no words can tell. If the loss of the colours was a great sorrow to the Prince Alfred’s Guards, to the Church, as custodians, mortification was even greater. Letters of condolence poured in from all over South Africa and England. It was Saturday morning. No time was lost.  The Town Hall was put at the disposal of clergy and congregation and every Sunday until September 1896, services were held in the Town Hall.

Distressing reality

The destruction of the church brought many issues into sharp focus. One was the need to redesign the church and not merely rebuild the edifice. Then came the cost of restoration. £6000 insurance money was all that was in hand to face an expenditure of £12,000. Dr. Wirgman, the church officers and friends, set to work to collect funds. Mr. Sydney Stent drew the plans for the new church, and by skillfully adapting and strengthening the original walls so as to preserve an old landmark, he produced the present dignified ecclesiastical structure.

Mr. G. W. Smith undertook the superintendence of the work, to which he devoted much valuable time. Messrs. Kohler and Ponsonby were the contractors, the masonry being carried out by Mr. E. W. Gough, his son Harry being the foreman of works while the Precentor undertook the full-size details of the working drawings.

The West End of the old nave was extended by 20 feet, and in view of possible extension eastward in the future, became the choir and sanctuary. Before the extension, between the West End and St. Mary’s Terrace, was a space in which grew a cypress tree, planted by Dr. Wirgman in 1880. The frame on which the crucifix in the sacristy is mounted is made out of the wood from that tree.

Laying the Foundation Stone

About three weeks before the actual date of this ceremony, the two first bricks of the sanctuary wall under the memorial stone of the choir were laid by the Vice-Provost and Mrs. Wirgman privately, in the presence of Mr. H. Gough, fore­ man, and his workmen.

The foundation stone was laid with Masonic honours on 12th September 1895, by C. J. Egan, Esq. Seated on staging within the church walls, standing on steps and balconies of houses nearby, filling St. Mary’s Terrace and approaches thereto, and Chapel Street above the Terrace, or perched upon roofs overlooking the site, a vast crowd of people witnessed the historic incident.

Besides the scroll, were laid in the cavity Victorian coins of the realm and a copy of the day’s paper.

Coping with disruption

During the rebuilding of S. Mary’s, marriages were solemnised in the schoolroom, which building was licensed for the purpose by the Bishop. Quite a number of marriages took place in the schoolroom.  At the special request of one of the brides, Miss Ethel Searle, her marriage to Mr. Fred Crabtree, on the 22nd April 1896, was solemnised in the chancel of St. Mary’s, which at the time was the only roofed-in portion of the new church. A voluntary and the Wedding March were played on a piano and orchestra, the musicians and their instruments occupying the sacristy behind the reredos.

On the 11th August, three weeks before the consecration of the chancel, Mr. George Sargent and Miss Hilda Pike were wed in new St. Mary’s, when as yet the Church was not opened for public worship.

Three weeks after the opening of the church there was solemnised in St. Mary’s the marriage of the Rev. Charles Herbert Hutt, Precentor of Grahamstown Cathedral, to Miss Florence Wheeler, who had just arrived from England. The wedding took place on Michaelmas Day.

Casting a pall

On the 6th May 1896, while St. Mary’s was being roofed, the premises of Messrs. Cleghorn, Harris & Stephen (later Cleghorn’s) were gutted by fire between eight and ten o’clock at night, when the falling of a heavy front moulding caused the death of Constable James M. Maxwell, who was helping to quench the fire.

An opportunity was here lost by the Library Committee. Had they bought this site after the fire, the dangerous corner of White’s Road could have been widened, and a building harmonious with the new Library built, adding greatly to the appearance of Market Square and to the greater safety of traffic. Instead it would another 50 years before White’s Road would be widened.


On 6th September 1896, the present St. Mary’s was opened for public worship. Bishop Webb, who had met with an accident, was unable to be present, but came the following Sunday, 13th September, to consecrate the new portion and dedicate the old part of the church. These were memorable and beautiful services.

St Mary’s Church – Laying the memorial stone of the new St Mary’s Church in 1895

To replace the reredos – the ornamental screen covering the wall at the back of an altar – and windows, originally given by Mrs. J. 0. Smith was the first call on the insurance covering the fabric. The reredos was carved and built by Mr. Raphael Pennacchini locally, and the windows supplied by Messrs. Heaton, Butler & Bain, London, as was most of the new glass in new St. Mary’s.

In the sanctuary beneath the lancet containing the figure of St. Luke, is a brass plate to the memory of the widow of the first chaplain, Rev. F. McCleland. The window takes the place of a tablet in old St. Mary’s, which was destroyed by fire. The inscription reads thus:

“In Memory of ELIZABETH M’CLELAND (BORN CLARKE), Beloved wife of Francis M’Cleland, Colonial Chaplain of this Parish.  Mrs.  M’Cleland was born on 15th October 1800, at Crasses Green House, in the City of Cork, the Seat of her Uncle, the late Major-General Sir William Clarke, Baronet, and died on 17th of the same month, 1842. Deeply regretted.”

A number of well-known persons who made donations to the restoration fund:

A near-run thing

As if being destroyed once by fire was not cataclysmic enough, during the afternoon of Thursday 1st April 1897, the pyromaniac who burnt Holy Trinity Church, set light to the altar of St. Mary’s. A hassock and the Glastonbury chair were used by this eccentric and clearly mentally deranged woman to ignite the blaze. The foreman who was completing the top storey of the tower noticed smoke issuing from the building, and promptly descended to find the altar in flames, and the new reredos and brass work blackened by smoke.  He got his men to work with buckets of water, and, thanks to his prompt action and good organisation, the fire was swiftly extinguished. A new altar had to be made, and what remained of the previous one was ultimately cleaned of char, and fitted for a vestment table, now in the sacristy. The reredos was cleaned, and the brass work sent to London to be restored. This restoration cost £80, which was promptly paid by the insurance company. Miss Frances Livingstone Johnson was caught by detectives the following morning when trying to find a fresh point of attack to fire the building. She was imprisoned and sent to Robben Island, where she nearly succeeded in burning the Government buildings while the officials were giving an evening party.

St. Mary’s In 1921


“The Collegiate Church of Parish of St. Mary Port Elizabeth” by Archdeacon Wirgman & Canon Cuthbert Edward Mayo (1925, Longman Green & Co, London)

Newspapers: Herald and Telegraph

Illustrated Church News, 23rd October 1896 (p. 76).

Addendum #1 – Official statement on the fire

In the absence of the Bishop, the Vicar-General furnished the following official document:


We, JOHN GARRAWAY HOLMES, Clerk, Master of Arts, Dean of the Cathedral Church of S. Michael and S. George, Grahamstown, and Vicar-General of the Diocese of Grahams­ town, duly and lawfully commissioned and appointed  under the hand and seal of the Right Reverend  Father  in  God  ALLAN BECHER, by Divine Permission, Bishop of Grahams­ town, to exercise all ordinary jurisdiction pertaining to the Episcopal office, during the absence of  the  aforesaid  Bishop of Grahamstown from his Diocese of Grahamstown, do hereby by these presents give and grant unto the Collegiate Body of St. Mary’s Collegiate Church, Port Elizabeth, and to the Churchwardens and Vestry of the aforesaid Collegiate Church our Licence and Faculty to restore the aforesaid Collegiate Church and to build a new Chancel thereto, and to make such other alterations, additions and improvements in the fabric and fittings of the said Church and Chancel as shall seem to them expedient in carrying out the plans and designs of Sydney Stent, Esq., F.R.I.B.A., who has been duly appointed by the said Churchwardens and Vestry their Architect to conduct the restoration of the aforesaid Collegiate Church of S. Mary, Port Elizabeth.

GIVEN under our hand and seal this thirtieth day of August in the year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Ninety-Five


Addendum #2 – Foundation stone

In laying the stone, the R.W. District Grand Master said, “I declare it to be my will and pleasure that this memorial stone of S. Mary’s Collegiate Church be now laid.”

By order of the District Grand Master, the District Grand Secretary then read the inscription on the scroll to be laid in the cavity beneath the stone:

” I.T.N.O.T.G.A.O.T.U.

On the 12th day of September, A.D. 1895, A.D. 1895,

and in the 58th year of the reign of our Most Gracious

Sovereign, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and of  the  Colonies  and  Dependencies thereof,  Queen,  Defender of  the  Faith, and Empress of India, The Right Hon. Sir Hercules  Robinson,  G.C.M.G., etc., being  Governor  of  the  Colony  of  South  Africa,  the Right Hon. Cecil John Rhodes, P.C., M.L.A .,  being  the Premier of this Colony of the Cape of Good Hope.

This Memorial Stone of the Collegiate Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Port Elizabeth, was laid with Masonic honours by the R.W. C.J. Egan, A.B., District Grand Master of Free and Accepted Masons under the English Constitution (East ern District), South Africa, in the presence of a large concourse of people. The Foundation Stone of this Church was laid in 1825, and it was opened for Divine Service in 1831 completed in 1842, enlarged in 1858, and destroyed by fire on the 9th March 1895.

Of this Collegiate Church the Right Reverend Father in God, Allan Beecher, fourth Bishop of Grahamstown, is Provost; the Rev. Augustus Theodore Wirgman, B.D., D.C.L., is Vice-Provost; the Rev. John Fitch Sinden, Vicar of St. Cuthbert’s, and the Rev. Cuthbert Edward Mayo, Precentor of St. Mary’s, are Priests Associate. Joseph Drury and Henry Forbes, Churchwardens; John Horton, John Hodson, Henry Jenkins, William H. Edwards, M.D., Robert Perrot, Charles Cowley, John A. Chabaud, and Edmond R. Smyth, members of the Vestry; Herbert J. Cooper, Vestry Secretary.








A.D. 1895.

A.B.G. E.P. A.T.W. V.P.

J.F.S. C.E.M.

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