Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Congregational Church in Pearson Street

Before the end of the 19th century, the central areas of Port Elizabeth could proudly boast of at least a dozen churches with certain denominations having multiple churches. The Anglicans are a case in point represented by three separate churches being St. Mary’s, the Holy Trinity and St. Paul’s. This is probably indicative of not only the head count of Anglicans but also the need for a church to be in close proximity to their residences due to the lack of transport.

This blog is largely based upon the excellent book by A.D. Herholdt entitled Eight Beautiful Gothic Revival Churches of Port Elizabeth.

Main picture: The Pearson Street Congregational Church


Lest we forget, even religions sometimes have to make compromises. In the case of the Congregational Church, being unable to afford their own church, they shared the New Church with the Presbyterians. The inauguration services in connection with “New Church” were preached on 25 July 1852. Located in Main Street between Donkin Street and Constitution Hill, this was an Independent Church built by members of Union Chapel who felt they could now support a minister themselves. The tower contained a clock known as the “Town Clock”, which was later given by William Jones for the Town Hall. In due course the Presbyterians formed their own congregation, and the church became a purely Congregational one. It was sold in 1878 to John Holland, who had it rebuilt to accommodate his auctioneering business. In 1926 it became the Netherlands Bank and was considerably altered. A new building was opened in 1976.

Per Herholdt, “The history of the church’s construction is as follows: the congregation laid the foundation stone on 8 January 1880, [by Hon. J. Geard] and had the structure erected at a cost of £8 500. Following completion, the opening and dedication ceremony took place on 25 September 1881. Architect James Bisset drew up the plans, and appointed Messrs. Dollery & Webb as the main contractors, with Messrs. Nevay & Knox as the painters.”

According to Harradine: The hall, designed by G.W. Smith, was opened on 25 September 1881 and named after Sir William Macintosh.   


Herholdt described the architecture as follows: “The pretty Pearson Street Congregational Church is a free-standing Gothic revival edifice, enclosed in a garden. Built of quality materials, the church boasts walls of stone with plastered copings, window and door surrounds, steps and door sills to entrances of dressed granite from Paarl, and a slate roof, whilst the interior walls are plastered. The building was completed in 1881, and faces onto three streets: Pearson, Rose and Deare. An attractive garden wall of stone pillars with plaster dressing and wrought iron railings encloses the erf.

Bisset employed a cruciform plan, and the building covers an area of 445,29m2. Access is gained from a rear and two side entrances. The nave and chancel (the latter very short) are clearly distinguishable from the inside and outside. The architect placed the tower with its spire asymmetrically and followed suit with the interior layout.   Corbels support the exposed arched trusses, the splayed corners of which are painted.  Timber “columns” constitute part of the vertical element connecting the tie beam to the rafters, while a (timber) keystone makes up the connecting plate.  Wide, painted tongue-and-groove planking rests on the trusses to form the ceiling.  The tracery dates from the Geometric period: lancets with geometric tracery are paired and placed on the exterior under a hood terminating in the face of a man and a woman on either side. The church provides seating for 450 people.

Later changes involved the carpeting of the floors, the covering of the chancel walls with (inappropriate) timber panelling, and the provision of raked choir seats.


The furniture of the Pearson Street Congregational Church is of modest design with only a few pieces in the Gothic revival style, including the pulpit and most of the benches. The pulpit is made of stone and rises to waist height and consists of a base, a middle section formed by a series of columns and the top part.  The benches are plain and raised on a timber platform.


Although the organ, manufactured by Messrs. J. W. Walker & Sons, organ builders of London, arrived in Port Elizabeth in 1877, Jacob Bredell, the renowned organ builder of the town, could only install it in 1881 when the building was sufficiently completed. The architect provided a chamber for the organ at the back of the pulpit, with the choir stalls immediately in front of it. Mr. T. J. Mackay played the organ at the first worship service on 25 September 1881. The organ originally boasted 16 stops and two couplers. The Vox Celestes 8, Salicional 8 and Cornopean 8 were later additions.

On 23 November 1977 the church decided to “renovate and improve” the organ at an estimated cost of R7 000 as part of the celebrations of the centenary of the Pearson Street church building in 1981. Unfortunately this resulted in the removal of the organ to its present position, at the left front side of the church. It nevertheless constitutes a fine example of the art of organ building in the previous century.

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