The Anglican parish church of St. John’s, Cape Town, began with the arrival of Bishop Gray on that memorable Sunday, 20th February 1848. With the Bishop were the Rev. and Hon. Henry Douglas who immediately began work in what was called the Rogge Bay area. He was Curate at the Cathedral, but on August 4th, 1848, he was licensed as Priest-in-charge of the district of St. John’s. He began by hiring a store at the corner of Bree Street and Prestwich Street – this was called St. John’s Chapel – and here the work was carried on amongst the fisher folk and others who lived in the area. Bishop Gray appealed to the public and a sum of £350 was collected; some of this was used for the fitting up of the temporary Chapel. Quite a considerable congregation was gathered, and a school was carried on. Contact me if you need copies or marriage or baptism records from this church. There are minute books and other records of these days, as well as the registers of marriages and baptisms, and in 1853 there were issued a leaflet dated 12th May, headed:
New Church and Schools in Cape Town
“An endeavour is now being made, by the erection of a new Church in which all the sittings shall be free, to meet the urgent need of additional accommodation for the Poor which has been so long felt and acknowledged to exist in this Town. A prospectus of this Church was laid before the public about five years ago, when subscriptions for this purpose were received in Cape Town to the amount of about £350. A portion of this sum was expended at the time, in the fitting up of a store in the neighbourhood of the north wharf in Bree Street to serve as a temporary school and chapel.
In this chapel has since been collected a considerable congregation from the neighbourhood, and a large number of children in the schools: and it is to be observed, as an indication of the willingness which exists to contribute to the supply of their own spiritual needs that the current expenses of the Chapel and the schools connected with it, including the rent of the buildings, have been mainly defrayed by the voluntary contributions of the congregation.
The Church now during erection is situated in the midst of that poor and densely peopled district of Cape Town which lies between Strand Street and the Sea. In this neighbourhood, as must be well known by all who are acquainted with the Town, reside most of the persons who are employed on the wharves, the boatmen, and others connected with the shipping of the port, while the lodging-houses to which the sailors usually resort when on shore, are nearby, all of them close at hand. Besides these, of whom the majority is Europeans, the district includes also a large proportion of the coloured, and the heathen, and Mohammedan population of the town.
It is for the benefit of these numerous and much neglected classes that the new St. John’s Church is specially intended. There is also attached to the Church a spacious schoolroom with ample accommodation for 350 children. It is intended that these schools should be open for the instruction of the children of the neighbourhood during the day, and for adults of all classes on at least three evenings in the week.
The object in presenting this brief notice of the work now in progress, and of the intentions of those principally concerned in it is to seek the aid and co-operation of all who acknowledge the claim which these classes, for whose benefit the new St. John’s Church and schools are specially intended, have upon their Christian sympathy and consideration. It should be borne in mind that Cape Town is the principal port of the whole colony and that through the means of some of the classes above referred to, viz., the sailors, boatmen, and people on the wharves, is the whole of the loading and unloading of the export and import trade of this end of the Colony conducted, and that to them in consequence, are nearly all classes more or less directly or indirectly under obligation. While from their closer connection with the interests of the mercantile community, they seem to have, upon the gentlemen of that class, the greatest claims.
It is earnestly hoped, therefore, that aid will be forthcoming for the speedy completion of the works now in progress. They are expected to cost altogether £3,250. Of this amount when the buildings were commenced there was an available sum of about £2,200, and an additional sum of £900 beyond that at present relied upon will be required. And as it is specially provided that all the sittings in the new Church shall be free, it becomes necessary that the whole cost shall be actually raised before the completion of the building, as there will be afterwards no fund from which to draw, to any extent, for the liquidation of the debts contracted in the course of erection: but the fact of the poverty of the neighbourhood and of all the new Church accommodation being provided for its inhabitants free of expense seems to give the buildings special claims upon the liberal support of the more wealthy of our community and affords grounds of confident hope that real endeavours will be made to raise the amount still required.
The St. Johns Church site which has been at length obtained, in exchange for another piece of ground afforded for the purpose some years ago by the liberality of the government, is most advantageous, being in the very centre of the district. The nature of the ground, however being on a steep inclination, is expensive to build upon, and requires an arrangement of the school and Church which would not otherwise have been adopted. The school, of which the walls are now almost completed, constitutes the foundation of the Church. It is 14 ft. in height and is composed of the most solid masonry, being built of the dark stone of the neighbourhood, and supported by massive buttresses. The Church of which the floor will raise two steps above the level of Long Street, rises above the school, and will be built of the white free stones found in the neighbourhood of Table Mountain. It will consist of nave, chancel and two aisles.
The whole building will be of the early English style, according to plans furnished by John Calved, Esquire, who has also undertaken the execution of the work. It will, when completed, form a conspicuous object from Table Bay and constitute one of the principal ornaments of Cape Town.
Contributions to the Building Fund will be thankfully received: -in Cape Town by the Hon. Ewan Christian, Esq., who has kindly undertaken the office of Hon. Treasurer; by the Very Rev, the Dean and Clergy of Cape Town; by Mr. Penketh of the Royal Engineers, and by the Rev. Henry Douglas, Curate of the District. In England at the office of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 79, Pall Mall, London; Viscountess Milton, 4 Grosvenor Square; The Rev. E Stuart, 2 Munster Square, Regents Park, London; Hon. and Rev. Arthur Douglas; Kidderminster, Lady Alive Douglas, Dalmahoy; and Lord Aberdour, Saughton, Cramond Bridge, Edinburgh.
The promoters of this work would earnestly desire the prayers of their brethren to Almighty God that His blessing may rest upon it and render their labours effectual for the promotion of His Glory and the extension of His Kingdom upon earth.”
So, ends this interesting piece of information of old Cape Town. Meanwhile, the foundation stone had been laid on the 24th of February 1853, and the work went slowly on. The spiritual work continued to be carried on from the Chapel in Bree Street; during this year, Henry Douglas was made Dean of Cape Town, and the work continued under a succession of Priests in charge. The Church was occupied in 1856 and consecrated by Bishop Gray on St. John’s Day, 1859, and there is a letter recording the consecration and speaking of St. John’s as the Church so dear to the heart of Bishop Gray.
The Church as finished in 1856 had no porch, no circular vestry and the chancel arch came right down to the floor of the Church, and there was a chancel wall two feet high separating the nave from the chancel. Where the organ chamber now is, was a window corresponding to the other side where the memorial altar now stands. The Church was lit by candles and there were two large chandeliers hanging in the nave. Underneath the Church was the school, which was supported by a grant from the government, and had one teacher. So, the Church of St. John went on in the next five years from the departure of Henry Douglas in 1853 to 1858 when the Curates who officiated were the Revs. U. F. Childe, G. M. Squibb, Daniel Smith and John Eedes, all of whose portraits, with those of later Rectors, can be seen in the Vestry.
In 1858 the Rev. Wm. Bebb was appointed first Rector, and he stayed for 9 years until 1867. Again, a Curate took charge for about a year until in March 1869, began the long and faithful ministry of the Rev. Thomas Browning. He deserves a special biography to himself. He was born in 1830, educated at Trinity College, Glasgow, and came out to South Africa when he was 26. At first, he was a tutor at the Diocesan College Rondebosch, and then he became first Rector of Clanwilliam. The story of his appointment to Clanwilliam is as follows. He was at breakfast at Bishopscourt when Bishop Gray was speaking of a remote and not attractive village in sore need of a Priest. With no house, no Church and no certain income. The Bishop said, “Wherever can I find a man for such a post?” Thos. Browning answered quickly: “I will go, my Lord.” The Bishop said, when can you go, and Browning answered, “To-morrow.” So he borrowed one of the Bishop’s horses and rode off the next morning. There at Clanwilliam he built the church, making most of the church furniture himself with his own hands and at the same time building up the spiritual fabric.
Thomas Browning at St. John’s
Such was the man who came as Rector of St. John’s in Lent, 1869, and stayed for 40 years. The Parish had need of such a man of indomitable spirit, for in addition to a parish of 10,000 souls, there were the hospitals of which he was Chaplain and entirely responsible, and the Breakwater convict station for whose spiritual charge he was appointed by the Government. This convict station provided the labour for the building of the breakwater which Mr. Gladstone had urged as a need for the protection of Cape Shipping in 1846. So, in 1860 Prince Alfred, later Duke of Edinburgh, ceremonially began the work which figures so frequently and often in the annals of St. John’s parish.
Four times a week for 25 years Thomas Browning walked down to the breakwater prison, as well as twice on Sundays. Of this prison, Mr. L.G. Green tells us in his new book, “Tavern of the Seas.” “For human misery in the mass and over a long period I suppose there has never been anything in South Africa to match the Breakwater Prison. Some of the warders are still living- the evidence is abundant-for more than a century, white, coloured and native prisoners toiled in the quarries and harbour, carrying out one gigantic task after the other. The prison became one of the most feared in the world, a place that ranked in the criminal mind with Dartmoor and Devils Island. You can still form an idea of the terrors of this prison by walking through the open gates in Portswood Road and gazing at the treadmills and the solitary confinement cells. The gates are wide open now, but something of the atmosphere of hardship and despair remains within the turreted wails. Here was the old Newgate under our southern sun.”
Such was the prison where Thomas Browning laboured for forty years, a labour now forgotten and never appreciated. He lived in a hired house, 44, Bree Street, and at once began his apostolic labours. St. John’s never seems to have been a Church of large numbers, for at Canon Browning’s first Easter, March 28th, 1869, the number of communicants was 56, and at Christmas that same year there were 46.
During these early years, St. John’s was assisted by the afterwards famous Archdeacon T. F. Lightfoot, who, before the building of his own Church of St. Paul in 1880, took many of the services at St. John’s in the years 1871-72, 1873 and 1874. But what it lacked in quantity it scans to have made up in quality. From people living in their dignified old houses built in the Old Dutch style and living in the streets round about, Adderley Street, Loop Street, Long Street, Buitengracht Street, and Burg Street. Secondly, it was a haven for the poor fisher folk who lived around in Sea Street, Fish Lane, Progress Lane, Waterkant Street, Michau Street, Jarvis Street, Riebeeck Street, Prestwich Street, most of which have ceased to exist as residential areas. With the arrival of T. F. Lightfoot, many of the poorer folk who lived higher up went to the Mission begun by him in Buitengracht Street. Many of those baptised in the early years in St. John’s became the enthusiastic supporters of the famous Archdeacon at St. Paul’s.
In addition to the pastoral work, Browning started a fund for the completion of the Church. The East Window being of plain glass caused particular distress with the glare from the sun. During 1875 there are frequent references to the new East window being ordered from England, and in January 1877, the vestry minute book states that the window had been received and had been put in place, the cost of which, with repairs to Church and school included, is placed at £119. In 1878, on the first Sunday in Lent, the new font, porch, vestry, organ chamber, with stone reredos and stone credence, were dedicated by Bishop West Jones. Most of the well-known Clergy of Cape Town were present. The total sum expended being £838 3s. 2d.
It is interesting to record that it is due to Thomas Browning that Archbishop West Jones was chosen as 2nd Bishop of Cape Town. In the historical records of the Church of the Province we are told that in 1872, while on a visit to England, he stayed at Summertown, Oxford, and marked West Jones down “as just the man for us” that is to succeed Bishop Gray. Incidentally, the same book notes of Canon Browning that he was a most interesting host, and his deep interest in Egyptian history, the Poet Dante and modern authors was much appreciated by his friends, and that once when he broke his arm one Sunday morning he first celebrated and then saw the doctor.
After the dedication of the additions to the Church in 1878 there was no more building attempted, though dissatisfaction with the situation of the school caused letters to be sent to the government about the vacant land next to the Church on the site where the Chrysler building now stands. This was subsequently offered to the parish for the sum of £300, which Canon Browning felt could not be paid. We can now reflect on the golden opportunity lost then, which can never be ours again. He was made a Canon in 1905. In his annual reports sent in year by year, we get a picture of what was happening. As he got older the Canon found the work increasingly hard. One report ends with the plaint, “My work is so overwhelming that one man cannot undertake it. I sorely need an assistant Priest but I have not sufficient income to offer. Signed Thos. Browning.” And, no wonder! With a parish that extended to the end of Green Point, which contained the New Somerset Hospital and the old Somerset Hospital, with the convict station in addition to St. John’s with its school and pastoral work.
Rev. A. W. Giddy
Year by year the work went on and had to be maintained; priests came and went but the Canon continued. At the later part of his Ministry, in 1905, came the Rev. A. W. Giddy, the son of a member of the congregation, who, on the Canon’s death in 1909, succeeded him as Rector. During these years there is little to record of general interest. The store was built in 1900 on Church land on the north side of the Church by R. H. Morris & Co., at a cost of £1,250. The Rev. A. W. Giddy stayed until 1913 when he was succeeded by the Rev. O.J. Hogarth. With this appointment we come to what may be called the modem period of St. John’s. There is ample information available for this energetic Priest began in April 1914 the monthly Church Bells, which gives all the parish information and which continues to this day, thirty-two years later. The new Rector began the Browning Memorial Fund, which at its inception had no less an ambitious scheme than. The raising of £10,000 for the building of a new Church, hall and Rectory in the new part of the parish nearer Green Point.
The old St. George’s cemetery was sold in Somerset Road and St. John’s received £3,000 as its compensation for the site, which bad been given for the erection of a new Church and hall. It is good to record that Mr. John Garlick gave the sun of £250 for the Browning Memorial and Mr. J. Foulds £150, and with this a start was made with the building of a hall at the corner of Ebenezer Road and Somerset Road in 1916, where meetings could be held. Mr. Hogarth gradually came to the conclusion that St. John’s, as situated, had no particular future, and left in 1919. All the optimistic hopes of a large Church haIl and Rectory on one site had not come to fruition, though a Rectory had been purchased in Portswood Road, Green Point.
St. John’s owes much to Archdeacon Hogarth as he afterwards became. During his time St. John’s was passing through that period of transition from a Parish Church with its purely pastoral functions, to that of a City Church with its special appeal and vocation, and at that time this was hardly realised. The three hours’ service was first held in 1916 on Good Friday.
Archdeacon Hogarth was succeeded by the Rev. J. Sellors in 1920, and soon after his arrival the Cape Provincial Council informed the Church Wardens that the site upon which the Browning Memorial Hall had been erected would be required by them. The altar was therefore removed from the Hall and placed at the end of the north aisle in St. John’s. This change was said to add to the dignity of St. John’s and also provided a fitting home for the altar. The Rev. J. Sellors’ incumbency is memorable for the foundation of St. Alban’s Church, Green Point, and as this is narrated month by month as the work progressed, I will content myself by quoting from the monthly records in Church Bells, the parish paper.
The church was deconsecrated by the Archbishop on 14 June 1970.