UMTATA, South Africa – Cathedral of St John. 


On 9 July 1904 the architectural journal The Builder ran an extended article about ecclesiastical building work in Africa.  One building featured was not advocated particularly favourably in the article.

The “New Cathedral”, St. John’s, Umtata, S.A., designed by Mr. G. H. Fellowes Prynne, which at once strikes us as being substantially similar to other works in the home country by the same architect.  Here is a stone-built church, having arcades, windows, and other parts bearing a strong impress of English mediævalism, together with Mr. Prynne’s favourite feature, a large pierced stone chancel screen rising towards the roof, and which becomes the dominant note in the conception.  The detail is of a very ordinary description, and whatever influences were at work, it is possible to translate symbols and structural details into honest terms befitting the climatic and other conditions of the occasion.  We cannot help thinking that, in spite of the raw state of the country and of the claims of ritual, this experiment is utterly wrong.

The Building News of 27 January 1905 provided an update and description of the cathedral.

Some six years ago the work of designing the proposed new cathedral for the Diocese of St. John, Kaffraria, South Africa, was placed in the hands of Mr. Geo. H. Fellowes Prynne F.R.I.B.A. by Bishop Key.  Owing to the death of the Bishop, considerable delay was caused in commencing the work, which, however, has now been taken up by the present Bishop; but funds will only allow of the western portion being put in hand at present… The new cathedral when finished will accommodate between 1,800 and 2,000 people.

The plan shows a cruciform church, with a nave 147ft. in length, by 36ft. in width, divided into 7 bays. The chancel is 67ft. long by 30ft. wide. The north and south transepts from chapels accommodating 189 and 146 people respectively. East of the chapels are the vestries, for bishop, clergy and choir, and organ-chamber above, large arches open towards the chancel and south chapel, so that the organ may speak well in the chancel and body of the church… A chapter-house is found in the crypt below the sanctuary.  

One of the chief features of the interior is the treatment of the rood-screen; a massive lower arch is thrown across from jamb to jamb of the main chancel archway, and the space between this and the main arch is filled with tracery into which is worked a complete rood with a figure of the crucified Saviour and the attendant figures of the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Divine and adoring angels on either side.  Niches for figures of various saints are placed on the western side of the chancel arch jambs.  Niches are also formed in the angles of the east wall, and are intended to received figures of the Twelve Apostles.  A lofty and richly carved reredos is placed on the east wall.

Only the nave was completed.

The website 1905 – Umtata Cathedral, South Africa – Archiseek – Irish Architecture has illustrations of the exterior and the ground plan.

The illustration of the interior as designed was published in the first volume of the Academy Architecture and Architectural Review of 1904.  The photos of the building in modern times have been provided by William Martinson, to whom thanks are due.