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The “Methodist Cathedral” – Commemoration Church in Grahamstown

Stained glass window in memory of the Reverend William Shaw

Stained glass window in memory of the Reverend William Shaw

The 1820 Settlers arrive

On the 10th April 1820 the first party of British settlers, brought to settle in the eastern border of the Cape Colony with a view to consolidating the colonial hold over the indigenous amaXhosa people, arrived in Algoa Bay (now known as Nelson Mandela Bay).

Between April and June of 1820 some 4000 mostly poor British people landed and took up farms in the area which became known as Albany, centred around the still small village of Grahamstown, founded in 1812 by the ruthless Colonel John Graham. Graham had used what he termed “a proper degree of terror” to clear some 20000 Xhosa out of the Zuurveld (literally "sour veld", named for the type of grass which grew there), the area which became Albany.

The British settlers of 1820 were expected to move into the newly-cleared land to become buffers between the amaXhosa and the colony.

One of these settlers was an energetic and articulate young Wesleyan (Methodist) minister, the Reverend William Shaw. Shaw arrived with his wife Ann, but without their first-born child who was left at home in Britain in terms of an agreement with Ann's mother, who had insisted that Ann could only go to Africa if a child was left with her so that if, in Shaw's words, “...we perished in the sea or in the deserts of Africa they might at least have this relic of a lost family remaining, to whom they might show kindness and love for our sake.”

The facade of "Commem"

The facade of "Commem"

The Reverend William Shaw, pioneering Methodist missionary in the Eastern Cape. Image from "Memoir of the Rev William Shaw" 1875

The Reverend William Shaw, pioneering Methodist missionary in the Eastern Cape. Image from "Memoir of the Rev William Shaw" 1875

Plaque in memory of William Shaw and his wife Ann.

Plaque in memory of William Shaw and his wife Ann.

Money matters

Shaw began missionary activity soon after arriving, creating a string of mission stations in the Eastern Cape, many of which still survive.

By the time the 25th anniversary of the landing of the 1820 Settlers came around Shaw was a leading figure in Albany and so when the Settlers in 1844 began discussing an appropriate way to commemorate their arrival Shaw's proposal of a commemorative chapel was enthusiastically taken up.

Thus it came about that on the exact date of the arrival of the first party of settlers, 10 April 1845, Ann Shaw laid the foundation stone of the church which would become well-known and well-loved by Methodists all over South Africa, so much so that it has been nick-named the “Methodist Cathedral”.

A lead casket was laid underneath the stone which contained a complete set of colonial coins and "Specimens of the languages : English, Dutch, Kaffir (by which the writer meant isiXhosa) and Sichuana (seTswana), used by the Wesleyan Missionaries in Southeast Africa".

The church was not completed until late in 1850 because a Frontier War broke out on 31 March 1846 and lasted until 17 January 1848.

As Shaw noted in his letters, “However, as soon as circumstances favoured a recommencement, new contracts were made, and the chapel was at length so far completed, that we were enabled to dedicate it for the worship of God on the 24th of November, 1850.”

The building had cost more than originally anticipated and the costs had been driven up by the war. Shaw was clearly deeply concerned about the costs and the debt the church had incurred: “The large collections at the opening services, and the further efforts of the people, greatly reduced the otherwise serious amount of debt arising from a heavy expenditure up to the time of opening the building, inclusive of the cost of the ground. This debt had been further increased by the amount of interest paid on borrowed money before the chapel was opened, and therefore previously to its yielding any revenue.”

The church was designed by Thornley Smith and the drawings done by Royal Engineer Sergeant Hopkins. The cost of the church as initially built was £9000, of which £5000 was still outstanding when the church was inaugurated, giving reason for Shaw's concerns.

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"Delightfully Neo-Gothic"

Author Désirée Picton-Seymour describes the church as “Delightfully Neo-Gothic though classically proportioned” in her book Historical Buildings in South Africa (Cape Town: Struikhof Publishers, 1989), while Shaw himself described it thusly: "The building is in the pointed style, well sustained in all its parts. The front, from the level of the floor, is seventy feet (21.34m) high to the top of the central pinnacle, and it is about sixty-three feet (19.2m) wide, including the buttresses. The interior dimensions are ninety feet (27.43m) long by fifty feet (15.24m) broad, and from the floor to the ceiling it is thirty-four feet (10.36m) in height. There are two side and one end galleries; and the building is capable of accommodating in great comfort a congregation of about fourteen hundred persons. Altogether, this place of worship is probably the most commodious and handsome of any building of the kind occupied by any English congregation in Southern Africa." (Cory Library Ref: MS 15 841).

The interior of the church is notable for the box pews which still exist, each section with its own little door. These pews were rented in Victorian times but the rents no longer apply.

The organ in the church was installed in 1875 and is the third-largest pipe organ in South Africa.

There are ten commemorative stained glass windows and many plaques, including one in memory of Rev Shaw and his wife.

Generations of school children from Kingswood College (for boys) and Victoria Girls' High have attended services in the church. The boys sat in the gallery upstairs while the girls sat downstairs. Generations of boys have carved their names on the ends of the pews in the gallery, to the great annoyance of the church elders.

The view from the pulpit

The view from the pulpit

The interior

Inside the church is dominated by the high pulpit and the huge organ pipes behind it while the light is filtered and coloured through the ten stained glass windows.

The box pews are rather unusual these days but add a particular feel to the interior. One can almost hear the rustling of crinoline dresses and see the high feathered hats of the ladies.

The upper gallery forms a huge "U" shape.

From the high pulpit the preacher had a commanding view of the assembled congregation.

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2011



David Atkiss on December 19, 2020:

I was at Kingswood Collège until Dec 1965. Whist I would attend morning service at the Anglican Cathedral, Sunday evening would be spent at the Methodist Church. I was amazed and impressed at the joyous singing that filled the church each evening..... What stands out for me was the exchange that took place between the 6th Form boys and the girls at the last service before we all left for Christmases at home. The boys would make a buttonhole, and the Girls a folded ribbon cross( usually in green) . the buttonhole had foil holder in the shape of a cone; with a rose and a fern inside. There would be an exchange of buttonhole for Cross after service had ended. I cannot confess to having carved my name.

Alun Stevens on April 19, 2019:

Very interesting and I like the photos.

I was at Kingswood from 1965 to 1970 and did the twice-Sundayly trek to Commem for that period and was in the Commem choir for a couple of years until my voice broke. This gave me my enduring love for the Welsh classics Cwm Rhondda, Aberystwyth, Morte Christe and the rest - although having a Welsh mother also helped.

I later married an Ayliff descendant whose family has strong historic connections to the church.

The comment that generations of boys have carved their names at the end of the pews is a material understatement. My recollection is that the backs of the pews and the panelling on the wall in front of the first row were extensively carved, top to bottom. About the only place I don't recollect seeing carving was the pew ends because the carver would have been visible to the prefects.

George Enslin on March 17, 2018:

During the mid to late fifties my Grandmother Aimee Warner was the Sunday school superintendent and a member of the WA at Commem as it was fondly known by the faithful.

The Sunday school was held in the hall over the road and I spent many Sunday mornings there.

Gran was a devout and faithful Methodist and brought myself and my cousins up to be God fearing and respectful, these values were instilled in my mother so the grounding we had was really sound.

She was a teacher and that gene got passed on to my cousins with Marlene Larter going on to become an HOD at Queens College, her son and daughter followed in her footsteps and are both teachers.


Hugh Bodley on March 10, 2012:

I was at Kingswood College for five years during the 50's

and remember our single file walk from school to Commem Church twice every Sunday, rain or shine. We looked forward to seeing the girls from VGHS and DSG, and those facing the balcony who sat in the choir box.

I remember carrying on a visual courtship with a particulary beautiful member of the choir for the whole time I was there, unfortunately, we didn't have the white carnation custom during that period, so I never got to meet her.

We hardly heard what was being said in the pulpit, but the whole atmosphere was very inspirational and was well worth the walk.

Glen on October 05, 2011:

Hi Tony

Thanks for your article, Rev.William Shaw was my great great grandfather so it was of particular interest to me.

Peter Groenink on September 27, 2011:

Hi Tony.

Love this article, I was surfing when I stumble across it. I was actually looking for a contact at this church. I am researching my family tree and am currently tracing a Rev. Alfred Thomas Rhodes, who was a minister at this church from 1894 - 1901. He was also The President of the Methodist Conference in 1901 and am trying to get some info about him at that time and also a picture, which I haven't got.

Would you possibly know who I could contact at this church who may be able to help me. I did get some info from the Cory Library but again unfortunately no photograph. There is a periodical called "The Methodist Churchman" which will almost certainly have an article and picture of him, but the Library are unable to find their copy of the 1901 edition.

Any suggestions would be most appreciative.



Coolmon2009 from Texas, USA on August 03, 2011:

I enjoyed reading your article and i really like your selection of images.

Judy Witt from Australia on July 15, 2011:

Hi Tony

A few years ago I spent time in Grahamstown around the Grahamstown Festival to soak up the energy of the place. The churches in this amazing city full of history are truly beautiful and you have captured the spirit in this amazing story and photos. It broke my heart to see the graveyards vandelised. Thank you my friend and once again you have made my heart sore for the Eastern Cape - perhaps next year I will return.

Barbara from Stepping past clutter on July 02, 2011:

Wait, there is a dark face in the memorial window at the top. I missed it in my first re-examination!

Barbara from Stepping past clutter on July 02, 2011:

The stained glass windows are lovely, though it is true there are no dark faces. I suppose at this time, Christians were in denial that Jesus was Middle Eastern and also that he was Jewish?!

I am stuck on your revelation that Shaw left his eldest daughter in England. How old was she, I wonder? This must have been very difficult. I cannot imagine it.

Hope you are well. I have been "on vacation" for months, but I think I might reinvigorate with the addition of Baxter Thor, my young pup. I wonder how is your family and will you miss the vuvuzela this season?

Hugs, Barbara

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on June 26, 2011:

Great hub and wonderful pictures.

Twilight Lawns from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K. on June 18, 2011:

Reminds me so much of the Methodist Church in Perth, West Australia where we went for special occasions when I was a boy at Wesley College for boys and saw the girls from Methodist Ladies' College for girls.

Then, years later I returned to West Australia to discover that there were no such things as Methodists or Presbyterians and all the other "non conformist" churches, but that they had all been amalgamated into one "soup" of homogenised faith.

The gallery of stained glass windows is lovely, but how sad that there is not one black or dark skinned face... even that of Jesus.

Does no one in this world realise that Christianity is an Eastern Religion?

Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin, USA on June 17, 2011:

I just love the art in the colored glass windows. Beautiful.

Ruth on June 16, 2011:

Hi Tony, lovely article, great pics. But am not sure that the organ is the third largest in SA. Can think of quite a few that are probably bigger. Do you know how many pipes there are?

Tammy on June 15, 2011:

Great to see you back Tony! Once again, an outstanding hub. I loved the pictures you posted. They are breathtaking. Thanks!!

lionel1 on June 15, 2011:

Wow Tony you've really gone all the way this time, all I can say is just amazing and thanks.

Christina Lornemark from Sweden on June 14, 2011:

The windows are magnificent and I can imagine how impressive this church is in reality.It is no wonder either that it did cost a lot of many! Thanks for sharing the photos and the interesting story!


Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on June 14, 2011:

Tony, It's so good to see you again. The stained glass windows are beautiful. I know people thought it was important to build a house of worship, still do, but i can't keep from thinking why so much money spent when people were hungry all around Africa? I, in no way mean to take anything away from this Hub by saying this. It is beautifully writtes and well documented. Thank you.


Aris Budianto from Lying along the equator Country on June 14, 2011:

Great pictures on this historical building, welcome back Tony.

Love and Peace my friend

amillar from Scotland, UK on June 14, 2011:

Nice to see you again Tony - back showing us the sights of your beautiful country.

Micky Dee on June 14, 2011:

Very nice as ALWAYS brother Tony.

attemptedhumour from Australia on June 14, 2011:

Hi Tony, sport and history full stop for me at school. I can never get enough of both and this historic trek was a delightful kaleidoscopic stained glass epic. Not if ones ancestors are indigenous of course. We can't change history, but we can sympathize with the local inhabitants and the horrors that were inflicted upon them. The Cathedral is a relic of those tough times. But a wonderful relic worth preserving so that all the highs and lows are not forgotten, or repeated. Cheers.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on June 13, 2011:

Tony, the “Methodist Cathedral” in Grahamstown is in my opinion one of the most beautiful historical buildings in South Africa. The best gallery of stained glass windows in our country!

Thanks also for the background about the British Settlers arriving in the Cape Colony in 1820 – (168 years after the Cape was ‘invaded’ by the Dutch.) I may be totally wrong - and I don’t accuse or blame – but it seems to me that the Dutch people were better negotiators regarding ownership of land than the British who tended to take it by force.

It is so nice to see you back again, Tony. I hope you are fine and eager to publish (again) at least one hub per week. Take one firm hug from me, my friend, and know you are my dad UP here in Hubland xxx

Mentalist acer from A Voice in your Mind! on June 13, 2011:

Thanks for the beautiful tour and history Tony.;)

justom from 41042 on June 13, 2011:

Tony Mac is back! Always a great history lesson learned on your hubs Tony. I've always loved that stained glass and we're luck enough to have 2 pipe organs (big ones) in this area and the sound that comes out of those things is a beauty of it's own, so dynamic! Great hub, as always! Peace!! Tom

Fay Paxton on June 13, 2011:

Good morning Tony:

I've missed your wonderful historical hubs. I learn something every time I come here.

This was simply fascinating. The stained glass windows are breathtaking. Thanks so much for sharing them.

up/awesome and beautiful

Sophia Angelique on June 13, 2011:

OMG, Tony. Well, a handful of DSG girls (Me amongst them) used to go to 'commen' each Sunday. It was a way of getting out of DSG and getting to see Kingswood boys. I always remember the end-of-term hymn, 'God be With You Till me Meet Again, By his Powers guide, uphold you, With his sheep securely fold you. God be with you till me meet again." I went there every Sunday during school time for five years. The sound of those words ringing out in a chorus of male voices remains with me to this day.

At the end of the term, the boys used to wear white carnations, I think. And then come and give it to the girls of their choice after the service.

I'm also trying to remember if the Rev. Howard Kirkby (to whom my ebook is dedicated) preached there. I think he did. He was the Chaplain at Kingswood College during the years I was at DSG.

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