Book Launch of ‘A Friend Indeed: The Saving of Old St Paul’s’

I am very proud to say that my first book, A Friend Indeed: The Saving of Old St Paul’s, was launched this week.  The writing of it was very kindly funded by the Friends of Old St Paul’s, and the launch was organised by them and by Heritage New Zealand.

The book was launched by the Prime Minister, Rt Hon Jacinda Adern, who is also the Minister of Culture and Heritage.  Also in attendance was the Associate Minister, Hon Grant Robertson, many people who were involved in the saving of the church, and many members of the Friends of Old St Paul’s.  It was a great night, and helped to reinforce the great importance of the church in the life of the city.

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The book charts the battle to save the church over 15 years, and the people and organisations involved in fighting to save it from demolition, dismemberment or relocation.  It then discusses the life of the church since it was saved – the restoration, the discussions about its future, and its life as a ‘heritage building’ for the last 50 years.

The book ($25) is available at the Old St Paul’s shop, at Unity Books in Wellington and at Marsden Books in Karori.  If you are not in Wellington and would like to buy it online you can buy it from Unity Books here.


Below is a short extract from the book, starting in 1955, when the first voices aginst the idea of using part of Old St Paul’s as a lady chapel in the new Cathedral in Molesworth Street became publicly known.

Not long after the announcement [that parts of the church would be used as a lady chapel in the Cathedral], the first dissenting voice was raised in public, by Douglas Jocelyn (known as Jock) Beere, a member of the St Paul’s congregation and an architect. In April 1954 he published an article praising St Paul’s in the Wellington Architecture Centre’s influential magazine, Design Review, the covers of which normally depicted modern buildings or furniture. Instead, this issue carried an image of the interior of St Paul’s. Beere’s article, ‘A Plea for the Preservation of St Paul’s’, argued that the church’s historical significance and architectural merit was such that it should not be moved or used as the Lady Chapel for the new cathedral:

Its design is so absolutely right for its purpose that it has not ceased to satisfy contemporary taste for eighty-seven years. Externally, it is by no means perfect, its spire is squat and ill proportioned, but in the main it is a straightforward expression of its use and structure. Internally it is a delight. Each generation of parishioners has loved St. Paul’s – that mellowed interior in which posts and rafters, studs and braces make a harmonious composition in timber, enriched by stained glass and brass plaques. It is an intimate church in which each object – altar, lectern, pulpit, font and organ is most appropriate to its setting. It is architecturally worth preservation.

Beere asserted that the church continued to fufil a role in the city, and while conceding it would not be convenient or economical to keep, ‘This building, like all classics, has not dated, and many of us believe that by its replacement our loss will be greater than our gain’. The article also attempted to debunk the theory, common at the time, that timber buildings were necessarily temporary, giving a number of examples of European timber buildings which had survived for centuries. He then turned to the Lady Chapel proposal:

It need hardly be said that the church’s historic association and visual delight will be damaged by its dismemberment and the retention of the eastern portion only as a Lady Chapel. The vistas, the contrast of light and shade, and the harmony, will all be lost. It is proposed to encase the Lady Chapel within new walls so that it will remain no longer a direct expression of what it is.

Beere had set out what were to become the main points of the argument for the following decade: the church’s historical importance, its architectural importance, and the role St Paul’s still had to play in the city. He concluded: ‘But St. Paul’s must not be preserved as a dead thing. It should remain a church, useful and alive’.

The first meeting of the Society for the Preservation of St Paul’s appears to have been held in February 1955. Chaired by H.E. Duff Daysh, the President of the Founders’ Society and a key figure in the National Party and later in the Historic Places Trust, this meeting featured a number of speakers who were to have crucial roles in the campaign to save St Paul’s over the next decade.

The first speaker, Ministry of Works architect Roger Gibb, became one of the leaders of the movement to save the church and rallied many others to the cause in its early years. Another speaker was Dorothy Tanner, a member of the congregation and the granddaughter of Dr Mark Kebbell, who has a memorial window in St Paul’s. She said at the meeting: ‘Wellington has grown up in the shadow of St Paul’s … They built it well and they never intended that it should be pulled down. And anyway, it seems a breach of trust to pull down a church which has a rebuilding fund’. This was a theme she was to return to often. Beaglehole, soon to be a board member of the about-to-be-established Historic Places Trust, declared at the meeting:

The pulling down of the Cathedral Church of St Paul would be a blow in the face of history, a blow in the face of beauty and a blow in the face of posterity … Wellington has few buildings of historic importance and aesthetic merit. St Paul’s is, amongst them, supreme. It would be a crime to destroy it.

The meeting received lengthy newspaper coverage and Gibb’s speech and research on the history of the church were published as articles in the Dominion and Church and People in April 1955. Gibb along with Margaret Alington, a librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library, began researching the history of the church and its architect. Prior to their work, much had been forgotten or misunderstood.

Gibb then took up his pen to gather support from the architectural community, writing to the Architecture Centre, the New Zealand Institute of Architects and other cultural organisations such as the Founders’ and Early Settlers’ societies to convince them to get involved in the campaign and to lobby the new Historic Places Trust. Gibb also sent numerous letters to the Trust himself, even before its first formal meeting, saying of the church: ‘If we destroy it we rob posterity of something that can never be replaced. It should belong to the Nation and the City of Wellington should be proud to accept the burden of its upkeep’. He also wrote to the Trust that this ‘first assignment is the crucial test. I feel public opinion will look on you only as a façade if the Trust fails in this’.

The two mainstays of the Society for the Preservation of St Paul’s were Roger Gibb and Dorothy Tanner. Dallas Moore has noted that in the campaign to save the church there were three pairs of campaigners who worked particularly well together – Gibb and Tanner were the first of these pairs, collaborating for a decade. Looking back 15 years on, Gibb wrote that when he began: ‘I started a “one-man army” for St Paul’s … and have my heart in the old Church. It wasn’t much fun then, as “good” church people hated us for interfering, the Bishop had a “heart of stone”, neither paper would publish our propaganda and no one knew or cared anything for the qualities or history of the building. There was no “history”, and I spent two years writing one’. Throughout this period, Gibb, Tanner and architects, parishioners and other Wellingtonians wrote countless letters to the editor of local newspapers and to other organisations to try to garner support for their cause.

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Cartoon: Eric Heath, 1964

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Monica Webb says:

    Congratulations Elizabeth on a job well done!

  2. Rebecca O'Brien says:

    Congratulations Elizabeth – such a great achievement. It was a privilege to be at the launch.

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