Don Wilson

St Mary’s Church in Ūpokongaro

St Mary’s Anglican Church in Ūpokongaro makes an impression on most people passing through that small settlement, 12 km north of Whanganui. Its distinctive steeple seems a bit wonky. But it’s not – apparently it’s due to the effect of a three sided spire set on top of a four-sided tower.

The church was designed by Whanganui architect Edward Morgan and built in 1877 by local builder John Randal. The building and the section cost £344, local residents raising their share of the money through subscriptions and a successful concert at John Kennedy’s store. The Bishop of Wellington, Octavius Hadfield, consecrated St Mary’s on 20 July 1879.

2. St Mary's Church 1958

 St Mary’s Church, Ūpokongaro, 1958. Ref: 1800.755

Four stained glass panels link to the Montgomerie Family, stalwart St Mary’s parishioners. Depicting the evangelists, they were designed by Francis Philip Barraud and manufactured by Barraud, Lavers and Westlake of London in 1892. Two were installed to commemorate Captain Alexander Montgomerie, a founding member of St Mary’s and a lay reader during its early years, who died in 1890. The other two commemorate his brother Archibald W Montgomerie, who died at Mākirikiri in 1877. The Montgomerie Family is commemorated in other memorials in St Mary’s.

Young Archibald Montgomery also died in 1877. Aged only 23 and on his way home to Whanganui from a trip abroad, he was drowned in the Avalanche disaster off Portland Bill in the English Channel. The Avalanche collided with the Forest, a Nova Scotian clipper, and sank immediately. Of the 94 people who lost their lives, 21 were Whanganui residents.

Henry and Frances Montgomery, young Archibald’s parents, commissioned stained glass windows from an unidentified English firm in 1879 as a memorial to their son. The centre panel depicts the Ascension and the left panel features the storm on the Sea of Galilee with Christ walking to the rescue over the waves. The right panel illustrates St Peter trying, unsuccessfully, to walk on the waves.

The church was extended in 1892 when the chancel and the vestry were built. The bell, cast in London in 1896, still rings out today. The church has been re-roofed several times and the steeple repaired in 1953, requiring another major fundraising effort by local residents and a successful Wanganui Savage Club concert. Otherwise the building today is much the same as it was in 1901 when the interior was first lined.

The Owen family also made an important contribution to St Mary’s during its 25 years. Hayward Arthur Owen was appointed churchwarden in 1876 and kept his accounts in this book, including those for the building of the church in 1877 and the chancel extension in 1892. The book shows, in the 1881/1882 year, when Thomas Stephens was paid for the temporary vestry and Robert Hughes for painting the church and the fence.  A contribution was made to the purchase of the first parish register and the church benefitted from the proceeds of two entertainments, one in the new “Court House Theatre” in Ūpokongaro.  The overdraft, however, was still more than £92.

Philip Macdonald, St Mary’s treasurer from 1950 to 1969, was a local farmer with a love of architecture. His design for the church lychgate was later used by Whanganui architect Don Wilson to prepare plans for a memorial to Annie Eliza Cowper, formerly of Kukuta. Her son, Charles Robert Cowper, left a generous bequest to St Mary’s that enabled the lychgate to be built in 1958.

St Mary’s Sunday School was held in a room behind the church from 1904 to the early 1970s.  1938 was an important year in the history of St Mary’s. A local committee was formed in September to “inspire greater interest in church matters throughout the district”. Jessie Woon was appointed honorary secretary. Her report for that year noted that the committee had encouraged 20 local families to subscribe, had a successful shop day at McGruer’s in town and a dance in the Ūpokongaro Hall. The Church and schoolroom were both re-piled. Jessie, however, was worried about the birds having access to the church roof. The original leadlight windows in the nave were replaced in 1968.

St Mary’s is registered with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as a Category 1 historic place. In Whanganui, it is the oldest church still on its original site.

1. St Mary's Church in matchsticks

 Model of St Mary’s Church, Ūpokongaro, made of matchsticks. Ref: 1968.60

In its collection, the Museum has a remarkable matchstick model of St Mary’s made by Jack Higgins, who lived in Ūpokongaro for over 70 years. As a hobby in his later life, he made matchstick models of local buildings in the area. His model of St Mary’s is very accurate, down to the precise alignment of the spire.

 

Fiona Hall was Acting Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum from 2002 to 2003. She curated an exhibition titled The Church by the River, and this article is based on her text.

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The Architect and the Artisan

With the refurbishment of the Whanganui Regional Museum now approaching half-way, considerable attention has been paid to the design and construction of its buildings. The 1928 building’s stripped classical architecture and pre-Napier construction have caused the bigger challenges to seismic performance, with a lot of steel and timber bracing now installed.

The Māori Court building, designed by Don Wilson, has also received earthquake upgrades, but mainly it is undergoing repair and restoration of many of its original features. Wilson’s Whanganui work, including the Museum, was celebrated in a well-received talk by architectural historian Mark Southcombe at the Davis Theatre on Tuesday 19 September. Investigation of the building’s origins has also revealed fascinating stories about the people who worked on it.

1. Basil Benseman

Basil Benseman

An important collaborator with Don Wilson, and a key contributor to the structure and appearance of the 1968 building, was master brick and block layer Basil Benseman. Bas arrived in Whanganui as a child and after leaving school, worked as a truck driver. He served as an anti-aircraft gunner and truck driver during WWII in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Italy before returning to an apprentice training scheme in Wellington. Before long, he had established B E Benseman Bricklayer, which from 1946 to 1985, built a significant portion of Whanganui. Bas worked on many landmark buildings around the city including the Embassy Cinema, St Marcellin School, Whanganui Intermediate, the Government Life and State Insurance buildings, the War Memorial Hall, Power Board Building, Queens Park steps and the Whanganui Regional Museum, among hundreds of others. He didn’t spend much of that time in the office; he was too busy on site, laying hundreds of thousands of bricks and blocks himself.

Don Wilson’s modernist architecture made frequent, often innovative, use of brick and concrete, and Bas often provided the craft needed to realise his designs. The Museum project used conventional blockwork in many parts of the structure, as well as stone facing around the Davis Theatre, an unusual, vertical application of decorative brick on the exterior walls and a lattice of stacked breeze blocks on the end wall, echoing a similar pattern on the War Memorial Hall across the square. Don Wilson, though, had an even more challenging role in mind for his long-time collaborator.

2. Mural

The Whanganui Regional Museum mural, made of Italian glass tiles.

The south side of the building presented a new face to the city and Wilson wanted to make the most of it. He designed a mural, based on rock drawings, to be rendered in Italian glass tiles. The biggest problem was the lack of anybody in 1968 Whanganui with the technical know-how to realise it. With complete confidence he turned to Bas who, despite his protests that he had never attempted such a thing before, was eventually persuaded to set to work in yet another medium. Over 10 months of painstaking work he invented his own mosaic technique which has weathered 50 years of Whanganui rain and sun and remains a shimmering tribute to a great partnership – the architect and the artisan.

 

Frank Stark is Director at Whanganui Regional Museum.