Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort stepped off the Charlotte Jane – full of ambition and cathedral-sized dreams! Born in Birmingham, England, the young Benjamin moved to London and studied architecture. Finishing his studies in 1848, he rolled up his sleeves and practised his new trade right there in London.
With Emily, his wife of 18 days, his brother Charles and his wife and sister Susannah, he boarded the Charlotte Jane and sailed bravely to a new world. I’m sure when Benjamin walked along the jetty towards the Lyttelton of 1850 with its 4 immigration barracks, 2 pubs and 12 or so houses, he must have stared over the place with a deep wondering breath. Disappointment soon followed as there was no real demand for an architect at that early stage of the colony.
Two years would pass before Benjamin was hired for his first design job; the Most Holy Trinity Church in Lyttelton. I’m sure this project boosted his spirits as he had been running a stationary shop to make ends meet. He even gave drawing lessons. In a crushing blow, the church did not survive past 1857 as it was buffeted by bad weather and was deemed unsafe. I’m sure being told that only his lack of knowledge of native timber and local weather was too blame for this failure did little to lessen Benjamin’s disappointment.
It was also around this time that Benjamin went into business with his brother-in-law, Isaac Luck. These two would face some of the most exciting projects in the colony to date.
In 1855, Benjamin drew up the first designs of the Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings! The wooden beginnings to the Provincial Council Buildings have survived the 2010/2011 earthquakes with great grace!! What’s an amazing thought is that these wooden areas of the chambers were planned to be eventually rebuilt in stone! What stopped these plans? The Provincial Government was abolished in 1877 and the building suddenly had no purpose. I think if this rebuild had happened, the chambers would have been damaged beyond repair!
Another one of their early commissions still stands today in Otago in the shape of St John’s Anglican Church. This church is still serving its Anglican community today!
Benjamin was commissioned for the building of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. Of course Benjamin’s original wooden structure was upgraded and enlarged to stone in 1901. Badly damaged in 2010/2011 earthquakes, a rebuild is planned.
In 1864, Benjamin became the official Provincial Architect. In 1869 he began the designs for the Canterbury Museum and the Canterbury College, now our Arts Centre. Again, badly damaged in the 2010/2011 earthquakes, a rebuild is well under way.
George Gilbert Scott was commissioned to design the Anglican Cathedral that was to be built in Ridleys (Cathedral) Square. Benjamin offered his help which George leaped at. He wanted Benjamin to be the supervising architect but was refused by the Church. A few years and after a few hurdles, Benjamin fully made his entrance into the project. He took the liberty of the absent architect and altered a few things in the design; such as the tower and the west porch which we know as the entrance. The bold Benjamin even added the north porch to the Cathedral. Unfortunately, the Cathedral would not be finished until 4 years after his death.
By the 1880’s Benjamin had over 40 churches under his belt. He not only designed churches for Christchurch but all over the country. In 1881, Benjamin drew up the plans for the St John’s Cathedral in Napier. St John’s would be the first of Benjamin’s designs to become a victim of an earthquake. It was knocked down due to the damage done by the 1931 Napier Earthquake.
In 1884, Benjamin designed his first stone church in the shape of the Church of the Good Shepard in Phillipstown, Christchurch. This church was lost to the quakes.
In 1884, Benjamin broke a world record that is still held today. He designed the biggest wooden church in the world. St Mary’s Cathedral in Auckland.
Benjamin is buried with his wife and three of his children at The Holy Trinity of Avonside in Linwood.
Other worthy mentions of Benjamin’s work is St Augustine Church in Waimate in 1872, Addington Prison in 1874, St Paul’s Church in Papanui in 1876 and the Sunnyside Asylum in 1891
*image of Benjamin Mountfort courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org *
*Photo of grave taken by Annette Bulovic*