Old St Paul’s Church

I’ve been a volunteer visitor host at this Wellington church (now a historic building rather than an active church) for nearly five years. Although I know quite a lot about it and have seen a fair few historic photos of it, I was still pleasantly surprised to come across some new images recently. These are on a website dedicated to recording the history, and some stories, of the church.

In particular, this watercolour showing the church from behind was painted by the wife (Caroline) of the first Bishop of Wellington, Charles Abraham shortly after the church was built – the church as seen from Pipitea beach.

You couldn’t see this view today as there is no beach here – there is a cliff, a road with retail and office buildings on it, rail yards and wharves before you get to the harbour. This Google Earth map shows what I mean – the watercolour would have been painted roughly where the words “Old St Pauls” are, on Thorndon Quay, which follows the old line of the beach. Everything to the right of this street is “reclaimed” land.

Map of OSP location

(I’ve always thought “reclaimed” was an odd term for filling in some of the harbour and creating land.) The reclamation of Wellington harbour began in the 1850s, but the area behind Old St Paul’s (actually it wasn’t “Old” then – it was just St Paul’s) was reclaimed in the 1880s for the purpose of building a railway line to the north of Wellington. You can see clearly on the map that the railway line still goes close behind the church. When it’s quiet at the church we can sometimes hear railway station or train announcements.

This photo – also found on the osphistory website, but in the National Library collection, is taken from a very similar spot to the watercolour, but in the 1880s when reclamation had begun.

OSP from behind 1860s Nat lib

Thorndon Quay, Wellington. Davis, William Henry Whitmore, 1812-1901: Ref: PA7-12-61. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22321366

And this is a detail from the above photo showing the church and the men working on the reclamation:

OSp from behind detail

Today, the only other building near Old St Paul’s that’s as old as the church is a pub called The Thistle Inn – it was opened in the same year as the church, 1866, after an earlier Thistle Inn pub burnt down.

Below is an image I’m familiar with as we have a reproduction of it at the church. It’s not from behind, but shows the side of the church and Thorndon Quay as it curves around behind the beach, and it also shows the Thistle Inn on the left (the two-storey building with the door on the corner). Now, the railway station would be about where this photo was taken from.

OSP & Thistle Mulgrave St

View of the junction of Thorndon Quay and Mulgrave Street showing shops and houses in Thorndon Quay, St Paul’s Cathedral in the centre and Thistle Inn on the left. Taken by an unknown photographer, ca 1867. Ref: 1/2-021203-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22735459 

Many visitors when they enter Old St Paul’s are often surprised to find it’s larger than they thought it would be – unfortunately, it is now rather over-shadowed by taller office and apartment buildings, except at the back and on one side where “Bishopscourt” is (formerly the house of the Bishop). It is certainly no longer the prominent landmark that it was in these 19th century photos. But, still, about 90,000 visitors a year manage to find it. Worth visiting if you’re in Wellington, NZ.

This is an interior view I took during our Christmas festival a few years ago:

xmas festival01

It’s a neo-Gothic style wooden building – all the wood is native New Zealand timber, most of it from around the Wellington region before much of the local forests disappeared. Many visitors think it resembles the upside down hull of a ship. The architect was Frederick Thatcher, who was also the minister – he trained as an architect first in England and then as a minister in New Zealand. It was a parish church and the Anglican (Church of England) cathedral for Wellington until 1964 when a new modern (and Modernist) Cathedral opened. That’s when St Paul’s became “Old”.


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