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JOHNSON, Charles

Born: 1850 09 03
Died: 1927 10 31


Charles Johnson was born on September 3rd, 1850, at Barnsley, Yorkshire, the second son of William and Anne Johnson. There was an elder brother, who died in his youth, and two sisters. The mother was delicate, and this fact induced Mr. William Johnson to contemplate emigration to Natal, where, it was hoped, the climate would suit her health better than that of the bleak Yorkshire town. When all was packed and ready, and all arrangements made for sailing, the mother died. In spite of this blow the arrangements previously made were carried out. The family sailed for South Africa in a sailing vessel, and after a voyage of five months, landed at Port Natal, as the town of Durban was then known. Charles was then seven years of age, his elder sister, Anne (afterwards Mrs. McLeod, a name held in much honour in Zululand), a few years older.

THE first building which Charles Johnson erected in Zululand was as characteristic of him as was the last he put up. His first was the grass hut, built at Isandhlwane in 1880, in which he and Mrs. Johnson spent some heroic but sodden months. His last building was the fine stone church which he erected at Kingsley in memory of his dead friend, Titus Mtembu, in 1925. During the intervening forty-five years he spent thousands of pounds in building churches, schools, and dwelling-houses for his local staff.

His first essays in church building were undertaken and carried out with unusual materials. Having practically no money, he made use of whatever materials he found to hand. Many of his early churches were dug out of the ground in the form of sods of earth with grass attached, which were used as bricks, and laid in rows to form rough walls. This, with small spaces left for very necessary ventilation and light, thatched with grass or reeds, and having beaten-earth floors, was the cheapest and quickest method of building known to him. If anything simpler and cheaper could have been found, he would have used it. It was, of course, impossible to strive with these materials after architectural effects. It was a miracle that the churches stood at all. So grew up a style of building which has come bo be known as Early Zulu, a style, it may be said, which still persists in some parts of the diocese. One of these sod churches stood, or perhaps it would be truer to say reclined, for well over twenty years. Others fell down with disastrous finality after a few days or a few years. The interior furnishings of these buildings matched their outward simplicity. A table for an altar, decked in hangings which were frequently ragged, but nearly always clean. A simple wooden cross, two home-made stone candlesticks, one or two stools which did duty as prie-dieu or seats as occasion demanded, a home-made lectern, and a few grass mats on the floor completed the tout ensemble.

The next stage in building was the use of rough stonework. The one crop which the Nqutu district produces with prodigality is the stone crop. Everywhere there is a super-abundance of whin-stone and sand-stone, which seem to lend themselves to the rough methods employed by local masons. Charles Johnson made full use of these methods. The Basutho learn very easily to build with stone after a fashion, and the second flight of churches in the district was generally built by them. Grim-looking buildings they were, standing squat on the veld, with none of the picturesqueness of sod or wattle-and-daub, but with many more enduring qualities than these.

He was a born builder, and his youthful experiences had developed this gift. Every one knows the kind of man who cannot see two stones lying about without wanting to stand one on the other and make something of them. Charles Johnson was just that kind of man. He never passed a house under construction without becoming deeply interested in it, and stopping to calculate how many thousand bricks would be needed, how many sheets of galvanized iron its roof would require, and how much the whole house would cost when completed. To him it was child's play to muster in order all those mysterious articles which go to the completion of a house. He knew without looking in a dictionary what an architrave was, and by instinct where a louvre should be placed. An enviable gift. To complete a deal in galvanized iron, that untractable and unattractive material, gave him as much joy as the completion of a picture gives to an artist. After the rough stone period, the Early Stone age it might almost be called, he began to have visions of a more ambitious kind of building. With the growth of the number of out-stations, and with the marked increase in the numbers of people attending them, which was so wonderful a feature of the period between 1890 and 1900, he began to dream of a really noble church to be built at St. Augustine's, which should become the spiritual home of the thousands of Christians now living in the district. His church there was a plain and unpretentious building, adequate for the small congregation for whose use it had been erected, but now rapidly proving too small. He wanted a House of God which should be an inspiration to all worshipping in it. Writing in 1901 on this subject he said:--

"I am building a large church here at Rorke's Drift, a very large one to hold 2000 people. Many of my friends consider, I think, that I am extravagantly building too large a building for our present congregation, but the church is not being built simply for our local congregation. My great wish has been for years to get a real central church large enough to allow the people from the little out-stations in the district to congregate together at this centre on all great festivals to teach them that they are all members of the one parish church--simply different sections of the one congregation. If we could have a priest and a real church at every out-station there would not be the same need for a central teaching church; but this we may not hope for in this generation."

He began to collect money for this great adventure. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel from the Marriott Bequest granted him £1000 as a beginning. This splendid gift heartened him greatly. More money came in, and he began to get together tools and men for the work. It was plain that he would have to rely almost entirely upon local workmen, so he wisely set to work to train the most promising of his people in the arts of quarrying, stone-cutting, and building. It was a stupendous undertaking for a man to embark upon with such slender resources. But Charles Johnson never lacked courage and vision, and he never feared to undertake responsibility. He was his own architect, his own clerk of the works, and he gradually bought all the necessary materials. The foundation-stone of the new church was laid by Bishop Carter in 1898. But the outbreak of the Boer War greatly increased the difficulties and the cost of the work. In the first place transport became almost impossible. The territory of the Boer republics was quite near to St. Augustine's, and besides this, the country in between that place and Dundee, its nearest rail-head, was occupied by the Boer forces early in the campaign. A great deal of the building material which was lying at Dundee was commandeered by the forces, and this not only delayed the work, but, as adequate compensation was never paid for it, it also added considerably to the cost. But the greatest blow fell when the moving spirit, Archdeacon Johnson as he was by this time, was suddenly obliged to go to England. His health broke down under the strain of all the work he had in hand. He was away from Zululand when war was declared, and he came hurrying back from England in order to be with his devoted wife, who had most courageously carried on alone during his absence, and his family and work.

Upon his return he found that, in spite of all the delays which had occurred, the walls of the church were almost completed. He had designed a nave 100 feet (30.5m) long by 60 feet (18.3m) wide, with a chancel and sanctuary 60 feet (18.3m) long by 40 (12.2m) wide. The clerestory was upheld by two rows of massive stone pillars, each 32 feet (9.75m) in height, which stand, rugged and grey, along the length of the nave.

The presence of these pillars gives the church its distinctive note of dignified simplicity. But the building of them cost the archdeacon many a sleepless night. When they were just approaching completion, and before the roof could be put on to cover and hold them, a series of strong gales got up to blow night after night, to his great discomfort. During many a night, as he was accustomed afterwards to relate, he got up from his bed and wandered about the building gazing with apprehension amounting almost to terror at his pillars rocking in the rough wind. He found himself occasionally hugging one at the base in order to help it to withstand the buffeting it was undergoing. Fortunately the work of his local builders was sound and good, and no mishap befell. The task of roofing so large a building was beyond the powers of the local staff, so a European carpenter, a Mr. Chilvers, was called in to perform this task. With his usual foresight the archdeacon saw that the time was coming when he would require local carpenters to complete his churches. He therefore founded the St. Augustine's Workshop under the charge of Mr. Chilvers in which local youths could be properly apprenticed to the trade of carpentering.

In July of the following year, 1903, Bishop Vyvyan had the happiness to dedicate the now finished church.

It had been built at a cost of nearly £7000, for the last £2000 of which its builder had made himself personally responsible. This debt hampered him for a considerable number of years, and to some extent its dead-weight retarded the progress of the work in his district. Not until some of his friends and relations in England generously collected enough money to pay off the balance in 1917 did he really recover from the large expenditure forced upon him by his ambitious scheme. It was, no doubt, his prevision of this state of indebtedness which caused Bishop Carter to doubt the wisdom of the undertaking.

For ten years after the completion of the church of St. Augustine very little building was carried on in the district. It seemed as though the impulse to build had lost strength in Charles Johnson's mind. But about the year 1915 he began again to plan big churches, and between that year and 1924 he built a large church at All Saint's, Hlazakazi, another, even bigger, at St. John's, Blood River, and he ended his great work as a builder by building the fine church of St. Philip at Kingsley in memory of the Rev. Titus Mtembu.

Exactly how many houses he built is not known. At a rough guess the number might be put down as sixty.

He died, aged 77, on the eve of All Saints' Day, 1927, in Durban, where he had been taken for treatment. He was buried in the chapel of the great church which he had built at St. Augustine's; "Founder's Chapel" as it is now known.

For a full history visit Charles Johnson of Zululand by By A. W. Lee.

[Extracted from: Lee, AW. Charles Johnson of Zululand (1930). Project Canterbury,]

There is a hospital in Rorke's Drift named the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital.

List of projects

With photographs
With notes

All Saint's: 1924. Hlazakazi, KwaZulu-Natal - Architect
Church of St Augustine: 1903. Rorke's Drift, KwaZulu-Natal - Architect
St John's: n.d.. Blood River/Bloedrivier, KwaZulu-Natal - Architect
St Philip: n.d.. Kingsley, KwaZulu-Natal - Architect

Books citing JOHNSON

Lee, Albert William. 1930. Charles Johnson of Zululand. London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. pp