Famous Freemasons - Benjamin Mountfort


Food For Thought
Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort (13 March 1825-15 March 1898) was an English emigrant to New Zealand, where he became one of that country's most prominent 19th century architects. He was instrumental in shaping the city of Christchurch. He was appointed the first official Provincial Architect of the developing province of Canterbury. Heavily influenced by the Anglo-Catholic philosophy behind early Victorian architecture he is credited with importing the Gothic revival style to New Zealand. His Gothic designs constructed in both wood and stone in the province are considered unique to New Zealand. Today he is considered the founding architect of the province of Canterbury.

Early Life Mountfort was born in Birmingham, an industrial city in the Midlands of England, the son of perfume manufacturer Thomas Mountfort and his wife Susanna (née Woolfield). As a young adult he moved to London, where he studied architecture under the Anglo-Catholic Benjamin Mountfort about 1875 architect Richard Cromwell Carpenter, whose medieval Gothic style of design was to have a lifelong influence on Mountfort. After completion of his training, Mountfort practised architecture in London. Following his 1849 marriage to Emily Elizabeth Newman, the couple emigrated in 1850 as some of the first settlers to the province of Canterbury, arriving on one of the famed "first four ships", the Charlotte-Jane. These first settlers, known as "The Pilgrims", have their names engraved on marble plaques in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, in front of the cathedral that Mountfort helped to design.

New Zealand In 1850 New Zealand was a new country. The British government actively encouraged emigration to the colonies, and Mountfort arrived in Canterbury full of ambition and drive to begin designing in the new colony. With him and his wife from England came also his brother Charles, his sister Susannah, and Charles' wife, all five of them aged between 21 and 26. Life in New Zealand at first was hard and disappointing: Mountfort found that there was little call for architects. Christchurch was little more than a large village of basic wooden huts on a windswept plain. The new emigré's architectural life in New Zealand had a disastrous beginning. His first commission in New Zealand was the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Lyttelton, which collapsed in high winds shortly after completion. This calamity was attributed to the use of unseasoned wood and his lack of knowledge of the local building materials.

Whatever the cause, the result was a crushing blow to his reputation. A local newspaper called him:

“... a half-educated architect whose buildings... have given anything but satisfaction, he being evidently deficient in all knowledge of the principles of construction, though a clever draughtsman and a man of some taste.”

Consequently, Mountfort left architecture and ran a bookshop while giving drawing lessons until 1857. It was during this period in the architectural wilderness that he developed a lifelong interest in photography and supplemented his meagre income by taking photographic portraits of his neighbours. Mountfort was a Freemason and an early member of the Lodge of Unanimity, and the only building he designed during this period of his life, in 1851, was its lodge. This was the first Masonic lodge in the South Island.

Benjamin Mountfort ca 1875, Lodge of Unanimity Lyttleton late 1850s, Church of St. John the Baptist Christchurch
In 1857 he returned to architecture and entered into a business partnership with his sister Susannah's new husband, Isaac Luck.  The Canterbury Association had planned that four churches should be built within Christchurch's 'Belts'. St. Michael's was built in 1851, St. Luke's in 1859 and St. John's in 1864. The fourth church, planned for Cranmer Square, was never built.

The foundation stone of St. Johns was laid on St. John the Baptist's Day (24 June) 1864 and the stone-built church was consecrated on St. John the Evangelist's Day (27 Dec.) 1865. The Order of Freemasons took a considerable part in the building and was well represented at the opening. The church was designed by Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort (1825-1898) and Maxwell Bury (1825-1912).

Christchurch, which was given city status in July 1856 and was the administrative capital of the province of Canterbury, was heavily developed during this period. The rapid development in the new city created a large scope for Mountfort and his new partner. In 1858 they received the commission to design the new Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings, a stone building today regarded as one of Mountfort's most important works. The building's planning stage began in 1861, when the Provincial Council had grown to include 35 members and consequently the former wooden chamber was felt to be too small.
Canterbury Provincail Council Building (1858-1865) and the inside of the Great Hall
The new grandiose plans for the stone building included not only the necessary offices for the execution of council business but also dining rooms and recreational facilities. From the exterior, the building appears austere, as was much of Mountfort's early work: a central tower dominates two flanking gabled wings in the Gothic revival style. However the interior was a riot of colour and medievalism as perceived through Victorian eyes; it included stained glass windows, and a large double-faced clock, thought to be one of only five around the globe. The chamber is decorated in a rich, almost Ruskinesque style, with carvings by a local sculptor William Brassington, which iIncluded representations of indigenous New Zealand species.

This high-profile commission may seem surprising, bearing in mind Mountfort's history of design in New Zealand. However, the smaller buildings he and Luck had erected the previous year had impressed the city administrators and there was a dearth of available architects. The resultant acclaim of the building's architecture marked the beginning of Mountfort's successful career.
St. Matthew's Church 1872, St. Augustine's Church Waimate 1872, Canterbury Museum 1869-1882
Mountfort's Gothic architecture The Gothic revival style of architecture began to gain in popularity from the late 18th century as a romantic backlash against the more classical and formal styles which had predominated the previous two centuries. At the age of 16, Mountfort acquired two books written by the Gothic revivalist Augustus Pugin: The True Principles of Christian or Pointed Architecture and An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture. From this time onwards, Mountfort was a disciple of Pugin's strong Anglo-Catholic architectural values. These values were further cemented in 1846, at the age of 21, Mountfort became a pupil of Richard Cromwell Carpenter.

Carpenter was, like Mountfort, a devout Anglo-Catholic and subscribed to the theories of Tractarianism, and thus to the Oxford and Cambridge Movements. These conservative theological movements taught that true spirituality and concentration in prayer was influenced by the physical surroundings, and that the medieval church had been more spiritual than that of the early 19th century. As a result of this theology, medieval architecture was declared to be of greater spiritual value than the classical Palladian-based styles of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Augustus Pugin even pronounced that medieval architecture was the only form suitable for a church and that Palladianism was almost heretical. Such theory was not confined to architects, and continued well into the 20th century. This school of thought led intellectuals such as the English poet Ezra Pound, author of The Cantos, to prefer Romanesque buildings to Baroque on the grounds that the latter represented an abandonment of the world of intellectual clarity and light for a set of values that centred around hell and the increasing dominance of society by bankers, a breed to be despised.

Whatever the philosophy behind the Gothic revival, in London the 19th-century rulers of the British Empire felt that Gothic architecture was suitable for the colonies because of its then strong Anglican connotations, representing hard work, morality and conversion of native peoples. The irony of this was that many of Mountfort's churches were for Roman Catholics, as so many of the new immigrants were of Irish origin. To the many middle-class English empire builders, Gothic represented a nostalgic reminder of the parishes left behind in Britain with their true medieval architecture; these were the patrons who chose the architects and designs.

As the "Provincial Architect" - a newly created position to which Mountfort was appointed in 1864 - Mountfort designed a wooden church for the Roman Catholic community of the city of Christchurch. This wooden erection was subsequently enlarged several times until it was renamed a cathedral. It was eventually replaced in 1901 by the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, a more permanent stone building by the architect Frank Petre. Mountfort often worked in wood, a material he in no way regarded as an impediment to the Gothic style. It is in this way that many of his buildings have given New Zealand its unique Gothic style. Between 1869 and 1882 he designed the Canterbury Museum and subsequently Canterbury College and its clock tower in 1877.

The Christchurch Cathedral in the late 1870's, the 1890s early 1900s, and 1970s. The construction of Christchurch Cathedral, designed by George Gilbert Scott was supervised by Benjamin Mountfort who designed the tower, spire, and west porch.
Construction on the buildings for the Canterbury College, which later became the University of Canterbury, began with the construction of the clock tower block. The building opened in 1877 and was the first purpose built university in New Zealand.
Mountfort's early Gothic work in New Zealand was of the more severe Anglican variety as practised by Carpenter, with tall lancet windows and many gables. As his career progressed, and he had proved himself to the employing authorities, his designs developed into a more European form, with towers, turrets and high ornamental roof lines in the French manner, a style which was in no way peculiar to Mountfort but was endorsed by such architects as Alfred Waterhouse in Britain. On the other hand, the French chateaux style was always more popular in the colonies than in Britain, where such monumental buildings as the Natural History Museum and St Pancras Station were subject to popular criticism. In the United States, however, it was adopted with huge enthusiasm, with families such as the Vanderbilts lining 5th Avenue in New York City with many Gothic chateaux and palaces.

Mountfort's skill as an architect lay in adapting these flamboyant styles to suit the limited materials available in New Zealand. While wooden churches are plentiful in certain parts of the USA, they are generally of a simple classic design, whereas Mountfort's wooden churches in New Zealand are as much ornate Gothic fantasies as those he designed in stone. Perhaps the flamboyance of his work can be explained in a statement of principles he and his partner Luck wrote when bidding to win the commission to design Government House, Auckland in 1857: "...Accordingly, we see in Nature's buildings, the mountains and hills; not regularity of outline but diversity; buttresses, walls and turrets as unlike each other as possible, yet producing a graduation of effect not to be approached by any work, moulded to regularity of outline. The simple study of an oak or an elm tree would suffice to confute the regularity theory."

This seems to be the principle of design that Mountfort practised throughout his life.
St. Mary's Church begun in 1886, which became Auckland Cathedral, the largest wooden Gothic church in the world, which was relocated whole across the road to make way for Auckland's present Cathedral
George Gilbert Scott, the architect of Christchurch Cathedral, and an empathiser of Mountfort's teacher and mentor Carpenter, wished Mountfort to be the clerk of works and supervising architect of the new cathedral project. This proposal was originally vetoed by the Cathedral Commission. Nevertheless, following delays in the building work attributed to financial problems, the position of supervising architect was finally given to Mountfort in 1873.

Mountfort was responsible for several alterations to the absentee main architect's design, most obviously the tower and the west porch. He also designed the font, the Harper Memorial, and the north porch. The cathedral was however not finally completed until 1904, six years after Mountfort's death. The cathedral is very much in the European decorated Gothic style with an attached bell tower beside the body of the cathedral, rather than towering directly above it in the English tradition. In 1872 Mountfort became a founding member of the Canterbury Association of Architects, a body which was responsible for all subsequent development of the new city. Mountfort was now at the pinnacle of his career..
Benjamin Mountfort's St. John's Cathedral built in brick in Napier. it was destroyed in the 1931 earthquake.
Between 1886 and 1897, Mountfort worked on one of his largest churches, the wooden St Mary's, the cathedral church of Auckland. Covering 9,000 square feet (840 m2), St Mary's is the largest and last timber church built by Mountfort, and the largest wooden Gothic church in the world. The custodians of this white-painted many-gabled church today claim it to be one of the most beautiful buildings in New Zealand. At its completion, it was said that "in point of design, completeness and beauty it reaches a high level mark not yet approached in the diocese". The emphasis placed on the sweeping roof by the great aisle windows struck a balance to the great area the church enclosed. In 1982 the entire church, complete with its stained glass windows, was transported to a new site across the road by Warwick Johnson from its former position where a new cathedral was to be built. St Mary's church was consecrated in 1898, one of Mountfort's final grand works.
Needless to say that by the 1880s, Mountfort had been hailed as New Zealand's premier ecclesiastical architect, with over forty churches to his credit. So it was no surprise that In 1888, he was called to design St John's Cathedral in Napier. This brick construction collapsed in the disastrous 1931 earthquake that destroyed much of Napier. This brick design had followed much of what he had learned building the Church of the Good Shepherd in Phillipstown, Christchurch.
Benjamin Mountfort's church in Sabah (Malaysia), started in 1893 and consecrated in 1905
A church that was built to Benjamin Mountfort design was buit in Sabah (now in Malaysia. It was built in stone, the first to be completed in Sabah. Benjamin Mountfort's plans were greeted with excitement, and the foundation stone was laid on 29 September 1893 by Governor Creagh, The church authorities chose Eusideroxylon zwageri (Bornean belian wood) dramatically increasing the cost of construction, while the usage of bricks was not considered to be cosmetically pleasing, so they finally agreed on a building made of granite blocks. The sanctification of the main nave was made on the 30 of September, 1906 during Michaelmas. The western portal, which is the main entrance to the church, was not completed at that time and was consecrated only in 1925, 32 years after construction began.

Benjamin Mountfort died in 1898, aged 73. He was buried in the cemetery of Holy Trinity, Avonside, the church which he had extended in 1876. Hewas keenly interested in the arts and a talented artist, designing cases of New Zealand woods, and other aretefacts, although his artistic work appears to have been confined to art pertaining to architecture. He was a devout member of the Church of England and a member of many Anglican church councils and diocese committees, although he built many Roman Catholic churches.
Sunnyside Hospital in the 1880s, and an aerial photograph of the Christchurch Cathedral from the 1950s..
Another one of the buildings which was designed by Benjamin Montfort was the Sunnyside Hospital, built in the 1870ss, but the one which he is most remembered for is the Christchurch Cathedral  Despite its future being in the balance, it has architecturally dominated the city since it construction