St David’s church and the history of the art of remembrance

St David’s church and the history of the art of remembrance

Last year, thousands of bronze quatrefoils transformed the exterior of Auckland’s St David’s Presbyterian Church in Khyber Pass (see detail here). This was Max Gimblett’s World War One commemorative project ,‘Remembrance’.

Detail showing quatrefoils in Max Gimblett's 'Remembrance'. St David's Church, Auckland, 2015 from Art of Remembrance website
Detail showing quatrefoils in Max Gimblett’s ‘Remembrance’. St David’s Church, Auckland, 2015 from Art of Remembrance website

The connection between the church and war remembrance has a long history. In 1920, parishioners decided to replace their current place of worship with a more substantial, ‘soldier’s memorial church’. This was in light of two anonymous donors clearing the mortgage on the existing wooden church and giving monies to start a fund towards this end. The new church would acknowledge that, during the war, the congregation of St David’s:

‘gave that which was most precious, even its young men. There were no shirkers, no specious pleas about higher callings or paramount duties’.

Plans for the new structure were circulated in December 1925; Auckland architect Daniel Boys Patterson’s perspective drawings (below) revealed some striking features, notably a ‘square Gothic tower surmounted by battlements and faced with buttresses at the angles and louvres in the window openings.’

Daniel Boys Patterson's perspective drawing of St David's Church, NZ Herald, 2 December 1925
Daniel Boys Patterson’s perspective drawing of St David’s Church, NZ Herald, 2 December 1925

The new St David’s would have room for a large congregation of around 560 worshipers and a gallery to hold an extra 150. Its basement would include six rooms for bible classes and a gym. A newspaper report also noted that:

‘Care in planning the building is going to do much to shut out the street noises which are a present source of no little annoyance.

Builder Charles Ravenhall’s team took 10 months to construct the church. Its foundation stone was laid on Anzac Day 1927, a date which chimed with the church’s memorial function. At its opening and dedication ceremony, in October 1927, the church’s minister highlighted the historical, spiritual and memorial significance of the occasion. He also anticipated a time in the near future when the new church would become: ‘the Presbyterian cathedral of Auckland’.

James D Richardson, ‘St David’s Church, Khyber Pass Road, Grafton, Auckland’, Ref 4-1540. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library
James D Richardson, ‘St David’s Church, Khyber Pass Road, Grafton, Auckland’, Ref 4-1540. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

Atypically, all the men and the six nurses from the congregation who served were named on its roll of honour (below). This included Victoria Cross winner, Cyril Bassett, and brother and sister Daphne and Kenneth Commons, whose story parallels that of Lottie and Leddie Le Gallais, featured in Gallipoli: The scale of our war. The men who ‘fell’ were marked with an asterisk.

St Davids Church Roll of Honour memorial from Ministry for Culture and Heritage's online memorial register
St Davids Church Roll of Honour memorial from Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s online memorial register

St David’s is one of the hundreds of war memorials that commemorates the 18,000 deaths that occurred during the Great War. More than 500 public memorials to these men and women were erected by communities between 1916 and 193: the first one to be officially unveiled was in Kaitaia and the last was in Christchurch.

These were a response to the absence of bodies to bury, and the need to create new ways to grieve – and to grieve en masse, the often ‘sudden, violent, premature, ugly deaths of young healthy adults’, as one historian has put it.

While many congregations erected memorials within the interiors or grounds of their places of worship, memorial churches and chapels like St David’s constitute a very small proportion of the national architecture of remembrance. Only sixteen are listed on the Ministry for Culture and Heritages’ online War Memorials register.

If sacred buildings were uncommon as memorials, then what types prevailed?

Hon James Allen. S P Andrew Ltd Portrait negatives. Ref 1-1 1013396-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Hon James Allen. S P Andrew Ltd Portrait negatives. Ref 1-1 1013396-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Well, according to the former Minister of Defence Sir James Allen (above), memorials were to be, first and foremost, ‘beautiful artistic monuments designed by the finest artists’ that the government could secure. In Allen’s opinion, artistic monuments were:

’emblemmatical of what the war meant to us, passing that meaning on to the generations that would follow’.

Virtually all of New Zealand’s World War One memorials conformed to this official preference for ornamental, non-utilitarian monuments that invoked higher moral, educative, and aesthetic ideals.

Collingwood WWI memorial. Photo by Kirstie Ross
Collingwood WWI memorial. Photo by Kirstie Ross

The obelisk was the ornamental form favoured by many communities, with almost a third of the World War One monuments erected featuring these four-sided tapered stone pillars. On the Collingwood memorial (above, dedicated in 1923) the obelisk is set on top of a series of decorative plinths.

Obelisks had the advantage of being potent with heroic historical symbolism and yet also funereal in style. And, without any major sculptural elements, they were relatively cheap for the bereft and grieving communities that funded them – who had already paid the price of war in human terms.

This blog is based on curators’ floor talks that Sarah Farrar and I gave in ‘Up Front’, Nga Toi: Art Te Papa on Saturday 23 April 2016.

Read more about Max Gimblett’s work in Sarah Farrar’s recent blog.

Paul Baragwanath, Project Director and Curator for The Art of Remembrance project, will be talking about this project at Te Papa on Thursday 29 April at 6pm. NB charges apply.

Further reading

Jock Phillips, To the Memory: New Zealand’s War Memorials, Nelson, 2016.




  1. Author

    Hi Stuart
    Thanks for your comment. I will adjust the blog to reflect this information. Is this research available to the public? So whereabouts is the first World War One memorial located – which I assume, I hope correctly, is distinct from the first monument?

    All the best
    Kirstie Ross, History curator

  2. My grandfather Im pretty sure is one of the people mentioned in the St Davids Roll of Honour, A McDonald. He died 10 April 1934. He was an elder of the Church. There should be a memorial plaque in the church to the Rev. Angus MacDonald.

    1. Author

      Hi Julia
      Thanks for your comment. Yes – you can see your grandfather’s name at the bottom of the middle column of the roll of honour. I’m afraid I don’t have access to images of other memorial plaques in the church so I can’t verify the existence of the other one you mention dedicate specifically to him.

      All the best
      Kirstie Ross, History curator.

    2. I was researching my Scottish side of the family and, in particular, tonight I was trying to fill in details for Angus Macdonald. It’s strange that I happened to find this site. I had very few details on Angus until tonight. How strange that his grand daughter should leave a message. My connection is through Angus’ sister Mary who was married to my 2nd cousin Niall Iain Mackay of Keose. I trust that children in New Zealand today are taught about NZ exploits in both wars. I live in Canada now and to be honest the children have no idea of either war. It just doesn’t seem to be covered at all. Memorials must be erected and the memory of our forefather’s cherished. Lest we forget.

  3. Although the Kaitaia War Memorial was thought to have been the first in NZ, research for its listing by Heritage New Zealand showed that it is in fact the third World War One memorial and the second World War One memorial monument in New Zealand. Because the Auckland Harbour Board monument (the first monument) was not dedicated with any ceremony, the unveiling of the Kaitaia War Memorial on 24 March 1916 represents the first unveiling of a war memorial monument in New Zealand

    1. Author

      Hi Stuart – see my response above.

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