St Stephens Church

St. Stephen’s Church

The only building on Riebeeck Square is St. Stephen’s Church, but it was, in fact, the first theatre or, as the Coloured people called it, the first “komediehuis” in South Africa. During the first British occupation of the Cape the public, and especially the garrison, lacked adequate entertainments. The British Governor, Sir George Yonge, authorized the building of a theatre. In 1799 construction of a theatre was started, on, what was then known as Boeren Plijn.

The theatre was opened on 17th November 1800. At street level there was provision for a number of shops, workshops and even storerooms. Above these was the theatre itself. The walls were of Table Mountain sandstone, rough-dressed and bonded in clay, but the upper courses of the walls were of stone mixed, with half-burnt bricks and plastered over. The exterior was distinguished by a low pitched roof, buttresses surmounted by urns, a row of oval windows and a covered colonnade of four columns reached by two gracious stairways. The stairways were demolished in 1824, but the building stands just as it was. Nothing remained of its “elegant” interior.The building soon proved to be ineffective as a theatre and fell into disuse. In 1838, when the four-year period of indenture of the slaves elapsed, Dr. Adamson of the Presbyterian Church used it as a school for freed slaves. The Rev. G. W. Stegmann of the Dutch Reformed Church supported him and it was soon used as a school during the week, and as a Sunday School and a place of worship on Sundays. It is said the church, the only Dutch Reformed Church that bears the name of a Saint, was called after the first martyr, because the dissatisfied slaves stoned it on a certain Sunday while a service was in progress.

In 1936, after the years of depression, the building was in a fairly poor condition and there was talk of selling it. The danger was averted for the time being through the intervention of various cultural organisations with the support of the Historical Monuments Commission.

In1949 a firm who proposed to build a parking garage on the site, made an offer ten times the amount offered in 1936. Fortunately, however, it was saved because the area proved too small for the project and the City Council refused to sacrifice an extra nine metres of Riebeeck Square.

The threat that the church might be demolished remained. It was only through persistence, tact and persuasion on the part of those who fought for its preservation that the building was eventually declared a National Monument.

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