MOUNTFORT, Benjamin Woolfield
A new biography of Mountfort, Benjamin Woolfield appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Mountfort was born in England in 1824, his parents being Thomas Mountfort and Susanna Wale, née Woolfield. In 1849 he married Emily Elizabeth Newman, by whom he had four sons and two daughters.
Apart from his architectural work Mountfort had few interests and these appeared to lie in church affairs. He was one of the earliest members of the Diocesan Synod, and a church warden in Phillipstown. He took no part in political or local government matters, perhaps wisely since he was provincial architect for many years. Subsidiary interests were photography, and studies of heraldry, history, and art as allied to architecture.
Mountfort arrived in Lyttelton in one of the first four ships in 1850. His works were prolific. One of his earliest buildings, a church at Lyttelton, suffered near structural failure. The story is interesting. His design was for a high church, if anything rather high for its length. It was far too ambitious and economy was made by cutting off its length and leaving it at the same height which made it look rather ridiculous. The construction was of the brick noggin type (i.e., brick infill), and the timber was supposed to be seasoned. The timber began to shrink and some bricks fell out; further, the building swayed visibly in a strong wind. It was finally demolished. It appears as if ignorance of the qualities of local materials caused this trouble. In England seasoned timber would have been readily available. This misfortune wrecked his career for years and he became a professional photographer, kept a stationery shop, and was a newspaper agent. He also taught drawing at Christ's College. He must have had great character and determination to recover from this unhappy beginning to his career as architect.
Being trained in the office of Sir Gilbert Scott (not to be confused with his grandson, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of Liverpool Cathedral fame), Mountfort must have been well versed in the technical details of Gothic. In 1861 an interesting episode occurred. The Cathedral Commission had chosen Gilbert Scott (later Sir Gilbert) to draw the Christchurch Cathedral plans in England, and the question came up of the choice of a supervising architect in New Zealand. Mountfort expected to be appointed and when the commission insisted on someone being sent from England, the local newspapers made a stir. The other architects in the town wrote a letter to the Christchurch Press of 15 February 1861, saying that Mountfort would be the most suitable choice. The outcome was, however, that Robert Speechley was sent from England and he arrived in September 1864.
Speechley returned to England a few years later when the work was suspended for financial reasons. In 1873 Mountfort was appointed supervising architect. He varied Scott's design, notably the tower, and carried out individual details himself, such including the west entrance porch, font, Harper Memorial, and north porch.
His other major work, one of the treasures of New Zealand, is the Canterbury Provincial Building, situated in the centre of Christchurch. The main part of this was completed in 1865 and by this time Mountfort's reputation was established. Other works he designed were the Canterbury College Hall, Trinity Congregational Church, cathedral churches of Auckland and Napier, cathedral church of Jesselton, the capital of British North Borneo, the Canterbury Museum, some of the early houses, portions of the Christ's College chapel, the Christchurch Club, and office buildings in central Christchurch. He had a partner named Luck (brother-in-law), and his work was carried on by his son Cyril J. Mountfort, who was not in the same class as his father in design ability.
Today an assessment of his work shows us an architectural giant among the sandhills, swamps, and open spaces of the Canterbury Plains. His ability and dedication were unquestionable. It is said that towards the end of his life professional jealousy tended to diminish his splendour. That, however, has not clouded the issue to posterity, that here was a genius working in the raw materials and severely crude limitations of the early days. Had he been practising in England with its opportunities of money and variety, no doubt he would have become famous there. He was the founder of an architectural tradition, the roots of which run back to the establishment of the settlement of the province of Canterbury.
Mountfort died at Christchurch on 15 March 1898.
by Paul Pascoe, A.R.I.B.A., Architect, Christchurch.
- History of Christchurch Cathedral, McKenzie, A. M. (1931)
- History of the Canterbury Provincial Buildings, Taylor, C. R. H. (1929).