Old St Paul’s is one of New Zealand’s most photographed buildings, and yet it still has a few secrets to hide. High above the beautiful Good Samaritan window in the south transept is a mysterious head, carved in wood. It is extremely high up in the church, and given there was no electricity in the church when the work on that part of the church was done, there was no chance of anyone seeing it. So who is it?
The first possibility is that it is William Hort Levin; the man for whom the Good Samaritan window below was made. Levin was a Wellington City Councillor when he died; he had served on the St Paul’s vestry and synod for many years.
He had previously been a Member of Parliament; during this time he consistently advocated for the interests of Wellington. He was behind the formation of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company; the town of Levin on the railway line that company built was named after him. Levin was a very popular man in Wellington: as his biographer noted, he was better known in the public mind for his charity work than his political or business career. He gave to huge numbers of charities, and it was a donation from him which formed the Wellington Public Library.
The very beautiful Good Samaritan window was given to the church in his memory by Levin’s widow Amy in 1894. It was made in London by the firm who made most of the windows in the church, Lavers and Barraud. In order to accommodate the new window, a new porch was added in the south transept (designed by architect Frederick de Jersey Clere) and a gallery removed, which the Levin family also paid for.
At the time of his death, several people wrote to the newspaper suggesting that a likeness of him should be put in the Wellington Library to memorialise his donation (indeed one person suggested a cast should be taken of his face before the funeral for this purpose) – so perhaps this carving is a result of these suggestions? But does it look like him? I don’t really think so.
The second possibility is that it is a copy of one of the faces in the Good Samaritan window below.
The third, and perhaps most attractive, possibility, is that perhaps it is just the work of a cheeky builder, who carved an image of himself, knowing that it would be unlikely to be ever seen by those sitting in the church.
The Good Samaritan Window, and the architectural plan for the new porch by Frederick de Jersey Clere.
Footnote – the descendants of Amy and William Levin generously recently funded a project to light up the Good Samaritan window from the outside, so that the window shines when the church is used at nighttime.
Main image: Heritage New Zealand. Window image: Peter Shepherd, copyright, all rights reserved. https://www.flickr.com/photos/peteshep/sets/72157604449659322/ Image of Levin: Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: PA1-q-197-18.
For more information on William Levin see M. N. Galt’s essay in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/2l9/levin-william-hort