In the 1970s, the Stokes Bible at St Paul’s left its usual place on the lectern to be restored but didn’t return. It was not until years later when Betty Plant, a lifelong parishioner who became the first curator of Old St Paul’s once it opened as a tourist attraction, discovered the bible – and it was not where she had expected to find it.
The extremely large, leather-bound Stokes Bible was presented in 1855 to the first St Paul’s church on Museum Street. It was a gift to the church in memory of Margaret Stokes, wife of Robert Stokes (c. 1810 – 80). Robert was an early settler of Wellington, arriving on the New Zealand Company ship, the Cuba in 1840.
After a stint at surveying, and consequently giving his name to the Lower Hutt suburb of Stokes Valley, Robert decided to pursue other interests. He became proprietor of one of the earliest newspapers in the colony, the New Zealand Spectator and Cook Strait Guardian. He represented Wellington City in the Provincial Council from 1857 to 1865 and was treasurer of the Wellington Horticultural and Botanical Society. He was also actively involved with the Anglican Church, serving as a lay member of the Synod of the Diocese of Wellington.
His first wife, Margaret, died after a long illness on 1 August 1852. They had no children.
Three books were given to the church in her memory: this Bible, a Prayer Book and a Book of Offices. When the current Old St Paul’s opened in 1866, it was moved to the new church, and placed on the lectern. In the years following, the Stokes Bible sat open on the lectern for the reading of the day. Many would step up and read it, and eventually the bible needed to be repaired. Taken down and sent away for repair, it was not seen again.
Betty Plant, curious as to its whereabouts, spent months researching the bible trying to track it down. This was by no means easy; sometimes names were muddled up and caused a lot of confusion. When Betty’s Dutch neighbour referred her to the Dutch Club, she was given her first significant lead. The Stokes Bible was apparently at a house in Worser Bay, Wellington.
The owner did indeed have a large bible at the house – it had been very useful in fact. When Betty went to pick it up, she found the bible covered in splatters of paint. The owner had been using it as a step while painting their house.
It has now been 160 years since the Stokes Bible was gifted to St Paul’s and it has had quite a journey. Now fully restored and back in the church, you can visit and see the once lost bible on display.
Sources: ‘STOKES, Robert’, from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 22-Apr-09, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/1966/stokes-robert. Also notes from Terry Barrett’s interview made in 2002 with Betty Plant.
Images: First Old St Paul’s: Brees, Samuel Charles, [Between 1844 and 1845], Engraved by Henry Melville; drawn by S C Brees [London, 1847]. Ref: PUBL-0020-08-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22804019. Other images, Heritage New Zealand.