The History of Sophia Gray

In 1989 the University of the (Orange) Free State in Bloemfontein, SA, inaugurated an annual lecture and exhibition to highlight the contribution made by architects and architecture to society.

This was named after Sophia Gray, the first professionally active architect in Bloemfontein. It is generally agreed that she was responsible for the design of the initial chapel that eventually became the Anglican Cathedral of St Andrew and St Michael in St George’s Street.

Soon after the inception of the Sophia Gray Lectures and Exhibitions, the Senate of the University formally recognised these as one of the University’s official public lectures with the following aims, namely to:


  • Honour the person or group of people invited. The following criteria for invitation apply: the staff of the School of Architecture must be convinced that the person or group has made a fundamental contribution to the praxis of architecture, the theoretical debate within the profession or professional matters; those invited should have a sense of, and take the responsibility for the effects their creations have on the well-being, life and advancement/development of the general community; they must be connected to the Southern African region. The process of selection is one of proposal, debate and consensus, and to;


  • Draw attention to the architectural heritage of the city of Bloemfontein. The city has a rich architectural tradition and by choice of venue attention is drawn to it.


  • Serve the community. The Lecture and Exhibition is viewed as one of the many ways in which the University and the School of Architecture engage in and assist the community.

Sophia Gray

The blue·blooded Sophia Wharton Myddleton, talented wife of the first Anglican Bishop of Cape Town, Robert Gray, stands revealed as one of the most singular characters in South African history. Architect, accountant, managing director of a vast business, graceful water-colonist, expert horsewoman, gracious hostess and accomplished calligraphist, Sophy Gray actively participated in the determining events of the most formative 25 years of her adopted country (Gutsche 1970:cover).


Born in 1814 in Durham, England, Sophia was known to have a deep interest in the world around her and preferred to spend her time doing clear and precise landscape paintings. She was by nature a perceptive draughtsperson and delighted in drawing exact objects such as buildings and architectural details. The Grays arrived in Table Bay in February 1848. Merely two months after their arrival Robert Gray asked for textbooks on architecture (Langham·Carter 1974.10.17). By the end of 1848, Sophia had prepared eleven church plans for her husband to hand out to the communities they served. Although she had no formal training in architecture, she is considered to be South Africa’s first female architect. Sophia Gray was the wife of the first Anglican bishop of Cape Town, Robert Gray. During the 25 years that they were active in establishing the Anglican Church in the country she managed to build approximately 58 churches. In 1850, Sophia’s husband, Robert, visited Bloemfontein as part of his itinerary to visit the interior of the country (Gutsche 1970:112: Schoeman 1980:11 & 1982:71), and was involved in the building of two cathedrals in Bloemfontein: St Andrew and St Michael (Nienaber 1987:27).


Throughout her husband’s ill-health, her multiple duties on their farm, her work as secretory to the church, her role as mother and social worker, Sophia still emerged as a remarkable architect. She toured the country on horseback and designed architecture to suit the climate and available materials. She was never seen without a sketchbook to document the places she had visited. Many of her original drawings are presently kept in the William Cullen library at the University of the Witwatersrand. Johannesburg.


On the 27th April 1871, Sophia Gray died of cancer at the age of 57. She and Robert were buried at St Saviour’s Church, Claremont, Cape Town. Her contribution to life in South Africa was commemorated with a stained glass window in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town (Gutsche 1970:215).


View the original article by Prof Paul Kotze here