Alex of Yore: The Formative Years

Having lived in Joburg for 41 years, when I told my friends that I was writing articles on the history of Alex, they were perplexed. Their worried scowl told of their concern for my mental well-being. When I nonchalantly added that it would involve numerous interviews, their suspicions were confirmed. Days later when I explained that Alex refers to my Alma Mater and not what generally springs to mind: Alexandra, a squalid township in Gauteng their relief was palpable. I had not lost it. Yet!

With few exceptions, what one most vividly recalls of one’s schooling, are various incidents involving fellow pupils or teachers. This series of blogs will mostly cover these experiences. It also goes without saying that certain teachers will definitively be covered, and their quirks and idiosyncrasies exposed.

Main picture: Alexander Road High School from the fields

With academic gown flowing

The principal throughout the whole of this formative period was Mr Cordingley, or Waco, to the pupils. Cordingley’s tenure commenced in 1955 when ARHS opened as a school using prefab buildings at the Andrew Rabie School and it terminated in 1972.

It was at his final address to the school in 1972 that he elaborated in detail on the history of the school during his seventeen-year tenure. During that time, he had left an indelible mark on the school. As a tribute to his leadership, I have used that address almost verbatim as the basis of this blog on those early years.  In effect, this is a Cordingley eye-view of Alex during its formative years.

Principal’s address in 1972


When I received the appointment to start the Alexander Road High School, I was principal of a small country school, the Cathcart High School, and many of the ideas about uniform and badges were formulated there. At that time, I imagined that Alexander Road High School had been named after General Alexander of 1st Army fame, and I had visions of getting Lord Alexander of Tunis as he was later known, out to South Africa to open the school and to ask him to allow us to use his coat of arms for our badge.

Imagine my astonishment when I arrived in Port Elizabeth and found out that Alexander Road was named after a local citizen and not after the famous general. The General’s coat of arms did however have red and green in it and did give us the idea for the strips in the blazer. The colour brown was chosen because it is a colour that suits most complexions and no other school in Port Elizabeth at that time had a brown uniform.

It had always been a belief of mine that if pupils are proud of their uniform they will be proud of their school and here my wife did a very good job designing a uniform both girls and boys would be proud of. This has been altered from time to time because of the dictates of fashion.

As we could not make use of General Alexander’s coat of arms, we had to design our own badge and the badge finally decided on was due to the inspiration of two people, our architect Mr Berger, a Jew and a Methodist minister, the Rev. Garrett who at that time was Chairman of the School Board committee responsible for the school’s well-being. The motto NIL SINE LABORE was suggested by the school’s Latin teacher, Mrs Davies.

You will agree with me that the school badge is a masterpiece of its kind. You have the famous sculpture “Discobolus” by the Greek sculptor Myron, chosen because it represents perfect physical fitness. You have the open book representing the mind. It stands for the font of all knowledge. Finally, you have the candle, the recognised symbol of the spirit. You will notice that the candle is burning brightly and is on a white background representing purity. The discus thrower and the book are also white, the colour of purity. What the badge really tells us is that if the candle is burning brightly within us then both our bodies and our minds will be pure. I prefer to translate the motto NIL SINE LABORE thus – Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without real hard work or as Winston Churchill put it “without toil, sweat, tears and blood”.

The motto ties in with the general theme of the badge and reminds us that no man is complete unless he works hard at developing his mind, body and soul simultaneously. As a minister, the Rev. Paul Hardy, once said to me, our badge contains all the teachings of Christianity and Judaism and would make a wonderful text for a sermon. Perhaps at a future date when a “Founders Day” is inaugurated, this may well be a suitable theme.

1955 The prefab buildings at Andrew Rabie School used by ARHS


I started the school in January 1955 in four prefabricated classrooms in the grounds of the Andrew Rabie High School and with a fifth class in the Andrew Rabie building. We also used the woodwork room and domestic science room of the Andrew Rabie High School. I will never forget the kindness and co-operation of the late Mr van Zyl, principal of the Andrew Rabie school. He went out of his way to make us feel at home and to help wherever he could.

The school presented a motley appearance on the opening day. The 155 pupils had no uniform and I had to insist that the girls wear simple dresses and the boys’ jackets and ties. For three days we had no desks. The School Board appealed to other schools to help us and a motley assortment arrived so that the schooling of the pupils did not suffer unduly.

Among the 155 pupils there were some real tough ones who gave the five teachers whom the School Board had recruited, a torrid time. There was one dear old lady who was very short sighted.  Because the pupils took advantage of her, it became a daily habit of mine to steal up to the door, wait for an extra loud noise, dash into the classroom and take off two or three pupils to the office for punishment. Luckily, she only lasted one term. In the second term two teachers who are still with us, Mrs Workman and Miss Chilcott joined the staff while one of the foundation members Mrs Poppleton will also be remembered by many.

At the beginning of the third term the new uniforms were introduced, and it was incredible what a difference this made. For the first time the pupils had something to be proud of and this was further heightened when we moved into the new building in Alexander Road on the 5th December.

Among the new teachers who joined the staff in 1956 were Mrs Maggs, Mr Welsh and Mr de Lange. The staff photograph of that year included 10 teachers, six of whom are still with us, three with 18 years’ service and three with 17 years’ service to the school.

The new school consisted of 10 classrooms, a domestic science room, a woodwork room and a science laboratory, capable of accommodating approximately 300 pupils. In 1957 that grand old teacher, Mr Deary, joined the staff and remained with us for 5 years. I am very pleased to see that although now over 80 years old he is with us tonight. It was Mr Deary who composed the school song and also suggested the form of the prefects’ induction, which has become such an integral part of our Speech Nights. I am sure many of the past pupils still remember Mr Deary’s wise words, “If you play, you’ll pay, some way, some day”. Another old veteran who joined us in 1957 was Mr G W van der Merwe, who died two years ago. He later on became O.C. shops, of which I will have more to say later.

In 1958 Mr Simms joined the staff as Vice-Principal, and proved of enormous assistance to me, especially in the field of organisation. In the same year, Mrs Dickason and Mr Fourie joined the staff.

It was obvious that the educational authorities had underestimated the rapid expansion of the western suburbs. Our enrolment in 1959 was 338, in 1960 it was 370 and the building was full to overflowing. I had to turn away more than 150 pupils who had applied for admission to the school and the education authorities made extensions a super priority project.  The powers that be assured me that the builders would have 3 classrooms ready by July 1961, and on the strength of this the school committee agreed to the hiring of 3 shops near the present Cotswold Post office to accommodate 3 Standard 6 classes. Being young, enthusiastic, and very green I believed the authorities and the era of the “shops” came into being. The six months’ period extended to eighteen months and it was only in July 1962 that the three Standard 6 classes were transferred to the school.

The shops were 1½ miles from the school and this made the interchange of teachers very difficult. As far as possible interchanges between the shops and the school took place at breaks only. To add to our difficulties one of the shops was approximately 100 metres from the other two, and it was inevitable that the pupils had to be left unsupervised at times. It was important that the pupils should feel that they belonged to the school and we arranged matters so that each Standard 6 class spent one day a week at the school. On this day they did specialist subjects like Woodwork, Domestic Science and Art.

The new wing to the school was officially opened in July 1962. At that time finishing touches had still to be done both to the new laboratories and to the hall. The first assembly in the hall was held on the 6th November 1962 and the official opening and naming of the Percy Walker Hall was performed by the Administrator, the Hon Mr J N Malan on the 22nd March 1963.

In 1962 the enrolment shot up to 470 and in that year Miss Wienand and Mr P. P. van der Merwe were appointed to the staff. By 1963 the school was again at full capacity with an enrolment of 563. Mr R H Parker joined the staff in this year, Mr Ledger and Mr Brink in 1964 and Mr Wright in 1965. Thus, of our total present staff of 29, 15 have been at the school for 8 years or more, a record of which any school can be proud.

Our present enrolment stands at 650 and once more additions have to be made to the buildings, so that the school can accommodate a minimum of 750 pupils. A new hall to seat 900 is also to be built, and the Percy Walker Hall will then be used as a gymnasium and an intimate theatre. The School Committee has plans to incorporate a modern tearoom and tuckshop and special rooms for the many societies in the school that at present have no permanent home. I personally am pleased that the credit squeeze has delayed the start of building operations. This is one headache I will be pleased to hand over to Mr Heath.


The school was built during the austerity period of the fifties and at that time schools wanting a hall or playing fields and tennis courts had to finance these amenities themselves, with only a small grant from the administration. I realised that nothing could be achieved without the backing of the parents.

Even at that time when money was considerably more valuable than it is today, I estimated that a minimum of R40 000 was needed. My wife started a ladies’ committee in 1955 and this did yeoman work raising money by cake sales and other means, but it was obvious that the only way to involve all the parents was to form a P.T.A.  Thus, on the 17th May 1956 the inaugural meeting of the P.T.A. was held in the old Domestic Science room (now the Art room). Approximately 60 people turned up, but we were all strangers to one another and when I tried to form a committee, I ran into real difficulties. Eventually one of the parents, Major King took matters into his own hands. He singled out individuals whom he thought looked likely leaders, asked their names and proposed them for the committee. In this way we got our first committee going and from then onwards never looked back.

Another event of far reaching importance took place on 13th June 1956. This was the election of the first school committee. I realised that if the school was to get on, we would have to have a man of standing as Chairman of the committee. With the backing of the new P.T.A. executive I made enquiries and found that the ideal man for my purpose was a certain Mr Percy Walker. He was a well-known industrialist, Chairman of the Divisional Council, a member of the Hospital Board and was a prominent Rotarian. He had also served on the School Board. When I first approached him, he told me he had too many irons in the fire and could not consider taking on another job. I refused to take no for an answer, pointing out that I wanted him as a figure head only and that I would be doing all the work. After my third visit he agreed to take on the job. What a wonderful choice this turned out to be. He looked on the job as a challenge and put his whole heart and soul into raising money for the school.

What was even more important, he inspired the P.T.A. with his enthusiasm, and knitted the parents into one happy body all working for the school. In the early years he ran a bazaar or fete every year. I do not think any of us will forget the All-Day fete held at the school in 1959. Percy had received a donation of 4000 gramophone records, many of them brand new. The P.T.A. decided to run a giant competition with a difference. Apart from the many big prizes, our boast was that everyone who bought a ticket would receive a prize of a gramophone record. It sounded very well in theory, but after the draw had been made, the records had to be distributed, and many of the ticket holders had gone home. Nothing daunted the fathers got stuck into the job of delivering nearly 2000 unclaimed records to various addresses in the town. That fete brought in a net profit of R3 320 which in those days was a lot of money. Altogether the P.T.A. in its various fetes and sales has brought in R21 783,62.

In 1959 the Education authorities offered schools who wished to build halls R15 000 towards the cost.  As the new additions had been sanctioned the School Committee decided to go all out to get our new hall built at the same time. The school at that time had just over R10 000 saved up and our architects Messrs Berman and Berger told us that we could build the kind of hall we wanted for R40 000. This meant that we were still short of R15 000. The School Committee went carefully into the question of raising the money by issuing unsecured debentures paying 6% interest. Repayments were to be made by raising the school levy to R4 per family per term. R2 of this amount was to be put into a special fund to repay debenture holders. With approximately 400 families this would being in over R3 000 per year, so that the whole scheme could be liquidated within five years. A crowded P.T.A meeting enthusiastically endorsed the idea, and the debenture fund was launched that same year. The response was staggering. Within four months the fund was fully subscribed, and we had to turn away over R13 000. Here I wish to pay tribute to the fund secretary Mr Jock Grieve whose enthusiasm and hard work was largely responsible for the success of the undertaking, to Mr Simms the treasurer, and to the three independent trustees, Messrs Bergman, Lawson and Munro. The first certificate was issued to Mr Percy Walker. This has been framed and is now in my office.

An undertaking had been given to the parents that if they agreed to the raising of the school levy, there would be no further fetes or other fund-raising efforts. To weary parents who had put in a great deal of time and hard work into raising money this seemed a wonderful idea, but two years later the P.T.A was clamouring for another fete. The parents obviously missed the wonderful camaraderie and good fellowship engendered by having to work together and felt that new parents in particular did not have the same interest in the school that they did. The School Committee stalled them off by allowing them to hold small efforts like cake sales but eventually in 1962 as money was needed for the development of the sports fields, the P.T.A. was allowed to hold a bazaar which as usual was organised by Mr Walker.

The school suffered a tragic loss in 1963 while I was overseas on furlough when Mr Percy Walker was killed in a motor accident. It is fitting that the name of this great friend of the school should be perpetuated by the naming of this hall after him and also by the Percy Walker Memorial Scholarship inaugurated by his widow, Mrs Edyth Walker-Tate.

Mr Walker was succeeded as Chairman of the school committee by another doughty worker for the school, Mr Herbert Hurd. His main interest was the development of the playing fields, and the wonderful facilities we enjoy today are largely due to him. When he was forced to resign as Chairman due to pressure of work, Mr Roy Skelding was made Chairman in 1965. He had been a foundation member of the school committee and had acted as secretary for 9 years. When he resigned in 1968 our present chairman, Rev P D Jourdan took over this task.

These four chairmen have guided the school through many difficult periods, and I would like to pay tribute to the valuable help they, and in fact all members of the six school committees, have done. Throughout the short history of the school they have given unstintingly of their time and advice and have always been ready to undertake any task asked of them.

I do not want to give the impression that the P.T.A. has been purely a fund-raising body. Once a term throughout the 17 years of its existence we have had interesting talks and discussions mainly on educational matters affecting parents, and I am sure these have been of immense benefit to all concerned.


By 1957 the P.T.A had amassed enough money to enable us to start on the levelling of the fields. Application was made to the department and work on the fields actually started on 15th September 1958. Unfortunately, the contractor deviated from the plans formulated by the department of works in Cape Town and two months later all work was stopped until the dispute was settled. Two years later, in January 1961 work was restarted by another contractor, and in June of that year all work on the fields was again stopped because of another dispute between the contractor and the structural engineer employed by the department. As the contractor threatened to sue the department, we were not allowed to touch the fields for 2½ years. Eventually the dispute was settled out of court and once again work recommenced at the end of 1964. This time there was no hitch and the then chairman of the school committee, Mr Roy Skelding, officially opened the fields and the six tennis courts on the 9th March 1966. All in all, our fields and tennis courts took 7½ years to build, surely a world record for such a small job. This did have its compensations. The department gave us far more than we were officially entitled to and the fields and tennis courts only cost the school R9 800. To commemorate the hard work of those mainly responsible one of the fields was called the Hurd field and the two groups of tennis courts were named after Mr Grieve and Mr Skelding.


I realised from the start that the 6 morgen site on which the school is situated was far too small, and on delving into files of old correspondence I discovered that on 5 November 1954 before I even commenced my duties as Headmaster, I made application for additional ground between Alexander Road and the Patterson High school to be given to the school. I had been told by a friend in the municipality that this land was available. The School Board backed up the application but on the 18th October 1956 this was turned down by the department for two reasons – firstly, they considered 6 morgen of ground adequate for any high school and secondly the fencing and a wall which the municipality insisted on would cost £3 300 (R6 600) and this they considered excessive.

The school committee realised the necessity of obtaining additional land and negotiations were again started with the municipality.  Eventually they offered us a level open site in Cotswold. The Department agreed to take over the land on our behalf, but this time the Administrator vetoed the transfer on the grounds that open spaces in suburbs had to be reserved for future parks.

The municipality again offered us 10 morgen of land between Alexander Road and the Patterson High School and negotiations for this land have been going on ever since. The long delays and the red tape of the Department has cost us dear. We received a letter last month from the municipality saying that the land was no longer available as the recent traffic survey indicated that the whole area would be required for a double carriageway road to link Kempston Road with the national road.

This school must have additional land and I hope Mr Heath will be more successful in this respect than I have been.

I think it fitting that I should end up this short history of the school by giving you some idea of my aims and ideals because these must inevitably have had their bearing on the character of the school which has developed.

  1. I am firmly convinced that a pupil can only work to the best of his ability in a friendly atmosphere. If he is happy, not only will he work well at school, but he will be more likely to take part in the many societies and sports which the school has to offer. In other words, it is only in a friendly atmosphere that the pupil can develop his full potential. In such an atmosphere he will feel free to try out his wings and develop initiative and self-reliance.
  2. It is a truism that there can be no freedom in an undisciplined school or society. Pupils need the security which discipline provides, and although I have tried to foster self-discipline rather than a rigid external discipline, pupils appreciate the fact that when they know they have done wrong, they will have to suffer the consequences. In fact, I will go so far as to say that not only do they expect punishment for wrongdoing, but they feel let down if they escape.
  3. I have always been a firm believer in the inherent goodness of our modern youth. As I have said so many times, our young people today have to contend with so many evil influences, and have to withstand so many challenges, that those who come through unscathed are far better people than you or I ever were. Our young people soon see through the shams and the counterfeits, they are tolerant but at the same time very demanding, they certainly possess a great deal of initiative and self-reliance and above all, like all young people throughout the ages, they scorn those restrictions and traditions for which they see no use.

Because of this it has been our aim in this school to make the pupils themselves responsible for many of their activities. I have always found that when they undertake a task, they make an excellent job of it. Examples of this are the high standard achieved by them in the inter-house plays, the magnificent organisation of the swimming gala, the school newspaper, Alexander the Great, the matric farewell dance, the variety concerts they have given us, and the many societies organised and run by the pupils themselves.

In 1955 a bay school was started. It has been well looked after by a dedicated staff and by a devoted band of parents, both on the School Committee and in the P.T.A. its virile growth and the way it has overcome its growing pains is in no small measure due to the nursing and care of all you people.

I venture to say that no adolescent has had such care bestowed on it. Although not yet out of its teens it shows promise of developing into an adulthood which will be pride of all those who have been associated with its upbringing. It is up to all of you, both staff and parents to give Mr Heath the same steadfast support that you have given me so that in its adulthood this already renowned and well-loved school will grow still greater in stature.

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