Central to the story of Collegiate Girls School was one of change, growth and progress. The school never emerged at its current shape, fully formed. Instead it was a process of renewal. To underscore this, was the first giant leap from a small school in a large house at No. 15 Western Road to bespoke buildings in Bird Street.
It will serve us well to reflect that what is now viewed as a bold audacious step might equally have been a misstep. That required perspicacity and foresight and not 20/20 hindsight.
Let us again join the school on its next profound step.
Main picture: The first Collegiate School in Bird Street surrounding by a white trellis fence in 1878
Prior to relocation
For Collegiate School, the journey’s first fork was predetermined. The School Management Committee had set themselves a target of three years operation, at the culmination of which they would evaluate whether their experiment, as they termed it, was successful or not. With this in mind, the lease on the house in Western Road was signed on that basis. If it was not a success, the school would be shuttered but if it was, then a new school building would have to be built.
Once it was apparent that the school was viable, the first step was to acquire a grant of land in the vicinity. As most of the land on the hill was still vacant, this stage merely depended upon the magnanimity of the government rather than any financial outlay for land. Once the site in Bird Street had been granted and the initial £2000 received by way of subscriptions, the Committee instructed the contractors to clear and level the ground and to commence construction as soon as possible.
Again naysayers and Doubting Thomas raised objections, except that this time they were vociferous. Some opponents referred to the flourishing state of the Holy Rosary Convent in Bird Street as having spacious grounds and large number of boarders and day scholars. On this basis, they questioned the viability and even necessity of two schools within such close proximity to each other. The second group adopted another tack as they claimed that by providing education for the daughters of the rich, it would rob the poor of charitable contributions towards their educations. Presumably they expected the well-to-do to educate their daughters at a fee-paying government schools instead of private schools. The question that would arise is whether those parents would donate the saving in tuition to those who would were indigent and thus unable to pay even the nominal fees of government schools.
Building in progress
Tip your hat to the School Committee for arranging that the laying of the foundation stone would be laid by a dignitary with the stature of the Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Bartle Frere or perhaps it was happenstance. However the Governor’s presence was obtained, it was to be during his first visit to Port Elizabeth that at 4 o’clock on Friday afternoon on the 24th August 1877 that Sir Bartle Frere did the honours. The foundation stone was laid on the eastern side of Bird Street, on the opposite side to Belmont Terrace.
The school was built according to the plans of Mr William Murrell while the contractors were Messrs Cresswell & Billson. The site was gaily decorated with bunting, a portion of the site marked off, and within the cordoned area were gathered of the leading ladies of the town and the pupils in the charge of Miss Isitt, the Principal. The full of cost of the buildings was £5000.
Staying with the foundation stone, it was a plain block bearing the inscription 1877. In a cavity beneath it, a stone case containing coins of the realm, the local newspapers published during that week and a document bearing a message was inserted into the foundation as well.
Opening the new school
After a long delay in completing the building – almost a year – probably occasioned due to the Galeka War during which the British troops fought against Chiefs Kreli and Sandile. Finally the official opening occurred at 11 o’clock on the 22nd July 1878.
Miss Isitt was allowed to address the congregation. Spare a thought for her. During her speech she raised two pertinent points which underscore the precarious position of progressive females during this milieu. Firstly she subtly deplores the lack of acceptance of her “progressive principles.” She fails to elaborate what these progressive principles are and without any additional clues, one cannot even speculate at this remove. On the second issue she revealed that Mr Pearson had redacted her report back due to the issue – whatever it was – was too “sensitive for my sex.” Miss Isitt the formally admonished her audience by stating that “we ought not to shrink from criticism but be courageous, irrespective of [one’s] sex.”
In his address, Mr Pearson made a frank admission that “the building is not all that could be desired.” He also expressed the Committee’s concern that they shall “need further help to defray the debt on this building. We have no endowment as the Grey Institute has. The grounds have to be enclosed and planted. In closing Mr Pearson made this curious comment. “And I am sure [that] Miss Isitt has to work on, to be appreciated. Port Elizabeth is not to be taken by storm, but who works well is sure to be appreciated in the end.” By implication, Miss Isitt was facing some form of resistance to her “progressive ideas.”
In later years, Miss A.M. Greene, Vice-Principal under Miss Molteno [1889-1900] was to pen an insightful description of the initial Bird Street school.
“First, there is about the building a look of freedom and unconventionality, very characteristic of the atmosphere of the place. It has no air of an ‘education institution’ about it. It is like a large dwelling-house i.e. a home in no way distinguished, except by its size and spacious grounds, from the few dwellings around it. The windows are many and large and close to the ground, and always flung wide open, giving the children free access through their senses to that glorious outer world of sea and sky, air and green grass, in which alone a child’s being fully expands.
To children of the Collegiate, at least, I trust that the schoolroom has never appeared in the light of a prison-house. The large open space of green grass meadow around the school, spangled all over in springtime with yellow daisies and screened of from the open road by the fragrant curtain of blossoming oleander, spoke to me of new hope and promise in girl’s lives. Too little used was that meadow, alas, for I would have had the whole school, instead of only the Games Club, join in those noble school games which help to bring out what is best in a girl as well as in a boy. Still, there was the space, the opportunity, the invitation as it were, to all girls to enter in and take possession of that splendid world of physical health, strength and activity, which alone will enable them to take possession of their own lives in noble fashion later on.
There was, too, something about the position of the school, especially before the Athenaeum was built, which powerfully spoke of the atmosphere of the place. There it stood, almost on the very brow of the hill commanding (before the view as obscured by buildings) the most noble panorama of sea and sky, of glorious sunrises and crimson sunset reflections which it is possible to conceive, windswept by every wind that blew, blazed on by the summer sunshine, tossed and beaten by the sweeping rains, unsheltered by any tree or building or protecting slope, unadorned by gay flowerbed or blossoming creeper – it seemed to symbolise to me the breezy, hardy freedom of the place, its detachment from conventional aids as well as conventional fetters – but to symbolise withal its cheerfulness, its simplicity, its frank courage, its willingness to take life’s hardships as well as life’s joys.
In the annuals of Collegiate, never had the school been able to hold its prize distribution in its own building and was compelled to use the Grey Institute. On the afternoon of the 17th December 1878, the folding partitions of the three ground floor classrooms were opened, forming one large room in which the prize would be handed out. The room was gaily decorated with flags and floral rings as well as a display of various watercolour drawings painted by the pupils themselves.
The future would not be plain-sailing and sanguine as symptoms of financial difficulty made their appearance. From a promising start, the pupil headcount had not exceeded one hundred. Even though the income averaged approximately £1500 per annum, the expenses for the salaries of the staff of nine teachers was heavy. In addition, a considerable sum was absorbed in interest on the debt. In order to reduce costs, several retrenchments were regrettably made. In part to attract additional pupils, the Boarding Department was reopened. Other schemed were also proposed such as placing the school under the Government Education Department.
Eventually Miss Isitt agreed to take over the entire management of the school from the Committee subject to certain conditions and at an annual rental of £1800 which would cover the interest in the bond and free the Committee from any further responsibility. This arrangement came into effect on the 1st January 1885 and was provisional for two years. How this scheme operated cannot be determined as the Committee ceased to exist and no minutes were recorded for the next fifteen years.
Biographical details of Miss Isitt
Equally enthralling was the life of Miss Isitt.
Virginia Lavinia Isitt was born at Pembroke Dock, South Wales, in 1837, where her father, Benjamin Isitt, was inspector of Crimean War Ironclads at the Royal Naval Dockyard. She was the youngest child of a family of nine, five boys and four girls of whom one died in infancy. At seventeen she met the family of Captain Richard Jesse, whose wife Emily (Emilia) was the sister of Alfred Lord Tennyson, the famous Poet Laureate. She became governess to their son, Eustace, and in circa 1860 accompanied the young lad to France to complete his education. Whilst there, she attended the Arras Convent College on Artois and secured a French State Diploma and Licence to teach, having previously obtained her Licentiate of the College of Preceptors. She developed a close attachment to Emily Jesse and was given a beautiful writing desk and a signed photograph of Lord Tennyson inscribed: “To dear Miss Isitt, taken expressly for her, August 1878.”
Shortly after her arrival in Port Elizabeth, Miss Isitt met the Rev. William Greenstock, a young married curate at the local St. Mary’s Anglican Church and a member of the School Committee, who later became Canon Greenstock of Pietermaritzburg. He was a pioneer educationalist among the Africans and wrote a number of books on the subject. They became very close friends.
In 1886, Miss Isitt decided to resign as Headmistress of Collegiate, the chief reasons being that the Committee had reduced her salary on account of the country’s impoverished trade position, due to bronchial problems her health was failing and she had become engaged to be married to Canon Greenstock. Now a widower, with seven young children, he had returned to a poorly paid post at Truro in Cornwall, England.
Upon her arrival in England, Miss Isitt went to stay with Captain and Mrs Jesse who had persuaded her to break off her engagement to Greenstock on account of her poor health as well as the prospect of becoming stepmother to his very large family.
Miss Isitt bore her suffering bravely and cheerfully until she passed away peacefully at her residence, 37 North Bank, Regent’s Park, London, on the 15th June 1888, aged only fifty-one years. She was interred beneath shady trees in a corner of the cemetery at Margate, on the Kentish coast, alongside her beloved friend, Emily Jesse, who had died the year before.
This is what Mr Newbury had to say about Miss Isitt, almost as a eulogy. “Note her appalling hours, 6am to 10pm, and her headaches, failing eyesight, and that sense of inadequacy which sometimes burdened her in Port Elizabeth. Her mother died in 1859 of dropsy brought on by tuberculosis, very like Virginia herself, and her beloved father died in 1865. So in Port Elizabeth only the letters and reassurances of Mrs Emilia Jesse, aged 73, were there to sustain her. I hope [that] the copy of the letter of 1874 will indicate something of her staffing problems, her friends and ‘enemies’ in Port Elizabeth.
But Virginia excelled in her chosen career because she overcame all prejudices as a mere woman and became a great teacher, travelling extensively when girls in those days were expected to stay at home. She was an ardent feminist and a lover of Tennyson, as well as of her Bible, her mother being an ardent Churchwoman. Yet she was also delightfully human and uninhibited, enjoying the small social life if Port Elizabeth and willingly contemplated marriage to the improvident Widower, Greenstock, with his seven children, two years before she died. No severe Harridan, but a warm, gentle spirit who loved people deeply and craved for affection.
The Collegiate School for Girls, Port Elizabeth by J.J. Redgrave (1974, Rustica Press, Wynberg Cape)