Collegiate School: Reminiscences of the First Pupils

None of the early records have escaped the ravages of times. Fortunately for history, this bleak situation has been somewhat mitigated by the first pupils recalling the first years. 

With the assistance of these reminiscences, one can obtain an intimate view of what it was like to be one of the initial batch of pupils 144 years ago in 1874. 

In this blog, four founding pupils will share their experiences.

Main picture: Miss Virginia Lavinia Isitt, Headmistress from 1874 to 1886

Reminiscences of Mrs Fanny Haymanson

Among Miss Isitt’s first pupils was Mrs Fanny Haymanson, nee Solomon, who commenced her schooling at seven. Fanny vividly recalled more than half a century later that the original school was operated from a large old house in Western Road, the side of which abutted on the lane next to the North Western Hotel. The children had to enter via the lane and entered the building through the back door as the school was located in the rear portion of the house whilst Miss Isitt and some of her staff lived in the front portion.

Among her teachers in the Elementary Section was a Miss Clark, who was Head of this section and, at that stage, the only Elementary teacher for all the elementary grades. During her nine years at Collegiate, Fanny was probably taught by Miss Clark later as she was transferred to the High School. Miss Clark’s position in the Elementary School was taken by Miss Neighbour, who left some time afterwards to become Miss Isitt’s housekeeper. Fanny can also recall Miss Eleanor Adcock and Miss Taylor being on the staff.

Probably much to Miss Isitt’s dismay, at the entrance to the lane was a sweet shop run by Mrs Maloney, an old Irish lady, who was invariably intoxicated. This shop sold toffees, an assortment of sweets and chocolates. Being constantly inebriated, Mrs Maloney would, almost without fail, request that the children help themselves. Naturally the children “abused” this offer and “liberally” helped themselves.

15 Western Road. The Collegiate School started at the building with the bay window and the white pillars. The sweet shop is next door at the corner of the lane

On another occasion when Mrs Maloney complained to Miss Isitt regarding the behaviour of some pupils as they were impertinent to her whilst purchasing sweets, Miss Isitt sent the offenders straight back to the shop to apologise. Moreover, they were instructed to report back what Mrs Maloney had said.  On their return, none of the culprits would provide any feedback. No doubt this reluctance was occasioned by Mrs Maloney swirling torrent of abuse hurled at them. Eventually one of the more daring girls piped up, “She told us to go to HELL!

Mrs Fanny Haymanson recalls Miss Isitt as possessing a very stern disposition and comments that she was a very nervous person. Nevertheless, all in all, she had a heart of gold and a particularly sweet smile though she never laughed. Fanny recounted how she would greet them very formally in the mornings with a “Good morning, young ladies,” to be followed by a “Pray be seated,” after their response. This formality even extended to addressing the pupils as Miss Lovemore, Miss Abbott et cetera and never by their first name.

Reminiscences of Mrs Whitehead

These are selected extracts from a speech made by Mrs Whitehead on the Diamond Jubilee of the school in 1934. In an era prior to trams and motor vehicles, all school pupils were forced to walked to school. Mrs Whitehead covers in detail what she encountered and experienced on her quotidian walk to school. In Mrs Whitehead’s telling, it must have been an arduous odyssey for a tiny child to traverse town all alone.

The boys were far better off in the way of education over sixty years ago than were the girls. Nowadays the girls have come into their own…..  The opportunity of altering this came when Mrs Phillipson, who had a large private school for girls, retired. Several of our parents and friends met together and decided that a school for higher education for girls should be established. To gain this object, guarantors were found, each contributing £100 per annum for a certain number of years. Thus, the Collegiate sprang into life.

We had no leading up to this Higher Education. Now you are previously prepared by your Primary and Secondary schools.

Many people are unaware that the cradle days of the Collegiate were begun in Western Road. Many of us in those early days of the Collegiate lived in Main Street, and I was one of them. My home was where the Port Elizabeth Assurance Company is today, next door to Fischer’s, the jewellers.

Fischer’s original building which Mrs Whithead would have passed on her way to school

 Coming up the lane between the two buildings that memorable morning, my thoughts were centred on the new school to which I was going. Dodging the bullock wagons which were coming to and from market, I crossed Main Street, passed where St Mary’s extension stands today, round the corner of the present United Building [Society Building], up past the library, which was then the Court House, on the Market Square, back of the Theatre [the present day Opera House], up the incline into White’s Road, a rough stony road down which, on a windy day, the gravel whirled around, stinging one’s legs, hands and face. There were only three or four houses on the left of the road.

 Gaining the top of White’s Road, on the left was the Grammar School, now a café, on the right was a tall narrow double-storeyed house facing Belmont Terrace, attached to it was a single-storeyed house facing Western Road. Beyond that were some three or four plots of empty space. I came to a cottage built a long way back, nearly into Pearson Road, in which Mrs. Uppleby lived, who was the first secretary of the Collegiate School Committee. In that space stands Wootton House [today]. Next to it was the building in which the Collegiate began its life.

St. Mary’s Grammar School on the corner of Belmont Terrace and Western Road

 The fore part of the building was double-storeyed, built on to the street. There were two windows downstairs and two windows upstairs. The downstairs ones were only four feet from the street, with deep windowsills in which a good-sized child could comfortably sit. The rest of the building was single-storeyed. At the side of this, a lane ran, and it was up the lane that I went and entered the back gate into the yard of the school building.

 Fronting this gate were two large wood-and-iron buildings, one in which I hung my hat, the other was the gymnasium, in which we were taught such exercises as were good for the arms, legs and head. I crossed the yard to the main building and saw a long passage down which the older girls went. Turning sharply to the right, at the end of this passage, I entered the schoolroom, where I saw desks for the first time. Before this it had been a large table around which we scholars had sat on backless forms. The Principal’s desk and comfortable chair were raised above us on a small platform. The schoolroom had two large maps on the wall and a blackboard. It was well lighted by a large window and a bow window. 

We had no school grounds for games. As I [recall], I don’t believe that girls in those days played games. But of course, I did, as I had three brothers older than myself and so I learned to fly kites, whip tops, marbles and cricket with them. We had no beautiful hall such as this [referring to the hall in Bird Street], nor in fact any at all. And we had to march around to the Grey Institute to hold any entertainment or function. 

The curriculum then would no doubt be much the same as the present i.e. certain subjects in certain days, class singing, drawing, drilling, arithmetic and such like. [At that stage], there were only three of four boarders.”

 Reminiscences of Mrs Jessie Philip

The following are extracts from a speech given by Mrs Jessie Philips at the schools Silver Jubilee of Founder’s Day in 1910. No records or lists of pupils who attended Miss Isitt’s school are extant. The girls who attended for the period when the school was located at No. 15 Western Road are jokingly referred to a “pre-historic girls.”

“My first picture is of the opening day of the school. Miss Isitt sat in a little room and we girls were sent in to her one by one, which was rather an ordeal. After taking my name and age, she said, “Do you wish to enter the High School or the Lower?” I replied, “Father said you would know best.” “Your father is a very wise man. Come and give me a kiss.” I came [away] from the interview her devoted admirer, and remained so, through the seven years of my education under her.” 

May I give to you a picture or two from my school days before Miss Isitt’s time to show what her coming meant to me?

 

Collegiate’s staff & pupils in 1886 with Miss Isitt in the centre of the back row

I see a teacher at the end of a long table [desks were unknown], with a pile of twenty odd slates before her and an arithmetic book. In the book are inserted many slips of paper at various parts, keeping the places. From this book she sums on to the slates, different on each. We work the sums, the slates are again piled before her and she corrects our work. Problem: Subtract the time required for this performance from the lesson time, and state how much instruction [one has] in arithmetic.

At the same school, it was quite permissible to appear with hair arranged in a mass of tiny plaits in preparation for a party. On St. Valentine’s Day, our Valentines came addressed to the school, and the Principal handed them round to us and we opened them then and there. As there were post deliveries that day during school hours, you can imagine the excitement and how much work was done. It is only fair to say that in later years Valentines were forbidden and that in some ways it was an excellent school, and the Principal an excellent woman.

These little details will show how uphill was the work required to bring order out of confusion. We girls wondered at the time why Miss Isitt made us stand for certain lessons, which lessons had to be said verbatim to the tiniest word – not poetry, but history and science. And how carefully we had to stand – immovable, with attention to the oft-repeated reminder, “Waists back, ladies!” Miss Isitt every year wrote a Report, which she read herself at the prize-giving. This was quite an innovation and considered very advanced.

The school was opened in 1874 in a private house in Western Road, and while there, our prize distributions were held in the Grey Institute on the Donkin. I remember walking in procession to the site of the present school when Sir Bartle Frere laid the foundation stone.

1876 was the first year that Port Elizabeth was a centre for teachers’ examinations. The candidates sat in the Council Chamber of the Town Hall and among them were several African youths from Lovedale.

Mrs Jessie Philip would later be appointed as a teacher at Collegiate, going full circle from scholar to teacher.

Dominican Convent

Reminiscences of Mrs Kathleen Taylor nee Edwards

Kathleen can also legitimately be referred to as “pre-historic” as she also was schooled at Collegiate School when it operated from No 15 Western Road.

To start from the beginning, I must tell you why such a school was ever formed. [It was for] a very simple reason: just because there was not one Public School for girls in Port Elizabeth. A number of men or women, who wanted better education for their daughters, formed themselves into a Committee, and a list was made out of promised scholars for the public school [that] they hoped to establish. I was one of the promised, quite a small one and only fit for the youngest class.

The first school was that house, No. 15 Western Road, now known as Cameron Villa……where Dr Hohmann used to live. It is not quite the same as it is now, but had one big bow-window and a slippery stone flagged stoep. I remember that bow window well because it was the High School classroom, and my desk had its back turned to it.

View of Western Road after the installation of electric trams

[As regards the first day], a picture comes before my eyes of a cleanly gravelled yard and a congregation of new girls. A small short-legged child is standing by the back door, in a clean print dress. She wears white socks, her brown hair hangs in sausage curls, and the two front ones are tied up with brown ribbon. They have a habit of falling forward and smudging the ink during the agony of copy-writing. When she gets home, forcible notice will be drawn to the fact by the black spots on her pinafore. It is I, myself.

The child is gazing at another small girl, also print-frocked, with tight little short fair curls which bobbed as she walked. Annie Elliot was the little girl’s name. Nearby is another small child, such a round-faced dear little girl, and what a fascinating Red-Riding-Hood cloak! My childish eyes [beamed] their admiration, and by mutual attraction these three little girls foregathered, exchanged ages, and thus cemented a friendship which lasted all their lives.

There was a long white-washed shed in the yard fitted with innumerable hat-pegs, which served as a gymnasium, and there every day we did ‘Callisthenics’ and ‘Arm Exercises’.

Another of my early recollections was the forming of some of the children of the Lower School into a Debating Society. Those who joined were called the Mice “while an antagonist section, who divided off, were christened the Rats. I remember [that] the meetings were held in a small outhouse during [the] eleven o’clock recess, and our ambitions rose to the height of writing essays.

A Headmistress, Miss Isitt, was engaged from England having been educated mostly in Paris. She spoke French fluently with a perfect accent. [For] many years did she labour to teach her pupils to do the same, efforts, I am afraid, [were] doomed to failure, for we untamed Colonials were very raw material to work on. My school impression of Miss Isitt was of a tall, queenly woman, with an imposing dignity which caused all small children, however fearless, to shake in their shoes. I dared a lot, but I never dared by look or word to dispute her authority. I can see her now sweep into the classroom, while governesses and scholars alike sprang to their feet. There was not one child present who did not try to stand to her straightest and look her best, for the terrible ordeal of being called out to walk up to the teacher’s desk, past the crossfire of the eyes of her schoolmates, was a dread and awful contingency, and might occur at any moment. It was only after years when coming out of church just behind her, that I realised that Miss Isitt’s height was the same as my own, and that her queenly demeanour was purely the outcome of natural dignity.

Three or four years were spent in the house in Western Road, and during the last year the present old college building was erected. The all-important day of the move had at last arrived. Armies of girls carried different household goods from the old building to the new one. The big bow-windowed room upstairs

Denouement

For her part, Miss Isitt would have experienced both a sense of relief and pride that the adventure that she had embarked upon in this far-off land had borne not just a few scrawny fruit but produced premier fruit in abundance. Equally the School Committee must have relieved that the Bishop of Edinburgh had selected so wisely.

 

Source

The Collegiate School for Girls, Port Elizabeth by J.J. Redgrave (1974, Rustica Press, Wynberg Cape)


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