Collegiate School: The War Years

It was not only during the six long years of WW2 that the “routine and normal” had all but disappeared, but also thereafter, with its continuing shortages and years of hardship. What the war years did engender, was a sense of connectedness, solidarity and responsibility. It was this civic mindedness which drove the community to surmount these challenges. 

How did those years, fraught with possible dangers, or loss of a brother, father or even uncle in the crucible of war up north, as it was euphemistically referred to, affect one school at the heart of the community in Port Elizabeth?

 Main picture: Senior Collegiate Girls School, Bird Street, May 1924

Miss Margaret (Madge) Brock took over in 1940 not as an outsider but knowing the school intimately having attended Collegiate from her Kindergarten days. Having obtained her B. Sc. At Rhodes University, she taught both in George and Kimberley for the next eight years. Her return to her alma mater was in 1932 as Biology teacher in the senior school. In 1935, Miss Brock obtained a promotion as Principal of the Junior Collegiate, a position that she held until the end of 1939.

Miss M.E. Brock, headmistress of Junior Collegiate School 1935-1939

Some acerbic critics might have argued that Miss Brock’s appointment as Headmistress to the Senior School was mere happenstance as the education department had decreed that the choice of the new Head Mistress had to be made from amongst the South African teachers. Prior to this, the school as a matter of course, if not policy, had selected the incumbent from English graduates from either Oxford or Cambridge. After her retirement, Miss Brock did concede in her reminiscences that “I was the one who was fully au fait with the great traditions of the Collegiate.” This is not to disparage her immense capabilities but rather to place her appointment in context as she did handle her duties with aplomb.

During Miss Brock’s tenure, the Collegiate was still located in Bird Street. Dreams of relocating to a property west of the Provincial Hospital had to be put in abeyance, striking the delicate balance in favour of the existing emergency. The focus of fund raising became the war effort with £288 being raised for War Funds in 1940 while £78 was made for Red Cross by staging a successful play, “Lady Precious Stream.”

1941 would not go down in the annuals of Collegiate’s history as an auspicious year. Firstly, Miss Brock contracted scarlet fever. During her illness, Miss Joyce Murray became Acting-Principal in her stead. Finally, the stark reality of war sharply intruded on the activities of the school, when a large consignment of school stationery was lost because the City of Winchester was torpedoed by a German U-Boat and sunk.

Miss M.E. Brock, headmistress of Senior Collegiate School 1940-1956

This incident confirmed that the worst fears of the authorities were well-founded. In response, they instituted the Civilian Protective Services. Some measures were a reflexive response with no likelihood of occurring. Into this category fell the measures to extinguish fires caused by incendiary bombs dropped from bombers. In their rampart overcharged imaginations, the committee failed to take into account that Germany possessed neither long range bombers nor aircraft carriers. In the case of this threat, South Africa was securely protected by distance. The safety measure required to meet this threat viz the acquisition of fire extinguishers, was in itself useful as fire was always a hazard. However, to meet the requirement to counter incendiary devices, fire extinguishers were considered ill-advised. Fortunately, a Dr Leigh donated three stirrup pumps to the school.

The dangers arising from the black-outs

On the other hand, the imposition of black-out measures was more appropriate in that, as a coastal town, Port Elizabeth was at the mercy of German merchant raiders and U-Boats. To meet this contingency, black-out bulbs were installed throughout the school and as a precaution against splintering glass, wire netting was placed over the windows. Black-out marshals patrolled the town on the lookout for any shaft of light escaping from an ill-drawn curtain or from an exposed light source. Generally despised, these marshals performed their thankless task until such time as the threat of enemy action was vanishingly small during the winding-down phase of the war.

Another eventuality contemplated was evacuation. In this case, a hostel at Addo had been offered by the Chairman of the Citrus Board with the transport being provided by the Civilian Protective Service. The junior boarders with Mrs Hops in Park Drive were also expected to join the seniors at Addo.

War time measures would impinge upon the school in other ways also as the school’s activities now included much more extra mural work. Amongst the numerous distractions were the following activities and drills: air-raid precautions training, fire squad drill, first-aid training, lectures on related topics.

To ease the passenger traffic problem and petrol rationing, the two-session day, so hotly contested in the past, was introduced. The possible unintended consequences were to make the day longer and probably no less exhausting. Soup and hot milk was provided by the Matron to the 130 girls who could not get home during the short mid-day interval.

Blackouts affected the boarders in other ways too, none more so that the evening church services especially on moonless, cloudy nights which were pitch black. The procedure developed to proceed to the church was to form a crocodile. Walking in double file, the scholars all held the person in front of themselves and the front person held onto the teacher.

Amid the backdrop of war, life continued as life has the tendency to do. The humdrum of life was on occasion shattered by the death in action of a loved one – brother, cousin or boyfriend. Yet life would continue..

Tobruk

In many ways 1942 was the worst year by far. The fate of Tobruk was a catastrophe which would affect almost all of the boarders. The surrender of the Middellandse Regiment under the ineffectual General Klooper was to usher almost all of the manhood of districts such as Graaff-Reinet, Middelburg, Colesburg, Somerset East and Jansenville into POW camps. Despite their worst fears, most South Africans had survived the cauldron that was Tobruk. Without a pause, the metronome of life resumed ticking away blissfully unaware of the tragedy that had befallen the troops in that arid, desolate wasteland.

In 1944, the gloom and despondency was lifted a slither on the news of the Allied landing in Normandy on the 6th June 1944. A barometer of this success, not yet to be regarded as business as usual, came in the form of the relaxation of the paper restriction meaning that for the first time in three years, the school magazine could be produced.

In spite of the welcome news from the battle front, the Collegiate School continued its fundraising efforts. In this case, H.M. Motor Launch 857 was adopted. This was one of the fleet of little ships built in this country. The funds raised were utilised to provide her with necessities, amenities and comforts. When the flotilla docked at Port Elizabeth en route to the battle zone, the young Commander was permitted to hold the assembly. Each class adopted one member of the crew and parcels were sent to them through the Navy League.

Seen through the prism of old age, Noreen reflected on those dark war years perhaps with a twinge of wistfulness and recalled, many years later, some incidents. One such incident was the shortage of cups and sauces. Instead the boarders were supplied extemporised cups made by Mrs Hollis, the Housekeeper, from the bottoms of green and brown beer bottles. The unique cups were not exactly fit for purpose as they had the tendency of cracking as steaming liquid was poured into them.

Apart from the fire and black out drills, the one occasion that Noreen can vividly recall is D-Day. All the girls of both the Junior and the Senior School were informed that when the Allied troops landed in enemy territory on D-Day, the bells in the city would peal to notify everybody of the event. On hearing the bells chime, the girls were to make their way to Stevenson Hall for a ceremony. Curiously, Hitler did not believe that these landings were the real McCoy but rather diversionary landings to befuddle the German defences. While Hitler prevaricated and refused to unleash his Panzers against the fragile allied grip on the coast, the girls of Collegiate School were celebrating the Allied landing in the French littoral.

Fairmile B motor launch ML303 during the invasion of Normandy on D-Day

As luck would have it, the bells tolled in the midst of the half-yearly examinations. Then, without a word or even a whisper, the girls stood up without any fuss or bother. As if some pixie dust had been sprinkled upon them, they silently filed into Stevenson Hall together with the non-white staff. In a moving ceremony, they sang hymns befitting the occasion and were told that D-Day was proceeding as planned. The climax of the ceremony was first for the girls to sing the National Anthem. Then Miss Brock requested that the black staff sing the Xhosa National Anthem with its deep, melodic but soulful tune.

The Germans were a spent force and Hitler’s demise was all but assured. It was a timely reminder that good will always triumph over evil and the world heaved a collective sigh of relief as the humdrum once intruded into life at Collegiate School.

And humdrum it was. Blaze, the school’s pet dog died at the age of seventeen while in 1947, all the pupils in Port Elizabeth assembled at the Crusader Ground to give a hearty welcome to the Royal Family.

Better to be humdrum and alive than injured, paralysed or dead.


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