Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Birth of the Collegiate School

By the 1870s the stark fact was that the girls in Port Elizabeth were receiving a second-rate education at the various private seminaries with their untrained and unqualified teachers. With the demand for quality education glaringly obvious, the residents called into question the lack of a sound establishment under a competent and qualified staff of cultured ladies. The residents’ hopes were realised when on Friday 19th September 1873, a notice appeared in the local newspaper announcing the establishment of a girls’ school.

This would culminate in the birth of the prestigious girls’ school: Collegiate. Like all such endeavours, it would not emerge fully formed as it development would proceed through numerous iterations.

Main picture: No. 15 Western Road with its white front wall and white bay window, the original Collegiate School (looking up Whitlock Street).

The notice in the local newspaper which announced the establishment of this school was prescient. It read as follows:

Proceeding that announcement by some three months, was a meeting held in June 1873 at the old Grey Institute in Belmont Crescent. This meeting was convened by ten prominent females in the town who raised a chorus of concerns that the girls’ needs as regards higher education in Port Elizabeth had to be addressed in the same manner in which the well-endowed Grey Institute catered by the needs of the boys. Amongst those present were Mrs Elizabeth Higgins (nee McCleland) and Mrs Adelaide Fleming (nee McCleland), both second great-aunts of mine.

Adelaide Fleming nee McCleland

Unlike the earlier decades of the nineteenth century, women were now demanding education as was evidenced by the rapid adoption of Ladies’ Seminaries. The two McCleland sisters were probably exposed to this alien concept by their father, the Rev. Francis McCleland, who ensured that his daughters obtained the requisite level of tuition.

A refrain from Ernest Hemingway in a later era regarding the nature of change springs to mind: Gradually then suddenly. How true this refrain would be as events at Collegiate would attest.

Mrs Greenstock, wife of the Reverend W. Greenstock, residing at Pembroke Cottage in Pearson Street, proceeded to read an account of the formation of a Collegiate School near Birmingham, England. The report on the Handsworth Ladies’ College [HLC] elaborated on their course of instruction, fees, staffing et al. The positive tenor of the report impressed the assembled pioneers so much so that they unanimously elected to model the contemplated school on the same lines. The formative influence of the HLC on the DNA of the future school was embedded in the prospectus which these ladies drew up, printed and distributed over the whole town. This document was accompanied by a Guarantee Form to be completed by parents who desired to send their daughters to such a school. These forms had to be returned to the Secretary by the 1st August 1873. If sufficient positive responses were obtained, this would set in motion a flurry of developments such as obtaining a female principal from England and other requisite teachers.

Furthermore, in their infinite wisdom, they made their point of departure compared to their sister schools as being totally unsectarian. To this end, it was suggested that a representative of each religious denominations in the town be invited to co-operate. To give effect to this decision, the committee decided to appoint the wives of three clergymen to the committee – Stokes, Hallack & Brook.

Bearing eloquent testimony to the fact that females were not yet empowered to organise such enterprises themselves, arose at the stage when funds had to be raised. Recognising their lack of “ability”, Mrs Greenstock approached her husband, Rev. W Greenstock to invite all the ministers of the town together with any interested members to attend a meeting, the purpose of which was to consider how to raise the necessary funds to establish the school.

With Mr H.W. Pearson in the chair, the Ladies and Men’s committees met on the morning of Saturday 12th July 1873 to discuss raising the required initial funds for the proposed fee-paying school. However, nothing could be done until the answers on the circular had been received and a guarantee fund could be established.

At a subsequent meeting, the precariousness of the situation was revealed. Only sixteen pupils had been guaranteed. Needless to say, the prospects were not as dire as expected as many parents had made promises or indicated that they intended to enrol their daughters when the school was opened. With a fair prospect of thirty pupils at the commencement of schooling, Mr Pearson was requested to raise the guarantee fund of approximately £1 500, one third to be paid down with immediate effect and with the remainder not to be called for unless a deficiency arose. Moreover, five other gentlemen members were requested to solicit twenty guarantees of nominally £75 each of which only £25 had to be paid down on the completion of the list.

On this basis, the institution set out on an experiment lasting three years. With time now being the limiting factor, securing the services of female Principal and an Assistant became an urgent priority. To accelerate the process, the Bishop of Edinburgh was requested to undertake the appointments. At a subsequent meeting on Tuesday 2nd September 1873 in the Court House in Market Square, the Rules and Regulations of the School were adopted. The management of the school would consist of a Committee comprising three males and at least six females. A flurry of issues had to be expeditiously addressed.

Miss Virginia Lavinia Isitt, Headmistress from 1874 to 1886

At their first meeting two days later in the New Church schoolroom under the chairmanship of the Rev. Samuel Brook, the name for the school decided upon was The Port Elizabeth Collegiate School for Girls. The Treasurer reported that the School was in receipt of the first nine instalments of the Guarantee Fund amounting to £225. The next priority to be finalised was the drafting of a letter to the Bishop of Edinburgh beseeching him to assist in the appointment of a female principal and teacher. Not that the letter to be send per the Edinburgh Castle would be mislaid or lost, but the Committee resolved that a second letter would be sent on the next mail steamer. At the same time,

£150 was remitted to the Bishop. This was to be spent on two sea passages at £50 each. The balance would be used to defray any expenses in the engagement of the teachers with the balance being used to purchase school books and materials.

Included in this hive of activity was the appointment of a subcommittee to obtain a suitable house for the school. Serendipity struck. Mrs Phillipson announced her intention to close her ladies’ seminary at No. 15 Western Road that Christmas and offered it to the envisaged school at £120 for goodwill and relinquishing the remaining lease on the house. Mrs Phillipson’s hopes of making a quick buck were stymied as she was not entitled to sublease the property. Instead she relented and was offered £50 as a bonus. This bonanza must indicate that there was a dearth of suitable properties in this part of central Port Elizabeth at the time. Instead the subcommittee concluded an agreement with the property owner, Mrs. Gubb to lease the property at £150 per annum for three years. Moreover, they agreed that the exterior of the house to be painted and left in good repair by Mrs. Phillipson whereas the internal painting, papering and repairs would be performed at the joint cost of the Committee and the Mrs Gubb.

Holy Rosary Convent, run by Dominican nuns

In addition to the building committee, a separate school furniture committee was established in order to procure desks and even a piano whereas the Secretary was authorised to re-advertised the school again at her own discretion. These adverts did not fall on deaf ears as the enrolment rose to thirty pupils prior to opening. Mr Pearson, the Chairman, must have been relieved as he had stacked his reputation on achieving this number when only sixteen guarantees had been received. All that was now outstanding was the appointment of a Head Teacher and Assistant.

Due to the lack of communications with England, the Committee was unware that the Bishop of Edinburgh had appointed Miss Virginia Lavinia Isitt from Cheltenham College as Lady Principal. Miss Isitt in had turn appointed Miss Edwardes as her assistant. Both left England aboard the Windsor Castle on the 23rd December 1873. Miss Isitt was to play a pivotal role in the school from 1874 to 1886 having planned the entire curriculum and administrative structure of the school from scratch.

The following notice was inserted into the Eastern Province Herald by the Committee.

The Furnishing Subcommittee was now tasked with furnishing the lodgings of these two arrivals: two bedrooms, sitting room, housekeeper’s room and kitchen. On the morning of Tuesday 27th January 1874, the Committee met at the school to welcome Miss Isitt and Miss Edwardes. Before them stood a tall, regal woman with advanced ideas on education. Certainly an impressive woman, at 37 years of age, she spoke with a slight Parisian accent. Amongst the first order of business were the school hours which were set as being from 9am to 1pm daily. Due to the short notice, no provision could be made for boarders for the first term, but Miss Isitt conceded to consider admitting four or five boarders during the next term, however this would require additional furniture.

The previous predictions of the naysayers were proved to be ill-founded because when the school opened during February 1874, it did with an enrolment of 38 pupils comprising a High and Lower School as well as an Elementary Department for children of ages seven to ten years. In the High School, the subjects offered included English Grammar, Composition, Literature, Elocution, Mathematics, Natural Science, History, Latin and French.

Trinder Square in 1867

Later, with burgeoning enrolment, Miss Puckle was appointed at £50 per annum. Having exceeded the Committee’s expectations with her zeal and energy, the Chairman, Mr Brook, congratulated her on Miss Isitt sterling efforts. With the prospect of additional pupils in the ensuing quarter, they held out the prospect of increasing her salary to £275 for the current year. Dependent on the continuing success of the school, the Committee even dangled the possibility of increasing it to £300 per annum but in the event of accepting five boarders, Miss Isitt would pay rent £5 per month. In fact, the new quarter opened with six boarders being accepted.

It was now that Miss Isitt dropped a bombshell by announcing in a letter to the Committee that the performance of Housekeeping duties in conjunction with her professional duties was “detrimental to my body and peace of mind.” This was both a surprise and a salutary lesson to the Committee. Having employed a self-assured, highly competent and ambitious person, this attitude should not have come as a bolt from the blue. Rather they should have anticipated such non-sycophantic behaviour. Two Committee members, Mrs Brook and Mr Macintosh were nominated to negotiate with Miss Isitt.  As a bromide, they informed her that her decision was premature. Instead she provided them with two possible solutions, not as an act of brinkmanship, but rather as plausible solutions. Firstly, she proposed that the Committee provide a house to accommodate twenty pupils, in which case she would obtain a housekeeper and a staff of servants from England.  Not surprisingly given the tone and content of her letter, he advised the representatives that she would prefer to be relieved entirely of her responsibilities as regards the boarders. In the immediate aftermath of this decision, the boarders had to be withdrawn from the school and alternative accommodation acquired. The Committee approached Miss Lavinia Daniels, a boarding house proprietress of 12 Castle Hill, who managed to lease them Mr Whiley’s Prospect House for that purpose. Fees were not to exceed £50 per annum whereas Miss Edwardes was charged £60 per annum for a bedroom and board.

Although the school was barely six months old, the enrolment had increased from 38 in the first quarter, to 49 in the second, and finally to 58 at the commencement of the third quarter. To cope with the new influx, Miss Isitt made a number of requests to the Committee. Maybe it was megalomania or genuine necessity but whatever the reason was, Miss Isitt produced an extensive shopping list of items to be provided: Miss Edwardes’ room as a sitting-room, an extra bed in the eventuality of receiving visitors, servant’s room in the yard, when vacant, to be converted into classrooms, the installation of a skylight into the “dark room,”  cleaner for the school, a personal servant, a personal wardrobe, table-desk as well as a carpet.

Moreover, she suggested that a caretaker for the premises be appointed and that all class books should be the school’s property. The request for an additional music teacher was denied on the basis of lack of finance but the question of a professor of dancing was deferred. Miss Isitt pushed for the replacement of the feeble guttering candles and oil-lamps with the new-fangled gas lights. Despite the elegance of this solution, this proposal was refused on the basis that the landlord would not pay any portion of the installation. Given the imminent expiry of the lease, the Committee were well advised to demand co-payment with Mrs Gubb for the gas lights.

At the close of the year, Miss Isitt was granted £20 for the distribution of prizes at Christmas to be held at the Grey Institute on Friday evening 18th December 1874. In light of the school’s exceptional performance, the Committee awarded Miss Isitt an increase to £300 per annum as from 1st January 1875.

Algoa House built in 1843 when used as a school for young ladies

In line with her conviction about the role and abilities of females in society, Miss Isitt had prepared a speech. Her address was vetoed by the Committee who, in accordance with the prevailing norms, deemed it unbecoming for a woman to address an audience in public. Notwithstanding this objection, the Committee did concede that she be permitted to say “a few well-chosen words to advertise the importance of woman’s mission and her great importance in society as mother and instructor.” The school had survived its first year of existence and was debt free and its financial position satisfactory. The Committee also reported the heartening news that the enrolment now amounted to 64 scholars.

During the first term of 1875, the Committee called a meeting of the guarantors at Mr Pearson’s residence in order to submit the accounts for the past year and to discuss the future. The school’s finances were precarious with the expenditure being £94 7s 7d in excess of the receipts and that the amount received from the guarantors had only totalled £575.

The staff now consisted of the Lady Principal, Miss Isitt, Miss Edwardes, Miss Puckle in charge of dance classes, and finally Professor Eberlein, the music master, while the junior section was in the capable hands of Miss Neighbour, who had recently been brought out by Miss Isitt. The Boarding Department under Miss Daniels proved to be a financial loss and was closed down in June.

At the subsequent prize-giving on the 22nd October 1875, which was once again held at the Grey Institute, Mr Pearson remarked that the school had now passed through the experimental stage and had become a success. Now with 92 scholars, what the school desperately required was a plot of ground nearby on which a self-contained Collegiate School could be erected. The school had convincingly outgrown its hired house at No. 15 Western Road.

Unlike the previous year at which Miss Isitt was only afforded the opportunity of making a short address, this time she was permitted to present her speech. In it she articulated the need for girls to be enabled through education to enter the professions on an equal footing with their male counterparts. Given the fact that this era was the dark ages as regards women’s role in society, the speech was remarkably enlightened.

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

With the imminent expiry of the lease agreement on No 15 Western Road, the need for temporary accommodation would be paramount until such time as new premises could be built. To this end, a Building Committee was established with the target of raised £2000. Heartening news was received in March 1876 when the Town Clerk, Thomas Wormald, informed the Committee that the Government had granted a corner plot of land facing Belmont Terrace and Bird Street.

Mr Bisset, an architect, was requested to submit designs and estimates for the new school. These plans provide for three classrooms on the ground floor separated by folding doors so that they could be opened into one room. Of these three classrooms, the largest would be large enough to seat 40 pupils whereas the other two would cater for thirty scholars.

Upstairs, they proposed to erect four classrooms, each to hold at least twenty-five pupils. In addition, it was planned to have three music rooms, one cloakroom, five bedrooms for teachers, sitting room for the principal, one reception, one dining room, kitchen and pantry, servants’ quarters and finally a wood shed.

Furthermore, the Committee stipulated that the design was to possess a Collegiate character and they also intimated that it would be desirable to have a stoep and a verandah. The final cost excluding dormitories was anticipated to be in the region of £5000 to £6000 but the design had to allow for their eventual erection. First and foremost, the initial outlay of £2000 had to cover the construction of the classrooms and the necessary fittings with the final proviso that the building had to be ready for occupation by Christmas 1876.

Ever bold and assertive, Miss Isitt enquired what the position would be in regard to accommodation after the closing down of the school in Western Road at the end of the year. As a rejoinder, the Committee offered her two options for 1877: Either her remuneration could be set at £500 per annum sans quarters or else they could offer her £400 with quarters in the new building but only as soon as a room was available there.

Miss Isitt accepted the former offer. A private sitting-room and bedroom would also be placed at her disposal until such time as the building was completed.

House in Prospect Hill but backing onto White’s Road

A new Constitution was drawn up and adopted. At a meeting on Tuesday, 23rd May 1876 in the Town Council Room, the subscribers of the school elected seven females and eight males, representing the parents and original guarantors, to serve on the Committee for the ensuing three years.

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 Thomases’ 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.

The Collegiate Schools for Girls was now set on the next stage of its journey. Having survived the childhood phase of its development, it would now have to take its first steps into the adult world with all its potholes, winding ways and dramas.

Post script

When the Rev. William Greenstock’s wife, Frances E. Cotterill, with whom he had about 10 children, died in 1881, he became engaged to be married to Virginia Lavinia Isitt in 1886. Miss Isitt was the first headmistress of the Collegiate School for Girls in Port Elizabeth, but circumstances prevented the marriage.


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


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