Being the first principal of Alexander Road High School for its first 17 years, Cordingley had an inordinate influence on the development of the school. By shepherding it through its formative years, his role was pivotal in setting the school on the road to greatness.
Main picture: Winston Cordingley
Winston was born on the 22nd August 1911 in Verulam, Natal. As his father was a missionary, his youth was peripatetic in nature. The most serious consequence of this lifestyle was to affect Cordingley when he had to attend school. At age 6 he was placed in a Boarding School, Kingswood College, in Grahamstown. To be separated from one’s family at such an early age must have been terrifying. From my experience with people who have also attended boarding school is that they exhibit attributes of resilience arising from the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. In all probability Cordingley was similarly affected.
Elizabeth Bruton, Winston’s eldest daughter, related another life experience which would also greatly have influenced the young Winston and that was the necessity to ride on horseback from mission stations in O’Kiep in Namaqualand to the nearest railway siding/station in order to catch the train to school in Cape Town. From Namaqualand, Winston’s father was transferred to the Transkei where he was based at mission stations in Lusikisiki and Idutywa, the birthplace of Thabo Mbeki. In this case, the young Winston would catch the train to De Aar, then onto Alice and finally to Grahamstown. The journey home by train to East London and then Butterworth. The boys then disembarked at the so-called “Kei Cuttings” on the Great Kei River Pass leading down to the Great Kei River. The pass is located between the towns of Butterworth and Komga on the N2 highway. There are 31 bends corners and curves compressed into its 11,8 km length and the 422m altitude drop when travelling from south to north is what causes the momentum gaining problems for trains and heavy vehicles, in which brake failure has been the common denominator in most of the serious incidents on this pass. Probably as a safety precaution, the boys would have to disembark at the commencement of the steep incline, walk to the top and then boarded the train again.
Imagine being so young and having to make one’s way through a strange town to school. Like boarding school, such activities build resourcefulness at a young age, never to be forgone. Perhaps he was fortunate enough to be accompanied by an elder brother, yet nevertheless, even with an older sibling, the experience must have been daunting for the youngsters. Today even letting one’s children walk a kay or two to school is frowned upon and even perhaps regarded as irresponsible.
Living in the bundu has its own hazards. Bridget recalled her paternal grandmother encountering a snake in the bread flour bin, a common enough occurrence in that era. Elizabeth, in spite of her advanced years, is still very compos mentis, related another incident which also illustrated the dangers of this wilderness area in those days. Winston’s mother was dozing in a chair in the garden with their cat on her lap. Unknown to her, the cat had mesmerised a cobra. Fortunately, she awakened just in time to witness a cobra bolt upright ready to strike.
One of the distressing events that a child can experience is the loss of a parent. In Winston’s case, it arose when his father died while preaching a sermon in the pulpit at the Methodist Church in East London.
After completing his schooling, Winston enrolled at Rhodes University and majored in mathematics and history. After completing his degree, his first teaching post was at Selbourne College in East London. It was while living in East London that he met his wife, Mary Holgate, whom he married while still living in East London. The first of their three children, Elizabeth, was born in 1941 before war intruded.
The war years
After enlisting in the army and the completion of his training, Winston was posted to North Africa. Prior to his departure, he applied for leave from the army to be at the birth of his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, on the 4th April 1941. Winston was granted leave and Elizabeth was baptised the next day by his father. Winston had to immediately return to his base in Pretoria.
The period of 17th to the 21st June 1942 must have been the most traumatic for the 31-year-old South African lad. Instead of the bushveld, Winston was trapped in the waterless desert of North Africa with its blistering midday temperatures and its freezing nights. His foes were no longer the snakes and the predatory animals but another enemy even more deadly, the Panzerarmee Afrika under the wily Rommel.
Having lost the battle of Gazala, the Allied forces made a beeline for Fortress Tobruk. Having earned a fearsome reputation during the Siege of Tobruk which lasted for 241 days in 1941, the Allies, against the advice of the Royal Navy which declined to provide sustenance for yet another siege, the Allied forces sought their good luck charm and headed there. General Klopper, who lacked even a modicum of fighting experience, was placed in charge, only to find the proverbial cupboard bare. The defences had been stripped of all military equipment such as its artillery and the defensive fortifications were half-covered by a sea of sand. Instead of incurring futile losses, Klopper surrendered to the Axis forces much to the chagrin of the Australians who had tenaciously forestalled a German breakthrough during the siege of 1941.
Amazingly, that night Winston’s mother experienced a sense of foreboding, a trill of impending imminent danger. Due to the vividness of this premonition, she arose from the bed, knelt beside it and prayed earnestly for his safety. Meanwhile up North, along the Cyrenaican littoral, intrepid Allied troops defied their officers and escaped along the coast. Amongst them was a South African soldier who would ignore the dangers and join the other escapees.
Based upon the fact that Cordingley was a member of the First Field Artillery Regiment from 1941 to 1945, it can safely be assumed that he participated in one the largest artillery barrages of the war viz the Battle of El Alamein during October 1942.
Reintegration into civilian life
Like most South Africans, Winston would be shipped back to the Union after this battle, and unless one was converted into tankmen, most would have lingered in limbo in South Africa until their discharge at the end of the war. Mary and Elizabeth were to spend the war years with her parents in East London. Winston’s discharge from the army would be effected in Pretoria before returning to East London in 1945. In 1946, his second daughter, Margaret, was born in East London. Finally, in 1948, the family was completed with the birth of Bridget.
The family continued to live in East London where Winston resumed his teaching post at Selbourne college for three years. Later the family would move to Cathcart where Winston was appointed as the principal circa 1952.
Alexander Road High School
On accepting the post as principal at ARHS in 1955, the family would once again be compelled to relocate. Initially they rented a house in Westering but for convenience sake, they purchased a house in Alexander Road where they stayed until the youngest daughter, Bridget had completed her schooling at Collegiate High School.
In 1955, the ARHS was a new school still under construction, a veritable work-in-progress. This school was envisaged to serve the needs of the new suburb of Newton Park. What town planning had neglected to do was to cater for a high school to service the area. Hence the use of a stand on the northern perimeter of the suburb instead of one more centrally located. This school would eponymously be called Alexander Road High School after the street in front of the school. What was wrong with a traditional name such as Newton Park Grey seeing that Port Elizabeth boasted South End Grey, North End Grey and that nondescript school in College Drive, Mill Park!
On commencement of enrolment in 1955, what accommodation could ARHS offer the prospective student but a construction site. Andrew Rabie stepped into the breach and provided the use of four prefabricated classrooms. In addition, three shops in 7th Avenue, Cotswold, were rented to meet the demand for additional classrooms.
Much fundraising was done to add to the basic buildings. In this endeavour Winston gave unstintingly of his time. His first priority was a hall as well as sports fields. In terms of the Education Departments stipulations at that time, the school was obliged to raise half the money for improvements before the Education Department would provide the balance of the funds required.
What was WACKO like?
We all have our own stories about Cordingley, and the ones that resonated with me, given my interest in military history especially that of WW2, were about WW2. None related to a specific battle but rather to human nature in a time of stress and dire circumstances. The only one which I can recall – he repeated it numerous times over the years – involved the attack on German soldiers manning a MG-42 within a pillbox. It might well have been a MG-34 but I imagined it as the rapid-firing MG-42. Were any of these stories based upon his real-life experiences, I wonder? Or were they generic themes to bolster or embellish a principle or character trait?
Kathy Sutton, the school secretary from 1965 to 1999 recalls him as follows: “Oh, by the way, our amazing Principal (he insisted he was a Principal and not a Headmaster) was also sometimes referred to as Batman. You will remember that he always wore his academic gown and when he walked down the corridors on windy days he really looked like Batman. [This was one of Cordingley’s obligatory bows to tradition of which there were many] I once offered to take his gown home and give it a good cleaning, but he refused the offer and said that there should always be chalk marks on his gown! What a man.”
The only time that I had to present myself to the headmaster in his office was for a serious offence. At that stage I was friends with Michael Henderson who came from Rhodesia. Anyway, Michael had acquired a flick knife and would annoy the hell out of me by throwing it at my feet as I walked along. In spite of numerous entreaties to cease and desist, Michael would persist with his game to annoy me.
One day, the inevitable occurred. The knife sliced through the side of my shoe and nicked the skin. In a rage I pulled it out and threw it at Michael. As he was running down the embankment near the tennis courts, the knife was high by the time it reached him. With a solid THUNK it sliced into the tibia. Before I could shout AMBULANCE, I was in Cordingley’s office. Time slowed down as Cordingley leisurely selected the cane with which to administer the punishment to this wicked miscreant, and then did the deed. Worse was to follow. As I knew Michael’s mother and his aunt well, I would have to go to the Provincial Hospital and apologise. All accepted my remorseful pleading and even offered me the knife as a souvenir.
Perhaps Winston Cordingley was pedantic at heart, but he never referred to the school as ALEX but always used the full name, ALEXANDER ROAD HIGH SCHOOL. Most headmasters have a nickname and Cordingley’s was WACO. Maybe somebody can set the record straight, but two explanations have been provided. The most obvious one refers to the fact that he could give a good “whack”. Kathy Sutton recalls: “how the boys would rub their bottoms when leaving his office. I always felt soooo sorry for them.” The other plausible explanation relates to the fact that his initials were WAC. In the case of Herbert Hurd, the sobriquet of the headmaster was BUCKET on account of the fact that his surname was Emerick.
The one issue which created a measure of discontent related to bicycles. Cordingley mandated that cyclists could not cycle down to 3rd Avenue but had to push their bikes down the hill and only mount at the bottom. Similarly, the same rule applied down to 2nd Avenue. Arguably the descent down Alexander Road to 2nd Avenue was treacherous but after hours we all would cycle down both of these hills. In passing, bikes are no longer a mode of transport to school anymore; it is one’s parent’s car.
Sharon Rhode recalls that on one occasion Miss Chillcott (Chilly) sent all the boys in her class for a caning. Waco hit his desk instead and then winked at the boys, telling them to rub their behinds as if they had been caned.
Who can forget the hair inspections? After break one had to walk through a gang of teachers intent on retribution on all the miscreants. At least that was my view. Of course if one’s hair was exceeded the bounds by far, one had to be selected for a caning. But what happened if one was borderline or slightly long? At one such inspection Colin Buxton who was in front of me got pulled out. Even though my hair was slightly longer, I walked through without a problem. In my cynical mind, this was payback time for Colin being unruly or undisciplined.
Cordingley retired from ARHS in 1972 and was superseded by Brian Heath.
After retiring from Alex, the Cordingley’s then moved to Summerstrand. For recreation, Cordingley played bowls. He was a good player as he possessed an eye for the ball, but his principal form of exercise was walking. He loved walking, particularly on the beach. For relaxation he spent hours lovingly tending his vegetable garden at the Summerstrand house.
Little known is the fact that Cordingley was an expert carpenter using the workshop at Selbourne College, in East London, over a weekend making various items of furniture such as bookcases, dressing table amongst other things.
Winston joined the Port Elizabeth Rotary Club through the auspices of Tommy Thorpe who was headmaster of the Victoria Park High School in Walmer. He was twice appointed as President and appointed District Governor’s Representative once. He was as so delighted when he was given a coveted walking stick on the birth of his first grandson, Peter, in September 1970.
Winston died on a heart attack after a walk on the beach on the 8th December 1983 at the age of 72. Taken long before his time, he still have much to offer.
Reflections on Cordingley and his time
From orbiter dicta to BTW or from the cane to non-contact punishment
Fifty years ago, when I passed matric, the words orbiter dicta would have prevailed. The taking of Latin as a subject was mandated as it was a requirement for many varsity courses. In those days, all lawyers would have been proficient with the words “orbiter dicta” [meaning by the way]. Now even the words en passant are infrequently used and has been replaced by the informal abbreviation BTW. These words can be applied as a metaphor to the world of schooling half a century ago as compared with today. In an era when authority and the cane ruled the world as the accepted norm, Cordingley was in tune with reality but in the same way that a unicycle resembles a Porsche 911 Turbo, so to some Cordingley represented the old-style Headmaster with their “you do or else” attitude. Questioning authority, ill-discipline and non-compliance with the rules was not tolerated. However, beneath a gruff exterior and an implacable foe of tardiness, sloppiness and ill-discipline, lurked the real headmaster, unknown to the pupils but familiar to the staff such as the school secretary who sang his praises.
Recognition must be granted to Cordingley in that it was his drive and vision which drove the creation of one of the pre-eminent schools in Port Elizabeth. In 1972 he would hand over to his successor a school which was well-established, had a good reputation and was academically sound.
For this Cordingley must take a bow.
Comments and tributes by the class of ’71
Sharon Rhode [nee Edelson]: I remember Mr. Cordingley very well, he always had a twinkle in his eye, even when he was supposedly being serious. I remember on one occasion when Miss Chillcott (Chilly) sent all the boys in our class for a caning, he hit his desk instead and winked at the boys and said they were all to rub their bottoms as if they had been caned.
Rod Foster: So wonderful to read the blog on WACO. Was an incredible principal. Not sure if I made it to the caning register, but certainly had a few from WACO. Always tried to walk out of his office, looking like (as best you could) it wasn’t hurting. Not easy…as it was.
Stuart Allen: I remember being caned in a mass caning by WACO for long hair in 1971, there were about sixty of us, then I got into my car with a sore bum and drove home.
Karl Els: I think I was the first to be chained by Waco in standard 6. Miss Chillcott sent me to his office and my terror was facing Mrs Sutton who was my choir leader at the Newton Park Baptist. Waco had me sit in his office for an eternity before saying anything. Great memories. Loved the man. Was at his funeral and cried a bucket of tears. Hope to meet him again in heaven.
Kathy Sutton, ARHS secretary from 1965 to 1999
Rob Rudman, scholar at ARHS, class of 1966
Dean McCleland, scholar at ARHS, class of 1971
Bridget Shirras, Cordingley’s youngest daughter
Elizabeth Bruton, Cordingley’s eldest daughter