Sixty years ago today the first pupils arrived at St Stithians College, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
St Stithians was a new Methodist Church school, established as a result of a bequest by two Cornish builders who had prospered in Johannesburg – Albert Charles Collins and William Mountstephens. The school took its name from the village of Stithian in Cornwall, where A.C. Collins was born. After the selection of a suitable piece of ground and the erection of the first buildings, the school was ready for its first classes to begin on 28 January 1953, and boarders were told to arrive the evening before.
I went to St Stithians College, the first day it opened. My mother took me there in our little Wolseley 8. All my things were in a big tin trunk, and when we arrived a bloke came up and introduced himself as John Bennett. Another boy, Michael Westhorpe, went around introducing everyone to everyone else. Since it was a new school, we were all strangers to each other. When enough of us had arrived, the headmaster, Mr Mears, came along and took us on a tour.
We went to see the sewage purification plant. Mr Mears explained how it worked, a large concrete tank filled with stones with rotating metal pipes that squirted water over the stones. There were also special flies whose job was to eat the shit. He said we wouldn’t drink the purified water, but that it would be used to water the gardens. Then we walked back towards Collins House, and a few more people arrived — Michael Westhorpe introduced one of them to me as “Unite — you know, unity — community”. He thought that was very funny.
At 6.00 pm the the headmaster came along and said, “we might as well drift over for supper.” So we followed him, picking our way through piles of pipes and building materials down a ramp at the end of the wattle covered terrace. We lined up on the terrace outside the dining hall, from the tallest to the shortest. Douglas Bennett was the shortest, and the Mr Mears said he was the full stop. George Coetzee, the next shortest, was the comma. I was the third shortest, but didn’t warrant a punctuation mark.
Then we went in and sat down at 3 tables, ten at each, with the shortest ones at one table, the biggest at another, and the middle sized ones in between. Erroll Johnson was the youngest of us; he, Douglas Bennett and I were all 11 years old. The others were 12, 13 or 14. Ian Swan, the oldest, was 15.
There were four classes when the school started; grades one and two, and forms one and two (which would now be called Grades 8 & 9). The juniors were all day boys, however, so there were none of them there that first night. The form one classroom was in the largest dormitory in Collins House, in the centre of the building at the top of the main stairs. We all assembled there, and Mr Mears showed us where we were to go to sleep. Another guy arrived in the middle of his pep talk, and while the head was getting him sorted out, Ian Unite started to play the fool, and Mr Mears lost his temper, shouted at him, and then smiled. We thought that was strange when he seemed so angry. We soon learned to be very careful when when we saw that funny little smile.
The new arrival was big and dark. His name was Manuel Neves, and he came from Mocambique. I was put in a dormitory with two others, Christopher Aitken and Edward Reeves. John Bennett and George Coetzee were not happy about that, because they were older than I was, and they had been put in the biggest dormitory, with six people in it.
When we were going to bed, Michael Westhorpe and Clive Woolley, a bloke with red hair, came and made off with my blanket, and Mr Mears came upon us when I was struggling to get back, and told us to be quiet and go to bed.
So ended the first night at St Stithians.
About a week later, on Tuesday 3 February, there was a kind of unofficial official opening of the school. We missed some classes, and went to the dining hall, where some important people made speeches, and the picture below appeared in The Star.
There were only two completed buildings, Collins House, and the dining hall, so we lived and had our classes in Collins House. Our Form I classroom was a large central upstairs room, and the Grade I class met in the room immediately below. The Grade I and II classes did a lot of singing, and I knew the tunes by heart within a couple of weeks. It was only some decades later that I discovered the name of one of them, hearing it on the car radio late one night — The Keel Row. Another was Ach Du Lieber Augustin.
We had a good view of the building operations on the first classroom block and the chapel, which were often more interesting than the lessons, especiually when they began pushing two-wheeled barrows with concrete up a ramp for the first floor. The concrete was poured on top of ceramic beams reinforced with steel rods, which was then a new method of construction.
On the 28th January, the first day of classes, we were introduced to the funny little maths man, E.M. Harris. “The name’s Harris,” he said. “You’ll find out the other two later.” He taught maths, physics and chemistry, while Mr Mears taught English, Latin and history. Michael Lewis referred to Mr Mears as “The Boss”, and the term stuck, and he was “The Boss” to us from then on.
On 11 August there was the official official opening of the school, with the laying of the foundatio0n stone of the chapel, and the unveiling of a brass plaque by Mrs Mountstephens. The new classrooms were ready for occupation at the end of the third term, and we carried all our desks down there. When the chapel walls had reached roof height Mr Bailey, the foreman of the building operations, invited us all to sign our names on a piece of cardboard, which was dropped down between the inner and outer walls of the chapel. We speculated on whether someone would discover it several hundred years from now, but it will probably be eaten by termites long before then, It was just ordinary corrugated cardboard from a box lid.
At the end of the year school photos were taken, and I think those were the main photographic record of the first year of St Stithians. A couple of years later there was a darkroom and a photography club, and several pupils had cameras and used them, but there was nothing like that in the first year.
John and Douglas Bennett, Peter Wallis and Michael Westhorpe did not return to the school after the end of 1953.
See also St Stithians College Founders Day, 2008.