A school is a compendium of memories: of struggle, growth and achievement, of the coincidence of pioneer adventurism, dedication and quirks of history -which is why Rondebosch Boys' High School is where it is today, and why it will always be associated with Canigou, a monastery that stood wreathed in clouds on a mountain in the Pyrenees.
In the latter part of the last century the residents of Rondebosch, a pleasant, small but burgeoning garden suburb south-east of Cape Town, got together to consider the pressing need for a boys' school in their midst. The initiative for the English-medium school that arose there was spearheaded by the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) representative of the district, Reverend Benard PJ Marchand, who set up a management committee for the establishment of what was described as an 'undenominational first class public school for boys.
Marchand solicited the help of several prominent dignitaries and businessmen, including the Hon. W P Schreiner, an Old Boy of SACS who became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony (and whose son, Oliver, attended Rondebosch Boys' High and went on to become a noted South African judge), and Sir Lewis Mitchell,General Manager of the Standard Bank, to guarantee the initial expenditure that would be required.
When Dr Thomas Muir, Superintendent-General of Education, in 1897 approved a grant of £50 towards the salary, and housing, allowance for the principal of the boys' public school in Rondebosch, the man chosen for the handsome stipend was Robert MacLennan Ramage, a graduate of Edinburgh University. Ramage was not without experience of teaching in the flowering new schools of the Colony, having been a teacher at the Stellenbosch (Paul Roos) Gymnasium before, at the age of 38, taking up the challenge at the new school in Rondebosch.
On 1 February 1897 the school opened as the Rondebosch High School for Junior Boys in Glena Hall, a DRC building. Ramage's school began modestly, its numbers kept down to the total it could accommodate: just eight pupils. By the end of April there were 28 boys on the roll, from standards two to seven, and it was decided to open an infant department under the direction of a lady teacher, also of Scottish background, Annie McLachlan.
The first inspection report to Dr Muir, in June 1897, was an encouraging one: 'This school has made a promising commencement and deserves the unhesitating support of the neighbourhood. The accommodation and equipment are both satisfactory. The teachers are able and zealous.' (History of RBHS.)
By August of the same year the school in the little church hall on Erin Road was attracting a lot of interest, and its name had been changed to the Boys' High School, Rondebosch. Faced with a flush of applications from local residents, the school committee found that it had to become quite selective in its acceptances. And before the year was out, the committee was looking for a suitable site upon which to build a new, and considerably bigger, school. When a nearby property - The Firs, on almost an acre of ground at the corner of Campground and Rouwkoop roads came up for sale, the committee negotiated a loan with the Standard Bank, bought the property for £1 900, and authorised architect G G Milne to draw up plans for a school building. Duly impressed by the initiative of the fledgling school board, the Education Department agreed to take over the loan amount of £4 500 for the purchase of the site and the building thereon.
Teaching commenced in the new building on The Firs' site on 7 September 1898. The school comprised six 'lofty, well lighted and ventilated' (History of RBHS) classrooms, a verandah running around three inside walls of a quadrangle, an infant department with a moveable glazed partition, and private rooms for the headmaster and teachers. Mr Ramage moved into a cottage on The Firs' site, where he continued to direct the rapid growth of the school. In 1899 it was elevated in status by the addition of extra classes up to matriculation standard.
The demand for increased school accommodation finally caught up with Mr Ramage himself when it was decided that the thatched-roof cottage in which he - and some pupil-boarders - was living would have to be converted into three full-scale classrooms. The enterprising Mr Ramage immediately took matters into his own hands in 1900 by buying an adjacent property, Canigou Estate, and opening Canigou House as a school hostel, beginning with 15 boarders. The house had been built in the 1830s by Sir John Bell, Secretary in the Cape Colonial government and brother-in-law of the Governor, Sir Lowry Cole. Sir John was a veteran of Wellington's campaigns and served as an aide-de-camp to the Iron Duke in Europe's Peninsular War, during which, on a campaign to chase the French out of Spain, his fancy was caught by Canigou, a monastery atop a beautiful mountain in the Pyrenees. When Sir John later built a quaint Elizabethan-style Cape home for himself and his bride, Lady Catherine, he recalled the monastery by naming his homestead Canigou.
When Ramage bought Canigou he acquired with it a large amount of ground including playing fields, woods, tennis courts, a swimming bath, a large vegetable garden - which the boys worked for themselves in plots - and a poultry run. There was a chapel -which became in turn dining room, common room and library - and a small, trim, hedged enclosure that was 'Lady Catherine's garden'. Canigou was truly a school house, where boys boarded, dined and debated - the Friday debating sessions brought boys together from all over the peninsula - and, in the gardens, worked and played together. But the original Canigou, for all its distinguished background and in spite of being the landmark home and focal point of Rondebosch High School for Boys for almost 40 years, was destined to have a limited existence; today only memories remain among the oaks and the ornamental palms of its successor. (Both the school's motto - 'higher and wider'- and the emblem of the spreading tree on its shield also speak of a time gone by, having derived from a stately oak that stood on the Canigou estate.)
An inspection committee of 1938 condemned Canigou House as unsafe, with shaky foundations and rotting rafters and floor joists; in 1940 the building was demolished. The new Canigou, built in the early years of the Second World War, incorporated many of the features of the old house, and its gables, windows and wooden panelled interiors included some commemorative tiles by artist Letta Hill that illuminate historic links with the past. (The Preparatory School was run as an integral part of the Senior School until 1929, when it became a separate school and a new preparatory school was built and opened in 1935.)
The acquisition of Canigou by Mr Ramage and, on his resignation, its purchase by the school heralded an era of expansion in which various sites and properties in the vicinity were leased and bought to accommodate the growing demands of the school. Oakhurst, adjoining Canigou, was used for boarding purposes until the building became so dilapidated that the boys had to move to Rossclaire and Homewood, two houses adjacent to the school in Rouwkoop Road.
Oakhurst was eventually demolished and rebuilt as Mason House, after Sidney Mason, who was principal in the important years of growth from 1904 to 1927.
Mason was born in Pietermaritzburg, the son of a Methodist parson, and was educated in Britain, at Kingswood Methodist High School and Cambridge University. He was a good-natured disciplinarian who spared not the cane but whose humour and fairness in his dealings with his volatile young charges were legendary. In his 23 years as headmaster, the moustachioed Mr Mason, known respectfully and affectionately as 'Dad' (and occasionally somewhat less respectfully as 'Old Sniffs') to the boys, not only introduced the school colours of light blue, dark blue and gold, the coat of arms and the motto, but also started the Old Boys' Union and the school magazine which through its correspondence columns was later to provide a dramatic record of the valour and experiences of Rondebosch boys through the two World Wars.
The letters from the Old Boys - although 'old' is hardly the right description, most of them having enlisted before they were 20 - were often poignant in their innocence. Jack Hamilton Ross of the South African Scottish Regiment wrote, 'I don't think I mentioned in my last letter that I was shot in the leg while serving with the Bloemhof Commando in the German West African campaign but now I am quite well again and looking forward to the time when I shall be fighting in the trenches in Europe. And I am quite sure that the boys who come from South Africa and RBHS will do full credit to the dear old school.' And, later, from the same source, sadly came the stark maturity of the wartime experience: 'No doubt the South African papers have published accounts of the fighting in Delville Wood, so I will not tell them over again to you. But I would like to say this at least. Mind you, I am no coward, but I pray fervently to God that I shall never witness such carnage again.
Perhaps the school's most distinguished military Old Boy was General Sir Robert Mansergh, GCB, KBE, MC. From 1944, General Bob, as he was known, commanded the Fifth Indian Division during the final stages of the Second World War in Burina and the liberation of Singapore, and later became Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces in the Dutch East Indies. After the war he was Officer Commanding NATO Land Forces in Northern Europe and deputy chief of the Imperial General Staff.
During the Second World War, in 1944, there was a memorable dinner held at Mardi on the banks of the River Nile in Egypt, attended by almost 100 men of all ranks. The link between them was that they were all past pupils of Rondebosch Boys' High School. Among the guests that night was Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Mellish, who played rugby for South Africa and England and who became the manager of the international Springbok rugby side and one of the country's leading sports selectors and administrators.
Although the medium of tuition at Rondebosch has always been English, from its early days the school attracted a number of Afrikaans-speaking boys from rural areas including Darling, Malmesbury, Worcester, Caledon, Elgin, De Dooms and Beaufort West. When Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts opened the War Memorial Library in 1927 to honour the Old Boys who had died in action in the First World War, he spoke of 'a tradition of joint service' built up by English- and Dutch-speaking boys, working together for the good of their school.
Twenty years later the same Jan Smuts, who had become Prime Minister of the post-Second World War government, wrote a foreword to History of Rondebosch Boys' High School, a 50-year commemorative book (edited by DE Comell, published by the RBHS Memorial Fund Committee), in which he commented: 'Fifty years of sound teaching, wedded to proud tradition, form a continuity which must be of significance in shaping the character of a young national. I do not hesitate to say that, in this sense, Rondebosch has played an important part in the building of our nation.'
When Mr Mason formally retired in early 1928, South Africa lost an educator whose personality had left a permanent hallmark on the course of progress not only of Rondebosch Boys' High but, in terms of his contribution to his school, of the educational process in South Africa. In a letter to the school committee in November 1927, the acting Superintendent-General of Education commented that when Mr Mason became headmaster, Rondebosch had 180 pupils, including 12 boarders, on its registers; on Mason's retirement he handed over an institution in which the enrolment had trebled.
Mr Mason's successor, Professor William E Grant, left the school after two years to take up the chair of education at UCT, but not before he had overseen continued improvements to the school facilities and the important creation of a playing-fields development fund. Walter G A Mears, a graduate of Rhodes University and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, who came to Rondebosch from Germiston Boys' High in 1930, became the fourth headmaster of the school, and was to establish a distinguished presence there for 21 years, during which time the school underwent a marked and permanent transformation from the old to the new. Today, Mr Mears' name lives on in the Mears Centre, comprising a large indoor sports centre and an honours room in which the school's historical records are kept and Mears' Meadow, a part of the school playing fields.
Pressed for increased facilities for its growing numbers in the pre-war days of 1936, the school bought an old Cape Town tramcar and ingeniously fitted it out with showers for use as changing rooms for the under-13 tennis. It also acquired a horse-drawn mower and cart, pulled by a splendid scotch grey, Napoleon, seemingly a beast with a fetching personality who rapidly became something of a celebrity among the boys and whose passing in 1944 prompted an affectionate epitaph, headlined, of course, 'Death of Napoleon', in the school magazine.
Plans for a new high school on the Canigou site began to take shape in 1940 and were finally approved in 1945. In 1949 the foundation for the new school hall was laid, and it was opened in 1951. Through the 'fifties, under headmaster William 'Alec' Clarke, further improvements were made to the school facilities, including the building of a new swimming pool and the inauguration of the Diamond Jubilee Overseas Scholarship Fund set up by the Old Boys' Union for extended studies for notable Old Boys.
Later, through the years of the principalships of headmasters Cecil Clement and Michael Douglas Reeler, the school experienced an era in which greater emphasis was placed on academic achievement than at any time in the past. Extensions to the school buildings and expansions to the sports fields and facilities brought the school to its current shape and size.
The school's first Old Boy headmaster was Christopher B Murison, whose address to the boys on his arrival in 1986 contained a prophetic message of the awareness for change. Visits by the boys to black residential areas should become the norm rather than the exception, he said. 'Rondebosch boys must emerge as often as possible from their comfortable cocoon, both to render the community service their privileged position makes them capable of and also, for their own sakes, to become more aware, from first-hand experience, of the world they live in.' Three years later, when Rondebosch High School was formally opened to all races, Mr Murison commented: 'I believe that in embarking on an open school policy we must now live up to what was quoted as a reason for doing it - that our sons' education will be enriched by the participation in it of all our peoples.'
Rondebosch Old Boys, meanwhile, have enriched the tradition of the school in areas of endeavour throughout South Africa and abroad. They include Professor Jannie de Villiers, a former rector of the University of Stellenbosch, and Reverend Peter Storey, a former head of the Methodist Church in South Africa and president of the South African Council of Churches. The world-famous South African painter Gregoire Boonzaier went to Rondebosch Boys' High School, as did the late Ernest Wentzel, one of South Africa's most prominent civil-rights advocates, a past chairman of the Johannesburg Bar Council and national chairman of the South African Institute of Race Relations. And, in keeping with the school's link in the march of political history, Old Boy Michael McGregor Corbett, Chief Justice of South Africa, in December 1991 delivered the opening speech at the inaugural session of Codesa - the Convention for a Democratic South Africa - that began the negotiations for a new constitutional order for all South Africans. In contemporary historical and political terms, however, there has probably been no greater Old Boy achiever than Sir Robert Tredgold, Chief Justice of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, who was a boarder at Canigou in company with several other Rhodesians. He practised at the bar in Southern Rhodesia before becoming a judge and taking his place in history for his noted opposition to the Unilateral Declaration of independence of Prime Minister Ian Smith which catapulted Rhodesia into 15 years of political turmoil and civil conflict.
Rondebosch Boys' High can also claim a Nobel Prize winner. Alan Cormack (who passed away a few years ago) was a brilliant student who secured a PhD in physics from UCT. For a period of time he was UCT physicist on the staff of Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, where he developed a unique scanner system for neurosurgery. Whilst professor of physics at Tufts University, Boston, Massachussets, USA, he was a Nobel prizewinner for physics in 1979.
Rondebosch can claim, among other sporting heroes, two of the country's great rugby players, brothers Bennie and Stanley Osler. Both attended Kingswood College in Grahamstown before matriculating at Rondebosch and then going on to study at UCT. Springbok rugby legend, fullback and flyhalf Jackie Tindall did most of his schooling in Stellenbosch but also matriculated from Rondebosch.
Two notable Old Boys on the sport fields are Gary Bailey, ex-Manchester United and England goalkeeper, and in South Africa formerly with Kaiser Chiefs and now a well-known television sporting personality; and Gary Kirsten, Springbok and Western Province cricketing star. Another Old Boy, Keith Anderson, Capab's general manager of stage services, was widely known abroad for his famous school for high-wire performers (aerialist).
The campus of Rondebosch Boys' High School today echoes with names from the past. Andrews, Fletcher, and Marchand houses honour the Chairman, Treasurer and Secretary of the 1897 founding committee. The old War Memorial Library is now the Reeler Centre (after headmaster Reeler, 1977-1985) and the War Memorial Hall that opened in 1951 is today graced with the pictures, portraits and honours boards of a distinguished history.
One of the most lasting memorials to Rondebosch Boys' High School, however, lies in the daily roll call, in names that can be traced back to the founding years of the little 'undenominational first class public school' envisaged by Reverend Marchand and the public-spirited people of Rondebosch - names like Henshilwood, Knott Craig, Van der Merwe, De Villiers and Marchand, whose attendance at Rondebosch Boys' goes back through three or four generations. There is a comradeship of the past that goes way beyond the classroom, characterised by continuing loyalty that builds Rondebosch Old Boys in war and peace and expresses itself in a sense of pride and obligation, illustrated in a 1991 cash donation to the school from an Old Boy who elected to remain anonymous. The gift, to continue 'to attract the right calibre of pupils and staff and to promote further educational studies', was one million rand.
The school has seen many changes in its century of existence and no doubt there are many more to come, but there are few at Rondebosch Boys' High School today - pupils, teachers, parents and supporters - who would not agree with the thoughts expressed by the erstwhile headmaster Christopher Murison who, in his year of appointment to the school, 1986, said: 'It is an exciting time to be in education, to be at Rondebosch Boys' High School. The school must change in order to grow. It must grow in order to remain the leader it has been.' Reproduced by kind permission of the publishers, Messrs Pachyderm Press,from their excellent publication "Historic Schools of South Africa".
As a result of the initiative by the Rev P B Marchand, the "Rondebosch High School for Junior Boys" started with eight boys in Glena Hall in Erin Road, today the premises of the Terrapotta pottery school. The first headmaster was Mr Robert McLennan Ramage, and on the first committee were Mr J Andrews (Chairman), Rev P B Marchand (Secretary) and Mr W Fletcher (Treasurer). The school dayboy houses are named after these four men.