Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Durban High School: Early Days Part One

By Robert Russell, I.S.O. (First Head Master 1866-1875; Inspector of Schools 1875-1878; Superintendent of Education 1878-1903).

As far back as 1861 the Legislative Council of Natal passed two Laws which created two Collegiate Institutions, one for Maritzburg and the other for Durban. It was, however, never found practicable to bring these Laws into operation, and the Trustees had to confine themselves to the custody and improvement of the moneys and lands granted, in terms of the Laws, by the Government and the Corporations of the two towns. It was not till 1903 that these Laws were finally abolished. The accumulated endowments were then devoted by the Government to the improvement and extension of the two existing High Schools.

In 1864 Messrs Robert Acutt, J F Churchill, John Millar, George Rutherford and Richard Vause petitioned the Government, on behalf of the townsfolk of Durban, to establish a High School at the port similar to the one which had been begun in the capital two years before and had since been successfully carried on under the Headmastership of Mr William Calder. The Government gave its consent and asked the Secretary of State to send out a Head Master. I was then a very young man, Senior Assistant and Master of Method in the Church of Scotland Training College in Edinburgh and a student at the University, and when the appointment was offered to me the innate Scottish desire of 'getting on', together with the fascinating prospect of work in a new land, induced me to accept it.

 Very little was known about Natal in the Mother Country at that time. The current geographical text-books dismissed the little colony with scanty notice. It was described as 'Port Natal on the S.E. coast of Africa with a bar-fenced harbour' and its inhabitants as mainly 'Zoolahs, a fierce and predatory race'. ... Any fame the Colony had acquired was due to its being the see of Bishop Colenso, whom I was afterwards privileged to call a dear friend, known to schoolboys of the period by his 'Arithmetic' and 'Algebra' and to their elders by his Biblical Criticism. His 'Ten Weeks in Natal' gave me some insight into the conditions of Colonial life; and I was further enlightened by the perusal of a pamphlet by John Robinson, Editor of the Natal Mercury, written chiefly for immigrants, wherein he pictured the scenery, the people and the industries of his adopted land ...

I arrived in Natal in April 1866 in the 'Eudora' after a three months' passage. There was then a short railway, the only one in South Africa, between the Point and Umgeni. The present Point Road was a sandy tract through the bush. Durban was a well laid out, almost exclusively English, town with streets still ankle-deep in sand, and much primeval bush in evidence. There were only one or two double-storeyed houses in the town. ... There was an enlightened and progressive Town Council which had Mr R W Tyzack as Mayor and Mr R H U Fisher as Town Clerk. The names of Acutt, Adams, Beningfield, Butcher, Greenacre, Harvey, Henwood, Jameson, Millar, Parker, Poynton, Randles, Snell and Wood were written large ... in the commercial life of Durban.

The day after my arrival I had an invitation to attend a meeting of the Durban Literary Society and to take part in a discussion on a paper, 'The Cid', to be read by one of its members. The weekly meetings of this Society were held in the Council Chamber in West Street, and its sessional programme would have been no discredit to the Philosophic which I frequented in Edinburgh. For there were intellectual giants in the land even forty years ago. Athletics had not yet become a craze, and the serenity of the cultured home life of the people was not then disturbed either by the feverish rush to the diamond and gold fields or the daily distraction of cable news from the outside world. The excitement of news from home was enjoyed only once a month when the 'Bismarck' steamed round the Bluff with the English mail from Capetown. ... Old Durban remembers with pride the literary, musical and scientific galaxy which included such men as John Robinson, Harry Escombe, John Sanderson, J F Churchill, W W Wheeler, Alfred Evans, W H Evans, William Crowder, E P Lamport, J R Goodricke, Savory Pinsent, John Milne, William Boyd, F Harvey, Archdeacon Lloyd, Rev S H Stott, Rev John Buchanan, A M Campbell, J S Steel, T R Hadden and the Rev W H Mann - the last four still happily with us. [at date of publication 1905] 

The Durban High School was opened on 1st June 1866 in the Mansion House, Smith Street, a handsome two-roomed building erected during his Mayoralty by Mr William Hartley, and in later years enlarged and occupied by the Athaeneum Club. Before that date there were only four schools in Durban, one the Government School, then under the direction of Mr McLetchie and Mr Doig and later under Mr James Crowe, and the others private adventure schools. I may be allowed to say here that I am glad, despite the changed name of the sister institution in Maritzburg, that my old school still remains the High School. Only seven boys turned up on the opening day. The first name enrolled was that of Eben Coakes, son of the Durban Postmaster and now [1905] an Archdeacon in the Diocese of Capetown. July was a holiday month, but a start had been made with the school. My instructions were to admit only boys over 13 years of age and to give them an 'education according to the most improved methods in vogue in English high-class schools'. I soon found that the age limit was too high, and that I need not burden the lads with a multiplicity of subjects of instruction. The fees, payable to the Government in advance, were fixed at £1 a month for each pupil and 16s each for members of the same family.

[Transcribed from The Durban High School Record]

West St., Durban, 1874

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