Boarding School

The Clocktower at St Andrews College 1973

The Clocktower at St Andrews College 1973

My Grandfather, my Dad, and two of my Uncles, all attended the private school of
St Andrews College, in Grahamstown, South Africa, over the decades, to complete their schooling before attending universities and going out in to the big wide world to earn a living and to support a family.

And so it came to pass, in 1956, that I was told, of my impending departure from my country education and idyllic bush surroundings, that I would be transported, to a place far away, on a regular basis. I do not recall being enthused about it all but to my adventurous spirit it was to be something new.

South Africa at that time, was in the early stages of the Nationalist Party Government’s ideology of Apartheid, and political issues were being hotly debated all over the country. I was very much in the dark about these things and took scant notice of the issues. My bent was going to school and playing kids games with my large circle of friends. My family spoke both South African official languages of English and Afrikaans. We spoke English in our family of parents and three boys, and Afrikaans to the servants. We spoke a mix of English and Afrikaans in one sentence to friends, at times. It was the way it was. My Public School education was in Afrikaans. I was soon to learn that my English was very basic as I was being sent to an Anglican Church English Speaking school to get a good education.

As 1957 dawned, I was kitted out with my new school uniform of short pants, shirts, trousers, jerseys, underpants, socks, black shoes, a school blazer and school cap. All this and more was packed into a tin trunk. There were to be three school terms and we would get a month’s holidays in April/May and August/September and two months from mid December to mid February. Each school term beginning or end, was a five hundred kilometre journey by train. I was allowed to have five pounds of pocket money per term. This money was to be lodged with the Housemaster and could be drawn from on a Saturday morning.

My Dad and my Uncle drove me to Grahamstown in the old ’48 Chrysler. It was a long trip on unsealed roads and we had to overnight at a hotel somewhere. All three of us slept in a room and the old blokes snored and kept me awake for most of the night. We arrived in Grahamstown at around midday and I was taken to the front of my dormitory, Upper House. There my Dad instructed me what to do. My trunk was unloaded from the car and deposited on the sidewalk, my Dad pointed towards a door just below a terraced lawn and said I should make my way there. Then he and my Uncle climbed back into the car and with waves and laughter drove off and left me there to fend for myself. I was thirteen years of age and totally unaware of my impending experiences which would be thrusted upon me.

Upper House St Andrews College

Upper House St Andrews College

I dragged my heavy trunk through the gate, along a stone pathway and around the side of a wall to the door. Not sure of what to do I knocked on the heavy wooden door.

The door swung open. A huge male person stood before me. I did not know whether he was a Teacher or a Student.

and he said, “What’s your name?”

I said, “Willem Kempen”

He said, “Why?”

I had no answer and stared blankly at him

He said “Where are you from”

I said “ Victoria West”

He said “ Are you a Hairyback?”

I had never heard of this term before and had no idea what he was talking about.

He said “Well, are you?”

I said “What’s a Hairyback?”

He said “Oh Gawd, you must be!”

His name was Grey Holmes, a Matric student of that year and he was from Upington to the north of where I had grown up and also in the Gammadoolas. He took me under his wing and taught me some things about what I was about to experience. He was my first Fagmaster. All newboys were Fags.

The fagging system, under which junior boys acted as unpaid servants/slaves to seniors, was once an inherent part of the English public school system. This system was passed on from Britain to Private Schools in South Africa and remained so for many years.

All first and second form boys had to act as ‘fags’ or unpaid servants to senior boys. The duties included cleaning the Fagmaster’s study, cooking and serving study teas, running errands into the nearby town etc. For a young boy who was already kept very busy by the demands of his academic studies and the endless hours devoted to games, fagging was a disagreeable imposition. If a Newboy’s Fagmaster was especially demanding, a boy might find nearly all his spare time taken up on menial duties and would go to bed each evening quite exhausted. And you could be punished for not attending to your Fagmasters’ needs as he may have expected it and corporal punishment was still the order of the day in the 1950’s. One may wonder why boys put up with such a regime. It has to be understood that in those days it would not have occurred to any of us to question the system. You generally did as you were told and obeyed the rules, however unjust or ridiculous, and at the same time you were aware of the salutary punishments, which could be meted out to those who stepped out of line. Although a Fagmaster was not officially empowered to inflict corporal punishment, he usually kept an old slipper somewhere in his study to chastise his fag when he deemed it necessary, and the powers that be generally turned a blind eye to this age old custom. In my years at College seniors were not allowed to cane juniors. That remained the domain of the Housemaster but a system of corporal punishment in the form of hitting a junior on the arm with your fist was supported by the hierarchy of the school. Unfortunately this method of punishment was not isolated to Fagmasters only, as all seniors were at liberty to strike you on your shoulder at any given time as systematic bullying.

My first few moments at Boarding School would have been like landing on Mars and meeting the inhabitants for the first time. My head was spinning. I was taken to see the Housemaster, Mr S.F. Gascoigne-Smith. He was affectionately known by a number of names as ‘Smithy’, or ‘Gassy’, or ‘Blitz’. He had a pre-sentence stutter and always started speaking commencing with “Errrrr”. He had been gassed in France in the trenches of the First World War and bore the scars thereof. I recall that the ‘Blitz’ nickname was attributed to his lighting strikes with the cane!

The year I arrived I was surprised to learn that the school had overbooked its annual intake of new students and that the overflow of bodies were to be moved to a dormitory by the name of The Grange, a little way up a side street. Luckily a trolley was made available for some of us and we were able to take our trunks to our new place of abode with all of us pushing it along the sloping sidewalk.

Now one has to bear in mind that I found myself thrown in at the deep end into South African English society at this stage. Yes, I spoke English but it was with a heavy Afrikaans accent. In 1957 the swearword of year was SHIT. All the boys were say ‘Shit’ this and ‘Shit’ that. I had never heard of the word before. To say the least I was feeling very uncomfortable. I ventured to ask someone what it meant and was met with howls of derision. Little boys can be so unkind. I got my answer, however. But I was labelled a Hairyback for a good while until later in my education when an acquired an unwarranted nickname that would stick with me for quite a while.

But, back to Mars. My first day at St Andrews was like stepping off into a minefield. I was totally flummoxed. I didn’t know what to do. We had to go to church in the Chapel and kneel on little cushions on the floor and pray. This was also pretty strange to me as I grew up in a Dutch Reformed Church society and going to church was nothing like this. At age thirteen I was unsure about religion and just followed along with what everyone else was doing. As time went by going to Chapel was a good time to catch up on some homework. Some of us made a bee-line for a seat behind an interior pillar but those reading or giving the sermon became wise to this and used to call us out to sit in full sight of them.

After a few days however, I started to gather my wits and very soon made some friends who would remain there for life. I teamed up with the country kids. There was the initial learning where to go and what to do. Where the classrooms were, where the notice boards were, where to leave our dirty washing and when to collect it, which clothes to wear for which occasion and so on. It all fell into place after a while. I was shown to the House Masters office where he explained that he kept a book of monies deposited to my account and that I was allowed to draw money to buy necessary things like toothpaste and soap from the House Shop. He also explained that if I was found guilty of improper behaviour or got extremely bad marks in class I could be subject to corporal punishment and was shown the lariat whip made of rhino hide. He explained that if I gave no trouble I would be spared a hiding and that would be good. I nodded in agreement but the upshot of it was that I spent many mornings before school being whipped for various misdeeds perpetrated after being dobbed in by my Fagmaster, School Monitor, Prefect or Teacher. Whereas it did not damage my ego at that age, I still wonder, if any student who went through that phase of school induction, were not affected by this brutality, in later life. I now I wonder too, if the Housemaster took his frustrations out on us kids as a legitimate kind of stress relief for him, or did he do so because it was legally condoned and he was sadistic? Or did he really believe that hurting a young child would make the child take on a form of submission. In my case it worked just the opposite!

We slept in dormitories of 20 beds. Next to your bed you had a small cupboard to hang your clothes in and some space to put shirts, shorts, jerseys and underwear. At the entrance to the dormitory there was a cubicle occupied by a Prefect. The latter was in charge of the dormitory and made sure that lights went out on time and that there was no talking until late. It was pretty much regimented stuff but as young people we had no worries and slept soundly at night.

Early mornings and it was down to the shower room. No privacy there. You stood in the queue to have your shower. I do recall there being at least 10 shower roses. Senior boys took great delight in flicking a wet tipped towel at your nakedness, which could sting if it connected. There was no animosity in this practice just mild maliciousness. Once you had progressed past your second year you were allowed to take revenge on those who flicked towels at you by participating in the game.

By 8am you had to be seated at your table at the school’s main eating-establishment for Upper House and Merriman House. There were three rows of long tables for each House. The Houses were divided by a large sliding door. At each end of the Hall there was a raised platform where the Prefects and Housemaster sat. Housemaster Gascoigne-Smith would be the last to walk in. Even of we were seated we would all stand up and he would say…with his stutter….” Errrrrr…for what we are about to receive….Errrrr…may the Lord make us thankful” and the whole house would sit down and eating may begin. Our food was served by African Waiters as I recall. I simply can’t remember the food. It was different to home cooking though and I stayed fed while at College. Sometimes we were naughty though. If you stuck a knife in between the top of the table and the table frame, you could project a piece of butter up into the air at speed so that it may splatter on to the ceiling and sit there for a while until one day the rancid remains drop down on to some unlucky person directly underneath at the time. You could only do this act if there was a lot of talking going on and no one was watching until the knife went djrrrrrrrrrrr against the tabletop! Towards the end of the meal announcements were made about upcoming events. If a boy had excelled in sport and had received his Colours for his chosen sport he had to walk up to the Platform and tell a joke. I had to do that in my fourth year when I attained my School Colours for Shooting. One was then allowed to wear a special coloured school badge on your school blazer. We were served three meals a day.

In 1957 my father paid the equivalent of 700Rands per year for my education at St Andrews College. In 2010 the fee is 130,000Rands basic.

And so four years of education commenced at St Andrews College.

Snippets: As I recall them.

I remember the Woodwork teacher’s face as if he was right here with me. His prophetic words were ” You are the most useless Woodwork student I have ever had the misfortune to meet”. Woodwork Teacher Tasner pulled no punches. I could not get ‘with it’ in woodwork classes. Nevertheless I made a crude newspaper basket which stood proudly in my parents house for many years. The advent of ‘Powertools’ in the 1970’s and 80’s saw me embark on many an adventure ‘building’ stuff. These days, with MDF ( Medium Density Fibre Board), Liquid Nails, No More Gaps putty in a tube, steel angles, nail guns, wood screws and tek screws, the most uninitiated woodworker ‘like me’ can build anything he wishes….hahahaha. Over the years I have built a variety of functional installations around the house and have covered the blemishes with No More Gaps and paint so that the beholder may say ‘Oooh’ and ‘Ahhh’ and be none the wiser!!!!

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I recall too that our Science teacher…..Mr. Sanderson aka ‘Smoothie’ said to me that I would not add up to much as I did not have the aptitude for physics or chemistry and that my future looked bleak. I have a feeling he also taught Latin as for that hallowed language I received a mark of -6 in my last year at College.The teacher remarked that it might be best for me to leave school and studying so that I may go and find some form of menial employment somewhere in the great wide world out there.

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Our Afrikaans Language Teacher was Mr Strydom who was nicknamed ‘Hasie’ as he seemed to have an effeminate nature. He had an affable attitude as a teacher and got results but more often than not roars of laughter would be heard from his classroom in the Kettlewell complex.

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One day the Upper House ablution system failed and the toilets became blocked. The local Grahamstown plumbers were unavailable to attend and Housemaster Smith asked for volunteers to help clear the blockage away. I and another boy whose name escapes me know volunteered. The drain access was situated along the pathway on the east side of Upper House. While I was ‘working’ there, amongst the residue of toilet flushes, removing the offending material that was blocking the cistern my pal James Wilson walked by and remarked that I was now learning my true vocation in life. He also stated in front of a sizeable group of boys who had gathered to look at the goings on that I shall now be known as Kakhuis Kempen much to the derision of everyone. That name eventually changed to Kakkies Kempen as the former was too crude. The name remained with me until I left College.

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The girls from DSG used to have to walk down Somerset Street two abreast in a long line to attend church in the Cathedral on Sunday nights. They wore light green skirts and tops, a green jack and a green hat. This procession was known as The Crocodile. Catcalls and Wolf Whistles were strictly forbidden at College but those who had contact with some of the girls through family or having met out of school would have their own way of communication.

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Two of the naughtiest students of that time were my friends, the twins, Douggie and Robbie Jay and we had many a good time and lots of laughs together. They hailed from a small town in the Orange Free State by the name of Koppies. They were great sportsmen and we played good Rugby together in the Brian Black inter-house series of 1959 and 1960. But I do recall we used to be in trouble quite a lot and were severley punished by our housemasters. Not that it had much affect!

(I will continue to add material to this tale as I am reminded by my old school pals of happenings which have escaped my mind! Please contact me at willem@kempen.id.au if you wish to add a snippet or point out a correction that needs to be made.)

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