Friday, 19 October 2012

The Genesis of Herschel’s Legacy 1922-1929

The legacy of Herschel Girls School began in 1922, with South Africa in an age of white supremacy, and the early stages of revolution. The country was also pre-apartheid and post-WWI, which presented its own problems and advances. The war sparked the beginnings of gender equality and women empowerment. The school began in an era of social, political and economic change, which would prove to influence its staff, students and surrounding community.

Today, Herschel is located within the southern suburb of Claremont, which was originally a farm named Veldhuyzen (i.e. Feldhausen). This was a segment of the major Dutch Colonists’ estate, which was seized by the British in 1814 and subdivided in 1822. Feldhausen was sold to Mr. Valentinus Alexis Schonnberg, an incompetent farmer who soon fell into great debt through the gambling away of large sums of his money. In order to relieve some of his debt, Mr. V. A. Schonnberg rented out his farm to a Sir John Frederick William Herschel and his family, after whom our school was named, for GBP 3000 in 1834.
Within a few months of their arrival, the Herschel family had already made an offer to buy the land. By the 27th of February 1834, it was put under their name for the price of GBP 3000. Schonnberg’s sole condition was to remain on his small portion of the land, which was named after his noble neighbour as a token of his appreciation. In the event of Mr Schonnberg’s death, 5 years later, Feldhausen was auctioned off by his son, Mr V.A. Schonnberg Jr., in the liquidation of his father’s estate to discharge his remaining debts.
The five bedroomed, single-story house, as   well as the long and narrow plot that Herschel lay upon, was sold to a Captain Thomas Harris. After Harris’ death his second wife, Caroline Rose, who had previously run a school with her mother, was left with the land and saw no other way to make ends meet but by converting Herschel into a seminary for young ladies. In order for Herschel to become a practical venue for a school it had to be enlarged and consequently the single-story home became double-story and it now consisted of five rooms on the upper level and eleven rooms on the lower. The plot would fall under the ownership of several successive owners one of whom would renovate it back into a private home while another, a certain green-thumbed  Mrs. Rutherfoord who clearly took notice of her neighbours, the Ardernes, when taking it upon herself to enhance the gardens.

Herschel began its restoration into a seminary on 14 July 1921, when the English Church School’s Association acquired the land, thanks to a generous donation from the Hon. J.W. Jagger. This change of ownership promped the first blueprints of Herschel Girl’s School as it is known today. There had been  pressure to open the school as quickly as possible, as many young girls had been turned away by other school’s in Cape Town, such as St. Cyprian’s,  due to a surplus of applicants in the post-WWI housing boom. Herschel Girl’s school was officially open on the 16th of February 1922.
Miss Morley Armitage Ralph was appointed as headmistress, after having headed the Diocesan School for Girls in Grahamstown. She was a middle-aged woman of who did not have a tertiary education qualification, as many women hadnt at the time, giving women’s current role in society. Miss Ralph’s ethos for the school evidently mirrored her generation’s morality.  Her vision for the students’ education was to receive a “good all-round education.” She wanted the Herschel girls to excel academically, but also placed great emphasis on cultural enrichment ( i.e. music, literature, art and drama). Herschel’s roots of social responsibility and spirituality stem from its first Headmistress, who encouraged religion as a medium in which “to find expression in thought for others”. Miss Ralph initiated a Social Responsibility Club, which dedicated itself to aiding their community through variouis charitable projects. Religion and moral values were closely related when it came to the white colonialist children that would have attended Herschel.
Miss Ralph’s “view on life” was reflected in the syllabus and the activities she planned for the students. Miss Ralph, the headmistress and Miss Stafford, the boarding house matron, had corresponding values which insisted on fresh air and the ideal to “Educate without compromise, the world is theirs to challenge”. Her passion for the outdoors resulted with the introduction of the sleeping balconies for the many boarders. She believed that to have the beds unsheltered would result in a constant supply of fresh air and therefore lessen the spreading of contagious diseases. This quote substantiates the effectiveness of the sleeping balconies in the trial stages of construction; “in health we have been singularly blessed, two cases of measles and one of chicken pox being the only infectious illness in the house since we opened”. The boarders bravely bared the wet winters and the howling south-easter winds when the sleeping balconies were constructed. 
Figure 5
The great economic depression of 1929 had a great international influence,  bruising  state economies and crippling the global community. This directly affected Herschel, and although Miss Ralph wanted to continue the expansion of the school she struggled to gain financial support from parents or the council. This caused numbers at Herschel Girls School to drop, and pressured the council to keep the school’s economic affairs afloat. The financial constraints of this time did immensely affect the school during the early stages but with the guidance of the devoted headmistress, Herschel Girls’ School was not just able to continue its existence during the global depression but also expand its assets.
Due to the positive change in perception about women’s’ abilities, the subjects offered at Herschel covered a broad spectrum for possible employment of the new “working woman”. Typing was offered at standard and higher grade which would be the equivalent of information technology. The girls were encouraged to take on more than the required subjects and soon pottery, botany and speech work became favourites in the timetable. Subsequently, the first Herschel magazine, “D’s Deeds” which was compiled by the students and organised by the English teacher, Miss van der Heijst was published by 1927.
Herschel Girls School was born within an era of exciting changes and developments. The young girls would have been susceptible to many positive and negative international and local influences when it came to entertainment, fashion, ethnicity, religion, morality and the independence of women. Even upon the eve of the great economic depression of 1929, the education provided by Herschel Girls’ School was one that strived for excellence in more than academics, and remained true to its ethos of morality and spirituality. These ideals were imbedded into the schools tradition, and maintained, from the beginning and beyond.

Authors: Xènia Greenhalgh, Nonto Mponda, Kim Parker


  1. Hello,
    Are there any pictures, that anyone may have, of the original house, when Capt Thomas Harris and Caroline Rose owned and lived there.
    I know he died there, after spending most of his life as a Captain of various ships for the Honourable India East (Shipping) Company in India.

    I will be most grateful to receive - even for payment - of such pics

    I Harris

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