1889 – 1925

There was very little that was extraordinary about the coach that rolled into the mining camp known as Johannesburg on the morning of Saturday 28 September 1889. Similar coaches arrived daily, bringing a strange assortment of men and sometimes even women to a town that was as much characterised by its dust as by the gold beneath its “streets”. But two of the occupants of the coach were somewhat unusual. They were dressed in the long dark robes of men of religion and each wore a crucifix prominently on his breast.

Needless to say this provoked some curiosity. “Ain’t it against the rules fer a parsin ter prospect,”one of the bystanders asked his friend. But some of the bystanders may have recognised that these two men were Marist Brothers, Anyone who had known of the work of the Brothers in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage would have had no doubt as to the reason for their arrival. They had come to start a school.

There was certainly a need for such men in Johannesburg. The town, if indeed the sprawling settlement of tents and corrugated iron building could have been called a town, was only three years old. Already it had a population of around 100 000 and it had an awesome reputation. John X Merriman, later to become South Africa’s elder statesman, described it as the “university of crime” while Jan Smuts christened it “the Mecca of hooliganism”. It lacked most of the essential services of a town, such as sanitation and fresh water supplies and in July 1889 the District Surgeon had commented that “Johannesburg is second only to the Panama Canal as regards the death rate.”

There were, of course, hardly any schools. An English church school, St Mary’s had been set up in Eloff Street and at first, according to one pioneer, “every boy in Johannesburg, I think, went to St Mary’s”. On 1 October 1887, Fr Monginoux and the Holy Family Sisters had opened their convent on the corner of Smal and Fox Street and appear to have taken in boys as well as girls in view of the lack of available alternatives.

It was in the tradition of the Catholic Church at that time that such a situation could not be allowed to continue. Catholic boys needed to be catered for and the first Catholic priest to take up residence in Johannesburg, Father Monginoux OMI, set about buying a property in Koch Street where he built three classrooms and a house for the Brothers whom he hoped to attract.

The arrival of Brothers Frederick and Dominic that Saturday morning was in answer to this need. For them it was in many respects a venture of faith. Their journey was an arduous one by modern standards. They had travelled by train from Port Elizabeth to Kimberley but that was as far as the line extended. After that they had been packed into a coach and had taken the long dusty track into Transvaal. Water was scarce and brackish and had to be taken with cognac in order to “destroy the microbes”. Boarding house accommodation was available along the way but the insects were intolerable and the Brothers preferred to sleep outside in the veld which in those days was still alive with the night noises of lions and jackals.

The real test of their faith though was the fact that they had no assurance that their journey would be worthwhile for as they themselves put it, they had misgivings about coming “to a place which will probably die out in six or twelve months.” Father Monginoux had seen to it that they were housed and they had a school building but they had no applications for admission at the school before they opened it on 9 October 1889. They simply opened their doors and waited for pupils to appear.

At about half – past nine that morning the first pupil, P Busschau, arrived. Five more trickled in shortly afterwards. Then at about ten o’clock a wagonette drew up carrying a number of boys from Holy Family Convent bringing their desks with them. There were 27 of them altogether. 7 Catholics, 12 non – Catholics and 8 Jews. By the time the first official school roll was drawn up a few days later there were forty names on it.

It soon became clear that the earlier misgivings of the Brothers were unfounded. Within two years the roll was up to 300. By 1895 it stood at 500 and by 1899, a mere ten years after the foundation of the college, it was about 800. As the Marist Assistant General, Brother Procope observed, “The prosperity of the Johannesburg school has passed all expectations. Placed under the patronage of the Sacred Heart it holds first place among the other Marist schools of the country not only for the record number of pupils, but also for the results in the exams set by the Cape University.

The rapid expansion of the College made it necessary for the Brothers to hire neighbouring houses for additional classrooms and even to erect a large tent in the grounds to accommodate the overflow of boys. It also placed great pressure on the handful of Brothers who had to serve the needs of this growing community. Their numbers were increased by the addition of Brother Euphrase shortly after their arrival, and by Brother Valerian who came from Ireland in 1890. Their work was not made any easier by the often unhealthy conditions in the town. It was quite common for two out of the four Brothers to be sick at any one time. Two of them even went down with typhoid, and luckily they both survived.
Despite the hardships, the academic results were encouraging. The first matric class consisting of S Raphaely, G Hartog and H Godfrey, travelled to Bloemfontein in 1894 to sit the Cape University matriculation exams. They were the only boys from the Transvaal to write that year and Hartog remembers that “we all got through the exams fairly decently”. From that year on the matriculation exams were an annual event and the school maintained a record of which it was justly proud.

In the Tradition of Marist education, however, examination results were not the only focus of the Brothers’ work. They aimed at provided a total education – academic, spiritual and physical – and the records show that often in spite of the most rudimentary facilities they did this.

The records are fairly silent on the spiritual life of the college in the early years. While there was no question that the college was a Catholic school, its pupils were drawn from many religious denominations, as was typical of most Marist schools in the country. A high proportion of the pupils were Jewish and Koch Street was to serve the Jewish community well. Catholics were, however, given Catholic instruction and prepared for the Sacraments, and the Brothers organised the Guild of the Sacred Heart for Catholic boys less than a year after the school opened. One suspects that the spiritual life of the school was influenced more by the example of the Brothers than by any other means, but very little mention was made of it. In a Republic that was not very accepting of Catholicism, such a silence was understandable.

Sport was played initially on a piece of open ground behind the old school building and it was here that a great sportsman of the calibre of triple Springbok Jimmy Sinclair first developed his skills in a variety of games. Not only were facilities at first almost non-existent, but so was competition. As Hartog remembered, “There were no other teams to play against in those days so we always won.”

The sporting facilities were rapidly improved and increased. In 1895 a gymnasium was built that was the largest and probably the best – equipped in South Africa. Gym displays by the College soon became quite a prominent feature of the sporting life of Johannesburg. In other sports as well the College served as the pioneer high school in Johannesburg to the extent that one of its old boys described it as “a famous sporting nursery.”

The College also established its first cadet corps in 1895. Once again, this was a first for a Transvaal school. It was kitted out as a naval corps, presumably reflecting the frustrated ambitions of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek to gain access to the sea. It was armed with old Martini – Henry carbines, no doubt discarded in President Kruger’s programme of rearming the Tranvaal burgers with the latest German weaponry. The cadet corps made its first public appearance at the Agricultural Show in Johannesburg in 1895 where it was inspected by President Kruger. It was however disarmed and disbanded after the fiasco of the Jameson Raid.

More durable than the cadets was the introduction of music. A college band was formed to provide the marches for the cadets while the piano and violin were taught to individual pupils. Even after the demise of the cadets, the band went marching on.

In the last years of the 19th century the Koch Street School established itself as the leading school in the Transvaal and as such it flourished, but it did so in a very difficult and delicate political climate. It was essentially an English school in a Dutch republic at a time when tensions between the Republic and Britain ran increasingly high. In October 1899, almost exactly ten years after the school had opened, those tensions spilled over into war between the ZAR and Britain. Many English families fled Johannesburg leaving the college with only 150 pupils.

The Brothers stuck to their task and went on teaching. But the war brought with it other needs and, characteristically, the Brothers read the signs of the times and rose to those new challenges as well. They invoked the protection of France and established the college as neutral ground, opening a hospital for the wounded of both sides in their under – utilised buildings. During the day the Brothers taught their classes and in the evenings they tended the wounded.

It is a testimony to their strength that the school continued during these years. In order to write the matriculation exams in 1900 arrangements had to be made for the examination papers to be sent from Cape Town and the completed scripts returned under military escort. The college continued its sporting activities, putting on a gym display at the Wanderers in 1900 which was attended by five or six hundred people, all of whom had to have special permission to be out after curfew time of 9 o’clock to attend the performance.

Lord Milner, in charge of the British forces that occupied Johannesburg in 1900 and director of the programme of reconstruction in the Transvaal after the War, was anxious for Johannesburg to return to normal as quickly as possible. The old inhabitants were encouraged to return and the roll of pupils at Koch Street recovered quickly to over 600, which was about as many pupils as it could realistically cater for.

The opening of the school for boys in Johannesburg after the war relieved some of the pressure on the college and gave the boys some competition in both sporting and academic life.

Life at Koch Street recovered quickly. In 1902 the Old Boys Association was formed “to keep in touch with the school and to assist in furthering its objectives”. This association arose out of the sense of family that was and is characteristic of Marist Schools. Not only did it keep Old Boys in touch with the school but it also deepened the sense of unity among Marists past and present.

There was a demand for more places at the school but no more pupils could be accommodated. It was clear that a new site would have to be found if the Brothers were to continue to meet the growing need for their services.

Plans for a new Marist school in Johannesburg were stalled by the outbreak of the First World War, but shortly after the war a large property of 32 acres was bought by the Brothers on Observatory ridge outside Johannesburg. Not only was this site in a healthy, suburban environment, but it was also large enough to provide adequate opportunities for future expansion.

Sport was played initially on a piece of open ground behind the old school building and it was here that a great sportsman of the calibre of triple Springbok Jimmy Sinclair first developed his skills in a variety of games. Not only were facilities at first almost non-existent, but so was competition. As Hartog remembered, “There were no other teams to play against in those days so we always won.”

The sporting facilities were rapidly improved and increased. In 1895 a gymnasium was built that was the largest and probably the best – equipped in South Africa. Gym displays by the College soon became quite a prominent feature of the sporting life of Johannesburg. In other sports as well the College served as the pioneer high school in Johannesburg to the extent that one of its old boys described it as “a famous sporting nursery.”

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Sport was played initially on a piece of open ground behind the old school building and it was here that a great sportsman of the calibre of triple Springbok Jimmy Sinclair first developed his skills in a variety of games. Not only were facilities at first almost non-existent, but so was competition. As Hartog remembered, “There were no other teams to play against in those days so we always won.”

The sporting facilities were rapidly improved and increased. In 1895 a gymnasium was built that was the largest and probably the best – equipped in South Africa. Gym displays by the College soon became quite a prominent feature of the sporting life of Johannesburg. In other sports as well the College served as the pioneer high school in Johannesburg to the extent that one of its old boys described it as “a famous sporting nursery.”