Guilty As Charged

From Longtime Reader SKB comes this point:

“Usually, your social commentary is just a bit too aristocratic, or ‘posh’, for my taste.”

SKB, round about now my old housemaster and various teachers who were entrusted with turning this young hooligan into a gentleman are beaming with pride. Mostly, I suspect, they would be relieved because let’s face it, this must have seemed at times to be a daunting, if not insuperable task.

Here’s the thing. For the last five years of my school life I had the great good fortune to attend a seriously “posh” (and spendy) boys-only private school in Johannesburg called St. John’s College. It was founded in the late 1890s and when I was there it was one of the the top five private boy’s schools in South Africa (the others being St. Andrew’s, Bishop’s, Michaelhouse and Hilton Colleges), and at the time all five were rated in the top 100 high schools in the world. Our “brother” school was Eton College in the U.K., and we had a continuous exchange program with both teachers and students. Here’s a sample pic of the school, taken from the “A” rugby field:

The large building on the left of the pic is the chapel — and actually, there are three chapels: the Crypt (semi-underground, and the oldest part of the school), the Main Chapel above it, and to the side the tiny All Souls Chapel which commemorates those past students and teachers killed in the various world wars. Here’s the Delville Wood Cross in the All Souls, made from one of the trees chopped down by shellfire in the 1916 battle and one of only five in existence:

And if you’ve been paying attention to my writings, Delville Wood was where my grandfather Charles Loxton fought and was wounded.

The buildings were designed by architect Sir Herbert Baker, who went on to design the South African Parliament buildings, in much the same style. This is the David Quad:

…and another view, taken from the other side:

The Darragh (dining) Hall:

Yeah, I know: Hogwarts. Except that all our teachers were like Snape. And finally, this is the “A” cricket field, which is on the other side of the school, on top of the ridge (the school is to the right):

In the traditional sense, a “college” is not a university; a university is a university. A college is a preparatory school for university. And so it was. Our academic life was rigorous to a degree which would nowadays be called “brutal”: bi-weekly (called “fortnightly” in the British fashion) examinations and report cards which went home to be signed and commented on by parents, and yes, we were “streamed” in A through D classes. So demanding was the work that a first-class pass (a “First”) in the final examination meant that one did not have to sit the entrance examinations for universities like Oxford or Cambridge; indeed, for a couple of subjects (e.g. Latin, which I took for all seven years), one could skip the first term at either of those universities. There was a post-grad year (called “The Sixth”) which offered U.K. A-levels, which I never took (and have regretted ever since).

Schoolwork wasn’t all. Sports, of course, were compulsory: cricket, swimming and athletics, along with electives of tennis and squash in the summer; and either rugby or field hockey in the winter. (Basketball was added much later — we called it “netball”, and it was only played in girls’ schools.) To say we were fit would be an understatement: pre-breakfast runs, calisthenics (“P.T.”) during school hours, and at least three afternoons a week devoted to sports (more if you played for a school team against other schools on Wednesdays and Saturdays). It wasn’t so much fitness as torture, but we were almost as fit as Olympic athletes as a result.

Discipline was likewise brutal (caning, detention, “hard labor” and suchlike exotica were routine), and it should come as no surprise for anyone to learn that I have the all-time record for the number of caning strokes — one hundred and twenty-eight — administered to my mischievous and it must be said deserving backside over the five years spent in College. (I only had a few, maybe a half-dozen or so, given to me in my two years in the Prep.) Caning was later abolished, which is why my total is the all-time record.

Above all, however, it should be said that St. John’s stressed two things: severely-circumscribed behavior (appearance, manners, discipline and religious discipline) and absolute freedom of thought. My last public speech at College, delivered without pre-censorship to the school, parents and staff, argued that prostitution should be legalized on health grounds. (Yes, I’ve changed the 16-year-old Kim’s opinion, although I still support the “health” rationale.) The next speaker’s topic was “Is religion still necessary in the modern world?” Neither speech drew anything but a dry “Interesting” from the Headmaster in his concluding comments, and all three speakers went on to get Firsts in the finals.

In short, St. John’s made absolutely no bones about the fact that we boys were going on to become productive citizens as part of the elite stratum of society. What we got out of our schooling was an absolute belief in ourselves and our worth to society, provided we didn’t take the wrong road (and lamentably, some did; but most didn’t). To be an Old Johannian means being a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, and we can hold our head up in any company. As one of my school friends once put it: “There may be other places called ‘St. John’s College’ in the world; but ours is the only one that counts.”

So yes, SKB, my commentary is occasionally aristocratic and posh, not to mention elitist. You can blame St. John’s College for my upbringing, indoctrination and education, but I am unashamedly proud to be that way. Later this week, I’ll talk about The Club — otherwise known as “The Old School Tie Set”.

And for those who care, the School Prayer (from memory):

Lord God our Father, who art Light, Life and Love,
Look down with love upon our College of St. John.
Make it to be a home of religious discipline, sound learning and goodwill,
Which may send forth many, rightly-trained in body, mind and character,
To serve Thee well in church and state.
Supply our wants, and give us increase as shall seem Thee good;
And let Thine angels drive away all evil from us,
Through Thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.


  1. Doesn’t matter to me, old man. I love you anyway. I’m far better off for having been an early reader. You keep doing you.

  2. And that explains the vocabulary that I enjoy so much. Thanks for filling us in and like one old friend likes to say, “It all makes sense when you know the rest of the story.”

  3. I would not have been a long-time reader if your “posh” bothered me. I’m another who’s enjoying your “keep doing you” expression of your thoughts.

    Keep on keeping on, young’un. 🙂

  4. Fascinating post!!

    I went to a commuting private high school and it was a wonderful experience. I got the best education that my family could afford. In retrospect, I prefer the situation of school that you described. Mandatory sports, activities and education. Most kids won’t become professional athletes but playing sports for recreation has far more health and social benefits.

    as far as sounding elitist, who cares?

  5. I would say the education you received might have been improved with a few less canings.

    It was always a surprise to me when I rose be noticed by the school superintendent. And it led to my disciplining as well.

    Still, all in all, I like what you put out for us as free ice cream. Keep it up and we shall all be better for it

    1. Nah, I was a naughty little shit, always getting up to mischief and wickedness. I got caught and caned mostly because I always owned up to my misdeeds, refusing to lie about them. Pretty much the only things I never got caned for were smoking (because I didn’t then, and never have), and drunkenness (which remains a miracle to this day, considering the frequency thereof).

  6. Okay, I guess it is up to me to be the contrarian, but I do not find your writings particularly “posh”.

      1. Indeed. Although sometimes when I post on the Internets, I swear I can hear my high school English Comp teacher weeping quietly.

  7. Does the place still exist as you knew it, or has it been ruined in the post-apartheid years?

    1. Good question, Pbob. I’m in two minds about this, for different reasons.
      1.) The education standard has been lowered, in my opinion, because the school changed the examination board for a less taxing one. That said, this move was probably a response to other schools making the change first — SJC was probably the last to do so — so that their graduation results looked better. Under the old system, a girl I know well achieved six “distinctions” (+90%) out of six subjects, and it was front-page news because the feat was considered almost impossible. Nowadays it’s fairly common to see results containing a dozen distinctions. Most telling of all is that regardless of how good that may look, high school graduates with “Firsts” from all private schools are now required to sit the entrance exams at British colleges where they weren’t before.
      2.) While there’s no more corporal punishment, it’s an undeniable fact that discipline is far laxer than it used to be — being caught with weed in your locker no longer means immediate expulsion, but instead some watered-down “punishment” which fails to impress anyone. As one exasperated parent told me a while ago: “For fuck’s sake, what does it take to get expelled these days? Murder?” (My answer, “Calling someone a nigger?” resulted in howls of laughter.)
      Of course, I haven’t been back since I left the country, and even several years before that date, so I’m working on both hearsay and what the school publishes on its website.
      Probably the best thing I can say is that while South Africa is undoubtedly sliding into the pit, St. John’s and the other private schools seem to be doing their best to arrest the slide.

      1. Thanks for that info re St Johns and their standards post apartheid, Kim.

        The same question popped into my mind when I first read your post. So much has been lost in SAF in recent years, it is pleasing to know that some good things remain.

  8. Was there a version of ROTC at your school? Was there a sister school? Where did the sisters of your schoolmates attend school? Is there a source you could recommend on top level girls’ schools in South Africa.

    1. Em,
      1.) Our ROTC was called “cadets”, and it involved drill, musketry, marching band and so on. It was abolished the year I left, in 1971. It shouldn’t have been.
      2.) SJC’s “sister” school is literally over the road — Roedean School for Girls — and is thus also the brother school to the British girls’ school of the same name.
      3.) The most popular private girls’ schools were St. Andrew’s School for Girls, the aforementioned Roedean, St. Mary’s and Kingsmead (all in Johannesburg) and a couple others in other parts of the country like St. Anne’s (sister school to Hilton College). My own sister went to St. Andrews, by the way. More telling was that most of our girlfriends attended that same group of schools as well.
      4.) If you follow the link under the word “spendy” in the post above, you’ll get a good idea of the top private schools in South Africa, for both sexes. Fees range from $15,000 to nearly $20,000 per annum.

  9. Well, I like this site – KDT, and the correspondents all – (except when the South Africans beat us at cricket; rugby; and horse trials. But I doubt that the USA will ever beat Oz at cricket. Here’s a tip – the West Indies play pretty good cricket: go there for a holiday and absorb the game).

    1. Monty, there’s no need. In just over three weeks’ time, I’ll be watching South Africa take on England in the First Test at Lord’s.

  10. Kim, I do hope some day our paths cross just to exchange notes on the parallels that we each experienced from the British education system that spans the globe. While I for one was not a sports enthusiast (more a bookworm), as you cite, was obligated to participate (under pain of punishment from the headmaster and my father). While I did complete the “O” and requisite “A” levels with entry granted to Oxford, somehow ended up in the USN and the USA, such are the twists of fate.

    Enjoy your long holiday in England. Most recent visit there about 10 years back. It sure had changed from what it was in 1979 (first visit). Will keep you in mind while re-assembling an MG (1952 RHD) which is at the moment a big pile of loose parts.

    Report back from the Lords, hunt for wild Haggis (or Bandersnatch) and enjoy the single malts on up in the northern wilds.

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