Chalkboards and happy hallways

2010-09-23 00:00

CAUGHT up in traffic or waiting for the lights to change at the busy intersection of Hoosen Haffeejee and Peter Kerchoff Streets on the edge of the city centre, it’s easy not to notice one of Pietermaritzburg’s architectural treasures, Russell High School.

Not only do many residents miss out on seeing the exterior, even fewer venture inside this gem of early 19th-century architecture to enjoy the wide, wood-tiled corridors, the elegant high ceilings, or the perfectly proportioned staircases at either end of the building providing access to the school hall (on the top floor for reasons known only to the architect) as well as the library and classrooms — all complete with their original fixtures and fittings.

”No one has got a building quite like this,” says Jean Rose, the school’s principal. “It’s one of Pietermaritzburg’s best-kept secrets.”

And one with a unique atmosphere. Schools can be forbidding places, but here light falls gently down stairwells and the wood-panelled walls seem to have absorbed the joys, rather than the fears, of generations past. “You can just feel the warmth of the place when you walk in,” says Moira Potter, school marketing manager. “It’s a happy place with lots of love.”

And it has a long history going back to the 1870s when, according to the history of the school published in the 1979 centenary edition of the school magazine, Maritzburg was badly in need of a good girls’ school.

The first advertisement for the school — the Government Model Primary School for Girls — appeared in The Natal Witness on Thursday, January 23, 1879. Robert Russell, Natal’s superintendent of education, invited applications for admission to the school which would be opened on March 3 under the charge of 24-year-old Eleanor Broome of “Chichester Training College, and lately headmistress of a higher grade Elementary Girls’ School at Cambridge”.

The advertisement appeared the day after a British force had been annihilated by the Zulus at the battle of Isandlwana. Broome, still travelling to Durban by sea, decided to sit out hostilities in Port Elizabeth. However, the Council of Education decided that Anglo-Zulu War or not, “no salary or part salary, be paid to Miss Broome for the time she remains absent from her post of her own accord”. Such sanction had the desired effect and by March 6, Broome “had successfully opened the school in the west room of the High School Building”, in what is now known as the Boys’ Model School in Jabu Ndlovu Street.

After July, the school subsequently moved to its own premises, a single-storey building on the corner of what was then Berg and Chapel streets. At the first prize giving in December there were 169 pupils.

By 1886, the pupil roll stood at 586 and it became necessary to hire extra premises in nearby Berg Street.

By 1903 there was a further need to construct a new building as the shortage of classroom space was now becoming critical.

Having started out life as Government Model Primary School for Girls in 1941, it was finally named Russell High School, in memory of Robert Russell who had steered it to success through the first 22 years of its existence while he was education superintendent from 1878 to 1903.

Russell High School was declared a National Monument during its centenary year on September 7, 1979, and is now in its 131st year. Not surprisingly, the structure is showing signs of wear and tear. The interior was repainted two years ago and this was paid for from school funds, but the exterior is in need of some repair, particularly the old window frames and canopies, guttering and brickwork.

The cost of maintaining the school building and grounds is the responsibility of the school itself and has to be financed from the income generated by school fees. But funding is a problem. The provincial heritage body, Amafa, cannot supply funding and due to financial constraints the Department of Education can only provide a nominal annual amount for maintenance and will otherwise only intervene if buildings are in danger of collapse. Rose is philosophical about the situation: “We have something while others have got nothing.”

But it’s not just about the building; it’s also about education, at a school that has enjoyed a 100% matric pass rate for over 23 years. “We’ve just started teaching science again,” says Rose. “We have reopened the science laboratory but we have to use the old equipment left over from the sixties.”

In a time when many of the city’s old buildings (including the original home of Russell High School, the Model Boys’ School) have been allowed to fall into disrepair, the staff and governing body of Russell High have endeavoured to maintain and preserve this architectural gem.

“Despite lack of funding we have managed to maintain the building and create lovely grounds of which we are very proud,” says Potter. “But while we are privileged to be here it is an enormous responsibility to preserve a historic building such as this.”

”We’ve done what we can with the means available to us,” says Potter. “But we would love other people to help. It doesn’t have to be a donation, perhaps they could give of their time or their skills.”


• If you would like to visit Russell High School contact Moira Potter at 033 342 4631 or e-mail admin@ (the school will be closed until October 4).

ONE of Russell High School’s most famous “infants” was Alan Paton, author of Cry, the Beloved Country. At the age of six, in 1909, Paton was sent to the Berg Street Girls’ School, which was attended by both boys and girls for the first three years. Paton’s mother had already taught him the basics by that time, thus he was far beyond all his classmates, and stayed in Sub A for only two weeks. He was then sent to Sub B for another few weeks, after which he was promoted to Standard 1, where he nevertheless came top of the class in spite of being much younger than his classmates. He was always smaller and younger than everyone else in his class and so was bullied on the playground. It was here that the incident happened which is described in his story The Gift and in his first volume of autobiography, Towards the Mountain. His mother sent a young black servant to the school carrying hot cocoa and scones for Paton. He was so embarrassed in front of the bigger boys, who teased him, that he denied that he knew this boy, or that the food had been sent by his mother. This incident played on his mind until he wrote it down 40 years later. — “KZN Literary Trail — Alan Paton” which features Russell High School.

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