Hendrik van der Bijl Primary School

I was very pleased to hear from Margaret Nel van Heerden, the daughter of  the late Mr A.S. Nel, headmaster at the Hendrik Van der Bijl Primary School in Vanderbijlpark in the 1950s. Margaret is a distinguished visual artist and lives in Pretoria. Her article about the school reads as follows:Hendrik Van der Bijl Margaret Nel

Margaret Nel – aged 8.

I read your article Vanderbijl Park: Early Fifties with a great deal of interest. I am  Margaret Nel, daughter of the first principal of Hendrik  van der Bijl Primary School, Mr AS Nel, not a Hollander or “Dutchman” but a highly qualified South African (BA, MA, BEd, MEd, BCom, BEcon), very well regarded by both the staff, parents and pupils of the school. Both he and my mother came from conservative Nationalist Afrikaner farming families. Both were fully bilingual as am I.

My parents had spent some time in the UK  a few years before World War Two.  My father was an exchange teacher in London and was sent at short notice to different schools, mostly in very poor areas, when one of the teachers was absent for some reason. This experience gave him a better understanding of the backgrounds of his pupils whose parents left after the war and settled in South Africa hoping for a better future for their children. He always believed that any child, no matter what his culture,background, or creed could make a success of his/her life if given a fair chance.

Hendrik VanderBijl School (1953)

Hendrik VanderBijl School (1953)

Hendrik vdByl badge

I attended the Hendrik Van der Bijl School from 1951 to 1957. My mother, whose name was also Margaret, was my Grade 1 teacher before she went to Oliver Lodge Primary School and later to Vaal High School. The headmaster at the Vaal High was Mr Thomas whose two daughters, Brenda and Sally, attended Hendrik van der Bijl School during the same period.

I am also left handed but my mother’s attitude was that I lived in a right handed world and taught me to  sew, knit, crochet and cut with a pair of scissors with my right hand. I write with my left hand however and remember left handed children in the school class being made to sit next to each other at a desk to prevent accidentally bumping the hand doing the writing.

My father was a keen sportsman who coached school cricket, rugby and athletics in addition to his duties as head master.

Athletics Team

Athletics Team

Names in the Athletics' photo

Names in the Athletics’ photo

The names of many of the children mentioned in your articles are familiar to me. Bridget (Biddy) Lawrence was the younger daughter of my family’s GP who lived for some time opposite the headmaster’s house, which was located almost next to the school. One of my best friends was Stephanie (Steffie) Daniel, younger sister of Joy. Other children who were in your Standard 3 class and whose names you may recognize are Kathleen Richardson, Geraldine Black, twins Walter and Jackie McGuicken, Darryl Pile, older brother of my best friend Jennifer Pile, Michael Beisly, who died of leukemia in 1956, Merle Aronstam, whose family owned the local hotel and Jennifer Forbes.

Hendrik Van der Bijl Staff

English and Afrikaans staff at Hendrik Van der Bijl School (1952)

The end of year concerts that you mention were enormous fun even though at primary school level no auditions were really considered necessary.  Mothers and teachers made the costumes while my father,  who painted (rather badly, as he had no training) as a hobby, supervised the construction of the sets. The Standard 5 teacher Frances Bird, usually wrote the script if it was an English play, often a version of a fairy tale such as Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. Every year we would go to Johannesburg to a shop called Carnival Novelties to buy stage makeup and false hair for the wigs and beards. Needless to say, as the headmaster’s daughter, I only ever had a very small part and was never selected for a leading role as that would have been considered favouritism. After the final evening performance, all the staff members who were involved with the concert gathered at our house for refreshments while the children of the teachers played Blind Man’s Buff in the dark on my double bunk bed.

His Majesty’s Theatre, Commissioner Street.His Majesty's Theatre

We often visited Johannesburg as it was the only place where we could access book shops and go to the theatre. Ballet performances were always held at His Majesty’s Theatre, with the corps de ballet selected from local dancers while principals were always imported from Sadlers Wells. The library had a small theatre below ground level where Children’s Theatre productions were performed. A visit to Joubert Park and the National Art Museum near Park Station were always included on our visits. We didn’t have a car so traveled to Jo’burg in the red railway buses and stayed at the Victoria Hotel for the weekend. We often went to the East AfricanPavilion for curry or to the wonderful restaurant within Park Station where one could also see the massive Pierneef paintings.

Standard 2 class (1952)Hendrik Van der Bijl Standard 2dHendrik Van der Bijl Standard 2c

Children in Standard 2 (Afrikaans)

Children in Standard 2 (Afrikaans)

Standard 2 Afrikaans class (1952)

Standard 2 Afrikaans class (1952)


Names of Standard 3 Afrikaans class (1953)

Names of Standard 3 Afrikaans class (1953)

Standard 3 Afrikaans class (1953)

Standard 3 Afrikaans class (1953)

I have all the photographs of the school buildings and of the primary school class  included in your articles. As a year end gift for my father, his staff compiled a photograph album of all the classes, both English and Afrikaans of that particular year, as well as photographs and programs of the concert which was held every year at the Iscor Recreation Centre quite close to the school, and also of school sporting events. These albums, seven in total, dating from 1951 to 1957, with every child’s name inscribed under the class photograph, are very precious to me, as they are the only record of a very special period of my life. Many of the teachers, including Joyce McFadyen, whose daughter Dawn was one of my friends, Mrs Hicks, whose two children Muriel (who was in your class) and Edwin also attended the school, Mrs Erasmus, my Standard 3  teacher, and Irmgard Verhoop, the sewing teacher, who was German and whose husband Daan was Dutch, were all family friends as well as colleagues of my parents. The Verhoops were good people, their daughter Mareliese and I great friends although she was a year younger. Mrs Verhoop studied in Germany before the war and a great treat for us was when she took out all her beautifully sewn and embroidered handwork which she had completed for her exams.

Some members of staff off-duty!Hendrik Van der Bijl Staff off duty

Because we lived in a government house next to the school I was friends with children from various cultures living in the neighborhood, from very very poor Afrikaans children who were originally part of farming communities and whose parents couldn’t afford school clothes,  to immigrant children, and children who lived in more affluent suburbs, albeit many of these in very modest homes. Almost all their fathers were connected to Iscor in some way, either at management or blue collar level. My earliest friends were Afrikaans children who lived in small pre-war houses in the same street, while also being taken by my parents to visit the luxurious riverside home of Mrs Erasmus, the Standard 3 teacher whose husband was a manager at Iscor.

My parents were acutely aware of possible family problems affecting the immigrant children whose fathers were employed by Iscor and Vecor and who came from the UK, from war-torn Europe, and Hungarians  after the occupation of Hungary by Russia in 1956. There was no effective social network for these people to make up for their absent family members and friends.

The Nationalist Party came to power in the 1948 general election  and decided  to do away with parallel or dual medium schools. My parents together with the proactive  Parent-Teacher Association were appalled by this retrogressive move and in 1956/57 decided to take the State to court in an attempt to retain the status quo of the school so that  children would continue to be educated in the language of their parents’ choice while both language groups remained free to play together at break and practise sport together on the sports fields. The State lost the court case and there was much jubilation amongst many parents and teachers. The staunch Nationalists were extremely unhappy with this outcome so the State appealed the case in 1957. This time the verdict went in favour of the State and against the School. It was a sad day for everyone connected with the school, especially for my own family, as my parents were much loved and respected by the community. My father was forced to resign his post and we moved to Swaziland where he took up the post of headmaster at the Evelyn Baring High School. From 1958 the Hendrik Van der Bijl school became a single medium Afrikaans school with the vice headmaster, Mr Schroeder becoming headmaster of the school in my father’s place. When my mother died just over three years later, my father and I  returned to the Transvaal, where he taught Mathematics at a Pretoria high school and later at Jeppe Boys High, where Haldane Hofmeyer was headmaster.

Because of my parents’ public opposition to the policies of the Nationalist Party I was given a place at the then politically progressive girls’ high school in Johannesburg, Kingsmead College. The daughters of the political activist Braam Fischer, and Helen Suzman’s nieces attended Kingsmead, as did Nadine Gordimer’s daughters some years later. My father was amongst the few brave people during the era of Grand Apartheid who stood up for what he believed in despite possible dire consequences. Most people simply went along with the system essentially knowing that it was wrong.

Later, as a mark of protest towards the government of the day, we spoke only English at home and all my friends were English speaking children from the neighborhood as well as from the suburbs nearer the Vaal river. Having such a wide circle of friends was beneficial to me for I have an understanding and empathy for people from different backgrounds and can easily accommodate myself when meeting people from areas as divergent as Houghton and Saxonwold to Pretoria West and Capital Park.

I have visited the school twice, the last time with my daughter about eight or ten years ago. The area is still essentially a poor white area, but the school, which became a prosperous Afrikaans-only institution and acquired a state funded school hall, administration block and swimming pool after we left, is now again, ironically, a dual medium school. This time it caters for a minority of white Afrikaans speaking pupils remaining whose parents wanted them to complete their schooling there before going to high school, and the majority of black pupils who were taught in English despite their native vernacular being a black language such as Sesutu. Sadly the buildings and grounds had deteriorated badly, the swimming pool unused and empty.  I suspect that it now enrolls only black pupils.

My father fought for equality and friendship amongst the two predominant white cultures. Never in his wildest imagination could he have foreseen the path the school would follow after he left.

Margaret Nel van Heerden

Read more about appeal at:Hendrik Van der Bijl School appeal

Resolution of the committee of Hendrik Van der Bijl School

www.margaretnel.com and www.art.co.za/margaretnel




Scarlet Fever in Glasgow and Immigration to South Africa

Early beginnings

My mother was forty-two when I was born in a maternity hospital in Balshagray Road, Knightswood, Glasgow in the middle of World War 2. Some years before I was born my mother gave birth to a son who survived for only a few hours, so.I was an only child. My first home was in Manor Road, Old Drumchapel, a pleasant mock tudor semi, with a fair-sized garden.

Manor Road, Old Drumchapel, Glasgow

I have no memory of  how the war affected me, although my parents shared stories with me as I grew up. Mrs Agnes Woodhead was our neighbour in Old Drumchapel. She had a little girl, Annette who was six years older than me. Mrs Woodhead’s husband and younger brother served in the home guard. On the night of the big German raid on Clydebank both were killed. My parents kept in touch with Agnes for many years, and I was delighted to meet her in 1990, still living in the same house in Manor Road forty-seven years after my birth. She married a Welsh cabinet maker some years after the war and became Agnes Harper. She had a second daughter, Moira who married Sandy. They in turn had two delightful daughters. When I visited them all in Glasgow they made me feel very welcome. After many moves in my life, it was good to think there was a family living in the same place who still remembered my birth and had fond memories of my parents.

Annette Woodhead (Wallace) aged 6.

Annette Woodhead (Wallace) aged 6.

I often wish we had stayed in my home country. I felt at ease there, as though I belonged. For the first five years of my life I had the same accent as everyone else. I was surrounded by loving parents, maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles, who referred to me admiringly as “wee Jean”. We had a player-piano at our home Sunnyhurst, 3 Southview Terrace, Bishopbriggs, and I soon learnt to put the different piano rolls into it and do a fair performance of playing it to the amazement of passers-by who heard the music and thought there was a child genius seated at the piano.

Next door to Sunnyhurst lived a delightful old widow, Mrs Renfrew. I remember visiting her on my own and playing all kinds of games with her. My mother recalled going in to her house to fetch me to find us both jumping from the couch on to cushions on the floor! There was a hard winter in 1947 with bad weather and rigorous food-rationing which continued after the war. I distinctly remember sausages composed of far more bread than meat, and tastier rabbit stews.

My maternal grandparents came to stay with us and we moved to another house called Quarryknowe in Kirkintilloch Road, also in Bishopbriggs. Perhaps it was a bigger house to accommodate my grandparents. Like Sunnyhurst it was a bungalow with a nice garden. My father had smooth white stones known as chuckies put on the path leading to the front door. My father worked as an insurance agent for the Cooperative Insurance company after the war ended. I remember he had a fine oak bureau in one of the rooms at Quarryknowe. He sat long into the night working on his insurance books.

Kirkintilloch Road, Bishopbriggs.

Kirkintilloch Road, Bishopbriggs.

I started school in Bishopbriggs when I was four and was quite happy there for a month or two. There was a scarlet fever epidemic and I had hardly been at school for very long before I caught it. My secure world changed in an instant. I remember the doctor visiting, the ambulance arriving, the ambulance men wrapping me in a rough grey blanket and taking me from the warmth and comfort of my home, parents and grandparents to the isolation of the fever hospital, Ruchill, where I remained for six weeks. Perhaps I was delirious but I can’t remember my mother telling me how long I would have to stay in hospital or that they would not be allowed to visit me for all the time I was there. I have found photographs of Ruchill on the Internet. It was a fine building when I was there, with well-tended grounds. Now it is abandoned and in a state of advanced decay like so many other buildings in Scotland which are no longer in use.

I was placed in an old-fashioned ward with about thirty other children, all of whom must have been in various stages of scarlet fever. The nurses wore starched white uniforms and little starched caps. The senior nurses had long white head-dresses covering the nape of their necks. I was in tears, longing for my mother. A young nurse came to my high bed and tried to console me.

“I want to go home. When can I go home? I want my mummy.”

“You have to stay in hospital so we can make you better,” the young nurse replied brightly.

I must have gone on like this for hours, for eventually she said, perhaps in despair, “If you’re a good wee girl and go to sleep maybe you’ll go home in the morning.”

I must have settled down after that, but I soon found out that she had made a false promise. I was devastated to find out that I wasn’t going to go home tomorrow, nor the next day, nor even the following week.

As we were all infectious nobody except the hospital staff was allowed in the ward, but there was a sort of viewing area, where parents could look through a window and wave at their offspring. My parents didn’t come. They told me later that they thought a visit under such circumstances would upset me. In due course I received toys from them, but these had to be left behind in the toy room of the hospital so that I would not carry the germs back to the outside world.

Every morning each child received a cup of hot strong tea handed round by the children who were recovering from the illness and would soon be returning home. Generally the ward was a cheerful place once we got over the acute symptoms of the fever and our home sickness. I dare say some of the children were very ill. Some may even have died, but I don’t remember anything like that happening. I do remember snatches of the songs we used to sing lustily, something like, “I caught the scarlet fever, they put me in my bed, they wrapped me up in blankets and took me off to Ruchill…” Quite recently, thanks to the wonder of the internet, Morag in Canada sent me the words to the song which has lingered in my memory for such a long time. It goes something like this,

When I had scarlet fever it nearly drove me mad,
They wrapped me up in blankets and put me in the cab,
When I got to Ruchill I was really glad, they only took my temperature,
and said I wasn’t bad.
I go home on Friday morning,
I go home at half past nine,
Say goodbye to the dear old doctor,
Tell him I can stay no longer,
Goodbye doctor, goodbye nurse,
Goodbye all you sulky patients,
Ho ho ho, home I go,
Friday morning home I go!!!

What a pity I don’t remember the tune!  We seemed to remain in bed for a long time. No thoughts of deep vein thrombosis in those days! The first day I was allowed out of bed left me feeling weak and light-headed. I could barely stand. Once I regained my strength I was allowed to go to the toy room and play with some of the other children. I made some protest at having to leave my newly-acquired toys there when it was time to go home.

Ruchill Hospital, now derelict and abandoned – quite unlike the pristine building I remember.

Eventually the day for leaving hospital arrived. I remember going home in the ambulance with a few other children. It was a sunny day. The grounds of the hospital were large and well cultivated. I felt strange and sad at home with my parents, hardly able to tell my mother that I needed to go to the bathroom because I felt so shy. I missed all the cheerful friends I had made in the big ward, the sing-songs and the camaraderie. My mother was horrified to discover that there were nits in my thick brown hair, possibly introduced by the nurse who combed each child’s hair with a communal comb and brush.

My grandma was still a lively handsome woman who enjoyed going out to the pictures and the variety theatres. She had lots of friends and when I look at the photographs of her as a young woman I see that I resembled her more than I ever resembled my small blue-eyed mother, who took after her father, my grandpa, Alec Kyle. He was a gentle kind man with faded blue eyes and a balding head. When he was in his late sixties he died of a heart attack on the tram on the way home after watching a football match. Somehow all this drama was kept from me, although my grandparents were living with us at the time. I can’t remember being told that he had died and I certainly was not allowed to attend his funeral, although I had loved him very much.

After his death my grandmother decided to go to live with a close friend in Dunoon on the Cowal Peninsula of Argyle .After my grandmother moved to Dunoon, my parents decided it was time to leave the UK for warmer climes where food was not in short supply and I could regain my strength after my illness. My father was offered a contract with ISCOR (Iron and Steel Corporation) in Vanderbijlpark, on the Highveld of Transvaal, South Africa. The town centred on ISCOR and was dubbed “the planned industrial city” in the booklet they sent to my parents to help persuade them to settle there.

We went to Southampton and boarded  the Arundel Castle to South Africa. The ship had been used for military purposes during the war and was still fitted out as a troop ship, and still under the supervision of the British government rather than the Union Castle Line. It was only handed back to the Union Castle after a refit in 1949.  Women and children slept in cramped 4-berth cabins, while the men slept in the troop’s communal quarters. I may have been mistaken, but I’m sure I remember hammocks in the men’s quarters. My mother and I shared a cabin with another mother and daughter. The little girl was called Priscilla and was about the same age as me.  Priscilla and her parents were headed for a country to the north of South Africa – possibly Southern or Northern Rhodesia. It was so hot in the tropics that at night many passengers slept up on deck in deck chairs rather than in the stuffy cabins below deck.

Arundel Castle on which we sailed to Cape Town in 1948

On board the Arundel Castle with my friend, Priscilla. (1948)

We berthed in Cape Town and faced the long train journey of two days and a night to Johannesburg. How we reached Vanderbijlpark I do not remember. Perhaps ISCOR sent a bus to collect all the immigrants from the station. At the time they were employing skilled engineering staff from the UK when the country was still under the rule of the United Party, with General Smuts as the prime minister.

But shortly after we arrived an election was held and Smuts’ United Party government was unexpectedly defeated, to be replaced by the Nationalist Party with Doctor D.F. Malan as prime minister. The Nats were a predominantly Afrikaans party with no love for the British. Nearly fifty years after the Anglo-Boer war of 1898-1902 many Afrikaners still harboured bitter resentment against the British. The Afrikaners particularly deplored Britain’s “scorched earth” policy where Boer (farmer) women and children had been taken to concentration camps and had their farms burnt to the ground. These people had lived in isolation on large farms and were susceptible to all the infectious illnesses of the time. They were herded together in these camps, and many died as they had no resistance to these infections.  A significant number of Afrikaners had not wished to take part in World War 2 on the side of the Allies, but had far stronger leanings towards Hitler.

The Nat Government of 1948 opposed the idea of British workers immigrating to South Africa, fearing that they would vote for the predominantly United Party of Jan Smuts rather than the Nationalist Party, and would soon put the UP back in power once again. With this change of policy ISCOR began employing workers from Germany rather than from Britain. Most of the British and German employees at ISCOR had been soldiers in opposing armies only a few years earlier, so one might have imagined that they would not get along together. I don’t think this was the case. On the whole they got on very well on an individual level. It was only when the German émigrés were in a large group of fellow-countrymen and the beer was flowing freely that their wounded national pride rose to the surface and they often sang the Horst Wessel song, the anthem of the Nazi party from 1930 to 1945.

Most of our friends in Vanderbijl were fellow British immigrants. My father had gone to introduce himself to our Afrikaner neighbour in Hallwach Street. The gent had grown a long beard to mark the hundred and tenth anniversary of the Great Trek, and was cock-a-hoop that the Nationalist Party under Dr Malan had come to power at last. He told my father grimly, “Ek praat geen Engels nie,” (I don’t speak English) pouring cold water on my father’s friendly greeting.

Me and my little friend and his father.

Mary and me.

Although I had been at school in Scotland, I was not allowed to go to a government school until I turned six in 1949. My parents enrolled me in Grade 1 at the Holy Rosary Convent in Vanderbijlpark. I have dim memories of this small school, but I do remember the maroon uniform I wore and the very strict nun who marched round our classroom with a ruler in her hand while we recited our tables over and over again. The child who stumbled on an answer was rapped briskly over the knuckles with her ruler. We soon learnt our tables by this austere method and I still remember them  to this day, thanks to that formidable nun. Apparently the Holy Rosary sisters lived in a double-storey house in Faraday Boulevard but moved on to Vereeniging in the fifties. They were replaced by Irish Dominican sisters who built the present convent in Vanderbijl.

Living in Vanderbijlpark was rather like living in a mining community with everyone housed according to their importance in the company. The obsolete verse in “All things bright and beautiful” certainly applied to Vanderbijlpark in the early fifties and probably beyond: “The rich man in his palace, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.”

The blue collar workers lived in the town proper in streets like Hallwach Street, Parsons Street, Curie and Faraday Boulevards. The big yins lived to the south of the town near to the Vaal River, down the river or Nobhill, soon to be nicknamed Snobhill by those in the town. Most of the black workers lived in hostels or small houses in the black equivalent of Welwyn Garden City, Bophelong, Apparently Bophelong means ‘clean place’.

The following year my grandmother was taken ill, so my mother and I returned to Scotland, this time on board the Winchester Castle.

Return to Southampton on board the Winchester Castle

We lived in furnished rooms in Dunoon to be near to my granny. I attended yet another school, the Dunoon Grammar School. My grandmother taught me to knit, Scottish style with one knitting needle under my arm, and I remember picking out God Save the King by ear on the piano after hearing that King George VI was very ill. When my father returned to Scotland some months later, we moved to Blairbeth Road, Burnside, Rutherglen, south of Glasgow and I was sent to Burnside Junior School. It was here that I began my first piano lessons with a Miss Wright and where I had my first taste of ice cream – Walls Ice cream – quite delicious. I read Enid Blyton’s Sunny Stories when it came out every week, and played with an older girl called Joan Dickson, one of the neighbour’s children. Her family had a heavy log cabin in their back garden with a heavy thick wooden door. I have a very distinct memory of my so-called friend banging my fingers in this door as she slammed it shut. My nails were black and blue for weeks afterwards.

Perhaps my father had to complete his three-year contract with ISCOR for we returned to Vanderbijlpark in 1951, this time on board the Llanstephan Castle.


Returning to South Africa on board the Llanstephan Castle (1951)

This ship did not stop at Madeira as the others had done, but took an intermediate route, stopping at Las Palmas in Teneriffe, St Helena and Ascension Island. We settled at 21 Parsons Street and I was sent to yet another school, a parallel medium school called the Hendrik Vanderbijl Primary School not far from our house. I was put into Mrs McFadjean’s Standard One class and faced yet another group of unknown class mates.

Hendrik Vanderbijl Primary School in the 1940s.


Jean Collen

Updated 3 December 2015.

Vanderbijl Park: Oliver Lodge and Vaal High (1955 – 1957)

I was much happier at the Oliver Lodge than I ever was at Hendrik Vanderbijl. The children were friendlier, the teachers calmer and more approachable. My friends, Patricia and Pamela Webb were at the school although in different classes to me.  I left behind Mrs Verhoop, as well as two girls who bullied me and who had made my life miserable at Hendrik Vanderbijl, not to mention leaving behind the snooty offspring of the founding fathers from “down the river”. Apart from the children who would go on to Potchefstroom Boys’ or Girls’ High as boarders, I would meet my old class (including the bullies) again when I went to the Vaal High the following year. I had always been conscientious and done reasonably well at school, but none of the staff at the Hendrik Vanderbijl had ever taken any great interest in me. As an only child, I was inclined to be a reserved loner.

In my new class at the Oliver Lodge, I made friends with Penelope Berrington and Lyndith Irvine who were “only” children like me. I sat at the back of the class behind Pierre Leibbrandt and his friend Tony van Houten. All the girls liked Pierre because he was good-looking with deep blue eyes and an interesting gold filling in one of his front teeth. Apart from his looks, he also had very good manners and was reputed to be the only boy in the class who did not hit girls – a big plus factor as far as the girls were concerned. Pierre went on to Potchefstroom Boys’ High the following year, and, only recently, I discovered that Tony married Bridget Laurence, who had been in my class at Hendrik VanderBijl.

I particularly liked our class teacher, Mr Webster, who taught the entire class how to do 45˚ writing. After my earlier disaster with Mrs Hicks and the blot, I was surprised to discover that I was quite good at writing like this. Instead of smearing my left hand over my writing, I learnt that I could write as neatly as everyone else by turning my book at an angle. No more blots for me!

Oliver Lodge staff (1956)

1956 Teaching Staff — with Mrs. Warburton, Mrs. Gillespie, Mrs. Broli, Mrs. v. Ravensteyn, Mr. Bouwer,Miss Visagie (Hillary), Mrs. Finegan, Mr Kloppers(principal), Mrs. Park, Mr Webster, Mr. Simpson, Mrs Nel, Mrs. Thompson(secretary), Mrs Lombard and Mrs. Borcherds.

Our English teacher was Mrs Parks, a gentle and mild person, who never had to raise her voice to discipline the class. She gave us some memorable poetry and speeches from plays to copy into our anthology books and recite by heart. I still remember reciting Young Lochinvar and The Quality of Mercy speech from The Merchant of Venice.

During the July holidays of 1955 we went on holiday to the Ferndale Hotel in Margate in the trusty Prefect and had a very enjoyable time there, despite the car’s struggle on the steep hills on the old South Coast road. One morning, because of the strong undertow of the current, I drifted far out to sea on a rubber lilo and had to be rescued by my father, who thought he had seen the last of me.  The residents of each hotel in Margate wore different colours of beads and could be identified by the beads they wore.

I am kneeling at the back.

Children at the Ferndale, Margate (1955)

Ferndale Hotel, Margate (1955)

All the hotels were in healthy competition with one another and the guests easily made friends with one another. Most people we knew went on an annual holiday to the coast with their families for two or three weeks in those days. I don’t think many people could afford to take their family to stay in an hotel with full board for such a length of time today as the cost would be far too expensive for the average family.

My parents (right). Note my father’s white beads!

The following month was my twelfth birthday. For the first time since I had been in Vanderbijlpark I invited a few friends to a matinee of The Student Prince at the Astor, followed by a tea party at the flat. I still remember Anne Blyth as the pretty barmaid and handsome Edmund Purdon who took the part of the prince because Mario Lanza had put on too much weight to be allowed to appear in the film himself. Only his voice remained on the soundtrack to which Edmund Purdon mimed convincingly.

“Student Prince” with Ann Blyth and Edmund Purdon

Towards the end of the year we wrote exams and I played the piano for a musical entertainment our class put on for the school. The class practised songs to be sung at the year-end prize giving. I particularly remember singing the Welsh folk song, The Ashgrove.  I was rather alarmed when Mr Webster and Mr Kloppers (the headmaster) called me to the office and gave me a letter for my parents. I have never been filled with confidence so I assumed that this note was to tell my parents that I had failed my exams and would have to remain in Standard 5 for another year. My parents read the note, but left me none the wiser about its contents. I went to the prize giving feeling rather nervous. To my surprise I received two certificates for courtesy and academic ability and finally a silver cup and the Dux Scholarship for that year. The letter had been a special invitation to my parents to attend the prize giving because of the Dux Scholarship award. That would never have happened at the Hendrik Vanderbijl!

I am presented with Dux scholarship cup by headmaster, Mr Klopper

I am presented with Dux scholarship cup by headmaster, Mr Klopper

Me with my silver cup at Oliver Lodge (1955)

I went to the Vaal High School the following year. The school was still housed in prefabs next to the Oliver Lodge while the permanent school was being built. I was back with many of my old classmates from Hendrik Vanderbijl once again. This was 1956, the year we were meant to return to the UK and our voyage on a Union Castle liner had been booked. Then came the Suez Crisis. For some reason my father thought Egypt would attack ships at sea so the tickets were cancelled, despite my father having sold the Prefect and given up the flat and presumably sold all our furniture.

Parents, me and Mrs Watts, Cape Town 1956

My parents and me, Cape Town (1956)

We went to Cape Town for a long holiday instead, staying at the Esplanade Hotel in Sea Point, where a number of Senators’ widows were permanent residents. I met a girl called Erica Gericke, also a pianist, and we both played the piano in the residents’ lounge. I hope we didn’t upset the elderly residents, but they seemed to enjoy our playing. We also visited my mother’s cousin John McKee and his family in Plumstead several times. Then we returned to Vanderbijlpark where my father was able to go back to work at Iscor once again.  We rented a house at the corner of Stephenson and Parsons Street.Cape Town 1956 Street photo

I remember feeling really depressed at the time, possibly because of all the big changes in my life. Perry Como had a hit called Hot Diggety on the LM hit parade. Instead of starting a new life in the UK as I had expected to do, I returned to the Vaal High.  Our house in Stephenson Street had a big garden filled with fruit trees and I made a tree house in the largest tree at the bottom of the garden. I spent a lot of time reading by myself up in my tree house and sampling the fruit from the various trees.

The house in Stephenson Street.

The house in Stephenson Street.

My class at the Vaal High (1956) I am the tallest girl in the second row, standing between Janet Lockhart-Ross and Pamela Nicolai. Mrs Coetzee was our class teacher.

We listened to plays on the large radio with the green cat’s eye each evening. My parents must have bought more furniture for the house after selling up everything for our aborted return to the UK. I remember visiting Lubner’s furniture shop in Vereeniging with a pungent smell of good wood to select new furniture.  My father had to work shifts on his return to Iscor. Day shift was from 6 am to 2 pm, afternoon shift from 2 pm to 10 pm and night shift from 10 pm to 6 am. No wonder he suffered from insomnia as he grew older with such a disturbed sleep pattern. He gave up smoking in 1956, so he was not in a very good mood for quite a few months after that, but he was never tempted to smoke again.

Mrs Anderson was one of our teachers at the Vaal High. She had been at university with the famous South African actress, Margaret Inglis, mother of Prue and Sam Leith who have both made names for themselves in the UK . She did a production of Alice in Wonderland with our class. Jacqueline Keenan was Alice. Just as it had been at the Hendrik Vanderbijl, no auditions were held for the play. She chose likely children and I was not one she considered. I was quiet and reserved – presumably she didn’t think I could act.

The following year the Vaal High moved to its permanent site quite a distance away. I went to school by bicycle, freewheeling recklessly down Faraday Boulevard in the mornings and struggling uphill all the way home to the old township in the heat of the afternoons.

Fellow guests at the Berkeley, Old Fort Road – Maisie Weldon and Carl Carlisle

We managed to go to Durban for our annual holiday. We stayed at the Berkeley Hotel in Old Fort Road where Maisie Weldon and Carl Carlisle were staying during their tour of South Africa. We had seen them in their act at the Amphitheatre, where they mimicked singers such as Vera Lynn and re-enacted a scene from a Harold Lloyd film. Maisie Weldon was the daughter of music hall comedian, Harry Weldon who had been a member of Fred Karno’s army along with Charlie Chaplin. They had done a lot of work dubbing all the voices for Tom Arnold’s ice shows. They were very pleasant to us – through them I was quite stage struck!

Mrs Anderson was producing another play with our class that year. It was called A Little Bit of Fame and Glory. One of the characters was a middle-aged aunt of the film-actress heroine, who arrives at her smart London flat and embarrasses her in front of her upmarket friends with her hearty northern ways and strong regional accent. The play called for a Lancastrian accent. Mrs Anderson was at a loss as to who could do this part. I said that I could probably do it with a Scottish accent. She gave me a chance to try the lines. Everyone was astounded that quiet, diffident Jean took  the part to the manner born. The play was a great success. We did it for the school, for the Women’s Institute, and Mrs Anderson entered it in a play competition in Vereeniging. I still have the certificate we were awarded for the performance.

“A Little Bit of Fame and Glory” certificate from Vereeniging

After the play was finished Mrs Anderson invited the cast to a curry dinner at her elegant home “down the river”, where Penelope and I had gone each week for extra Latin lessons when German was discontinued at the Vaal High. We usually had the lessons in her beautiful garden and her manservant came out to serve us with tea and thinly-cut tomato sandwiches. She was an excellent Latin and English teacher and I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with all the Latin the others had learnt the previous year.

My father was not happy doing shifts at Iscor and being chivvied to learn Afrikaans. John Corrigan who had worked at Iscor, was now working at Rogers-Jenkins, an engineering firm in the Jeppe Dip of Johannesburg. He offered my father a job there and my father decided to take it. It was the last term of Form 2. I had to leave the Vaal High, where I was quite happy, and move to Jeppe Girls’ High in Johannesburg.

Rogers-Jenkins, Lower Main Reef Road, Johannesburg.

Rogers-Jenkins, Lower Main Reef Road, Johannesburg.

Jean Collen

Updated 3 December 2015.

Vanderbijl Park: Early Fifties

At the Hendrik Vanderbijl Primary School (1951-1954)

When I first went to this school I was put into Standard 2 although I was much younger than everyone else in that class. Some of the older girls in the class made a pet of me and I particularly remember Joy Daniels and Violet Young being very kind and protective because I was the baby of the class. Although I could cope with most subjects at that level, I had never learnt Afrikaans before. I remember remaining in the classroom during break to try to complete the Afrikaans written work while all the other children were outside eating their sandwiches and playing, having finished copying work from the board long before the bell rang for break. After that it was decided that I’d be better to go back to Standard 1 where the children were more or less the same age as me and where I would be able to learn Afrikaans from scratch along with everyone else. The school was parallel-medium, which meant that, although each pupil was either in an English or Afrikaans class, we addressed each other in English one week and the next week in Afrikaans. The assembly worked in the same way – one week in English, one week in Afrikaans. Bare-headed we stood outside in the hot sun for assembly each morning and I, along with others, were sometimes near fainting. My Afrikaans progressed quite well at the Hendrik Vanderbijl School. When we moved to Johannesburg towards the end of 1957 I never met many Afrikaans people and if I addressed anyone in that language they often replied in English as I probably spoke the language with a tinge of a Scottish accent. That was not the way to become fluent in Afrikaans. It is a shame that the Nats decided that it was just as dangerous in their eyes for English and Afrikaans children to mix, as it was for the different races to mix in case we became friends and undermined their apartheid policy.

Vanderbijlpark was laid out rather like a mining town with areas for “blue collar” workers, “non-European” workers and a more upmarket area for management and executive staff. This last group lived in the affluent area of SW5 nearer to the Vaal River. I believe the suburb was known as Nobhill or “down the river” by those who lived in the main – and plainer – part of the town as we did.

Many of the children in my class were from “down the river” and some were inclined to look down their noses at the rest of us. There were two children of the founding fathers of the town in my class: Helen Oldridge, daughter of Cecil Oldridge who had a park named after him, and Noreen Waterston. I’m afraid I can’t remember what her father’s claim to fame was, but he was a man of some importance. Helen and I shared the same date of birth – 31st August 1943 – but, despite this, we were never particularly friendly with one another.

There was an impression amongst South Africans that the recent immigrants were riff-raff in comparison with those born in South Africa, so although this was not true in most cases, the immigrants tended to stick together. Most of us lost our British accents in favour of a South African one, although those who put on a South African accent at school usually dropped it as soon as they arrived home and reverted to their old Scottish, Welsh, Irish or English accents when they were with their parents and siblings. I spoke the same way all the time, but even to this day, sixty years later, I can easily lapse into my Scottish accent. This is not mimicry – it is an accent in which I feel perfectly at home. My accent today is not particularly South African, but probably a hybrid of Scottish and South African, still different from everyone else after all these years of living in the country.

Marion Hillan, me, Rene Marshall in the early 1950s.

Most of my friends in Parsons Street were Scottish  – Irene and Madeleine Young, Harvey Pye, June and Rene Marshall, and Marion Hillan. There was open veld behind Parsons Street and we climbed the pine trees there, formed secret societies a la Enid Blyton and the Secret Seven and Famous Five. Initially it was great fun making badges for all the members and thinking of suitable passwords, but once that was done, unlike the characters in Enid Blyton’s books, we had no mysteries to solve, so all our societies tended to be rather short-lived. I remember the day when someone in our class did something naughty. The culprit did not own up so the headmaster of the school,  Mr A.S. Nel, lined the whole class up around his office and went round with a cane, smacking each child hard, both girls and boys, several times on the flat of our hands. I still remember the sound of Mr Nel’s cane whistling through the air as he caned each child.  I walked home from school with a Scottish girl from another class who took great delight in telling my parents that I had been “caned” at school that morning. I had done nothing wrong, but had to listen to further recriminations from my parents after the unpleasant time I had already endured.

Mrs McFadjean, our Standard 1 teacher was kind and gentle, but the teachers we had in Standards 2 and 3, Mrs Hicks and Mrs Erasmus, were very strict in comparison. In Standard 2 we began using dipping pens instead of pencils. We dipped our pens into the inkwells on our desks. The school made up the ink and it often contained lumps which could easily cause blots. I was left-handed, so I had to be extra careful not to blot my copy book by smearing my hand over the wet ink as I wrote. I was told that Mrs Hicks lost her temper if ever she saw a blot – trust me to make one! I had nightmares about her checking my work and having a fit when she saw it. I was also told that there was no point of trying to rub the blot out. Mrs Hicks would spot this right away and be crosser than ever. I’m afraid I tried to rub out the blot and only succeeded in making a slight hole in the paper. What would she say? I could not bear to think of my punishment. I took up my work to be marked and stood trembling next to her waiting for the explosion when she discovered the blot. Amazingly she didn’t even notice it!  A huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I could breathe easily again.

We had another fierce woman who took us for sewing classes. Her name was Mrs Verhoop from Germany. Once again I struggled at sewing because of my left-handedness. She was absolutely horrible to me to the point that I would pretend to have caught a cold on the day we were to have the sewing lesson and put on a deep cough to attract my parents’ attention so that they would tell me to stay in bed. Rarely did this happen. I remember Mrs Verhoop examining my sewing efforts in front of another teacher and saying scathingly that I should be sent for an eye test as my sewing was so far below the standard of the other girls in the class, and the second teacher agreeing with her while I did all I could not to burst into tears in front of them. I was about nine at the time.

Standard 2. I am seated in the front row on the left

Standard 2. I am kneeling in the front row on the left

We had a weekly Volkspele (folk dancing) class, where we were taught to dance to the accompaniment of Afrikaans folk tunes. We were aged about eight or nine when boys and girls were not inclined to mix with one another out of choice, so it was agony to dance around the room with an unwilling partner who would have preferred to be doing anything but dancing clumsily with a girl! We also practised for a mass gym display, which was to take place at some national event. Perhaps I wasn’t good enough at these exercises, but I didn’t take part in this display despite the months of practice.  I realise now that this gym display and the Volkspele classes were reminiscent of events which might have taken place in Nazi Germany before the war.

Hendrik Van der Bijl group display

Standard 3 to Standard 5 girls in group exercise.

Standar 3 class, Hendrik VanderBijl Primary School, 1953.

Standard 3 class, Hendrik Van der Bijl Primary School, 1953.

Every year the school held an elaborate school concert, but no auditions were ever held to select performers. Teachers selected children to take part and none of the others (myself included) were ever given the chance to take part in it.

There were shops round the corner from Parsons Street and the biggest one was called the Publix. I believe it is the site of the local Spar today. The shopping centre also boasted a post office and a dairy, where I often bought penny bars of Van Houten’s chocolate on the way home from school. I was also partial to an ice lolly if the weather was hot and, as far as I remember, these could be purchased from a man who rang a little bell and cycled around on a large tricycle with an icebox attached to it, containing ice creams and iced lollies.

There was no cinema in Vanderbijl at that time  so we used to go into the neighbouring town of  Vereeniging every Saturday morning, do some shopping, have lunch in a café and then go to a matinee at either the Odeon or the Metro, depending which cinema was showing the most entertaining film. In those days cinemas in South Africa were known as the bioscope! In Vanderbijl we sometimes went to the Iscor Recreational Club where my parents would have a couple of drinks with their friends, while I had a Rose’s lime juice and listened to their grownup conversation. Nearly everyone smoked, so the atmosphere of the club must have been thick with stale tobacco, which didn’t seem to worry me then, but certainly would now.

Several years later they opened the Astor cinema (later called the 20th Century) in Vanderbijlpark and by that time I was old enough to go to the children’s morning matinee. I had 2/- pocket money a week so I paid about 1/3 for my ticket and still had 9d over to buy sweets or ice cream at the interval. All the naughty boys sat in the front rows and made a noise throughout the cartoons, serial and “big” picture, which was usually a musical like Naughty Marietta, with Jeanette MacDonald singing impossibly high notes, or a cowboy film, starring Gene Autrey or Roy Rogers. A stern usherette, wearing a military type uniform, patrolled the cinema shining her torch at those making the most noise and warning them that they would be ejected if they didn’t keep quiet. At interval she sold sweets and ice cream from a tray hanging round her neck on a leather strap. The movie often broke down in the middle of the show and there were howls of disgust as we waited for the projectionist to get it going once again.

There was a café next to the cinema, probably called the Astor café, and it was there that I had my very first toasted cheese sandwich. The tables were arranged like train compartments, which could seat from four to six people and each “compartment” had a little square box attached to the wall which linked to the big jukebox standing at the end of the café. For about a tickey (3d) you could select one of the hits of the moment, such as Patti Page singing The Tennessee Waltz,  Johnny Ray singing Cry or Nat King Cole with Mona Lisa. Later on, the juke box even had early rock ‘n roll records like Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis.

We went to Church services of the Presbyterian Church. The services were held in a classroom at the Oliver Lodge Primary School until the church was built. A minister came in from Vereeniging about once a month and the accompaniment to the hymns was played by Mrs Tilsen on a small organ which had to be pumped up by hand. If the bellows were not fully inflated, the organ would go out of tune until the person designated to turn the handle sped it up again. The minister (whose name I have forgotten) was Scottish, but his accent indicated that he came from a different part of Scotland than us. I remember Mr Buttle playing a large role in these services; perhaps he was a lay minister who took the services when the Vereeniging minister was not with us.

My father bought a black 1948 Ford Prefect, which he later had re-ducoed to the more cheerful colour of Drakensberg Blue, and did a driving licence test for the first time in his life. He had bought his first car in Canada in the late 1920’s when it was not necessary to take a driving test. Someone showed him the basics of working the clutch, brake and gears and he had driven off with his purchase, hoping that he could handle the car on the open road. Luckily he passed the South African driving test without any problem. He was one of the few immigrant families in Vanderbijl to own a car at that time and was often called upon to give lifts to his friends.

David and Jean Campbell with the Prefect on the way to Warner Beach, Natal

We went on holiday to the Natal coast in the car. Mrs McFadjean, my Standard One teacher, recommended the Warner Beach Hotel near Amanzantoti, some miles outside of Durban, so we travelled there for our first South African holiday. My father had never driven such a long distance before so we broke our journey at Andrew’s Motel on the way to the coast. Several years later we went to Margate on the South Coast. There were quite a few steep hills on this journey and the Prefect struggled to get to the top of these hills in first gear. Sometimes it was even necessary to reverse down the hill so that the car could get up enough impetus to climb to the top of it. Luckily there wasn’t as much traffic on the roads in the early fifties as there is today!

My parents were friends with a Welsh family by the name of Anthony, and they asked my father to collect their friends, the Webbs from the station, as they had recently arrived in the country from Ebbw Vale in South Wales. This was the first time I met the Webb children, Patricia and Pamela. Patricia was my age and Pamela a few years younger. When they came to visit us Patricia would find one of my new Enid Blyton books and instead of spending the afternoon playing with me, she would settle down to read my latest Famous Five or Secret Seven book from cover to cover instead. She became so absorbed in the story that she did not even hear my plaintive pleas that she should leave the book and play with her sister and me.

It was difficult to find a good piano teacher in Vanderbijl at the time, so my father asked another of his Welsh friends, Ron Hill to give me some lessons. He played the piano quite well but had no musical qualifications and I was the first person he had tried to teach. He arrived at our house after work at Iscor, was given a beer and settled down to put me through some Czerny studies and various other pieces, which were perhaps too advanced for me at the time. My father insisted that I spent three-quarters of an hour practising the piano and doing my homework each day before I was allowed out to play with my friends in the street. I resented this at the time, but I was glad that my father made me do this when I became interested in making music my career.

He had learnt to play the violin when he was a child in New York, but after his mother’s death he returned to Scotland to stay with his mother’s sister and family so there was no more money for lessons. He taught himself to play the piano by ear and, for some unknown reason, played everything in the key of D flat/C sharp, which meant that he played more on the black notes than the white notes. Most people who were taught to play found this key the most difficult of all. My mother could also play by ear, but she stuck to the white notes!

My father always asked me to play the piano whenever we had visitors. I don’t think they were particularly interested in listening to me playing the piano and I was always relieved when this ordeal was over and I could go back to playing with the children who were visiting.  Patricia and Pamela did not play the piano but they had pretty voices and always sang the little Welsh folk song, Sosban Fach as their party piece.

As we grew older we decided to hold a musical and dramatic entertainment in aid of the Vereeniging SPCA and charge all our parents’ friends for tickets to our concert. We were all animal lovers – I had a yellow budgie who sat on my shoulder, and the Webbs had an exuberant Rhodesian ridgeback called Patty. We performed in my parents’ sitting room for friends who were too soft-hearted to refuse to attend our entertainment, and we managed to raise the amount of 10/- from our captive audience. The money was duly sent as a donation to the SPCA in Vereeniging and we received a thank you letter, suggesting that we should all go and have tea at the SPCA the next time we were in Vereeniging. As far as I remember we didn’t take the gentleman up on his offer, but we felt quite proud of ourselves for making the donation.  An SPCA was established in Vanderbijlpark some time later, and German friends of my parents, the Alexanders, did a great deal to help the society raise funds of very much larger amounts than ours.

My father had signed a second three-year contract at Iscor which would come to an end in 1955. The Nationalist government was insisting that everyone working at Iscor should be fully bilingual. My father’s Afrikaans was pretty limited and what he could say in the language was said in a Scottish accent. There were rumours that the Hendrik Vanderbijl Primary School would soon change from parallel medium to Afrikaans medium. My parents decided to sell their house in Parsons Street and we moved into a rented flat at Becquerel Court, with the idea that we would return to the UK once my father’s contract came to an end.  The Oliver Lodge Primary School, which was English medium was closer to  Hendrik Vanderbijl, so I went to the Oliver Lodge for my final year at primary school, glad to escape the attentions of  unpleasant Mrs Verhoop forever.

Jean Collen

Updated 24 November 2015.

Good Reads Book Reviews

The Moon And SixpenceThe Moon And Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Apparently Strickland was based on the artist Paul Gauguin, but if this was the case, there is a very loose connection between the two for this in not a novel a clef. The book held my interest while the narrator had personal contact with Strickland and his wife. Almost from the beginning of the novel, before Charles Strickland had appeared, I thought him a thoroughly reprehensible character.

Admittedly his wife was not an imaginative woman and used her established position in society to cultivate the society of writers and artists although she appeared to be devoid of any artistic talent herself. She obviously regarded her "dull" husband as nothing more than a meal-ticket and she had never encouraged his artistic inclinations. It is only after he leaves her to her own devices that she manages to pull herself together, fend for herself and look after her children without being dependent on a man any longer.

The portrait of a completely self-centred, inarticulate Strickland, who does not care about the opinion of others was well-drawn but after the narrator is no longer in personal contact with Strickland and the rest of the story of Strickland's life is related to him by a third person the story is less satisfactory. I have to admit that I did not finish the last fifty pages of the book. Although I like Maugham's work, this was not my favourite Maugham novel.

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