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News > Archives & History > Q&A with John Brett Gardner (1948G)

Q&A with John Brett Gardner (1948G)

In June 2013 the 11th Principal of the College, John Gardener, answered a few questions curated by a group of then Bishops students. The Q&A offers great insight into the history of Bishops.

No one is more qualified to discuss the History of Bishops than John Gardener (1948G). John was the 11th Principal of Bishops and the first OD to be elected Principal. His association with the school as a pupil (1939-48), Rhodes Scholar and OD, English teacher, Housemaster, Vice-principal, Principal and Council member spans more than 70 years. John also wrote Bishops 150 a history of Diocesan College. He was invited to share his very own special memories with the College and the Prep at the Founders Day chapel service. This took the form of specially prepared questions from boys of all ages.

John Brett Gardner was the 11th Principal of Bishops and the first OD to be elected Principal.


Could you mention some special occasions that you remember from your days as a boy at Bishops?

I entered Bishops Prep in 1939 in Upper First (Gr 4); left Post Matric in College 1948. 

Friday 1 September 1939: lunchtime break was for play on Stanmore field, but that day we listened at the staff room window to news of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. On Sunday Britain declared war on Germany; South Africa followed three days later. 

30 June 1943 – school holidays: Midnight – an enormous storm and almost all the pine trees in the Avenue blew down. At that very hour Harold Birt was succeeded as Principal by his brother-in-law Hubert Kidd. Next morning I cycled over to see the desolation which was reported in the Cape Times. About a week earlier, as Head Boy of the Prep (in Standard 6, Upper Third – these days Grade 8), I had presented the school’s farewell gift to Canon Birt. In 1943 the 1st XV was undefeated. 

In May 1948: news of the election victory – whites only– was coming through as Hubert Kidd married Mary Maytham in Bishops Chapel. My housemaster, Leslie Irving, talked to me apprehensive about what Nationalist Party rule would mean. 

Sunday 11 February 1990: Much later. I was due to preach in the Chapel. That day saw the release of Nelson Mandela. I changed what I had planned to say. I called it ‘Out of Prison’.


What did you have at Bishops that is no longer there?

We had Founders Day in November; we wrote with pens, dipping nibs in inkwells, or with fountain pens; we used blotting paper; we learnt Latin; the Prep rugby jersey was then only for the Prep 1st XV, the rest wore whites; we wore sandshoes (takkies) for running; khaki uniforms were first allowed during the war. Some of us taught in the Science Block at a Night School for neighbourhood workers. There was boxing at Prep and College. Naughty boys were beaten – no longer, praise be. Cadets at College and in the upper Prep years. At Prep my father paid my day boy fees, what today would be about R70 annually.

What were some features of life outside Bishops, at home and in Cape Town, no longer there?

Roast chicken was a treat on Sundays; milk in glass bottles delivered daily; tickeys (three pennies); Cape Times on Saturdays; trolleybuses (or trackless trams) on the Main Road; driving licences at 17 – I once drove the master in charge of my cricket team and some boys to Paarl. We were dosed with castor oil and cod liver oil.


What do we have at Bishops now that you did not have then?

Laptops; calculators; overhead projectors and PowerPoint; hockey, basketball, water polo, squash, or rowing; girls in Post Matric. Plays at College and Prep were very rare in those years. Perhaps most of all, today we have boys of all races, which we were not privileged to have then. I welcome these changes.


And what do we have these days at home and in everyday life that you didn’t?

TV; cell phones; fax; e-mail; computers; digital cameras; air flights domestic or overseas; 20-20 cricket; professional rugby players; 4x4s and minibus taxis; vitamin pills; antibiotics; T-shirts; Lego; supermarkets; sushi, pizzas, muesli, yoghurt, broccoli, rooibos tea and bottled water – but we did have, in the same containers, Marmite and Lyle’s Golden Syrup. [Some public holidays are different, and] we heard very little of Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day or Fathers’ Day.


If we had been standing on this field then what would it have been like?

Look around this Piley Rees field, named after a famous rugby coach, and Vice-principal. In the 1940s, no White House, it was built in 1954 (named after the first Principal) – a grove of trees was there; no roadway that side – a tennis court instead; no Admin block – with offices in School House. No classrooms at all behind the Memorial Chapel, only the Science and Matric Blocks as well as in Founders and School Houses; the Brooke Chapel (Richard Brooke, Principal in 1890s) was the Library and Post-Matric base; the Old Gym was THE gym; there was no theatre. The War Memorial Chapel, built-in 1926, seated the whole College within the four columns; the Prep joined them for saints’ days from time to time – there are too many to do that now. Turn round: no Hyslop Hall, or John Peake Music School (after my predecessor) just a few rooms behind them there had been a San ages ago; no scoreboard; no Heatlie pavilion, first built in 1991, rebuilt later, named after the first South African rugby captain to win a test, who was also an OD.


And further away? What was different in those days?

The two dayboy houses, Gray (our Founder) and Ogilvie (the Principal who in 1861 introduced the handling football game to South Africa which developed into rugby) – they were both in a small block: four rooms with two shower rooms, where Ogilvie is now. But no Kidd, Birt or Mallett Houses (named after past Principals), no Mallett Centre or Pre-Prep; one swimming pool, with brown water; the Frank Reid Pavilion (after the first OD Secretary, one of the two very first Rhodes Scholars) was smaller, and the Tuck shop operated through a hole in the wall. No Woodlands field or astroturf – it was a cemetery; no staff houses on the Avenue except the Lodge at the gate, there before 1849; no speed bumps; no security guards. Lutgensvale fields (once called Jagger, the same donor who paid for the Prep hall) were not used – in 1948 Bishops considered moving the Prep there. We knew nothing about that and it didn’t happen. Similarly, the Oaks field was not used but was levelled and planted in 1947 by an inter-house competition; the grass rows got further and further apart. But we did have a bicycle shed (where Mr Wood’s house is now [now Mr Reeler’s house]) and a .22 rifle range, (where Gray House is now) – each of the four houses shot twice a week. 


What about the Prep?

At Prep there were far fewer classrooms. Day boys were in A Group or B Group, (Brooke and Charlton Houses after 1951, after Rev Cyprian Brooke, chaplain, and George Charlton, Senior Master – i.e. Head of Prep); Stanmore housed a few borders, changing rooms, staff, classrooms and office; Rossall housed most of the borders – both are named after schools in England. Van der Bijl House was named after Pieter van der Bijl, South African cricketer and Senior Master. Rossall was demolished and replaced as you know it, with a swimming pool added. Behind the old Rossall were cricket nets, a small shooting range; outdoor gym equipment, and a music room amid storerooms in the far corner. The field had a matting wicket; boundaries counted for two or four.


Can you remember some changes outside Bishops?

Camp Ground Road was a single carriageway; there was no subway on the way from Prep to College; the Liesbeek was not canalised and occasionally the Rondebosch Main Road was flooded; houses had no electric fences; dayboys travelled by bicycle – as I did – train, or on foot, very few by car. Westerford and Sans Souci schools were not yet in existence, and SACS was still in Town. We went to the ‘bioscope’ at the Savoy, Rosebank and the Scala, Claremont, both gone.


Could you say something about what you think is most important about Bishops?

Despite all the changes and our wonderful history, fascinating as they may be, Bishops now, as then, is fundamentally about setting out in many ways to spread sound values, seeking how to do what is right – Pro Fide et Patria: for the sake of our living, loving faith and our belief in God – and, from our position of great privilege, endeavouring to serve others, all those with whom we live, work and share this great country. At the funeral of one of my colleagues, OD and friend, I said this: ‘The important link between him and Bishops was that he saw that Bishops shared, even epitomised, the ideals he believed in. Not that he believed Bishops to be perfect – he could be its sternest loving critic – but that he saw the school’s essence to be a striving for such ideals. That for him was more important than some of the achievements used in public relations exercises. The virtues he cherished are accepted as objectives at Bishops; so he believed and preached and prayed. Movement should be ever toward, toward. That is not arrogance about Bishops; it is hope and humility.’


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