Direct from Downing Street
Mrs Ethel Fielding, the founder of the school, came out from England in 1903 to a dusty mining town to make a dream come true. She specifically wanted to come to South Africa to teach in the Transvaal so, having written a preliminary letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, she knocked on the door of 10 Downing Street herself. Half an hour later she walked out of the Prime Minister’s home with an official appointment in her handbag – the first and only person ever to receive a teaching appointment direct from Downing Street.
When she first arrived, she taught at a school in Newlands, Transvaal, perched on a hilltop at least a mile from the nearest farmhouse. The school could only be reached by cab or by catching a train to Maraisburg and then walking five miles across the open veld. So, true to her indomitable character, she wrote to the General Manager of Railways, pointing out that it was not only dangerous, but also inconvenient for her to walk the distance alone. She asked him if it was possible for the train to stop midway between Langlaagte and Maraisburg – the nearest point to the school. He replied that it was no trouble at all so, with billowing skirts, she would set off across the veld to get to school on time.
St Katharine’s is born
Her real dream, however, was to start her own school and so St Katharine’s was born – first in a rented house, “Norkap” in Barkly Road and then in her own home at 26 Rhodes Avenue, Parktown, while the school here in Escombe Avenue was being built.
Mrs Fielding had studied both Froebel and Montessori teaching methods and she had very definite ideas about education. She believed that “we must have freedom of thought and action, not regimentation”, that “children were individualists, to be given freedom of expression and to be taught respect for others” and that “school was only an extension of the home”. As one of her Grade 7 girls wrote, “I love St Katharine’s because it is just like home – nagging teachers instead of nagging parents!”
Revolutionary principles of a revolutionary principal
She believed in encouraging friendship between the teachers and the children, and one of her rules was that no pupil would be regarded as more important than another. These principles, on which the school was founded, still apply today. But, at a time when children were to be seen and not heard, and were disciplined through fear of the rod, her methods were regarded as nothing short of revolutionary. We like to think that this revolutionary spirit still lives on at St Katharine’s.
School fees were set at £4 per term and hot lunch cost 1/3d. In the winter everyone had to do warm-up exercises first thing in the morning. The headgirl, a new one chosen each week, would copy Mrs Fielding and the school would follow suit.
St Katharine’s became especially known for their operettas – again something which was very innovative at the time. Mrs Fielding wrote the plays herself, one of which was Rumpelstiltskin, which we revived as part of our birthday celebrations in 2013.
In the 1960s, Mrs Patience Wilding, who was Mrs Fielding’s niece, took over the day-to-day running of the school. She was known for her firm approach, which was confirmed recently by one of her pupils. Mrs Wilding’s favourite punishment was to have the offender sit under her desk in her office for a given time.
Mrs Grainger became headmistress in 1975 and, when asked by Mrs Wilding if she would take on the job, Mrs Grainger, rather taken aback by the suggestion, said, “But I don’t have the dignity to be a headmistress.” “I know, my dear,” Mrs Wilding replied, “but you have other wonderful qualities!” In one of her memorable Mathematics classes, when a pupil asked her to explain how far infinity was, Mrs Grainger picked up a piece of chalk, drew a line from one end of the board to the other, then threw it with some force out of the window. “About that far,” she said.
The school expanded considerably during Mrs Grainger’s tenure, with new buildings, more sport being offered – even if the girls did have to walk to The Ridge in their swimming costumes! – and a nursery school being established where the swimming pool now stands.
In 1989, Mrs Rivett-Carnac, who was the Computer and Mathematics teacher, became headmistress and, once again the school saw a flurry of building activity. A pool and a tennis court were built on the site of the nursery school and Grade 0 was established in the new building. With the new Music Centre, individual musical instruments were taught to all the girls. A new Mathematics scheme was introduced and, together with Mrs Warner, Cultural Week was started for the whole school. The school swelled to its present capacity of 208 pupils and, because the nursery school was closed, we said goodbye to the boys of St Katharine’s.
In 1998, Mrs Rose Antrobus became headmistress. Once again, the school was subjected to a great deal of noise and bustle as building contractors transformed the original building into the beautiful Library and Computer Centre/Auditorium/Administration Centre we know today.
When appointed as headmistress, Mrs Antrobus told the Board that she likened a school to a jazz improvisation piece, from very regimented (four bar improvisation) to very laissez-faire (32 bar improvisation). She wanted to keep St Katharine’s in the 8 to 16 bar range. With her own love of music, the music at St Katharine’s grew and many projects were undertaken as joint ventures with The Ridge – operettas, music tours and choir concerts.
Mrs Antrobus was succeeded by Mrs Mitchley in 2010. Mrs Mitchley started her teaching career at St Theresa’s Convent in Rosebank and this post gave her insight into being fully present in the classroom and community. She taught History and English at Randpark High School, followed by several years as the Head of the English Department at St David’s Preparatory School. Mrs Mitchley came to St Katharine’s from Kingsmead, where she had been the Deputy in the Senior Primary Phase with a particular focus on curriculum development. Under Mrs Mitchley’s guidance the grounds were expanded to include new senior phase classrooms and an inspirational art room.
Mrs Symons joined St Katharine’s in the winter term of 2017, becoming the 7th Headmistress to lead St Katharine’s. Mrs Symons’s teaching career included Headships at Auckland Park Prep School, Salvazione Christian School and more recently St Andrew’s in Senderwood. Other experiences include representing South Africa in the 2000 Olympic games, extensive IT implementations and curriculum consolidation. Her vast knowledge in all aspects of school life will provide the St Katharine’s girls and staff with a well rounded leader ready to face the 21st century while guarding the meaningful traditions.
Although the school buildings have grown considerably in the school’s life, the ethos and culture of the school remain true to Mrs Fielding’s original vision.