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PRETORIA HIGH SCHOOL FOR GIRLS

History and Ethos

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Edith Aitkin

Edith Aitkin (Founding Headmistress)

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eaitkin1903
Edith Aitkin with Girls - 1903

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Back of School c1923

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North Lodge Hostel c1920
North Lodge Hostel c1920

 

The School was founded in the earnest hope that here girls of different races and different denominations might meet in that commonwealth of letters which gave Erasmus and Shakespeare to the world; to acquire there, in accordance with the ideals of Christian duty, the healthy physique, the trained mind and the disciplined character which should fit each to live worthily in that state of life into which it should please God to call her. (E. Aitkin 1902)

What sets PHSG apart in the educational landscape is its long and distinguished history, coupled with the remarkable stability of its leadership. With relatively few headmistresses in office over the last century, the school has managed to maintain standards of excellence, to ensure continuity and successfully embrace change.

Pretoria High School for Girls was started by Lord Milner in 1902 as part of his efforts to anglicise the Transvaal under British Occupation. And so it was that a group of 106 eager young girls from the Staats Model School walked hopefully to their new school in Visagie Street. Here they would receive schooling from Kindergarten to Upper V (Matric) under the visionary leadership of the first Headmistress, Miss Edith Aitken. Miss Aitken had come to South Africa to found a girls’ school modelled after the North London Collegiate School for Girls, where she had been both pupil and teacher. She was an educational pioneer and passionately campaigned for higher education for women. She brought with her the motto “Prosit Spes Labori” - “We Work in Hope”, and introduced the Iris (which is Greek for “rainbow”) as the school emblem, hoping to create an educational institution based on inclusiveness and diversity.

As the school grew and absorbed other schools, many changes followed. In 1910, the school merged with the Eendracht School. Prefects were selected from both schools, and the colours of the two schools were merged to form the green, blue and white colours of today. The Eendracht School Song was adapted to suit the united school and is sung to this very day.

Two boarding houses were built to accommodate the steady stream of newcomers. Boarders initially had to catch a special tram to get to the school four kilometres away. In July 1915, a “crocodile” of pupils and teachers marched from Visagie Street to Park Street to join the boarders at their new school premises.

In 1917, Girls’ High was granted a piece of land adjacent to the school for their playing fields and by 1919 the fields were in use for hockey and cricket games. In 1923 the school marked its 21st Birthday with a five day celebration, culminating in a final address by Miss Aitken, who ended her exemplary tenure at Girls’ High.

Over the following decades, Girls’ High came under the successive leadership of Ms Jean Findlay McWilliam, Ms Winifred Hawkins, Ms Minnie Neave, Mrs Eileen Nelson, Ms Beryl Mullins, Mrs Anne Van Zyl, Ms Alison Kitto, Mrs Penny McNair and, most recently, Karen du Toit. Each headmistress brought with her a distinct style of leadership that would serve to cement Girls’ High’s position as a model of educational excellence.

During the 1930s, the House System was also introduced, with five day girl “Houses” named after the Governors General of South Africa. Throughout the 1930s the school was involved in many fundraising activities and eventually, in November 1938, the new swimming pool was opened.

During the war years (both WWI and WWII) gifts to the school, expensive entertainments and festivities were postponed so that all contributions could be sent to the war effort. Girls also knitted items for “Ouma Smuts’ South African Gifts and Comforts.” This tradition persists to the present day, with each pupil and staff member annually knitting a jersey, which is given to needy members of the community.

The Royal visit in 1947 caused much excitement as Girls’ High joined all Pretoria schools at Loftus to meet King George, Queen Elizabeth and the Princesses. In 1952 PHSG marked its 50th Anniversary with an Old Girls Dinner and a special Jubilee Day. The following year saw major renovations to the school, with the construction of new classrooms, an Art room, a Library, a Domestic Science Centre and several laboratories. In 1966 the annual play festival was started in order to give the girls experience in theatre production. In 1977, on the occasion of Girls’ High’s 75th Birthday, the school received the honour of being declared a National Monument.

The first edition of the school newspaper, “In the Limelight”, was published in 1981, and a year later the school flag was hoisted for the first time. New additions to the school in the early ‘80s included the Margaret Theiler Pavilion, a Media Centre and a Computer Centre. But of greater importance was that parents and pupils voted overwhelmingly in favour of opening the school to girls of other races, and the first black, non-diplomatic pupils were admitted in 1991. Indeed, PHSG, as a progressive school, was one of the first white schools to embrace the "New South Africa."

In 2002 Girls’ High celebrated her centenary with an Open Day attended by many loyal Old Girls, former staff, pupils and staff members.

A year later, Mrs Penny McNair was appointed as Girls’ High’s ninth Headmistress. Under her outstanding leadership, an IT Centre was constructed, parking facilities upgraded, and an elegant new entrance gate erected. But her true legacy is the state-of-the-art Astroturf, which is named in her honour.

As Pretoria High School for Girls enters its 114th year, the school has grown from 106 to close on 1500 learners, with a teaching staff of almost 100. Girls from all corners of the earth study at the school, and the student body is truly representative of the cultural and racial diversity of our country. After 114 years, Ms Aitken’s words still ring true for Pretoria High School for Girls:

“The school was founded in the earnest hope that here girls of different races and different denominations might meet in that commonwealth of letters which gave Erasmus and Shakespeare to the World; to acquire there, in accordance with the ideals of Christian Duty, the healthy physique, the trained mind and the disciplined character which should fit each to live worthily in that state of life unto which it should please God to call her.”

Acknowledgements: We Work in Hope: A history of the Pretoria High School for Girls by Laurel Becker and Sonja van Putten.

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