Little England on the Veld

My alma mater, St. John's College, Johannesburg.

Part Two of a series of three blogs entitled ‘Mobility, migration, multiculturalism, the monarchy, and me.’

Part One: My maternal family’s history in England and Wales, and their migration to South Africa.
Part Two: The very English lives my emigrant ancestors created and I inherited.
Part Three: My observations, from amongst the London crowd, of the 2011 Royal Wedding, and my thoughts on the role of the monarchy in a multicultural, 21st century Britain.


It was December 1976, I had just finished my first year of university in Johannesburg, and I was traveling outside of Southern Africa for the first time.

For someone like me, it was almost a foregone conclusion that my first foreign journey should be to England. After all, both I and my home country had strong links to the place. South Africa had been a British colony for century or so when it gained independence in 1910, and one of the country’s (then) two official languages was English. I had attended a private school modeled on upper-crust English schools, and my maternal ancestors were from the United Kingdom. (My paternal grandparents both came from Greece, by way of Mozambique. But in my English upbringing trumped Greek, and so to my great regret I was deprived of much of my Greek heritage. But that’s another story.)

My maternal grandmother, who emigrated from Wales to South Africa in 1923, was in the 1970s still referring to the UK has “home.” Her excellent cooking was all in the best British tradition: steak and kidney pies, sausage rolls, roast beef, shortbread and mince pies (fruit, not meat.) Her meals were served on English china, Toby jugs and prints of English scenes decorated her apartment, she was always impeccably dressed, and in her language and manner she sought to convey thoroughly upper middle class British sensibilities.

My maternal grandfather died before I was born, but I gather from family members that he was Very English Indeed. He was pedantic about the English language, a stickler for good (i.e. English) table manners, and a defender of civilized (i.e. English) standards. Like many good colonial men, he fought for King and Empire in the Boer War (1899 – 1902) and for the Allies in France in the last months of the Great War. That’s where he met my grandmother, who drove an ambulance for the Red Cross.

My schooling was at St. John’s College in Johannesburg, which I attended between 1966 and 1975. The school was at the time one of some 60 members of the Association of Private Schools (APS), which collectively taught about 2 percent of the South Africa’s white schoolchildren (a minority of a minority.) APS member schools served whites only, they were English medium, and the organization pointedly excluded Jewish and Catholic private schools (There were no private Afrikaans medium schools.)

St John’s was as close to a British public (i.e. private) school as it was possible to achieve in the colonies. The school’s buildings were designed by Sir Herbert Baker, a colonial architect who seems to have specialized in designing buildings – mainly schools, churches, and government buildings – that were grand on the outside, but austere and, on cold winter mornings, chilly on the inside (the kind of places that build character.)

St. John's again. I never figured out who our Goliath was.

The school was exclusive in the literal sense of the word. It was for whites only (under the laws of apartheid it could not be otherwise,) it was a boys’ school, and it was an Anglican Church School. In our daily church services, we read the King James Version of the Bible, used the English Book of Common Prayer, and sung hymns with words written by people with names like James Montgomery and John Hampden Gurney. All pupils were required to attend daily chapel services and attend Divinity (religious instruction) classes. These requirements effectively kept out Catholics and more particularly Jews (who, if they did choose to attend the school, would have had to sit through the periodic recitation in chapel of the ‘Prayer for the Conversion of the Jews’. The Anglican Church has thankfully now dispensed with this offensive ritual.)

In my day, the teaching staff at St. John’s was almost as culturally homogeneous as the student body (with the necessary exception of the Afrikaners hired to teach Afrikaans language classes, mandated by law.) Founded in 1898, it took the school 73 years to pluck up the courage to hire its first South African-born headmaster (principal.)

When the roll was called each morning, boys were required to reply in Latin: “present” would have been unacceptable, “adsum” was expected.  Teachers addressed us (and, for the most part, we each other) by last name only.  Members of the Remove class (8th grade, the first year of the five year high school) were required to serve as ‘fags’ for the seniors, making them toast and coffee before school in the morning, and shining the belts and boots of their cadet uniforms (Until 1970, all boys at the school were required to strut around in uniform and formation as part of a quasi-military cadet corps.) Keeping up appearances was a critical part of our education (one critic suggests that schools like St. John’s exhibited ‘a far greater concern with manners, school uniform, “scruffiness” and relatively unimportant social conventions than with genuinely important moral and ethical issues.’)

St John’s was therefore fertile ground for bigotry, and it offered its students a plethora of Others with whom we might compare ourselves, and thereby feel superior.  Anti-Semitism was rife, anti-Afrikaner prejudice was virulent, we looked down our noses at English speakers from the other side of the tracks, and of course racism permeated the school as it did the country as a whole.

Nevertheless, the academic part of the education I received at St. John’s was excellent, and I owe the school a great debt of gratitude (not just for the education, but also for the scholarship that made it possible for to me to be there.) But  there was not much about my schooling that was particularly South African. Aside from Afrikaans classes and interminable history classes on the Great Trek, St. John’s might just as well have been in Sydney, Wellington, or Slough.

But that, of course, was the point. I was being groomed to be as close a facsimile as possible to an upper crust Englishman as was possible in Africa. Moreover, I grew up under the impression that in this respect I was simply continuing a tradition, that I was being prepared to continue my British ancestors’ way of life, albeit in different surroundings.

But it turns out that my assumptions were very wrong. As I describe in my previous blog post, the maternal side of my family came from thoroughly working class stock. My grandmother grew up as the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners in South Wales, my grandfathers’ parents came from a long line of laborers, farm workers, and journeymen in Devon. I learned this family history only very recently from UK Census and online records. I certainly did not hear it from my mother (who probably didn’t know it either) or my members of my grandparents’ generation, a particularly reticent bunch when it came to giving up information about their individual or collective pasts. They were reinventing their histories, and too much information about the past might have undermined their new narrative.

My emigrant forebears were determined to replicate an imagined or aspirational middle-class past in their new lives and those of their children and grandchildren. In this regard, South Africa, with its 250-year history of colonialism and white supremacy, offered opportunities unrivaled elsewhere in the colonial world. Black South Africans were the mineworkers, the laborers, the night-soil removers, and the farm workers. They were also the domestic servants and nannies in the homes of my grandparents and their contemporaries. In short, black South Africans filled the jobs that the emigrants’ families had occupied in the Old Country.

(As an added bonus, English emigrants to South Africa had the buffer of the country’s Afrikaner population standing between them and the black working class. Most Afrikaners were either farmers or working class urbanites. They were, in general, poorer than their English-speaking compatriots, and less educated. )

I have no doubt that my ancestors did not see themselves in this way. Individually, I am sure they saw their migration as an effort to better themselves, and to provide their descendants with better lives than they had had. In this, they were extremely successful. Collectively, many British emigrants saw themselves as bringing civilization to uncivilized reaches of Africa, giving heed to colonial poet Rudyard Kipling’s exhortation to

A particular British colonial skill lay in finding happy coincidence between spreading civilization and making money

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Moreover, this task was to be undertaken without reward or even in the hope of gratitude:

Take up the White Man’s burden–
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard–
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:–
“Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”

My grandparents were products of their era and their social and economic environment, and they saw the world, and their place in it, accordingly. I am a product of a different place, a different era, and a vastly different ideological and cultural environment. From my vantage point in the 21st century and on the leftish side of the modern political spectrum, I am intellectually and morally critical of colonialism and the attitudes on which it was predicated. I abhorred the apartheid system which was an essential part of the life I lived as a child and young adult. But at the same time I owe them my existence and, perhaps in more ways than I would care to acknowledge, they made me what I am.

In the early 1980s, I followed my ancestors’ example and emigrated. As they did, I sought a better life for myself than I thought I would have in the country where I was born. Like them, I left parts of my past behind, brought select bits with me, and reinvented myself. And just as the emigrant Lewises and Widdicombes saw themselves as English or Welsh people abroad, I suspect that I will always see myself as a South African.


I have borrowed the title for this blog from Peter Randall’s 1985 book Little England on the Veld: The English Private School System in South Africa (Johannesburg: Ravan Press.) Randall is also the critic I quote in my discussion of St. John’s. Additional material comes from the St. John’s website, my discussions with family members, and my own (possibly flawed) memories.

Postscript: On my Greek heritage.

In terms of my ancestry, I am every bit as Greek as I am English. My paternal grandfather made his way from Carnakkale (in modern Turkey) to Lorenço Marques (now Maputo) in the early 20th century; his family selected and dispatched a wife to join him a few years later.  My aunt and father were born in Mozambique in 1925, and grew up in a Greek-speaking household in a Portuguese colony. In the early 1930s, the family migrated to Johannesburg, where my grandfather operated a food cart, and then a small convenience store.

The Rallis family was poor, lived in a very small house, and my father had to walk a long way to get to his primary school (where he studied in English, his third language as a child.) His attended a technical high school, but thanks to the good advice of a teacher, a fortuitous meeting with an engineering professor, and a scholarship, he managed enroll at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he eventually completed his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, the field in which he eventually became a professor.

In the early 1950s, my father met and married my mother, becoming the first person in the family’s history not to have had an arranged marriage, and probably the first to marry a non-Greek. Certainly no Widdicombe or Lewis woman had ever married a man of Mediterranean stock. Initially, neither clan was particularly pleased with the union (my grandfather was heard to mutter darkly about his youngest daughter having “taken up with a dago.”) To appease both side of the family my parents were married twice, first in the Anglican church, and then in a Greek Orthodox ceremony.

My mother spoke no Greek and so, alas, I grew up in a monolingual English speaking household. The Greek heritage was largely snuffed out by the English, and I always felt a bit out of place at gatherings of the Greek side of the family, where (like my mother and sister) I couldn’t understand the conversation, and never managed to figure out how I was related to the large number of apparent relatives who would invariably be in attendance. The food, though, was excellent.

There are two reasons I give short shrift to my Greek heritage in this and the previous blog entry. First, the copious online English and Welsh records have no match in Greece (or, presumably, Turkey) and even if they did, I wouldn’t be able to read them. I have therefore been a captive of my data. Second, for reasons that I have explained above, the British side of my ancestry has been a much stronger force in my life than the Greek. As a result, I have missed out what might have been an important part of myself.

My Greek grandfather probably came to South Africa for reasons very similar to those that prompted the Widdicombes and Lewises to emigrate. Family lore has it that he left because he didn’t get along with his new stepmother, but I am pretty sure that he went to the colonies also because he saw a brighter future for himself there than he did at home. But he didn’t have the the cultural and linguistic advantages that my British ancestors had, and his socio-economic status reflected this.


  1. Kelly Ushpol May 12, 2011
  2. Richard Russo May 23, 2011

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