Early days 1849 - 1886

The Diocesan School of the Diocese of Cape Town - for boys only, normal in those times - was established in 1849 by Bishop Robert Gray, and opened its doors in Maynier’s Cottage in the grounds of the Bishop’s residence, Protea, now called Bishopscourt. Its object was ‘to give a sound Education to the Youth of the Colony’, conducted on the principles of the English Church. The first Principal was the Revd HM White, an English clergyman. Gray clearly had it in mind that this school would be different from the other grammar schools that he was establishing during the first years of his time in South Africa. He envisaged a lower school (boys aged 10 to 17) and an upper department (boys older than that) and when in 1874 the University of the Cape of Good Hope was instituted, university classes were set up as part of the Collegiate School, this was clearly in line with Gray’s orginal intentions. As the formal name of the school is quite a mouthful, the school has been referred to as ‘Bishops’ (the school of the Bishop) from the very beginning.

The early years under the Principalship of the two White brothers (Henry M White 1849 – 1856 and F Gilbert White 1857 – 1859) saw both a rise and decline of the new school. Within a year of its formation, the school had moved from Bishopscourt to its current location in Rondebosch when the farm Woodlands (measuring over 24 morgen) was bought by Gray, a gesture of great confidence in the future of the school.  Buildings designed by another White brother, William, were erected to house the teachers, the Students and the classrooms. By 1857 there were 30 to 40 Students, but by 1860, this number had dropped to 17. Gray was sufficiently alarmed to move the energetic and powerful George Ogilvie from St George’s Grammar School in Cape Town, situated next to the Cathedral, out to the Diocesan School in Rondebosch to set it back on its feet. This was a major setback for St George’s which had been flourishing, but Ogilvie’s tenure at the Diocesan School proved to be decisive.  Bishops prospered in many areas. New buildings were built, scholarship flourished with Students winning awards, and when the University of the Cape of Good Hope was set up in 1874, university classes were introduced at Bishops. In 1886, numbers stood at 149, 94 in the Lower school, and 55 following post-matric (or university level) courses.

Ogilvie’s rule over the school was absolute, especially after the death of Gray in 1872. On the eve of his departure, a College Council was formed to exercise control over the assets of the school.

Up till the University class left 1886 – 1910

John Sedgwick was Ogilvie’s successor, but his tenure was short-lived, due in part at least to Ogilvie’s withdrawal of his initial support for him. However, in his short time at the school, Sedgwick introduced a number of innovations which have left their mark on the school, including engagement with old boys of the school (which led some ten years later to the formation of the OD Union), the Debating Society, and the school magazine.  He instituted new colours, maroon and gold, which lasted till 1911 with only traces of Sedgwick’s colours surviving in the mitre. 

Developments outside the school influenced the next major development in the history of the school. Richard Brooke, the Rector of St Saviour’s, Claremont had started a grammar school at St Saviour’s, which had grown to over a hundred boys by 1880. This was too big for the St Saviour’s school, and parents were advised to move their older boys to Bishops to allow St Saviour’s to concentrate on the junior boys. A more formal rearrangement took place early in 1886 when the junior boys of the Diocesan School went over to the St Saviour’s school, which became known as the Diocesan College School and moved to new buildings at Feldhausen, now the site of the Grove Primary School.  The senior boys (Grade 10 in today’s terms) from St Saviour’s went over to the Diocesan College at Woodlands.

After Sedgwick’s resignation in December 1886, Brooke was offered the principalship of the College, which after some reflection, he accepted. When his principalship ended in 1901, much had been achieved, with additions to the buildings and fields, the academic life of the school vigorous, the sporting achievements becoming prominent and the school widely regarded as a feature of the South African educational landscape. In 1901, the Diocesan College School (at St Saviour’s) moved back to join the Diocesan College and Canon Owen Jenkins was appointed Principal.

During the first years of the century, internal conflicts within the College led eventually to the decision in 1910 to separate the university classes and their teachers, who were designated professors, from the rest of the school, and for these university classes and some of the ‘professors’ to join with the similar classes from the South African College School at the South African College, which later became the University of Cape Town.

Middle years 1920 - 1983

But rumblings of discontent continued.  The First World War affected the school greatly, with staff leaving to go off to fight and the deaths on service of many Old Boys.  After the death in 1915 of Mrs Jenkins, Jenkins resigned at the end of 1916. After a two-year interregnum by Barty Sutton and Bishop James Nash, formerly Head of St John’s, Johannesburg, Harold Birt was appointed Principal from 1919, and Bishops entered a new phase of its development.

In 1920, Bishops was at a very low point. “In 1919 the low state of the school was also due to two years of itself interrupted interregnum, even though there had been two admirable caretakers; to the aftermath of that War that did not end all wars; to neglected facilities, a dispirited staff and run-down systems or lack of them; and to a Council long used to penny-pinching, debt-ridden circumstances and what a later generation would call ‘crisis management’.” (Gardener, 27)  Birt approached all his challenges with enthusiasm and purpose, buoyed by his conviction that the support from old boys was of such depth and passion that he would prevail. He revitalised the school and set it on the path of its modern course. Buildings were built to meet new needs, including the War Memorial Chapel in 1926, new classrooms and the Science block, sports facilities and fields; new staff were appointed; systems were put in place, including the House system, a school administration system under a Bursar, salaries, pensions and improved conditions of employment; even an inspection of the school by an externally invited panel of professors; a Post-matric class, and the establishment of the Night School run by senior boys for black people working in the neighbourhood and the BSWS (Bishops Social and War Services, later Bishops Social Welfare Services), – and even international tours. He also completed the process of separating the junior classes from the senior and setting up what became the Diocesan College Prep School. The Council acquired Stanmore which together with Rossall became the buildings and grounds for the Prep as a completely separate section of the school. In 1920 Evan Thomas became the first Senior Master of the Prep school.  For a fuller History of the Prep school, and the Pre-Prep, read the story contained the in Prep webpage.

The Second World War created further trials for Birt and Bishops. Once again, staff left to join up, money became tighter, and again, a long list of OD casualties affected the spirit of the school. Although Council had asked Birt to stay on as Principal for the duration of the war, he asked to be released from that commitment when his wife died in 1942. He was replaced in July 1943 by his Vice-principal Hubert Kidd, after a special amendment to the Diocesan College Act allowed the appointment of a lay person to the principalship.

Post-war years  1943-1983

Kidd had already been at Bishops for 20 years when he became Principal, but he was faced with several unique challenges during his principalship. The first was the same set of wartime problems as faced by his predecessors, but next were the challenges posed by the National Party government which came into power in 1948. These included the closing down of the Night School and other welfare projects undertaken by the boys for the benefit of black South Africans, as well as formalisation of racial discrimination especially with regard to admission to private schools of Students other than white. Kidd and Ronald Currey of St Andrew’s were leading figures in bringing together private schools into representative organisations to protect them from unwarranted state interference. Kidd’s principalship was marked by further improvements - more buildings were erected, more facilities added and Bishops’ rank within the top independent schools in the country being recognised more and more widely. Kidd’s tenure as Principal was twice extended by Council but he suffered a heart attack in 1963 and died at the age of 67. The appointment of Anthony Mallett as his successor further built on the reputation as the school in the areas of sport, academic pursuits and cultural life. In 1978 black Students were admitted, and isiXhosa had been introduced as a subject in 1975. Various improvements of staff conditions were put in place, College evensongs for the whole school were introduced; the Quiet Hour was introduced to give space for non-sporting activities such as music, and a new dayboy house, named after Kidd was opened in 1982. Innovations including the use and study of computers, various new sports and societies and a series of staff plays, all contributed to the feeling that Bishops was in a good way.

Modern Bishops 1983 onwards

The appointment of John Peake, a Housemaster at Eton, was another turning point for Bishops. While he acknowledged that Bishops was running ‘supremely well’, Peake, in pursuit of a wider range and a different balance of activities, introduced a number of ideas which were well ahead of their time, and which did not sit well with many of the Bishops family. His energy resulted in significant improvements to buildings and facilities, and his energy in fund-raising, both for extra buildings and to bring black Students into the school on bursaries changed the face of the school. His energy in cultural matters (including the introduction of the hugely popular Eisteddfod in 1987) also shaped future developments and broadened the appeal of the school. Peake resigned in 1988  after losing the confidence of Council, and John Gardener, formerly Vice-Principal, was appointed Principal. He consolidated many of Peake’s innovations as well as settling down and reconciling some of the divergent factions within the school. A seminar was held to evaluate the school  in the context of change in South Africa, which raised a number of the key issues that the school had to deal with other the next decade. Attention was given to outreach and inreach programmes, the exchanges with other schools were enhanced, and changes to the organisation of Student leadership in the prefect system.

The appointment of Clive Watson in 1993 saw significant improvements in school management systems, the beginnings of a Careers Unit, an extended Outdoor education programme, and continuing consideration of the impact of the social and political changes in South Africa during the 1990s. In 1999, the College embarked on a radical venture of introducing laptops for boys in the classrooms as part of a change of pedagogy. In the same year, Bishops celebrated its 150th year with various events. Watson resigned during 2000, and his successor was Grant Nupen, who took up office in 2001. He tackled the question of strategic planning with vigour and soon after being appointed set up a widely supported strategic planning conference involved over 320 participants from all sections of the Bishops family, and a number of key outside people included the Minister of Education and the Western Cape MEC for education. From this conference, a carefully considered and widely supported programme of development called the 2010 Vision, was put in place.

In 2020 Guy Pearson retired and Tony Reeler, from Pretoria Boys High, began his tenure as the new Head.