MULLINS HOUSE DINNER (ABRIDGED)
8th July 2011
Firstly, I would like to thank Peter and Lin Andrew, the Head of House, Paul Selwyn Smith, Vice Head, Josh Nuttall, Prefects and boys of Mullins for inviting me to be speaker this evening. It is a very special pleasure and honour. It is also very good of you to allow an old Espin boy – my husband, Martin Oosthuizen – to darken the doors of this hallowed house. You may not like the look of him (Espin boys being rough) but his brother was in Mullins and so he promises to be respectful!
The Mullins Name
I hate to break it to you – but logically, Graham House should be called Mullins – but we won’t tell them that in case they get above themselves and ‘think themselves is great’.
The reason for saying this is that the famous Mullins family whose history is so bound up with Mullins House actually lived in the building where Graham is for over sixty years but as Graham only became a College House much later than Mullins – which was established n 1921 – it was right at the time to name a house for a family which had played such an astonishing role in the history of College.
I am sure we wouldn’t have it any other way!
Robert John Mullins
Mullins was named in honour of Canon Robert Mullins who led the Mullins Institution, the black branch of St Andrew’s, from 1860-1907 and which was founded on the site of the present Chapel. Under his care some of the greatest black intellectuals and founding fathers of the ANC had their education there and it should be remembered that when John Armstrong founded College, part of his purpose was to educate the sons of chiefs and headman of Xhosa society. From these beginnings came the early giants of the first black political resistance movements, including Josiah Gumede the President of the ANC between 1927 and 1931, the early founders of the black press and the first mission priests who had a profound effect on the education of black youth over a hundred years.
The flagstaff in front of Mullins House which plays such an important part in House ritual was brought here from the old Mullins Institution in 1928, linking this House irrevocably with that other famous Institution. (Minutes of Council 1929 p 158)
You all know the change rooms near the squash courts. They look pretty run down these days with their benches and bogs. But it is really the most historically important building on the campus if we are thinking about a wider history beyond the school. You should go in there one day and think about the fact that a number of young black scholars were taught the art of printing and carpentering there – many of whom had an enormous influence on the history of this country, among them three who drafted the constitution of the ANC and two of whom went to England to plead the case for the black vote in 1909 and 1917. They are men still honoured and remembered by the likes of Nelson Mandela who mentioned them in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
College has a very proud history, much of which has been hidden away for far too long and the king-pin in that ‘hidden history’ was undoubtedly Robert Mullins after whom this House is named and who grew his crops and pastured his cows on Knowling Field.
Unusual Mullins Boys
As Robert Mullins was an unusual man, it seems fitting that the House named for him has produced some of the most unusual boys ever educated at St Andrew’s. When I was researching the history of the school, it struck me that when some guy had done something very different, he was invariably a Mullins boy – as if, being stuck away from everyone else, there was something in the Mullins atmosphere – or the Mullins food – which set him apart.
Charles Mullins VC
Let’s start with Charles Mullins who shares the honour with his father of having this House named for him. I have a real interest in Charles Mullins from a very personal point of view. As a schoolboy Charlie Mullins used to put letters over the wall between College and DSG to a sixteen year old girl, one of the first-recorded love affairs between the pupils of the two schools. She used to search the hedge for the small flower with a note pinned to it (not quite as inconspicuous as today’s sms – also, if she had been caught she might have been expelled!). My special interest in these notes is that that girl was my great-grandmother and the love of her life, though, sadly, she never married him, was Charlie Mullins.
I can hardly blame her – he really was a hero-boy and remains one of the greatest OAs ever. He is College’s first recipient of the Victoria Cross – the highest award for bravery that can ever be earned by a soldier. Incidentally, there are two VCs at College and no fewer than 8 OAs have been recommended for it – which is an absolutely astonishing record especially for so small a school – and the stories of some of them would make a pretty exciting book if any of you guys are thinking of taking up writing as a career.
Charles Mullins was a tremendous sportsman – cricket, rugby and athletics. But his real fame lies in his part he played in the battle of Elandslaagte in 1899, one of the first of the SA (Boer) War. At Elandslaagte near Ladysmith, in 1899, the Imperial Light Horse, a regiment of which he was a founder, went into action against the Boer forces under General Koch. Alongside Mullins were 8 OAs, most of who had been in the First XV with him at College in the early glory days of rugby at the school in the 1880s.
A huge storm was brewing, lightning flashed, great purple thunderclouds trooped across the sky and Charles Mullins, brandishing his pistol and yelling, ‘Come on St Andrew’s’, stormed up the hillside towards the fortifications at the crest – a pretty desperate undertaking with the Mausers firing down on them from the heights. Among his OA friends was Clifford Turpin who caught the body of Col Chisholm as he fell, scooped him into his arms and carried him back behind the lines. Also with him was Castell White, a fine athlete who used to run 11 kms to school and 11 back home to Table Farm each day after classes. White was grievously wounded and, as the rain poured down, the smoke drifted from the battlefield and the enemy was in full retreat with a cavalry division in hot pursuit, White’s closest College friend, Claude Bettington, knelt at his side trying to staunch his wounds as he lay dying. Next time you go into the Chapel, don’t forget to look up at the great west window at the back: it is the memorial to Castell White and close by is a plaque to Bettington who tried so valiantly to save his life.
That window remains a symbol of the brotherhood of friendship and sacrifice which has characterized Old Andreans so often in war and around which many a moving story can be told. Indeed, when Charles Mullins accepted the Victoria Cross from the King in 1902 at Buckingham Palace, he said, specifically, that though it was pinned on his breast, he wore it for every one of his brave comrades who had stormed the hill with him. He always claimed it was a regimental – not an individual – decoration.
About five years ago I went to the Imperial War Museum in London. There is a room there which is dedicated to those who have won the Victoria Cross – and there are not too many of them. It is a sacred place, hushed and gently lit. The stories of valour which the different displays describe are deeply moving.
But I stood in front of one – literally with tears in my eyes. Because there was the familiar picture of Charlie Mullins which is hanging in your House today, the story of the battle where he won the medal – and his Victoria Cross itself. Hugely proud as I was to see the name of Mullins and St Andrew’s displayed in one of the world’s most famous museums, I was sad as well – for, until not very long ago, that medal belonged to St Andrew’s and had been left to us because Charles Mullins had loved his school so deeply and because he had called on the spirit of St Andrew’s when he rallied his men to face the fire on that distant stormy afternoon. A great communal example of nec aspera terrent.
If Mullins can claim for its own the spirit of Charles Mullins VC – it is the only House that can claim another kind of spirit as well.
The only known ghost on the campus.
But a kinder, more benign, more friendly ghost can hardly be imagined.
Arthur Knowling, known as Foxy, was the first Housemaster of Mullins when it was founded in 1921. He was married to Charles Mullins’ youngest sister, Ruth, and Foxy Knowling was a truly beloved teacher for over thirty years.
I don’t know how many of you can claim to have seen his ghost on Knowling Field or smelled the aromatic scent of his pipe or maybe caught a glimpse of his bad-tempered spaniel Quaggy who the boys used to tease, following at his heels. But don’t be alarmed. Few men could have been kinder. He used to keep really good chocolate cake in his study and share it with prefects who came in for chats and tea. If you don’t believe in ghosts then you will know the soft rustlings after dark are the wings of owls that nest near Graham – but if you are very imaginative, you might feel accompanied as you walk across Knowling in the dark by old Foxy. Whatever your beliefs – whether owls or ghosts – it hardly matters.
What does matter, though, is the spirit of what Foxy stood for. A spirit that should haunt each one of you to good effect:
Kindness. Integrity. Honesty.
It was a lesson he taught to many boys but to give you one example of what honesty means in its simplest and most basic sense.
There was a Mullins boy here called who went for military training after College. A few days before the end of training, the various barracks had a wild night in which they literally pulled the place apart. The next day on the parade ground the furious Sergeant Major shouted at the troopies that he required those responsible to step forward immediately.
Of the entire company – dozens and dozens of men – only one soldier stepped forward.
His name was David Roper, OA.
The Sergeant Major said, ‘Infantryman Roper – you have a lot to answer for!’
‘Yes, Sir,’ Roper said without regret.
Foxy would have applauded.
When Foxy retired in 1941, Headmaster Currey said that Mullins had a very particular character as did its boys – and this was because of the way in which the Knowlings had nurtured it.
For he wasn’t only speaking of Foxy – he was referring too to Mrs Ruth Knowling. Having been born a Mullins herself, she made it her business to ensure that the Mullins boys were properly fed and cared for and took some pride in outdoing the Housemasters’ wives in the other Houses. In the 1920s and 1930s about 23cents a day was spent on a boy’s food by the other Houses but Mrs Knowling spent 38 cents on each Mullins boy, despite the raging of the school bursar telling her she was extravagant. She insisted on going to market herself to get the best meat and vegetables and would set off on her bicycle even on dark winter mornings. She always made sure there was a good supply of roosterkoek for treats and even though they were known to give the most terrible indigestion, the boys loved them because they were served hot and with butter and jam melting on them.
Perhaps it was the Mullins food and the Mullins diningroom in the House with Mr and Mrs Knowling presiding like cheerful grandparents that made the Mullins boys happy – and fed their brains enough to set them on some pretty incredible endeavours.
Famous Old Boys
There are far too many famous old boys to mention so I shall have to keep it brief. But they were certainly daring – and immensely brave. Sadly, this streak of recklessness resulted in many of them dying young. But no one could say that they didn’t have true Grit and Guts.
Among the most interesting fellow to come out of Mullins is Brian Black who was not only a member of the 1926 team – College’s most famous rugby side – but played fullback for England in the 1930s. He was also a competitor in the English Bobsleigh team at the Olympics, the tennis champion of South of France and, believe it or not, used in illustrated training material by the British Army as an example of the most perfect human specimen, pictured in his bathing costume and flexing his fine muscles.
His tragedy was that he was killed in a flying accident just after he joined the Royal Air Force close to the outbreak of the Second World War.
Pat Webster Fairfield
Contemporary with Brian Black was Patrick Webster who then named himself Fairfield and who drove the masters mad at school with his dare-devil antics and his complete lack of fear. The Astroturf is named Webster Field for him. It is fitting that a ground on which hockey is played with such speed, precision and grace should be named for Pat Webster for he was one of SA earliest racing aces, in the pioneering days when skill and daring counted for everything. He won many national and international championships.
He was also a fine scholar and a Cambridge graduate and I have been lucky enough to read his schoolboy letters to a DSG girl, full of humour, and odd bluff sentiment , always calling her ‘old sport’ or ‘old thing’, despite his devotion which he, too, popped over the wall – shades of Charlie Mullins!
In an act of incredible self-sacrifice, probably aware of the possible consequences, Pat Webster Fairfield swerved to avoid a driver who had been thrown onto the track during a race at Le Mans in France in 1937. The driver survived, but Pat Fairfield, crashing through the barrier, was killed.
And talking of Webster Field, it is interesting that Mullins is the only House linked to three important sports fields at College: Knowling, named for its first famous Housemaster, Webster, named for the dare-devil racing ace and Crawhall, named in memory of a boy, John Crawhall, who while in Mullins, overcame enormous physical disabilities. Told he would never be strong enough for any physical activity, let alone be allowed to serve in WWII, he overcame all odds and was finally commissioned in the SAAF.
Mullins seems to turn out men who love flying. The Royal Air Force’s Air Vice Marshall Sir John Howe, a man renowned for his low flying skills (he used to skim his plane very dangerously just above the ground) is an old Mullins boy. So is the much more recent Paul Berlyn, the heroic helicopter pilot who through skill and incredible daring during the terrible floods in Mozambique in the 1990s snatched a woman marooned in a tree to safety. What was so incredible was that she had just given birth in its branches and Berlyn brought her and her baby to safety. A truly epic rescue.
Mullins has also produced a very creditable number of national sportsmen, pre-eminent among them, Springbok swimmers, Neil Oldridge and Tudor Lacey, known to many of you who took swimming by storm in the late 1950s.
Daniel Van Der Vyver, a Springbok rugby player was an old Mullins boy as was Damien Nichol, the Olympic oarsman. David Symons was a Springbok golfer and Brian Belchers the Springbok hockey captain, snow-slider Tyler Botha and famous early Ironman, triathlete, the late Keith Anderson all spent their school days in this House under a number of famous Housemasters like Foxy Knowling, Ash Brooker, Apie Dods and John Axe.
But Mullins isn’t all brawn. There are brains here as well. Professor Peter Hinchliffe, one of the most eminent Theologians in the world and a former Professor at Oxford is an old Mullins boy as was Dr William Bleloch, one of the few OAs to be given an honorary doctorate and the recipient of the SA Institute of Mining and Metallurgy’s highest award for achievement in that industry for pioneering South Africa’s production of large-scale organic materials. Also hugely eminent in the world of mining and The President of the Chamber of Mines in its centenary year, 1989, is old Mullins boy Kennedy Maxwell
When the TV sets of South Africa were switched on for the very first time on the occasion of the first broadcast in 1975, the first face seen and the first voice heard was that of David Hall-Green, broadcaster and artist and old Mullins boy.
And every time you watch the sea break over a wall of dolosse – those huge concrete objects which keep the waves from eroding the shore – like as one drives into PE – and which are used throughout the world, remember Eric Merrifield. He was a sparky little Mullins boy who was better known for being a boxer at school than an inventor of something which has saved the coastlines of the world.
When one is writing a book it is inevitable that certain characters become favourites. Among all the thousands of Old Andreans who I researched for The Boy in You, there are about 5 who mean a great deal to me.
One of them is Mullins boy, Dick Barry, OA 1931, great-grandson of Bishop Nathaniel Merriman, who had laid the foundation stone of this school with Bishop Armstrong in 1855. Dick Barry’s story of courage and endeavour echoes down the years and ensures his place as one of the most remarkable boys to have been educated at St Andrew’s.
High in the Drakensberg, in a quiet grove facing the blue ramparts of Champagne Castle and Sterkhorn, is a solitary grave – that of Richard Merriman Barry. He is the first known climber to have lost his life on the cliffs of that majestic range. [i] Dick was a respected mountaineer and had a number of first ascents to his credit including a record-breaking achievements for the double traverse of Mont Blanc from north to south in three days. On his return to South Africa he and a friend determined to make an attempt on Monk’s Cowl in the Drakensberg late in January 1938, a peak which had not been summited by a climber before. Roped together, they were a hundred feet from the top when Barry’s companion fell pulling Barry down with him. Landing on a ledge, they might have both gained safety but mist and rain closed in. Under appalling conditions Dick Barry’s fellow climber reached the comparative safety of a lower ledge but Barry, choosing another descent, fell 500 feet to his death.
‘If high endeavour and great courage count, then Richard Barry was one of the greatly endowed of this world, and the very great gifts which promised to lift him to high service and achievement were those which brought him to his end – gifts of outstanding courage and love of adventure.’[ii]
I myself have stood at that grave in the summer sun and looked at those incredible peaks which were tackled by Dick Barry, the first climber to die in the Drakensberg. I knew he was an OA and a Mullins boy and I was deeply proud to be associated with St Andrew’s. His headstone faces Sterkhorn and red-flowered bottle-brushes bloom around the stone wall that surrounds his grave.
And in telling you this – I am not simply telling you of reckless boys who have been gone for decades that have no connection with you. The connection they do have and which stretches down the years is one of belonging – to this school, this House, these friends and comrades, that unique quality which makes you Andreans – and that refinement of the Andrean spirit that marks you as Mullins boys in particular. For then you will have honesty, good sportsmanship and courage. You will also have humour – like that most delightful and present Mullins Boy of all – your Headmaster, Paul Edey.
i Burman, Jose, 1966. A Peak to Climb: The Story of South African Mountaineering. Cape Town:
C. Struik., page 75-76.
ii SACM April 1938, Vol. 27, no. 218:29. *
Mr Simon Holderness joined St Andrew’s College in 2009 as a Mathematics teacher. He then spent two years as Housemaster of Holland House looking after the Mullins House Grade 8s from 2010 to 2011. In 2012 he moved across Knowling Field to take up the baton as the 11th Housemaster of Mullins House.
It was during the 1970s that the Holderness name was first etched into the history of Mullins House, as Simon’s father Mr Mick Holderness and Mick’s cousin Mr Bill Holderness were House Tutors in Mullins House while they were members of the College staff. Mick was a Mathematics teacher, and Bill taught English and History.
Simon will always be remembered as an exceptionally passionate and dedicated Housemaster of Mullins House. Under Simon and his wife Jane, Mullins House always had a happy and productive atmosphere and was a space of collaboration, energy, fun and hard work. Remarkably, Mullins House were the winners of the Templeton Work Trophy every year that Simon was Housemaster.
In addition to being Housemaster and teaching Maths, Simon coached cricket and rugby as the coach of the 2nd XV for several years and one season as the 1st XV coach. An innovative educator, Simon took part in the International Boys’ Schools Coalition Action Research Team and he was the IEB Mathematics Paper II National Examiner. He was also Master in Charge of Chess, and was famous for his riveting assembly chess reports.
After eight years as Housemaster, Simon left Mullins House and College at the end of 2019 to become Deputy Head at DSG.
The Andrean no. 354. (2019). Grahamstown: St Andrew’s College.