Armoria academica

St AIDAN’S COLLEGE (closed 1973), Grahamstown.

Cadet corps / contact / Afrikaanse blasoen

St Aidan’s College

The only registration of these arms was in 1949, under the Protection of Names,Uniforms and Badges Act (1935), to the St Aidan’s Union. The (non-heraldic) description of the shield and crest states that they appear above the letters O A in gold. The arms may be blazoned:


Arms: Vert, a bend cottised on the upper edge, between in chief an anchor and in base the letters IHS, with a small Latin cross emerging from the crossbar of the H, all or.

Crest: Upon a wreath of the colours, a stag couchant proper.

Motto: Tu es domine spes mea.


The colour of the shield is defined on the registration certificate as being veridian green.

The school history, St Aidan’s College, Grahamstown, has an illustration of the arms on the back of the dust jacket (reproduced above), but there is no mention of them in the text.

The illustration shows the shield and crest encompassed by a wreath of sorts, but these did not necessarily form part of the arms as such; it is possible that this embellishment was used in the blazer badge used to indicate some position of honour for a pupil, such as school colours, honours or prefectship.

About the arms:
The lettering symbolises Jesus Christ, which is fitting for a school run by the Society of Jesus (or Jesuit Order).

The principal charge is a bend (a broad diagonal stripe) with its cottise (a narrow diagonal stripe). Cottises can appear on both sides of a charge, but here there is only one.

crest of St Aidan’s College

The anchor is traditionally a symbol of Jesus as securing the redeemed among mankind to the Rock of God the Father. However, in this instance it was chosen as a symbol of the Cape Colony.

The letters are Greek, being the first three letters (iota, eta and sigma)[1] of the Lord’s name in Greek. In the nominative form, the name is IhsouV (Iesous), but since the ending varies according to the grammatical form, the first three letters are taken as symbolic.

The stag in the crest is a reference to a legend connected with Aidan of Ferns which is told here.

There is another legend concerning a stag associated with St Aidan of Lindisfarne, told on this page; both legends are somewhat murky.


Name of the school:

The name Aidan comes from the Gaelic for “fire”. It is usually associated with Aidan of Lindisfarne, a missionary monk of Irish origin who was made bishop for the kingdom of Northumbria in 635 and evangelised northern England until his death in 651.

However, the school in Grahamstown – both Little St Aidan’s and its successor, St Aidan’s College – was named for Aidan of Ferns, patron saint of the diocese of Ferns in Ireland and an older contemporary of the better-known Aidan. The town of Ferns lies on the River Bann in County Wexford, the southernmost part of the Irish coast that faces Wales across the Irish Sea.

Aidan of Ferns appears to have been so named because a fiery star was seen above his parents’ home just before his birth. Educated at Clonard in Meath under St Finian and for some time a monk at the monastery headed by St David in Wales, he returned to Ireland after some thirty years in Wales and Northumbria, and devoted the rest of his days to founding and developing the episcopal church at Ferns.

He had a considerably reputation as a worker of healing miracles. His healing and conversion of Bran Dubh, King of Leinster, led to Aidan’s being consecrated Bishop of Ferns in AD 598 by order of Pope Gregory the Great.

By the time of his death in AD 632, Aidan had founded numerous monasteries and schools and built some 30 churches in outlying areas.

All three of the Roman Catholic founder bishops of Grahamstown (and of the school) had studied in the Diocese of Ferns.

Aidan’s feast day is usually celebrated on 31 January, but because this date normally fell during school holidays, St Aidan’s College was permitted to celebrate it on alternative dates.


About the school:
The first Roman Catholic bishop responsible for the Eastern Cape, Dr Aidan Devereux, was initially posted to Grahamstown in 1846, but was only raised to the episcopate the following year.

Dr Devereux had arrived in Cape Town in 1838 with the first Roman Catholic bishop appointed to South Africa, who is named only as “Bishop Griffith” in Francis Coleman’s history of the school. Devereux, who had been an academic in both Ireland and Rome, was initially appointed principal of the Mercantile and Classical Academy, the first Roman Catholic boys’ school in Cape Town, but because of ill health he was transferred to parochial work in Stellenbosch and later George. In 1846 he took over the parish of Grahamstown and St Patrick’s Church, built in Hill Street by his predecessor, Fr Murphy.

Bishop Griffith had meanwhile been pressing Rome for a subdivision of his enormous diocese, known as the Cape Vicariate, and in 1847 news was received from Rome that Dr Devereux had been named Titular Bishop of Paneas (in the Holy Land) and first Vicar Apostolic of the Eastern District,[2] based in Grahamstown. Bishop Griffith consecrated him bishop in Cape Town on 27 December 1847.

Bishop Devereux then sailed for Europe to recruit clergy and religious to help him in the work of his large region. On his return in 1850 he was accompanied by two priests, several catechists, Sister Gertrude[3] and a party of nuns, and lastly a student for the priesthood, James David Ricards.[4]

On their arrival the bishop and his staff took possession of a property in Beaufort Street measuring three acres which had been purchased for church use, although it was only in 1861 that a house was specifically provided for the bishop. Two schools were also started, one for girls at the convent, and a small one for boys (at which, to begin with, the only pupil was catechist Jerry O’Riley). When David Ricards (having in due course been priested) took over the school, it occupied premises close to St Patrick’s and was called Ricards’s School, St Aidan’s or Little St Aidan’s.

Dr Devereux attempted to attract the interest of the Jesuits in running a properly organised boys’ college for him, but was initially frustrated and then died in 1854, aged only 50.

He was succeeded as bishop by Dr Moran, who applied for a grant of land, one morgen in extent, bounded by Constitution Street, Upper Hill Street (now Milner Street) and Cradock Road (now St Aidan’s Avenue), where the future St Aidan’s College would be erected. The municipality approved the grant, which was formally recognised in 1859 by the Lieutenant-Governor.

When Bishop Moran was transferred to New Zealand in 1871, he was succeeded by Dr Ricards.

On Wednesday 29 January 1873 a procession – including clergy, the boys of Little St Aidan’s and the sisters from the Assumption Convent and their pupils – moved from St Patrick’s to the site of the new college, where Bishop Ricards laid the foundation stone.[5]

Dr Ricards’s place at Little St Aidan’s was taken by the parish priest, Fr Pat Farrely, but the school closed on Fr Farrely’s transfer to Uitenhage in October 1874. The college opened in 1876, after a break of more than a year.

Construction at the college site continued, as did fund-raising, including a “Great Bazaar” in June ’74.

Bishop Ricards tried, but failed, to gain the support of the French Province of the Jesuits, the Marist Brothers and the Christian Brothers in running the college. Only when he travelled to England in 1875 did he persuade the English Province of the Jesuits to help, and in September-October that year he returned with three Jesuit priests and three lay Brothers to teach at the college, plus two Dutch Jesuits who would serve in Graaff-Reinet, and several other teachers, nuns, priests and students – 23 in all.

The bishop and his entourage was met three miles (5 km) outside Grahamstown by a procession which led Dr Ricards back to his house by way of the new college, accompanied by banner-bearers and various other decorations and celebrations.

However, on taking occupation of the college, the Jesuits were quick to point out its shortcomings, and plans had to be made for further fund-raising and constructions.

In June 1876 the college property was legally transferred from the bishop to the Rector,[6] with the proviso that, should the property cease to be used for a college under the Order’s administration, it would revert to the diocese. This meant that when the college closed in 1973, the Jesuits were obliged to transfer it to the diocese (by then seated in Port Elizabeth).

In its first full year of operation, the college had 46 pupils, although they numbered only 40 when the school opened on 31 January, and were down to 43 by the end of the year. Exact numbers are unclear, since it seems that the boys who had attended Little St Aidan’s (and now joined the college) were not included in the full breakdown.

Among the college’s early pupils were Charles Coghlan (later knighted for his services as first Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia), Christopher Wilmot (who was to become a Jesuit and, 40 years later, Rector of the college), Bernard Tancred (later to be first cricket captain of South Africa) and the author Percy Fitzpatrick (also knighted).

The first group of boarders ranged in age from seven to over 20. Wilmot writes: “Nearly all, including the youngest, smoked and some of the seniors also chewed tobacco.” Several of the seniors had moustaches, and the oldest, Laughlin Kelly, sported a long beard.

Although it had been intended that the college would include a preparatory (primary) school, this would not become a reality for another 59 years.

In 1879 the Jesuit Order sent a mission to Mashonaland which was to found and build up the Roman Catholic Church in what was to become Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The pioneer party of this mission set out from the college by oxwagon on 15 April that year. Many among the original missioners died a martyr’s death at the hands of Lobengula’s warriors before the Ndebele kingdom was conquered by the British South Africa Company.

Being a Jesuit institution, St Aidans took over a good many traditions of other Jesuit colleges, especially Stonyhurst in England. Wilmot writes: “The very name ‘College’ is a Jesuit one, whilst ‘ferula’ – that unpleasant instrument of correction known alternatively as a ‘tolly’ or, in Scotland, as a ‘tawse’, is a specifically Stonyhurst term. ‘Feds’, however, the equally unpleasant application of the ferula, is St Aidan’s own contribution to Jesuit literary tradition. Customs, of course, are not normally unpleasant.”

Another Jesuit tradition was in the naming of the classes. Various names were used in the college’s early years, but in the early 20th century the Jesuit names (from matriculation down) of Rhetoric, Poetry, Syntax, Grammar, Rudiments, Figures, Elements and Preparatory were used. Each class also had its own patron saint, these being (in the same order), St Catherine, St Cecilia, St Ursula, St Barbara, St Agnes, Angel Guardians, St Aloysius and St John Berchmans.

When the Prep School was eventually established, the classes Figures to Preparatory (Stds 5 to 3) became part of that institution, but until 1960, Rudiments (Std 6) was split, one half being in the Prep School, the other in the college.

Certain rooms in the school also acquired Jesuit names: Study Place (for lesson preparation), Shoe Place (where shoes were stored and repaired) and Washing Place. These names go back to Jesuit colleges in France and what is now Belgium in the days when Catholic schools were forbidden in England.

The first sport to establish itself at St Aidan’s was cricket, although initially there was no college team or equipment: boys organised themselves into three clubs and bought their own kit.

Instead of rugby, the winter sport at most of its neighbour schools, the St Aidan’s boys played soccer, only switching to rugby in 1926 after many years of success in the local men’s soccer league. Hockey was introduced only after the First World War, but became a popular sport.

The school was strong in athletics by the late 19th century, and tennis also became a popular game. Boxing was a tradition at Jesuit schools, always being supervised by the spiritual master.

The school choir had the reputation of being the finest boys’ choir in the Eastern Province.

The year 1899 saw the foundation of the St Aidan’s Union. There had in the past been annual reunions of past pupils, but not until that year were they formally banded together in an association. The Union’s two principal functions were to maintain contact between the old boys, and to raise funds for the school. While the second function fell away entirely in 1973, the Union continues to meet from time to time.

Following the South African War, the establishment of Rhodes University College in 1904 led to a decision by the university college’s senate that students should board in denominational hostels or private boarding houses. Grahamstown’s three church schools, St Aidan’s, St Andrew’s and Kingswood each provided student accommodation for some years after this – most of the residents being past pupils of the respective schools.

A further development in 1904 was the decision to add the West Wing to the college complex. In addition, the Old Aidanite Union, at its annual meeting on Easter Monday, decided to complete the College Tower – planned as part of extensions which were otherwise completed in 1873 – as a memorial to the school comrades fallen in the South African War. In all, 115 old boys had been in action; of these, three were killed, and one died of fever.

Work started in July, using the services of a team of master masons which had been working on the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Bulawayo. The tower – built with stone quarried by the builder masons from the same source as the stone used in the construction of 1873 – was largely completed by the end of November. It was to have included a clock, but this was, in the event, never added.

Details of roofing still needed to be done (and would be added during the December holidays), but the tower was inaugurated on 8 December, the day of the annual prizegiving. At the lunch following the prizegiving, the Rector announced further additions: a North Wing, on which work was to start the following day.

A highly contentious issue in the years between the South African War and Union in 1910 was the question of State subsidies for church schools – indeed, it had been controversial as far back as 1891. The point at issue was that the parents of pupils attending church schools paid an education tax, yet the schools in question received no subsidy.

Legislation was drafted and its implications were debated over several years. Conditions of receiving a subsidy would likely include the formation of a school committee (not very welcome to the Mother Superior and her sisters at Assumption Convent), regular inspections and bilingual teaching. Bilingualism was not an issue at St Aidan’s however, as since its inception the college had had a Dutch-born staff member teaching his mother tongue.

Another concern for the politicians was the number of non-Catholics at Catholic schools. While St Aidan’s, at this stage, had only Catholic pupils (the exclusion of non-Catholics had been introduced by the Jesuits, and was to fall away, quietly, only in 1965), but it was estimated overall that 70% of pupils in Catholic schools in the colony were not Catholic.

But reservations over this aspect (there were opinions opposed to Catholic schooling altogether) were mediated by pressure from the Gereformeerde Kerk[7] to be permitted to set up its own schools.

The legislation was eventually passed by the Cape Provincial Council as an Ordinance, but its precise effect on St Aidan’s is uncertain, since correspondence from that period has gone missing, and it is not known whether it was the province that refused to make a grant or the college that refused to receive one.[8] However the outcome was that the college received no subsidy (although Assumption Convent did receive one), and this was to have a marked effect (some would even say a devastating one) on the college’s finances in later years.

On Holy Saturday, 1920, following the First World War, a memorial bronze was erected at the college (it would later be affixed in the chapel) bearing the names of the 40 old boys who lost their lives in that conflict. (The unveiling coincided with the annual Old Aidanite reunion.)

Building work on the permanent college chapel began in February 1924. Work had progressed sufficiently by Easter 1926 for Bishop MacSherry to sing High Mass there on Easter Sunday, although further work was required before the structure was complete. It was finally inaugurated (again by Bishop MacSherry) during the colllege’s golden jubilee celebrations in 1928.

The Depression of the 1930s saw a fall-off in pupil numbers, and early in 1933 a definite decision was taken by the Jesuit Order in Rome to close St Aidan’s. But in February the Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a unanimous appeal to the Order to keep the college going. The Old Aidanites also canvassed Jesuit opinion. The matter went as far as Pope Pius XI, who was asked to overrule the decision. Shortly afterward the Father General of the Jesuits was interviewed by the Pope, and St Aidan’s was allowed to continue.

A preparatory school, although planned as part of the college since its inception, was only finally started in 1935.

The Second World War also saw many Old Aidanites joining up, and by its end 34 of them had lost their lives. Two of the men in service won Military Crosses, one the Distinguished Flying Cross, six were mentioned in dispatches and 28 became prisoners of war.

The year 1955 saw further development, with the erection of a new three-storey classroom wing, followed by a science block. However, talk of erecting a new building for the prep school (which had been around before) came to nothing, as did plans for a separate school hall.

In 1957 further playing fields were acquired in Somerset Heights (now belonging to Graeme College).

But the additions had cost, in total, R171 000, and the college’s sole source of income, school fees, could not be escalated beyond the ability of parents to pay. The provision of bursaries for needy pupils further eroded the finances, and the deficit amounted to R6 537 in 1963 and R8 038 in 1964.

The school had had large deficits in the past, but its future was placed in question by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), at which decisions were made which were to have a profound effect on Catholic education worldwide.

Part of the problem lay in a fall-off of vocations – all Catholic orders saw a dramatic drop in numbers, and the Jesuits declined from 33 800 in 1970 to 28 000 in 1978. This led, in part, to a decision to close Jesuit colleges, including one of the most famous, Beaumont College in England.

St Aidan’s could not be far behind, and rumours began to proliferate. In July 1966 the Order’s Superior, Fr P Ennis, issued an announcement that the Jesuits would continue staffing the Grahamstown school until at least the end of 1967, and that boys matriculating at the end of 1968 would still be provided for.

Coleman writes: “Reaction was swift. An emergency meeting of the branch chairmen of the St Aidan’s Union was held at the College, and a memorandum to Bishop Green followed.”

The Union contended that keeping the college in operation was of national importance to the (Roman Catholic) Church in South Africa. The bishop was asked to investigate continuance, and the Union demanded a change of administration.

By the end of 1966, the Jesuits had agreed to continue running the school for a further 10 years, but without increasing the staff or replacing any.

A new head, Fr Donald Johnson SJ, was appointed for the school. His powers were also increased: combining the offices of Rector, First Prefect and Prefect of Studies (these last two being positions previously held by other members of the the teaching staff), he was now referred to as Headmaster.

Bishop Green had meanwhile travelled to Rome as relations between the Union and the Order deteriorated. There he requested the Father General to rescind the decision to withdraw, or failing that to allow the Jesuits still at the college to remain, to allow South African Jesuits to return to the college, and to permit the diocese to take responsibility for the school.

The Jesuits in turn warned the bishop of the risks entailed in seeking another order’s involvement, and of taking diocesan responsibility for the school.

Questions were now also raised regarding the implications of the trusts operated in connection with the college, and it was contended that the Jesuits were, or potentially would be, in breach of the trust agreeements.

Despite the uncertainty over the college’s future, enrolments grew: from 176 in 1967 to 245 in ’69.

But a blow to morale was the sudden disbandment of the choir. In the light of Vatican II’s emphasis on vernacular worship, the choir’s role in singing Latin was seen as outmoded, and congregational singing in English took its place. At about the same time, daily attendance at mass was declared not to be compulsory. This raised questions about St Aidan’s as a church school.

In August 1969 the Interim College Council was formed. It was chaired by Advocate Tom Mullins,[9] and its members included both Catholics and non-Catholics. Fr Johnson (and from 1971 his successor, Fr Barton Watson) served ex officio, and other members included Dr Ronald Currey, former headmaster of St Andrew’s.

But complicating the picture was the St Aidan’s Trust,[10] which Coleman describes as “an essentially private venture” organised by three Capetonian Catholics. While the trust was unwilling for the college to operate any other fund-raising schemes, it had itself become moribund after its prime mover, Mr G Consani, was disillusioned by the staffing situation.

Parents and Old Aidanites actively raised funds for the school, but the deficit continued to soar as pupil numbers declined from 229 in 1970, to 208 the following year, and 144 at the beginning of ’73, dropping to 135 in the second half. (Experts felt that having 250 boys would be a break-even position – one which was never reached.) Coleman estimates the deficit at R22 000 in ’73.

The Headmasters’ Conference (of South African private schools) agreed in 1971 to waive its restriction on advertising, and St Aidan’s advertised for pupils in eight newspapers, but without appreciable effect.

Also at the beginning of 1971, Bishop Green resigned his see. In a critical period when a bishop was needed to take decisions, no new appointment was made until late in 1973, when Monsignor John Murphy was elevated to the see.

But during the interregnum, finances and other issues had reached a point where there was no alternative to closing the school. On taking office, Bishop Murphy was obliged to take the formal decision to do just that.

The school was informed on 28 September 1973 that it would close permanently at the end of that year. Coleman writes: “Some of the stern young men wept . . .”


Cadet detachment:

The school’s cadet detachment – the 10th in the Cape Colony – was registered in 1889, and was unique in this country in being an artillery battery. The boys, all volunteers, were attached for training to the Grahamstown Volunteer Horse Artillery. Their uniform is claimed to have been the smartest in the country.

However, after a few years the (adult) horse artillery unit was disbanded and its guns disposed elsewhere, and the college cadets were obliged to become infantry.

The cadet corps brought a further sport to the college: rifle shooting. This activity continued (except when the corps itself was not functioning) until the year before the college’s final closure.

The outbreak of the South African War in 1899 had dramatic consequences, not only for the old boys who joined up for service, but also for the college cadets.

In March 1901 the cadets of St Aidan’s, St Andrew’s, Kingswood and Victoria Boys’ High were called up for active service. All cadets aged 16 and older were ordered to turn out in full uniform on Sunday, 10 March, and muster on Church Square at 2pm. They marched to the Drostdy (now at the entrance to the Rhodes University campus) where they were issued with bandoliers, haversacks and 100 rounds of ball-cartridge per man.

A commando headed by a Boer officer named Kritzinger was expected to attack Grahamstown, and after the issuing of kit and ammunition the cadets were ordered to report for duty at 3am.

They served five nights standing watch in trenches around Makana’s Kop, but were dismissed from active service on the Friday – and subsequently paid. The boys and their officers were paid personally (at rates ranging from £1 a day for the captain to 5/-[11] a day for privates), but the school was also paid out a ration allowance of 2/6 a head daily for officers and men. Curiously, the ration allowance was used by the college to purchase 60 pairs of Indian clubs and 60 pairs of dumbbells for the exclusive use of the cadets. Farnell[12] comments: “a strange priority indeed”.

An interesting detail revealed at the annual inspection of the town’s cadets in November that year was that, with 475 cadets, Grahamstown was the largest cadet centre in the British Empire outside of London.

The cadet corps was twice disbanded before the school’s final closure: in 1914 and 1935. It was quickly re-started in 1915, but following the Second World War it was not reorganised until 1948, a delay owing in part to efforts on the school’s part to ensure that it retained its original designation as Detachment No 10.



Old Aidanites wanting to get in touch with other past pupils of the school can contact Chris Boyle.


Afrikaanse blasoen:

Die wapen kan in Afrikaans so geblasoeneer word:


Wapen: In groen, ’n skuinsbalk bo vergesel van ’n skuinsstreep tussen, bo, ’n anker en, onder, die letters IHS met ’n Latynse kruisie wat uit die dwarsstreep van die H ontstaan, alles van goud.

Helmteken: ’n Rustende hert in sy natuurlike kleure.

Leuse: Tu es domine spes mea.


[1] It appears to be traditional to render the third letter as a Roman S, instead of the proper Greek letter S. The name in Roman letters is Iesus (also written as Jesus), which means that either the H (representing the sound EE) or the S is an anomaly.

[2] The term Eastern District indicated not only the Eastern Province of the Cape Colony, but also the Colony of Kaffraria, the unannexed Transkeian territories, the Oranje Vrij Staat, Griqualand West, Griqualand East, the Natal Colony and part of Zululand.

[3] Sister Gertrude, born Josephine Amelia de Henningsen and later known as Mother Gertrude or Notre Mère, had taken the name Gertrude of the Blessed Sacrament. She would serve for 43 years as mother superior of Grahamstown’s Assumption Convent.

Initially she belonged to a European-based order, but because her superior in Belgium refused to allow the sisters in Grahamstown to wear a lighter habit more suitable to an African climate, the Grahamstown house was permitted by Rome to secede and Mother Gertrude became the founding superior of a new order.

[4] David Ricards, ordained deacon in 1850, would serve as bishop in Grahamstown from 1871. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of divinity in 1861.

[5] One of the mysteries of this stone was that it was lost during a later renovation (perhaps it was turned over and used for building) and has never been recovered.

St Andrew’s College has also been unable to discover its original foundation stone.

[6] St Aidan’s was one of at least three South African schools that used the title Rector for its head. The other two (both still in existence) are the Grey Institute (now Grey High School) in Port Elizabeth, and Michaelhouse, in Natal.

[7] A conservative breakaway from the Nederduitsche Gereformeerde Kerk, which under Dutch rule and until the 1860s had been a State Church. The Gereformeerdes, nicknamed Doppers, set up their first seminary at Burgersdorp, but it was later moved to Potchefstroom and became the nucleus of the university there.

[8] What was at issue were the requirements laid down in departmental regulations. However, there was no specific schedule of regulations that accompanied the legislation; the Superintendent-General of Education had traditionally issued regulations annually, with amendments made from time to time.

[9] Mr Mullins later became a judge of the Supreme Court (initially in Grahamstown and later in Port Elizabeth).

[10] The St Aidan’s Trust was distinct from the Centenary Fund, which also raised funds for the college.

[11] The currency in use in South Africa at the time was British sterling, or pounds (£), shillings and pence. Shillings and pence were indicated by the use of the slash to separate the two denominations of coin, and a hyphen indicated a round figure in shillings (no pence). Two shillings and sixpence could also be written as 2s 6d.

[12] Tony Farnell wrote the chapter on the cadet corps, and one giving his personal reflections as a lay teacher at the school.


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  • Acknowledgements: Illustration of the arms and information on the school from St Aidan’s College, Grahamstown, by Francis L Coleman (Institute of Social and Economic Research, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, 1980). The book incorporates two chapters by Tony Farnell. The image of the crest is taken from a cigarette card issued in the 1930s by the United Tobacco Companies (South).

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    Comments, queries: Mike Oettle