Melvyn Wallis-Brown: 'I'm horrified by the pain I inflicted on those fellows'

Peter Bills
Wednesday 19 August 2009 12:32 BST

He lives in a Cape Town cottage built for officers before the Boer War. Perhaps not surprising then, that Melvyn Wallis-Brown revels in the subject of history, not least how it has underpinned the structure of his beloved Bishops school.

At 68, Wallis-Brown is one of the great living authorities on one of South Africa's most famous schools. He first joined what he calls 'a then firmly Victorian type of school' back in 1963 when the world and South Africa in particular, was a very different place.

Hubert Kidd, a man of stentorian tones, was the Headmaster; a classicist and, according to Wallis-Brown, "a tall, terrifying man'. Wallis-Brown had not expected to find himself in front of this imposing figure. He was at Stellenbosch University, studying history and enjoying playing cricket with no thought of getting a job (his own educational career had been a touch turbulent - expelled from Rhenish in Stellenbosch in sub B, went to Paul Roos and then Rondebosch Boys High in standard 3 to Matric).

But an invitation to discuss a post at the preparatory school which was then led by Peter van der Byl, was arranged. Alas, Wallis-Brown committed an enormous faux pas even before he'd stepped into the school.

"I arrived in my VW beetle and was told curtly 'Young man, we at Bishops drive British Motor Corporation (BMC) vehicles. You are driving a German car'."

Wallis-Brown found Bishops a curious place in those days. There were only two women on the staff but all the teachers were either former pupils or seemed to have BA's and MA's from Oxford University. It was a world where Victorian values still applied, for example, with caning.

"They used to cane quite a lot although it was very strictly controlled. House masters were allowed to do it and prefects were also allowed to beat junior boys."

Was Wallis-Brown an enthusiastic devotee of the practice? He shakes his head firmly. "I am horrified when I think back to the pain I inflicted on those fellows. Because to me, it was always a quick fix. Boys being boys like that. If they were confronted with a discipline problem even today I suspect they would rather have a quick four on the backside.

"But I have no doubts that inflicting pain on other human beings is barbaric and it has led to abuse. There are other ways. When I was at school it was abused; we got lashed for the most ridiculous things. I got caned four times in my school days."

But then, his family background had prepared him for a life that espoused such Victorian values. His grandfather fought in the Boer War, his own father in World War 1 and was gassed on the Somme. When it happened, his grandparents received an official letter stating 'your son has gone missing in action'. In fact, he was in hospital where he spent some time before returning to South Africa in 1920. Before his release, the hospital authorities told him that his condition and illness precluded him from ever having children.

Yet two years later, without a job due to the depression, he fought for Smuts in the Transvaal Rebellion. "He told me later he was more scared in that rebellion than he had been in the First World War because there were so many snipers around Johannesburg" said Wallis-Brown.

When Wallis-Brown senior went to see his own father (Melvyn's grandfather) who was at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg at the time, he was told by his own father to go around to the back entrance if he wanted to be admitted. That was how it was in those days.

Wallis-Brown junior joined Bishops at the same time as A.W. Mallett whom, he says, "turned this school over." Wallis-Brown was the youngest member of staff by eight years, "very young at a then very austere school" he grimaced.

But gradually, Bishops was steered towards the modern world. Wallis-Brown became a housemaster in 1968 but then began to get itchy feet. He wondered what lay beyond the shores of his country, what it would be like to sail overseas from Cape Town in one of the great Union Castle liners of the day.

His chance to find out came when Bishops set up an exchange system with a feeder prep school attached to Winchester, the great English public school. So he went out into what he called 'the big wide world' very blinkered due to his own sheltered upbringing. Perhaps not surprisingly, he always said later he learned more in a single year of his time overseas than in four years at Stellenbosch.

The English life of that time intrigued and drew him in: fly fishing on the Test, one of the great English rivers which flows through the Hampshire countryside, cricket for the delightfully named 'Hampshire Hogs' and English beer. He also visited some of the English comprehensive schools, regarded by his peers back home as very liberal, and found some of them to be excellent. "Kids were allowed to question everything; that was a shock to me, coming from a South African school" he concedes. "But then, we were half asleep here. I came home with different views about the world and it enhanced me as a teacher."

But he had found something else disturbing. By now, the world was starting to turn its back in revulsion at apartheid and Wallis-Brown saw at first hand the consequences. By now married, he discovered that local families were dissuading their children to become friendly with Wallis-Brown's own kids. "They would take their kids away if ours played with them. One coloured Anglican priest removed his kids from a play school because my kids were there. I felt apartheid was ridiculous and would run out of steam. But it was pretty unpleasant seeing my children dragged into it."

Today, Bishops is a very different place from what Wallis-Brown called "that conservative abode in the 60's at the end of that intimidating, long drive" to the school buildings. They have associations with four disadvantaged schools in the Cape Flats and Mowbray. Every evening, youngsters from those schools arrive at Bishops to use their facilities and interact with the Bishops boys. The staff heads of department at Bishops offer their expertise to the other schools.

Melvyn Wallis-Brown retired from teaching in 2001 at the age of 60. But under the encouragement of Bishops' current head, Grant Nupen, he accepted a post of Marketing Manager, a post that confirmed utterly that Bishops had long since moved into the real world.

He has now had an association with the school for 46 years and admits it is his life. He says working with Nupen has been a dream, for the Head has, in his words, such an open mind. Nupen instigated a conference called 'The Next Wave' to project and plot the school's future in the years 2020 to 2050. "What I call the entire Bishops family – teachers, past pupils, present ones and families – got together to talk about how they see the future and recognising the challenges of transformation."

But what of South Africa's future? Wallis-Brown has seen momentous times, far-reaching changes in his era, in every aspect of South African life. Not least in the fate of the currency – Rand 1.74 to the £ when he was in England in the early 1970s, to a recent 16.85 Rand=£1. How does he view this country's future?

"Some things you read are most depressing. I can understand what is happening and I have been enormously positive about the future. But in recent times I have begun to worry. However, I sincerely believe that the process of transformation and improved education for all the middle classes will mean young people from all types of background eventually getting into important positions of leadership and business.

"Thus, I think there is a great future for this country but there may be tricky times in between."

His son wants him to go and live in Australia. But as we emerged from his small room, into the sunlight of another beautiful Cape morning, with the sun pouring down over the mountain range that offers so dramatic a backdrop to this extraordinary setting, Melvyn Wallis-Brown shook his head firmly.

"Australia. Why would I want to go and live in Australia when you can see all this"? And with that he was off, deerstalker hat clamped once more upon his head and more school visitors to welcome. Now into his 70s, he continues to delight in his memories of this remarkable school.

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