St Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls, which was originally known as St Etheldreda’s, was founded by Bishop Bousfield, the first Bishop of Pretoria, in 1879. Initially it was situated at No 279 Skinner Street, but after about 40 years, it moved to its present site in Hillcrest.
Formal education for women was not considered important in the 1880s. What had started as a school for the Bishop’s six young daughters, who were privately tutored in his home, “Bishopscote,” by Miss Elizabeth Dowling, the first headmistress, soon became too small for the 20 pupils who were on the register by 1886. A move was made to a house in Koch Street, but even those facilities became inadequate for the 75 pupils of 1889. It was then that land was bought in Skinner Street and St Etheldreda’s was built. The cost of the building was £1,500, of which only £300 was immediately available; the rest was raised by the Bishop and other friends of the School. By 1895, there were 138 pupils and nine academic members of staff.
The growth of the School was sadly stunted by the onslaught of war: the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 – 1902. In 1902 Bishop Bousfield died and all seemed lost. The Headmistress resigned, staff returned to England and only 25 pupils remained at St Etheldreda’s. The Education Department suggested that the school buildings might be used as a hostel for the newly-established Pretoria High School for Girls.
When Bishop William Carter was appointed second Bishop of Pretoria (1903-1909), he fervently opposed the absorbing of Church schools by the government. It was his inspiration that saved our school: he invited the Community of St Mary the Virgin from Wantage in England to take it over – and the Community accepted. However, they were not able to send Sisters to South Africa until September 1903, so for nine months Miss Grenfell kept the school going. Finally, the great day came when the first four Sisters arrived at Pretoria Station: 7 September 1903. A new era dawned, during which the school developed into an efficient and highly-regarded institution under the capable and loving guidance of the Sisters. Tribute, however, must be paid to those gallant Headmistresses who, for the previous 23 years, kept St Etheldreda’s afloat on the storm-tossed seas of national and educational turbulence. The name “St Etheldreda’s” was not heard after the war, and in time the School became known as “St Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls” or the “DSG.”
The years that followed were filled with stories of growth. The School at Skinner Street was full to overflowing, much to the delight but also consternation of the third Bishop of Pretoria, Bishop Furse, and Sister Alice, who together dreamed of a “Promised Land” – somewhere where there was space to move and grow. The purchase and development of such a site, formerly a portion of the farm Hartebeestepoort belonging to Mr Frank Struben, was a journey of faith; a vision realised. From 1921, when the “Promised Land” was purchased, to 1926 when the foundation stone was laid, to 1928 when the new building was ready for occupation, the school grew from strength to strength. Countless generations of little girls (and boys until the 1950s) passed through the gates of the DSG on their way in life, shepherded by the firm, but loving nurturing of the Sisters, assisted by dedicated lay staff.
Sadly, the day came when the era of the Sisters of the Community of St Mary the Virgin (CSMV) drew to a close. Sunday 30 November 1975 will be remembered as a day of great thanksgiving for the 72 years of devoted service offered to the school by these women of faith. The Rev Hugh Brown took up the reins as Headmaster and guided St Mary’s DSG into a new era of growth and development. The celebration of the School’s centenary in 1979 was a joyful reminder of the importance of the Christian ethos that has inspired the “hearts of those who teach and those who learn” (Part of the School Prayer). The role of the Chaplain and the central position of the Chapel continue to give focus and opportunities for spiritual formation.
The year 2004 gave the School a further opportunity to celebrate: 125 years of the best that a holistic education has to offer!“That is the wonderful thing about our School. We will not leave DSG behind completely. It is like home: you do not always have to be there, but the knowledge that it will always be there is what really matters.” Mieke Botes: Head Girl 2002