View of the western half of UCTs first campus

Western half of UCT’s first campus (Walker, The SA College and the University of Cape Town: 1829-1929)



As I approached the security door of Meulenhof in January 2013, I took a deep breath.  It had taken three months and a fair amount of prodding to get a response from Lionel Smidt, the archivist in charge of UCT’s administrative records.  Ten days before I was due to board a flight to South Africa, he let me know that he’d set aside the class registers in which Harry’s name appeared.  I could view these at the Main Road, Mowbray location anytime during office hours.

The previous September, his manager had given me a precis of the records.  So I already knew that they did not line up with what Dad had told me.


South Africa’s oldest university started life in 1829 as the South African College, a private high school for boys.  Located in Orange Street next to the South African Museum and the old Company Gardens, the College had a small tertiary education facility which, for the first few decades of its existence, struggled to find its feet.

In 1873 the Cape Government established the first university in the subcontinent, the University of the Cape of Good Hope, headquartered in Cape Town.  This body was limited to setting examinations and awarding degrees; the business of teaching and preparing students for exams was left to colleges like the SAC.

In 1874 the SAC was separated into the College – which was to become the University of Cape Town – and the College school, the forerunner of the South African College Schools or SACS.

The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and gold on the Witwatersrand provided the impetus for more substantial growth of the SAC from 1880.  With government support and private funding, it evolved into a fully fledged university during the last 20 years of the nineteenth century.  Science laboratories were built and the Departments of Mineralogy and Geology created to address the demand for skilled people in the diamond and gold fields.

In 1886, four women were admitted into the SAC’s chemistry class on a trial basis.  The following year, in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, it was decided to admit women students permanently.  In the same year the first residence for male students, College House, was opened.

In 1890, law classes were re-instituted – the first Professor of Law, JH Brand, had left his post in 1863 to become President of the Orange Free State – and over the next six years Chairs in Applied Mathematics, Physics, Mineralogy and Geology, and Hebrew were established.  By 1900 more than 200 students were taking university courses at the SAC.

The SAC continued to grow after the turn of the century and, by the end of 1905, there was a push to raise it to full university status so that it could set exams and confer degrees in its own right.  This may have happened sooner if not for the political unification of South Africa in 1910, which shifted the focus on the SAC’s future status from a regional to a national one.  It was Rhodes who, in 1891, had first flagged the idea of establishing a single, national university on his estate at Groote Schuur where English and Afrikaans speakers could mix during their student years, creating the basis for future co-operation.  Two of his former associates, German-born financiers Otto Beit and Sir Julius Wernher, had agreed to redirect the late Alfred Beit’s[i] bequest of £200,000 for a university in Johannesburg to this national project, together with a further £300,000.  The funding was conditional on the university being residential in character, open to English and Dutch speakers, and having a launch date of 1916.  The South African College was formally incorporated into the University of Cape Town on 2 April 1918 and 10 years later the bulk of its facilities relocated to the university’s current site on the slopes of Devils Peak.


To get to the front door of Meulenhof I first had to pass through the sliding steel gate of the Forest Hill apartment complex.  This six-building development went up in the 1960s, replacing a brickworks that had included an old Dutch kiln.  The only memory of that time is a mural etched into the front façade of the building; in my quest to find the records office, I walked past without noticing it.

Lionel had gone to some trouble on my account.  On a large timber table were laid out the original SAC class registers from 1892-1898, tagged at the relevant pages.  He had also assembled a few history books for me, including Eric Walker’s excellent The SA College and the University of Cape Town: 1829-1929 upon which I’ve relied for the history of the SAC.

The registers were bound in hard cover, and the 1897 version was held together by a leather spine.  The covers showed the effects of handling and storage, their edges frayed and front faces pockmarked with holes, ink stains and blotches; one looked as if it had suffered fire damage.  I inquired about gloves and was told that there were none.  I pulled out my camera, eased open the first register and started clicking.

The pages were divided into rows and columns with neat, handwritten entries by student name and subjects taken.  Every so often a female stood out, marked by the word ‘miss’ or her first name.  Also included were addresses of next of kin.  While I was disappointed to see a post office box number for Sarah Edleman, it did tell me that somewhere in the preceding three years the family had left Kimberley for Johannesburg.

Harry’s core subjects were Latin, Greek, English and Dutch; it would be more than 20 years before Afrikaans was recognised as an official language.  While these subjects may have contributed to a career in the law, they were not part of a law degree: when he graduated in 1898, it was with a BA Literature.  A qualification in law would come later.

[i]               Older brother of Otto Beit, gold and diamond magnate in South Africa, and a major donor to university education and research.


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