In 1888, recognising the need for the education of girls, the Revd John Darragh established St Mary’s College in Jeppestown, now part of central Johannesburg. It moved in 1903 from the dusty streets of Jeppestown to a fine building in Belgravia, then an elite suburb of Johannesburg. The ability to adapt and overcome obstacles has always been a defining feature of the school. In 1934, the school moved to its present, lovely site in Waverley, where it has flourished.

The Jeppestown and Belgravia days (1888-1934)

Concerned about the education of the daughters of the first gentlemen of Johannesburg, the Anglican bishop of Pretoria, Bishop Bousfield, called his friend, Darragh, away from the diamond mines of Kimberley and encouraged him to open a school for girls. Darragh duly opened St Mary's in Jeppestown in 1888.

The first headmistress of St Mary's was Miss Mary Ross. When she left in 1889 to marry Darragh, she was succeeded by Miss Kathleen Holmes-Orr.

St Mary's moved soon after this, in 1903, to Belgravia. From 1923 to 1928 the Diocese of Johannesburg asked the Sisters of East Grinstead, England, to run the school. In 1928 Miss Evelyn Darke became headmistress.

St Mary's, Waverley

With enormous foresight the decision was made to move in 1934 from Belgravia to Johannesburg's new frontier, Waverley.

The Senior School of St Mary's, Waverley, has had seven headmistresses, not counting the interlude of the Wantage Sisters from 1946 to 1963 and our current head of school, Deanne King. Each head has made a distinctive contribution to the life and ethos of the school. As predicted, the school has continued to grow and the facilities have become increasingly diverse, yet the sense of spaciousness remains in the beautiful gardens and the quiet nooks.

The foundation stone of the school in Waverley was laid by the wife of the Governor-General in 1934. Lord Kitchener had constructed a field office during the South African War of 1899-1902 on the grounds on which the school now began to rise. No less indomitable than Kitchener, but by all accounts far more humanitarian, Miss Darke oversaw the construction of the new school, sometimes helping with the building personally. She was, in the memory of those still alive to tell the tale, a warm and deeply kind person.

The first wings of the school were cloister-like, with classrooms below and dormitories above. The passages, open to the elements, bred a hardy type of girl well able to swim and to play lacrosse and hockey, netball and tennis against keen competitors.

Before the Second World War, the girls were free to roam on the neighbouring pig farm – which also had a zoo of lions and other animals – when they were not in class or playing sport!

New wings were added and The Close was designed, with its Queen's Path bordered by jacaranda trees. Each year the entire school celebrates the Patronal Festival and prizegiving in this lovely space. Today the main entrance to the school is once again through the Angel Doors, so beloved by Miss Darke, at the top end of The Close.

Miss Darke introduced a house system with its friendly, competitive spirit, and encouraged an appreciation for ballet, music and drama. Music and drama had been popular under Miss Holmes-Orr, and it has featured strongly in the school ever since.

Miss Darke retired in 1940 to become a missionary, and she was succeeded by the enigmatic Miss Sewell, who headed the school for under two years and whose first name is lost in the mists of time. Mrs Winifred Bryn Jones took over as headmistress in October 1942; she provided the necessary stability during the trying times of the Second World War, when many fathers were away fighting and young teachers were apt to leave without warning.

In 1942 the younger girls moved into their own building for lessons. The first headmistress of the Junior School was Mrs Maisie Cartwright.

The chapel stands at the heart of the school. Sister Janet, who designed the chapel, also carved the lovely statue of Mary and Jesus that is to be found in it. The latest additions to the chapel are the beautiful windows donated by the Old Girls, and another that commemorates the untimely death of a young pupil, Kirsten Beck. Ringing the Angelus is a much-loved tradition.

Father Trevor Huddlestone, that stout-hearted opponent of apartheid, was a frequent visitor to St Mary's in the 1940s and 1950s and, like him, the school refused to bow to apartheid bullies. In these years St Mary's girls exchanged visits with young people from Sophiatown, and frequently visited the Church of Christ the King.

St Mary's was run by the Sisters of the Community of St Mary the Virgin (Wantage) from 1946 to 1962, led in turn by Sister Mary Isobel, Sister Janet, Sister Irene and Sister Irene Benedict. The Sisters were ambitious and a force to be reckoned with, and were both loved and feared. Miss Nancy Wamsley (1963-1972) succeeded the Sisters and under her guidance the school's academic standards, particularly in the sciences, were further raised.

The independent thinking of the school was by this time well established and continued into the future. Mrs Dodo Pitt, with the full support of the school Board, employed the first black teacher for isiZulu in 1975 and admitted the first black pupil after the 1976 Soweto uprising, risking the closure of the school rather than being dictated to by racial prejudice. She retired in 1988, the school's centenary year.

Of Mrs Pitt a former pupil says: “She encouraged us to be fearless and adventurous, and develop our self-confidence in our own identity ... Almost two decades before our country obtained democracy and liberation, Mrs Pitt had already started liberating the minds of many a South African.”

Mrs Pitt provided the school with excellent leadership as a result of her empathy and humour. During her headship, the dusty parking lot, gum trees and bicycle stand, so typical of early St Mary's, gave way to squash courts and an audio-visual room. A year after her retirement, the Pitt Block provided more classrooms for the growing number of pupils.

Mrs Pitt's successor, Mrs Judith Brown (1989-1999), introduced an outreach programme, and the school's commitment to the less advantaged communities of the black townships grew. Mrs Brown was a generous and democratic leader, loved by the pupils. The school purchased a property for her residence and today it is Little Saints, the creative and exciting nursery school.

Mrs Meg Fargher became headmistress in 2000. In keeping with the sentiment that young women should have equal access to good education in the sciences, Mrs Fargher encouraged the building in 2004 of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Natural Sciences. This brought St Mary's into line with the best any school has to offer.

Developments in information technology had been begun judiciously under Mrs Brown, and a new library and computer centre, the Wantage Centre, was built under her guidance. Mrs Fargher developed the IT commitment of the school by ensuring that St Mary’s had a fully wireless campus, and introduced the invaluable teaching aids of interactive whiteboards in most classrooms. At her insistence, all St Mary’s girls were taught to use and embrace technological advancements.

By the 1990s, boarding had lost popularity and the boarding facilities were closed down. Mrs Fargher later initiated the reopening of boarding, but this time with a “home-style” ethos. Today the school has five boarding houses, boasting excellent facilities.

The committed school Board, with the vision of Mrs Fargher, embarked on the expansion of the St Mary’s facilities. A world-class aquatics centre with a diving pool, water polo pools and an Olympic-sized swimming pool was opened in 2009. On the site of the old pool, a dream of hers became a reality and a magnificent performing and visual arts centre, The Edge, was built. This facility has a 530-seat concert hall, natural light art studios, a dance studio, music practice rooms, dramatic art venues and language classrooms.

Mrs Fargher retired at the end of 2008 and was succeeded by Ms Deanne King, the present head of school. Ms King has guided both staff and pupils along new paths in a quest to meet the challenges of the 21st century and to embrace diversity, develop social skills and social responsibility, and allow pupils and teachers to flourish in a caring environment.

To these ends, she has supported and encouraged the altruistic intentions of the Community Affairs department, the Foundation and the Old Girls’ Association. She has restructured the house system and the houses have become a focal point of the girls’ daily activities. Heads of houses and house tutors monitor the academic and social development and needs of girls in their houses, while mentors in charge of small groups have replaced the traditional form classes.

The girls continue to vote for the head girls and the heads of houses but a leadership programme now enables every girl, once she reaches matric, to assume a leadership portfolio in a field of her choice: academic, spiritual, cultural, service or sport. These two changes allow for closer interaction between staff and girls, and girls of different ages.

In addition to the exchange programmes to Australia and India initiated by Mrs Fargher, exchanges to schools in Africa, the USA and Europe have been introduced. Ms King also encourages the professional development of her staff, some of whom have attended conferences and courses overseas, including an ongoing Oxbridge exchange.

The Edge is in constant demand as a performing arts centre, with interest in music and dance having grown exponentially. The standard of performing arts is truly outstanding, yet the school has retained its pre-eminence in both the academic and sporting arenas.

Ms King has encouraged the St Mary’s community to embrace diversity, and the school continues to flourish under her leadership.