The roots of Highbury

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture, is like a tree without roots.”  Marcus Garvey

Highbury is a school with deep roots which you can sense: it is worn wooden corridors, the oil portraits in the halls and the stories shared through generations. Recently Highbury hosted the Forum for School Museum and Archives (FSMA) meeting at our Highburian Museum where attendees were reminded of the importance of archiving and recording history. We were honoured to have Iain McMillan descendent of Highbury’s founder, Sibella McMillan, delivering a stirring speech. Iain’s memories and words painted a vivid picture of the early Highbury days, below is an extract:   

“Sibella McMillan, having been widowed at sea when travelling back to England with her ailing husband and three young boys, elected to reject the offer of assisting her brother with the running of the family school, Highbury House in Hastings. Instead, she chose to return to face an uncertain future in the Colony of Natal.  This in itself predicts something of the steel subsequently revealed in this indomitable, pioneering woman. Furthermore, having decided to open a school, when confronted by various options, she chose to do this in the unlikely settlement of Hillcrest.  Hillcrest then was no more than a sparsely populated outpost through which the recently laid railway line to the interior passed, with a station established primarily to supply water to the steam engines after the long climb from the coast.  Hillcrest had one small trading post and a few scattered farmhouses.  There was a telephone at the station, but the nearest doctor and minister of religion were in Pinetown.  As far as the logistics of the school were concerned, meat arrived daily by train from Pinetown, since there was no refrigeration, the train was the sole link with the outside world, and transport to and from the station was by rickshaw.

Highbury emerged as a boys’ preparatory school, with distinctly colonial influences and a classical curriculum.  Its beginnings were simple but the care for the boys, from the beginning was intense.  Highbury’s journey was accompanied by Union; by World War I and the agony of the first Old Boys to perish in uniform; by the rise of Republicanism and the re-enactment of the Great Trek – a wagon actually called at the school; by the Second War; by the arrival of the Nationalists; by man stepping on to the moon and technological advancement unimaginable in the school’s infancy; by the disintegration of Apartheid and the advent of democratic South Africa and everything else which contributed to the world of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  That represents the context of the school’s history, the macro history of Highbury, if you like.  The micro history comes from the continuum of events, often responses to outside influences and factors, milestones in the school’s long life which accumulated to define its culture, its practices, its quirky habits and its soul.  This history is forged not only by events in the life of the institution, but equally by the people who have walked the school’s road over the years, in whatever way.  The occupiers of Highbury, boys, staff and its leadership, and at whatever stage of its developing story, need to understand all that.  Just as a society needs to respect its past, to honour its history, so too the leaders of institutions, like schools, must do the same.  

We live in a world where too many are too quick to disregard history, the past and the culture it has produced, too quick to be preoccupied only with the future and with change.  That’s a mistake.  Not for a moment am I suggesting that great organisations should be reactionary and conservative.  They must be dynamic, adapt to the environments they serve, but they must do so from a position which understands, respects and builds on their pasts.  Great organisations need to know who they inherently are.   And finally, to return to my basic premise in this talk that institutions are continuums, and that the future of successful schools, for instance will be the product of a respectful appreciation of the past, I found this comment by Martin Luther King. ‘We are not makers of history.  We are made by history.’  The implications of that statement clearly are that it is at our peril that we ignore our past and our roots, both in respect of our personal lives and equally in the influence we might have on the institutions with which we are involved.’’