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Hilton History

At the end of a road eight kilometres from the village of Hilton, on an escarpment above Pietermaritzburg, are large wrought-iron gates.

Behind these is Hilton College, which looks northwards across the wide sweep of the Umgeni Valley to the Karkloof Falls, with the Karkloof Hills on the horizon. When F.B. Malim, Master of Wellington College in England, conducted an inspection tour of the independent schools of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in 1938, he reported that ‘there can hardly be a nobler site in the Empire for a country school … with its wide prospect of green hills, its seclusion from crowds, its vast and storm-swept sky’. And when decades later a Hilton head boy was showing another overseas visitor around the white Cape-Dutch-style buildings, Romanesque stone chapel and tree-skirted sports facilities, admiringly the American had likened it to an Ivy League university. But it has taken nearly 150 years for a rustic colonial schoolhouse to evolve into the singular South African school of today.

Hilton’s founders in 1872 were magistrate Gould Lucas and teacher and cleric William Newnham. Lucas was Anglo-Irish, the son of an Under Secretary for Ireland, and in 1852 had been a young officer on HMS Birkenhead, among the Royal Navy’s first iron fighting ships, transporting troops to the Cape’s Eastern Frontier when it struck rocks off Danger Point near Cape Agulhas and sank. Being among the few soldier survivors, he was later posted to Pietermaritzburg where he served as district adjutant and met the man with whom in decades he would found Hilton. Newnham was English, the son of a surgeon, and had studied mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge under William John Colenso, later Bishop of Natal, and been encouraged by Colenso to settle in the colony and start a school.

Not long afterwards, Lucas was sent to India, but not before he had noted the beautiful countryside north of the colony’s capital. On returning to Natal, he took up the post of magistrate in Ladysmith where he assisted Newnham in founding a school, but soon relocated it to the tract of mist-belt grassland above Pietermaritzburg that earlier he had purchased. And so, Hilton College was born.

The land was part of Ongegund, a farm belonging to a Johanna Grobbelaar, which had been purchased by her late husband from the original Voortrekker grantee. Because an adjoining portion, bought by Natal Bank chairman Joseph Henderson, had been named ‘Hilton’, Lucas called his estate ‘Upper Hilton’. The name may have derived from ‘Hill Town’, being ‘Town Hill’ reversed, or from a place in England significant to the Hendersons.

At first the school was little more than two thatched bungalows, but soon a double-storey block was built, with the upper-storey dubbed ‘The Lords’ and the lower, ‘The Commons’. From this modest nucleus Hilton grew, with buildings being constructed, playing fields levelled and avenues planted. Initially the school was leased from Lucas; then bought by Newnham’s successor Ellis, until in 1903 it passed into the hands of the old boys, where it remains. In another distinguishing feature, Hilton has always been inter-denominational, with the headmaster conducting daily prayers and visiting priests officiating on Sundays until a resident chaplain was appointed in 1982.

Standing in stark contrast to the white buildings is the chapel, built in the 1920s from stone quarried on the property. And prominent in the complex are the Campbell Block, Crookes Block and Saunders Sanatorium, each donated by a family which had prospered from sugar, Natal’s premier crop. As all the boys are boarders, seven separate boarding houses are today arranged along the school’s circular drive.

Radiating from this hub is the estate. One thousand seven hundred hectares of timber plantations and acacia-scattered grasslands, fringed by cliffs and cut by streams, it is now largely a proclaimed nature reserve, stocked with giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, warthog and a variety of antelope. On it are landmarks with the names of Pinnacles, Teapots, Beacons, Rolling Stones and four Gwen’s waterfalls, each familiar to generations of Hilton boys.

Yet more than by its appearance and locality, an institution is defined by its people. Newnham declared at his first speech day that his greatest wish was that the phrase ‘Hilton boy’ should become synonymous with ‘gentleman’, denoting someone honest, upright and true as steel. And down the corridor of time his successors as headmaster – Ellis, Weeks, Falcon, Mansergh, Pateman, Hudson, Harison, Slater, Todd, D.V. Ducasse, Marsh, Nicholson, Lovatt, Thomson, P.B. Ducasse, to George Harris today – have sought to sanctify this ideal.

Notably, nearly half of Hilton’s headmasters have been Cambridge educated, with William Falcon, Terence Mansergh and Paul Marsh each playing sport for his college or the university, and Mansergh captaining England at hockey. Henry Vaughan Ellis, the only headmaster not to have attended a university, appropriated for Hilton the fleur-del-lys and motto Orando et Laborando from the armorial bearings of his old school, Rugby, at which he had been captain of cricket.

Additionally, Falcon was a scientist with a keen interest in terrestrial molluscs. This enthusiasm for the natural world he passed on to his pupils, with fatal consequences for his teenage son Guy, or ‘Dido’, who on a collecting trip in 1922 ‘chased a butterfly over the Gordon Falls and into eternity’. William Falcon’s snail collection was later bequeathed to the Natal Museum, and Guy Falcon is commemorated by a brass plaque in the dining hall and a drinking fountain near the classrooms.

Raymond Slater, the first headmaster to be born and educated solely in South Africa, had a love of history, reflected in his collection of Africana books, and appropriately the school library is named after him. Although having captained the University of Natal at football, at Hilton Desmond Ducasse embraced diving, becoming a respected coach, and appropriately the swimming pool now bears his name. Present headmaster George Harris is an accomplished singer, echoing one of his predecessors, John William Hudson. Such characteristics, beyond the qualities expected of a headmaster, infuse life into a school.

From the start, Hilton forged a strong military tradition. Within months, Newnham formed the Hilton College Guard, the first school mounted unit in the British Empire. Later transformed into an infantry unit, it was ranked Detachment Number One in South Africa for more than a century, until cadets were abolished in 1985.

The first Old Hiltonian on the roll of honour is Trooper James Whitelaw of the Natal Carbineers, killed in the Zulu victory at Isandlwana in 1879. Since then nearly 150 old boys have died in the South African War, Bhambatha Rebellion and both World Wars. In the Korean War, Lieutenant G.C.X. Merriman, captain of a Royal Navy patrol boat, was killed in an engagement on the Pearl River. In Northern Ireland, Lieutenant-Colonel Iain Corden-Lloyd, commander  of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Green Jackets, died when the helicopter in which he was travelling was shot down, making him one of the highest ranking British Army officers killed in that conflict. Other old boys lost their lives in the Rhodesian Bush War and the South African Defence Force’s border war in South West Africa, the last being Second Lieutenant Christopher Robin from Johannesburg, mortally wounded in a landmine explosion on the Caprivi Strip on 13 November 1975.

How various Old Hiltonians responded to the compulsory military service of the apartheid years reflects the stark choices facing school leavers. While South African Air Force helicopter pilot Lieutenant Ola Grinaker was earning his Honoris Crux for bravery, conscientious objector Charles Yeats was being imprisoned, and activist Bill Anderson was in exile, mobilising with the ANC to end white-minority rule.

Prominent old boys in the armed services include Brigadier-General Sir Duncan McKenzie, commander of the Natal forces in the Bhambatha Rebellion, and Brigadier-General William Tanner, who as a lieutenant-colonel led the attack on Delville Wood on 15 July 1916. Reginald Hayward, a stock farmer’s son from Swartberg in East Griqualand, while serving as a captain with the Wiltshire Regiment near Frémicourt in France, in March 1918 added the Victoria Cross to his Military Cross and Bar. In the Second World War, Air Vice- Marshal Sir Leslie Brown was a group commander of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force in Europe. Today, Rear Admiral Guy Jamieson is Deputy Chief of the South African Navy.

Yet it is across society that Old Hiltonians have made their mark. Architect and activist Rusty Bernstein played a pivotal role in drafting the Freedom Charter, blueprint for South Africa’s lauded Constitution. And when democratic South Africa’s first Constitutional Court was instituted, chosen to head it was Arthur Chaskalson, who decades earlier had defended Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia Trial, with another Old Hiltonian, John Didcott, among his team of judges. Given these associations, it is significant that when Nelson Mandela was guest speaker at Hilton’s speech day in 2001, the head boy was Karabo Mokoape, whose father Aubrey was a leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and had also been a political prisoner.

Further afield, cardiac surgeon Sir Terence English led the team which in 1979 performed Britain’s first successful heart transplant, before going on to become President of the Royal College of Surgeons and Master of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge. In the United States, Mike Melvill in 2004 was the pilot of SpaceShipOne when on its inaugural flight it entered space, making him the world’s first commercial astronaut. And in the 1990s, computer scientist Paul Maritz reached the pinnacle of Microsoft, effectively ranked third behind Bill Gates.

In the Humanities, Empangeni-born actor Richard Haines, under his professional name Richard Haddon Haines, performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London before his early death in 1990, and appropriately the school’s theatre commemorates him. Literary figures include poets Roy Macnab and Robert Berold, writer John Conyngham and novelist Imraan Coovadia who while at Hilton in 1987 uniquely won both the national Science and English Olympiads. Other artistic achievers are historian Jeff Guy and photographer Guy Tillim.

In other fields there are conservationists Guy Balme, an internationally recognised field scientist in the protection of big cats, and Ted Reilly, owner of the Mlilwane Game Reserve in Swaziland, who has introduced more than 20 species of mammals back into that country and been decorated by King Mswati III. Hotelier David Rawdon purchased and restored the Karoo village of Matjiesfontein. Douglas Stuart, 20th Earl of Moray, and Leruo Molotlegi, King of the Royal Bafokeng Nation, had prominence imposed on them by birth.

Various sportsmen who have represented South Africa include cricketers Roy McLean, John Waite, Mike Proctor and Lungi Ngidi, and Springbok rugby captains Gary Teichmann and Bobby Skinstad. George Weightman-Smith was a hurdles finalist in the 1928 Olympics, and Tim Drummond was captain of the South African hockey team at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Among others who have achieved international sporting status are an aerobat, deep-sea angler, clay pigeon shottist, hot-air ballooner and a string of polo players.

But with privilege comes responsibilities. Once a cultural preserve, Hilton is now an integrated South African school seeking to produce the leaders, creators and good citizens of the future. This it does by assisting promising boys who would otherwise not be able to afford the fees. In line with many leading institutions internationally, it aims to increase its proportion of assisted entrants to nearly half its intake.

Similarly, its Vula Programme has from 2001 provided refresher courses for teachers from under-resourced schools. Two groups each year are accommodated for months in Vula Lodge on the Hilton campus where they are coached in innovative ways to teach Mathematics and Science. Already, the exam results of thousands of pupils at community schools have improved significantly.

When Hilton turned 100 in 1972, Raymond Slater defined his ideal Hilton boy as someone not necessarily academic or sporting, but who has compassion, humility, sensitivity, imagination and a concern for the needs of others. As Hilton nears its 150th birthday in 2022, George Harris echoes these sentiments, while reiterating that ‘of those to whom much is given, much will be required’.

William Newnham’s founding values live on.

Hilton Digital Archives and Museum