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A history of St Mary Hall

When St Mary Hall was established in 1941, as the second of the women’s halls, it was given a name that linked it with Cecil Rhodes and his old college at Oxford, Oriel. The original St Mary Hall was one of the early Oxford halls and in the fourteenth century it was taken over by Oriel College. In the early part of this century it was largely demolished to make way for the Rhodes Building, in High Street, Oxford. It was fitting that the new hall at Rhodes University should be named after a part of Oxford closely connected with Cecil Rhodes.

In 1941 St Mary Hall consisted of Phelps House and Milner House, the latter only recently having been changed from a men’s to a women’s residence. Phelps had been opened for students in 1939, having been built on the site of a rambling old house called “De Rieten”, where, at different times, both men and women students had been accommodated. Archbishop Phelps, one of South Africa’s great churchmen, who had been a much loved bishop of Grahamstown, died in 1938. He had been Chairman of the Rhodes Council for twelve years (1918 – 1930).

Three years after the formation of St Mary Hall, in 1944, John Kotze House was ready for students. Named after Sir John Kotze (another Chairman of Council, (1904-1914), an eminent lawyer and judge, it was built on the site of the old Great Hall, which had been moved to another site in 1942, and partly on the site of the old Powder Magazine of frontier days which had served as the first Kaif at Rhodes.

At the end of the war Milner left the Hall to become an ex-service men’s residence and Olive Schreiner, named after South Africa’s famous novelist, became the third House. In 1946, when Olive Schreiner opened for student, it was about half its present size and it was to be some years before the building was enlarged for once the ex-service students had completed their courses, enrolment fell so drastically that it was no longer needed as a residence. Olive Schreiner was used by various departments, notably the Music Department which was there for some years, and it was not until the late fifties that rising student enrolment caused it to become a residence once more. In 1958, enlarged and refitted Olive Schreiner once more became part of St Mary Hall.
After 1958 there was little change in the Hall until, in 1977, the kitchens and dining hall was renovated and made more suitable for a Hall of 200 students.

Lilian Britten House was constructed in 1942 and was originally the University Sanatorium. It was built on the site of the old De Rieten tennis court. (De Rieten House previously occupied the site where Phelps House now stands).
The Sanatorium had 24 rooms – twelve on the ground floor for men students and twelve on the first floor for women students. It was later decided to use the building as a women’s residence and when the new Sanatorium on Lucas Avenue was completed, the old was re-named Lilian Britten House in honour of Miss L. Britten who had been a lecturer in the Department of Botany. She was born in 1886 and graduated with honours at Rhodes in 1907. She then went to Newnham College, Cambridge, and the universities of Oxford and London. In 1918 the Grahamstown Natural History Society came into being and the first meeting was held in Miss Britten’s home and she was elected vice-president. Later the Grahamstown Nature Reserve Society was formed, the aims of which were to preserve wild life in general and specifically to protect the natural vegetation on the south-west slopes beyond the Mountain Drive, from the encroachment of pine trees and hakea. Miss Britten was honorary secretary and treasurer
for many years and was elected as a trustee of the Albany Museum, becoming the honorary secretary of their Board in 1949. She died in December 1951, after a life-time of selfless service to the community in which she lived. She is best remembered by Old Rhodians for her devoted service over nearly forty years as honorary secretary of the Old Rhodian Union.

Last Modified: Wed, 22 Feb 2017 10:05:06 SAST