125 years of Johannesburg history on display in a new exhibition at St John's College

18 Sep 2023
There is a rich soundscape echoing through the Rene England Auditorium. If you close your eyes and listen, you’ll be transported to weekend sports matches, early morning assemblies, evening recitals and more. The sound installation does well to evoke a sense of place and is just one component of a comprehensive new exhibition marking the 125th anniversary of St John’s College.
Reaching 125 years is an impressive feat for a school. To put it in perspective, the University of Witwatersrand just celebrated its centenary in 2022, and Johannesburg itself turns 137 this year. St John’s College is an institution that has grown alongside the city and much of this history is contained in its grand, romantic architecture, and on its sprawling campus, nestled between the leafy reaches of Johannesburg's old suburbs and the endless commotion and activity of the city.

Only 12 years younger than Johannesburg, St John's has grown from humble beginnings – 11 boys and two desks – into an internationally renowned school that remains firmly rooted in the City of Gold. The school has the unmistakable arts and crafts facade of Herbert Baker who, together with his architectural partner Frank Fleming, designed the original buildings. The prison diary of the anti-apartheid activist and writer Hugh Lewin sits in the St John's archives, a pair of the late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu's shoes occupy the Tutu Quad as a permanent installation, and the monumental sculptures of Edoardo Villa, the Italian artist who made Johannesburg his home, are all over the campus. The Influenza Epidemic, the Anglo-Boer War, World Wars I and II and the apartheid regime are some of the significant chapters of history to which the school has been witness.
The first students enrolled at St John's College with the first Headmaster, the Revd Joseph Hodgson in 1898. Photo: St John's College.
The exhibition showcases the history of St John's College, from its founding in 1898 to the present day, and is organised with three curatorial threads, namely Lux, Vita, Caritas – the school's motto, meaning Light, Life, and Love. A combination of archival and contemporary photographs, as well as written documents and artefacts from the school’s archives are the main point of entry. All of this is supplemented by personal stories from past and present students, staff, and “Old Johannians”.

Altogether, the exhibition puts forward a collective portrait of a school that has seen more than a century of adversity, change, upheaval and progress in South Africa.     

It's a history that St John’s has played an active role in, too. Generations of students have attended the school and become productive, actively engaged citizens, going on to shape and influence Johannesburg, South Africa, and the world.
Oldest living Old Johannian, John 'Jack' Hadfield (Hill, 1944) with the youngest Johannians in the Pre-Preparatory: Atiya Browning (Bousfield) and Tatenda Gatwa (Cullinan) both five years old and in Grade 0. Photo: St John's College.

It’s often said that looking back better informs how we’re able to move forward. In describing the motivation behind the exhibition and how a rich heritage informs its future, St John's Pre-Preparatory Headmistress and Chair of the Heritage Committee, Jane Lane, explains:

“By storytelling and restructuring place narratives, reshuffling and redefining narratives, and understanding what is already there, finding connections, and from there, envisioning the future, we promote integrity and diversity, allowing participants to disconnect from dominant narratives and to express a vision for alternative futures."

Lane continues: "The limits of the past should be constantly addressed and reviewed. Sometimes, attending to seemingly insignificant detail opens up huge questions for the imagination. Change and innovation have been at the heart of the College experience. I have been lucky to witness and experience a school constantly adapting to the times while holding fast to the values and ideals that shaped the College, then and now. In every generation of students, one thing remains the same: all are committed Johannians!"
Installation view of the St John's College 125th anniversary exhibition. Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket.

The exhibition is on permanent display in the Rene England Auditorium at St John’s College. Viewings can be arranged by emailing

St John's College

St David Rd, Houghton


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