Gill College of Somerset East is one of the grand old schools of South Africa. As with several great schools, like SACS, Bishops and St Andrew’s it was part university. In Somerset East!
Somerset East – as distinct from Somerset West outside Cape Town – is in a beautiful part of the Eastern Cape, between the Fish and the Kei Rivers with the Boschberg Mountains rising up behind it with forests and fields around it and fishing in the rivers and dams.
The Boschberg was the eastern boundary of the Cape Colony at the end of the 18th century. As early as 1771 land was allotted on the banks of the Fish River and later part of this land came into possession of Louis Trichardt id Great Trek fame, who later had a town named after him. Trichardt successfully cultivated tobacco which prompted, the first British governor of the Cape, Lord Charles Somerset , to buy a farm in the area in 1815. In those days there were wars with the Xhosa and farms supplied the fighting men with food for themselves and their animals.
The farm grew into a town and it took Somerset’s name.
In 1825 Lord Charles stood on the stoep of the house in 9 Paulet Street and surveyed Somerset Farm, dividing it into erven, thus starting the beautiful town of Somerset East.
Four years later Dr William Gill settled in the new town and became the medical doctor for the district. He died in 1923 and left his whole estate of £23 000 – a vast sum for the time – for the erection of a college of higher learning in the Eastern Cape. Farmers collected money to do the buildings, beautiful buildings set amongst trees and parklands. The building took its inspiration from the University of Glasgow where Scottish William Gill had studied. On 18 March 1869 Gill College opened with Professor P MacOwan as its first rector.
On 1912 Gill College became a school and money from Dr Gill’s trust, instead of supporting university classes, was used to help Old Gillian to go to universities. It was a coed-school till 1928 when it became a boys’ school. In 1965 it again became a coed school.
In keeping with Gill’s background, the school’s coat of arms has three footless martlets, which are on the Gill family’s crest, a fish and a ring which are from the arms of both the university and the city of Glasgow and below that there is the sheet anchor of the Cape Colony.
The school accommodates boarders – boys in College House, which was founded in 1892 and is a National Monument, and girls in Bellevue Girls Hostel
Name Gill College
Founding 18 March 1869
Motto: Sursum Prorsusque (Upward and onward)
Pupil numbers 267 (128 boys, 139 girls)
Address PO Box 196, Somerset East 5850
Rugby at the School
South Africa’s first rugby captain, Herbert Hayton Castens was born in nearby Pearston in 1864 but he learnt his rugby at Rugby Schools whither his father, a shopkeeper, sent him. It is not known where he went to school before he went to Rugby.
Rugby started at Gill College in 1894, but the proud rugby tradition will always be associated with the legendary teacher CA Coppens. He coached rugby for 50 years – from 1935 to 1984, during which he set exceptionally high standards to be pursued by players and coaches.
The school has five rugby teams, and in 2006 the 1st XV is unbeaten.
Traditional Matches are played against prominent Eastern Cape Schools, such as Cradock High, Union High, Volkskool of Graaff-Reinet, Winterberg Agricultural School, Adelaide Gymnasium and Pearson of Port Elizabeth.
Springboks have gone to Gill – Tom Hobson, who went on to St Andrew’s in Grahamstown and was an outstanding cricketer, Hannes Marais, who captained South Africa and later became the convener of national selectors, the three du Plessis brothers – Willie, Michael and Carel who went on to Paarl Boys’ High for his last two years – and FA Meiring who toured New Zealand in 1994.
Jaco Bekker, who left Gill in 2001, has played for South Africa at Under-21 level.