By Annette Chrysostomou
A new book sheds light on how Cyprus’ most famous fee-paying school, the English School, developed from its establishment in 1900 to the end of British rule in 1960.
Aptly, it was researched and written by a man who was not only an ‘old boy’ but lived at the school’s boarding house for four years, from 1952 until 1956.
“I was always interested in the school and I noticed there was no proper book on the historical facts,” author Kyriacos Demetriades said.
He started to collect material from different places such as the school library, where he found old school magazines, the national archives and other libraries, talked to people and included his own experiences.
The school has gone through many phases during its long history and changed premises several times, a reflection both of the times and its role in society. It started as a small school in a rented house in Victoria street, now in northern Nicosia.
The idea for an English-language school came from the British colonial establishment, who wanted a source of government clerks for employment who were capable of speaking English, Greek and Turkish.
Canon Newham, who signed an agreement with the Crown Agents in London to come to Cyprus for teaching English to elementary schoolmasters and clerks of the land registry on May 3, 1900, arrived on the island in June. Just three months later, he started a new English school, originally known as ‘Newham’s school’, the beginning of the English School.
He began with just 13 boys. Not only did he teach them English, but as Demetriades said, “he believed in training mind and body”, and thus football, cricket and hockey were played on the school premises.
Hard as it is to believe now, football was actually not known on the island, and the English School boys were the first to play the game.
Predictions were that the number of pupils would remain small. Of the original 13 only one belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church. The others belonged to Anglican, Latin and other communities.
Demetriades found out what the reason for this was.
“Although the numbers increased slowly year by year, very few were drawn for some time, from the Greek Orthodox Community, a certain amount of opposition, and suspicion that it would have a propagandist tendency, being expressed by the Greek Orthodox leaders…” Newham said in a memo about the English School in 1931.
Nevertheless, the school did grow and in 1909 Newham purchased land near the Pedieos river and built new premises, now used by the Nicosia district and criminal courts. The school remained there from 1912 until 1934.
In the beginning, most of the boys came from villages from all over Cyprus, or as one teacher reportedly used to say “that healthy country stock”.
For that reason, almost from the start the school operated a boarding house, which was always short of places, hence some had to stay in rented digs elsewhere in Nicosia.
Discipline was important, and the boarders had to take care of their uniform, clean the toilets, keep the grounds clean and make their beds early in the morning.
“We had to polish our shoes, and they were inspected before we went to school,” explained the author, who was a boarder from 1952 until 1956.
In those days, 20 to 30 boys were staying in one room, with one room for the junior boys and another for the senior ones.
This was good, Demetriades believes, as the boys tended to make friends from many villages, friendships which often lasted a lifetime.
The school was forced to move when the army took over the school in 1936 and converted the building into army headquarters.
It relocated to its current premises near the presidential palace, but was briefly moved again from 1941 until 1943, this time to Kyrenia’s Catselli hotel, because of a fear of bombing in Nicosia during the war.
During this time, the Nicosia premises were turned into an army hospital.
Only much later, in 1957, was an English school for girls opened. Initially, the girls were taught in premises separate from the boys but after five years, in 1962, the two schools were joined.
Strange as it may seem now, until the 1960s the English School was a cheap option for poor pupils from the villages to get a secondary education. Demetriades said when he was a student, the fee was £9 a year, plus £5 for the boarding house.
This changed later on, with the end of colonialism and after the war, when parents wanted their children to become not just government clerks, but doctors, lawyers and politicians, and were willing to pay for it.
What has not changed was the strict entrance exams. In the old times, hundreds of villagers competed for fewer than one hundred places, and when the school became more fashionable with well-off Nicosians, the number of places grew but so did the number of applicants.
In the years after the 1974 invasion, students mainly came from Nicosia and eventually the boarding house was closed.
But this is part of a second book which the author is planning to write – the history of the English School after British rule.
The English School, Nicosia: 1900-1960: a historical account from its founding to the end of the British rule by Kyriacos Demetriades, ISBN 978-9925-7442-0-6, 365pp., Price €40.00
For more information contact the author at [email protected]