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“The South African College and Its ‘Old Boys,’” 1886


The 1886 article, “The South African College and Its ‘Old Boys’,” provides an example of how universities extended their influence within an empire (or globally) through alumni and their expertise. Founded in 1821, the South African College (SAC) first assumed the functions of a grammar school, training an Afrikaner and English “settler elite”, before evolving into the University of Cape Town in 1918. This Colonies and India article gestures to the College’s significance as a socialization ground for elites and as a pipeline to sociopolitical power in South Africa, and beyond it. It advertises the formation of an “Old Boys’ Club” that might interest its alumni in South Africa, but also “in London and in other parts of the world”.

“Old boys”, a term used in Britain, the United States, and British settlement societies, referred to the male alumni of a particular institution, whether at a secondary or tertiary level. These “boys” typically held gatherings, banquets, club events, and scholarship fundraisers, such as the London meeting presided over by Sir Henry De Villiers. Other examples of these types of gatherings include the functions of the “old boys” of the Diocesan College at the University of Stellenbosch or the London events of the “Association of Old Belfastmen”. In common with the labels of “Harvard man”, “Yale Man”, and “Oxford Man”, the ‘old boys’ designation carried strong class and status connotations (Dooling 2005; Tyler 1896). The social relations and networking among male university graduates were essential to forming elites across generations.

Sources like this article, therefore, urge us to examine the role of universities not only in national contexts, but in international and imperial ones as well. Transnational networks of graduates and expertise were a source of institutional strength, as the achievements and money of university graduates filtered back to the university. At the same time, and as the historian Tamson Pietsch has argued in relation to academic networks in the British Empire, the formal and informal associations of university alumni “crystallized imperial bonds” across tremendous distances and became a source of imperial power (Pietsch 2013). Graduates in engineering, agriculture, mining, and medicine could repurpose the knowledge they had gained at universities in service of an industry, nation, or empire. Studying the impact of “old boys’ clubs” beyond the university, or how graduates applied information and curricula learned in one context to their professional work in different one, can help us to explore larger historical questions about knowledge transfer, globalization, and forms of imperialism. 

This source is part of the global history of higher education methods primer


There are many “old boys” in London and in other parts of the world where this journal circulates who will not have forgotten their experiences of the South African College at Cape Town. Well, Sir Henry De Villiers, Chief Justice of the Colony, presided over a meeting of “Old Boys” of this college recently, when resolutions were enthusiastically agreed to for the formation of an Old Boys’ Club, details being left to the committee. It was also promised on behalf of the Reformed Dutch Ministers who had been students to give an annual bursary. The hope was expressed that, by increased university accommodation, and by establishing the residential system, the college would attract alumni from all South Africa. 


“The South African College and Its ‘Old Boys’,” The Colonies and India (London, UK), 17 December 1886, p.18.

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"“The South African College and Its ‘Old Boys,’” 1886," in World History Commons, [accessed July 22, 2024]