In her 2021 novel A Sin of Omission, Marguerite Poland highlights the work carried out by Anglican missionaries in 19th century South Africa. During this time, many young men travelled from all over the world to study at Saint Augustine’s Missionary College in Canterbury. After their studies, students were sent on Holy missions across the world. In the novel, Poland follows a young Ngqika man, Stephen Mzamane, who is based on a former student of the college, Reverend Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama. In our discussion on the Writing Comes Alive Podcast, Poland informed me that her great-grandfather Alfred William Brereton was also a student at the college, and loosely influenced another character in the novel, Reverend Turvey.

In 1844, Alexander Beresford Hope, a proud churchman and Member of Parliament for Maidstone, bought the buildings of Saint Augustine’s; at the time, it was ‘Old Palace Pub’ and a brewery.1 Beresford Hope paid £2,020, approximately £122,042 as of 2017.2 In partnership with his friend, Edward Coleridge, Beresford Hope was eager to make better use of the buildings. Hence, the Missionary College. Beresford Hope appointed a young but well-sought-after architect, William Butterfield, to design the College. Then, in 1848, St. Augustine’s Missionary College welcomed students for the first time. The college aimed to educate and facilitate Clergymen for the Colonies.

Within 50 years, the college had trained and sent out 422 missionaries. The majority of the students were English. However, some came from Anglican churches abroad. Most of these students were from an élite background in their homeland or part of a political trade-off, such as Nathaniel Cyril Kondile Mhala. Mhala’s Father was a Xhosa chief imprisoned during the conflict between the British, Dutch and Xhosa.3 International students had to travel to England by boat, and Mzamane’s journey to England is highlighted in A Sin of Omission:

‘Stephen lay seasick, a bucket at his side, berthed with the crowding crew, far from the Bishop and his party in the cabins and saloons. Praying did not seem to help. The motion did not stop for days. - Through all the weeks at sea, they read together every day – slowly, deliberately, the Bishop re-pronouncing every word until, when Stephen spoke, he closed his eyes and listened with a smile.’4

At the college, an extension was added onto the southern wing to accommodate the new students from Africa (the Native block or, as it more commonly became known, the Foreigner block). The first group of African Augustinians arrived in 1861. However, the block was not completed until the next year.5 Nevertheless, international students appeared to integrate themselves well within the college. Lawrence Walcott was a Black British Augustinian who was very involved in college sporting activities, playing both football and cricket. In his last year of study (1903) Walcott captained the football team. Outside the college walls, such inclusion would not have been the norm, with the first black professional footballer in England, Arthur Wharton, signing only eleven years earlier.6 Robert Boggis (the Sub-Warden at the time) documented, ‘All these serve to exemplify the cosmopolitan character of St. Augustine’s as a missionary college; they vindicate her from any charge of narrowness’.7 In the novel, Poland writes of the friendship between Mzamane and Albert Newnham (a white Englishman), ‘After their meeting in the carpentry class, it had been enthusiasm on the cricket pitch that had clinched their friendship.’8 It was most common that such friendships grew from the student’s passion for sports.

Saint Augustine’s Missionary College had a fantastic academic reputation, rivalling Oxford and Cambridge University. One student explained his choice of St. Augustine instead of the prestigious universities, ‘I shall never regret the step I took, as I firmly believe that at Oxford or Cambridge my missionary zeal would have so cooled, and other ties would have taken such a hold on me’.9 Similar to university, the college course was three years. Henry Bailey, the college’s second warden, identifies the importance the college placed on strict and clear rules for all to follow.10 Bailey recorded, ‘a strict and godly discipline of living, such as befits those, who are to endure hardships for the Gospel’s sake’.11 There were two main reasons for such strictness: firstly by living a God-fearing lifestyle, the students and staff would be able to set a good example; secondly, to help the students deal with the great responsibility they would have on their missions. The college provided an environment for students to develop key skills such as comprehension, meeting time deadlines and dedication, all of which are still recognised as key employable skills.12 One student stated:

‘Of the value to me of the college course I cannot speak too highly; for I feel that if I am of any use in the Church of Christ, it is entirely owing to the knowledge, habits, and opinions, which I acquired and formed under its influence. - I may say that it was of the very highest value to me in forming regular habits, in acquiring maturity of thought and opinions, in softening little peculiarities of temper and manner, which, if not corrected, might have been a bar to my usefulness.’13

To prepare its students further, the college offered a variety of subjects. From religious based studies, language, the foundation subjects to practical skills.14 This setup students well for various roles they maybe expected to fulfil on mission, such as Teacher, Clergyman or Medical professional. For example Brereton’s career trajectory went from headmaster at a Cathedral grammar school – Staff Master at St Matthew’s – Registrar of Rhodes University. Brereton also specialised in managing speech defects, teaching language and public speaking.

It was common for international students to return to their homeland on mission. St Augustine Missionary college had many links across South Africa and was one of the most common destinations for its students. Hodgson recorded an extract from one of Mnyakama’s letters where he details returning home after being away for 11 years:

‘My home is just upon the river Kei. My Mamma shed tears when she saw me, and would have kept on like that, had not my elder Brother gave a command to tell her not to cry. Unfortunately, my Father was away and some of my Brothers too. The people at home was glad as well as exceedingly surprised at seeing me at last, for they thought that they would never see me again. Some could not believe it was me, for I have grown big and tall.’15

Mnyakama went on to teach at the St. Matthew’s mission, Keiskamma Hoek. Besides his teaching responsibilities, he took services twice a day.16 In December 1874, he became an Ordained Deacon at St Philip’s in Grahamstown. He was appointed to the Holy Trinity Mission in January 1875, where he was in charge until his death on 12th July 1885.17 In our communications, Poland expanded on the influence Anglican missionaries had on the region Mnyakama served. She informed me that the little church (holding only a few hundred) Mnyakama ran is still an active part of the community. However, the parsonage he would have called home is now derelict as there is no longer a resident priest. A visiting priest, Archdeacon Maqoma, now serves the congregation. Maqoma is a descendant of George Mandyoli Maqoma, who was one of the first African Anglicans sent to study in England and was under the tutelage of Reverend Dr Richard Savage. Poland’s great-great-grandfather, Reverend Charles Taberer was also taught by Savage before arriving in South Africa in 1862. Taberer went on to found the mission in Nondyola, where Mnyakama served.18

Being assigned a mission on familiar ground was undoubtedly beneficial for students. However, not all were fortunate enough to have the safety of home. One English student recalled, ‘The first twelve months after my arrival in India were spent acquiring the vernacular and gaining experience in dealing with people. For three months I lived by myself in a small village.’19

Once students graduated, they did not always receive the required support. This seemed more common for those from ethnic minority backgrounds. There were two main contributing factors to this, one being distance. As one can imagine, there would have been great difficulty travelling or communicating with someone who could potentially be thousands of miles away. The second was colonial attitudes. On the Writing Comes Alive Podcast, Poland highlights the uncomfortable atmosphere Mzamane would have faced:

A Sin of Omission is set in the 19th century. It is about a young man called Stephen Mzamane who was educated in England. A young Xhosa sent back to South Africa to become a priest amongst his own people, but he had been isolated completely from his own culture. He goes back into a situation where he is completely at odds with his own community and his own language. The fact he is a black man, and this was 19th century South Africa, he was completely unaccepted by colonial society.’20

Nevertheless, it has been documented that many students still had a strong affiliation with the college, often writing letters to fellow students and professors. This was mostly done through the Occasional papers. The idea came from Bailey, who was enthusiastic about growing the college’s influence. The first Occasional papers were published, on 31st May 1853 and continued for the remainder of the college’s years. There were three main reasons for the publication: first, to keep in touch with former students. Second, to read and share with current students. The final reason was to promote the college to the wider area.21

St. Augustine’s Missionary College was pivotal in Canterbury’s history at a time of extraordinary growth, both theologically and locally within the city. During its 96 years, the College sent out just under 1000 missionaries across the globe. Unfortunately, in 1942, the college was severely damaged by a German air raid and could no longer operate. Thankfully, the lower chapel still holds a piece of the college’s history. In our discussion, Poland informed me of her experience visiting the lower chapel:

There were the names of all the alumni of the college carved on the wall. (She and her husband went on to find Mnyakama’s and her Great-Grandfather’s name.) – In a strange way, I suppose that was the only place where Stephen’s name was inscribed in stone, and to see that for me was very moving.22

In 1952, the college re-opened as the Central College of the Anglican Communion, although many buildings were still damaged from the war. In 1967, the training of students was relocated to London (St. Augustine’s College).23 The King’s School has used the site (excluding St. Augustine’s Abbey, which is now a National Heritage site) since 1976, when they leased the property. Eventually, in 1993, they purchased the site.

This article was published: 29 February 2024.


To Peter Henderson for providing valuable insight into the history of the College and for my visit to the school, for which I am sincerely grateful. Moreover, your offering a wide range of sources was truly invaluable.

To Dr Ralph Norman for our extremely helpful discussion, which helped me keep on the right track.

A special thank you to Marguerite Poland for her immense generosity and mentorship throughout my whole process of creating the podcast and this article. I cannot recommend enough her novel, A Sin of Omission.

Works Cited

Bailey, Henry. Twenty-five years at St. Augustine College. A Letter to Late Students. 1874.
Boggis, Robert. A History of St. Augustine’s College. Cross and Jackson. 1907.
Butler, Derek. A Century of Canterbury, Sutton Publishing, 2002.
Cohen, Liam. Writing Comes Alive Podcast Carrion Publishing.
Dewar, Jen. ‘The Most In-demand Skills for 2023.’ Talent Blog. LinkedIn.. 2023.
France, Canon. St Augustine’s, Canterbury: A Story of Enduring Life. 1952.
Hodgson, Janet. ‘Kid Gloves and Cricket on the Kei.’ Religion in Southern Africa. Vol 8: 2. July 1987. 61-91.
National Archives. Currency Converter: 1270-2017.
Poland, Marguerite. A Sin of Omission. Envelope Books, 2021.
–. E-mail to Liam Cohen. 18 Jan. 2024.
St Augustine’s College. St Augustine’s College Archive.
St Augustine’s Foundation. Our origins.
The King’s School. Saint Augustine’s.
TRT World. ‘The Colonisation of South Africa’. 2021.


  1. Boggis. 

  2. National Archives. 

  3. T RT World 2021. 

  4. Poland 78-9. 

  5. Hodgson 69. 

  6. Brown 23. 

  7. Boggis 199. 

  8. Poland 83. 

  9. Bailey 135. 

  10. Bailey 130. 

  11. Bailey 131. 

  12. Dewar 2023. 

  13. 140. 

  14. St. Augustine Foundation

  15. Hodgson 74. 

  16. Hodgson 74. 

  17. Poland 2024. 

  18. Poland 2024. 

  19. Bailey 160. 

  20. Poland 2023. 

  21. Bailey 99-100. 

  22. Writing Comes Alive Podcast 

  23. Poland 2023.