News » Sylvia Birrell

Evelyn Sylvia  Birrell  1933 – 2019


Sylvia Birrell passed away peacefully on 23 June in Kenton on sea. A very sad day indeed, not only to her much beloved family, but to all whose lives she had touched in one way or another, and there were many of these scattered far and wide.

Sylvia was a loving sister to Bill Fowlds, Mary Stevens and Colleen Rippon, and was the eldest in the Fowlds family.   she trained as a home economics teacher and began teaching at DSG Grahamstown, and this is where she met Harry Birrell. They got married at Sidbury on 18 December 1957. At this stage they were living in Bulawayo and it was in 1960 that their son, Adrian was born.

Thereafter, Harry was appointed vice head master of the new St Albans college in Pretoria.  It was here that Sylvia began her lifelong work of nurturing young people. They were house parents at the College, and besides being a house mother, she helped with the catering at the College.  In 1963, their daughter Debbie was born in Pretoria.

Sylvia’s love of her two children knew no boundaries

 Adrian is married to Susan. they have two boys, Luke and Christopher. Adrian is currently under contract to Hampshire county cricket as the head coach, but, back home he and Susan have a lovely farm, Uitkyk, in the Alexandria district, next to Amakhala game reserve, where Sylvia grew up. 

Debbie is married to Murray Loggie and they are living in Port Elizabeth, having spent many interesting and sometimes challenging years in Africa, where Murray was and still is working for SA bottling. They have four daughters. Laura-Jane, Kate, Nan and Hannah, who like Debbie all attended DSG.  Laura and Kate are both married, and Laura has a baby son.

Sylvia adored and was equally adored by each and every one of her grandchildren and even her beautiful great grandson, Jack, got to know and love her.

She was a fun grandmother, letting the odd rule slip under the carpet when no one was looking! Lots of interesting stories there!

But to go back.   In 1972 the Birrells came back to Grahamstown, and this was the start of a life dedicated to DSG and its pupils.  It was not too long before she was approached to take the position of vice principal under David Wynne. She was reluctant because she did not feel she was academically the right person. History tells us otherwise. Sylvia was the perfect one and we commend David on his foresight.

She became many things. A mentor, a tutor, wise council, a good listener, fair but firm facilitator, at ease in any situation, with a common touch. She became loved by all, mainly because she had a huge capacity to love and forgive, to understand, and to walk with one through troubled times. but also a delightful sense of fun.

Indeed here was a woman of substance.

She left her mark in education in her ability to influence young people to be better people and to equip them to go out into the world carrying in their heart something of what she had taught them. This we know from the thousands of messages received from those past pupils, testimony to a life of giving and good example.

After her retirement, Sylvia and I spent a lot of time together in different enterprises, not least of which was opening the Pam Golding Properties franchise in Grahamstown.  Her ability to manage people came into its own here, and many happy years were spent in that business with our brother Bill Fowlds.

Sylvia always loved her home, Suddenleigh, in Bushmans river, and spent a large amount of her life there.  She loved to walk, talk to the locals, and so enjoyed swimming in the river.   Her home was always open to family and friends. All her life she had been a most accomplished cook and was renowned for that.  Tea with Sylvia was always a treat, as she had an eye for beautiful things and so her table was always well appointed and the food was even better!  

For the last few years, Sylvia, moved to Port Elizabeth to live in Walmer with her daughter Debbie and her husband Murray.  She made many new friends and took up with old acquaintances again.

Sylvia never forgot her roots, and those were firmly entrenched on the family farm Leeuwenbosch, which is part of Amahkala game reserve.  Never was she happier than walking around there and “the big house”, the chapel, renewing old memories, basking in nostalgia, enjoying seeing the resident warthogs feeding and of course best of all, a game drive! 

Bill, Mary and I have lost a very precious big sister. Us girls have been known as ‘the three blisters” and so lucky to have had a wonderful brother in Bill.

We have been a most fortunate family, in that Leeuwenbosch has always remained “home” to us siblings, no matter where our lives have taken us.  To Sylvia, it was a haven, and so it is fitting that her ashes will be taken back home to the Leeuwenbosch where she belongs.

Colleen Rippon