OLD GOLD CORNER
LOOKING BACK ON THE PAST (5)
One Crisis after Another (or was it just history repeating itself once again?)
1911 – 1927
Johannesburg had spread far and wide and no longer consisted of the original fashionable suburbs, whilst the Wanderers had become increasingly remote from its main source of membership. The railways had blocked all entrances from the town and were also threatening to take over the playing fields for expansion. Even access by trams was denied and the Club resources fell. Mainly due to this inaccessibility, the Transvaal Cricket Union decided to transfer their matches to Ellis Park.
During this time Victor Kent was elected to the Grounds and Building Committee and was distressed at the shocking condition of the dressing rooms, stands, the clubhouse and the entire premises. The Club’s finances were in an appalling state and it became imperative to generate income to maintain and improve the facilities. A debenture scheme was proposed payable in 1916, but it would have been impossible to pay interest and some members, therefore, recommended liquidation.
The lifeblood of the Club was its members and numbers were dropping fast. There was only occasional entertainment provided for members by Sousa’s Band, The Royal Besses O’ the Barn, the Sheffield Choir and Pagel’s Circus, but performances were rare. Julius Jeppe was consulted on the issue of the falling membership and he remarked that the 1400 members in 1904 should increase to at least 2000 members in 1912. However, this was not the case and membership and revenue continued to decline.
On 3 December 1912 a special meeting was held where it was recommended that the entrance fee be waived for a period of three months. Once this decision was made known, scores of new members joined the Club and its character changed, bringing with it a whole new class of membership who not only wanted to play sport but were looking for a friendly and welcoming place to meet. When the AGM was held in 1913, there were 450 new members who had joined, bringing the total to 1690.
Apart from financial depression, Johannesburg was now approaching the anarchist revolution. Industrial unrest stirred up by trade unions began with a strike on the Kleinfontein Mine in May 1913 and it slowly spread to other mining communities. Some sporting activities ceased to exist, equipment was sold and even the Sunday concerts were discontinued as nobody attended. The strike continued and violence erupted everywhere. People no longer wanted to participate in sport, and it was only the Ladies Cricket Club which continued to play.
As the year 1913 ended, anarchy once again threatened the Reef and Johannesburg was in danger of surrender to striking miners and other workers. Once again, the situation verged on the civil war with the military controlling the town. The Club was totally disorganised and there was a massive loss of revenue as the Department of Defence once again took over the Club’s premises. The only compensation during their occupation was £40 per day including lights and water. Thankfully, the industrial crisis came to an end in January 1914.
The Club’s financial crisis had intensified and there seemed no way to get out of debt. The Committee at one stage considered leasing the grounds for professional sport but this idea was fiercely opposed by the vice-president of the Club, Julius Jeppe. An AGM was then held in March 1914 and the members voted that professional sport be allowed at the Club, together with commercial advertising. However, membership numbers continued to decline and this persisted. In the summer of 1914 tragedy occurred when South Africans became divided amongst themselves and there was the threat of rebellion. The Club’s VIPs took up arms in their respective military roles and enlisted for service.
At first nobody realised that the First World War had actually begun and life went on as normal in Johannesburg with games still taking place on the Wanderers grounds, even though there were troops drilling on the fields. Many members suspended their membership while serving on active duty, but many more simply stopped paying. Things got so bad that all sport had to finally stop as so many criminals and vagrants infiltrated the grounds.
Owing to the limited facilities available to members the committee decided to allow a reduction in subscriptions and to permit quarterly payments. By now almost a third of the membership was on active duty and the remainder busy with other war effort activities. As the war continued, some form of life returned to sport at Wanderers. The tennis courts were in demand and the occasional football match was allowed to take place.
By 1916 the Club struggled to maintain its identity as many of its members were still fighting in West Africa or perishing on the Western Front. Weeds grew on the playing fields due to lack of use, and the bar and catering produced very little revenue. However, people still applied for membership but only those not eligible for military service were allowed to join. In the growing gloom The Wanderers, once known as a fun place to visit, now held no attraction. In fact, during 1917, the Wanderers Club almost lost its identity and became known as the ‘Wanderers Military Hospital’.
The Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment offered to lease the Gymnasium Hall as a hospital for military patients, while members were accommodated elsewhere.
Many fund-raising initiatives were held on the Wanderers grounds including a War market in the December of 1917. Competitive sport was non-existent at this time and it was impossible to turf the grounds as the hospital required the space for their huts. By this time huge subscription amounts were owing, and the situation was further worsened when Town Council threatened to drive Eloff Street straight through the Club’s grounds for access to the northern suburbs.
Even after the war ended nothing much changed as both the halls and most the grounds remained occupied by the V.A.D until June 1919. People began to look to the Club as public property and not a private members club. The tennis courts once again became congested and membership of the tennis club had to be restricted. It was obvious that if the Club was to survive it had to become an outlet for public use and obtain income from gate money and no longer exist for its members only.
Peace celebrations took place in the Wanderers grounds with soldiers and war workers in search of relaxation, generating an income from the bars and catering once again. Membership slowly increased and extra-mural attractions were provided. The most popular of these was the Twelve O’Clock Club which leased the gymnasium hall every Saturday night for dances, which remained popular for generations.
On 6 January 1922, a request was granted to camp 500 men on the Wanderers grounds in readiness to protect the public against a potential strike. The strike eventually became a general revolution and the administration of Johannesburg was taken out of the hands of the Municipal Council. The police were powerless against such a movement and an increasing number of troops moved into Johannesburg and were stationed on the Wanderers Grounds. The local general hospital could not cope with the number of casualties, and once again the Club surrendered the Gymnasium Hall for hospital purposes. Many civilians and soldiers died, and hundreds were wounded.
These days were some of the darkest in the history of Johannesburg.
To be continued ……./6