OLD GOLD CORNER
LOOKING BACK ON THE PAST (7)

AVE ATQUE VALE
(Hail and Farewell)
1943 – 1968

People wept when the Wanderers premises in town closed and every newspaper published nostalgic notices, pictures, and cartoons. The leave-taking ceremony took place accompanied by the pipe band of the Transvaal Scottish. A huge and tattered old flag in the Wanderers colours hung listlessly from a masthead on the main field.

The United Party lost popularity due to the controversy of the Wanderers relocation. It was not only the people who protested at the expropriation of the Park station grounds but the suppliers of public amusement at the Club, e.g. the African Greyhound Racing Association, the cricket and soccer unions, athletics and others. Petitions were signed and in July 1943, the Johannesburg Publicity Association, issued a bilingual brochure entitled ‘SAVE THE WANDERERS’ prompting people to save the Club as it was regarded a civic possession.

An overseas railway expert was appointed to survey the situation. The Club was confident that there would be a favourable report and proposed substantial alterations including the demolition of the old Club House and the erection of modern premises. The development of Kent Park in Illovo continued despite wartime restrictions and a growing number of members continued to use the tennis courts, golf course and playing fields.

At a meeting of the Union Cabinet, the decision was taken to confiscate the entire Wanderers ground and in June 1945 the Club was given six months to vacate the premises. There was an immediate and violent outburst of public outrage with letters pouring into the newspapers and slogans were painted on walls. Public feeling was strongly in favour of the Club until August when a popular soccer match was played. The grounds’ capacity at the time was 30,000 but the gatemen kept allowing in spectators as they were afraid of what would happen to them if they closed the entrances. This incident made it abundantly clear that the Wanderers was far from adequate for such matches and the Rand now required a much larger stadium.

At the closing ceremony, Victor Kent and his committee approached the flagstaff in front of thousands of people on the grounds. Kent spoke to the ground as if he were addressing an old friend by quoting the following:
“It is my melancholy duty to bid farewell to you, Old Ground and Club House. You have played a worthy part in the growth of Johannesburg from mining camp to great city. You will never pass from our memories Old Ground. The Wanderers Club at Kruger’s Park is dead. Long live the Wanderers Club at Kent Park!”

People in every walk of life had made use of the Club and the grounds had seen the best of sporting talent. No other club offered so many sports for the citizens of Johannesburg where they could develop their sporting excellence.

The old Club House remained open for one year while the new Club House was being built at Kent Park. The old bar closed at the end of 1947 and re-opened in the new clubhouse on 1st January 1948. Legend has it that before the old bar closed lady members danced unashamedly on tables to celebrate their freedom. Their spouses in reversed roles, waited outside for them to complete their antics!   

The new Clubhouse in Illovo was built and furnished. In 1948 a decision was made to open the membership to non-playing individuals. This increased membership to such an extent that the membership roll had to eventually be closed. This year also commemorated the Club’s Diamond Jubilee but with everything that was going on at the time, this important milestone passed unnoticed. In 1950 the complex was almost complete with halls, dining rooms, lounges and committee rooms, bars and dressing rooms, gymnasium, and billiards rooms. The Club celebrated its history in a special Souvenir magazine which was written by amateur sportsmen and provided an excellent record of sporting activities at the Club.

Due to an error in the minutes, the Club mistakenly celebrated its “70th Anniversary” in 1959 and its “75th Anniversary” in 1964 with a special publication, a ball, cocktail party and hockey matches. In fact, its 80th anniversary fell due in August 1968.

 

The front of the partially completed Wanderers Clubhouse, Kent Park

The front of the partially completed Wanderers Clubhouse, Kent Park

As a private club for social and sporting activities, the Wanderers at Kent Park met a visible need amongst the community. Once all the facilities were available, the membership steadily climbed and by 1953 it had reached 7,173. This trend continued until it reached a peak of 10,380 in 1957. Gradually blocks of flats and houses were built in close proximity to the Club. It was a sportsman’s paradise but it failed to bring in as much revenue by comparison to the multiple sources of income of the Old Wanderers.

There was a feeling of lethargy amongst the members and the Club’s finances were becoming a cause for concern. Most of the money paid in compensation by the Railways had been spent in providing facilities at Kent Park, including the swimming bath that had been dreamt about for almost 70 years, but something was lacking and enthusiasm was low. Members held balls and parties and wedding receptions in the Clubhouse but the City itself no longer used its premises for entertaining guests and overseas teams.

By 1952, Victor Kent had served as chairman for 33 years and he had been a Club member for 52. He was now 72 years old and in failing health. The Club commissioned Edward Roworth to paint his portrait which was presented to him at a ceremonial farewell. The Annual report that year stated that he had been “The greatest single influence in the progress and development of the Club”. Few members were old enough to appreciate what he had done for the Club or his contribution to the acquisition of the Illovo property. Mr Kent accepted the portrait and presented it to the Club which was later hung in a place of honour. Three years later, Victor Kent died.

Although membership continued to rise, post-war depression affected the Club which appeared to be surviving on tradition alone. The Club had always dreamt of one day having a gigantic all-weather stadium and this was now the time to make this a reality, while at the same time re-establishing its position as the premier sporting club in South Africa. Speed was therefore of the essence and no tenders could be called for. A huge sum of £280 000 was spent on the cricket stadium which was capable of seating between 30 000 and 35 000 spectators.

The site of the Grand Stadium in Illovo

The site of the Grand Stadium in Illovo

At great expense, the stadium and its arena were completed. The stadium ultimately became the venue, not only of all major sporting events local and national but of special events such as Military Tattoos and pyrotechnical and other displays, while the Clubhouse was made available for entertaining by non-members.

The building of the stadium had been financed by means of an overdraft secured by the Club assets and the debt amount bordered on £250 000. To compensate for some of this debt the Club was forced to increase member subscriptions, but this resulted in a large number of resignations. The Wanderers Voluntary Services and other groups stepped in and arranged fund-raisers in the form of carnivals, variety concerts and musical recitals. The result of these efforts was positive and in 1965 membership increased to 9 000 and in 1976 it almost reached 13 000 members.

The Clubhouse became the venue of banquets and conferences, receptions, and ceremonies, held by every kind of body including the City Council of Johannesburg.

Revenue was essential to preserve the identity of the Club as an association of like-minded private persons, free to determine their own affairs in a world where management and State interference were becoming increasingly noticeable. The definitions of “amateur” and “professional” had become synonymous and members, young and old alike, no longer exercised courteous greetings and were seemingly happy to address each other on a first-name basis. Old standards were discarded, and new ones installed but the Club was still viewed as a place where individuals could come to relax and enjoy themselves.

To be continued…/8