OLD GOLD CORNER

LOOKING BACK ON THE PAST

One Crisis After Another (or was it just history repeating itself once again?)

On the 31st March 1922, the Wanderers Committee passed a vote of condolence to the relatives of all killed in the Great War.

Many members had been wounded trying to restore law and order while Victor Kent condemned the Trade Unionists that had first incited the Revolution.  His personal opinion was that the Government should prohibit uneducated immigrants as they were not good citizens and would never make good sportsmen.  Recreation and relaxation were fast becoming an obsession with the post war population.

George Allsop, who served as secretary of the Club from 1896 to 1927, took on a domineering attitude towards members, openly describing some of them as “undesirables” who constantly had to be reminded of breaches in etiquette.   Some distinguished tennis players and other trophy winners refused to pay subscriptions as they seemed to believe that their skill and expertise were enough for the Club and it appeared that sportsmen of the twentieth century were rapidly becoming more self-centred than “club-oriented”.

The next five years, amid hostility and attack, were spent trying to reduce the Club’s debt as the outlook was not promising.  A deepening depression crept into South Africa and by the early thirties, gripped it by the throat.   Sportsmanship suffered and men no longer knew how to behave, either in public or on the playing field.  Individuals and organised bodies continually quarrelled, and the press had a field day reporting on it all.  Victor Kent had been tasked with turning the Wanderers into a money-making proposition, while at the same time trying to preserve amateur sport but was not successful with either.  In fact, some of his critics felt that he was turning the Wanderers into a commercial venture thus depriving the people of Johannesburg of sports facilities which they felt were rightfully theirs.

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Victor Kent, the Wanderers Club Chairman from 1920-1952 and President from 1948 to the time of his death in 1955.  He had been a member of the Club since 1899, a Wanderers soccer captain in 1904 and a member of the parent committee for 44 years when he retired from the chairmanship.  Few men had a greater impact on the Club than he and few served it with greater devotion and distinction.

Mr Kent continually reiterated that the Wanderers was not a public amenity but a private club for its members and therefore could only do what it could afford in the way of improvements to facilities.  This subsequently led to accusations of ignoring the claims of the common people.   The Club continued its policy of trying to reduce its standing debt and it was a difficult time for all.

A monthly magazine was introduced to boost the morale of members, but did not achieve its purpose because of its inconsistent distribution and editorial content.  Johannesburg was now a thriving metropolis, but the Club failed to attract sportsmen of note as there were many alternative venues available to them.  The depression had tightened its grip and distress was felt everywhere.

In 1926 Johannesburg celebrated much of its 40th birthday at the Wanderers Grounds with events organised by the Publicity Association.   Regrettably, such merriness was short lived and public feeling turned against the Club in an event which turned out to be as much its salvation as its misfortune.

Park station was proving to be totally inadequate due to the growing traffic of the sub-continent’s largest city and, although Wanderers had already conceded 8 feet of ground along Hancock Street to assist, in 1924 far more demands for land were inevitable.  There were rumours of a planned new station but nothing was confirmed.   The Club’s attitude was that sport was just as important as a new station and public opinion began to harden against the Club’s apparent opposition to progress.  A special meeting on 25 September 1925 agreed to the railway’s demand for 100 feet in depth of ground along about 200 yards of Hancock Street.  This meant the redesigning and rebuilding of some premises and property and sports such as tennis, baseball and athletics suffered the most during the reconstruction phase. In view of the huge expenses that this would incur, discussions began regarding compensation and eventually the railways agreed to pay compensation of £33 000.

With the death of George Allsop in 1927, an era in the life of Johannesburg ended.  He had been one of the foundation members of the Wanderers Athletics and Sports Sub-Club of March 1989 and in his time he had become a towering figure in the cricket world, both as a player and an administrator.  At a memorial service a year later Victor Kent said of Allsop – “Allsop created the traditions of the Club on the very fine traditions that he had brought with him from England”. 

 

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George Allsop, Secretary of the Wanderers Club from 1896-1927, painted by his friend William Duffus, after his death.

 

In order to boost revenue, the committee did some things that might have been considered ridiculous in the light of amateur sport.  In October 1928 dirt track racing took place on the main field and a miniature golf course was laid, which was all the craze at the time. Professional boxing and wrestling contests were also staged on Wanderers grounds.  Even so, these activities did little to generate revenue, and in 1932 when the world was in deep depression, greyhound racing was introduced.  This required some structural alterations and the African Greyhound Racing Association paid the Club a percentage of the gate money.  This venture proved to be most lucrative for the next 15 years until the churches and other bodies, which frowned upon gambling, put a stop to it.

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The greyhound racing certainly helped the Club in ridding its chronic debt and all long-standing debentures were redeemed.  The Club membership was expanding and in 1938 the membership roll had to be closed as it was over-subscribed.  The social side of the Club was kept alive by the regular holding of fortnightly cabarets which were elegant affairs with white tie and tails for the gentlemen and evening gowns for the ladies.  With finances being healthier in 1934 the committee decided to grass the front ground which was transformed from a dusty tract into beautiful lawns.

With more money at its disposal the committee, under the leadership of Victor Kent, made the decision to acquire 200 acres of land in the suburb of Illovo on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg for the sum of £47 704.  This was intended as an overflow for the congested grounds in the centre of town and as a future home for the Club when its lease expired in 1989.   The committee authorised the expenditure of around £100 000 on developments, less than one week after stocks and shares crashed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

The new grounds in Illovo were named “Kent Park” in honour of Victor Kent who had made such an impact upon the Club and through whose efforts the transaction had come about. Initially, a few tennis courts and two bowling greens were constructed but these were largely ignored by existing members who preferred to use the grounds that they had become accustomed to in town.

Once again as war clouds gathered over Europe, the Wanderers Club was in full stride as a sporting institution. As global conflict broke out and spread, many members enlisted in the armed forces.  Soldiers were granted free use of the Club’s facilities and, as in the First World War, no one who was eligible for active service was considered for membership.

During the Second World War, the government was planning to take over the entire town premises for the railway station, but this caused great dissent to members at home and on active service.  Although the City Council of Johannesburg was sympathetic to the plight of the Club, it was eventually served notice of expropriation on 1 June 1945.  On Sunday 27 October 1946, a sad farewell was staged on the old grounds in town and the Wanderers flag was lowered for the last time.

To be continued …./ 7

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