One Crisis After Another (or is it just history repeating itself?)

The Great Fire – 15 February 1898

In the 1890’s all forms of sport suffered from the depressed times of that era, but none endeavoured more effectively to offset this than the other entertainments offered by the Wanderers. The Wanderer’s orchestra and the band were now the biggest in the country with 65 members and, with the latest music from London, organiser and conductor James Hyde created an extensive repertoire. The public paid only 2s a head for the now regular concerts, with no charge for members. In the circumstances, it was remarkable that the orchestra and band made a joint profit of £48. However, the games for which the Club had originally been established struggled on regardless.

Over the years there had been many amendments made to the Club Constitution and Bye-Laws, and the members’ subscription rates had also varied with the times. With the original founders deploring the idea of ‘arm-chair administrators’, management activities were always carried out by active sportsmen, who also served on the Club’s Committee along with life-member/debenture-holders. It was then suggested that the chairmen of the sub-clubs (which consisted of members who had faithfully served various sports but had mostly retired from active participation) should again serve on the Committee, and that the Constitution be amended accordingly.

At the Annual General Meeting, conducted by Chairman Julius Jeppe on 8th February 1898, this proposal was surprisingly defeated, and many lived to regret this decision. He also revealed that the Club’s finances remained in a shocking state, and there seemed little hope for further expenditure on essential maintenance and improvements.

At midnight on Tuesday 15th February 1898, the Club House was destroyed by fire, with only the Social Club and Skating Rink escaping the blaze. The loss in revenue was to prove immense.

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The fire started with the stage of the Wanderers Hall catching alight and the flames spreading throughout its dry timbers.  Within half an hour, the whole building was blazing like a torch and threatening to spread to the adjoining Social Club, where onlookers hurriedly removed its contents, damaging much of the Club’s property in the process. A breeze, fortunately, carried the blaze away from the semi-detached Social Club wing towards the railway and the roaring flames, visible along the Reef, merely ignited the wooden fence along the cycle track forty feet away.

About an hour after the outbreak firefighters arrived with their steam fire engine and reels of hose, but they could only stand and watch as the fire consumed the Club House, leaving only one brick wall and a mass of debris. The windows and veranda of the Social Club were saved by firemen hosing water on the advancing flames. By then, thousands of people had come to watch, as the flames were visible from miles around, roaring above the height of the tall blue gum trees nearby.

The Club House with its two outside stands, its famous Hall and stage, grand piano, bandstand, Band Room along with music and instruments (valued at £1,856), and dressing rooms were all totally destroyed.  The Bar and all its liquor stocks and Tea Room were also lost, together with the offices with all their contents, including Minute Books and Agreements. Also gone forever were the original Minute Books of the Zingari-Wanderers Club and every single Club record, except the lists of the original £5 debenture subscribers which were in the safe custody of the Club’s lawyer. Detailed records of all Club events also lay in ashes and only some records of Rules, Constitutions of Sub-Clubs and Sporting Programmes survived.

Much damage had been done to the Social Club but nothing so bad that it could not be restored. The Rink building remained intact and provided a temporary Club venue.  Tragically, at a time when the Wanderers Club could least afford it, it had been deprived of its most regular sources of revenue, the Bar and the leasing of the Hall.

On the actual day of the Club House’s destruction, Johannesburg newspapers reported the following:

WANDERERS CONCERT

“Despite the great fire at the Wanderers, the Committee has decided to hold the usual concert on Sunday evening. A magnificent programme has been arranged and special artistes engaged for the occasion. The Grounds will be lighted by electricity”.

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The Wanderers Amateur Orchestral Society – with its organiser and conductor James Hyde

Nearly a quarter of a century later, Julius Jeppe rose to address an annual general meeting of the Club and recalled that at a committee meeting in February 1898 prospects had been so dismal that the members had agreed that the only thing that would save the Club was “a good fire”. Early the next morning, he had been woken by the news that the Club House had been burnt to the ground. He remembered that one of the committee members at the time, Solly Joel, then chairman of the Rand Waterworks Company, had come to look at the ruins, and had laughed and asked when the next meeting was!

The loss of the Club House, and particularly the Dance Hall/Gymnasium, was a major disaster both to the people of Johannesburg and to the Club itself.

The Committee was immediately confronted with three major problems:

  • The rebuilding of the Club House;
  • New ways to generate revenue;
  • How to increase its loan-raising powers.

In terms of its revised lease, the Club was entitled to £15,000 but this was totally insufficient for its grand ideas of reconstruction.  The Norwich Union Insurance company promptly paid £7,649 but every day that passed with no revenue coming in, the Club encountered further loss.

Plans were prepared by a Club member for a Pavilion-Club House in the amount of £8,629 and local architects strongly objected to being excluded in this matter.  Twenty entries were received of which four were chosen and prize money awarded accordingly but the Government dragged its feet in granting increased borrowing powers, and all the Club House designs had to be rejected as nothing further could be done until such time as more money could be raised.  It was now December 1898 and the Club’s affairs had become desperate as nearly a year had passed since the Club House fire.

The Club was rapidly drifting towards bankruptcy and still with no Hall little revenue could be made from concerts, especially in the winter months so the musicians were dismissed and concerts stopped.  Eventually, Sunday concerts resumed in November 1898  in the Rink Hall and became an immediate success.  Unfortunately, torrential rain lashed its tin roof during a concert making it impossible to hear.  As the torrent continued, concert attendees without their own transport became trapped in the Hall until the early hours of the morning, becoming rowdier and rowdier. The Committee took drastic disciplinary action against the perpetrators as they did not want the Club to get a bad name by having the incident reported in the press.

Eventually, it became possible to assess the damage done by the fire.  In the previous year, public attendance at the Club had been 141,332 and non-paying members 768.  After the fire in 1898 public attendance dropped to 89,594 with 612 members.  The shortfall of 52,000 was devastating.  At a meeting held at that time members were told that the Club had been promised £19,500 in £100 debentures and proposed to spend £25,000 on the following:

  • A new Club House with Grand Hall
  • A banked cement Cycling & Racing Track
  • The rebuilding of the Skating Rink
  • Two new Football Fields
  • Tennis Courts

Built on the site of the old Hall and Skating Rink, the new Club House was eventually opened on 14th May 1899.  The structure seated 2,500 people. It had a wood-lined iron roof which muted the sound of the summer Highveld thunderstorm rain during performances.  The Hall was packed on its opening night and was a great success, with the audience entertained by James Hyde and his orchestra together with guest artists.

At the moment of the Club House opening, the Great War was just five months away. Would this perhaps necessitate the commissioning of Wanderers buildings and grounds for troops and a field hospital once again?

To be continued …/3