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

AFTER THE GREAT FIRE OF 1898 (with the Second Boer War on the horizon)

The future of the Club was based on a mortgage loan of £30,000 against the Club’s property together with a further issue of debentures.

The Sunday concerts resumed in the new Hall and the Committee encouraged all other forms of entertainment.  The Club had always flirted with the latest gadgetry and, apart from its Magic Lantern shows, in 1899 contracted with the South African Biograph and Mutoscope Company, with moving picture peepshows accessed in the grounds through sixpence-in-the-slot machines that looked like parking meters, while weekly film exhibitions took place in the Rink Hall.  From this initiative, Biograph Nights became a Wanderers tradition.

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Last days of the Wanderers Club – In the background the tent put up by the S.A. Biograph Co. to host peepshows.

One Saturday shortly thereafter, the South African Bioscope Company was asked to give up the Hall in order for a public meeting to be held.  Permission was duly granted, and on 10 June 1899 the Uitlanders met in the Hall which led to a lot of rabble-rousing with feelings dangerously stirred.  However, the Biograph people were well compensated for the loss of their venue as the Uitlander committee wrote letters to the press urging people to attend the postponed performance. The Biograph Company was very pleased with the publicity, and advertised their next Wanderers film show as being, “Under the patronage of the Committee of the Uitlander Meeting”.

Shows and concerts continued until September 1899 when Johannesburg was all but empty because of the threat of war.  Until the very last moment the Club continued to provide entertainment for the public.

Surprisingly, even as war crept closer, new members continued to join Wanderers.  In August, the Government appealed for divine intervention in the developing crisis and declared Sunday 20th August ‘A Day of Humiliation’, with the Wanderers cancelling its Sunday concert once again as a similar dedication.

People continued to leave Johannesburg with hundreds escaping in open trucks as the train service proved totally inadequate. Many committee members also fled the city, and a resolution was made that future meetings could continue to be held but with a minimum of three members. An Executive Committee was also formed to continue with the business of the Club and for the approval of new members.  On 21 September 1899, all construction halted, and contractors moved off site.  The Club, now with very little staff remaining, continued operations with the Biograph Concert. Those people left in a troubled Johannesburg flocked to the Club as a means of distraction.

On 2 October, war was only a week away and James Hyde and his bandsmen, together with the Biograph Company, packed their belongings and prepared to leave. At this stage, only two Wanderers staff members remained, but a decision was yet to be made regarding the closure of the Club altogether.

A request was then made by the Sheriff to make use of the new Hall for the storage of provisions by the Republican Commissariat on the proviso that the Club’s property and grounds would be properly guarded and protected.  The Chairman of the Committee granted such permission and responded that they “… had much pleasure in acceding to the request provided they have the assurance of the Honourable the Government that the buildings and property of the Club will be protected and returned in the like good order”.

The Committee then adjourned for the last time and the Chairman handed over the keys of the Hall.  After arranging for the Club’s documents to be sent to Durban, he then took the train to Lourenco Marques, boarded a ship for Durban and enlisted.

On 11 October 1899 the Second Boer War was declared against Great Britain and the Wanderers Club ceased to exist for almost two years. Many of its Committee and members served in the Imperial Light Horse and the South African Light Horse regiments.

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The British Army and the Second Boer War

The streets of Johannesburg were now totally deserted when the British entered at the end of May 1900, and the Wanderers Club and grounds were taken over and converted into No.6 Military Hospital.

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Empty streets of Johannesburg with horses grazing

However, when the British Army took control of Pretoria and all the main towns the war did not end, but all communications continued to be controlled by them.  The economy had come to a virtual standstill and South Africa was full of troops and displaced persons. In Johannesburg, the mines stood idle and flooded, while Boer commandos rode about the land maintaining a state of insecurity.

Slowly people returned to Johannesburg which remained strictly under martial law and no facilities were available for them.  About a year later the newly appointed governor of the Transvaal came to settle in Johannesburg, bringing with him an entourage of energetic young men and the town slowly started to recover. A new newspaper, The Johannesburg Gazette, was first published, shops gradually opened, and life pretty much returned to some normality.

The war, however, was not yet over. The Wanderers grounds were still covered with military tents and a field hospital, and the partially completed Club House continued to be used for storage purposes.

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Unfortunately, the tennis courts, banked cement track, rugby fields and other areas had deteriorated badly due to having stood idle since mid-construction.

The Chairman was anxious to resume recreational sport and, as summer approached, the cricket and tennis sections asked for permission to resume their activities. This was granted and the Club eventually resumed control of its whole property with the exception of the north-west corner and certain buildings.

Johannesburg was now full of young men and women with nothing to pass their time and, once the Wanderers grounds were found to be in a sanitary condition (people feared infection), membership numbers increased rapidly.  The Committee members worked tirelessly to restore the Club as the need for recreation was a top priority.  The Hall was immediately used for gymnastics, and concerts would have resumed at this time had it not been for missing instruments which had apparently been looted and sold in Johannesburg!  In early 1902 James Hyde returned and offered to reorganise the Wanderers Orchestral Society and to present Sunday Night Concerts once again.

The Club’s documents which had been sent to Durban were returned, and the business of organising sporting meetings could then proceed. During closure all building costs had sky-rocketed, but with the Club in great demand the Committee determined to complete all contracts, with builders ready and eager to complete their work.  Within six months the Wanderers was once again the heart of recreation in Johannesburg and people flocked to the Sunday evening entertainments.

The war was finally over and, even with its frenetic regeneration, the Club promised all support, including the staging of a Sporting Meeting plus much more, the likes of which were never seen again.

A procession was held featuring “Foot and Mounted Police with their Band, examples of all different types of transport, representation of the various races, Mining, 400 cyclists in fancy costume, seventeen motoring cars, six Fire Brigades, many mounted troops and other military all interspersed with several brass bands”.

The public rejoiced that peace had been restored and Edward VII was honoured and celebrated with dancing in the streets.  A grand open-air display attended by tens of thousands of people was held on the Wanderers grounds, with performances by the Johannesburg Gymnastics Society and a military band. That evening there followed a Torchlight Procession throughout the streets of Johannesburg ending in the grounds with a Grand Pyrotechnic Display and Promenade Concert organised by the Club.

The Club had once again discharged its civic obligations.

To be continued …… /4