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Early Touring in South Africa

Copyright © The Author, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

International organised sporting tours to this country only started just over hundred years ago. Our visitors, who were from the British Isles, did have an advantage over the local players in that they had been playing both rugby and cricket for a far longer period and they did have previous experience of overseas play in that teams from the United Kingdom had already been touring in North America, Australia and New Zealand, before coming here to South Africa.

What counted in the South Africans favour was their quick realisation that a tour of this country was unique in that there were vast distances to be covered, and matches were played at different levels of altitude, the transport facilities were primitive and the different playing surfaces could all be used to our advantage. Add to this some truly outstanding hospitality and also allow the natural elements to play a part. The result was a very weary touring party. In 1891 when the first British rugby tourists arrived they had spent sixteen days at sea on board ship with no exercise facilities and in the first seven days spent in Cape Town they played three games, the first against a Cape Club side on the Thursday, then two days later a match against the full Western Province side followed on the Monday with a fixture against a combined Cape Colony team consisting of players drawn from the Local Union, Eastern Province and Griqualand West. Socially, the week in Cape Town was spent by the visitors as, guests of honour at a smoking concert, at a formal dinner given by the Western Province Rugby Union, at a Government House ball and a dance at Sea Point. Other entertainment included a visit to the theatre, lunch aboard a visiting Royal Navy ship and a picnic at Hout Bay.

On the Tuesday the visitors boarded the train to Kimberley, a journey then of two nights and one full day. Conditions on board were not ideal in that there were no compartments or bunks in the carriages nor was there a dining car attached. Having sat upright for the whole trip the visitors on arrival were treated lavishly for diamond fever was at its height and Kimberley was a boom town. Two matches were played against local opposition but what surprised the visitors, who were accustomed to the green fields of England was that the local playing surface was plain red earth covered by a fine reddish dust with not a blade of grass to be seen anywhere. The harsh sun produced considerable glare and to this must be added the effects of playing their first match at altitude. The tourists did lodge a complaint that they frequently lost sight of the ball in play due to the pillars of dust that the players created as they ran about the field. The Kimberley team nevertheless impressed the visitors for they awarded them the status of their best opponents and presented them with the trophy donated by the head of the shipping line which brought the team to South Africa. Kimberley in turn presented this trophy to the South African Rugby Board and it became known as the Currie Cup.

The tourists were then put back on to the train and set off to Port Elizabeth were the sight of green grass again on the playing fields cheered them up no end for many of players were suffering from gravel burns and other abrasions incurred at Kimberley which had festered, in some cases leading to blood poisoning from gravel rash. The hospitality in Port Elizabeth was lavish but their greatest adventure was their departure. In those days the only seaports along our coast for passenger steamers were Cape Town and Durban. At P.E. it meant travelling out to sea in a small tug to the waiting ship and then being lifted individually in a large wicker basket up on to the deck. At East London, the next port of call the tour nearly ended in disaster for the team for they had a narrow escape from drowning. What happened, was that when the time came to leave, a vicious wind was whipping the sea up across the sand bar at the mouth of the Buffalo River. This caused the waiting ship to frequently disappear from view leaving the skipper of the tugboat to aim at the lights of the ship when they were visible. Unfortunately he misjudged the distance for suddenly the bow of the big ship was towering miles above the small vessel containing the entire British team. Damage was caused when the tugboat was struck near the stern. Had the collision taken place amidships there is little doubt that the tug would have sunk leaving the players little chance of saving themselves. In later years, because of this incident and one, in Algoa Bay when the tugboat, due to rough sea, had to circle the ship twelve times before being in a position to load, the by then violently seasick team members, some players gave the visits to these two venues a wide berth remaining on board ship and sailing on to the next safe harbour.

In Natal, save for the normal hectic social whirl, the visitors had a uneventful time but after their game in Pietermaritzburg they boarded the train that evening to travel up to the Reef. In those days the railhead only extended as far as Charlestown, a small trading centre on the Natal/Transvaal border. The reason being that President Paul Kruger had refused permission for the railway line to continue as he insisted that the Pretoria/Lourenco Marques[now Maputo] line be completed first. At first light the next morning the team alighted from the train and boarded a stage coach drawn by ten ponies, travelling a full eight hours to Standerton where they spent the night, next day making a 05h00 start in the middle of winter, travelling by stage coach the whole day and reaching Johannesburg after seven in the evening in time for their match the next day. After a brief stay on the Reef, where they played three matches, they set off back to Kimberley, again by stage coach. On the way a further mishap occurred in that one of the coaches lost a wheel forcing the players to spend the night sleeping on the floor of the only hut for miles around. Woken at just after 01h00 to board the relief coach they travelled on to Klerksdorp where they spent the rest of the night, setting off early the next morning travelling to the railhead at Fourteen Streams where they climbed aboard the train and finally reached their destination at midnight in time to play the next afternoon.

On their way down to Cape Town for the final matches of the tour, including the third test, they stopped off at Matjiesfontein where they were royally entertained by J. D. Logan, and played a cricket match against the full Western Province cricket team, only losing by eighteen runs.

That the visitors were to remain unbeaten throughout the tour does point to strong constitutions and abundant stamina. In an article written by Paul Clauss, the Scottish three-quarter, who was a member of the touring party it is interesting to reflect on the different perspective that sport was held in those days. He wrote that “the team found the tour tiring and that it was much more difficult for them to score towards the end of the tour then at the beginning, whether it was an improvement by the South African teams is hard to say but that they had overdone things from a social point of view - too many dinners, dances and smokers. Certainly no modern team, and this was written in 1931, would dare indulge in so many festivities which often lasted far into the night. On the whole that we made no attempt to keep in strict training was all to the good, for it prevented us from becoming stale”.

Sporting tours to this country, both rugby and cricket, over the next ten years tell much the same story, of sleeping five to a bed in country inns due to lack of accommodation, having private audiences with politicians both at the Cape and in Pretoria. One rugby side playing their first match at Newlands the day after arriving having been at sea for seventeen days. The same side on their first train trip suffered from the lack of blankets, the players having to draw lots for those available.

In 1896 a cricket team under the captaincy of Lord Hawke arrived by train at the Johannesburg station at the same time as three railway carriages loaded with dynamite blew up, leaving a hole big enough to contain a passenger liner, and causing many casualties amongst the local population. Whilst the team were still based in Johannesburg, they had the water supply cut off at their hotel by Boer commando’s who had encircled the town in the aftermath of the infamous Jameson Raid. The tourists being forced to wash with soda water for which they had to pay twenty cents a bottle. Even their train trip up from the Cape was eventful as a swarm of locusts settled on the rail tracks so lubricating them that the wheels of the steam engine would not grip, forcing the driver and his assistant to get down from the footplate and sprinkle spadefuls of earth on to the tracks to enable the train to proceed.

There being no dining cars on the trains, the passengers took their meals hurriedly at refreshment rooms sited on the station platform. The holder of the contract which covered all the refreshment rooms at stations between Wellington in the Cape right up to Bulawayo was a frugal Scot, James Douglas Logan, who according to contemporary reports prepared the food so hot that the train was ready to continue its journey before the travellers could eat. He merely reheated the food and waited for the next train.

Logan, who afterwards became the ‘Laird of Matjiesfontein was an interesting character who, together with Cecil Rhodes, did much to sponsor the development of sport in South Africa. Whilst Rhodes was more involved with rugby, Logan devoted his efforts to cricket financing two tours to this country as well as the 1901 South African tour to the United Kingdom. He had arrived in this country when the railway station was being constructed in Cape Town and obtained a post as a porter, but by the time that the building was completed, Jimmy Logan held the position of station master. The Karoo appealed to him and he was to resign his position buying a hotel at Touws River and a wholesale wine and spirit store in Cape Town. He then invested heavily in the area of Matjiesfontein buying up the farming land cheaply, developing the town as a health resort providing the village with waterborne sewerage and electricity - both firsts in this country. On one of his farms he discovered an underground water supply which yielded over eleven thousand gallons a day ,the rights of which he sold to the Railways, at a handsome profit. Logan also established a very successful mineral water factory at Matjiesfontein where all the soda water, lemonade and ginger ale was made for sale to thirsty Karoo railway travellers. The manner in which he had obtained the contract for the refreshment rooms caused controversy. Logan was very friendly with the then Minister of Railways in the Cape Government, Sir James Sivewright, who awarded the contract without calling for tenders or informing any of his ministerial colleagues. A major political crises ensued with Sivewright being forced to resign and the contract cancelled. Logan then sued the government and was awarded damages with costs. Having made his fortune he spent much of his time in the Karoo but also bought a castle close to his birthplace in Scotland from where he lavishly entertained the 1901 touring South African cricketers. His sponsorship of cricket smacked of family involvement, for his son was included in the 1901 team, the only first class cricket he ever played batting just twelve times without success in the twenty five matches and bowling three overs. Logan Snr also donated the trophy for inter-city matches in Rhodesia, which is still played for in Zimbabwe today.

Having looked at the tourist’s experiences, our local players also had many adventures. In 1899 the Rhodesians hosted the M. C. C. team in Bulawayo. There were 5 players from Salisbury[now Harare] selected and being wise in the ways of travel in their country they decided to leave, by stage coach, 14 days beforehand as the seasonal rains had already started. This just as well for there were twelve rivers to cross on their journey all of which were in flood. The Hungani river proved to be the major obstacle, for when they arrived at the drift, the water was flowing at over twelve foot deep. The coaching company had been alerted to the situation and they had despatched another coach from Bulawayo to meet them on the other side. The problem was how to get across. This was solved by one of the cricketers, Harry Taberer, who nailed the end of a ball of string to a cricket ball, which he threw across the river. A length of thick cord was attached to the end of the string and to this a quarter inch thick wire rope was attached. Once this was hauled across the river the wire rope was tied to the coach wheels on either bank. Then each player, in turn, stripped naked and tied his cricketing gear on top of his head, making his way across the swirling waters with the aid of the rope. The entire operation took over two hours but they all reached the other side safely without losing any of their personal belongings. They then managed to get the mules across, the driver strapping the reins to his wrist and using the wire rope to guide him and the animals across. Their next task was the coach itself, but the tow rope snapped midway through the operation and the coach was washed down river never to be seen again. The players then boarded the coach from Bulawayo and set off once again on their journey using both sets of mules to speed them on their way. The road was so bad that frequent stops had to be made were the passengers jumped out and putting their shoulder to the wheel assisted in pulling the coach out of the swampy ground.

The trip was not however without its compensations. There were frequent stops with lavish entertainment and the coach did not in fact reach Bulawayo until the morning of the match. The match venue was a very large rough piece of ground which just three years before had been part of Lobengula’s camp. Three years later Harry Taberer, the ball thrower across the river, was captaining South Africa at the Old Wanderers ground, Johannesburg in a Test match against the first Australian touring cricket side. In later years he became a vice-chairman of the South African Cricket Association and a member of the Board of Control. That he had a powerful arm, there was no doubt, for it is recorded that once, for a wager, he threw a cricket ball 100 yards while standing in a tub.

Other adventures to the north of us, the 1895 Salisbury cricket side left town, by stage coach, for their fixture against Bulawayo with two cases of mixed whiskey on board which was required ‘to keep out the fever’ on the way; And one South African cricket side left for overseas from a completely deserted Cape Town harbour. The reason being that there had been an outbreak of bubonic plaque in the town. When the first provincial Currie Cup match took place in Johannesburg it was spread over seven days with three official dinners taking place on evenings during the match where the players were presented with bats, gold medals, cups, diamond pins, jewellery, travelling liquor cases and purses..

The local rugby players also had their share of adventure. Provincial rugby, late last century, was held at a central venue over a seven day period. In 1892 the venue was Kimberley. For the Natal team, with there being no direct rail link across the Free State, they were forced to board a tugboat in Durban harbour which took them out to the waiting steamer which next day put them ashore at East London. There they spent the day waiting for the train to take them inland. The train, which had no sleeping accommodation also leaked badly and on going through a rainstorm the players had to don their raincoats but what they really needed were umbrellas. The weather deteriorated along the route with heavy snow falling causing drifts beside the railway line. At Middelburg in the Karoo they had to spend six bitterly cold hours waiting for their connection to take them to the tournament, eventually reaching Kimberley after five solid days of travel. After a week of rugby in which they played four games they retraced their steps back home.

Three years later, in 1895, Natal caused the Johannesburg tournament to be placed on a diplomatic knife-edge. This was due to the team consisting, nearly entirely of soldiers, in the main selected from the British regiments stationed in the province. The unrest caused by the Uitlander movement in Johannesburg and the fact that the battle of Majuba had only taken place in the previous decade heightened tension and it was necessary for permission to be obtained from the Transvaal government to allow the Natal team to enter the Transvaal in uniform.

Fun and games were part and parcel of the centralised rugby tournaments. In 1897 when Port Elizabeth was the venue, the Western Province and Transvaal teams were accommodated at the same hotel which was owned by a prominent local citizen. One evening when there was a lot of noise and hi jinks in the billiard room the owner, somewhat tactlessly made his views known. The players, as of one, cornered him, tied him up in the canvas cover of the billiard table and debated whether to hoist him up the flagpole standing in the front garden of the hotel. They decided instead to hoist several items of what has been recorded as ‘intimate items of bedroom use’, cutting the rope and there they stayed aloft for two days clattering in the wind. It became the joke of the town and when, after the tournament, the players were on their way home the owner of the hotel refused to shake hands or say goodbye to any of the players or the officials, as he was still angry. Several of the forwards from both sides decided that this was not on, so they took him down to the railway station with them and placed him on the bar counter in the refreshment room and there ‘encouraged’ him to make a speech praising the good behaviour of the teams and how pleased he was to have such a lot of charming young men staying at his hotel. The outcome for rugby was somewhat unfortunate, in that he never allowed another rugby team to stay at his hotel until he died some 35 years later.

Sport in those early days captured the imagination of the communities scattered across the country offering relief from the harsh reality of developing the economy and infrastructure. For the players sport was an adventure leading to lifelong friendships with team mates and opponents and they developed the standard of play to lay the foundation of the games we know today. Many were larger then life characters who were not concerned with anything other then enjoying themselves and having fun.

Perhaps the most amusing rugby story is one that took place in a remote area of Zululand, where a young man by the name of Knox, who many years later became the first President of the Zululand Rugby Sub-union, was farming. Late one afternoon he decided to go out on a training run and having donned his Eshowe club colours which was a striped red and white jersey, he set off. Unfortunately for Knox, the local prison garb consisted of the same colours. In the vicinity of his farm was a Zulu Impi,of some 200 strong, on their way back to the Royal kraal, who watched him set off on his run and being loyal to authority and possibly sensing a reward decided that Knox must be an escaped prisoner on the run. The Impi set off with great determination and chased him for well over 3 Kms before Knox was able to reach the sanctuary of his farm. Whilst this story has been published before, the reaction of Knox to this episode has never seen the light of day.

SOURCES: 1. History of South African Rugby Football. - Ivor Difford. 2. Rugby in South Africa. - Paul Dobson. 3. History of South African Cricket. - M. W. Luckin. 4. Veld Express. - Harry Zeederberg. 5. Karoo. - Lawrence Green. 6. Natal 100. - Reg Sweet. 7. Life Worth Living. - C. B. Fry. 8. History of Transvaal Cricket. - Hayward Kidson. 9. The Natal Rugby Story. - Alfred Herbert. 10. W. P. Rugby. - A. C. Parker. 11. Crickets Rich Heritage. - Jonty Winch. 12. Springbok Rugby. - Chris Greyvenstein. 13. Springbok Annals. - Danie Craven. 14. W.P.Cricket 100 Not Out. - A. C. Parker.

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