Sport at SAC (South African College) and UCT (SAC became the University of Cape Town) – 1829 to 1979.
By Dr. Louis Babrow, MC, MRCS (England), LRCP (London)
The history of sport at UCT is a fascinating one, but the student activities in the years 1830-1860 are not too well documented. However we do find that students at The South African College did indulge in the sports of the day. Many students owned horses and good horsemanship was greatly admired. The students participated in competitions with the Imperial soldiers and we find that one-scholar, Van Maltitz, rode as a jockey in the numerous horse-races which took place on Green Point Common, at that time the favourite sporting fields of the Cape.
Then there were plentiful opportunities for hiking which was a favourite pastime, tennis was played as a social game and fencing, wrestling and boxing all had a following. Tent- pegging and rifle shooting were popular sports and occasional games of cricket were played with and against the Imperial troops.
When the railways came and diamonds had yet to be discovered, the Cape was still a quiet backwater of the world.
At the top end of Adderley Street, which had already received its name, near Government House and near where the old Tuyn Huis stands today, there was an odoriferous bog. On this field some hardy SAC follows could sometimes be seen kicking a round ball, occasionally picking it up and running with it whilst on the fringe of the field others would be playing leap frog, fly the garter and 'bal slaan', an ancient relative of baseball.
On this field known as The Paddock and used for the Governor's cows, was played the Winchester game, a game generally seen to be between soccer and rugby, first introduced to the Cape by Canon George Ogilvie who was appointed Headmaster of Bishops in 1861. The type of rugby played in those days was known as Gog's Game (deriving from Canon Ogilvie's nickname).
In 1862 a competitive match was played between SAC and Bishops. The result remains unknown.
Thereafter matches of this Winchester or Bradfield type of football were frequently played between SAC and the Civil Servants, SAC and Bishops, SAC and – as record shows – the 11th Regiment of Foot.
The Civil Servants included in their team John X Merriman, Sir Charles Elliott and the organist of St Georges Cathedral, Mr CN Thomas who lost the diamond ring from his fourth finger during one match.
In 1875 the Hamilton Club was formed and in 1876, Villagers came into being. Now SAC had the opportunity to play against new clubs instead of being limited to the monotonous Colonial Born v Mother Country type of game. The type of game played was still of the hybrid type until Sir William Milton arrived at the Cape in 1878 and the switch to rugby took place.
On 16 May 1883, the first meeting of the Western Province Rugby Union took place at the Masonic Hotel in Cape Town. The SAC representative was Mr WA Ashley, the first Organiser and Secretary of what is today the UCT Rugby Club. Before this, when SAC played Bishops, they played in any colour that took their fancy although Bishops were already wearing their dark blue jersey which distinguished their 1st XV players.
In 1882 a small deputation consisting of Mr Ashley, Mr H Tindall and Mr Reitz visited the Cape Town shops to select jerseys. It was at Porter Hodgson's at the corner of Adderley and Church Street (near the site of Dumbarton House) that jerseys of sufficient numbers were found .The colours were the now famous blue and white alternating stripes. What a happy choice this proved to be.
Knickerbockers were worn until 1890 when the College teams switched to black shorts. In 1901 the change to white shorts and blue stockings with blue and white tops took place. These are our colours to this day!
Blazers for First Team players were instituted in 1891; badges in light blue in 1892 and the change to dark blue took place in 1894. The details about Charles Bell's design for a coat-of-arms will be recorded elsewhere.
A word here about the old Paddock, (the scene of so much Varsity drama), and the training pitch for some of its great players. Up to 1859, a rough piece of ground near the College was used for football. This part of the old Zoo was the home of an aged hippopotamus. The pond next to the ground was a refuse dump.
Every year a Mr P van der Byl of Eerste River sent a wagon load of melons for the college boys. A couple of old oak trees were goal posts.
In 1859 Sir George Gray, won the love of all by clearing up the area and giving the students the right to use it for 'sport and recreation'. Sir George Wodehouse, Gray's successor, had other plans for the Paddock. He locked the gates and intimated that it would again be used solely for his cows.
Many attempts were made to soften his 'hard heart'.
The matter was even brought up in the Legislative Assembly. There it was suggested that the bad language used by the students so appalled Sir Philip that he would not change his mind. His successor, Sir Henry Barkly, softened somewhat and allowed the students to share the paddock with his cows.
It was at this time that the odoriferous bog was responsible for many infected scratches and sores amongst the students.
This sometimes unhappy situation continued until 1896, when Lord Rosmead took office and granted the Paddock for the sole use of the students and confirmed total banishment for the cows. The place was cleaned up, fresh grass was planted; the place looked brighter; and the singsong in front of Government House testified to the popularity of Lord Rosmead's gesture.
In 1888 the first major rugby match took place. Two drawn matches against Bishops were followed by a victory over Woodstock, but Gardens won their match by three goals and a try to nil.
In the teams playing in these matches we find the names of Pieter Cillier, Albert Melck, Ben Duff, Jack Arnot, Mike Louw , Willitjies van der Merwe, Martin Versfeld, F Myburgh, C Malan, J Watermeyer, W Pillans, and J Tindall – a fine cross-section of South African names.
Three SAC scholars represented South Africa in the first rugby Test match played in South Africa against WE MacLaghan's 1891 British side. They were B Duff, who captained South Africa, M Louw and M Versfeld.
In 1833 a famous figure in SAC history was selected President of the Rugby Club. He was Professor CE Lewis, who took a great interest in all SAC sporting activities. He was dearly loved by all. When he had the honorary degree of LLB conferred on him in 1929, Sir Carruthers Beattie – the then Principal and Vice-Chancellor- said: "No man will ever exceed in length of service and range of usefulness the record of Charles Edward Lewis."
He was succeeded as President of the Rugby Club in 1893 by Professor W Ritchie a greatly-loved and warmly remembered man. He was head of the first Students Hostel – College House – and took an interest in all college sport and activities. He accompanied the student rugby, cricket and hockey teams on their tours.
The College magazine eulogised at his death: "What his scholarship meant to the University of Cape Town and to South Africa generally is well-known, but it is the old students who for nearly 50 years came under the influence of his beautiful character who can testify to what Professor Ritchie meant to them in their years at college and in their later years. In their hundreds, even their thousands they pay homage to him as a great South African."
For the past 68 years (this article was written in 1979) sport at Cape Town University has centred around Inter Varsity with Stellenbosch – here rugby football is the dominant sport, but the complete weekend is devoted to rugby, hockey, tennis, table-tennis, boxing, wrestling, women's hockey, netball and practically every other sport played at UCT.
The first official Inter Varsity meetings took place in 1911 when SAC played the Victorian College (later Stellenbosch University) and SAC won 9-0 and 10-0.
In 1918 the name of the Inter-College fixture was changed from SAC v Victoria College to University of Cape Town v Stellenbosch University. The fixture has taken place yearly until the present day with omission in 1943 and 1944 due to political difference and again in 1973 – 1976. The game is known for its intense rivalry, the do or die spirit of the players the inter-university camaraderie, the revelry, the drinking and the fierce partisanship.
Inter Varsity – there is a magic in its very sound, the day of days, everybody is in it, the heroes of the first XV’s, the thousands who cheer them on with songs that echo through the hills of Papagaaisberg and the rolling slopes of Table Mountain. Vibrant colours, swaying blue and white on the UCT sides, gesticulating tall, coated cheerleaders gyrating weirdly in time – established rituals on the field before zero hour. And then like a roll of thunder, a roar of welcome rises to a crashing crescendo as the teams trot on to the field. A lull as they form up for: 'The SAC is the College for me, the best in the country round …' by a legion of voices and the pulsating primitive war cries.
The men in blue and white are shadow skipping in their zest for the fray. The whistle shrieks above the din and the ball is in the air and the game is on to a cacophonic accompaniment. A player breaks and tears for the line. A flying tackle stops an enemy thrust. Sighs, cheers. The conductor’s baton is raised again.
It is a day, as one professor put it, when enthusiasm expresses itself "in unintelligible noises from the dark mutterings" to "swelling waves of animal cries and nightmarish roars", as our teams hurl themselves at their opponents or crash through in a mighty foot rush. Gentle clapping of hands is taboo – too tepid a tribute for your players. Students are exalted in this glorious contest, may we shout ourselves hoarse as we witness a fluctuation of fortunes. May this be the first of many days on which the roaring train bears us to the field where its own din is drowned by the shouts that come from loyal hearts, where hoarse cries of disappointment are fitfully geared between exultant shouts of victory, where the air is loud with the ringing of varsity songs and thick with the hats of many.
In 1906 a picture shows Fatty Vessels seated at a piano in front of the stand at Newlands in a match against Diocesan College, The students were singing the college song composed by the Monsignor C Kolbe and set to music by Sir Meiring Beck.
In the first Inter Varsity In 1911 let us remember the UCT team this time urged on by a full orchestra: M Malan, F Hoply, NC Krone, C Whiley, WA Mills, C van Ryneveld, C Nicholson, C Steyn, WP Robson, CT Brooke, M van Breda, F Smuts, C Brodziac, C Truter, and OD Schreiner.
Following this first Inter Varsity, an athletic meeting was held topped off by a Tug of War contest in which SAC went down to Durbanville.
South Africa owes a debt of gratitude to the University of Cape Town, for the development of its sports policy and for the present concept of multi-racial sport. Since the early 1960's the table tennis teams have included and welcomed coloured students into their midst. In the face of criticism they stood firm. They were followed by the soccer club who again set a fine example by insisting that coloured students be included on merit in their teams and since the late 1960s, this has been their policy. This policy rapidly spread to other clubs and today sport at UCT is completely normalised. (Remember this was written in 1979.)
A problem arose four years ago when Inter Varsity was cancelled. Stellenbosch University, aided and abetted by the Nationalist Government and Minister of Sport, refused permission for our coloured students and academics to take part in the Inter Varsity competition. Furthermore, the students were barred from sitting on the grandstand with their follow students, and were barred from using the entrance and toilets used by the white students. To the credit of Varsity, it’s Council, principal and above all its students and sportsmen refused to take part in the Inter Varsity tournament. Frantic meetings were held amongst the Principals of UCT and Stellenbosch, the Government, the Minister of Sport, various members of the Cabinet, but UCT stood firm. All our students and players are to be treated the same or there will be no Inter Varsity. And eventually our determination and persistence in the face of tremendous odds and opposition, won the day.
In 1979, when this is being written, sport in South Africa is, for all practical purposes, multi-racial, and there can be no doubt whatsoever that the stand taken by the University of Cape Town and particularly the student body, has changed the whole sporting and social structure of our country. As a result of the UCT action there is a distinct possibility that South Africa's re-entry into the world sporting scene cannot be long delayed. University of Cape Town has taken the great leap forward to its everlasting credit. Today any student at UCT can join any club he wishes to and the selection of teams is purely on merit.
One hundred and fifty years on …
Yes, it is a long time since the days of that old field and the struggle to oust the Governor's cows. Now in addition to the three beautiful fields in front of Smuts and Fuller Halls, there are the glorious cricket and hockey fields on the lower campus, the swimming pool, the new fields at Pinelands and, to crown it all, a Sports Centre to cap all sports centres anywhere in South Africa. Here a multitude of sports of up to 60 can be played under cover. The centre, run by a professional staff, is the envy of every university in South Africa.
And when the old and the bold foregather, as they often do, one way or another in the sporting world, let a thought be spared for Gog's Game in a rugged field round a hippopotamus hole in Government Avenue.
It is a measure of the distance travelled in 150 years, And all those who passed through the mill in that time and left their mark, large and small, may with profit praise their fathers and shake their heads over their sons.
'Wig, sword, pen, scalpel, pill, cane, setsquare, hoe and public platform …'
Varsity sportsmen have made their mark in many fields. Their brains are not in their boots alone. Not one of them but is not the richer for having taken part in sport at the University of Cape Town and in the great fellowship of a great university.
It is characteristic of the University sports clubs that there is a constant stream of new blood coursing through them. Men and women come here from all parts of the country and move on elsewhere.
Other institutions and clubs have more continuity and a nucleus of players and athletes who represent them for 10-20 years. UCT is not like that. It is in constant change and ferment, perhaps this is why it is so yeasty. At Varsity the amateur spirit is stronger than anywhere else. And like the free and easy Athens of Pericles, mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of its empire. Its students and graduates go out to other clubs carrying the Varsity leaven with them.
It is not easy for UCT sportsmen to look on their sport as merely, a game, but the point is that they do not inflate sport grotesquely. They attach to their sport the same necessary values which the Greeks did to their games – a part of the good life, the rounded man.
They instinctively detest the calculating spirit which would reduce their game to the professional spectacle of a Roman circus. They detest and distrust the zeal which would make a good thing a machine-like science. And of this healthy outlook, the spirit at UCT is the first example and the most active instrument shaping, in large measure, the spirit of the nation's life.