The Alfred Rowing Club was established in 1864 and was housed under the pier at Table Bay. It was named after Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who visited the Cape in the 1860. It is the oldest organised sporting club in South Africa.
The 150-year history of Alfred Rowing Club is also the story of rowing at the Cape, for Alfred is the only survivor from among thirteen rowing clubs that sprang to life on the shores of Table Bay at various times during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a story of survival in the face of continual change: the search for new clubhouse locations and launching facilities necessitated by harbour expansion and foreshore reclamation, and the expiry of short-term leases; the search for flat water suitable to fine boats with sliding seats and outriggers that made heavy weather of the swells, lumpiness and wind-chop on Table Bay; and the search for funds for boat procurement and maintenance as club membership dwindled and aged. Central to the story have been the personalities who led the Club and but for whom it would not be celebrating its 150th year.
The history divides into two equal halves: the Table Bay years from 1864 – 1939 and the Zeekoevlei years from 1940 to the present.
The Table Bay Years 1864 – 1939
Prior to 1861 only informal rowing had taken place on Table Bay. But on the Queen’s Birthday, 24th May that year, rowing was formally inaugurated when a regatta took place between the South African Rowing Club and the Union Rowing Club. It is probable that the formation of the clubs was stimulated by the advent of harbour construction – Prince Alfred had initiated the construction of the breakwater and basin in 1860 (pics) – and the prospect of safe launching and sheltered waters. Also in 1861, the Victoria Regatta Club (VRC) was formed to manage the Table Bay Regatta.
By 1867 four more clubs had come into existence: Civil Service Rowing Club (1861), Alfred Rowing Club (1864), Britannia Rowing Club (1866), and Victoria Rowing Club (1867). The prime mover behind the formation of Alfred was Mr Charles Lewis whose sons would play leading roles in the development of the club during the next 75 years. It seems that the clubs were located on and about Sorey’s Wharf in the Alfred Basin, this latter being opened eventually on 11 July 1870. Mr George Sorey was a prominent member of the VRC and therefore favourably disposed towards the fledgling sport.
The rowing traditions, technologies and techniques adopted at the Cape were derived from those practised at the centres of English rowing at Eton, Oxford and Cambridge. Many of the craft used locally were made by well-known English boat-builders who designed and built for flatwater conditions. Once here the imported boats had to be adapted, sometimes radically, to suit ocean and weather conditions on the Bay. Local boat-builders, such as Robertson & Bain, who understood local conditions also designed and built successful rowing craft. The boats at that time were heavy clinker six-oars and pairs, with fixed seats and thole pins holding the oars. (pic in Lewis pp. 2 & 6).
Launching them was a demanding task, as was recalled in the Cape Times of 28/5/1900:
“The enthusiasm of the boating men in the early sixties was all the more surprising in view of the difficulties with which they had to cope. With bare feet, and straining like fisherfolk, under cross poles, they would carry their heavy racing barges every day, often twice a day, during the training season from the boathouse over a stretch of uneven beach with here a mass of slippery seaweed, and there a litter of rough shingle, down knee deep into the water. More trying still was the return journey, after a hard row round the shipping, from the icy water up the slope to the distant shed. Yet apparently it was a labour in which they delighted, else they could scarcely have continued it as they did during the greater part of the year, keeping their clubs in active life and their boats in regular use, with pleasure rows – often prolonged to Sea Point and beyond – with picnic jaunts to Robben Island, and moonlight excursions in which the musical members of the party would serenade the vessels in the Bay. It must be admitted that the heavy craft of these primitive days, with their breadth of beam and cushioned seats aft, providing ample room for a bevy of fair passengers, were better fitted for such junketings than for racing.
“The public interest in the old time regatta was practically universal. It was the great open air festival of the Cape year. The shore, the wharves, the quays, were thronged with spectators of every colour and class, while the Bay itself was alive with heavily-laden passenger boats of all descriptions.”
The Table Bay Championship was the great festival referred to above. It took place annually on 24th May and was rowed over a course of 4.25 miles, and various configurations were tried. By 1873 a triangular course to maximise spectator viewing had been drawn from the South Arm towards Salt River, from there to the Central Jetty, and back to the Arm. Spectators crowded these vantage points as well as numerous craft in the Bay. On 24th May 1880, a perfect day for rowing, the crowd was estimated at 15 – 17,000 and, although this was regarded by A J S Lewis as an over-estimate, it was indicative of rowing’s popularity at that time.
In 1895 and 1896 the first outside competition appeared on the Bay when Leander Rowing Club from East London competed in the Championship but failed to win. A J S Lewis noted that they were at a disadvantage in the type of boat they had to use (a local inrigged craft with rowlocks), the length of the course (2.5 miles), and the turn in the course that had to be negotiated. Alfred, likewise were at a disadvantage when rowing on the Buffalo River as they used local outrigger boats with which they were unfamiliar. For this reason their trip to East London in 1896 was unsuccessful.
In 1897, rowing came to a complete standstill when the North Wharf and boating sheds were demolished for the construction of the Cold Storage building (later the ICS Building and today’s Seef HQ) and reclamation of a piece of foreshore. The compensation paid to the BATB for this loss fell far short of the costs of providing suitable new facilities.
The standstill continued until 1899 and boats were stored at various sheds in the Docks, where they deteriorated somewhat, while members drifted away from the sport leaving behind only the stalwarts. Eventually, through the good offices of Mr John Garlick, Chairman of the City Council’s Public Works Committee, three boathouses (each 45 ft x 22 ft) with changing rooms and showers (each 10 ft x 22 ft) were provided on the Fish Jetty on the northern side of Rogge Bay. (pics). This accommodation was far superior to what had been available at the two previous venues and stimulated a brief revival. The 1902 Spring Regatta was notable for including for the first time a ladies’ race in double scull wherries. It also saw the participation for the first time of the YMCA club, formed in 1901, which had bought the boats of the defunct Good Hope club. Later, in June 1905, a combined Alfred / Civil Service crew participated in the first regatta to be held on the Zambezi, and placed second to Leander of East London in the fours and sculls events.
Meanwhile, the BATB had continued its efforts to find a permanent home for rowing that could provide flat water suitable for the fine boats and also be an attractive spectator venue. In 1906 it negotiated a lease with Milnerton Estates Ltd. who were opening a new township along the banks of the Diep River lagoon, connected by a new railway line to Cape Town. On 17th November 1906 the BATB formally opened the boathouses and clubhouse on the occasion of the Alfred-hosted regatta there: special trains at reasonable fares were laid on, excellent catering arrangements were put in place, and the band of the Cape Peninsula Rifles entertained the guests. (pics). That evening some 80 ladies and gentlemen attended the formal dinner at the Milnerton Estates Pagoda. Because of its new location on the Diep River Course the BATB, in 1907, changed its name to the “Western Province Amateur Rowing Association”.
During the years up to 1914 the April and September regattas continued to be the main events in the annual rowing calendar. (After Queen Victoria’s death the Championship Regatta was brought forward to April because better weather conditions were expected then.) It is clear from the regatta reports that these events continued to be held on the Bay and so it is unclear what use was made of the facilities on the Diep River at Milnerton. On numerous occasions regattas were postponed due to poor weather and contributed to dwindling spectator interest. A highlight of the 1912 Championship was the presence in the Civil Service crew of P G van der Byl a 1911 Cambridge “blue”, and E A Walker a “trial eight” member. Their crew won the Champion sixes event, while van der Byl and Walker took the Champion pairs race.
The advent of the Great War brought a halt to serious rowing on the Bay. Of Alfred’s approximately 40 members 19 went on active service, of whom six lost their lives. No club meetings were held between June 1914 and March 1919 and from 1919 onwards the club had no officers, although Stanley Lewis acted as Hon. Secretary. This precarious position was shared with the yachting fraternity with whom Alfred’s future became closely intertwined during the 1920s.
On 9th October 1931 a group of old Alfred oarsmen held an emergency meeting with the object of co-operating with WPARA to re-establish rowing on Table Bay. This initiative was driven by the Rev. A J S Lewis, now Mayor of Cape Town, and Walter Ritchie-Fallon. Alfred was effectively WPARA as it was the last surviving club and had taken over the boats of the Civil Service and YMCA. In November 1931 an agreement was reached with the City Council giving WPARA accommodation comprising clubhouse and launching facilities, costing £1200, beneath the Concert Pavilion near the head of Adderley Street Pier. The lease was effective from 1st January 1934 and valid for 25 years. During 1933 the University of Cape Town Rowing Club was formed and Alfred gave it assistance, particularly the use of its boats.
The boats, all heavy tubs of pre-war vintage, were retrieved from Lakeside and refurbished. They comprised two in-rigged pairs, four 4s (two inrigged and two outrigged), and two 6s; oars were needed, and it was also decided to order two wherries from Misplons Boat-builders at Woodstock. (pic). Initially, UCT based themselves at Zeekoevlei and used the premises of Zeekoevlei Yacht Club (opened in 1934) for storing their boat.
Serious activity began in mid-1934 when the first AGM since 1919 was held on 7th June. Decisions followed regarding the revival of the Championship and Spring regattas on the Bay, the first Spring Regatta being held on 15th September 1934 followed by a Championship Regatta on 11th May 1935. An undertaking was made to launch Schools’ rowing and in 1937 it was started at Bishops and Rondebosch. By mid-1938 total Alfred membership stood at 70 of which 39 were active. At some stage UCT also based themselves at the Pier with an active membership of about 12.
Notice to vacate the Pier was received from the Harbour Board in April 1938 but an extension was negotiated until the end of 1939. This reprieve allowed the last major rowing event to be held on the Bay: a race against a visiting Cambridge crew who had beaten all opposition elsewhere in the country, including the South African champions Leander, of East London, on 30 August 1939. Both Alfred and UCT contested the race (in recently acquired outrigged clinker fours) against Cambridge. According to veteran oarsmen the race, which started at 10 a.m., was the most exciting ever seen on Table Bay. Until the half-way mark all three boats remained together with UCT in a slight half-length lead. Then Alfred dropped back. UCT held on and it was only over the last 200 yards that Cambridge drew level and dead-heated on the finish line. Alfred finished four lengths behind.
Three days later, on 2nd September, World War 2 broke out. In January 1940, in conditions of great international uncertainty, all the craft were loaded onto lorries and taken to an uncertain future at Zeekoevlei where both Alfred and UCT would share a cheap wooden boathouse. (pics). That same afternoon a number of crews took to the water after dragging their boats across hundreds of yards of sandflats to the water’s edge – it was high summer and the vlei was at its lowest level. (pics). At the AGM in June 1940 it was decided to suspend all rowing until hostilities had ended.
The Zeekoevlei Years 1940 – present
Zeekoevlei was the remotest of all possible venues. It lay at the end of a rough gravel road off Prince George Drive in a largely uninhabited wilderness of sand-dunes and seasonal marshlands. Post-war activity picked up in November 1946 when Alfred’s first ordinary meeting took place. From the outset Alfred and UCT regarded the vlei as an unsuitable venue and only a temporary home. Their priority was to return to Table Bay to a site near RCYC. This, however, proved to be impossible for a variety of reasons.
By 1949 the continued existence of Alfred was again on the club’s agenda. A J S Lewis urged everyone to do whatever was necessary to generate public interest and encourage revival of the sport, and provide competition for UCT. Years passed and the club limped along until a revival took place in the early 1950s driven by O G Hind. He gathered a group of young oarsmen, some from other clubs and some from overseas. The boats were repaired and one acquired; Ernest Gearing, a pre-war UCT oarsman, secured a wartime shed CKD from Westlake Barracks for £100 to provide a combined boathouse-clubhouse into which the club moved in September 1954; in January 1955 a 5-year lease on the site was negotiated with Cape and Transvaal Land and Finance Co. Ltd., giving the club a measure of security it had formerly lacked.
On this new foundation the club went from strength to strength: in 1955 an Alfred crew won the Buffalo Grand Challenge and in December 1956 Alfred won it for the second time in succession. (pics). In September 1956 the crew of Halifax, Des Sieni, Greg Gearing and Diepeveen trialed for the Olympics and were superior to any other South African crew.
By the early 60s the club seemed to be in the doldrums again. There were two perceived reasons: the vlei’s remoteness, which placed it out of public view, and the lack of schoolboy rowing. Around 1963 John van Niekerk returned to Cape Town and was elected Alfred President at the August 1963 AGM. With the club centenary celebrations coming up in 1964 club energies were mobilised and resulted in a commemorative booklet and a regatta amongst the Cape clubs comprising Alfred, UCT, and Cape Town Boat Club, followed by a dinner dance. However, in 1965 schools rowing at SACS, Rondebosch, and Plumstead folded. Alfred finances were unsound with expenditure exceeding income, while active membership had dwindled to eight, only four of whom were of competitive age. At the 1966 AGM Col. Jack Rose, an Alfred member for 75 years, was Guest of Honour on the occasion of his 90th birthday. (pics).
The unhappy state of club affairs continued until 1971 when at an Extraordinary AGM the intention was announced of sending a four to compete at Henley. An eventful year unfolded with the overseas four having a successful tour of England and Holland. Alfred also competed at the SA Champs at East London where the Senior 4 achieved second place. In 1972 both Alan Marsh and Richard Moolenschot attended Trident trials with Marsh being selected. But around the same time some of the older experienced oarsmen left for Johannesburg: Greg Gearing and Dick Hind followed the earlier departures of Rae Cox and Colin Kidwell.
Another decline set in thereafter that resembled conditions during the early 1930s and early 1950s. In 1972 Col. Rose died at the age of 95 years. By 1974 there were only four to five active members.
On 5th June 1982 the club was given three months’ notice to vacate the site it had occupied for nearly 30 years. But on the 8th of November 1983 the Alfred Boat House Association (comprising Alfred, and SACS, Bishops and Wynberg schools) signed a lease agreement with the City Council and plans were in place for a 400 sq m clubhouse costing R36,000.00. This was duly opened on 27th October 1984 by the Mayor of Cape Town, Mr Leon Markowitz. (pics).
However, during this time other significant events occurred. In 1983 ZVYC’s clubhouse burnt down and Alfreds was approached regarding the possibility of amalgamation and relocation there. After due deliberation it was decided to keep all rowing clubs under one roof and to proceed with the south bank project. Then, on 7th August 1983, John van Niekerk passed away suddenly after returning home from a morning’s row at the vlei. He was 67. (pic). It was later decided to honour him in the form of a John van Niekerk Trophy.
Alfred’s occupation of the south bank venue was short-lived. Within a year of the opening of the new clubhouse common ground had been established with ZVYC regarding the desirability and feasibility of merging, and this step was endorsed at the Alfred AGM on 21st November 1985. It became effective on 1st April 1986.