First sporting hub of Potchefstroom

by | Apr 19, 2022 | Events, Places | 0 comments

Today Potchefstroom is undeniably one of the sporting hubs of the country. Due to the internationally regarded High Performance Institute at the North-West University Potchefstroom Campus, international athletes are flocking to train here, mostly during the summer months. The NWU’s Astro Turf hockey fields are hopping with a turnaround of national and international visitors.

Tennis greats visit, rugby games enthral and cricket is enthusiastically played.

It all started when foreseeing forefathers realised the needs for sporting fields and when the Park was planned in the 1880s, those were included. This is my second article on the Park, also known as Alexandra Park.

Earliest sport included throwing things

The earliest sporting activities in Potchefstroom seem to be young people throwing things. In September 1859 Magistrate JC Steyn warned residents to prevent their children and servants to throw stones, bricks or clay balls pressed onto sticks, being thrown; the time-honoured Afrikaner game, called “kleilatgooi”. This is according to WJ Prinsloo in Potchefstroom 150.

When President MW Pretorius’s birthday was celebrated on 17 September 1866, “boeresport” was played on the church square. Boeresport is another inherent Afrikaner activity. The boeresport at the President’s birthday included three-legged races and “beesvelgooi”. This is a dangerous activity where a group holds up a large hide, somebody is placed on it and they all pull hard at the same time, which launches the person on the hide in the air, with the aim of the game to see how high up they can throw the person! Less dangerous games at the President’s birthday included to see who can thread a needle the quickest and target practice, amongst others.

This photo shows a group of “volkspele” players on a visit to London, UK, demonstrating “beesvelgooi” on Trafalgar Plain, illustrating how dangerously high somebody can be thrown into the air. It appeared in 1989 in Ons Volkspele-erfenis” which was published by Die Afrikaanspele Volksang- en Volkspelebeweging. (Photo: courtesy of Johan Wolfaardt)

On 27 and 28 June 1866 the magistrate, Dr WJ Otto, organised horse races. Entry fee was £1 and the distance was 1 200 yards (1097 metres). This was popular amongst the British residents, which expanded before the First Anglo-Boer War. In 1869 a permanent race course with stands was laid out where Olën Park is today A standing committee controlled activities. Every race meet was concluded with a dinner afterwards.

Cricket was played as early as 1861. An article on the history of cricket in Potchefstroom appears in my book Stories of Potchefstroom. To obtain see here.

The first cricket pitch was on the current church square, between the Hervormde Church and the magistrate’s offices.

First activities in the area where the Park is today, was the laying out of the cemetery and the horse races, mentioned above. (See my first article on the Park for more on the history: https://lenniegouws.co.za/alexandra-park-the-lost-green-heart-of-potchefstroom/ ). The Park was laid out in 1892 and since its earliest inception, designated areas were laid out for various sporting activities. No doubt the planners of the Park, which included various sporting fields and courts put down the groundwork making Potchefstroom the sporting hub it is today.

A booklet, published in 1904 to promote Potchefstroom as a golfing destination described the sports available at the Park:

The Park is the home of the local athletic clubs and contains association football (soccer) and hockey grounds, croquet lawns, tennis courts, cricket pitch and cycle track on the eastern side, and a rugby football ground on the western side, all amid the most pleasant surroundings.

Park Tennis Club was first sports club

The first official sports club to open in the Park was the Park Tennis Club, which was founded in 1893, making it the oldest in the former Transvaal. The wife of magistrate Dirk Tom, Anna (mentioned above) officiated at the opening. The wife of Charlie Olen was also one of the founding members. According to Mrs Daphne Hurndall, the Tom family were all keen tennis players and even had their own tennis court. It stood opposite the family property on the south-eastern corner of Du Plooy and Van Riebeeck (Peter Mokaba) Streets.

This photo was taken at the official opening of the Park Tennis Courts. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

This postcard depicts the clubhouse of the Park Tennis Club and courts as it appeared shortly after the founding of the club. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

Players in tatters

Although rugby had been played in Potchefstroom since 1870, the first rugby club was only founded on 17 January 1890 and still exists as the Potch Dorp Rugby Club, which describes itself on Facebook as “the local union rugby club for both men and women”

The rugby field which is now known as Olën* Park was laid out in 1892 when the greater park was created. At first the field was situated on an east-west axis and not north-south as it is now.

*The name “Olën Park” with an umlaut on the “e” is generally accepted. The surname of the Olen family was, however, initially not spelled with the umlaut and this was only later added. In newspapers published in Mr Charlie Olen and his father’s lifetime the name is spelled without the umlaut.

According to Geoffrey Jenkins in A Century of History, the first international team to play rugby in Potchefstroom, was the team of “Dr Cove-Smith”. This was a British & Irish Lions team which visited the country in 1924. The All Blacks came in 1928.

A student at the Potchefstroom University College during the 1930s wrote that there was a stand with seating for 200 on the northern side. Each year the field was lightly ploughed, but after a month of playing on it, it was as hard as stone. “The players were a bit in tatters after a game,” he remarked.

The building of a bigger stadium was necessitated by the visit of the British Lions in 1938. The playing field was then turned to its north-south axis as it is now.

In 1949 a roofed stand with seating for 1 800 was erected. This was with a view to a visit of the All Blacks to Potchefstroom when 17 000 spectators packed the stadium to capacity.

In 1958, with the visit of the Barbarians, 2 000 seats were added at the southern end and in 1964 flood lights were installed. The All Blacks visited again in 1970 when 5 500 seats were added and in 1974 open stands on the eastern side with 3 000 seats were built.

Olën Park, the headquarters of Leopards Rugby, has seating for 24 000. Photo: Leopards Rugby

During 2018 the Fanie Du Toit Sports Grounds of the North-West University temporarily became the unofficial home ground of the Leopards after Olën Park didn’t pass muster. By the end of 2019 they were again back at Olën Park.

The stadium was named after CL (Charlie) Olen, who was the first president of the Western Transvaal Rugby Union, from 1922 to 1934. He also made a huge contribution when the field was enlarged in 1938. (See my article on street names beginning with an “O” at https://lenniegouws.co.za/street-names-reflect-history-9-o/ .)

For 70 years, Olën Park was also used when the yearly Intervarsity between the Pukke and Kovsies (students of the University of the Orange Free State) took place in Potchefstroom. The venue alternated between Potchefstroom and Bloemfontein. The rugby game between the first teams of the two universities was the highlight of each Intervarsity. An important aspect of the game was the entertainment provided by each team’s cheerleader. Spectators in the stands often enjoyed the quick wit of their cheerleaders more than the excitement of the game.

Legendary Puk cheerleader, Hans van Zyl, in action at Olën Park, during the Intervarsity of 1967. The photo appeared in Wapad on 23 August 1967.

Olën Park was also the venue for the graduation ceremonies of the Potchefstroom University College. On 16 March 1951, the most memorable of those was the last while the PUC was still incorporated into UNISA. The following day the independence ceremony of the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education also took place at Olën Park.

Athletics track

During 1892 the Park was laid out with the sports grounds, including an athletics track. Various changes were made to this over the years. By 1960 a new grand stand was built with seating for 1 200 spectators. The track was named the Bill Swart Oval, after a previous director of Parks and Housing of the town council. Floodlights were added in 1963.

This is how the athletic stadium in Alexandra Park appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. It was later named after Kenneth McArthur, an Irish-born South African policeman who won the gold medal for the marathon at the 1912 Olympic Games. Although McArthur found fame as a marathon runner, he also took part in track items and in all probability ran at this venue. (My biography on McArthur is available on amazon.com. Find a link here: https://lenniegouws.co.za/books/ .) Photo: August D’Ange D’Astre

The South African Championships of 1965 were held on the track and at the time it was regarded as one of the best athletic tracks in the country. The only criticism was that the track was about two meters too long (6 feet 6 inches).

Two years later the track was metricised to meet Olympic standards. In 1964 the grass track was replaced with asphalt, while larger floodlights were installed in 1967.

At the end of the 1960s a permanent all-weather surface, based on an asphalt-rubber mix that would meet Olympic standards, was installed.

The biggest athletic meeting until 1971 in Potchefstroom was held on 20 November of that year. It was named the Kenneth McArthur Memorial meeting and Mrs Joey McArthur was invited as guest of honour. This was not the first Kenneth McArthur meeting held by the Union up to that time, but the biggest.

Up till 1973 the athletics track only had seven lanes. It was then enlarged to have eight lanes after rumours surfaced that the track could not be used for South African championships if it did not have eight lanes.

One of the unique features of the track, at the time, was that it was rounder than other tracks.  The argument in favour of the rounder track was that athletes were able to pick up speed quicker around the rounder corners than around a sharp corner. This was confirmed by the fact that many athletes ran their fastest times around this track.

A new stega track was installed in 1977. The composition was made up of crumbed rubber tyres, natural and synthetic (latex) binding materials and it was coloured by iron oxide. Although the installation of the stega track was expensive, the upkeep was much cheaper than the old tartan track.

At the same time permission was asked from the city council to name the track after McArthur and it became known as the Kenneth McArthur Oval.

After further refurbishments in 1996, costing R2,4 million, the new Kenneth McArthur Stadium was opened with an athletic meeting on 19 March attended by some of South Africa’s best athletes.

In 1999 the Potchefstroom City Council and the Potchefstroom University reached an agreement that the university could have access to the Kenneth McArthur Stadium for their athletic activities for ten years.

Third oldest bowling club

By 1913 the town council was requested to build a bowling green on the southern end of the park on Lindley Square, the camping ground of the Dutch Reformed Church. The club was officially founded on Ascension Day 1914. The first secretary was WB Barnard. (Read more about him in my article on street names beginning with a “B” https://lenniegouws.co.za/street-names-reflect-history-2/ ).

DA Lawrie donated a trophy for a league, which is still being played. The club is the third oldest in what was known as the Transvaal. The original club house was later replaced by a larger one and the first one was subsequently used as club house for the Round Table.

The bowling green and clubhouse at the Park as it appeared in a brochure to promote Potchefstroom that was published in 1932.

This is how the bowling green and club house looked in the 1950s. The photo appeared in a marketing brochure for Potchefstroom, published by the town council in 1951.

Although this should have been included in the previous article, there is one matter about the Park that still needs mentioning.

What was for many years the oldest nursery school in Potchefstroom was situated on the south side of the Park. Elsie van Huyssteen Nursery School was founded in 1941. Mrs Daphne Hurndall wrote about Elsie: “There was a character if ever there was one. She came originally from Plettenberg Bay as a young, qualified kindergarten teacher and she started off every baby in the town, when it started school. She became a popular figure and she played tennis and bridge and learned young how to smoke and take a social ‘spot’!”

The name of the nursery school was later changed, but closed down in the early 21st century.

Without the various sporting fields, clubs and courts, the Park would unlikely have survived as long as it did.

Surprisingly some of the trees that were once part of the beautiful Alexandra Park, still exist.

Although dwarfed by the floodlights of the McArthur Stadium, this large tree is a remnant of the once luscious greenery which graced the Park. When planted, the tree stood next to the town furrow, which explains its enormous size. According to Prof Sarel Cilliers, the tree is a tipuana tree. It originates from Bolivia.

This enormous tree stump is all that is left of a huge tree in the Park. It still stands behind the stands of the Kenneth McArthur Stadium.

These unassuming railings marked where a bridge over the town furrow once was.

Dr Karen Puren, chair of Urban and Regional Planning at the NWU, is of the opinion that the area around the Park can be a heritage precinct. This is a technical term in the field of Urban and Regional Planning indicating a designated area of a certain nature, for example having a cluster of heritage sites such as this one, or being a tourism hotspot. Every town and city in the country has a Spatial Development Framework (SDF), a document that by law needs to be updated every five years. It is a strategic policy document and if an area is included in this document as a “precinct”, it can give some protection to the sites in the area. According to Dr Puren, the Park and its surrounding cluster of heritage buildings and sites definitely have the potential to be included in the SDF for Potchefstroom as a heritage precinct.

The surprising amount of heritage sites and buildings around the Park include The Snowflake Building (1921), the first Power Station (1912), the Old Fire Station in Kock Street (1912), Potchefstroom High School for Girls (1924), Potchefstroom Central School (1924), The Dutch Reformed Church (1894), Hill Manor Guest House (pre 1900), Potchefstroom High School for Boys (1905) and the Potchefstroom Station (1918) (See my article about the railway station, when it was destroyed in a fire). Before the railway line and the bridge over the N12 were built the Fort of Potchefstroom (1880) and its cemetery and the gunpowder magazine (1853) were also within easy walking distance from the Park.

Uncovering the history of the Park brought to light the important role it played in the history of Potchefstroom. Now almost forgotten and mostly visited by sports enthusiasts, the Park lost the important share it had in the social fabric of the town. It is, however, the role it plays in numerous sports that has ensured its existence to this day.

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