Hamiltons was founded in 1875. No other rugby club in South Africa dates back to 1875. When Hamilton’s claims to be the oldest in South Africa, it does so with justification.
The form of football played at the Cape in 1875 was not rugby football, according to the rules of Rugby School in England. The rules did not reach the Cape until 1878. Before that people here played a game based on a form of football played at Winchester College, brought to the Cape by Canon G. Ogilvie, principal of Diocesan College (Bishops), in 1861. This was before the formation of the Football Association, which was father to soccer, or the Rugby Football Union, which became rugby’s guardian.
At that time there were many, many goal-related games played, especially at English public schools such as Winchester, Eton, Harrow, Marlborough, Bradfield and Rugby. The rules of the games were often made to suit the area of play available. For that reason Eton had two games – the wall game and the field game. Old boys of these schools began to play these games at universities, in army regiments and eventually in clubs. More and more this led to uniformity in the games which frequently did not differ greatly.
To talk about the game played at the Cape as an amalgam of rugby and soccer is wrong. There was no game called soccer then. The game played at the Cape was a local variation of Winchester College football, still played there and called sweetly “Winkies”. At the Cape it was often referred to as Gog’s Game or Gogball after Canon G. Ogilvie’s nickname. It was a slow moving game and would probably have suited sumo wrestlers more than the athletic rugby players of today. It was all manly stuff – chest to chest, hacking forward towards the goal, never backing off. Passing and so on were engaged in.
The first recorded match at the Cape was played on 23 August 1862 on the racecourse at Green Point between officers of the 11th Regiment and the Civilians (members of the Civil Service). This sentence contains many things worth mentioning. The report of the match was contained in the Cape Argus. Newspapers were short then and used mainly as advertisers of coming events, but this was an unusual event.
The match was played on the racecourse, for the first form of organised sport at the Cape was horseracing, dating back to the 1790s with the first British occupation. By the 1820s horseracing – cups, betting and all – was in full swing. Lord Charles Somerset loved the races, a generous winner but a bad loser.
That the racecourse – the Track, as it still called, though no longer a racecourse – was in Green Point made sense. Cape Town was small, virtually just the city bowl. It spread out towards Woodstock and Green Point, but the only bit of convenient flat land, before the reclamation of the Foreshore after World War II, was at Green Point. The racecourse was built on the flat bit of the Green Point Common nearest habitation, next to the Somerset Hospital which had been opened in 1818. The Common was then a bit of a wetland with frogs and birds and buck. The match itself was played between soldiers and men of the Civil Service. Like the schools, they were natural groupings of men and so did not require the organisation which clubs afforded men who had no tie other than the common desire to play football.
There had been matches before this one at Diocesan College (Bishops) and possibly between Bishops and SACS. There was also a match advertised to take place in Port Elizabeth in May 1862, of which no record has yet been found.
Adrian van der Bijl kicked off that first recorded match at 3 p.m. before “an immense crowd of on-lookers” and in the presence of His Excellency the Governor and Mrs Wodehouse and the Colonial Secretary, Lieutenant-Colonel and Mrs Jenner. Playing for the Civilians was John X. Merriman, later Prime Minister of the Cape. It was clearly a great occasion. The report said: “We have never seen so plucky a game played for one hour and three quarters and no goal gained by either side.” After all that pointless effort the wind changed and blew straight at the Civilians’ goal. The officers decided that they then had an unfair advantage and deferred the match to a later date.
As long as the game was confined to schools, the army and the Civil Service, there was no need for clubs, but after the discovery of diamonds in 1867 the Cape population grew. Diamond fever hit the city and immigrants started arriving. When gold fever started with the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886, the city grew even more. It was at this time that relatively unattached gentlemen started ways of organising games for themselves. This had happened in the UK and Ireland: clubs had been founded at Guy’s Hospital (1843), Trinity College, Dublin (1854), Edinburgh Academicals (1858), Sydney University (1863) and Christchurch in New Zealand (1863). There exists a belief that a club was established at Swellendam in 1865, but there are no extant records to confirm this. And so it came to pass that the first club founded was in Green Point. The suggestion for its formation came from W. Nightingale. The club was founded, it was believed, in March 1875. Nightingale suggested its name – the Hamilton Football Club (henceforth known as ‘Hamiltons’).
It is recorded that the name of the club was taken from a club of that name in Scotland. There was indeed a club, the Hamilton Academicals Football Club founded in 1874 by men who had been to the Hamilton Academy. The Scottish town of Hamilton is just south of Glasgow. The Hamilton Academicals FC still exists, but it is a soccer club. Back in 1874 the distinctions between the various forms of football which existed then were vague. There was nothing like the clear distinctions that exist today.
- Nightingale convened the founding meeting of the Club. The meeting took place in the offices of Messrs Hamilton Ross & Company of Adderley Street. The chairman was W.Y.T. Philip and amongst those present were J.R. Wiley, Walter Searle, Charles Johnston, R.A. McIntyre, G.G. Wrentmore and G.G. Meredith. Willie Philip became the first captain and the first president of the Club. He was then 24 years of age, for the men who founded the Club were players. This was true of the other founding fathers of the Club, many of whom were prominent men.
From 1875 to 1910 that was the name of the Club – the Hamilton Football Club. The ‘Football Club’ part is important historically as it reveals that the Club was formed before rugby football was played at the Club. The Claremont club is still called the Villager Football Club (henceforth known as ‘Villagers’). In 1910 Hamiltons merged with the Sea Point club and came to be called the Hamilton Sea Point Rugby Football Club. The word ‘Rugby’ was now inserted in the name as that was the brand of football that it was then playing, after first playing it in 1878.
Rugby School put great importance on sport. Many of its old boys wanted to continue playing and clubs were formed. Trying to get uniformity in the playing rules of old boys from differing football traditions led to the formation in 1863 of the Football Association. But there were those who wanted to handle the ball more and they broke away in 1871 and formed a Football Union. Because of the dominance of Old Rugbeians they adopted the rules as played at Rugby School and so called themselves the Rugby Football Union, as the ruling body in England is still called. (There was after all no reason to attach the word English as Rugby was in England, as everybody knew. One does not speak of the South African Cape Town Highlanders.)