For more than 130 years, the Cradock Club has served as a gentleman’s refuge and a legendary social hangout for soldiers and civilians.
Words and Pictures: Chris Marais, www.karoospace.co.za
High summer in Bree Street, Cradock, and you really don’t want to be anywhere else in the world. The jacarandas that line the Karoo river town’s oldest-surviving heritage avenue are in full bloom, and the leiwater furrows fed by the Great Fish River are gurgling away. The houses on the river side of Bree Street mostly have backyards so big you could farm fruit and vegetables for a living – if you had the patience, the savvy and the right seeds for the job.
The Methodist church has the finest rectory around – in fact, its first-floor balcony gives it the mood and aspect of a French Quarter mansion in New Orleans. The local Methodist priest is truly a lucky fish. Not far away is St Peter’s, the Anglican Parish of the Great Fish River. Beautifully built from local stone and consecrated in 1858, this Gothic-style place of worship serves a small but devoted current-day community of worshippers.
Bree Street is a quiet little country thoroughfare these days but back in March of 1974 it was a different story down there. The Great Fish River that feeds the district was in high flood. Up at Fish River Station, 40km from town, the river went on the rampage and washed away entire fields.
On its way to the coast, the flooding river gathered up all manner of debris which began to stack up against the two bridges in Cradock. As the waters dammed up against the bridges, they spread into the town, causing immense damage. Remember, Karoo homes were built of sun-baked mud bricks back then. And the floodwaters turned them back into sludge. Although St Peter’s took a hit, it still stands today because of its sturdy stone construction.
At the Cradock Club, another solid edifice, members were rushing about like worker ants trying to save precious artefacts and memorabilia. First order of business at the club was to rescue the priceless, 12-seater, Burmese teak, leather-topped table. With typical Karoo Midlands farming ingenuity, the members rushed in with 44-gallon drums and used them to float the table and other bits of furniture above the floodwaters.
Author Bartle Logie records in his book Water in the Wilderness (Bluecliff Publishing, 2006) that one of the club members, Callie Calitz, quipped ‘So long as you weren’t a midget, it was just possible at the height of the flood to keep on drinking (at the bar).’ In fact, there is a flood mark at one of the entrances to the Cradock Club bar and, yes, it is about chest height.
The Cradock Club, which has had a steady membership of 150 men for many years, was established in 1881 – the same year the railway line came to the town. “Just to put it into historical context, that was the American era of Billy the Kid,” said Lou Venter, a former club chairman who guided us around the establishment.
The Anglo-Boer War (now termed the South African War) put a temporary end to initial Boer-Brit cordialities. Cradock was firmly under British control and one of the occupying regiments, the Sherwood Foresters, took over the club. Many battles and skirmishes occurred all over the region, especially in the latter part of the war when Boer flying commando units harassed the British, who were initially less mobile.
But there was never a fight in Cradock itself. In fact, there seems to have been a fair amount of ‘downtime’ because British soldiers dotted at various lookout posts in the impressive array of mountains around Cradock played heliograph chess against each other. The legend goes that occasionally a Boer farmer would secretly join in the game.
You’ll notice on a walk-through that the Cradock Club has a very English air to it. Stained glass doors, dark wood, old hat and coat hooks, portraits of English kings, hunting scenes, a reading room, a billiard room and a distant lounge area where the bridge ladies (and some guys) now gather every week to play.
The club’s first location was elsewhere (a building no longer standing), but in 1955 it was moved to its present spot, a large 1850 period double-storey manse in Bree Street. A portion of the original bar was installed in the new premises. If you look carefully at the marble counter, you can see a small cross showing true north. That was scratched in by one of the Sherwood Foresters, who was missing England so far away.
When the Sherwood Foresters finally went home in 1901, they left behind the Burmese teak table, which now has pride of place in the club’s reading room. They also left behind a fantastical snuff box. Built out of a hollowed-out Highland sheep horn and decorated with silver and amethyst crystals, the snuff box used to be passed along from officer to officer in the club. And although it’s hard to gauge its worth in coin, you get the notion that the snuff box in the Cradock Club has immense nostalgic value for members past and present.
Outside is a venerable holly oak (Quercus ilex), densely green and thick-stemmed. It was first planted in 1850 along with a nearby twin oak that was mysteriously burnt down in 2006. These trees are said to be the oldest in the world and the remaining one is a national monument. They were not used for ship building like other oaks because the wood does not split and is difficult to work.
Going back to the bar, it is clear to see that the local sense of humour is in full spate here. The walls are lined with trophies donated by locals (mostly farmers). It’s a hunted selection of critters, ranging from kudu, warthog and blesbok, to an aardwolf above the whisky dispensers. There’s even a baboon with somebody’s old school tie around its neck.
Membership is strictly controlled. Only a Cradock Club member can propose another prospective member, and this must be seconded. If accepted, the proposed member’s name is put on the board and he is allowed there ‘on appro’.
In February every year, at the AGM, ‘new members’ are decided on. If the member is rejected, the persons who proposed him and seconded his nomination could also be ejected from the club. A member may invite temporary members (tourists) in for an evening. And the club rules are quite clear:
- Everyone entering the bar must shake hands with everyone else at the bar
- No flip-flops and T-shirts with advertising messages allowed
- No swearing allowed
- No ungentlemanly behaviour is tolerated anywhere in the club
- You’re not permitted to bring the club into disrepute
- Females are only allowed in if they are accompanied by a male member or have popped in to play bridge
- Anyone caught talking about politics, religion or business has to buy a round of drinks
“In fact,” says Lou Venter, who owns a gun-and-jewellery shop in Cradock, “members will sometimes try to trick one into buying a round of drinks by asking, for instance, about the price of a .308 cartridge…”