The move from the Orange Street Campus in 1928 was fondly referred to as The Great Trek. The bold new teaching edifices below Devil’s Peak were a far cry from the cramped quarters in town and the sheer luxury of single rooms for men drawn mainly from College House and Varsity House, were nevertheless in a pretty stark place. Only Men’s and Women’s Residences, Maths and Arts Blocks , Jagger and Beit existed. The grand steps led to a nine hole golf course, for it wasn’t until some four years later that Jameson Hall was built.
It was a rather monastic life so far from the city when ties and jackets were the dress code for lectures, and undergraduate gowns even after dinner when “taking constitutional strolls”. Women visitors were only allowed in on weekend afternoons and silence had to be observed after 8 p.m. Full board and lodging with silver service at every meal and a char per flat cost 63 Pounds per annum.
Distractions included sing songs around the upright piano in the Lower Common Room, “debagging” (an early ancestor of “streaking”, now also antique), the silent cinema in Rondebosch where a pert female violinist improvised a soundtrack and was enthusiastically cheered by the men. The first House Dance (at 3s 6d per couple) established a tradition and there were talks and debates in the Upper Common Room addressed by people like General Smuts and Count Labia.
Highland Brigade was an annual “impromptu” concert tradition imported from College House. It took place at the first meeting of year of the Debating Society and was designed to disrupt proceedings in the most ribald fashion and usually ended with a dance. The Highland Brigade Song claimed “we are a happy clan, we’re full of brandy, got a lot of kick. We’ve danced till we’re lame and now we go and leave you for a while … we bid you all a fond goodnight”. The tradition finally fell out of favour with the University by 1941 when it was banned.
The House began to function. It established its own bank account (with 6 Pounds 16s and 6d). A Porter was installed in the Porter’s Lodge (Porch), a “Colonel” Morris with a red face and bristling military moustache. His retirement gift from the House after a decade was 5 Pounds! The first annual House photograph was taken in 1928. In those days the long exposures meant that the lens that roved from left to right gave enough time for a few men to run around the back and appear twice on the same picture. Miss Proven (the matron) and Miss Clarke (the cook) were cherished by the men but objected to being visited by men not properly attired in jacket and collar. Another regular character was Sol who bought old clothes at the end of term, knowing that most men were by then running short of cash. Once, someone sold him his own hat!
Initiation was the right of passage for all newmen. It sometimes got out of hand but was not nearly as vicious and degrading as the practices at College House. Initiates had to learn to sing the SA College Song, lustily, were only allowed to walk “on the black” (tiles in the cloisters), were quite regularly “bathed” (with fire hoses) and had to wear green ties for the first term. Greenties survived as the House’s telegraphic address for decades. Inevitably, proceedings sometimes got out of hand and into the press where they were sensationalised. On at least one occasion, the House retaliated by burning a heap of the “offending edition” outside the offices of a Cape Town daily. After serious injury, and indeed fatalities at other universities, initiation was finally banned at UCT in 1970.
Despite the newness of it all, the early years must be seen in the context of the Great Depression, a really tough worldwide economic downturn. The Chronicles of the Ressi-Denti reflect that “The land lay under the scourge of Dee-pre-shun and the Guv-mint tribe took heavy toll. Ah-lix, High Priest of the Ressi-Denti (Warden Professor Alex Brown) spake thus: ‘Thy profitless ways must even now cease for Lecc-Tjur is a stern god and his rites must be obeyed with humble and contrite heart. Fail not at thy peril.’ TheRessi-Denti forsook their evil mode of living and their offerings to the handmaidens Prokras-Tine-Shun and Mawnin Tee became daily less and there was much misery among the womenfolk. The worship of Lecc-Tjur, great god of Uni-Ver, flourished”.
A harder and sadder time were to follow and as the House entered its second decade the rest of the world was going mad. The Second World War made itself felt first in small inconveniences and some belt tightening. The daily ration of 56lbs of butter per day for the House was more that civilians in Britain were getting. The Michaelis School turned out House crockery – the coffee mugs admittedly more luxurious than the tin versions – but the plates were criticised for their “microscopic dimensions”. After extensive calculations, lavatory paper was rationed to 10 sheets per man per day. Butterfly collars for formal dinners disappeared but stiff collars were more strictly enforced than before.
Boxing Night started out as boxing matches for newmen during initiation, and developed in Box Night designed to take newmen down a peg or two when they arrived wearing blazers reflecting the prowess of their school days. Arbor Day or Boomplantdag became a new tradition with its own long and turbulent history. The object was to plant a tree (usually just a branch) in the space between the two residences. The ceremonials included a choir of newmen, gowns in reverse, conducted by a choirmaster whose baton was anything from a spanner to a lavatory brush. The incantations and exhortations of a “Rabbi”, “Padre” and “Dominee” inevitably drew fire for the innuendo which insulted or mocked religion. Occasionally a nappy-clad man-child would be dragged kicking and screaming from the House and an enormous scimitar would fall. For the benefit of female spectators, the “foreskin” (usually a bit of Bunsen burner tube) would be tossed in their direction.
A Seniors vs Newmen would follow, presided over by the “Governor-General” and his “lady wife” along with motorcycle escort. Rugby was king and the ranks of the University 1st XV were always swelled by men from the House. The Captain of the team that ended an Intervarity drought of 11 years in 1940 was delivered to the Dining Hall in an ancient Morris Minor and mobbed with blancmange and other celebratory missiles.
Another constant presence was Sarge Heydenrych. Immaculately turned out in his blue Melton suit, he could “spot a day man a mile off” and the minutes chronicle appreciation of his invaluable service to the House. He was bade a fond farewell at a retirement dinner in his honour in 1954 after 17 years’ service and succeeded by Sarge Fuggle who stayed until 1966. Head Steward in the Dining Hall was Jock, with an impeccable and dignified service record from 1934 to 1966. A Western Province Champion, the men regularly supported him at ballroom dancing competitions. His contemporary was Alfred, the head chef whose snacks at House Dances were as legendary as his dreams of a win at the races where his authority was sufficiently highly regarded for men with the same ambition to consult him. He retired after 28 years and both Nyasas were repatriated as government policy.
The 1947 Royal Visit included UCT when HM Queen Elizabeth received an honorary degree. At the request of the men, she was proudly shown round by the Chancellor, General Smuts, and the Warden, Prof Theo le Roux. They departed to a full-throated rendition of We shall not be moved with an added verse of Theo is bedondered much to the amusement of both hosts.
Intervarsity was not confined to Rugby and there was a vibrant tradition of raids between UCT and Stellenbosch and no trophy was considered too sacred or impossible. The University Gardener reported a sudden interest in the names of flowers. The penalty for ignorance was one beer (9d a quart at the time). Pranks were not always tolerated. In 1943 some men were expelled for helping themselves to grapes from the vineyards of the nearby ministerial residence of Hon. J H Hofmeyr.
Much of this frivolity took place against a background that was serious. The War had come to Africa by 1940. Some men abandoned their studies to join up and some perished. Those doing technical degrees were urged to complete them and hostility to young men of military age pursuing normal student lives, was not uncommon. They had the opportunity to serve in the University’s own corps, training with the University Fire Brigade or manning anti-aircraft guns in the city in anticipation of the full horrors of enemy action. Nevertheless, when Victory came, the House celebrated with no less joy than the Mother City.
The status of returning ex-servicemen threw the whole convention of Initiation into disarray. How could these veterans, often older and with more life experience, be regarded as the same as boys straight out of school? Generally, they were more sophisticated, wore suits to lectures and had motor cars. They were leaders and knew tie value of camaraderie. Men’s Residence wielded a disproportionate influence over the rest of the University. They were the brightest and the best and had the habit of winning scholarships, class medals, colours for every code of sport at every level. The Students’ Representative Council was always well stocked by the House.
By 1947, the most junior member of the House Committee was a third year man. The Warden nominated five members and the House elected four. Only in 1951 were newmen given the vote at the last quarterly House Meeting.
TO FIFTY YEARS
In the name of progress and in response to economies, many changes manifested themselves. As the University grew in size, Smuts Hall had to work hard to retain its prestige and identity.
New traditions emerged with the Ass Cot Gold Pot under the auspices of the Smuts Hall Turd Club. Quasi- and semi-equine mounts were coaxed the length of the rugby fields. The mounts rejoiced in names such as Thmutha-da-Bugga and Miss Carriage. Racing colours like beer stain brown, puke green and panic purple are thought to have been rejected by the Sport of Kings the world over.
Another institution was the Purity Pageant and required newmen to assemble a variety of animals. The neighbouring and long-suffering Groote Schuur Zoo was the most obvious and unwilling supplier and ducks and angora goats were trussed up in laundry bags to be spirited away to Smuts Hall. Honours were awarded to the unusual and so in 1969, twenty strapping youths sought to abduct an emu which put up a spirited fight until a trip rope felled it. Medical students applied their stethoscopes and gravely announced the death of the emu. The theory was often proved that it was easy to get a sheep to the top floor of a corner flat, but no doddle to get it down without it leaving substantial faecal evidence.
Nothing, however, has topped the 1977 incident when four elephants were led from the circus in Kenilworth to sample the sweetness of the grass in A quad. On this occasion the Warden took the rap with a fine from the RAG committee for harbouring animals in the Residence.
Box Night became Newmen’s Concert, the annual House Dance became the Formal and in the 1960’s Smuts Seniors could preview Fuller Hall freshettes in the Squaw Parade which was soon targeted by the “ugliest birds”. When cars, even hand-me-downs , became more usual for students and petrol was cheap, Car Rallies became popular and there were also annual walk to Stellenbosch, setting off in the pre-dawn. Walk ties were even produced to add prestige to the event.
The threat to some traditions was cause for rage. In 1964 it was proposed that the House blazer should change from green to navy blue and old boys were polled. One side maintained “it is always easy to recognise a Smuts man in a bar – the green is repugnant enough to catch the eye under all conditions and circumstances” while anther maintained “In my time the attitude of those in the House would have been to suggest to those desiring navy blazers to leave Smuts Hall and join the Blikkiesdorp Jukskei Club”.
Repeatedly newmen sought to gain the franchise and by 1970 they were allowed to attend the second quarterly House meeting and enjoy half a vote each. This remained in force for some time but by 1974, there were two second year men on the House Committee and in 1977 (for 1978) a newman was elected for the first time. By 1972 the Warden had reduced his nominees from four to two on the House Committee, nearly always supporting the recommendations of the outgoing committee.
Admission of female visitors remained restricted. At the beginning of the Seventies, only senior men were allowed to entertain female visitors in their rooms on Sunday afternoons. Further concessions were a bargaining chip at the height of the demise of initiation and further carrots were offered “pending satisfaction with the induction system “ by the University administration. The House introduced the Visitors’ Book to Porch. Sarge called the man over the intercom and his visitor had to sign in. It was hardly clandestine and yet Smuts Hall was so regularly visited by “Mary Poppins” according to the Visitors’ Book, that it is a wonder that she had time to study at all. 1974 saw a spirited campaign to allow gender integration of residences with wide national press coverage and polling of other universities. The refusal by the Minister of National Education became a bit of a damp squib because by then economies had shut the Smuts Dining Hall, and the men ate at Fuller Hall. Jericho had fallen.
All this activity happened on Warden George Menzies’ watch but it was left to staff to deal with the nuts and bolts. In 1966 Sarge Fred Friedrich took over as Head Porter in the days when Porch was open 24/7. He was a huge ex-cop with an eagle eye and his efforts to control female passage became as Canute to the tide. Miss Deist became matron in 1956 and stayed for 25 years nurturing the fabric of the building with real care. Her gentleness broke once a year the morning after the Formal when she would hoist the dinner bell like a town crier to rouse the somnolent and get the House back to normal. By the end of the Seventies further cuts were made and flat chars had to double up and eventually move on. A gaggle of kinder and more caring women it would be hard to find, each fiercely loyal to “their” boys, putting up with slovenliness but tartars in their own right at exam time. Peter and Byott and Clem were at the tail end of an era of silver service and became quite rudderless without the pride of running their own dining hall. By this time residence fees were R975 per annum.
Initiation was a long time dying. University authorities and the public grew more critical each year. The returning ex-servicemen were out of step with what had gone before and this was partially solved by giving them their own residence Driekoppen, known better as Belsen. The University Council banned physical initiation and all “childish, undignified or time-wasting induction procedures” in 1962 but it is hardly surprising that interpretations of the edict differed widely. The House quoted Vice-Chancellor JP Duminy who said “Smuts Hall is a happy house. I have not had complaints about any activities there. When we reviewed the whole operation of initiation in 1963, we did not need to alter one principle which had been laid down in our agreement”. The practice struggled on but in 1970, on April Fool’s Day, the University Council finally decreed “All initiation at the University shall cease forthwith”. By then, a Smuts alumnus, Sir Richard Luyt, was Vice-Chancellor and he had no sentimental attachment to initiation.
The reputation of Smuts Hall as a feral House which had difficulty even attracting guest speakers to the annual Formal Dinner was perhaps an indication that nothing had filled the void that initiation had left. The Warden and House Committee tried the pride an honour tactic at a House Meeting which, at 25 pages, has the longest minutes of any House Meeting : “An indication of what is expected of men in Smuts Hall may be deduced from a few examples. In 1960 the captains of 7 University Sports Clubs, the SRC President, the RAG convenor, 2 Rhodes Scholars and one Commonwealth Scholar were from Smuts. It was not an exceptional year”. They tried a system of fines. There were fines for dress offences, indecent exposure, walking on the lawns (green fees), cat calling the warden and water bombing the homebound traffic on Rugby Road while the freeway was being constructed. The dress code banned tight trousers, Chelsea boots and ‘the prevailing vogue at Art School’.
The House muddled through with publications like Momus and Bull Bull. The Bull Fighters’ Club and at the opposite end of the scale, Custodiae Disceptationis came and went, each making its mark on the fabric and traditions of the House whether they lasted a term or a couple of decades.
On the eve of the 5oth Anniversary of Smuts Hall, when alumni gathered from the four corners of the globe to celebrate and reminisce, it was clear the architects’ design for a building for men to live together, to learn together and to learn to live together had been an unqualified success. It brought together wealthy and middle class, English and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, from every part of the sub-continent. It was beginning to breach the ban on other races as the first few Chinese students were admitted and the University gradually defied state policy. The House simply continued as a multi-cultural group of men functioning in the way that collegiality is meant to. It still produced the best and the brightest and it hung onto selecting its own new students against a tide of egalitarian policy which has dented but not defeated Smuts Hall.
BEYOND 1978 and POST 1994
The narrative thus far draws on the history published for the fiftieth anniversary in 1978. It had the benefit of much archival material and interviews with many individuals. These two headings are a work in progress because much material was thrown out and the period will have to be reconstructed. Smuts alumni are invited to contact OwenKinahan@telkomsa.net
Material on the history of Men’s Residence – Smuts Hall and its architecture is principally drawn from The First Fifty Yearsby alumnus Owen Kinahan, published in 1978 for the golden jubilee.