EMPIRE, WAR & CRICKET IN South Africa: Logan of Matjiesfontein, by Dean Allen. Published by Zebra Press, 2015.
Appropriately dedicated to the late David Rawdon and the people of Matiesfontein, this multi-faceted book combines a biography of James Logan, founder of that fascinating Victorian pile alongside the railway line in the Karoo, with the story of cricket’s origins in South Africa. As the events take place in the last decade of the 19th century and the first of the 20th - thus encompassing the Anglo-Boer War and developments that led to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 – this is also a political history of the country during turbulent times.
James Logan was a particularly successful example of an entrepreneur who left his native Scotland intent on making his fortune in farflung parts of the British Empire, holding aloft, as Andre Odendaal states in the foreword, “the flag of fair play, civilisation and empire.” Together with better-known contemporaries like Cecil John Rhodes, Logan became prosperous at a period when Britain expanded her empire to the point when she occupied nearly a quarter of the world’s areas.
And then there was cricket, a game the British believed expressed a distinctively English morality, which developed in South Africa with Logan as one of its most enthusiastic patrons.
A son of a railwayman from a working class background, Logan arrived at South Africa in 1877. He got a job as a porter at Cape Town station, just as the railway infrstructure was expanding. Through hard work and diligence he was promoted rapidly and often – from station master to superintendent of the railway between Hex River and Prince Albert. Happily married to Emma Haylett, his fortune was founded when he took over as caterer for railway station refreshments, laying the foundation of his business empire which stretched eventually to Bulawayo from Cape Town.
In 1883 he bought about 7 700 acres of land around a little railway siding not far from Touws River, went on to acquire neighbouring farms and set about building Matjiesfontein . The finished village was an impressive achievement that also became a fashionable health resort.
Logan entered politics in 1888 , winning a seat in the Cape legislative assembly six years later and by 1890 was being compared to his friend and political ally Cecil John Rhodes. Logan entertained on a grand scale, associated with dignitaries, politicians and sportsmen , which all helped his transformation from railway worker to Victorian aristocrat. His promotion and funding of cricket tours also went down well. He also built up his own estate Tweedside, a neighbouring farm where he hosted guests, making sure that these events were given coverage in the Cape Town newspapers. During the Anglo-Boer war Logan offered Matjiesfontein as a centre for the British forces. Logan was, like Rhodes, a man of his time, but his influence and fortune waned after his retirement from politics and he died at Matjiesfontein in 1920.
The book is based on a PhD that Dean Allen completed seven years ago, and publication was made possible by the Rupert Foundation. Wonderful old photographs enhance the text throughout . Tighter editing would have eliminated frequent repetition, but the parallel stories of Matjiesfontein, Logan, politics and cricket are timely and well told. It’s a pity that David Rawdon did not live to see this title: His wish that Matjiesfontein be preserved and its future assured is well supported by this story. As Liz McGrath who took over after Rawdon’s death has also since died, it is a question that needs to be answered.