Edwin St Hill photographed during the voyage to Australia with the West Indies team in 1930-31
(Image: National Library of Australia)
Once upon a time, there were three brothers from Trinidad. Their names were Wilton, Edwin and Cecil St Hill. All three played together for Shannon Cricket Club in Trinidad, the most competitive and determined team playing in the local competition. When Trinidad defeated Barbados by an innings in February 1929, the three played together for the only time in first-class cricket. The most famous – revered throughout Trinidad – was Wilton, who scored a century against the MCC team in 1926 and as one of the best batsmen in the region, played in the West Indies first ever Test match at Lord’s in 1928. But Wilton was a failure in that match, and on that tour. After a brief return to form in 1930, he disappeared from first-class cricket – and the pages of the history books. What about his brothers? Cecil is even more mysterious than the enigmatic Wilton, but Edwin went on to much greater and much more prolonged success than the others as he carved out a professional career in England. His story is a curious echo of that of Learie Constantine, with whom he was close. Yet Edwin is all-but forgotten today, both in the West Indies and in his adopted home of northern England. And if in some ways we know far more about Edwin than we do about Wilton, no-one ever wrote about the former like CLR James wrote about the latter.
The St Hill brothers were from the Woodbrook area of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, part of what CLR James called a lower-middle-class family. Wilton was born in 1893 and Edwin was born in 1904, but we do not even have a date of birth for Cecil. It may be a reasonable assumption that he was the youngest of the three as he made his first-class debut later than his brothers. But we do not know. Before telling the story of Edwin, it is worth spending a short time looking at what we know of this third brother. Although his actual name was Cecil, as revealed by Edwin in an interview in an English newspaper, thanks to CLR James the cricket world knows him as Cyl, and he is recorded as such at ESPNcricinfo and CricketArchive. He was primarily a bowler, but the cricket records know little else. In Beyond a Boundary, James tells us all that we know about him in two short passages: “Well over six feet, fast left-hand, his arm as straight as a post. When he dropped the ball on the off-stump it might straighten, to take the outside edge of the bat, or continue to the inside of your ribs.” Later he details how the fast bowler George John “for some reason or other” hated Cyl; on one occasion, Cyl, a number eleven batsman with no pretensions, thrashed his bowling all around the ground after John had taken the first nine wickets cheaply. But “Cyl too was the type to say exactly what he thought of John, preferably in John’s hearing.”
Other than this intriguing glimpse that Cyl may have possessed some of the same inner fire as Wilton, we know nothing else about him. He played just one first-class match, the game in February 1929 when he joined Wilton and Edwin playing for Trinidad. The Jamaica Gleaner records that he played in some trial matches in January, where he was successful. But his first-class appearance was underwhelming: he scored 2 runs batting at number eleven, but then did not bowl as Barbados were dismissed twice in one day. The Gleaner records that he left the field with a twisted knee shortly after lunch on the second day, early in Barbados’ first innings. The only other information we have is that CricketArchive records him playing three times in the Beaumont Cup for South Trinidad against North Trinidad between 1925 and 1932; he presumably remained a regular for Shannon.
With Edwin, we are on much firmer ground. And although he is largely unknown today, his story is a remarkable one in many ways. Born on 9 March 1904, he played with his brothers for the ultra-competitive Shannon team in the Bonanza Cup. But he never had the fanatical following that Wilton enjoyed. Other than a few passing references, CLR James barely mentions him in Beyond a Boundary, even though at one point they must have spent a great deal of time together. Instead, the most informative early biography of St Hill was written in the unlikely medium of the Burnley News in 1930. It appears to have been sourced from various Trinidad newspapers to which the authors had access. From this, we can piece together far more about Edwin’s early cricket than we can for his brothers.
St Hill first played in the Bonanza Cup, Trinidad and Tobago’s main cricket competition, for a club called Durban Cricket Club in 1922; critics judged him to be promising, but he had little success. The following year, he moved to play for Shannon, for whom he eventually opened the bowling. He quickly proved successful, topping the bowling averages for the entire Bonanza Cup in 1924 and 1929. Between 1922 and 1930, he took 224 wickets at an average of 9.42. The article in the Burnley News also gave his most recent performances: 34 wickets at 11.03 in 1928; 39 at 8.41 in 1929 and 28 at 12.57 up until August 1930.
The Trinidad team that won the Intercolonial Tournament in 1925; St Hill is seated at the front on the right. Wilton is in the middle row on the far right.
Before long, St Hill was selected to play for Trinidad in the Intercolonial Tournament and made his first-class debut in February 1924, when he opened the bowling. However, his performances were more notable for their steadiness than for any standout success. His figures were generally economical, but apart from when he took four for 99 in 47 overs against British Guiana in 1925, he did not take more than three wickets in an innings until 1929. When Barbados made their score of 726 for seven in 1927, St Hill had figures of 61-20-132-1. As a batsman, he achieved nothing of note, batting down the order.
Although performing well enough to be a regular for Trinidad, including against the MCC team that toured in 1926, St Hill was well down the pecking order when it came to West Indies teams. He was not selected for the representative team that played the MCC in 1926, nor was he invited to the trial matches before the team to tour England in 1928 was chosen.
Instead, St Hill, between June and August 1928, took part in a tour of the United States by a “West Indian XI”, mainly playing teams of expatriate West Indians. He was very successful, taking over 100 wickets at a low cost. The record of his arrival in New York gave his occupation as a clerk (possibly a shipping clerk) in Port of Spain. His next games for Trinidad were in January 1929 when the team won the Intercolonial Tournament at home; having played in the qualifying match, he and Wilton were joined by Cyl for the final which Trinidad won by an innings. Edwin’s contributions were again solid without standing out, in a tournament dominated by Constantine.
However, when the tournament was next held – in British Guiana in October 1929 – Constantine was ineligible as he was now a professional cricketer at Nelson in England: professionals were not allowed to take part in the Intercolonial Tournament. It was St Hill who stepped up: in the final (for which Trinidad qualified as holders), his bowling figures were 47.4-12-117-6 and 36-12-87-4; with the bat, he scored 10 and 67. Despite his efforts, Trinidad lost by four wickets, having never recovered, despite a strong fightback, from being bowled out for 152 on the first day. Although he was on the losing side, this performance pushed St Hill into contention for a place in the West Indies side that faced the touring MCC team in 1930.
The peculiar circumstances of that tour suggest that St Hill was, in fact, regarded very highly. Four Test matches (albeit ones only retrospectively given that status) were played, one in each of Barbados, Trinidad, British Guiana and Jamaica. For a variety of reasons (mainly financial, as the West Indies Board was not rich, but also owing to strong regional rivalry) the West Indies team varied hugely depending on where it played – far more so than during the 1926 series. The hosting team tended to dominate the composition of each West Indies side; for example, eight Trinidadians played in the Trinidad Test and in the final match, eight of the West Indian team were from Jamaica. Despite this preference for local players, St Hill was selected for the first Test, played in Barbados. His selection away from home suggests that he was very much a first-choice bowler, part of a theoretical strongest eleven. The match was a high-scoring draw, but St Hill’s bowling in the first innings (35-7-110-2) impressed the newspapers.
But then something odd occurred. The MCC moved to Trinidad, and as was standard, played the island team twice before facing the full West Indies team. St Hill played in the first Trinidad match and bowled steadily enough, taking three wickets in the MCC second innings as the home team won comfortably. He then missed the second match. Reports indicated that he was being rested, but this match had a political backdrop in that George Dewhurst returned to captain the team for the first time in several years. Dewhurst was a candidate to lead the West Indies in the second Test (each of the four Test matches had a local captain), but Trinidad lost. A writer in the Trinidad Sporting Chronicle claimed that the Trinidad selectors had deliberately selected a weakened team in order that Dewhurst would lose, while his rival for the captaincy Nelson Betancourt, who went on to captain the West Indies in the Test, would have the better result.
Whatever was going on behind the scenes, Edwin St Hill was omitted from the West Indies team for the second Test. His brother Wilton was chosen, making his final first-class appearance, as was Joe Small, who had been one of the Trinidad selectors for the two matches played against the MCC. Whichever way this is analysed, it is very odd that St Hill could play in Barbados but not be one of eight Trinidadians appearing at home. On form, he should have played ahead of Small; but it is likely (albeit not completely clear) that Small was one of the Test selectors and was partially responsible for picking himself.
Having been left out at home, St Hill was then chosen to play in British Guiana, where the West Indies won, their first victory in a Test match. He took just one wicket in the game but bowled economically, and appears to have acted as a nightwatchman in the second innings (unsuccessfully, as he was out before the close of play). He was then omitted from the team for the fourth Test (along with Constantine), but had obviously made a good impression. The Barbados Advocate suggested that he bowled steadily during both his Test appearances, although it suggested his economical figures in British Guiana flattered him a little as England were batting just to save the game. The Advocate judged that St Hill was more effective on matting surfaces and needed to improve his fielding. The Cricketer stated that he was: “A very useful stock bowler anywhere. Steady, and spins the ball.” One critic in British Guiana described him as a “bowling machine”.
Edwin St Hill practising in Australia in 1930-31 (Image: National Library of Australia)
Around this time, he appears to have gained a reputation as being a similar bowler to England’s Maurice Tate, who was the leading medium-paced bowler of the 1920s. But St Hill’s style is a little difficult to pin down; he was often an opening bowler but does not seem to have been especially fast. Some sources suggest that he was a spin bowler, but it appears more likely that he was generally medium-paced but perhaps spun the ball off his home matting pitches (or what might be called an off-cutter today). But the huge numbers of overs he delivered in matches suggest that he was far from being a pace bowler.
Around this time, something happened that would change St Hill’s life. After the 1928 tour of England by the West Indies team, Learie Constantine had signed a contract to play cricket for Nelson in the Lancashire League. He was an enormous success there, and his story is relatively well-known. Far less celebrated was his team-mate, the fast bowler George Francis. He too signed as a professional for an English club during that 1928 tour. He joined the much lower-profile Durham League where he played for Seaham Harbour in 1929, and remained there until moving to Radcliffe, in the Bolton League, in 1933. The man who organised the signing of Francis during the 1928 tour was RH Mallett, the manager of the West Indies team, who had once been the captain of Seaham Harbour. So much did Francis like Seaham Harbour there that he refused an offer from a club in the Lancashire League for 1930.
Because both Constantine and Francis had toured England in 1923 and 1928, they were known to the English public; as a result, their presence at games in their respective leagues was a considerable boost to the attendance. But St Hill never toured England with the West Indies. Nevertheless, in August 1930, Lowerhouse, a club playing in the Lancashire League, announced that he was to be their professional having agreed a one-year contract. The recommendation appears to have come from Constantine, who knew St Hill well from their time playing together for Shannon, Trinidad and the West Indies. Lowerhouse made contact with people in Trinidad, and several cuttings from Trinidad newspapers appeared in the Burnley press, presumably via the committee at Lowerhouses who were researching their prospective professional.
While there would in future be many West Indian Test players who signed for the English leagues as a professional – George Headley and Manny Martindale followed in the 1930s – his contemporaries were signed after touring England with the West Indies. St Hill was signed without having been seen by anyone connected with Lowerhouse. It can only be assumed that Constantine was a very influential voice. It is worth emphasising how extraordinary it was for St Hill – and Lowerhouse – to pursue this course. Previous successful overseas professionals, such as Australia’s Ted McDonald or South Africa’s Jimmy Blanckenberg, signed after successful tours of England. At the time St Hill joined Lowerhouse, Constantine and a handful of Australian Test players were the only overseas players in the Lancashire League. In 1932, Bill Merritt of New Zealand joined Rishton, but he too had played Tests in England, as had India’s Amar Singh when he signed for Colne to play in 1935. In contrast, St Hill was a stranger to English crowds. Even more remarkable was that St Hill was happy to make such a big move having never set foot in England. It was a big gamble for everyone.
There is one other aspect to consider: CLR James believed that Wilton St Hill had hoped to play professionally in England (although he writes as if he wanted to play for a county, it would have been more likely he planned to join a league) but his non-selection for the 1923 West Indies tour, and his outright failure in 1928 meant that this never happened. Part of the reason he wanted to go to England, suggests James, is that St Hill – like Constantine – was unhappy at his lack of status and prospects of advancement in a Trinidad society that was very racist at the time. Did Wilton encourage his younger brother to make the move that he had been unable to? Perhaps. But it seems strange that James, having written this about Wilton, makes no mention that his brother played professional cricket in England for nearly 20 years.
Signing for Lowerhouse ended St Hill’s career with Trinidad, but he had one last outing with the West Indies when his relative success against England led to his selection for the West Indies team that toured Australia in 1930-31. At least one person was critical of his selection owing to his lack of penetration: his Trinidad team-mate Andre Cipriani told the Trinidad Sports Weekly that unless St Hill altered his methods, he would not be successful on hard Australian pitches as his approach of keeping runs down merely served to play batsmen into form. Events suggest that Cipriani was probably correct.
Shortly before the team departed (he later said nine days beforehand, which would have been 9 October 1930), St Hill married the 24-year-old Iris Agatha Orvington in Trinidad. The newly-married couple did not spend much time together – he travelled to Australia a few days later and did not return for around 12 months. It would not be the last hardship that his wife endured.
The Trinidad and West Indies team-mates Clifford Roach (left) and Edwin St Hill (right) in Australia in 1930-31 (Image: National Library of Australia)
The players assembled in October 1930 and took the long boat trip. A preview of the tour in the Adelaide Advertiser by Thomas D Lord from Trinidad described St Hill as a “fast medium” bowler whose best attributes were good length bowling and great stamina. It stated that “he has been looked upon as a sort of bowling machine. Dubbed by his countrymen as the Tate of the West Indies, St Hill is a great trier, and never seems to tire or to relax his efforts, however long may be his spell of bowling.” Of his batting, the preview stated: “With a wonderful eye, many fine shots, and endowed with a stout heart, he is rather inclined to ‘have a go’ the instant he gets in the middle, and this recklessness brings about his early downfall.”
The tour was moderately successful in that a West Indies team completely unfamiliar with Australian conditions managed to win one Test match, and were competitive for portions of the series despite losing by four matches to one. But with a strategy based on their fast bowlers, there was no place in the team for St Hill. He played just four first-class games on the tour, taking 16 wickets at a respectable average. The Sporting Chronicle of Trinidad suggested that St Hill had bowled well but had been given little opportunity. A later article in the Daily Gleaner of Jamaica suggested that “sources” had told the newspaper “the reason for the infrequent playing of Edwin St Hill”, but did not elaborate. Another mystery over selection…
However, the tour does provide one piece of information about St Hill’s life away from the cricket field. It appears that he was a boxer. In December 1930, the West Indies team attended a boxing match in Launceston, Tasmania. A newspaper preview stated that St Hill was to referee one of the bouts; the author of the Launceston Examiner article said that St Hill, the “popular bowler of the West Indian cricket team” had “quite a lot of ability with the gloves himself”.
At the end of the tour, Constantine, Francis and St Hill, the three men signed with English clubs, sailed directly to England from Australia without returning home. St Hill was not yet 30 years old, but his first-class and Test career were over, although it is unlikely he knew it at the time. But while his brothers vanished from the radar once their first-class careers ended, this is the point at which Edwin St Hill comes to life and we get an understanding of the person he might have been…