The West Indies team in June 1939: Back row: W. Ferguson (scorer), G. E. Gomez, J. B. Stollmeyer, L. G. Hylton, T. F. Johnson, C. B. Clarke, H. P. Bayley, E. A. V. Williams. Middle row: G.A. Headley, I. M. Barrow, R. S. Grant (captain), J. M. Kidney (manager), J. H. Cameron, L. N. Constantine, E. A. Martindale. In front: K. H. Weekes, J. E. D. Sealy, V. H. Stollmeyer.
John Hemsley Cameron first made a name for himself when he took all ten wickets in a schoolboy cricket match at Lord’s in 1932. He cemented his reputation when he was the match-winner for Cambridge University in their annual match again Oxford University in 1935. But Cameron came from a much different background to most public school and university cricketers in England during the inter-war years. The son of a doctor who played for the 1906 West Indies team, he was born in Jamaica. When awarded his blue, he became one of the few non-white and probably the only black player (although to be accurate, he was almost certainly mixed race) to represent Oxford or Cambridge before the Second World War. Cameron also played for Somerset, making him the only black player to appear in the County Championship between the wars. While he certainly faced racism in England, matters became more complicated once he returned to Jamaica.
Cameron graduated from Cambridge in 1937 and having left the university, he lived in London for a time. In early 1938, he married Kathleen Cecilia Jones in Paddington. Having been living at 24 Porchester Place, Connaught Square in London, he departed for Jamaica on 3 April 1938, having accepted a job teaching at Cornwall College, a boys’ school in Montego Bay. David Foot suggested in 2000 that disillusionment with his lost bowling skill prompted his return home: “Dispirited by his markedly declining [bowling] tricks, he became a schoolteacher and returned to Jamaica.” But it is hard to imagine that someone of Cameron’s wealthy background would have remained in England simply to play cricket. Additionally, Somerset were already resigned to his departure after the 1937 cricket season and it is most likely that Cameron simply wished to get on with his life and career.
Within a few weeks of his arrival in Jamaica, Cameron was playing cricket; but his involvement in the game was hampered somewhat by his job, which meant that he lived some distance from the main cricket centres. During late 1938, two of his former teams toured Jamaica: a party from Taunton School and a combined “Oxford and Cambridge Universities” side. Cameron appeared against the latter team, alongside his brother, for Kensington Park, but after that he switched to play for the universities team against Kingston Cricket Club and then in two first-class matches against the Jamaica team. These were his first such games in Jamaica, and his only ones before the war. In the first he scored 62 and 44 not out and had match figures of five for 120.
But Cameron was soon catapulted back into the cricketing limelight. The West Indies were scheduled to tour England during the 1939 season, the team’s first visit since 1933. Selection for the tour involved as much politics as sport; Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and British Guiana each expected the team to comprise a certain proportion of their players (although only one player from Guiana was selected, the other three colonies had five players each). But the most political decision — not that the selectors permitted any debate — was that of the captaincy.
In the early days of West Indies cricket, at a time when racism and prejudice were rife among the game’s administrators, captains were exclusively white. Not only was this the case for the Test team, but also for Jamaica, Barbados, British Guiana and Trinidad; the only exception to before 1939 was when “Snuffy” Browne captained Guiana in one match in 1922 before an objection to a non-white captain was unofficially raised by their opponents. For the West Indies, the first Test captain was Karl Nunes in 1928. After an untidy 1930 Test series against England when the team was captained by four different men, the next long-term appointee was Jackie Grant who led in three Test series — against Australia (1930–31) and England (1933 and 1934–35). The only time a black captain ran the team was when Grant briefly left the pitch against England in 1935 during the fourth Test; he asked Learie Constantine to lead in his absence, during which time the West Indies won the match and series. For the 1939 tour of England, Rolph Grant, the younger brother of Jackie, was appointed as captain.
A portrait of Cameron from 1932 (Image: Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 13 August 1932)
As usual, there was a great deal of speculation over the composition of the team. Although Cameron had never played for Jamaica, because of his vast experience of English cricket, he was always a likely candidate for the tour. He was asked to play in the trial games organised to assist the selectors, but he was unavailable as he could not get time away from work. This did not count against him, and he was picked for the team, although there were question marks over his availability. His selection was received with some surprise. There was even more at a report in the Barbados Advocate that Cameron had been appointed as the vice-captain. This was followed up by the Jamaica Gleaner; one writer wondered if the West Indies were following the practice of England in that both Grant and Cameron were former university blues. However, there was no official announcement that Cameron would be vice-captain, and while there is no doubt that he fulfilled the role on tour, it is unclear when the position was decided. Given the context of the times, this is quite an important point.
Part of the problem was that there was no clear candidate whom the West Indies Cricket Board would have viewed as acceptable. Both from a viewpoint of tactical know-how and playing skill, the obvious appointments to any leadership role would have been Learie Constantine and George Headley. In fact, either would have made a far better captain than Rolph Grant, but there was no way they would have been appointed given that both were black. It is also doubtful that the West Indies Board would have considered them suitable for the role of vice-captain, although Headley had led Jamaica in two matches played in preparation for the tour. But the dilemma for selectors who wished to maintain the status quo was that none of the white players had played any previous Test cricket, nor toured England before. The most likely vice-captain would have been Cyril Merry, who had toured England with moderate success in 1933 and had captained Trinidad. But Merry was omitted; he travelled to England anyway and played club cricket. Another potential candidate might have been the wicket-keeper Ivan Barrow, who had played ten Tests (making him the team’s most experienced player after Constantine and Headley), had toured England in 1933 and had scored a Test century. But Barrow was Jewish, which almost certainly ruled him out.
Given this background, Cameron was perhaps the best candidate as he had more experience of English conditions than any other players apart from Headley and Constantine. Not only that, he was a Cambridge blue and a member of the MCC. But even so, would the selectors have appointed a black player to the role? There had been previous occasions when they chose a white player with no cricketing credentials but a good social background to perform the role. As far as I can tell, no press reports named a vice-captain; if Cameron was appointed, he was done so with little fanfare.
In whatever role he was selected, Cameron managed to get time away from work to take part in the tour. It is possible he resigned his position at Cornwall College; he took up a new job later that year. Kathleen accompanied him throughout the tour, which might indicate that they treated it as a holiday.
The West Indies team at the start of the tour. Note that Cameron occupies a less important position in this photograph. Back row: G. E. Gomez, C. B. Clark, J. B. Stollmeyer, T. F. Johnson, H. P. Bayley, K. H. Weekes, E. A. V. Williams, L. G. Hylton, J. H. Cameron. Seated: E. A. Martindale, G. A. Headley, J. M. Kidney (manager), R. S. Grant (captain), L. N. Constantine, I. M. Barrow, J. E. D. Sealey.
For much of the tour Cameron, fulfilled the same role he had at Cambridge; batting at seven or eight and bowling regularly. After some early warm-up games, he played little part in the opening first-class match, when Worcestershire won easily. But in the second game, against Lancashire, his 45 helped the West Indies to a small first-innings lead. He followed with five for 23 in Lancashire’s second innings.
But this match brought the question of vice-captaincy into the open, and suggests that Cameron was given the role during, not before, the tour. In the game against Lancashire, Rolph Grant was injured while fielding in the first innings. The man to take charge of the remainder of the match was Learie Constantine. This may have been because Constantine was the senior professional in the team, but made little sense if Cameron was indeed the official vice-captain. However, Constantine instructed his batsmen to play for the draw on the final day rather than chasing 247 in three hours. For the following game, against the MCC at Lord’s — one of the most important games of the tour outside of the Tests — Cameron captained in Grant’s continued absence. Constantine did not captain again on the tour. The reason given to Constantine for what was effectively a demotion was that he had been too negative against Lancashire. Constantine, however, suspected that colour played a part; he wrote in Cricket in the Sun (1947): “To be brown-skinned, that is to say to have any trace of white blood in one [i. e. like Cameron], always gives a man an advantage in the West Indies.”
From that point, Cameron captained regularly in Grant’s absence — eight games overall, four which were first-class (in which he scored 196 runs at an average of 65.33 and took six wickets at 21.83). Did Grant and the tour manager J. M. Kidney promote Cameron during the tour? Did word get back to them that Constantine was not acceptable as vice-captain after the Lancashire game? Or was Cameron always the choice, and Constantine performed the role in that game as a courtesy to his position as “senior professional”?
However Cameron came to do the job, he became the first appointed (as opposed to stand-in) non-white captain of the West Indies team in first-class cricket. Yet here is another curiosity. The topic of captaincy of the West Indies team was a controversy that burned until the appointment of Frank Worrell in 1960. Yet in the many words written on the topic then and since, few have recognised that Cameron was not white. For example, Michael Manley, in his A History of West Indies Cricket, lamented (with good reason) that neither Constantine nor George Headley were considered for the captaincy in 1939: “In 1939 these were regarded as revolutionary notions or, worse, merely stupid. Hence, those who controlled the game selected R. S. Grant as captain and J. H. Cameron as vice-captain.” He continues to explain that Grant, although “a man of great decency and intelligence”, owed his position entirely to his influential family, but makes no further mention of Cameron. In his biography of Constantine, Peter Mason wrote of the decision not to give the captaincy to Constantine in 1939: “To his disgust, he was replaced a skipper for the next game loads by another white Cambridge man, the even more inexperienced [than Grant] John Cameron.” A 2009 article in the Guardian by Andy Bull, on the history of white players in the West Indies team, discussed the period of white-only captaincy, including the time under Rolph Grant, but made no mention of Cameron. No academic studies of the West Indies captaincy, or the role that race played in the history of the team seem to have paid much attention to Cameron. For example, Brian Stoddart, in an article written in 1988, wrote: “Quite simply, the cricket captaincy had been long regarded and preserved as the fief of the dominant white elite, a symbol of its control of matters West Indian.” But he did not mention Cameron.
Footage of the MCC v West Indies match at Lord’s, the first time Cameron captained the team; he can be seen fielding at slip
Partly, this may have been owing to his limited impact — as we shall see, he hardly set the world alight in 1939. Or maybe because he was not appointed “officially”. But perhaps it was also because Cameron did not quite fit into preconceived notions. He was clearly recognised as non-white when he played in England before the tour; for example, a review of university cricket by “A Country Vicar” in The Cricketer in 1939, observed that Cameron was “a West Indian by birth”. Worse, he was known by his contemporaries as “Snowball” and “Monkey”. If most reports of his time at Taunton, Cambridge or Somerset made no mention of his colour, it was occasionally highlighted.
Yet for the undoubted prejudice that he faced, his experience was hardly typical for black West Indian cricketers. As a public schoolboy and Cambridge blue, he tended to be categorised with white players, not least because he was light-skinned and — as Constantine put it — had “a trace of white blood”. Nor was he representative of the black majority. This may have made him more acceptable to white administrators than Constantine or Headley. Perhaps the closest parallel to his place in West Indian cricket was the experience of C. R. Browne, a qualified barrister from a wealthy background whose colour prevented him from a captaincy role for British Guiana or the West Indies.
But however he came to the role, and however it was that his contemporaries viewed him, Cameron’s selection as vice-captain was a step forward for West Indies cricket. An even bigger one was taken when Headley was appointed as captain for one Test in 1948, but a hardening of attitudes after that meant that it was another twelve years before Worrell took the role.
Cameron was part of the tour selection committee in 1939, alongside Grant and the manager Jack Kidney; Constantine and Headley were also co-opted onto the panel. He scored 438 runs at 20.85, hitting a century while he was captain against Oxford University, and took 31 wickets at 21.41, with a best return of six for 57 in an innings win over Middlesex. These were solid, if unspectacular figures, but most critics thought he bowled well, and had improved considerably since his time in England. We cannot be sure precisely what bowling style he used. An article in early July by “County Amateur” (who was probably Charles Bray of Essex) in the Dundee Evening Telegraph — the thrust of which was that the West Indies team was not good enough to play Test cricket — stated: “The spin attack is negligible, only little ‘Snowball’ Cameron being able to control length as well as spin. When at Cambridge University this little man used to bowl leg spinners, but since he has been back in his own country he has taken to off spinners with an occasional ‘tweaker’ thrown in.” This matches what later sources said about his bowling, but is offset by reports in The Times and Manchester Guardian which continued to describe him explicitly as a leg-spinner and discuss his googly. While he may have used both styles, his improved accuracy may have been a result of his switching to orthodox off-spin for much of the time.
Cameron was chosen to play in the first two Test matches against England. He made his Test debut at Lord’s, scoring 1 and 0 but taking three for 66, largely through flighting the ball, out of England’s 404 for five declared. In his first over in international cricket, he bowled his former Somerset team-mate Harold Gimblett with a leg-break. That match was lost by an innings, but the second was a rain-affected draw: Cameron scored 5 and bowled just three overs for 22. That was the end of his brief Test career. Immediately after that match, he captained the team against his old county, Somerset. But a hand injury during the game — he split his hand while fielding — effectively ended his tour; he played just once after, in a non-first-class match against Wiltshire, and was unfit for the third Test.
R. C. Robertson-Glasgow wrote in Wisden after the season: “J. H. Cameron, who captained the side when grant was absent, showed a certain maturity of form. He was a most useful all-rounder, and had the advantage of an intimate knowledge of most of his opponents and their methods.” Elsewhere in the almanack, the main report on the tour was harsher: “Cameron, well acquainted with the game in England from experience similar to his captain’s as a Cambridge blue after being at school in Somerset, was not reliable with either bat or ball. He scored one of the three centuries hit for the side at Oxford, but did little else, and, except at Lord’s, his bowling seldom caused much trouble.” The review in The Cricketer annual described Cameron’s loss through injury as a handicap for the team.
As the threat of war grew, the tour was abandoned after the final Test. There was almost a tragic sequel. The team — apart from Constantine and Martindale who lived in England — travelled by train to Greenock to catch the first available ship, the SS Montrose, which departed for Canada on 26 August. Two days after their departure, the Admiralty recalled the ship to port, but six hours later reversed the decision and permitted it to continue. Had they returned to Greenock, they would probably have taken the next ship available, the SS Athenia. Two days after the Montrose arrived at Montreal, Britain declared war on Germany. Meanwhile, the Athenia left Greenock on 1 September. A few hours after the declaration of war on 3 September, the ship was sunk by a German submarine. Of the 1,418 on board, 117 were killed — mainly in incidents involving life boats.
From Montreal, most of the team travelled by train to New York. Cameron stayed there for a time, accompanied by his wife, while the others continued their journey. The early return of the team was met with some disapproval at home, both on the grounds that it looked like cowardice and that the cost of the circuitous route via North America was unduly extravagant. Gordon Scotter in the Jamaica Gleaner was particularly scathing.
When Cameron and his wife arrived back in Jamaica in mid-September, he refused to answer questions on the tour, perhaps feeling constrained by the presence at the dockside to greet him of N. N. Nethersole, a member of the West Indies Board of Control, who reminded him that he was still under contract. All he felt able to discuss was the trip home — and his visit to the World’s Fair in New York — and how calmly England had dealt with the incipient war.
Later that year, Cameron moved to a new job, working at Munro College in St Elizabeth. The next few years are a mystery, although he played for Kingston in local cricket with some success, whenever he was available; the distance from where he worked reduced his availability. He continued to work as a teacher, and appears to have been on the fringes of the Jamaica team. He and Kathleen had their only child, Geoffrey Vaughan Hemsley Cameron, in June 1940.
In 1946, Cameron made his only first-class appearance for Jamaica, when the Trinidad team visited to play a three-match series. Cameron played in the first game, but contributed little apart from returning three for 22 in Trinidad’s second innings. He missed the other games with an injury and was replaced by his brother Jimmy, who made his first-class debut.
Millfield School, photographed in 2010 (Image: Brookie on Wikimedia Commons)
In late September 1946, Cameron and his wife returned to live in England where he began to work at Millfield School in Street, Somerset, at the invitation of the eccentric headmaster, R. J. O. Meyer, another Somerset cricketer. There were expectations that Cameron would play for Somerset again, and he made three appearances during the school holidays during the 1947 season. He bowled just 32 overs (taking one for 101) and had a highest score of 38 not out. That was the end of his association with Somerset, although he continued to play occasionally for the MCC and in club cricket. He also made appearances for teams of West Indian cricketers playing in friendly matches. But he largely disappeared from the public eye.
However, there may have been something else going on behind the scenes. Meyer had been Somerset’s official captain in 1947 but was unavailable for much of the season. The Somerset Committee could not find a suitable replacement for 1948 and took the unprecedented — and rather strange — decision to appoint three people to the role, on the grounds that they could not find a suitable amateur — and a professional was unacceptable. According to some versions of what happened next, Cameron offered to take on the captaincy, but the Committee declined. The suspicion, then and later, was that his colour was the reason. This is the line taken by Somerset Cricketers 1919-1939 (2017) by Stephen Hill and Barry Phillips. Robert Brooke, in Cameron’s Cricketer obituary, made no mention of any such episode. Perhaps the most definitive statement came in his Wisden obituary: “[Cameron] unsuccessfully applied to be both Somerset’s captain and secretary.” But David Foot said, in Cameron’s obituary in The Guardian: “It was sometimes implied that Cameron was the victim of the colour bar and that his supposed application for the Somerset job of secretary and captain on his post-war return to England was turned down because of it. ‘Not at all true. I’d come to carry on with my teaching and had no intention of going back fulltime into cricket,’ he told me.”
From reports in the local press, it seems that he was asked to play for Somerset in August 1948 but a thumb injury meant he could not play. Instead he played for Street purely as a bowler who was scheduled to bat at number eleven; he took four for 101, coming under heavy punishment from a batsman called J. Illes who struck ten sixes in his century, six of which came from Cameron.
But perhaps the fact that he never played for Somerset again after 1947 might be the strongest indication that something happened to sour the relationship. Later, he moved to Essex where he taught at Chigwell School where he worked until he retired. His Wisden obituary stated: “He was much liked, but as David Foot wrote: ‘In private moments, he would confide his unhappy experiences at the wrong end of the colour bar.'” Foot also related that he was somewhat worn down by his experiences and subject to bouts of depression. The obituary in The Cricketer went further: “[He] encountered mixed fortunes off the cricket field and was once found destitute in London.” Although he recovered from this episode, which no other source mentions, it suggests that all was not well. Nor can it have been easy when his son Geoffrey died in 1994 at the age of 53.
After his retirement, Cameron moved to Chichester. He died in March 2000 at the age of 85 — according to Foot, “surrounded by his cricket books and his classical and big band records.”