George Parker Cansfield, better known as George Parker (Image: Courtesy of Accrington Cricket Club)
Buried in the history of league cricket are many neglected players who, had they played at a higher level, would be far more widely known. Part of the issue is that, for a long time, the English cricketing establishment viewed the leagues of northern England as a dangerous rival to mainstream county cricket. Their fears included the poaching of underpaid professionals from the counties but also the degradation of cricket standards through the competitive nature of league cricket, which they feared viewed the result and the gate as paramount. Yet there were surprisingly few professionals who played league cricket; from the 1920s, these admittedly included some of the biggest international stars in the game, but the rules of the leagues usually limited each club to one professional signing. This was usually a former county cricketer or someone who had not proven quite good enough to feature at a higher level. The remaining players were weekend amateurs who had ordinary jobs during the week, a situation which remains familiar even today. One of these weekend amateurs was a man who called himself George Parker; he proved the equal of the many professionals — including international cricketers — whom he faced in a career that lasted 29 years. When he became the first man to score 1,000 runs in a league season in 1908, he set a record which lasted for 21 years. In his lifetime, and for a long time afterwards, he was the leading run-scorer in the Lancashire League, heading many of the more illustrious names to have appeared in that competition. Although largely unknown outside Lancashire, he was treasured by his two clubs, Haslingden and Accrington, and is perhaps the best batter in England never to play first-class cricket. And yet, but for some unfortunate family circumstances, he might never have gone to Lancashire at all.
George Parker Cansfield was born in Idle, near Bradford, in 1875. He was the son of Samuel Hartley Cansfield, a printer and stationer, and Mary Parker, the daughter of a policeman whose family were from Lancashire but who had moved to Idle. George was the second of four children but his early years were affected by several tragedies. In August 1884, his mother died at the age of 30; in September 1885, his father remarried and had two more children, the first of who died on 5 January 1889 at the age of just 18 months. This may have some bearing on what happened next.
Less than a week after the death of his son, Samuel Cansfield was arrested at Shipley Railway Station on 10 January 1889 for forging the signature of a solicitor on a bill of exchange for £17 12s 6d. There was little doubt that Cansfield had done it, not least as he was very familiar with the signature in question, but he claimed to the police that another man at his place of work had asked him to sign the document as it was just a “matter of form”. And yet it emerged that Cansfield had been heavily in debt — he may have been declared bankrupt — and had paid off all but the last amount: £17 12s 6d. He had also used his son — who most likely would have been the 14-year-old George rather than his 12-year-old brother — to take another forged note regarding that amount to a money lender. He was granted bail but scheduled to appear at Leeds Assizes on 11 February. But on the date of his trial, he failed to appear.
Curiously, although all of this was reported in newspapers (and logged in court records), there was no follow-up; nor is there any record of a further trial or imprisonment. Cansfield does not appear on the 1891 or 1901 census. His wife and son are living with her father in the former year; in 1901 she is “living on her own means” with her son in Shipley. Equally mysteriously, Cansfield reappears in 1911, living once more with his wife but now in Heysham near Morecambe and working as a manufacturing stationer. A final word on Cansfield senior: on 12 January 1935, a strangely triumphant announcement appeared in the Shipley Times: “Mr S. H. Cansfield, born in Albion Road, Idle, January 15, 1852, has now to accord his birthday on Tuesday, the 15th, 83 years of age, in pefect [sic] health, not an ache or pain of any kind. S. H., as he was fondly called, commenced work in the year 1860 at the Union Mills, Idle Green, working for Johnny Cordingley at the enormous wage of one shilling and tenpence per week, but by good will and perseverance he is how able to report independence. To all my old friends that are left, a happy New Year. Yours faithfully, Samuel Hartley Cansfield, now of Lancaster.” He died in Lancaster later that year, leaving an estate worth just under £5,000.
Whatever we might make of the adventures of his father, the effects on George Parker Cansfield were considerable. With his father clearly indisposed and his step-mother having returned to her own family, George and his siblings went to live with their maternal grandmother, the widowed Mary Parker, in Haslingden. We don’t have an exact date, but it would most likely been around the time of their father’s arrest and/or disappearance in 1889, and they are recorded living with Mary Parker on the 1891 census by which time George worked as a cotton weaver.
Although the circumstances of his arrival in Haslingden cannot have been particularly widely known, there is some indication that George never reconciled with his father because for most of his life he refused to use the surname Cansfield except for “official” reasons. For example, when he married Sarah Jane Hoyle in Haslingden in 1896, he used the name George Parker Cansfield, and each of his three children (Vernon, born in 1897; Tom born in 1904; and George born in 1909) was registered under the surname Cansfield (albeit each had the middle name Parker). But throughout his cricket career, he was only ever known as George Parker; he used this name on the 1901 and 1921 census (but listed himself as George Parker Cansfield on the 1911 census).
At some point between 1891 and 1901, Parker began to work for Haslingden Corporation as an assistant overseer and a rate collector. But by then, he was already well-known as a cricketer. Quite how and when he began to play cricket is not clear. An interview with him printed in the Haslingden Gazette in 1913 stated that he first played at the age of 16, although it does not say for which team; an article by Chris Aspin on the Lancashire League website indicates that his first team was Hutchbank Quarry. In 1892, he played for Haslingden Second Eleven and did well enough with his left-handed batting to earn a chance in the first team that same season. He was not a particular success for the first team, averaging under nine with the bat and taking only five wickets, but that was an isolated setback.
In 1893, he headed the Haslingden averages (albeit with a modest 21.81) and scored two centuries. From there he did not look back. By the end of the 1890s, he was regularly averaging in the mid-20s with the bat. If these seem modest figures by modern standards, they were excellent on the tricky pitches of the Lancashire League. More important than pure numbers was the way in which he played. One newspaper described him as a left-hander with an attractive off-drive and a “remarkably free style”. He was an attacking player at a time when that was not always the orthodox approach in league cricket. He usually hit out from the start, and when he got himself established the results could be devastating. For example, in 1895 he scored 50 runs in 17 minutes against Rishton; their attack included Sydney Barnes, who went on to play with incredible success for England and who was even then almost unplayable in league cricket. From the first over of the game, bowled by Barnes, Parker scored 18 runs, and the Haslingden Guardian recorded: “Nothing served to check Parker’s hitting abilities and he scored off nearly every ball.” Unsurprisingly, this approach made him enormously popular with the crowds.
Parker’s approach might have been influenced by the fact that he was always an amateur. Whereas the most successful players in the league were usually the professionals, Parker never went down that route, perhaps because he had a career of his own which probably paid more than cricket would have done. This freed him up to play as he wished, with no worries about contract renewals or the expectations of the committee. He could simply attack, and he did so very effectively.
This ethos was one which was espoused by amateur cricketers at county level; amateurs were supposed to play freely and attractively to entertain the spectators (although by no means all amateurs played in this fashion, even in the late 1890s). Professionals, on the other hand, often played more cautiously (and did the bulk of the run scoring, particularly when conditions were tough). However, at county level this philosophy was tied up in social expectations and class discrimination; amateurs were usually from the upper and middle classes and expressed their supposed superiority through their cricketing style. Being an amateur in the Lancashire League, on the other hand, was simply a case of ordinary men playing cricket in their spare time; there were none of the social expectations or class differences which delineated amateurs and professionals at county level. But perhaps Parker was influenced by this ethos; in later years, he was critical of what was known as “scientific cricket” — in other words, cricket played with the emphasis on technical skill and “correct” play. This was the game as it was usually played by professionals, and which led to their success.
Whatever it was that drove his approach, Parker’s form was enough to push him to the edges of the county cricket scene. By the mid-1890s he had played for the Lancashire Colts (unfortunately there are no records available online), appearing alongside J. T. Tyldesley who went on to play for Lancashire and England. The Haslingden Gazette suggested that he scored a fifty in his first game for the Colts, but this has not been possible to verify. He certainly played in a trial match between the Lancashire Colts and the Lancashire Second XI at Old Trafford in 1896, although he was dismissed for a duck in his only innings. This was not his only brush with a county; in 1898, for reasons which are unclear, he returned to his native Idle partway through the season and played for that team in the Bradford League; he scored 61 on debut and averaged 25 for the season. According to the Haslingden Gazette, in this period he also played for the Yorkshire Colts (again, it has not yet been possible to verify this). Perhaps he had returned with a view to playing for Yorkshire?
George Parker photographed in 1912 (Image: Courtesy of Accrington Cricket Club)
The question arises: why did he never play county cricket? He never even played for Lancashire Second XI or Yorkshire Second XI, but all the indications are that he would have been a good enough cricketer. Throughout his time in the Lancashire League, he regularly faced county-standard bowling and sometimes faced Test bowlers, among them Barnes and George Geary from England and Charlie Llewellyn from South Africa; and he never suffered by comparison to any of the leading batters against whom he played. Perhaps he was not a success when he appeared with the Colts teams in the 1890s, but he improved considerably in the 1900s, regularly averaging in the 30s in the League, and would have been worth a try. Did he prefer not to play county cricket? Or was he unwilling to turn professional (which he would almost certainly have had to do in county cricket as his background would not have been suitable for an amateur cricketer at that level)? Or maybe he was simply too aggressive for the county committees to risk. His only appearance for a county seems to have come in a wartime charity game, when he scored 73 not out for a Yorkshire team against an “England XI” at Haslingden in 1915.
Instead, Parker was content to dominate the Lancashire League. Given that he played 556 matches across 29 seasons in the league, there is little sense in listing the details; but a glance at his season-by-season record gives a sense of his achievements. In total, he headed the Lancashire League averages five times (1900, 1904, 1908, 1909 and 1921) and was second twice (1910 and 1912). It is clear that for most of the period between 1900 and the First World War, he was the best batter in the League, despite his amateur status. By the end of his career, he had hit fifties on every club ground in the League; he was credited with more than a hundred scores over fifty, but in fact he scored 70 fifties and 13 hundreds (of which 55 and 11 respectively were for Haslingden).
His greatest and most famous feat came in the 1908 season (incidentally, his first year as Haslingden’s captain), when he scored 1,013 runs, becoming the first batter to reach four figures in a Lancashire League season, a feat unrepeated until his record was broken in 1929 by the Australian Test cricketer Arthur Richardson and his amateur Bacup teammate Joseph Midgley. The previous record had been 825 runs, scored by Henry Cudworth, an amateur who played for Burnley, in 1906. Parker achieved four figures during an innings against Lowerhouse late in the season; when he scored the 1000th run, play had to be stopped for five minutes owing to the prolonged ovation he received. He was bowled immediately afterwards (without adding another run) for 88. After the season, various presentations were made to Parker, and he was widely feted. For example, Haslingden presented him with a silver clock and ornaments. They had the bat with which he hit the 1,000th run (and the ball that had been bowled) inscribed with a silver plaque (the haymakers Gunn and Moore, whose bat he had used, supplied a replacement). He was also given a gold medal by the Lancashire League.
But that was far from his only impressive performance. In the two-innings play-off in 1900 to decide the League, between Haslingden and Church (who were tied at the top of the table when the season finished), Parker won the game almost alone. He scored 70 (out of a total of 162) and 39 (out of 158) with the bat and had figures of three for 16 and six for 37 with the ball. In 1901, he scored 104, 55, 56, 73 not out and 68 not out in consecutive innings. His highest score was 164 against East Lancashire in 1905, when he shared a partnership of 227 with Charlie Salkeld in 110 minutes; Parker scored 50 in 25 minutes and reached 80 in 25 minutes. He hit 24 fours in the innings. Other feats included a 16-minute 50, hitting up 50 out of 60 when batting for Idle in 1898, and reaching fifty in 21 minutes against Accrington in 1900. At one point, he toured Ireland with a team known as the Lancashire Nomads, including “several well-known county players” according to the Haslingden Gazette, and scored 102 against the North of Ireland. And in his great season of 1908, he struck six fours from one over bowled by Herbert Sedgwick off Rawtenstall.
Simply listing Parker’s feats seems to miss the point however. His longevity and his popularity made him a legend in the Lancashire League, and his entertaining batting was a huge draw. His obituary in the Accrington Observer in 1953 suggested that he was the “hardest hitting batsman that the Lancashire League has known”. If the claim was questionable and unquantifiable, it indicated the respect in which he was held. Parker was something of a local celebrity and was extremely popular. He was known as the “Jessop of the Lancashire League” (after the Gloucestershire and England star hitter Gilbert Jessop) because he always went for his shots. According to the Haslingden Gazette in 1913: “Mr Parker is a batsman who emphatically believes in going for all he is worth immediately he gets to the wickets. He does not waste any time, because he thinks if the game is to be an attraction and not a tedious scientific display he correct idea is to make things as merry as it is possible.” But the newspaper insisted that he was not a “slogger” and did not “‘lay’ about them” until his eye was in. And several newspapers reported that around this time Sydney Barnes, who was by then recognised as the best bowler in the world, said that Victor Trumper and Clem Hill were the “best batsmen I have ever bowled against” but that George Parker was the “most dangerous batsman I have ever bowled to”.
Parker was the Haslingden captain between 1908 and 1912, but in his twenty seasons at the club, he only won the league in 1900. But more success was to follow.
George Parker with one of his trophies in 1913 (Image: Haslingden Gazette, 8 February 1913)
Before the 1913 season, Parker moved from Haslingden to Accrington, where he hoped to begin a new “business project”. The story was carried in many Lancashire newspapers and had the hint of controversy. In the 1913 interview with the Haslingden Gazette, given at his home and surrounded by his many trophies and gifts received, Parker insisted that there was “no quarrel or difference of any sort” and that “he is on quite as good terms with [Haslingden] as ever he was, and he entertains towards the players, the officials, and the spectators the most friendly feelings.” If he attempted to keep the reasons for his move fairly vague, the Gazette supplied its own as “we believe it is no secret”. The root cause appeared to be the refusal of his request for a promotion by the Haslingden Corporation; as a result, he had resigned his position as overseer and rate collector after 14 years. A couple of months later, advertisements appeared in local newspapers proclaiming that “George Parker the cricketer” had gone into business as a “Gentlemen’s Outfitter, Tobacconist and General Sports’ Outfitter” in Accrington. He was still running the business by the time of the 1921 census, when the family continued to live in Accrington.
Parker’s arrival strengthened an already formidable Accrington team, which also included the South African Test bowler Charles Llewellyn, and the club won the League each season between 1914 and 1916 (before the competition was suspended for the rest of the First World War). Parker continued to excel, averaging over 41 and scoring a century in 1915. When the league resumed after the war, Parker continued for another four seasons, captaining the team in 1921 but only playing five time in 1920 and 11 in 1922. By then, he was 47 years old and his best cricketing years were behind him. However, he never seems to have actually retired and the end of his career might have arisen simply because he had less free time owing to his business. More mysterious is the time he spent overseas; in November 1924 Parker (listed as George Cansfield) and his wife travelled to Canada and did not return until April 1925. There is no indication of the purpose of this trip. On the paperwork for the outward and return voyages, he listed himself as an outfitter, but it is possible that his business was not too successful by then because he had one last change of cricket club at the age of 51. In 1926 and 1927, he played for at Dupplin Cricket Club in Scotland, where contrary to his previous cricket it looks as if he was employed as a “player-coach” by John Dewar, known by then as Lord Forteviot, a Scottish businessman in the distillery trade. This would have ended his all-amateur career; before then, the only money he would have received for his batting would have come from collections among the crowd following successful innings. Presumably by then, his outfitters had collapsed.
Parker’s last innings seems to have come at the end of the 1927 season for Dupplin against Perthshire Second XI in 1927. At the age of 52, he scored 118 not out. If that was his final game, it was a fitting conclusion. The only clue we have about what he was doing after 1927 is to be found in the probate calendar; when his father died in 1935, probate was granted to George Parker Cansfield, listed as a poultry farmer. Parker does not seem to appear on the 1939 Register taken on the outbreak of the Second World War, and so we do not know much more. However, he continued to be remembered as one of the best of all league cricketers.
Interviewed in the Accrington Observer in 1952, the 77-year-old Parker happily reminisced about his time in the League. He was disparaging about modern cricket standards and the contemporary emphasis on overseas professionals; he was unhappy about their wages but also believed that amateur standards had fallen considerably. He also revealed that he was unsteady on his legs by then, having been badly hurt when a car ran him over in 1947. After the death of his wife Sarah in 1950, Parker moved to Nelson, where he died on 25 January 1953, aged 77.
Parker left a reputation as one of the finest batters to play in the Lancashire League, and one of the most devastating. He scored 12,967 runs in total at an average of 26.90. As a bowler, he took 289 wickets at an average of 19.61 with his right-handed medium pace, although he was only ever really a change bowler. At the time of writing, he remains ninth on the list of Lancashire League run-scorers, a hundred years after his career ended. For a man who only lived in Haslingden owing to the death of his mother and misfortunes of his father, it is quite a cricketing legacy. And for all that he decried the way that cricket was heading in his final years, it feels as if he would have been a perfect fit for the modern game. Had he played today, it is not hard to envision Parker as a roaming Twenty20 cricketer smashing opening bowlers around the world, just as he once did for Haslingden and Accrington.