“The Most Dangerous Batsman I Have Ever Bowled To”: George Parker of the Lancashire League

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.

“The Question of Tyson”: Why Did Cecil Tyson Leave Yorkshire?

Cecil Tyson (Image: Yorkshire County Cricket Club (1997) by Mick Pope)

During the first round of County Championship matches of the 1921 cricket season— played on 7, 9 and 10 May — Cecil Tyson made his first-class debut and scored 100 not out and 80 not out for Yorkshire against Hampshire at Southampton. He was the first man to score a century on his Yorkshire debut (and he remains one of only six men to do so in first-class cricket, only two others of whom were making their first-class debut as well) and unsurprisingly became the talk of the cricket world. But this was not the springboard to a long and successful Yorkshire career; he played just twice more before he was dropped forever. The explanation for this is to be found not in his batting, but in events off the field.

Even though the match against Hampshire was his first game at county level, the 32-year-old Tyson had been a professional cricketer for over ten years by then; he had made his way from Scarborough to the Bradford League and proven himself as one of the best batters in the county. He had also been on the periphery of Yorkshire cricket for some time, playing for the Yorkshire Second XI several times between 1911 and 1914. In terms of understanding what happened in 1921, however, he had made a crucial change for the 1920 season. He left Tong Park, the Bradford League club where he had played since 1913, and moved to Whitwood Colliery, a team which was part of the Yorkshire Council (which despite its name was simply another cricket league). His status there was complicated and played a crucial role in the events of 1921.

To understand what was happening, it is worth looking at what happened to Tyson after Southampton. After his century against Hampshire, Tyson played for Yorkshire against the touring Australian team at Bradford on 11, 12 and 13 May. The 1921 Australians were unstoppable for most of the season, decimating county opposition and proving far too strong for England, winning the Ashes 3–0. Yorkshire gave them a better game than most opposition that summer; on a slow turning pitch, they competed for long periods before rain had the final say. Tyson did not look out of his depth against the bowling of Ted McDonald and Warwick Armstrong, scoring 29 before being dismissed for the first time in first-class cricket (after scoring 209 runs in total). It was hardly a surprise then that he retained his place for Yorkshire’s next game, against Lancashire at Old Trafford on 14, 16 and 17 May. Here he was reduced to the status of a mortal, scoring 0 and 23 but looking a little uncomfortable. Perhaps that was only to be expected, and there was no suggestion that he should have been discarded after making such a good start.

Yet the match against Lancashire was Tyson’s final appearance for Yorkshire, leaving him with an average of 77.33 for the county (which, owing to a few statistical quirks, remains the third highest for Yorkshire in first-class cricket). When Yorkshire played their next game, against Warwickshire at Edgbaston (on 18, 19 and 20 May), replacing Tyson at number three in the batting order was Edgar Oldroyd, another Yorkshire Council batter, who played for Dewsbury and had been twelfth man for the opening games. Oldroyd hit a century in the second innings, and when Yorkshire travelled to Gloucestershire for their next game (on 21, 23 and 24 May) he scored 70 and 96. Meanwhile, Tyson returned to club cricket and on 21 May scored 107 in 90 minutes for Whitwood Colliery against Featherstone. But the place in the Yorkshire team created by the retirement of David Denton had been seized by Oldroyd, who remained a county regular until 1931.

Edgar Oldroyd (Image: Yorkshire County Cricket Club (1997) by Mick Pope)

The reason for Tyson’s disappearance was shrouded in mystery and caused not a little controversy in the weeks that followed. As early as 14 May, the first day of the Lancashire match, “Free Lance” in the Star Green ‘Un was suggesting that Tyson would not become a Yorkshire regular as “the call of club cricket has the greater pull with him”, and similar stories appeared that indicated his future was not settled. On 19 May, similar stories appeared in several Yorkshire newspapers about Tyson. The most detailed, which included a brief interview with Tyson, appeared in the Yorkshire Post under the headline “Tyson’s Withdrawal from the County Team”. All of the reports shared the same details: Tyson’s role at Whitwood Colliery was not that of a typical professional. He was paid all year, not just during the summer, and his role included “refreshment catering”; the Leeds Mercury went a little further and indicated that Tyson “is solely responsible for the provision of refreshments [at Whitwood], and derives additional income therefrom”. But all of the reports agreed on the main details: Tyson had been requested to make himself available for Yorkshire for a long run of games, but the Whitwood Committee had “asked” the Yorkshire Committee that Tyson should be left available for “all but three or four” of Whitwood’s games, all of which were played on Saturdays (versions of the story from later in the season suggest that a letter was written to Frederick Toone, the Yorkshire Secretary). As a consequence, Tyson would only have been available for one of Yorkshire’s two weekly games (which were generally played Wednesday to Friday and Saturday to Tuesday, with no play on Sunday). Therefore, the Yorkshire selection committee opted to leave Tyson out of the team and replace him with Oldroyd.

The various newspaper reports from 19 May appear to have originated from someone at Whitwood, but the author of the Yorkshire Post article observed that Whitwood’s position seemed to be in breach of the Yorkshire Council’s rules, which stated that clubs should always make their players available for the county. That newspaper also sent someone to speak to Tyson, who was preparing the pitch for the game against Featherstone at the time, as part of his role as Whitwood’s professional. Tyson clearly chose his words carefully, saying that he had received no guarantee from Yorkshire about how much he would play, nor if he would have been in the team for the rest of the season. He diplomatically added that he played for Whitwood Colliery as part of his contract with the colliery company and had to respect that contract; he said that the matter was between Yorkshire and Whitwood. Similar summaries of Tyson’s viewpoint appeared in the other newspapers over the next few days.

Perhaps Tyson was being a little economical with the truth to hide the fact that Whitwood were behind his absence, because the previous Friday he had no such reservations about playing for Yorkshire. In an interview printed in the Daily Mirror on 13 May during the match between Yorkshire and the Australians, Tyson said that he hoped to keep up his good form with the county, and gave no indication that he planned to abandon county cricket in order to return to Whitwood. He even said in the interview, while discussing his absent young son: “But he’ll see his dad at the wickets another day, I hope, for this little start has made me very keen.” Assuming the report was accurate, these were not the words of a man who suspected his Yorkshire days to be coming to a close. Although historians have often taken the view that the decision not to play for Yorkshire was Tyson’s, all the contemporary evidence points the finger largely at Whitwood.

The only public discussion of the controversy took place in meetings of the Yorkshire Council that summer. The council held a special general meeting on 24 May to discuss the matter; G. Earnshaw, representing Whitwood, denied that his club was responsible and muddied the waters by stating that Tyson was in fact employed by Whitwood Collieries Cricket and Athletic Association, so that the cricket club had “no jurisdiction” over him. Earnshaw insisted (as related in the Halifax Evening Courier) that the cricket club had not blocked Tyson’s selection for Yorkshire; he also suggested that Tyson himself had preferred the “definite job’ at Whitwood rather than becoming a county cricketer and that “anyone with commonsense would know that he was ten years too late in the county field”. The chairman of the meeting, Mr Tomlinson of Barnsley, was very unhappy with this explanation, insisting that the Council rules that “clubs should not raise any objection to their players accepting invitations to play for the county” should be paramount, and the cricket club (not the colliery company, even if they were Tyson’s employers) was the body responsible. Others at the meeting took similar positions, including one who insisted that if the Athletic Association had withheld permission, it was that organisation that should be in the Yorkshire Council, not the cricket club; but “if that did not represent the position, then the explanation of the club was simply a dodge”. Tyson was present at the meeting, and Earnshaw suggested he could explain the matter himself but the chairman refused permission as the dispute was not with Tyson but with the cricket club.

Perhaps Earnshaw was correct that Tyson had said that he preferred to remain at Whitwood, but it is unclear what pressure might have been exerted on the latter by his employers. It is also possible that Earnshaw was attempting to throw Tyson under the bus to avoid problems with the Yorkshire Council; there seems little other reason that Tyson should have attended such a meeting. Soon after, Whitwood seem to have accepted — or perhaps were forced to accept — that they were at fault. The Hull Daily Mail reported on 1 July that the secretary of the Yorkshire Cricket Council had received a letter co-signed by Earnshaw and by R. M. Currer Briggs, the president of Whitwood Cricket Club:

“With reference to the question of [Tyson] playing for the Yorkshire C. C. and the attitude of the Whitwood Athletic Association, and the Whitwood Cricket Club in the matter, I wish to state that at the time of writing my previous letter to Mr Toone [the Yorkshire Secretary] on the subject, I was not aware of the resolution of January 27th, of the Yorkshire Council, regarding granting permission to players to play for the county, and, moreover, I wish to state that in the light of this resolution, the Whitwood A. A. and the Whitwood C. C. are prepared to conform in every respect, and I regret that under the circumstances this misunderstanding has ever arisen.”

The letter was read at a meeting of the Council on 19 July, and there the matter rested. As far as the Yorkshire Council were concerned, Whitwood were in the wrong and if the club did not quite apologise, they accepted that they had misunderstood the rules. At the Yorkshire Council annual meeting in November 1921, it was again reinforced that clubs should not refuse permission for their players to appear for Yorkshire.

However, matters might not have been quite as simple as they appeared to the public, or to the Yorkshire Council. While Whitwood undoubtedly bore some responsibility, there were other factors playing out behind the scenes. A clue about what was really happening lies in the minutes of the Yorkshire Selection Committee. At their meeting on 12 May 1921, there was an unusual discussion, as a result of which was recorded that if Tyson received his county cap, his fees would be considered the same as the regular players (who were paid more than uncapped players) as from the time that he first appeared; in other words, his wages would be back-dated so that he was paid as a capped player from the moment of his debut. This was highly unusual from a committee which was consistently reluctant to pay more than they had to; the only explanation is that such a demand must have come from Tyson himself and the committee were keen enough to have him in the team that they agreed. At the next meeting, on 30 May, “the question of Tyson was mentioned” but no details were given in the minutes; was he still being considered for selection, or were they simply performing a post-mortem on what had happened since they last met? The latter seems more likely because, as part of the same entry which mentioned Tyson, the minutes note that the committee agreed to increase the wage of Oldroyd to match the first-team regulars, dating from the Lancashire match. And the question of money refused to go away. On 27 July a group of unnamed first-team players appeared before the committee to ask for improved pay; the committee stalled by telling them to put their requests in writing to Toone, the secretary. But in the end, there was a pay increase in November 1921, the third such rise since the end of the war as Yorkshire (and other counties) were forced to pay players more to avoid losing them to cricket leagues and to offset the rising costs of living.

Sir Frederick Charles Toone by Bassano Ltd
Whole-plate glass negative, 6 May 1929
NPG x124562 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Was this simply about money? We have no details about Tyson’s wage at Whitwood but it seems unlikely that it matched that of a capped player at Yorkshire. At the time Tyson played for Yorkshire, capped players received £9 for every home game and £14 for an away game (these figures were increased to £11 and £15 in November 1921) and would receive £64 over the winter. Yorkshire played 30 games in 1921, so that a capped player could expect an annual wage in excess of £300, as well as performance bonuses. A small club like Whitwood, playing in a relatively minor league, would not have been able to equal these amounts, but perhaps the greater security of a year-round contract appealed to Tyson. The desire for such security and a year-long contract might explain why he had switched from the the more prestigious Bradford League to play for Whitwood — especially if the contract included a deal regarding catering arrangements. And it might hint at why he would have negotiated so keenly with Yorkshire over backdated pay, knowing that he had his Whitwood contract to fall back on if the county did not co-operate.

And yet this view that Tyson rejected his opportunity on the grounds that playing for Yorkshire did not offer security does not quite ring true. He was already a professional cricketer; he was not abandoning another career to try his hand at a new sport and there is no doubt that, had he failed in county cricket, he could have returned to the league game. Even if Whitwood had not retained him, he could easily have signed for another club. Perhaps, among all these hints and rumours that swirled around in May 1921, there was something else going on that has been lost to history. The likeliest explanation is that Tyson and Whitwood each bore responsibility for the end of his Yorkshire career; and perhaps the Yorkshire committee simply would not pay Tyson what he thought he was worth.

Regret was expressed at the loss of Tyson to Yorkshire cricket, but Alfred Pullin (“Old Ebor”) was less concerned, writing in the Yorkshire Evening Post at the height of the controversy in late May :

“I do not suppose Tyson will welcome the kind of prominence which he has received in the past week; that achieved at Southampton was much more agreeable. If he had not played those not out innings of 100 and 80 against Hampshire, his withdrawal from the Yorkshire XI would not have caused much comment. As it is, the public naturally believe that first-class cricket is being deprived of one of its stalwarts through the arbitrary action of the Whitwood Colliery Club. Tyson’s merits as a cricketer, however, could not be judged by two or three first performances; a much longer test would be necessary, and in addition to batting the quality of his work in the field has also to be appraised. On this latter point it is necessary to say that in the matches he has played Tyson’s fielding has not been on the same plane as his batting.

There need be no assumption of want of loyalty on the part either of Tyson or his club. Both are the best judges of their own necessities, and it must be remembered that if Yorkshire had wanted Tyson’s services years ago they could have had them. He has arrived at an age when a permanency is more attractive, also more businesslike than a venture which necessarily has an element of speculativeness about it. The position of the county club seems clear enough. They cannot include in their team any player who may be called upon by his club for Saturday engagements. Mr Burton [the Yorkshire captain] might have taken Tyson to Birmingham to play against Warwickshire in the midweek match, but in the circumstances preferred not to do so. As the Whitwood man’s absence was Oldroyd’s opportunity, perhaps it was well he did not.”

Incidentally — and possibly indicative of the “official” position — Pullin, very much part of the Yorkshire cricket establishment at this time, did not even mention Tyson in passing in his History of Yorkshire County Cricket 1903–1923, published in 1924. But the argument that Tyson was too old to begin a county career is a ridiculous one: Edgar Oldroyd, who took Tyson’s place, was around four months older than Tyson, and although he had first played for Yorkshire in 1910, was as unproven as Tyson at county level in 1921.

The closest thing cricket possesses to an “official” verdict is to be found in Wisden, and the writer of the review of Yorkshire’s 1921 season very much followed the reasoning of Pullin: “It seemed as if Yorkshire had discovered a great left-handed batsman, but there were difficulties in connection with his league engagement, and he soon dropped out of the team. His startling success suggested that Yorkshire had been entertaining an angel unawares. Those who knew most about him said that he was a little too old to start a new career, and that his fielding did not strengthen the team. His disappearance was Oldroyd’s opportunity.” But in his 1935 autobiography, although offering no insight into why he left the team, Herbert Sutcliffe found time to recall Tyson’s three-match career with Yorkshire and sing the praises of the man whom he played briefly alongside. He wrote: “No-one looked like getting [Tyson] out during his spell with the county. There was an exceptional batsman.”

Various articles mentioned Tyson over the next twenty years and largely suggested that his departure had been over financial matters. For example, his Wisden obituary said: “Yorkshire were then, as usual, very powerful, and Tyson was not young enough to fill occasional vacancies whilst training for a permanent place in the side.” But this was not the only explanation proffered in later years. In 1945, the Shipley Times and Express carried an alternative version of what happened, based on the recollections of an anonymous “friend’ of Tyson (although the tale has a few errors, such as naming the Yorkshire captain as Geoffrey Wilson, who did not take over the role until 1922). Tyson supposedly told his friend after the match against the Australians that he was “finished with t’county”, which the latter assumed was because there had been a “bit of a dust” (i.e. “dust-up” or argument); however, Tyson told him that his ambition had always been to play against the Australians and was content now that he had done so. This seems even less likely than other versions of what happened. Another friend of Tyson, Ernest Anderton, took issue with the story and wrote to the Shipley Times to refute it (and to say that Tyson did not speak the way that had been portrayed in the article). Instead, Anderson suggested that Tyson had not decided at the time whether he wished to play county or club cricket and ultimately settled on the latter. The author of the original piece claimed that his story had been corroborated by a member of the Yorkshire Committee, but this also seems unlikely.

Later histories are vague about what took place. John Callaghan in Yorkshire’s Pride: 150 Years of County Cricket (1984) repeated almost word-for-word the story from the Leeds Mercury from May 1921, that Whitwood had been responsible for Tyson’s disappearance from Yorkshire cricket. In 1989, Anthony Woodhouse wrote in his History of Yorkshire County Cricket Club: “[Tyson] insisted that he would have been better off playing as a weekend professional and working down the pit during the week. Sadly, he preferred that arrangement much to cricket loss.” However, Woodhouse was mistaken on one detail: Tyson never worked as a miner.

While we will never be certain exactly what happened in May 1921, we do know that Tyson continued in the Yorkshire Council with Whitwood until 1925. According to his obituary in the Yorkshire Evening Post, in one season he passed 1,000 runs and won the Yorkshire Council batting prize for the season. He remained a quality batter so it was not surprising that other counties expressed an interest in him. And in 1926, Glamorgan — a county which already had two former Yorkshire players, W. E. Bates and J. T. Bell, as first-team professionals — made an approach. Reports in late April and early May 1926 revealed that discussions between the county and the player had been ongoing for some time. The Western Mail revealed the outcome of what look to have been demanding negotiations. Glamorgan agreed to partially fund two Welsh teams — the Gowerton and Baldwin’s Welfare clubs — in order than Tyson could play for them while qualifying for the county club. Tyson would be paid a salary of £156 for two years — the length of the qualification period — on the “strict understanding” that he would “bind himself to the Glamorgan Club for three years following his qualification period at a rate of pay not exceeding that of the best paid professional in the county”. Reading between the lines, it is quite likely that this meant he was demanding to be the highest paid player. Tyson initially denied the story when it was widely reported in the press but once it became known that Yorkshire had given him permission to qualify for Glamorgan (something required under the arcane rules of county cricket), matters moved quickly. He made his final appearance for Whitwood on 15 May 1926 and moved to Wales, playing for Gowerton for the rest of the season.

If Tyson had indeed rejected Yorkshire because of the risks involved in a 32-year-old pursuing a career in county cricket, what had changed five years later? He would have been 39 by the time he qualified for Glamorgan, and by the time that his proposed deal ended, he would have been 42. Tyson’s attempt to join Glamorgan looks like the final nail in the coffin of any story which suggests that “job security” was the sole reason he left Yorkshire in 1921. However, his Welsh adventure was destined to end after just one season. While he was an undoubted success for Gowerton, scoring at least two centuries and attracting large crowds, even with his batting, the team did not win a match until mid-June (thanks largely to Tyson carrying his bat for 112 out of a total of 175).

Although not qualified to play in the County Championship, Tyson could represent Glamorgan in other matches. He appeared in two first-class games for Glamorgan in 1926, his first such matches in five years: he scored 8 and 0 against the touring Australian team and 79 and 1 against H. D. G. Leveson Gower’s XI at the end of the season. That was his final first-class match; in five games, he had scored 320 runs at 45.71. What happened next is slightly unclear.

Stories emerged in March 1927 that Tyson had been given a month’s leave to decide if he wished to continue playing for Glamorgan; the Western Mail reported that the Glamorgan Committee set a deadline of 16 March for him to inform them of his intentions. There were hints in some Welsh newspapers that Tyson had declined the terms offered to him; Dr. Andrew Hignell of the Glamorgan Cricket Museum informs me that this also was the impression he received from reading the Glamorgan Committee minutes. But the “official” story reported in many newspapers (not least in Yorkshire) was that Tyson had decided to return to Yorkshire owing to the illness of his wife, and Glamorgan released him from his contract in order to return to his home in Whitwood. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that the deal he signed with Glamorgan was only for a year initially, and he declined to agree an extension.

Upon his return to Yorkshire, Tyson signed for Castleford, a team which appeared in the Leeds League, in 1927. As with his other professional contracts, he performed the dual role of professional and groundsman. His debut for the club was remarkable, but for his performance with the ball rather than the bat: he performed hat-trick, winning three successive lbw appeals. However, his form fell away from the heights of the early 1920s; he averaged a relatively low 27.54 with the bat. He continued with Castleford for many years, and captained them in later seasons, winning the Leeds League with the club in 1938. He did, however, remain close to at least some Yorkshire cricketers. The Tyson family recalled that he was friends with Herbert Sutcliffe and Wilfred Rhodes in later years.

At the time of the 1939 Register taken at the outbreak of the Second World War, Tyson and his wife still lived in Whitwood, at 24 Wood Green, a street adjacent to the cricket ground and Whitwood Colliery. Tyson’s house actually backed onto the cricket ground. He gave his occupation as a “sports groundsman”; there was also a note that he was in the Special Constabulary. But six months later, Tyson died at Leeds General Infirmary on 3 April 1940, aged only 51. The cause, according to family recollections, was pernicious anaemia. He was buried in what is now known as Whitwood Cemetery, in a funeral attended by several of his associates from Castleford Cricket Club and the former Yorkshire players Reginald Allen and Harry Hartington (the latter of whom never seems to have played with Tyson). Also present were several groundsmen who had worked with him. He was survived by his wife and three children, and also by his father, who lived until 1952.

Cecil Tyson left an estate worth £1,397 10 shillings and sixpence (worth around £80,000 today). His wife Florence died in 1949, aged 64, after injuring her leg tripping over a child’s toy belonging to her neighbour, and was buried alongside her husband. Their grandson, who was born after Cecil’s death, remembers Florence as a kind woman who enjoyed painting. He also recalls using his grandfather’s old bat as a child, finding it surprisingly flimsy even back then.

Tyson’s grave in Whitwood Cemetery, photographed in 2023

The grave of Cecil and Florence is still intact and had both their names on the side, although it is a little the worse for wear and the headstone is missing.

For many years, Tyson was one of those “what-could-have-been” stories. Clearly a batter of considerable ability, he remained famous largely because of one game, that incredible debut match which made him almost literally a “nine-day wonder”. While we can only guess how his career might have unfolded, it is not unlikely that, like Oldroyd, he might have played for Yorkshire into the 1930s. We know little about Tyson, but perhaps he gives an impression of knowing his worth and perhaps his two pseudo-disputes with Yorkshire and Glamorgan had their roots in an understandable desire to be paid well. And yet he was far from alone there: Oldroyd’s Yorkshire career ended in 1931 after a prolonged financial dispute with Yorkshire over his benefit money in which both sides involved solicitors; the disagreement quite likely played a part in his departure from the team. For Yorkshire cricketers of the 1920s and 1930s, the county’s lack of generosity was the source of much rancour, hardship and even occasional tragedy. Maybe Tyson was ultimately better off away from that world.

“It seemed as if Yorkshire had discovered a great left-handed batsman”: The Meteoric Career of Cecil Tyson

Cecil Tyson (Image: Who’s Who of Yorkshire County Cricket Club (1992) by Tony Woodhouse)

Of all the people to play first-class cricket for Yorkshire, the identity of the men with the highest batting average is a little unexpected, albeit owing to a statistical quirk. At the time of writing, Damien Martyn (who played twice for Yorkshire in 2003) leads the list with an average of 171 (343 runs in two completed innings); he is followed by Shaun Marsh (who played twice in 2017) who averaged 112.50 (223 runs in two completed innings). If these two Australians occupy their positions because of the fragmented nature of county cricket in the twenty-first century and their flying visits as overseas players, the third man in the list played over a century ago. Cecil Tyson batted only five times for Yorkshire in 1921, was not out three times to give him an average for the county of 77.33 and made a far greater impact than Martyn or Marsh did. In fact, he was briefly the talk of the cricket world. The reason is that during a match between Yorkshire and Hampshire at Southampton on 7, 9 and 10 May, played in the opening round of County Championship games, the 32-year-old Tyson became the first Yorkshire cricketer to score a century for the county on his first-class debut. No Yorkshire cricketer repeated this feat until Martyn Moxon in 1981 (Paul Gibb scored a hundred in his first game for Yorkshire in 1935, but it was not his first-class debut). And yet Tyson played only twice more for Yorkshire before disappearing from the team in circumstances that have always been slightly mysterious. Although he left his mark on the record books, there was an undeniable sense of a missed opportunity, for the man and for Yorkshire; of promise unfulfilled.

Few cricketers have enjoyed more spectacular debuts. Hampshire scored 242 in their first innings, and secured a first-innings lead when Yorkshire collapsed from 142 for two to 220 all out. The only man to play the bowling convincingly was the newcomer Tyson, who came in at number three when the score was 43 and batted through the rest of the innings for a score of 100 not out in 225 minutes. When the eighth wicket fell, Tyson was on 89 and Abe Waddington blocked for half-an-hour to give his partner the opportunity to reach his century. When Waddington was out for an extended duck, Tyson was on 97. The number eleven was George Macaulay, who later proved a more-than-useful batter but who was still new to the team. Macaulay hit a four immediately, but the end of the over gave Tyson his chance against the bowling of Alec Kennedy. He struck the ball into the deep and scrambled three runs to raise his century (although Macaulay was almost run out going for the third); Macaulay was out next ball. Tyson, whose unbeaten 100 had been scored out of 177 while he was at the wicket, was applauded from the field by around 3,000 spectators for his historic feat.

Hampshire’s attack was decent. Kennedy, a good professional medium-pacer played for England in the following winter and took 2,874 first-class wickets in a 29-year career. Alongside him was Jack Newman, another journeyman professional who was solid without being brilliant and managed 2,054 wickets in his career. The other main bowler was Ernest Remnant, a usually harmless left-arm spinner who did the damage in Yorkshire’s first innings, but who had been in and out of the Hampshire team since 1908 without ever securing his place. The report in the Yorkshire Post described how Tyson was always watchful, choosing the correct ball to hit, and began through scoring mainly to leg. But his second fifty was mainly scored through drives into the off-side or through cutting. In total, he hit ten fours. His one chance came when he was dropped by the wicket-keeper Livsey off Kennedy’s bowling on 93.

Even today, Tyson stands in very select company. He is one of only six men to make a century on their first-class debut for Yorkshire; three of them — Paul Gibb in 1935, Michael Bevan in 1995 and Jacques Rudolph in 2007 — had already played first-class cricket for other teams. Tyson, Martyn Moxon (1981) and Ashley Metcalfe (1983) were making their overall first-class debut when they scored their centuries. But what made Tyson even more unique is that he was not quite done.

Hampshire’s second innings of 287 ate into the third and final day, leaving little time for a result; the home side were content with two points for their first innings lead but Yorkshire might have forced a win had Tyson not dropped two crucial chances (although he also held one very sharp catch at square leg). Needing 310 to win in 210 minutes, Yorkshire batted out the match to score 151 for two. Unbeaten at the end, with a score of 80, was Tyson, who had batted for 150 minutes and again hit ten fours. In the game, he had made 180 runs without being dismissed (in six-and-a-quarter hours), a debut without parallel. In the report on the game, Wisden recorded: “[Tyson] played wonderfully well, combining good hitting power on the leg side and some clean cutting with an ever-watchful defence.”

Herbert Sutcliffe (left) and Tyson (playing his second game) resuming their innings against the Australians at the start of play on the second day (Image: Leeds Mercury, 13 May 1921)

Suddenly Tyson was the most famous cricketer in England. Not unlike might be the case today, albeit in rather more restrained fashion, the press wanted a piece of him. During his next match, an interview appeared in the Daily Mirror and Yorkshire newspapers, fanatical about cricket under any circumstances, filled quite a few column inches discussing the new marvel. But excitement was not confined to Yorkshire. Pelham Warner wrote in the newly launched Cricketer that Tyson “had been “has for many seasons been looked upon as a candidate for county honours” and had been recommended “long ago” by George Hirst. The brief feature continued: “Cecil Tyson has accomplished a really sensational performance. Several cricketers have scored a century on a first appearance for a leading county, but Tyson has put up a record that is likely to stand for many a year to come. It was more than probable, had there been a few more overs at Southampton, that he would have obtained two hundreds in a match; as it is, his achievement of making 100 not out and 80 not out in his initial game in first-class cricket is without parallel. Be it remembered also that his was the first century in county cricket this season.” Warner concluded: “Tyson’s style is perfect. He has an impregnable defence when set, with some beautiful leg strokes as his principal source for runs”, and predicted a lengthy career for the new Yorkshire batter. Yet by the time these words were published, Tyson’s Yorkshire career was already over. What went wrong? But first we need to understand how Tyson found himself in that situation.

Cecil Thomas Tyson was born in Brompton-by-Sawdon, an area of Scarborough, on 24 January 1889, the third of eight children to Richard Tyson, a stonemason, and Mary Wood. At the time of the 1891 census, Richard and Mary also ran a grocer’s shop. The 1911 census records Tyson boarding in Brompton with Mary Beeley and her son. He was listed working as a stonemason, like his father, but he had even then begun to make an impact on the world of cricket.

Tyson was a left-handed batter at a time when these were a rarity; his grandson recalled that he was the only left-handed person in their family. In an interview published in the Daily Mirror in 1921, Tyson said that he had played cricket since he was “a tiny boy” and that all of his five brothers were also keen cricketers. His brother Reginald played for Northumberland Second XI in the 1920s. But Cecil was by far the most successful cricketer in the family. Most of the following details come from a feature written in the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1926 (when Tyson moved to Wales to qualify for Glamorgan). In 1904, at the age of fifteen, he scored fifty for Brompton against Snainton, the next village and a keen cricketing rival. At some point in the next few years, he was employed as the professional at Scarborough Cricket Club, where one of his team-mates was Benny Wilson, who shortly after became Wilfred Rhodes’ opening partner at Yorkshire. In 1909 and 1911, Tyson topped the Scarborough batting averages. He was also the professional (in other words, the cricket coach) at Edinburgh High School in 1910.

For all his success at Scarborough, Tyson was hardly at the centre of Yorkshire cricket. This changed in 1913 when he signed a contract with Tong Park, a team in the Bradford League. As their professional, he had a role as the club groundsman and was probably responsible for practices and low-key coaching of the other players. But his main role was on the field, and he was an immediate success. He scored three centuries, and his 696 runs at 49.71 meant that he topped the league averages. He remained at Tong Park for seven seasons in total and his timing was in many ways perfect. With the outbreak of the First World War, all cricket in England stopped with the sole exception of the Bradford League which, despite considerable controversy and virulent criticism from the cricket establishment, continued to employ professional cricketers for the duration of wartime. The result was that the best cricketers in England flocked to the Bradford League, including Jack Hobbs, Sydney Barnes and Frank Woolley. Suddenly Tyson was encountering some of the world’s leading cricketers; even so, he once more topped the league averages in 1918, with 537 runs at 48.81. He also had occasional success with his left-arm bowling, for example taking five wickets against Bingley in 1913 and five against Pudsey St Lawrence in 1914, but he was primarily a batter.

Tyson batting against the Australians at Bradford (Image: Leeds Mercury, 13 May 1921)

For Tyson personally, perhaps a more important development was that in November 1915, he married Florence Fox, the daughter of a photographer, who was four years older than him and had lived in Bradford all her life. Both were living in Willowdene, Low Baildon, at the time; Tyson gave his occupation as “professional cricketer”. The couple eventually had three children: Reginald, Florence (usually known by her second name, Mary) and Winifred. In the Daily Mirror interview from 1921, Tyson noted that his wife was a cricket-lover.

What is less clear is what Tyson did during the war other than play cricket. There is no record of any military service, nor any gap in his playing record during the war years. It is possible that he avoided conscription, which was brought in during 1916, if he worked in a factory, as was the case with several Yorkshire county players.

When the war was over, Tyson continued much as he had done before. In 1919, he set a new record for runs scored in a season, beating the previous record of Jack Hobbs, who had scored 784 runs for Idle in 1916. In total, he scored 1,012 runs at an average of 59.50 (which remained a league record until 1925). His highest score was an unbeaten 149 against Laisterdyke, an innings which the Yorkshire Evening Post stated in 1926, “will always be remembered as one of the most brilliant pieces of batting the League has ever seen”, but Tyson himself thought that an (undated) innings of 62 when he carried his bat against Saltaire’s Sydney Barnes (out of a total of 90) was his best performance. Another feature of the 1919 season was Tyson’s opening partnership with Samuel Cadman; against Lidgett Green, they shared an unbroken partnership of 250 for the first wicket; they had another unbeaten partnership of 144 in the next game.

Reports from the end of the 1919 season suggested that Tyson was to continue with Tong Park in 1920 (the Barnsley Independent stated on 9 August, a week after he broke Hobbs’ record, that he “has already signed for next season). But in 1920, he does not seem to have played in the Bradford League at all (although Anthony Woodhouse’s research in the late 1970s and 1980s indicated that he played for Bankfoot after leaving Tong Park). Instead, he had signed for Whitwood Colliery, a team from close to Castleford and which played in the Yorkshire Council. Some later sources suggest he was working as a miner at the colliery and playing cricket at weekends; his family had a notion that he still worked as a stonemason off the field, but it appears that his entire income was derived from cricket-related activities: the 1921 census records his occupation simply as “groundsman (cricket)”. But the change of league does not seem to have blunted his effectiveness: he headed the Yorkshire Council averages in 1921 and 1923, and he averaged 56 for Whitwood between 1920 and 1925. By then, he had achieved a far wider fame.

Throughout this period, Tyson was not unknown to the Yorkshire selectors. As early as 1911, he played for Yorkshire Second Eleven, appearing in five games. In 1912, he played for Bridlington against Yorkshire Second Eleven, and in a further three games for the Second Eleven in 1914. In 1917, he played for a Bradford League XI against the Yorkshire first eleven in a wartime charity game. In 1919, he was selected in a Bradford League XI in another game against the Yorkshire second team and in 1920, he played for a Yorkshire Council XI against the Yorkshire Second XI. It has to be said that he was not especially successful in any of these games; in 22 innings involving Yorkshire first or second teams before he made his first-class debut, he passed fifty just once: an innings of 84 for the Bradford League in 1919. His next highest score was 40 and he averaged just over 15. But eventually, the weight of runs became too great to ignore.

The catalyst for his selection by Yorkshire was the retirement of David Denton, the senior professional and long-standing number three batter, at the end of the 1920 season. In a career lasting 26 years, Denton had scored over 36,000 runs for Yorkshire and played eleven Test matches for England. His departure left an enormous hole at the top of the batting order and it was this which prompted the Yorkshire selection committee to give Tyson a trial. He was invited to the pre-season practices at Headingley before the 1921 season, where he was singled out as impressive, and chosen for Yorkshire’s opening matches: he made his first-team debut against Leeds University and played against a York XVI in the “pre-season” friendly matches (which were not first-class).

Tyson edging towards H. S. T. L. Hendry in the match against the Australians at Bradford in 1921; he was out shortly after for 29 (Image: The Sphere, 11 June 1921)

And so it was that Tyson made his famous first-class debut in Yorkshire’s opening match of the season. He held his place for the match against the touring Australian team at Bradford, where he scored 29 in two hours on a difficult pitch before 13,000 spectators. When he was caught at slip by Jack Gregory off the slow bowling of Herbie Collins, Tyson had been dismissed for the first time in first-class cricket after making 209 runs. Pelham Warner said in The Cricketer: “We hear that until he got out at Bradford he seemed settled down for another [century], and his duels with McDonald and Armstrong will not be forgotten by those who were there.” Among the crowd on the first day (at the end of which Tyson was 12 not out) were Tyson’s wife and four-year old son Reginald. The Leeds Mercury carried a story about that game; Reginald caused a small scene on the first day when his father refused to allow him to drink his ginger beer straight from the bottle, insisting that he use a glass. Consequently, Tyson junior refused to attend the second day. A later story, as retold by Dr Andrew Hignell of the Glamorgan Cricket Museum, suggests that young Reginald had a tantrum and threw the glass onto the concrete terracing, where it smashed. In an interview printed in the Daily Mirror after the second day, Tyson noted that his son had been “inclined to be naughty” that morning and so had stayed home. According to the Mirror report, which described him as having “fair hair, grey-blue eyes and broad shoulders”, Tyson said: “I am hoping most sincerely that I shall be able to keep this up … I am sorry I did not make more runs today for apart from my natural desire to improve on my not out innings against Hampshire, there was a sentimental reason why I wished to do well in my first home match for my county. I played my first club cricket match at Bradford. I naturally wanted to do something against the Australia, but they got me asleep.”

Against Lancashire at Old Trafford Tyson was less successful, making 0 and 23. Neville Cardus, watching his appearance against Lancashire, noted that Tyson “has had us wondering for nearly nine days” (i.e. he was a “nine-day wonder”) but struggled against the bowling of Cook, despite impressing in practice before the second day’s play; Cook dismissed him with a slower ball which defeated him completely. In the second innings, he “again shaped indifferently. He walked about too much, as cricketers say, as he made his back strokes”.

Even if the Roses match seemed to have brought Tyson back into the realm of mere mortals, it was clear to everyone that he belonged at that level of cricket. As Wisden phrased it at the end of the season: “It seemed as if Yorkshire had discovered a great left-handed batsman”. But, incredibly, that was the end because he never played for Yorkshire again. Although his career carried on for some time, and although he was not quite done with county cricket, Tyson never returned to the Yorkshire team, leaving him with that average of 77.33. Controversy over who was to blame raged for the remainder of May, although the newspapers never quite uncovered the reasons for Tyson’s cricketing disappearance. The actual explanation was to be found largely behind the scenes, although even to this day it is unclear whether the decision was made by Tyson, Yorkshire, or his rather rebellious employers at Whitwood…

“To assert and entrench South Africa’s new-found status”: Race, Empire and the Formation of the ICC

Reggie Schwarz (Image: Wikipedia)

South Africa’s first games at international level came in 1888–89 when a team was thrashed by a touring English side that was a long way from being representative. No-one outside South Africa took the games too seriously, but several seeds were sown over the following years. First was that the South African cricket team would be exclusively white; black, Asian or mixed-race players were excluded and ostracised. But the second was the burning ambition of a very wealthy man called Abe Bailey, who wanted South Africa to be able to compete on a level with England and Australia, the only two Test teams at the time. Over the next twenty years, but particularly in the late 1890s and early 1900s, Bailey poured money into South African cricket, recruiting English professional coaches and employing English cricketers to work for him who would go on to represent South Africa. But still no-one took South Africa too seriously. Perhaps the key turning point came with Bailey’s recruitment of Reginald Schwarz, a London-born graduate of Cambridge University who had played international rugby for England and cricket for Middlesex. Schwarz was Bailey’s personal secretary for a time, but more importantly played cricket for Transvaal. He brought with him a secret shared by his Middlesex team-mate Bernard Bosanquet; that secret was how to bowl the googly, and Schwarz shared it with several South African players. When an England team — albeit one that was far from full strength — visited South Africa in 1905–06, Schwarz and the men he had shared the googly with — Aubrey Faulkner, Albert Vogler and Gordon White — played a key role in defeating England 4–1. These were South Africa’s first victories over England and brought Bailey great delight.

There was another side to all of this success, however. Bailey held very strong views on race, and would today be classed as a white supremacist. He was also a firm believer in the British Empire and the benefits he thought that it delivered to the world; in this he was far from alone. That South African society was organised along racist lines, even in this early period, is fairly well known, but the pattern repeated in various parts of the British Empire, including Australia. For the cricketing world, this manifested itself in the all-white South African team; white South Africans held such strong views on racial segregation that it was unthinkable to have mixed teams. In Australian cricket, Jack Marsh was omitted from the Australian teams almost certainly owing to his colour. Other parts of the world were less bothered by the idea of non-white cricketers taking the field. West Indian teams were mixed by the early 1900s; although dominated and led by white players, a pattern was established that the best players (mainly the bowlers) were black. Even in England there had been mixed teams: Ranjitsinhji was the most famous non-white player in the cricket world, making his debut for England in 1896 (although this was not without controversy), but was not the only example of a non-white player in England; black and East Asian players were relatively common in London club cricket, enjoying some relaxation while studying. Some made the progression to first-class level, notably Ahsan-ul-Haq or Charles Ollivierre.

But the rise of South African cricket presented a problem; mixed teams would have created serious tension for the South African authorities, as would the prospect of non-white teams in general. Cecil Rhodes had intervened in 1894 to prevent the selection of Krom Hendricks, a mixed-race bowler, in a South African team. And there is some evidence that this attitude had spread to the upper circles of English cricket as the South African team grew stronger. In 1906, a visiting West Indies team received a far cooler reception than its counterpart in 1900 had done; and the biggest issue identified in the press was that the cricketing public would not accept a mixed team of white and black players. Whether this was true or not, it was the line taken by the English establishment; and as it happens, the only other visit by a non-white team between 1906 and 1923 was that of an Indian team in 1911 which, more acceptably to the establishment, was captained by an Indian prince.

The outright turning point, however, came with the 1907 tour by South Africa which — in the minds of many, but most importantly in the mind of Abe Bailey — elevated South Africa to the “top table” of international cricket. They won 17 out of 27 first-class matches, losing only four times and although England took the three-Test series 1–0, South Africa could have won with a little luck and their team matched England throughout. The stars were the four wrist-spinners; the England-born Schwarz was the leading wicket-taker with 137 wickets at 11.79. The cricketing public were enthralled; English batters feared the googly; and Bailey basked in the success of his team, which had proved wrong the doubters who did not think they deserved a Test series. It appeared that South Africa could now challenge England on equal terms, placing them alongside Australia.

Sir Abe Bailey, 1st Bt by Bassano Ltd
Whole-plate glass negative, 30 June 1911
NPG x31101 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The timing was, depending on your viewpoint, either fortunate or unfortunate as it coincided with a hardening of Bailey’s personal views. Earlier that year, he had become involved in a push to increase links between the various South African colonies, which until 1910 were entirely separate entities except in a cricket sense. Bruce Murray wrote in his 2008 article “Abe Bailey and the Foundation of the Imperial Cricket Conference”: “In a speech to the Federation of British Women in Johannesburg on 10 January 1907 he underlined what he saw as the pressing need for federation or union so as to formulate a ‘common native policy’. In a unified South Africa, he urged, every step should be taken to ‘stem the tide’ of African advancement, so evident in the Cape, and ‘not allow any Native to take the place of any White man’.” And despite suspicion towards him from Boer leaders, after the Union of South Africa was created Bailey was knighted for his part in the process; his subsequent political career in the newly created Union was turbulent and none-too-successful, but need not concern us here.

What is relevant is this desire to “stem the time”; although it was never stated in explicit fashion, at least in public, that is precisely what happened in cricket after the 1907 series and with the formation of the ICC. The rise of South Africa, and the influential position that gave Bailey in world cricket, changed the course that cricket was taking.

Nevertheless, Bailey had no formal position in the South African Cricket Association except when he was president during the 1911–12 season. But his wealth and willingness to bankroll the cricket team gave him enormous — albeit unofficial — power. The team also benefitted, for example when he provided an allowance for the 1907 tour of £80 per player when many had threatened to withdraw for financial reasons before it even began. It was in the aftermath to the tour, when English audiences had been extremely impressed by the skill of the players, that Bailey sought to increase South Africa’s — and therefore his own — influence on the cricket world. As Murray puts it: “With South African cricket having finally made its mark on the international scene, Bailey seized the psychological moment to capitalise on its new aura. He sought to assert and entrench an equality of status for South Africa alongside the traditional Test rivals, England and Australia, by proposing the creation of an imperial triumvirate of Test playing countries, England, Australia and South Africa, organised under a new authority, an ‘Imperial Board of Cricket Control’, with its headquarters in London.”

Bailey’s ultimate aim was even more ambitious: a series of matches between England, Australia and South Africa to determine the best team in the world, a concept that eventually resulted in the Triangular Tournament in 1912. Yet cricket was only a part of his plan; he was equally concerned with the idea of increasing links between England, Australia and South Africa. An interview published in The Sportsman in 1908 included a summary of his position (which does not seem to have been his own words but those of the correspondent) in the introduction: “It was due to his fertile brain that the suggestion was made that the representatives of England, Australia and South Africa should meet in this country in a triangular series of contests which would not only do a vast amount of good to the game and prove a big attraction, but would also tend to bind the Mother Country and two of the largest dependencies closer together.”

He expressed some of this himself in a letter to the MCC Secretary Francis Lacey in late 1907: “In the first place, inter-rivalry within the Empire cannot but fail to draw together in closer friendly interest all those many thousands of our kinsmen who regard cricket as their national sport, while, secondly, it would probably give a direct stimulus to amateurism.” Such supposed altruism — the arguments for which did not stand up to close scrutiny — was not quite the full picture. Rather than trying to benefit cricket, Bailey sought to promote South Africa because he wanted the Tournament to take place immediately, before the South African team — which was already aging — had passed its best. Holding it as soon as possible would give South Africa the best chance to win. To this end, he attempted to pressure the MCC to schedule the Triangular Tournament during the 1909 season, even though a tour by Australia had already been agreed.

To press his case in England while he was in South Africa, Bailey asked the England batter C. B. Fry to assist him (the two men knew each other from when Fry toured South Africa in 1896) and employed the Hampshire amateur cricketer E. G. Wynyard — who was working alongside Lacey at Lord’s at the time — to act on his behalf; Wynyard became the official South African Cricket Association representative in England. Bailey and his representatives could count on sympathetic ears in the MCC. Two of the key figures in English cricket, Lord Hawke and Lord Harris, were strongly in support of Bailey, not least as they had vast financial interests in South Africa and were keen to strengthen cricketing links with the country. Harris, for example, was chairman of Consolidated Goldfields of South Africa (which returned profits of £2.1 million in 1895) and so knew Bailey through his own mining connections. Harris’ opposition to war in South Africa in 1899 led to a clash with Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, who suspected him of favouring his company’s interests over those of the country. As Simon Wilde observed in England: The Biography (2019), Harris and his Consolidated Goldfields “gained notoriety for putting its interests ahead of the sort of wider imperial concerns that Harris liked to link to cricket”.

Suddenly, almost from nowhere, everything was centring around South Africa. Bailey and the MCC were pulling in the same direction: to increase South Africa’s influence at the expense of everyone else. The MCC initially were supportive of holding the Triangular Tournament in 1909, but the Australian Board was less keen; a stand-off ensued, and it was at one time a realistic proposition that the Australian tour scheduled for 1909 might have been cancelled if they would not agree, before pressure from influential figures such as Stanley Jackson caused both the MCC and eventually Bailey to back down. The Australian authorities had far fewer vested interests in South Africa than their English counterparts and were not inclined to give way. The full story is skilfully told in When the Lights Went Out (2011) by Patrick Ferriday, reflects poorly on Bailey and the MCC.

During the long and fraught discussions, Wynyard continued to press Bailey’s desire that an “Imperial Board of Control” should be set up, and Bailey demanded that the South African Cricket Association should also push the point.

When the plan to hold the tournament in 1909 was finally abandoned, the MCC agreed to discuss arrangements to hold it at a later date. Therefore, during the second Test match between England and Australia at Lord’s, on 15 June 1909, the first meeting of the “Imperial Cricket Conference” was held. Representatives from the MCC (Lord Harris and Lord Lichfield), Australia (the extremely versatile Leslie Poivedin; the other representative was to have been Peter McAlister, the Australian vice-captain, but he could not attend as he was batting when the meeting took place) and South Africa (H. D. G. Leveson Gower and G. W Hillyard, odd choices as both men captained English teams — in cricket and tennis respectively — in South Africa in this period; they replaced Wynyard, who had resigned his position as the South African representative) met under the chairmanship of Lord Chesterfield to discuss international cricket. Leveson Gower, incidentally, was a stockbroker with interests in South Africa.

The second meeting was held just over a month later, on 20 July; the representatives this time were Lord Hawke for England, Poivedin and McAlister for Australia and, for South Africa, Leveson Gower and — inevitably — Abe Bailey, who had been given permission by the South African Cricket Association to “express the views of this Association”. Among the points discussed and agreed were the arrangements for the Triangular Tournament, now scheduled for 1912, the first South African visit to Australia (in 1910–11); a programme for future Test series between the three countries; and the eligibility rules for Test cricket. There was little sense that the ICC was to be a governing body; it was simply a meeting of representatives from each country to discuss the game and agree on some points.

The three captains of the 1912 Triangular Tournament. Left to right: Frank Mitchell (South Africa), C. B. Fry (England) and S. E. Gregory (Australia). (Image: Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 11 May 1912)

The Triangular Tournament, when it was held in 1912, was an utter failure. The South African team was disastrously weak and the Australian team — ripped apart and missing its best players owing to a dispute between them and the board — not much better. Poor cricket and worse weather left the public unmoved. England won fairly easily under the captaincy of C. B. Fry and no-one wanted to repeat the experiment. South Africa’s cricketing reputation was ruined: the star players from the previous decade were either too old or retired. Australia simply abandoned any pretence at wanting to play South Africa; apart from three Tests tacked onto the end of the 1921 tour of England, the teams did not meet again until 1931–32.

But in many ways, this was an irrelevance because Bailey, despite what would prove to be South Africa’s long-term decline in form (the team did not win a Test in England until 1935), had established the pre-eminence of South Africa in international cricket, regardless of the quality of its team, which had been his primary motivation all along. Wilde points out an important statistic. Between September 1909 and September 1929, England played South Africa in 33 Tests (of which 13 were in England); in that time, England and Australia also played 33 Tests (with 13 taking place in England). In the same period, Australia played South Africa 11 times, the last three of which were played when Australia were returning home from England in 1921; South Africa visited Australia only once (in 1910–11) before 1931–32. And the results did not justify such equality: Australia won 13 of those Tests against England, South Africa won three (all at home). Meanwhile, the West Indies had to wait until 1923 to be given another chance to tour England and India did not tour between 1911 and 1932.

And the changing attitudes that crystallised around the formation of the ICC — that international cricket was an “Imperial” affair — excluded one important cricketing power entirely. The final tour of England (their fifth) by the Philadelphia cricket team took place in 1908. Although cricket in the region had already been in decline, its deliberate omission from the new world order was the end of Philadelphia as a cricketing power. Rowland Bowen pointed out in his 1970 history of cricket that Philadelphia — not a part of the British Empire — could play no part in the “Imperial” organisation despite having stronger cricketing claims than South Africa at the time. Murray wrote in 2008: “The point was that Bailey’s fundamental design was to assert and entrench South Africa’s new found status as an official Test-playing country, and he had no interest whatsoever in promoting Philadelphia as a potential rival. In 1907, indeed, he prompted SACA to prohibit S.J. Snooke and R.O. Schwarz from missing the last few games of South Africa’s 1907 tour of England in order to join an MCC tour of North America. In a self-serving way, perhaps, for Bailey cricket was also essentially ‘the Empire game’, his claiming that ‘Imperial cricket … added to the union of hearts’ and ‘strengthened the bonds of Empire’.”

It was not simply a case of English cricket putting all its eggs in one basket; it wilfully ignored all the other baskets. Rather than cricket becoming a game played around the world, all attention became focussed on South Africa and Australia, although the latter felt very much like junior partners in 1909 despite their sporting preeminence. It was hardly a coincidence that, around the time of the Triangular Tournament, writers began classing South Africa’s first international matches — against England teams which were utterly unrepresentative but nevertheless outclassed their opponents — as official “Test matches”; they retain this at-best-questionable status today. The hijacking of cricket by Bailey passed without comment for many years. He remained a respected figure in cricket and was friendly with Pelham Warner and Walter Hammond in later years. So natural had it become for South Africa to hold a place at the “top table” before the 1960s that no-one questioned the damage that had been done. It was not until Rowland Bowen wrote in 1970 that the Triangular Tournament was “an early illustration of the power of South African gold in influencing policies in Britain” that the narrative was examined more closely, and even then he was a lone voice. More recently, Bailey’s role has been re-examined; Bruce Murray’s 2008 article has been influential, for example prompting a piece by Gideon Haigh on ESPNcricinfo.

Perhaps the effects of the creation of the ICC can best be seen in the match with which we opened this story, played at Fulham in 1912. The team that opposed Fulham entirely comprised non-white cricketers, all of whom were resident in England at the time. The actions of Bailey directly affected the cricket career of one of these players: Cyril Browne was a devastating wrist-spinner and good batter, but having qualified as a barrister, he was about to head home to Barbados; he would later emigrate to British Guiana. Even in 1912, he was in the international class as a cricketer, and there were rumours he would qualify for county cricket. As it was, he went on to become one of the best players in the Caribbean, but was deprived of a chance to play in England for the West Indies until 1923, and by the time the team was awarded Test status, he was long past his best. But in a small way, he did his part to fight prejudice in the British Empire, becoming the first non-white captain — albeit briefly — in West Indian first-class cricket in 1921, and he was also slightly involved in politics in Guiana. Such things would have been anathema to Abe Bailey.

Another cricketing casualty was Kojo Thompson, the man who assembled the non-white team. He was the best batter in the Gold Coast — known today as Ghana — and was deprived of an opportunity by the Triangular Tournament. In February 1911, The Observer reported that a proposed tour of England by a West Africa cricket team was to take place in 1912. There were several reports in this period, for example in Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game, regarding the growing strength of the sport in that region. Cricket was played regularly on matting in Accra, and was not limited to Europeans. Teams representing the Gold Coast and Southern Nigeria regularly played each other. A report in Cricket in 1912 (which was edited at the time by J. N. Pentelow, who took a lot of interest in cricket around the world) stated: “The West African natives seem to be making pretty rapid strides in the art and science of cricket, and there was some good play in the recent ‘intercolonial’ between the Gold Coast and Southern Nigeria”.

The proposed tour was the idea of Major F. G. Guggisberg, supported by John Astley-Cooper. Guggisberg was a Canadian-born surveyor in the British army who was working in Southern Nigeria at the time. He was later the Surveyor-General of Southern Nigeria, the Director of Public Works for the Gold Coast and, from 1919 to 1927, the Governor of the Gold Coast. He was generally supportive of developing countries to the benefit of their own people rather than to help imperialists, and unlike many of his contemporaries believed (albeit in a simplistic and paternalistic way) that Africans were just as capable as Europeans in any sphere if given the right level of support. Astley-Cooper held a very different position. He was a sports fanatic and a strong believer in the benefit of sport in binding the British Empire closer, but was associated more with athletics. Like Bailey, he would today be classed as a white supremacist who wished to celebrate the British Empire and the “Anglo-Saxon race”; he was the originator of the idea that later became the “British Empire Games” (and survive today as the Commonwealth Games). He was a figure about whom little is known (although he has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

Quite what brought together Guggisberg and Astley-Cooper is a mystery unfortunately lost to history, and they seem a strange partnership. Astley-Cooper in particular seems an unlikely to have wanted to promote African cricket, but he crudely explained his motivation in a statement released alongside plans for the tour: “If the spirit of the co-operative discipline of cricket could be imbued into the black man, it would be a great stride towards the settlement of the labour problem in West Africa, upon which all development depends.” Francis Lacey, the MCC Secretary, was broadly supportive, writing in a letter released to the press: “I am a great believer in the influence of cricket from an Imperial point of view.”

The idea was that the West African team would play the Minor Counties while the Triangular Tournament took in all the first-class teams. But this proved a step too far for the 1912 season, and the tour was postponed, never to be revived. This is unsurprising because such a tour faced unfavourable winds at a time when the Imperial Cricket Conference sought to consolidate cricket as a white, Anglo-centric sport. To support black cricketers in West Africa at a time when they were prevented from playing in South Africa risked upsetting the latter, and this would not have been countenanced at the time. The question arises: what might have happened to cricket in Nigeria or Ghana had the ICC and the Triangular Tournament not intervened?

Kojo Thompson in an undated photograph (Image: via Facebook)

Kojo Thompson would certainly have played on the tour, and he might have gone on to a high level of cricket. But once he returned to the Gold Coast after being called to the bar in 1912, there is no record that he continued with cricket (although as records are not easy to find, that does not mean he did not play). As it was, the rest of his life was far from quiet. Although not a man about whom much is known in Britain, he made a big impact back at home. Augustus William Kojo Thompson was born in 1880 in Winneba; after completing his education in England, he became a lawyer in private practice. In the mid-1920s he entered politics and by the 1930s was one of the leading voices against the British Empire and a strong advocate of Ghanaian independence. Never afraid to be hostile towards the colonial authorities and always considered a radical, Thompson went on to oppose everything that the ICC and Bailey represented in terms of imperial unity and the dominance of white men around the world. Today, a road is still named after him in Accra. For those who have read Beyond a Boundary by C. L. R. James, some of these themes might be familiar even in a cricket context. But it is tempting — if futile — to wonder: if Bailey had not become involved in cricket, might there have been similar books written about cricket in Ghana or Nigeria? Or anywhere else in the world?

The story of the formation of the ICC is a little depressing; it feels to a modern audience as if the wrong people came out on top, and it was a resounding victory for Abe Bailey. But there was one unfortunate outcome for South Africa, as pointed out by Wilde. Before 1909, many of those who played for South Africa in Test matches were born in England, including Frank Mitchell who captained the South African team in 1912. Wilde notes that 20 per cent of South Africa’s pre-1914 Test cricketers were born in Britain. After the qualification rules were tightened in 1909, this pipeline was closed down and South Africa had to rely on home-grown players. The result was an extremely weak Test team in the 1920s; South Africa did not win a Test in England until 1935 and their second win in that country was not until 1951.

But the overall picture is gloomy. Wilde notes other far-reaching effects: the consolidation of South African cricket among English-speaking white men, excluding both Afrikaners — who felt actively excluded from something that aimed to bolster the British Empire — and the non-white cricketers who had always been prevented from taking any part in “official” South African cricket. Wilde also argues that the continuing close ties between English and South African cricket meant that the English cricketing establishment had no inclination to rock the boat when apartheid was finally viewed as unacceptable in the wider world.

Even though the Triangular Tournament proved a failure, and South Africa sank to ignominious levels after 1907, the ICC remained “Imperial” until 1964. After the meetings of 1909, the ICC did not meet again until 1921 and then not again until 1926. The number of Test playing countries was finally expanded in 1926, when West Indies, New Zealand and India were approved in principle as Test countries, making international cricket a little less “white”. But again, membership was restricted to “governing bodies of cricket in countries within the Empire to which cricket teams are sent, or which send teams to England”. South Africa was far less influential then, otherwise the West Indies and India teams might not have been allowed to join (although the former had made an almost unanswerable case on the field with teams that remained mixed, albeit run by white administrators and captained by white players).

But Bailey — and those such as Harris and Leveson Gower who supported him — had achieved what he set out to do. It was not about cricket: it was about South Africa, empire and ensuring that cricket remained the preserve of white men across the world. This rarely seems to have been acknowledged by the wider cricketing world, nor by the ICC — which admittedly is an entirely different organisation today, for all its faults.

“English supremacy at the national game”: Cricket, Politics and Race in the early 1900s

Sir Abe Bailey, 1st Bt by Bassano Ltd
Whole-plate glass negative, 30 June 1911
NPG x31101 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The International Cricket Council was founded in 1909; its own version of the story given on its website states: “The governing body of world cricket, which has 105 countries currently in membership, began its life with some very tentative steps. On 30th November, 1907 the President of the South African Cricket Association, Abe Bailey, wrote a letter to F. E. Lacey, MCC Secretary. Bailey suggested the formation of an ‘Imperial Cricket Board’. The Board’s function would be to formulate a set of rules and regulations to govern international matches involving England, Australia and South Africa.” In fact Abe Bailey held, at that time, no official position with the South African Cricket Association and he had little interest in the governance of international cricket; his motivation was simple but two-fold: to promote South African cricket (which despite the wording on the ICC website was not at that time considered the equal of England or Australia on the cricket field) and to promote links between the “white” parts of the British Empire. Yet Bailey had become hugely influential within South African cricket through the use of his own vast wealth to support the national team; from South Africa’s first stuttering and spectacularly unsuccessful steps in international cricket in 1888–89, he had employed coaches and poured his own money into the team. South Africa’s first Test win (part of a 4–1 series victory) over a weak England side in 1905–06 was followed by an extremely successful tour of England in 1907 which gave Bailey the ammunition to claim that South Africa should be placed alongside England and Australia as a leading nation. However, Bailey would today be classed as an unapologetic white supremacist: his personal and political views were unequivocal. For example, at one time, he wrote: “I am for the white race being on top of the black”, and that was far from the worst of his public utterances.

And of course, most people are aware that South Africa at this time pursued an unofficial but strongly enforced policy of racial discrimination and segregation, even though the official policy of apartheid was almost forty years into the future. So there is a temptation to dismiss Bailey as an unfortunate historical aberration, a product of a troubled system; the argument goes that, while his association with the origins of the ICC is embarrassing, he was not representative of the wider cricketing world. The same muddled thinking concludes that the ICC was altruistic and simply sought to promote cricket despite the views of its originator. To take this view would be at best turning a blind eye to the truth and at worst a deliberate distortion of historical reality. By 1907, cricket around the world was being confronted by questions which were uncomfortable for its administrators, and these questions concerned race. Despite the perception that cricket in England and Australia at this time was an exclusively white sport, there were non-white players in both countries. And while the South African cricket authorities had chosen to allow only white players at the top level, other countries were more equivocal. However, the overarching philisophy in all the territories which formed the British Empire largely matched that of Bailey, no matter how uncomfortable those views are to a modern audience. Bailey was just one part of this picture and his opinions were demonstrably not unusual; he was so much a part of the mainstream, so much a conventional part of the establishment, that he numbered Winston Churchill among his friends and in 1912 met King George V during a cricket match.

Jack Marsh of New South Wales (Image: Wikipedia)

While there can be an inclination to promote the idea that South Africa was unique in the way it treated anyone who wasn’t white, this was not the case and this impacted cricket just as it impacted wider society. As soon as Australia was federated in 1901, policies were brought in to restrict immigration which were collectively known as the White Australia policy. In the prevailing mood, the indigenous Australian fast bowler Jack Marsh was hounded out of first-class cricket — supposedly for an illegal bowling action (and English cricketers thought he did actually throw the ball) but at least one contemporary cricketer, Warren Bardsley, thought that the main factor was Marsh’s race, a view endorsed by several historians. Certainly the furore over whether he threw the ball enabled the state selectors to leave him out of the New South Wales team and prevented him ever being chosen for a Test match.

Even more pronounced was the dominance of Europeans in the Caribbean. Each of the territories was ruled by white men; in the various colonies, anyone who was black, Asian or mixed-race faced discrimination and treatment as second-class citizens at best. This included restrictions on their prospects for employment or advancement in their jobs; voting — or any participation in democratic government — was limited to a small number of white property owners in most colonies. Like in the rest of the British Empire, this society was mirrored in the cricket world. Black cricketers in the West Indies were excluded from first-class cricket until 1897 when two black bowlers, Joseph Woods and Archie Cumberbatch, played for Trinidad. When the first West Indies team toured England in 1900, five black players were included; in 1906 the second West Indies team to tour England also included five black players. But despite this apparent breakthrough, discrimination was rife in West Indian cricket. The administration of the game was solely in European hands, as was the selection process, and white players were favoured over black; the latter were generally restricted to roles as bowlers. Any black player who rocked the boat was discarded. Despite the many problems with racism in the region, however, cricket teams in the West Indies were mixed; white players appeared alongside black players, a scenario unthinkable in South African cricket by that time. Yet this presented its own problems.

The presence of black players in the 1900 West Indies team drew comment, but the coverage was largely positive despite some racism and a lot of clumsy stereotyping. At a dinner at the end of the tour, Lord Harris — hardly a model of progressive thinking — observed in a speech: “I daresay there are lots of people in England … who are ignorant as to the West Indians were. I was asked, ‘Now who are these gentleman who are playing here?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I do not know, they come from the West Indies.’ ‘Yes, but what race are they,’ I said, ‘They are Englishmen, I do not know what other race they are, they happen to be Englishmen who happen to reside in the West Indies.'” Such opinions were less prevalent six years later, when reservations were openly expressed in the English press at the idea of mixed teams.

Hilary Beckles, in his article “The making of the first ‘West Indian’ teams, 1886–1906”, noted that the increase in black players in 1906 caused a few issues: “On the one hand, it was necessary to encourage the colonials in a paternal sort of way even if they put them in the subordinate place by example of defeat. On the other hand, given the racial ideology endemic to Empire, and the fact that the West Indies team, now, for the first time acquired the image as a black force in spite of white leadership, elements of the press considered it necessary to cast the contest within a racial paradigm.” When the team lost their first games, journalists expressed doubt that the black players reached first-class standard, and racial stereotypes and caricatures were portrayed freely in newspapers. A common stereotype of the time, which actually contradicted many of the contemporary reports on matches, was that the black fielders were lazy and lacked concentration. A report by E. H. D. Sewell from the first game of the tour also seems to indicate that some spectators hurled racist abuse at Lebrun Constantine, the father of Learie Constantine.

The 1906 West Indies team (Image: Wikipedia)

The result was that the sporting establishment suddenly grew cold towards West Indian cricket. For example, an article in The Times at the end of the 1906 season noted that the tour had passed without “any great amount of enthusiasm in England”, but that this was not simply because the team had not been successful on the field (or as the writer put it, “English supremacy at the national game was not threatened”). Instead the problem was deeper:

“The composition of the team did not appeal much to the average Englishman. There is an obvious interest felt in the colonial cricketer. A kind of peculiar interest may be felt in the cricket of the man who differs from him in race, colour, associations, training, and temperament. But a team in which the attempt has been made to blend the two is of the nature of a compromise which does not convinced. Combination, even at cricket, means something more than the appearance on the same field under the same leader of two totally different set of men. Various parts of the British Empire have various customers. It is, however, safe to say that neither from the dependency of India nothing the colony of South Africa is there any likelihood of a mixed cricket team being sent to England. There is great enthusiasm about cricket in both countries, but in the history of both countries important events have occurred, and indeed, continue to occur, which make other considerations paramount.”

This was not an isolated view. Major Philip Trevor wrote of the team in The Sportsman at the end of the season:

“At the same time the effort is not to be deplored and we can wish them better luck next time. When we come to think of it, satisfactory combination is about the last thing we ought to expect from a side constituted as they are. It is quite unnecessary to go into detail. Combination in cricket is not a mere product of the cricket field pure and simple. Other things concern the case, and, in the construction of their team, our visitors have, in my opinion, come perilously near to attempting the impossible. Speaking roughly the native members of the side have not so far done as much as those whose training, origin, and associations are more or less similar to our own; and in making of future arrangements in might be better to bear that fact in mind.”

Both tours had been promoted by the West India Committee, a London-based group of white businessmen with interests in the Caribbean which looked to promote trade and closer ties between Britain and the region. One element of the tour was to emphasise the close co-operation of men from a region with a large geographical spread; there is also just a hint that the organisers hoped to demonstrate racial inclusivity, as argued in Geoffrey Levett’s 2017 article ‘The ‘White Man’s Game’? West Indian Cricket Tours of the 1900s”. But by 1906, such hopes had been dashed. Levett concluded: “The 1900 tour occurred in the context of a bitter colonial war in South Africa of which the outcome was still in doubt. At that point in time support from any of the colonies was welcome as a reminder of the loyalty of British subjects overseas. By 1906, with South Africa secure, the West Indies once again had become a peripheral territory in the imperial vision. This fact was reinforced by the success of the South Africans’ rugby and cricket tours of 1906 and 1907, and hammered home by the exclusion of the West Indies (and India) from the Imperial Cricket Conference and the imperial cricket tournament that took place in London in 1912. In the early 1900s the South Africans were making all the running in imperial sports, especially since they had the financial resources and the network of political contacts to make their voice count at ‘home’.” How much had the influence of Bailey and other men who hoped to promote racial ideology of the British Empire — that white Englishmen knew best and it was the natural order of the world that they should dominate and rule benevolently over others — brought about such a change of opinion in six years? How much was the result of the conclusion of the Boer War and the rise of South African cricket in the intervening period?

The irony is perhaps that the men running West Indian cricket — who were exclusively white — would have had no ethical problem with their teams being all-white, but history had shown that such sides would be no match for good opposition. There were simply not enough good white players in the Caribbean. A similar argument could have been made for the early days of South African cricket, but the rejection of Krom Hendricks by Cecil Rhodes closed the door firmly on any prospect of non-white South African representative cricketers. It was the wealth of Abe Bailey, and his convenient recruitment of English cricketers to represent South Africa (notably A. W. Nourse, Reginald Schwarz and Frank Mitchell) that provided a solution in the short term. West Indian cricket lacked the wealth or patronage to follow this course.

Nor is it entirely implausible that there was a connection between the wish of those who ran English cricket to strengthen the links with South African cricket and the lack of any tours of England by West Indies teams between 1906 and 1923 (although weak and unrepresentative English sides occasionally toured the Caribbean). The only non-white team actually to tour England in this period was the 1911 Indian team which was privately organised and had no official status; however, there were no European players in the team, which was entirely Indian.

The situation in India was more complicated than can be adequately addressed here. The 1911 team was the first to represent India in England; there had been earlier tours but these were by teams of Parsee cricketers in the 1880s. But in general, Indian cricket was split along lines of race to the point that teams representing “Europeans”, “Hindus”, “Muslims” and “Parsees” regularly competed at events such as the Bombay Quadrangular. However, there had been mixed teams in India; for example in 1892–93, Lord Hawke took an English team to India and played matches against “All-India” which contained Europeans playing alongside Indians. Yet as time passed, and certainly by the time of the 1911 tour, the dominant forces in Indian cricket tended to be the Indian princes and while Europeans continued to play regular first-class cricket in India, teams representing India tended to consist of Indians. So for the English establishment, Indian cricket did not present the same threat to the imperial order as the West Indies; Ranjitsinhji still cast a strong light on English cricket, even if his career was effectively over by 1904, and he had established the idea that Indian cricketers were to be honoured and admired. There was also a strong royal element as the 1911 team was captained by the Maharajah of Patiala, adding some lustre to the side and sidelining any concerns about having a non-white team in England; there were none of the worries and uncertainties created in the English press that had been associated with the mixed West Indies team.

And what of England itself? English cricket was not quite the all-white monolith that is often assumed. Aside from the obvious — and hardly representative — example of Ranjitsinhji, there were several non-white players in England in the first decade of the twentieth century. For example, Ahsan-ul-Haq (of India but who lived in what is today Pakistan) played for Middlesex while studying as a barrister; Charles Olivierre (of St Vincent and a member of the 1900 West Indies team) played for Derbyshire; A. H. Mehta of India was employed by Lancashire, although he never played first-class cricket for the team; and Bangalore Jayaram played for London County in 1903 and 1904. There was also the case of Charles Llewellyn, the South African who played for Hampshire but always insisted that he was white. And below the first-class game, there were others; C. R. Browne of Barbados and J. A. Veerasawmy of British Guiana opened the bowling for the Clapham Ramblers while qualifying as barristers in the early part of the 1910s. There was Kojo Thompson of what is today Ghana (where he later became famous for non-sporting reasons), also in England to study law, who played for Fulham and was able to assemble an entire team of non-white cricketers based in England to play against that club in 1912.

And there were also other, lesser-known figures, such as the mysterious member of the Lord’s groundstaff who played one match for the MCC in 1902: either called Bryan and born in Jamaica, or called Walker and born in Barbados, he was briefly in the news that season. A black cricketer called Frederick Mercier, a theology student from Jamaica who was studying at Jesus College, took part in a trial for the Oxford University team in 1911 and played for various teams, including Hampstead, between 1911 and 1912. Despite being heralded as unusually promising, he was never selected for Oxford, a fate shared by several other non-white cricketers at Oxford and Cambridge in the years before the Second World War.

Little is known of Bryan/Walker or Mercier; more is known of another black cricketer playing in England around the same period. A man called William Henry Thompson lived in the Bolsover area of Derbyshire in the middle of the 1910s. He claimed to have come to England with “a coloured cricket team” according to newspaper reports, but had earned a living as a miner and playing cricket (possibly professionally) for colliery teams. The 1911 census records him living in Mansfield and boarding with a family called Barfoot. He had been born in Barbados in 1887 and gave his occupation as a coal miner (specifically, a hewer) but had listed his “industry” as “cricketer” (which had then been crossed out). He married a woman from Mansfield called Mabel Cupit in early 1915, but they separated soon after; some of the trouble seems to have arisen from Cupit’s mother Louisa, whom Thompson was charged with assaulting in 1916 and whom he blamed for his marital problems when Mabel unsuccessfully took him to court for desertion (and alleged that he was cruel and threatened her) in September 1915. There is no trace of Thompson or his wife on the 1921 census. But there were three children born whose name was Thompson and whose mother’s maiden name was Cupit in this period: in 1915, 1917 and 1919 (in Mansfield, Nottingham and Chesterfield respectively). None of these are traceable on the census either (although one had died in 1920). Otherwise, Thompson — and how he came to England — is another mystery.

The irony regarding the reservations over the 1906 West Indies team is that there had been regular “mixed” teams in England since Ranjitsinhji began playing in the 1890s. The result was that English cricket held a confused and contradictory view of race. Pelham Warner was able to promote the inclusion of black players in West Indies teams while supporting men like Bailey and the position taken in South Africa. Lord Harris could proclaim that the black players in the 1900 West Indies team “are Englishmen, I do not know what other race they are, they happen to be Englishmen who happen to reside in the West Indies”, but be in thrall to Bailey and work with him in advancing South African cricket.

This curious attitude of English cricketers regarding race is illustrated in a lengthy article by A. E. Knight for Athletic News in 1906; he lamented that the “colour line” was holding back South African cricket, and he wrote that “from a purely cricket point of view, it seems very unfortunate that the caste of colour should mar the progress of the black races, and incidentally of ourselves, too.” Yet he still managed to exhibit casual racism in discussing Albert Henry of Queensland who, despite being one of the fastest bowlers of the world, according to Knight “presented that curious blend of childish waywardness and fear so often and so sadly characteristic of weaker races”.

Although there are few outright reports of racism — not that newspapers or players would have recognised it as such or reported it — there were some examples, such as the abuse of Lebrun Constantine by English crowds in 1906, the negative attitude of Bill Storer of Derbyshire towards Charles Ollivierre, or various reservations expressed about Ranjitsinhji, such as Home Gordon’s recollection of racist comments made by members of the MCC, or the mental acrobatics of the selectors in trying to justify his omission from the England team for the first Test of 1896 (chosen by the MCC; he was selected by the Lancashire Committee for the second Test and this was the final summer in which the local Committee chose an England team for each venue).

This, therefore, was the situation by the time that South Africa toured England in 1907. There were many non-white cricketers around the world: not only in South Africa or the West Indies, but in England and Australia too. Their exclusion from the cricketing mainstream — whether through the way the West Indies were sidelined or the omission of Marsh from the New South Wales team or that of Mercier from the Oxford team — fitted a pattern which Bailey articulated in South Africa: the desire to see the “white race” firmly on top of the cricket world. With the creation of the ICC in 1909, Bailey and his allies in the MCC were able to further reinforce the dominance of the British Empire and secure the “whiteness” of cricket for years to come. Because that organisation, when it was founded, was not about governance or the promotion of the sport. It was about power and exclusion.

“Absorption by the white race”: Abe Bailey and the Troubled Formation of the ICC

Sir Abe Bailey, 1st Bt by Bassano Ltd
Whole-plate glass negative, 30 June 1911
NPG x31101 © National Portrait Gallery, London

On 19 July 1912, several sporting events took place simultaneously. Perhaps the most prestigious took place in Stockholm, where the fifth modern Olympics was drawing to a close; on that day, Britain won two gold medals in the rowing events. But it was also an important time in the cricket calendar. Two days earlier, Australia had defeated South Africa at Lord’s in the fifth Test of the Triangular Tournament, a competition with ambitious aims to establish which of the three teams which then played Test cricket — England, Australia and South Africa — was the best in the word but which was also designed to boost links between those three parts of the British Empire. The match had been briefly attended by King George V but was in many ways the final nail in the coffin of the tournament, which had already been seriously restricted by poor weather. Australia comfortably defeated an outclassed South African team but looming over them — and doubtless in the minds of anyone watching — were the six leading players who had refused to join the team after a dispute with the Australian Board of Control for International Cricket. Even so, it was clear that only England or Australia could win the tournament, which was already being judged as a failure in the English press and had attracted very poor crowds. On that Friday, the leading English players — including Jack Hobbs, Wilfred Rhodes, Sydney Barnes and the Test captain C. B. Fry — were engaged in the second day of the annual Gentlemen v Players match at Lord’s. Typically for 1912, that match was ruined by rain. Meanwhile, the Australian and South African teams were playing matches against Leicestershire and Kent respectively, both of which were drawn, again owing mainly to rain.

But perhaps the most interesting game of all — and one which in some ways represents what was deliberately sacrificed for the sake of the Triangular Tournament and the racist ideology of one man in particular — took place in Fulham on that same day. No scorecard survives of the game but we know a little bit about it. It was the fifth match of Fulham’s “cricket week” and the home team played a team selected by a man called Kojo Thompson who had played regularly for them that season. A brief report in Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game observed that Thompson had put together “a strong team that did not contain a single white face”. His players included Cyril Browne, a future West Indies Test cricketer (who top-scored with 55), and Joseph Alexander Luckhoo from British Guiana, a man who later became prominent in promoting Indo-Guyanese cricket; it is quite likely that another player was J. A. Veerasawmy who played alongside Browne at Clapham Ramblers Cricket Club and founded the East Indian Cricket Club in British Guiana (later known as Everest Cricket Club) of which Luckhoo was the first captain. Thompson himself was from what was then called the Gold Coast and is today known as Ghana. One of the best cricketers in his country, he would probably have been part of a proposed “West Africa” team, including top players from the Gold Coast and Nigeria, which was to have toured England in 1912 but was eventually abandoned, largely because it would have clashed with the Triangular Tournament; but there is more to say on this later. He, like many of his team — including Browne, Luckhoo and Veerasawmy — was studying at the Inns of Court in London and had just been called to the bar. These disparate events on that rainy day in 1912 were all loosely connected and concern the origin of international cricket’s current governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC). The thread that binds them was a South African who, during the Australia-South Africa Test at Lord’s, met King George and may well have been watching South Africa playing Kent: Sir Abe Bailey.

The current ICC website, in the section outlining its history, notes that the Imperial Cricket Conference — as it was originally called — only met three times between 1909, when it was formed, and 1926 but also acknowledges the role played in its creation by Abe Bailey, the driving force in bringing the cricket boards of England, South Africa and Australia together. But the website is silent on why he wanted to do so. The answer is not a comfortable one and it is something which historians in other spheres are increasingly confronting. In general, there has been a welcome trend over the last few years of examining the less savoury stories to be found in the past, and the role of racism in the formation of many places and institutions. Cricket has escaped the spotlight to some extent given that discrimination in the past has always been a part of its “official” history and that headlines have rightly been dominated by recent instances of how racism has affected current players in England. Yet from a historical viewpoint, cricket has been given a remarkably easy ride. While almost anyone with any awareness of the sport’s past can reel off stories about how South Africa was excluded from Test cricket owing to apartheid (although many commentators carefully skate around the “rebel” tours there), or the “D’Oliveira Affair”, fewer are aware of how racism blighted cricket in the Caribbean until the 1960s (unless they have read C. L. R. James’ Beyond a Boundary). Deeper analysis is confined to mainly academic writing. But even this is only a small part of the story. The bigger picture has been hiding in plain sight for decades. The elephant in the room has been the ICC and Bailey’s role in its creation.

So who was Abe Bailey? We can only give a brief outline here, most of which is drawn from an article by Bruce Murray for the South African Historical Journal in 2008.

Abraham Bailey was born at Cradock, a town in the Eastern Cape of what is now South Africa, in 1864. His father was a shopkeeper from Yorkshire who emigrated to South Africa. Bailey had a difficult childhood, involving the death of his mother when he was seven, an uneasy relationship with his father and being sent to England to complete his education. When he returned at the age of 17, he abandoned his father’s business hoping to make money from gold. But he won over £100 in a cricket match — either from a bet or a collection for his own performance depending on who tells the story — which he invested in land. Moving to Johannesburg in 1887, he became a stockbroker and financial agent and made his fortune. Like many speculators, his morals were sometimes lax and he pursued various ways to make money, which he did very effectively. He came to the attention of Cecil Rhodes for his astuteness, and the two men were associated until the latter’s death in 1902. Bailey also diversified into mining and real estate so that by the turn of the twentieth century was one of the richest people in South Africa and was numbered among the so-called “Randlords”, the most prominent (and richest) mining magnates.

For many reasons, Bailey had strong connections to England; we shall come to his business links later but there was also a personal side. Not only was England the birthplace of his father and the place where Bailey himself was educated, he also had an English wife and a residence in that country that he regularly visited. It is unsurprising that his sympathies in South African politics were British and he saw himself (and South Africa) as part of the British Empire. And he was prepared to fight to keep it there. He was involved in the notorious Jameson Raid in late 1895 and had to buy his way out of his imprisonment for his part in it. He fought for the British during the Boer War, serving as an intelligence officer and escaping after he was captured. During that war, he became a lifelong friend of Winston Churchill, who was covering the conflict as a journalist. After the war, Bailey entered politics, initially taking over the seat of Cecil Rhodes in the Cape Parliament, standing unopposed for the Progressive Party established by Rhodes, but going on to represent other parties over the years. As Bruce Murray put it: “Intent on safeguarding the interests of the mining industry and promoting British supremacy in South Africa, Bailey entered the political arena, and over the next decade attempted to carve out for himself a leadership position among South Africa’s ‘British’ population.” He was never quite successful in this, lacking the influence in the political world that he would come to enjoy in the cricketing one. Soon after this, he took over a newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail and became the chief shareholder in a company behind the South African Sunday Times.

George Lohmann, who was recruited by Bailey as a coach (Image: Wikipedia)

In short, Bailey was a man with a lot of interests. There is a lot more that could be said of his life, but we need concern ourselves mainly with his all-consuming passion. Although he liked many sports, a large part of his life — and fortune — was devoted to cricket. Although he was only ever a mediocre cricketer himself, he played for a Johannesburg XVIII and a Transvaal XVIII against an English touring team in 1891–92 and captained Transvaal in the Currie Cup in 1893–94, taking eleven wickets in two first-class games. His only other first-class match came in 1897–98 when he captained “A. Bailey’s Transvaal XI” against Natal. Bailey was also instrumental in the formation of the Transvaal Cricket Union in 1891; the organisation built links with mining magnates to increase its influence. At a lower level, he was also the captain of the Wanderers Cricket Club in the 1890s and financed the recruitment of the English bowler George Lohmann as a coach. The latter was one of many English players recruited in this period in an attempt to strengthen South African cricket.

And it was Bailey’s fanatical determination to drive South Africa up to a level whereby the team could match England which shaped cricket over the next twenty years and still has echoes today. It led to the idea of the Triangular Tournament, the formation of the ICC and the deliberate and cold-blooded exclusion of whole countries from the cricketing world. It also established literal white supremacy as the founding concern of the ICC. But what cannot be denied is that Bailey achieved his ambitions through sheer force of will and almost limitless financial power.

English teams had first toured South Africa in 1888–89 and another three visited in the 1890s, but all were far too strong for the local opposition. Over the course of the four tours, eight “Test matches” were played, all of which were won by “England” — four of these by an innings — but the visiting sides were in no way representative and no-one in England took the games seriously. It was only after the creation of the ICC and the misleading notion that South Africa were a top team that these matches were retrospectively adjudged to be Test matches in literature produced after 1912. Therefore they are — with little justification — today regarded as official Tests, vastly inflating the statistics of several players: for example, Johnny Briggs took 21 wickets in two Tests in South Africa at 4.80 and George Lohmann took 35 wickets in three games at 5.80.

The heavy defeats, however, drove Bailey forward and he was determined to build up South African cricket until it could match that of England. He not only employed coaches like Lohmann, he also “poached” overseas talent. For example, he employed amateur English cricketers to work for him in South Africa, thereby enabling them to play locally. His most influential “signings” were Frank Mitchell of Yorkshire — who went on to captain South Africa’s Test team — and Reggie Schwarz of Middlesex — who introduced the “googly” to South African cricket — both of whom worked as his private secretary and played cricket for Transvaal. Following the Boer War, Bailey provided the financial guarantees which convinced an Australian team to visit South Africa on its way home from England in 1902 and bankrolled the visit of a South African team to England in 1904. His backing of Transvaal made it the strongest province in South African cricket, and its players made up the vast majority of the Test team by 1905–06, when South Africa finally tasted success: an MCC team was defeated 4–1 in a Test series that season; South Africa’s win in the first Test was its first at that level, to Bailey’s great delight. Following that result, the MCC invited South Africa for their first official tour of England — the previous ones had been privately organised — which would include their first Tests in England. It was Bailey who provided a large part of the expenses granted to the players. The South African team proved to be very strong, dominated by Schwarz and three other “googly” bowlers who proved indecipherable for the English batters. Although South Africans lost the Test series 1–0, it was an extremely close contest and they were far too strong for most counties, winning 21 first-class matches. The 1907 tour convinced Bailey, and many others, that South Africa had equalled England and Australia in terms of Test quality and drove much of what followed. It was also this idea that led to the disastrous Triangular Tournament of 1912 and indirectly led to the formation of the ICC.

As Bailey was, by 1907, hugely influential in South African cricket, his political views suddenly become relevant. And here we need some more background because for any modern audience looking at South African cricket in this period, the picture is dominated by the exclusion of non-white players from the team and the racism that permeated the country. Although South Africa did not adopt the formal policy of apartheid until 1948, society was dominated by white Europeans and had been for some time. Yet this was hardly atypical for the British Empire in the early years of the twentieth century. In the cricket-playing world, British rulers dominated Australia, Africa, the Caribbean and India, excluding and repressing the indigenous and/or non-white populations. They promoted what would today be classed as white supremacy but an ideology which they considered to be the natural order: that white British men knew best and it was in the interests of the world that they should dominate people whom they considered to be inferior. This was illustrated perfectly by several incidents involving Bailey. Given what followed, the first is somewhat surprising.

When a side was being selected for the first tour of England by a South African team in 1894, one of the leading candidates — and probably the best bowler in South Africa — was W. H. Hendricks, known as “Krom”. But Hendricks was classed as “coloured” and therefore his potential inclusion was controversial. English cricketers who faced him in 1892 thought he would be a success and a considerable attraction in England; some, but not all, of the South African cricketers thought it would have been “intolerable” (the words of A. B. Tancred) to have him in the team on an “equal footing” to the white players. There was a deep desire to keep a clear demarcation between white people and “other” races and this was felt keenly in the white cricketing world. Bailey thought Hendricks should have been selected in order to make the team competitive, but Cecil Rhodes was against the inclusion of Hendricks, supposedly saying that English crowds “would have expected him to throw boomerangs during the luncheon interval”, something which happened to the Aboriginal Australian team that toured England in 1868. Rhodes’ private secretary, William Milton, chaired the selection committee, so Hendricks was not picked; Rhodes later told Pelham Warner that he “would not have it”. Incidentally, Rhodes was later instrumental in the omission of Ranjitsinhji from a team of English cricketers that toured South Africa in 1896–97. Ever the pragmatist, Bailey altered his views to match those of Rhodes, and later wrote: “I was strongly in favour of sending [Hendricks], but I have yielded somewhat.”

Cecil Rhodes, a friend of Bailey who was instrumental in the omission of Krom Hendricks from the South African team (Image: Wikipedia)

This was not Bailey’s only positive intervention on race in this period: he was a supporter of Charlie Llewellyn, another cricketer classed as “coloured” but who claimed to be white. He also voted that “coloured persons” should be allowed to watch matches at the Wanderers Cricket Ground in 1903, the only member of the Wanderers Committee to vote that way. But these events were not the norm for Bailey; two years later, he blocked a request by the Transvaal Indian Cricket Union to be allowed to watch games at the Wanderers and he later expressed strongly racist opinions about Indians. And despite his uncharacteristic support of Hendricks, Llewellyn and for the admission of non-whites in 1903, Bailey’s views on race were stark, well-publicised and unequivocal. When he was the MP for Krugersdorp in the South African parliament between 1915 and 24, Bailey demanded, in the words of Bruce Murray, “segregation for Africans, repatriation for Indians, and assimilation for coloureds through a policy of ‘education, of advancement and improvement, and finally, of absorption by the white race.'” Bailey also wrote in 1915 that sport could play “a great part in creating a better feeling between the two great white races” — in other words, the British and the Afrikaners in South Africa. Nor was this the worst of it. As Gideon Haigh wrote in 2006: “Bailey was otherwise the basest of racists, crudely derogatory of blacks (‘I am for the white race being on top of the black’), Indians and Chinese (‘The Asiatics were the white ants of South Africa, destroying the foundations of our institutions and the roots of the livelihood of the white race’).”

Also relevant were Bailey’s views on the British Empire. Murray describes him as “an ardent imperialist, anxious to integrate South Africa in the British Empire, and to strengthen the ties, formal and informal, between the ‘white’ parts of the empire. In cricket as in politics his concern was to assert the British and imperial identities in South Africa.” And given the increase in South Africa’s cricketing strength — in which he had played a key role — between 1888 and 1907, Bailey had a platform from which he could promote South African cricket and his own views.

This, then, was the background to the formation of the ICC and the ill-fated Triangular Tournament. Perhaps it would be comforting to take the line that Bailey was an exception; that if his views were extremely troubling, he was an isolated figure in the cricketing world. Or that maybe this was a purely South African problem, and everyone knows what South African society used to be like. Unfortunately that was not even remotely the case. We opened with Kojo Thompson’s team and we shall end with it; because despite the mistaken perception that England was largely a white country in the period around 1912, there were several non-white cricketers in England at this time, not just those who played for Thompson’s team. Their treatment — and where they came from — plays a part in this story too. English and Australian cricket had a confused, contradictory and troubling relationship with race at this time. This, just as much as Abe Bailey’s political views, shaped the formation of the ICC…

“Steady good work has always been his forte”: Ted Arnold of Worcestershire and England

Ted Arnold photographed in 1905 (Image: Wikipedia)

There are cricketers who thrill the crowds and whose dynamic play sets pulses racing whenever they are involved in the game. Others are more dependable than exciting. The long-forgotten Worcestershire and England cricketer Ted Arnold fits into the latter category. Although his skill with bat and ball made him a central figure in Worcestershire’s first years in the County Championship, he was one of those solid performers often overlooked. Yet his statistics were eye-catching: in a first-class career that lasted from 1899 to 1913, he scored 15,853 runs (including 24 centuries) and took 1,069 wickets. And for the period before the First World War, his batting average of 29.91 is rather better than it appears to modern eyes; his bowling average of 23.16 was respectable, albeit nothing out of the ordinary. Even more impressive was that, despite playing for an unfashionable county, he played ten Test matches for England (and took a wicket with his first ball); in a period when such games were infrequent, he was part of the first-choice Test team for almost four years. His Wisden obituary described Arnold as “an all-round cricketer of sterling merit” after his death in 1942, but in truth few of his performances stood out for Worcestershire or England: he was never named as a Wisden Cricketer of the Year and a profile in Cricket in 1911 noted that “steady good work has always been his forte in the bowling line, rather than exceptional isolated performances.” For example, during his best Test series, in Australia in 1903–04, he never took more than four wickets in an innings. But away from the cricket field, Arnold was a man with a wide range of interests who enjoyed several “adventures”: from involvement in politics to a mysterious horse racing scandal.

Edward George Arnold was born in Exmouth, Devon, in 1876. He was the first child of Edward Hartfield Arnold and Eliza Sophia Blackmore; his father was born in Brighton and was a licensed victualler who ran the South Western Hotel in Withycombe Rawleigh (and employed two servants) at the time of the 1881 census. In his younger days, Arnold senior had played for Exmouth Cricket Club and had managed the New Quay Hotel at Teignmouth; he was also a Freemason. Edward Arnold junior was one of five children: he had three sisters and a brother who died at the age of 12 in 1891.

Arnold attended Hele’s School in Exeter but learned most of his cricket from his father. From the age of 13, he was in the Exmouth cricket team, and produced a string of impressive performances with bat and ball which brought him to the attention of the Worcestershire Secretary, Paul Foley, who was leading an MCC team on a tour of Devon. Foley was determined to secure first-class status for his county; he saw possibilities in the promising young cricketer from Exmouth and urged him to sign for Worcestershire as soon as he left school, but Arnold’s father urged him to wait for for a year or two before committing to cricket. In the meantime, he played for Devon in 1893 and 1894 while he was qualifying for Worcestershire, leading the team’s batting averages in both seasons. Incidentally, it was not until 1895 that the Minor Counties Championship was formed, driven by Foley as a stepping stone to Worcestershire’s first-class status.

After serving the required two-year qualification period, Arnold first played for Worcestershire in the Minor Counties Championship in 1896. Playing as a professional (despite his relatively prosperous background), he came third in the batting averages and headed the bowling. Although poor health restricted him to three appearances in 1898, he was by then regarded as one of the best Minor County players in the country. In three seasons from 1895 to 1897 (he missed all but one game in 1898), he took 160 wickets at 9.98 and scored over 900 runs at an average of just over 23. After Worcestershire’s promotion to the County Championship in 1899, he took time to adjust to the higher level (he may also have been affected by the death of his father before the season), and ill-health again restricted him in 1901. But by 1902, he had once again established himself as a leading all-rounder. At first, he was more successful with the bat, averaging in the mid-20s (more than respectable for the time) but he gradually became more effective with the ball, decreasing his bowling average from the mid-20s and increasing his number of wickets. In 1900, he became the first Worcestershire cricketer to pass 1,000 first-class runs in a season; in 1902 and 1903 he did the “double” of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in the season. In the latter year, he averaged over 30 with the bat and took 143 wickets at 17.44, which remained his best season with the ball; there is no doubt that he was among the best professional cricketers in England.

Meanwhile, in 1900, Arnold married Kate Price in Worcester; their first children — twins called Edward and Kate — were born late that year. In total, they had thirteen children — although not all survived into adulthood. Their last child Gerald died before he was a month old in 1918. But Arnold remained an atypical professional cricketer; the 1911 census records that he was able to employ a servant.

He continued to make progress on the field; his success in 1903 was reflected in his selection that year for the Players against the Gentlemen at Lord’s (he had played in the less-prestigious equivalent fixture at the Oval in 1899, and again in 1903 after his Lord’s appearance), which was an honour almost equivalent to playing for England, particularly during seasons like 1903 in which there were no Test matches. Even though he scored only one run and was wicketless, he had impressed people who mattered; Pelham Warner, struggling to assemble a side to tour Australia during the 1903–04 winter, invited him to join his team that winter. Writing about his selections after the tour in his book How we Recovered the Ashes (1904), Warner described how Arnold was a key part of the Worcestershire team which was showing a great deal of promise. He said: “Arnold is a batsman with a thoroughly sound style, but I am inclined to think that he is an even better bowler than he is a batsman. With a high, easy action, he keeps a good length, and seems able to make the ball jump up awkwardly even on the best of wickets, while should the pitch help him at all, he can get on a good deal of off-break.” Arnold more than vindicated his selection to establish himself at Test level.

Embed from Getty Images

The MCC team that toured Australia in 1903–04. Back Row: Herbert Strudwick, Len Braund, J. A. Murdock (manager) Albert Knight, Edward Arnold, Arthur Fielder, Wilfred Rhodes, Reginald Foster, Albert Relf, Johnny Tyldesley. Front Row: Tom Hayward, Bernard Bosanquet, Pelham Warner, George Hirst and Arthur Lilley.

On paper, Arnold’s tour with Warner’s MCC team was unspectacular: a batting average under 14 and 46 first-class wickets at an average just under 20 (second in the list of wicket-takers and with the second-best bowling average, after Wilfred Rhodes). But the summary of the tour in Wisden said: “Arnold bowled uncommonly well — much better than his figures would suggest.” His best figures during the tour, four for eight, came when he and Rhodes combined to bowl out Victoria for 15. In the Tests, he did little with the bat but was solid with the ball, taking 18 wickets at 26.38, but his best game was almost certainly the first Test, his debut at international level. With his first ball, he had Victor Trumper — comfortably the best batter in the world — caught at slip; he was just the fourth player to take a wicket with his first ball in Test cricket. He finished with four for 76 and then played a key role with the bat. Overnight rain had affected the pitch, threatening to undo the advantage England had gained by bowling out Australia for 285. Warner promoted Arnold to number four to protect the best batters while conditions were at their worst. Wilfred Rhodes later recalled that the idea was Arnold’s: “Ted Arnold, who had been having a very bad time with the bat, [asked] Warner to allow him to go in. I remember Ted saying that he could not do any worse than he had been doing; but he might be able to stop in until the pitch improved and so save a good wicket or two.” Arnold ground out 27 runs in 90 minutes, hanging on until just before tea when the pitch had begun to ease. R. E. Foster and Len Braund then shared a partnership of 192 and England eventually established a first-innings lead of 292 and — after several scares — won by five wickets. In the fourth Test, his figures of four for 28 in Australia’s first innings were crucial as he and Rhodes bowled England to what proved a match-winning first-innings lead. Overall, he was a key member of an attack that possessed a lot of variety, often bowling with the new ball alongside George Hirst but also able to bowl on rain-affected pitches with his off-break.

What manner of cricketer was he? Arnold’s Wisden obituary said: “Of good height and build, though lean, Arnold bowled right-hand above medium pace, with varied speed and spin. He brought the ball down from an exceptional height, producing lift which made him specially difficult on a lively pitch, and he could take full use of drying turf. Strong in defence, he batted with plenty of power when set making strokes in all directions. Usually fielding in the slips, he held 163 catches.” In short, a dependable player who could be relied upon in any team, but never a star in his own right.

Arnold in Australia in 1903–04

Arnold’s stock remained high after the tour: he again represented the Players against the Gentlemen in 1904 and played for “The Rest” against Lancashire, the County Champions, at the end of the season. In all first-class matches, he completed the double once again. When Australia toured England in 1905, Arnold played in four of the five Tests. However, 74 runs and seven wickets was not an overwhelming return; his Wisden obituary noted he played “without doing himself justice”. But he was clearly still among the best cricketers in the country, and that season he recorded his best bowling figures in first-class cricket when he took nine for 64 against Oxford University and took over 100 first-class wickets for the final time (completing his fourth and final “double”). When England next played at home, against South Africa in 1907, Arnold played two of the three Tests; in the first, he took five for 37, his best Test figures, to bowl out South Africa cheaply before rain ended the game. Although he played in the second, he had little opportunity as Colin Blythe took fifteen wickets on a sticky pitch. And that was the end of Arnold’s Test career. The main reason was a decline in his bowling: after 1905, he never passed 100 wickets in a season and his bowling average increased. Although his batting improved to compensate — he averaged over fifty in 1906 — there were far better batters available to England; and professionals had to be exceptionally good to be selected ahead of glamorous amateurs in this period. He appeared in just one more Gentlemen v Players match at Lord’s, in 1907 (although he appeared in the Oval fixture in 1908).

But if his international career was over, Arnold continued to play for Worcestershire until 1913 and was very effective. In 1910, he produced one of his best performances when he scored 200 not out and took seven for 44 against Warwickshire. The following season, he hit his highest first-class score of 215 against Oxford University. He was awarded a benefit match against Kent in 1911. It is not certain how much money he made from it, but the Worcestershire annual meeting later that year expressed regret that Arnold had not received the amount he deserved based on his service; and at the time, the very existence of the club was in doubt owing to serious financial problems.

It is after the end of his Test career that Arnold becomes unusually interesting. To begin with, he seems to have somehow been associated with Ranjitsinhji. An obituary of Arnold published in Gloucestershire in 1942 suggested that he once accompanied Ranjitsinhji “on holiday” in India (which can only really have been in the winter of 1904–05) but there is no other evidence that this happened — and Ranjitsinhji was at this time moving in some rarified circles as he attempted to strengthen his claim to the throne of Nawanagar. The same obituary suggested “for some months Mr Arnold arranged the matches for his distinguished host”, although whether this was in India or on another occasion is not clear. There is one tiny hint of corroboration; when Ranjitsinhji rented Shillinglee Hall during his first visit to England as Maharaja of Nawanagar in 1908, one of his frequent guests was Arnold, according to the 1934 biography of Ranjitsinhji by Ronald Wild.

The Conservative MP Edward Goulding (Image: Wikipedia)

Arnold also seems to have become involved in politics around the same time. At the close of voting in the 1908 Worcester by-election, he was seen among the supporters of the Conservative candidate Edward Goulding, driving a coach “filled with sportsmen” as they correctly anticipated victory over the Liberal candidate. Other accounts, such as that in the Daily Mirror said that Arnold drove a car “decked, like its horse, in red”. His coach “went about the city with as much jubilation if they were all celebrating a victory already declared” according to the Brecon County Times.

But there are also hints of some dangerous currents just below the surface. There were several instances where he was in trouble with the police from 1909 onwards. It is not impossible that drink was involved, but there may be an explanation: one of his children died while Arnold was playing against the MCC for an England team in 1908. In September 1909, he was fined £5 and costs for “disorderly behaviour” by Worcestershire magistrates for attempting to prevent a policeman arresting a man called Thomas Mason. Mason was causing a scene while drunk, encouraged by Arnold, and a large crowd had gathered. A police sergeant attempted to arrest Mason, who became very violent, and the crowd reacted angrily against the sergeant so that, in his court account at least, the chief constable feared a riot; Arnold followed Mason to the police station, accompanied by between 2,000 and 3,000 people, who had to be dispersed. Arnold hardly helped himself by ignoring the summons, and he was not present in court. In December 1909, he was charged with “causing annoyance by disorderly behaviour” after repeatedly following around a police constable and “using abusive language” while he was drunk. He did not seem to take the charge too seriously, and was fined (this was his third fine); he was also urged by the chief constable not to annoy the police.

From 1908, his bowling seemed to decline and he took fewer wickets. It is unclear whether this was a result of age, because he had concentrated on batting (his batting record remained consistent) or because of the growing distractions off the field. In 1911, he was involved in an accident when his motorbike skidded on tram tracks in Worcester. He hurt his legs (including a knee which had been giving him problems) in the fall but sustained a more serious injury when the whistle he held in his mouth impacted his jaw. He missed just over a week of cricket but resumed afterwards although he bowled far less than usual; nor did he ever bowl regularly again. If his batting continued to be effective in 1911, his form collapsed in 1912. He averaged just over 20 with the bat and took only 26 wickets at 25.38. And his problems away from cricket continued; drink again played a part (as it may have done in his accident of 1911).

In October 1912, Arnold was involved in a fight in Worcester. He was charged, along with two other men, of assaulting a man called James William Pullen, a farmer and racehorse owner. According to the evidence heard by magistrates, Arnold and his two companions met Pullen in a hotel where Arnold mocked his horses, saying that he could run faster than them. Arnold then proposed to “toss” for drinks, but Pullen refused. When he left the hotel, he claimed that Arnold grabbed him in the hotel yard and assaulted him with the two other men; the latter two supposedly attacked him again in the street. Pullen was left with a black eye and many bruises. Arnold denied striking Pullen and said that he “merely flicked his cigarette”; instead, he claimed that Pullen was the aggressive one. The magistrates made no attempt to untangle what had really happened; they dismissed the charges because “the evidence was so contradictory”.

Early in 1913, Arnold was reported to be assisting the boxer Owen Moran in preparations for his World Featherweight Championship fight against Jim Driscoll, by acting as his timekeeper during training, but his cricket career was drawing to a close. Although he continued to play for Worcestershire in 1913, his batting average fell to just under 14 and he took only two wickets all season. In September that year, he announced his retirement from first-class cricket (although it is quite likely he would have been released had he not retired); he offered his services to Devon, but the minor county could not afford the wages he requested.

Oyster Maid (Image: Facebook)

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Arnold was working as a clerk but was enlisted into the Royal Air Force in May 1918. It is not entirely clear how Arnold was employed after the war. On the 1921 census, he described himself as a “Commission Agent”, an occupation shared by his eldest son. Both men worked from home and Arnold listed himself as an “employer”. His 16-year-old son Evan worked as a groom, which fits with one certainty about Arnold’s later life — he became involved in horse racing and at one time owned several horses, although it is not immediately obvious how he funded this aspect of his life. In this role, he was involved in a notorious incident in January 1927 when a horse called Oyster Maid won unexpectedly at Tenby Races, resulting in a heavy loss for many bookmakers. Arnold was the owner of the favourite, a horse called Bubbly. Various legends have built up over the years about what happened, although it seems very likely that some kind of fix was involved to manipulate the result; sometimes the motivation has been described as helping an injured jockey no longer able to race, but it was more likely just a way to make quick money. How much of a profit was made, and by whom, is not clear; but if there was some kind of conspiracy, it is possible that Arnold was involved and made money from it.

There are also indications from obituaries of Arnold that he was involved in greyhound racing in later years. All of the adventures of Arnold’s life away from the cricket field — flamboyant politics, problems with the police, horse racing, greyhound racing and boxing — make a startling contrast with his methods in cricket. A solid, methodical and reliable cricketer — Cricket once described him simply as a “dogged fighter” — did he crave excitement and drama in other parts of his life? Was he frustrated by the way his role as a professional cricketer restricted him? Or did he just like a drink and a bit of fun? In many ways, he remains a mystery as few first-hand accounts survive, and he never seems to have spoken or written about his life. From what we know, it is likely he would have had several tales to tell.

Arnold’s wife Kate died at the age of 46 in 1924. We know that he moved to Cheltenham in 1932, but he seems to have split his time between there and Worcester; the 1939 Register records Arnold living in Worcester with his daughter Vera and her husband, listing himself as a “retired cricketer”. He became unwell early in 1942 and never really recovered; he died at Worcester in October 1942, after around six months’ illness. He left eight surviving children: five sons and three daughters.

“The alarmist statement was very exaggerated”: The Legends of Colin Blythe

The 1907 painting by Albert Chevallier Tayler to commemorate Kent’s County Championship win; the bowler is Colin Blythe (Image: Wikipedia)

Colin Blythe is perhaps best-remembered today for being one of the few Test cricketers to be killed during wartime — in his case, in Belgium in 1917 — but as a cricketer he deserves more than simply being known for the manner of his death. In purely statistical terms, he was a formidable left-arm spin bowler: 2,503 first-class wickets at 16.81, of which 100 came in Test matches for England at the exceptional average of 18.63. Of bowlers to have taken at least fifty Test wickets, he has the twelfth-best average of all time; if the qualification is raised to 100 wickets, he is 6th. If we restrict this to Test cricketers who played after 1900, he is fourth overall (and second among those to pass 100 wickets after Sydney Barnes). To a modern audience, it might seem extraordinary that, despite this record, there were question marks over Blythe’s ability at the highest level, and that he was only England’s first-choice spinner for two seasons. Further complicating the picture, Blythe has been portrayed as a man of delicate health who was not temperamentally suited to international cricket owing to events from the 1909 Ashes series when, after being instrumental in winning the first Test, he was unfit to play in the second in circumstances which were broadcast to the press by the selectors when discreet privacy would normally have been the expectation. Away from the international scene, Blythe — known to his team-mates as Charlie (even though, confusingly, he had a brother called Charles) — was a key part of a dominant Kent team which won the County Championship four times (and were runners-up twice) in eight seasons between 1906 and 1913; his importance was literally illustrated when the county commissioned a painting to celebrate its 1906 Championship; at the suggestion of the Kent Committee chairman Lord Harris, Blythe was the central figure.

Nevertheless, remarkably little has been written about Blythe. Two full-length biographies have been written but neither are typical cricket books. Christopher Scoble’s Colin Blythe: Lament for a Legend (2005) is as much of a personal memoir as it is a biography, although it contains much useful information. The other is the self-published The Real Colin Blythe by the man’s great-nephew John Blythe Smart; an extraordinarily long and detailed book, it falls into the irresistible trap of reciting scores and bowling returns from a dizzying number of matches rather than stepping back and considering an overall picture. But the simple fact is that, over a century since he died, there is little surviving information about Blythe beyond his performances on the cricket field.

There are numerous accounts of his bowling: from his ability to turn the ball, to his skill on flat wickets, to his teasing flight and apparently beautiful bowling action. Perhaps the simplest and most heartfelt description came in the obituary written by Sydney Pardon for Wisden in 1918:

“Blythe had all the good gifts that pertain to the first-rate slow bowler, and a certain imaginative quality that was peculiarly his own. Very rarely did he get to the end of his resources. To see him bowl to a brilliant hitter was a sheer delight. So far from being disturbed by a drive to the ring [i. e. being hit for four or six] he would, instead of shortening his length to escape punishment, send up the next ball to be hit, striving of course to put on, if possible, a little extra spin … Blythe’s spin was something quite out of the ordinary. On a sticky wicket or on a dry pitch ever so little crumbled he came off the ground in a way that beat the strongest defence. He had, too, far more pace than most people supposed. The ball that went with his arm often approached the speed of a fast bowler and had of course the advantage of being unsuspected.”

The biggest contemporary debate — and one that continued for some time after — concerned who was the best slow-left-armer of all time: Blythe or Yorkshire’s Wilfred Rhodes (although there were arguments for the earlier Yorkshire spinners Ted Peate and Bobby Peel). Opinion was divided, and no definitive answer was ever reached, but there were many (including Ranjitsinhji, despite his successful record against that bowler) who thought that Blythe was the best of all. And there is not much doubt that once Rhodes turned to batting, Blythe was the best spinner in England (and probably the world).

Blythe bowling in 1905 (Image: Wikipedia)

After Blythe was killed during the First World War, many began to view him as a romantic symbol of the “Golden Age” of cricket: a classical spinner who bowled with the artistry and guile that had been lost to whichever modern generation was perceived as ruining cricket at that time. However, Blythe’s death also meant that later writers often looked back on him as a tragic figure; the writer Neville Cardus in particular romanticised him as a “delicate artist”, a man who played the violin when he was not on the cricket field. For example, Cardus wrote of Blythe in an article from the Manchester Guardian printed in 1934 (and reprinted in his book Good Days that same year): “Blythe of Kent — what a name, how perfect for the prettiest slow left-handed bowler of his, or surely any other, period! … Blythe was all nervous sensibility; his guile was a woman’s, you might say, a pretty lady’s; the guile of Rhodes was masculine, the old soldier’s.” Such a view was common: in 1922, a “special correspondent” wrote an article in the Guardian about Kent cricket in which he referred to Blythe as “that frail but great-hearted cricketer”. And Blythe’s apparently poor health added to this retrospective picture, turning a leading international cricketer into a romantic figure to be pitied. Fifty years after Blythe’s death, Alan Gibson wrote in The Times: “It was held that Blythe’s temperament too often let him down upon the big occasion”. He also described him as “one of those in whom nervous strain produces severe physical reactions”.

How did a cricketer with such a good record come to have this reputation? The reason is that, although there has been little definitive writing about Blythe, legends have accumulated around him, accelerated by the way that his death altered how writers viewed his life.

Colin Blythe was the first child of Walter Blythe, an engine fitter, and Elizabeth Dready. The couple married on Christmas Day 1878 and Colin was born just over five months later on 30 May 1879 at 78 Evelyn Street in Deptford; he was the first of their fourteen children (twelve of whom survived into adulthood). At the time, Deptford was an area of considerable deprivation and it is likely that the Blythe family lived in some poverty. In that 1934 article, Cardus recalled his shock at hearing Blythe speaking for the first time, not expecting his “cockney” accent, and wrote: “Colin Blythe came out of a slum and became the darling of Canterbury Week, with all its fashion and fine ladies”. If “slum” is a stretch — and something with which Blythe’s biographers both took issue — Cardus was correct that Blythe’s background was hardly typical for Kent cricket. The various censuses of Blythe’s childhood reveal that his family usually shared houses with other families, a common arrangement in less prosperous areas of late-Victorian England. For example, at the time of the 1881 census, the Blythes were one of three families living at 206 Evelyn Street. And their own part of that building must have been crowded as their household included Blythe, his parents, his younger sister, his maternal aunt, a female lodger and — oddly — a 12-year-old domestic female servant.

Blythe left school at the age of 13 to become an apprentice engine fitter and turner alongside his father at the Woolwich Arsenal (where he continued to work in the off-season during his cricket career unless he was taking part in an overseas tour). Scoble relates that he began studying for a Whitworth Scholarship but the pressure of work and study caused him to become ill and a doctor recommended fresh air as the cure. One other piece of the legend was, however, true; Blythe was a good violinist, possessed several violins, and was known on his later tours with cricket teams for playing to entertain his team-mates during long voyages overseas.

His entry into cricket has another slight whiff of romance: that having played little previous cricket (or, in some versions of the tale, none at all), he turned up to watch Kent playing at Blackheath in 1897 and — as one of the few spectators present — was asked to bowl a few balls to a Kent batter in the nets and was spotted by William McCanlis, a former Kent cricketer and head of the county’s recently established cricket school for young professional cricketers at Tonbridge. McCanlis was impressed and after giving Blythe some more opportunities, arranged a successful trial at the “nursery”. However much experience he had in reality before coming the the attention of McCanlis, Blythe was a success at Tonbridge made his debut in the Kent eleven in late 1899. From 1900 (when he took 114 first-class wickets), he was a regular in the team. Apart from a slight blip in 1901 when he took only 93 wickets, he took over a hundred wickets in each of his seasons in England. By the end of the decade he was regularly passing 150 wickets and if his average fluctuated slightly, that was more of a reflection of batting conditions than his skill: some seasons were wet, producing bowlers’ wickets, and some were dry, favouring batters.

Blythe was soon in the thoughts of the England selectors. In the 1901–02 winter, he was picked by Archie MacLaren as part of his team to tour Australia. Because many leading cricketers were unavailable, MacLaren took several youthful, promising players. Blythe was given his opportunity after just three full seasons and played in all five Tests, taking 18 wickets at a reasonable average of 26.11 despite a hand injury. There was no question that in a full strength Test team, Wilfred Rhodes remained England’s first-choice spinner, not least for his superior batting, but Blythe was clearly the main back-up. His reputation continued to grow; he was named as one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year for his performances in 1903 and a feature in Cricket at the end of the 1904 season — which noted that “some of his performances have been astonishingly good” — suggested that some batters were openly saying he was more difficult to face than Rhodes. When the latter missed the third Test of the 1905 Ashes series with a damaged finger, Blythe stepped in and took four wickets in the game and according to Wisden, “bowled uncommonly well”. His three for 41 on the final day almost took England to the win, but he dropped a difficult return catch in the last hour that might have made a difference. When the MCC toured South Africa in 1905–06, Blythe was given his chance in another fairly experimental team (full strength teams did not tour South Africa in this period) and took 21 wickets at 26.09 in the five Tests. Clearly he was not out of his depth at Test level.

Nor was Blythe a typically meek and mild professional. When he toured Australia in 1901–02, the Kent Committee withheld his winter salary because he was being paid for the tour, but he told them in 1905–06 he would not tour South Africa unless the county continued to pay him; the Committee agreed. This was far from the last time that he stood up to them, actions at odds with the notion of the “delicate artist”. When he toured Australia with the MCC in 1907–08, the Committee insisted that he give them £200 of his tour fee so they could invest it on his behalf (they did the same with the other Kent professional in that team). He reluctantly agreed on that occasion but refused a similar request that he hand over £100 of his fee after the 1909–10 tour of South Africa; the Committee reluctantly accepted his claim that the money was already accounted for and could not be handed over. There was another minor dispute in 1911 when he bought a house; he requested some of the money invested from his 1909 benefit (it was the practice at all counties for around two thirds of benefit money to be kept back in this way, supposedly to protect professionals who could not be trusted with such a large sum) to pay off his father for money he had borrowed for his house. The Committee grudgingly agreed, despite finding that he had asked for a little more than he owed in order to pay off “other liabilities”.

In many ways, the season of 1907 marked a turning point for Blythe. On a personal level, he married an 18-year-old woman called Janet Gertrude Brown and moved out of his family home at the age of 27. But professionally, it was a crucial year. As Rhodes had begun to concentrate on batting, causing a decline in his bowling ability, Blythe had the opportunity to establish himself in the first-choice Test team. He achieved this but the first hints emerged that he found success hard to deal with. The key moments came in the aftermath of two astonishing bowling performances. The first came for Kent against Northamptonshire; in the first innings, he took all ten wickets for 30 runs and followed up with seven for 18 in the second to give him match figures of seventeen for 48, all taken on the same day; these remain the best match figures in the County Championship. Blythe was widely acclaimed for his feat, even if it (typically) became exaggerated in the retelling: for example, Frank Woolley later wrote how Blythe had taken the first seven wickets in the second innings, putting him on course for twenty wickets in the game, when a catch went down off his bowling. Although a catch was dropped off Blythe, it was before a wicket had fallen in the second innings and another bowler struck in the next over.

More curious was that Blythe missed the next two Kent games with what was described as a “chill”; although this explanation was not implausible during a wet and cold season, more likely his illness was a reaction to his most high-profile success so far and marked the beginning of a pattern.

Later that summer came perhaps the best performance of Blythe’s career. The South Africans were touring England, playing their first Tests outside of their home country. The team proved unexpectedly strong, mainly owing to the devastation caused by their quartet of wrist-spinning googly bowlers. More importantly for Blythe, Rhodes had been dropped so he had the stage to himself for all three Tests. The first was drawn, although England might have won if the final day had not been rained off. Blythe took four wickets in the match despite splitting his hand attempting a catch. The key game was the second Test at Headingley. The South African spinners brought the English batting to its knees on the first day in terrible conditions; the home team were bowled out for 76 on an extremely sticky wicket but Blythe managed to keep them in touching distance in taking eight for 59 to bowl South Africa out for 110. The pressure was immense; owing to a selection blunder, Blythe was England’s only spinner and none of the other bowlers posed any threat in the conditions, so everything was on his shoulders. England managed to reduce the deficit by 25 runs without losing a wicket before the end of the first day and on the second, through a series of constant rain interruptions, inched their score to 110 for four. But in treacherous conditions on the third and final day, they collapsed to 162 all out, leaving South Africa needing a very plausible 129 to win. Again, everything depended on Blythe who held his nerve to take seven for 40. South Africa were bowled out for 75 and England won by 53 runs. Wisden put in succinctly: “Blythe, who bowled himself almost to a standstill, clearly won the game”. He had bowled unchanged throughout the match. His match figures of fifteen for 99 were recognised as the best figures recorded in Test cricket at the time (although Johnny Briggs and George Lohmann had previously taken fifteen wickets at a lower cost in Tests in South Africa, which were not at the time viewed as official Tests). Even today, 115 years later, Blythe’s figures remain the eighth best in the history of Test cricket.

Of far more consequence to Blythe was what happened next, although the precise nature events is unclear. One man who played in the game, C. B. Fry, stated in his 1939 autobiography: “The strain of the match was severe, especially on Colin Blythe, who was completely knocked up.” But earlier in the same work, Fry had discussed England’s bad luck in Tests at Headingley. Two of the misfortunes he listed were: “And it was there that Johnny Briggs went off his head and never played again; Colin Blythe had an epileptic fit.” Fry’s rather heartless characterisation of what happened to Briggs in 1899 — an epileptic fit at a music hall after the first day of the Test — is not quite accurate; in no sense did he “go off his head” but apart from a brief return to cricket, he spent most of the remaining three years of his life in Cheadle Asylum. But Fry’s attitude betrayed how epilepsy was viewed in this period: a mental illness that was stigmatised: epileptics were usually removed from society and viewed as incapacitated, or even as “lunatics”. Rudimentary treatment was available, but generally unsuccessful. But in contrast to Briggs, Blythe was not taken to any hospital after the supposed “epileptic fit” described by Fry — who is generally an unreliable narrator — and something is not quite right. Was Fry conflating or confusing what happened to Blythe against South Africa in 1907 with what happened to Briggs in 1899? Or was he basing his interpretation on what he knew had happened to Blythe two years later after another success with England?

Embed from Getty Images

Blythe photographed around 1907

Sticking to what we know for certain, Blythe was certainly out of form when he played for Kent in a match immediately after the Test; he then missed the next game and was some way off his best when he returned. But he continued to play for England. In the third Test, a fairly even draw between more rain interruptions, Blythe took five for 61 in the first innings and another two wickets in the second. He was clearly a crucial member of any representative England team, and the selectors had no doubts over him. This was further demonstrated by his selection for the MCC team that toured Australia during the winter of 1907–08. Rhodes was selected, but as an all-rounder who bowled little. Australia dominated the series, which they won 4–1, and Blythe only played in the first Test. A combination of injury and illness deprived him of a chance to reclaim his place; the temptation to link this to his possible health problems is one which Scoble was unable to resist, but there is no evidence to support such a theory. Much more likely is that he was just unfortunate in that series: he was not a part of his captain’s (rather ineffectual) planning, and he simply did not bowl well in conditions which did not favour his style. Wisden reported: “Blythe was so far below his form at home that he was left out of four of the Test games … [He] headed the bowling averages but, though successful against weak teams, he did not trouble the good batsmen.”

Although hampered by a knee injury in 1908 and on pitches far better for batting in a drier summer, Blythe finished with 197 wickets. And in 1909, he passed 200 for the only time in his career, taking 215 at 14.54. Clearly, he was at his peak as a bowler. But although he toured South Africa with an MCC team in 1909–10, the 1909 season was effectively his final year at Test level. What happened that summer, and how did it impact his “legacy” as a Test bowler?

Australia were the touring team in 1909, but there was initially no indication that Blythe’s international career was almost over. In the first Test, he was once again a match-winner in helpful conditions as he took eleven for 102 on a rain-affected pitch. He and George Hirst shared all twenty Australian wickets and England won by ten wickets, a flattering margin that masked a closely-fought contest. Rhodes played in the game, but bowled just one over as he was primarily there for his batting. Blythe was one of several heroes for the home side, but as in 1907 it was what happened next that proved crucial.

Two days after the end of the Test, Blythe played for Kent against Middlesex at Lord’s. He went into bat at the end of the first day and was given a warm reception for his performance in the Test match. Reports said that this made him very emotional. Then, when Middlesex batted, he bowled the second over of the innings but complained of faintness and was taken out of the attack after bowling just one over. Several newspapers reported that he lay on the ground for a time, but he resumed bowling later in the innings and took six for 37. In the next match, against Lancashire, he began poorly with the ball, although he again recovered to bowl with his normal skill. As in 1907, he seemed to be struggling in the aftermath of a great personal success. Concerned by these events, the Kent Committee asked William Gowers, an expert on epilepsy and nervous disorders, to examine Blythe. Gowers advised that he should miss the second Test as it was the “strain on his nerves caused by playing in a Test match” that had affected his health. Therefore, Lord Harris withdrew Blythe from the England team, although it was expected he would return for the third Test.

But while these matters would normally have been private, they played out against an unusual backdrop. The Test selection panel that season comprised Lord Hawke of Yorkshire, H. D. G. Leveson-Gower of Surrey and C. B. Fry who was by then playing for Hampshire. As the England captain, Archie MacLaren was co-opted onto the panel. Each of the selectors had their own personal issues to distract them: for Hawke it was ill health; for Fry it was marital problems combined with a slightly acrimonious split with his old county of Sussex; for Leveson Gower there was a dispute with Jack Crawford, one of the Surrey amateurs; and for MacLaren it was a loss of form and the fading of his batting powers. And matters deteriorated rapidly. Having helped to pick the team for the first Test, Lord Hawke spent several weeks in France to recuperate from his lingering illness. In his absence, the team for the second Test, played at Lord’s, was chosen solely by Fry and Leveson Gower. Before they could meet to discuss the team, Leveson Gower told the press during Surrey’s game at Bournemouth that Blythe would not be playing, and revealed the medical diagnosis which had been sent to him in a telegram by Lord Harris. It was subsequently reproduced widely in newspapers. Whether Lord Harris had expected such a personal matter to be given to the press is uncertain, but Leveson Gower was certainly the man responsible. Such a breach of privacy would be unthinkable today, but was hardly common practice in 1909 either and remains somewhat inexplicable except as an attempt to forestall criticism.

While the second Test took place in his absence, Blythe played for Kent against Worcestershire at Tonbridge. Again, it is slightly unclear what happened and Blythe might have been the victim of sensationalist journalism. It was reported in many newspapers that, during the match at Tonbridge, Blythe had a “severe fit” at the team hotel on the second evening and had to be sent home. Supposedly, a collection of £30 was taken in sympathy at his plight. And suddenly, Blythe’s health was public property; The Sportsman reported that he was “unfortunately subject to these seizures”. But again reality suggested something quite different. Rather than be sent to an asylum — and ostracised — like Johnny Briggs, Blythe had recovered by the following morning and was fit enough to bowl in the nets before play and to bat in a vain attempt to prevent a Worcestershire win. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph noted this, suggested that the “alarmist statement was very exaggerated” and classified the illness as a “slight epileptic seizure”. And The Sportsman backed down somewhat, reporting: “Blythe, we understand, had a slight seizure whilst on his way home on Tuesday night, but happily it was not in any way serious.” But the newspaper noted that he did not look at all well, and would benefit from a prolonged rest. Whatever the nature of the episode, it was the initial reporting that everyone remembered; combined with Leveson Gower’s indiscretion with the medical report, Blythe was now viewed as unreliable and prone to literal collapse under pressure.

To compound the problem, without Blythe England struggled, not helped by some appalling selections. The report in Wisden scathingly stated: “Never in the history of Test Matches in England has there been such blundering in the selection of an England eleven.” Australia won by nine wickets and the panicky selectors — rejoined by the recovered Lord Hawke — made wholesale changes to the team but Australia won by 126 runs. Wisden simply noted: “Blythe, who was practically forbidden by the doctors to play at Lord’s, was not chosen.” The newspapers were silent on behind-the-scenes matters but it looks most likely that the selectors dared not risk playing him following his collapse — whatever its nature — at Tonbridge. For the fourth Test, yet more changes were made, including the return of Blythe. In his final home Test match, Blythe took five for 63 and two for 77, although Wisden suggested that he did not bowl well in the later stages. The game was drawn; possibly as a precaution, Blythe was rested from Kent’s next game. As England needed to win the final Test to level the series, the selectors opted for a radical approach; Blythe was dropped in favour of Douglas Carr, a 37-year-old wrist-spinner playing his first season of county cricket. On a flat pitch, and hampered by yet more selectorial blunders, England could not force a win and the series was lost 2–1.

Embed from Getty Images

The Kent team that won the 1909 County Championship: Blythe is stood on the far right

From being central to England’s bowling attack, Blythe found himself out of the first-choice team, not least as Rhodes enjoyed something of a bowling renaissance. Although he was part of the MCC team which toured South Africa that winter, Blythe played in only the final two Tests, despite leading the tour averages (the underarm bowler George Simpson-Hayward was England’s leading bowler in the Test series) and he never played for England again. When the MCC toured Australia in 1911–12, slow bowling hardly featured and England’s main spinner was Blythe’s Kent colleague Frank Woolley; no specialist spinner was chosen (although there were several all-rounders including the spinners Woolley, Joe Vine and J. W. Hearne). And in the 1912 season, England’s leading spinners were Woolley and Lancashire’s Harry Dean. It seems that the selectors simply did not trust Blythe any longer.

But he continued to dominate in county cricket; except for 1911, a dry season of flat pitches in which he took 138 wickets at a relatively high average of 19.38, he took over 150 wickets in each of his remaining seasons. In 1912, when he was overlooked by England, he took 178 wickets at 12.26. It seems that he was simply not trusted to play at the highest level. Yet he had never let England down, and any problems he had came in the aftermath of crucial games rather than during them. Although the notion that he was epileptic has stuck, it may be that it was a case of little more than feeling light-headed or briefly fainting, which may have been in the nature of what would today be classed as a stress-related illness or even an anxiety disorder. There is little evidence that Blythe did not enjoy Tests. As the Kent website states: “Apart from a remark to his violin teacher, Leonard Furnival, and a statement by the South African all-rounder Gordon White that ‘Charlie Blythe hated Test matches’ there seems to be no actual evidence that the man himself ever expressed a view one way or the other.” And if his dealings with the Kent Committee reveal a man who was far from “delicate”, there was a widely reported incident in 1911 which also belied the myth of a “delicate”, “frail” or “sensitive” artist.

When Kent played Hampshire at Canterbury, the home crowd had barracked C. B. Fry for slow scoring in the first innings, when he made a century. When Hampshire batted again at the end of the second day, Fry faced the last over from Blythe, who deliberately bowled two high full tosses at him, after which Fry protested by coming down the pitch to speak to the bowler. Blythe bowled the rest of the over wide of off-stump. Fry was once again roundly jeered by the spectators, and as he left the field at the end of the day, he challenged some of them. It later transpired that his objection was that Blythe was bowling with the sun behind him and therefore he could not see the ball. Lord Harris, in a letter to the press, denied that Blythe’s arm was anywhere near the sun when he bowled. The matter rumbled on in the press for some time before it died out, but more than one player remembered some years later (in 1924, when the Kent Committee produced a memorandum of the incident to defend claims that Blythe was unsporting during that game, made in a book by a former Hampshire player). Blythe was shaken by the accusation of unsporting conduct and missed the next game. Fry — who scored a century on the last day to save the game — continued to complain about the incident in writing even into the 1950s and, rather ridiculously, claimed that Blythe was bowling extremely fast short-pitched deliveries around the wicket at him.

With the outbreak of the First World War, the 1914 season ended prematurely; Blythe’s last match was played at Lord’s, when he took five for 77 and two for 48 in a heavy Kent loss against Middlesex. Those wickets took him past 2,500 in his career. He enlisted in the Kent Fortress Royal Engineers immediately and missed Kent’s final game. His role involved coastal defence rather than fighting in France or Belgium, and he was able to play in some charity cricket games. But in 1917, when more men were needed at the front, he was drafted into the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He was able to play in a few wartime charity matches, but publicly announced his retirement from first-class cricket in September 1917, just before his departure for Belgium; he had signed to coach at Eton instead. In Belgium, he worked as an engineer behind the lines but on 8 November, during the Battle of Passchendaele, a shrapnel shell burst near a group of sappers behind the lines: Blythe was killed instantly. His wallet and a photograph of his wife were damaged by the shrapnel which killed him and can still be seen in Canterbury’s cricket museum.

His estate of £2,818 was left entirely to his wife who remarried in 1923; she remained in contact with the Blythe family but seems to have had a strained relationship with her stepchildren from her second marriage. She died in 1977.

“He would have tested any batsman’s defence, however strong”: George Howitt of Middlesex and Nottinghamshire

George Howitt in 1878 (Image: The Official history of Middlesex County Cricket Club (1988) by David Lemmon)

Among the legions of long-forgotten professional cricketers are many men whose personal lives are a mystery. While we possess every detail of their runs or wickets, we know little about their everyday experiences, their families or much about their fates. Only through their problems — whether divorce or tragedy — do we get a glimpse, such as those that plagued the Nottinghamshire and England batter William Scotton. Similarly, we know quite a lot about a distant cousin of Scotton, the Nottingham-born George Howitt, who had a respectable career as a professional for various teams, including Nottinghamshire, but was most notable as a leading player for Middlesex in the first years of that county club’s existence. Howitt was a bowler good enough to dismiss W. G. Grace for a “pair” in one game, and was hugely respected in the 1870s. But his career was curtailed by health problems and by a series of crushing bereavements that left him a broken man by the age of 38, when he died in slightly unclear circumstances in Nottingham.

George Howitt, the youngest child of Charles Howitt and Mary Upton, was born in Old Lenton, an area of Nottingham, on 14 March 1843. He came from a cricketing background because his father — who worked on the canals in various administrative positions such as being a canal agent — had been a reasonably successful local cricketer and achieved some fame as a single-wicket player. In a interview printed in the Leicester Daily Post in 1875, Charles Howitt recalled playing for Nottingham (the predecessor of the county club) as a left-handed opening batter between 1817 and 1822 until his marriage prevented him being able to spare time for cricket. Although Howitt senior conceded that he was probably not good enough to play in “big matches”, he would have been a little reluctant to do so as he suspected that some of these were fixed through the efforts of Peter Bramley, a player with a reputation for gambling.

As usual with professional cricketers from this period, we know very little about George Howitt’s early life. The 1851 census reveals his older brother working as a “pupil teacher”, his sister and a cousin who lived with them both working as milliners. By then, George had five surviving siblings, but he was actually the second son of Charles and Mary to be named George: his older brother of the same name died at the age of twelve in 1835. It seems a fair assumption that Howitt learned cricket from his father and played at a local level, but we have no record of that; in fact, he is untraceable on the 1861 census and was certainly no longer living with his family. His most likely location was London because by the mid-1860s, that was where he had begun to make his way in the world of professional cricket.

V. E. Walker, the first captain of Middlesex and one of the Walker brothers (Image: Wikipedia)

We have very little to go on in piecing together this period of Howitt’s life. We know that he worked as a “law stationer” — either someone who provided stationery to lawyers or, more likely in Howitt’s case, someone who made official handwritten copies of legal documents. Another clue about this period came in an article in the Nottinghamshire Guardian in 1877, written in connection with Howitt’s benefit match, which stated that he moved to Stepney in London when he was “a lad”, and played for “the Carlton Club”. This presents a few difficulties: the Carlton Club was a very exclusive “gentleman’s club” which would hardly have accepted the young son of a canal clerk as a member. Another possibility is the organisation known as the “Junior Carlton Club”, formed in 1864, which was far easier to join and politically aligned with the Conservative Party. Perhaps someone working in the legal profession — albeit at a lowly level — would have been able to join. In any case, it was while playing cricket for this “Carlton Club” that Howitt began to attract attention because also associated with the club were the Walker brothers, a famous cricket playing family who had been instrumental in attempts to establish a Middlesex Cricket Club and in 1864 founded the official Middlesex County Cricket Club.

Whichever brother noticed Howitt, they immediately drew him into the orbit of the newly formed county team. In 1864, he played as a fast left-arm bowler (operating in the round-arm style that remained fashionable for some time after the legalisation of over-arm bowling) for the Middlesex Colts against the Gentlemen of Middlesex. His performance secured him a position on the groundstaff at Islington Cricket Club — a role which involved taking care of the pitch and facilities as well as actual cricket — and he played in several important games on Islington’s Cattle Market Ground. One such game was for the Gentlemen of Islington against the United South of England Eleven; as a professional, Howitt would not normally have played for a team of “gentlemen” but was presumably playing as a reinforcement from the club’s groundstaff. The opposition were one of many professional teams in this period that toured England, facing local teams comprising up to 22 players (the Gentlemen of Islington was one such XXII); these touring teams went on to form a huge part of Howitt’s cricketing life.

Howitt had a natural off-break that proved too much for many batters, and his performances — such as when he clean bowled seven Richmond batters — impressed the people who mattered. Therefore, in July 1865 he played for Middlesex against Lancashire, making his debut in county matches. In total that season, he played four matches which today are recognised as first-class, taking a solid-but-unspectacular eleven wickets. But county cricket was a rather fluid and unregulated affair in the 1860s, and early in 1866 Howitt played for the Nottinghamshire Colts against Nottinghamshire, taking five for 21 against the county team. Such a performance warranted promotion to the first team and so he made his debut for Nottinghamshire shortly after. At the time it was possible (and quite common) to represent different county teams in the same season; there were no rules regarding qualification until 1873. Therefore, Howitt could play for Nottinghamshire against Yorkshire in June, and for Middlesex against Lancashire in July. But county fixtures were rare and isolated events, so to pursue a career in professional cricket (as Howitt had clearly done by this stage) required more regular income, and so Howitt joined the groundstaff at Fenner’s Cricket Ground in Cambridge, the home ground of Cambridge University (we know little about this time, so it is possible he was engaged as the groundsman at one of the colleges, but a post at Fenner’s seems more likely). In early 1866, he even played against the University First Eleven in a game for “Players Engaged at Cambridge University”. We cannot be sure how long he worked in Cambridge, but as part of his groundstaff duties, he umpired three first-class matches at Fenner’s between 1866 and 1870, which might indicate the span of his employment.

More prestigiously, Howitt also began playing for the United England Eleven, another of the touring professional teams, in 1866. His association with Middlesex, Nottinghamshire, the United England Eleven and Cambridge must have kept him very busy and probably earned him a respectable wage. But in among the confusing number of games, hints emerged of his quality: figures of five for 59 for Middlesex against Lancashire; seven for 38 for Middlesex against Surrey; and some spectacular performances in games against the odds for the United England Eleven. In games against local XXIIs, he took twelve wickets in an innings against Redcar, ten in an innings against both Fareham and South Leicestershire; and nine in an innings against Thorne. And in the first-class games he played in 1866, he managed 50 wickets at an average of 14.12 (which was good but not remarkable for the period).

Perhaps more importantly for Howitt, there was another development in his life in 1866. On 4 May, he married Louisa Puxley, the daughter of a Stepney hairdresser; despite his growing reputation on the cricket field, he still gave his occupation as a law stationer.

The next few years reflect the confusing nature of England first-class cricket at the time, as Howitt moved from one team to another and played various games which seem strange to modern eyes. At the beginning of the 1867 season, he played in the annual first-class match between the All England Eleven and its rival, the United England Eleven, at Manchester and took seven wickets. But his overall record in first-class games was unremarkable: 18 wickets in six games at an average of 24.33, high for the period. He was more successful in minor matches against local XXIIs: he took 25 wickets in a match against Selby and ten in an innings against teams from Dudley and Leeds. Against Hull, one of his deliveries bowled a batter and supposedly sent the bail over sixty yards through the air and out of the ground.

His best season at first-class level came in 1868, when he took 71 wickets at 10.33 in 12 matches. Twenty of those came in two games against Yorkshire, once playing for Middlesex and once for Nottinghamshire. He also recorded his highest first-class score: 49 for Middlesex against Kent, scored from number eleven. In minor cricket, mainly playing for the All England Eleven and the United South of England Eleven (although he still represented the United England Eleven in first-class games), he took 20 wickets in a match against Hurstbourne Park and thirteen wickets for 15 runs in an innings against Leeds. But perhaps his greatest feat that year came when playing as a “given man” to reinforce a local XXII. In May, he appeared for Cadoxton Cricket Club in Neath against the United South of England Eleven and twice dismissed the opposition’s opening batter for a duck; that opening batter was W. G. Grace.

Howitt played only five first-class games in 1869 — including two for Middlesex, one for Nottinghamshire and once in what transpired to be the final match between the All England Eleven and United England Eleven — but continued to be a prolific wicket-taker for the All England Eleven, albeit with fewer spectacular returns. The following season, he joined another of the huge number of touring teams, the United North of England Eleven, a team with a distinctly Yorkshire flavour and backed by Lord Londesborough. Four of Howitt’s ten first-class games in 1870 were for the United North of England Eleven, and three of these were against the United South of England Eleven. The relative status of these games is reflected by their location: one at Lord’s (when he took seven for 19, his best first-class figures, part of a match return of thirteen for 40 from 44 four-ball overs), one at the Oval, one at Sheffield (when he had match figures of thirteen for 86). Once again, he barely played county cricket — one game for Nottinghamshire and two for Middlesex — but was unstoppable in games against the odds for the United North of England Eleven. He took eleven wickets in an innings (and twenty in the match) against a XX of Liverpool Atlas, and was even more unstoppable in games against XXIIs: eleven for 48 in an innings against Worcestershire; fifteen in an innings against Ilkley; twelve in an innings against Worksop; 21 in a match against Dudley; 26 in a match against Loughborough; and ten in an innings against Cornwall. In games against XXIIs, he took 157 wickets (109 bowled) for 868 runs from 692 four-ball overs (an average of 5.53). These returns dwarfed his very respectable first-class record of 40 wickets at 13.02.

Embed from Getty Images

A photograph taken in July 1870 showing the match between the United North Of England and “Twenty-Two Of Easingwold and District”, in which Howitt played for the touring team; although it is uncertain which team is shown, it is most likely to be the United North of England Eleven.

More mysterious is what was happening in his personal life. It was in this period that matters began to take a turn for the worse. Howitt and his wife Louisa had their first child, Louisa May Howitt, at Mile End in 1868. A second, George Philip Howitt, followed in 1870. But there is something of a mystery. The 1871 census reveals the family to have been fractured. Howitt was living back in Nottingham with his parents (still calling himself a law stationer, which might indicate that was his winter occupation). His wife remained in Mile End with their seven-month-old son George, but their daughter was living with her maternal grandparents, also in Mile End. Even more peculiar is that Louisa listed herself as a widow on the census, even though her husband was demonstrably alive, well and playing cricket. And given that she was claiming to be a widow, it is even stranger that in March 1872 (eleven months after the night of the 1871 census when she was not living with Howitt), she gave birth to a third child, Lydia Maud Howitt, at Bethnal Green. For the record, there seems to have been no question that George Howitt was Lydia’s father (he was named as such on her baptismal record in 1901 and she always used the name Howitt).

For whatever reason Howitt was not with his family (and there is a plausible explanation, as will become apparent), the next years must have been devastating. His infant son George died a month after the 1871 census; and in late 1873, his wife Louisa died at Mile End. Although we cannot be certain, it seems quite likely that Howitt’s two daughters were cared for separately and never lived with their father. But we shall return to them shortly.

With an uncertain domestic situation and having lost his son, Howitt had a poor season in 1871. The United North of England Eleven played less frequently and so he appeared several times of the All England Eleven. In six first-class games (including three for Middlesex but none for Nottinghamshire, and an appearance in the North v South match at the Oval), he took 32 wickets at the expensive average of 22.65. He did rather better in 1872, taking 38 wickets at 11.23 in seven games. But he had also taken up a new position in the latter season, joining the Lord’s Groundstaff (alongside five other Nottinghamshire players, including Alfred Shaw); this left him fewer opportunities to appear for other teams, which might explain why he only remained on the groundstaff for one season, but did allow him to play twice for the Marylebone Cricket Club in first-class games. However, he did not play after June; the 1877 profile in the Nottinghamshire Guardian in 1877 blamed a “severe attack of sciatica”, but it is tempting to wonder if the health of his wife was the real reason. And it is quite likely that his own health began to fail around this point too.

The days of the free-for-all of professional players making appearances for anyone who would pay them were brought to an abrupt end from the beginning of the 1873 season with the introduction of qualification rules — either through birth or residence in a county — to play in matches between counties. There was also a new rule which affected Howitt and several other professionals, whereby a player could only represent one county each season. That season, Howitt appeared four times for Middlesex; his other games were for the South against the North and for the Players of the South against the Gentlemen of the South. He also played for both the United North of England Eleven and the United South of England Eleven in several games against local sides. As usual, he was too much for these teams, but his 30 first-class wickets were taken at an expensive 24.80.

In eleven first-class matches in 1874, Howitt took 30 wickets at 20.55; six of the games were played for Middlesex, but he continued to play for the United North of England Eleven (in first-class games as well as minor ones), the United South of England Eleven and the All England Eleven. However, at the end of that season, Howitt’s career suddenly dried up. His only game in the CricketArchive database for 1875 was for the All England Eleven against Grimsby. He was certainly still with Middlesex: newspapers recorded him as the team’s twelfth man in several county matches. He also was the umpire for one Middlesex game, a role he had performed occasionally when he was at Fenner’s and in several other games since (including one county match in 1874).

Howitt played one final time for Middlesex in 1876, the same season in which he played his final games for the United South of England Eleven recorded on CricketArchive (he is listed in one further game on that database, a match for a fairly strong England XI against Leicestershire in 1881 when he batted down the order and did not bowl). In first-class cricket, he finished with 348 wickets at 15.91 (and a batting average under five). Of these wickets, he took 213 at 15.97 for Middlesex and 23 at 16.65 for Nottinghamshire. He also took 26 at 11.53 for the United England Eleven and 37 at 10.97 for the United North of England Eleven. As a measure of his prestige, he played once for the Players against the Gentlemen, at Lord’s in 1866, and on either side for the North v South six times, including once at Lord’s, and four times for the United England Eleven against the All England Eleven.

Middlesex in 1878: Back row: M. Flanagan, A. Burghes, Howett (umpire), C. J. Lucas, M. Turner, R. Henderson, C. F. Buller. Front row: W. H. Hadow, A. J. Webbe, I. D. Walker, J. W. Dale, H. R. Webbe (Image: The Official history of Middlesex County Cricket Club (1988) by David Lemmon)

Despite the end of his county career, Howitt was not done with cricket. From 1876, he was employed on the groundstaff of Old Trafford cricket ground and between 1876 and 1881, he umpired regularly at county level in first-class matches. At the time, counties each brought their own umpire to matches and there were no “neutral” officials. Of his 33 matches as a first-class umpire, Howitt stood in a Middlesex game 24 times. Apart from the games at Fenner’s earlier in his career, he also stood in a handful of Lancashire games, some Nottinghamshire games and an Oxford University v MCC game. In 1877, the game between Middlesex and Nottinghamshire at Lord’s was given to Howitt as a benefit but was not especially successful. In a preview, the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News noted Howitt’s decline, which it attributed to “severe attacks of illness” and “family bereavements”. The latter point conceals what must have been a tragic few decade for Howitt. He had lost his son George and his mother Mary in 1871; his wife Louisa died in 1873; and after the publication of the 1877 article mentioning bereavement, his sister Mary died in 1878 and his father Charles in 1879.

In his final years, he worked as a clerk for a Nottingham solicitor, B. H. Cockayne. But it seems that sometime around 1879, his health collapsed completely. Details are a little vague. According to Sporting Life, around 1880 he was appointed coach at Winchester College but his health was by then poor. While umpiring at Clifton, he “broke a blood vessel”. To assist his recovery, Middlesex arranged for him to travel to Australia and he spent the winter in Melbourne; but the real reason for the trip, as revealed by Cockayne at the inquest into Howitt’s death, was that he was suffering from consumption — or, as it would be called today, tuberculosis. Middlesex remained supportive of him throughout, and several later reports suggested that the Walker brothers continued to give him some assistance.

There are a few other hints about his life at this time. As well as working for Cockayne, he may have remarried. The 1881 census records him as married (but with no wife present), boarding in Nottingham with his occupation listed as “professional cricketer”. His daughter Louisa was living with his brother Charles (a schoolteacher) and his family in Steeple Barton, Oxfordshire. Her sister Lydia still lived with her maternal grandfather in London. Cockayne told the inquest that, in the last few weeks of Howitt’s life, his wife had died and, while he was organising her burial, bailiffs evicted him from his house. Incidentally, there is no record of any remarriage or the death of anyone who might have been married to Howitt (a woman by that name died in Nottingham in the given time frame, but was married to a tailor called Henry). Perhaps it was a common-law marriage, or perhaps there was no second wife at all and it was an excuse to keep the bailiffs at bay. We do not know. But all the indications are that by 1881, Howitt was mentally and physically broken.

For the last five weeks of his life, he lived at the Black Bull public house on Chapel Bar in Nottingham. The landlord, David Morley, told the inquest that Howitt had “a squib of brandy” each morning, but he did not see him drink during the day, although he did not usually see him again until the evening. On 14 December 1881, Howitt was ill, visiting the doctor, and did not work that day or the next. He was able to work on 16 December, a Friday, and on the Saturday he returned to the Black Bull sober, ate some food and had a drink of ale before going to bed. According to Morley: “About one o’clock in the morning [Howitt] came running downstairs, and behaved in a very extraordinary manner. [Morley] took the deceased upstairs, and stayed with him. The deceased was evidently not in his right senses.”

During the early hours of the morning, another resident at the Black Bull, Frank Richardson, came across Howitt and Morley on the stairs, and heard Howitt claim that someone was in his room, which an inspection proved to be false. The same resident saw him the next morning, “wandering about his room and talking”, and “walking about the passage … he appeared out of his mind.”

That Sunday, Howitt was “delirious” and both the local doctor and a policeman — because Howitt was “raving” — visited him. Selina Yardly, who had known Howitt for around two years, also saw him and reported that he seemed sleepy but would not go to bed, and sat in a chair. She and her husband took turns sitting with Howitt, the landlord also stayed for a while and the policeman stayed all night. Richardson also took turns, but when he went for his breakfast on Monday morning, 19 December 1881, Howitt died suddenly. He was just 38 years old.

The cause of death proved very controversial at an inquest held by an exceptionally officious coroner who managed to alienate almost everyone present, and in the process made it unclear how Howitt had actually died. Like most inquests at the time, it was held very quickly (juries at inquests always viewed the body so speed was essential); in this case, it took place at the Black Bull on the Tuesday, 20 December. The man in charge was the Borough Coroner, M. Browne, but he seems to have been determined from the outset to make the case all about him. The opening statement, by Selina Yardy, drew sharp criticism from Browne, who complained that she could have simplified proceedings had she just said that Howitt was in a condition where he could not be left; he thought that, instead, she had “mystified the case as much as she could.” From such unpromising beginnings, the coroner then immediately stated, before having heard any other evidence, that the cause of death was “from having drunk too much”.

Mr Browne also provoked an unseemly dispute with Howitt’s employer. Howitt’s family were fittingly represented by Cockayne, and his brother (which might have been either of his older brothers, William or Charles) was also present. After Browne had told the jury that “he did not feel there could be any doubt that the deceased really had died from excessive drinking”, Cockayne asked to make a statement which the coroner refused. Cockayne followed up by trying to discuss Howitt’s general ill health, saying that he “has been consumptive for a long time, and during the latter portion of that time has been an absolute abstainer. I don’t think it’s fair that it should go out to the world but he has died from delirium tremens.” At this the Coroner exploded: “Pardon me saying that I think you are taking a great liberty in telling me I am doing what is unfair. I shall not allow that … It is altogether unjust. Never at any inquest during my long practice have I been accused of saying what is unjust.”

The end result was the Cockayne was ordered to leave the room, as was Howitt’s brother when he tried to defend Cockayne. As he left, Cockayne pointedly said to the jury: “Understand, gentlemen of the jury, that I am ordered out of the room by the Coroner.” After a time, he sent in a note asking for readmittance, and it was only after a juror suggested he should be present that the Browne agreed. But Howitt’s brother several times tried to intervene in questioning, to be shut down by Browne; one juror intervened and said that he was sure the Coroner would let him speak later, but he never did. There were several other back-and-forths which were hardly sympathetic on the part of Browne.

But questioning — some by the jury, as was permitted at the time — gradually pieced together a little more information which did cast some doubt on the Coroner’s assumptions. Yardly reported that Howitt “had been a hard drinker but had not drunk too much during the last fortnight”. Morley, on the other hand, had not seen Howitt drunk in the five weeks he had lived at the Black Bull.

The main evidence that alcohol had killed Howitt came from the local doctor Thomas Clements, who had known him for around 18 months and had been treating him for the last two months of his life. He told the inquest that Howitt “had had some great domestic affliction” and complained of weakness. The doctor had advised him to cut down on his drinking or he would suffer from delirium tremens. A week before his death, he had told Clements that he “could not rest, and that a person was always haunting him”; the next time Clements saw Howitt, he definitely had delirium tremens. When he saw him the final time, at the Black Bull, “he was perfectly insane”. He thought the cause of death was syncope — technically fainting but perhaps he had something else in mind. But he also confirmed that Howitt had consumption and “had burst a blood vessel some time ago”.

Questioning by Cockayne established that the doctor believed Howitt’s personal problems lay behind his heavy drinking (of which there was still little evidence). Yet the Coroner refused to allow any suggestion that consumption was the cause of death. A juror stated that he had hoped to return a verdict other than drink being the cause of death, but the evidence of Clements was conclusive; in the end the verdict was “death from delirium tremens, brought on by excessive drinking”.

And yet it is quite possible that Howitt died from the effects of his long illness — which Cockayne indicated he might have acquired in childhood — particularly if it had spread beyond his lungs. It is not a huge stretch (without checking individual death records) to suggest that maybe his wife and infant son both died from consumption, and might explain why the family was so spread apart in 1871 and 1881. It is one of those cases where death certificates can be wrong and the inquest could have been faulty. The Trent Bridge website loyally suggests that consumption was the cause of death. The article in the Nottinghamshire Guardian in 1877, while lamenting the lack of success of his benefit, had praised his “civility and good character.” Such claims were not made lightly of professionals in the 1870s, casting further doubt on the verdict of the inquest. Even the jury seem to have suggested that the inquest was a little unfair; a few days later, a letter appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post from Cockayne:

“To the Editor of the Nottingham Post.
Sir, From what I have heard, and subject to correction them, I think the jury wished to convey that they were opinion that George Howitt was consumptive and weak, that these causes supplemented by recent domestic and private troubles had induced him to resort unduly to alcohol, which ultimately caused his premature death. I trouble you with this letter, as I purpose soliciting subscriptions for his orphan children, who are left destitute and dependent upon those who respected him privately, or as cricketer.”

And the following year, a subscription list was indeed opened, although there is no indication how much was raised. It was for “the two daughters aged respectively 13 and 10, who are left totally unprovided for.”

If Howitt’s death was the result of long illness, and possibly the string of family tragedies that drove him to drink, how should we judge him as a cricketer? At this distance, in such an alien cricketing landscape, it is hard to say. His first-class record was in many ways unexceptional for the period, but he was clearly far too good for local cricketers given the huge number of wickets he took for the touring teams. Yet he was clearly respected, played in some very important matches, and was treasured by Middlesex. In his 1897 Jubilee Book of Cricket, Ranjitsinhji (who never played against him) described Howitt as “a fine left round-arm bowler with a ripping break-back from the off, who bore the brunt of the bowling in the sixties.” And perhaps the last word on the cricketer should go to the man whom he once dismissed for pair. Writing in 1890, W. G. Grace described him as a left-handed round-arm bowler who was 5 feet 8½ inches and 10¼ stones. He was quite quick, with “a good break from the off”. Grace wrote: “Now and then he would put in a real beauty, which would have tested any batsman’s defence, however strong.”

W. G. Grace in 1897 (Image: Wikipedia)

The family connection with Nottinghamshire continued a little longer. William Scotton, Howitt’s first cousin once removed (Howitt’s mother was the sister of Scotton’s paternal grandmother) played with great success for Nottinghamshire and England before he too met an early and unfortunate end, which may have been connected to drink.

As for Howitt’s daughters, Louisa became an elementary school teacher and married in 1901. She never had children and died in 1930. Lydia was working as a servant in 1891 and as a dressmaker in 1901. She never married and eventually moved to Leicester. She died in Oxfordshire in 1964.

“A Restless Spirit”: Jack Crawford and the Cricket Historian

J. N. Crawford in 1911–12 (Image: State Library of South Australia)

Jack Crawford was an incredibly gifted cricketer who played for Surrey while he was still a public schoolboy at Repton and for England at the age of 18. He was an amateur who seemed to have the world at his feet when a dispute in 1909 brought about a very public rift with his county. For an important game against the touring Australian team, for which Crawford was the county’s stand-in captain, Surrey omitted some key professionals for disciplinary issues. Crawford was unhappy not to be consulted, apologised to the Australians for the weakness of the home team and withdrew from the side. An angry series of letters flew between Crawford and Surrey’s President Lord Alverstone in which Crawford complained about the lack of respect with which the Committee had treated him given his amateur status while Alverstone demanded an apology for going against the decision of the county’s official captain, H. D. G. Leveson Gower. Within weeks, Crawford had effectively been banned from playing for Surrey until he apologised, Leveson Gower had used his influence as a Test selector to withdraw Crawford’s invitation to play for England in South Africa, and Crawford had leaked most of the correspondence to the press so that the cricketing world became aware of the row which until then had played out behind the scenes.

By then, Crawford had accepted a teaching post in Australia, a country he had toured with England during the 1907–08 Ashes series. He departed from St Pancras by train at the end of the 1909 season, watched by the press and complaining that he had been ill-treated by Surrey. He did not return to England for nearly ten years. But his actions in Australia, and another series of disputes with authority, cast a slightly different light on the events in England in 1909 and reveal a man who managed to find trouble in three different countries in the space of a few years. Even more interesting is how history has viewed Crawford and how judgements have varied so wildly since 1909.

When he reached Australia, Crawford initially worked as a teacher (a “resident Master” with responsibilities for sport and particularly cricket) at St Peter’s College, Adelaide, an institution modelled along the lines of English public schools. He also plunged immediately back into first-class cricket, playing in the Sheffield Shield for South Australia, and produced a series of predictably spectacular performances with bat and ball: a match-winning six for 59 on debut; 73 not out and seven for 92 against New South Wales; an innings of 110 in even time against the all-conquering MCC touring team of 1911–12; seven for 31 against Western Australia, including a hat-trick; 163 in 177 minutes and eight for 66 in the same game against Victoria. Despite controversy over his eligibility even to play for South Australia (the usual qualification rules were not followed), he was comfortably among the best cricketers in Australia and was very nearly selected for the Test team in 1909–10 until the Australian Board of Control decided that his previous appearances for England disqualified him from representing Australia. But there were no such qualms about picking him on two unofficial tours by representative Australian teams: to North America in 1913 and to New Zealand in 1914. During the latter, he scored 354 in five-and-a-quarter hours against XV of South Canterbury. By the outbreak of the First World War, Crawford had scored 1,512 runs at 40.86 and taken 120 wickets at 23.86 in 22 first-class games for South Australia.

But once more, it was Crawford’s life away from the cricket grounds which was more revealing. One of his biggest concerns seems to have been making as much money as possible, and cricket was the obvious route to follow. When he had lived in England, he had not had a full-time job and his financial struggles meant that he made frequent requests for generous expenses from the Surrey Committee. Amateurs were not supposed to make a living from playing cricket though, and Surrey eventually reduced the amounts they gave him. For a time in South Australia, Crawford maintained the veneer of being an amateur cricketer while he was at St Peter’s. But after eighteen months, he left the post; the exact reasons are unclear and some historians have argued (with little actual evidence) that he was an unpopular resident Master. That is possible. But it is not unlikely that he was either looking for more freedom to play cricket or for a larger salary.

Despite rumours in the press that he would go into farming, Crawford signed a contract to become a clerk to the Secretary of the South Australia Cricket Association at the Adelaide Oval for an annual salary of £200. His role included coaching responsibilities and kept him free to play for the state. In effect, the former English public schoolboy was now a professional in all but name, making his living entirely from cricket. But cracks in the relationship began to appear after he returned from the tour of America; having just had time off to take part, he requested more leave to tour New Zealand and a six-month extension to his contract. After a lengthy stand-off — during which time his cricketing reputation continued to rise — he turned down an offer of £160 per annum for three years, plus coaching fees, before leaving for New Zealand. While he was in that country in 1914, he negotiated a deal to become the coach of the Otago Cricket Association for £350 per year, including a role running a sports store. Criticism in the press of the South Australia Cricket Association for losing Crawford prompted another airing of dirty laundry as the Association revealed that Crawford had gone back on his word to accept an improved deal and turn down any better offers from New Zealand. And when he returned from New Zealand, he had told the committee that he had refused Otago’s offer, only to once more go back on his word. Crawford’s new role meant that he played first-class cricket for Otago in the 1914–15 season, but the Association could not in reality afford his salary. He accepted a reduction in 1915 in return for a guarantee that he could play for other teams — for money — on a freelance basis. Complaints about his coaching, however, led Otago to terminate his contract in 1916; some undignified bartering on Crawford’s part — an offer to work for considerably less — ended when another abrupt volte-face demand for more money prompted Otago to buy out his contract for £200.

The South Australia team that played Victoria in Adelaide in 1911–12. Back row: A. McIntyre (umpire), C. G. Campbell, A.G. Moyes, A. Riley, P. D. Rundell, R. F. Middleton, F. J. C. Thomas (umpire). Middle row W. J. Whitty, J. N. Crawford, C. Hill (captain), D. R. A. Gehrs, E. R. Mayne, R. B. C. Rees, H. J. McKay. (Image: State Library of South Australia)

There may have been other events happening in the background too, but we are on more uncertain ground here. Stories attached themselves to Crawford, collected by the Australian historian Chris Harte: that at a reception in Adelaide for a touring New Zealand team in 1914, he was found in a hotel bed with two women from Adelaide “Society” (this comes from interviews conducted in the 1990s and there is no contemporary evidence that any such reception took place); that he fathered an illegitimate child in Adelaide (there is no obvious record but that does not rule it out); that he abandoned his wife (he was unmarried at the time but did have a fiancé); and that he left Australia to escape his debtors (while he may have owed money — and this fits with the way he constantly tried to improve his salary — he never seems to have been taken to court for debts). There are also suggestions that he had fallen out with his former employers at St Peter’s College and the Adelaide Oval, but he seems on the contrary to have remained on good terms with both, even with his acrimonious departure from the latter. There were later suggestions that he did not put in much effort at the school, but contemporary evidence suggests that he made a good impression: most public comment before, during and after his various roles was positive (apart from a few mutterings about his coaching in Otago and hints at an independent streak). Yet there may have been less pleasant negotiation that never appeared before the public; had Crawford not leaked his correspondence with Surrey, his falling out the that Committee might well have escaped public notice.

His brief marriage to Anita Schmidt, the daughter of a wealthy family and a prominent member of Adelaide “Society”, seems to have been indisputably unhappy though. They became engaged in 1912 when Anita was eighteen and married in April 1915 at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne; Crawford had travelled from Otago for the wedding but there is no obvious reason for the choice of location; the bride’s family do not seem to have been there although she had her father’s written permission (she was underage by the laws of the time) and so they had not “eloped”. The couple returned to New Zealand but by November 1916, Crawford had left her. This coincided with the end of his role with Otago; rumours once more swirled of his intentions, this time that he planned to return to England. The way was certainly clear as he had quietly provided the written apology demanded by Surrey as early as 1910 (although it took almost a year for the Surrey Committee to act on it and rescind his “ban”).

Instead, he volunteered for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to fight in the First World War; when his training began in late 1917, he briefly resumed his first class career when he played for Wellington, where he was based. But he missed the bulk of the fighting as he was not posted to England until the war was almost over and never saw active service. His main role was in the Quartermaster’s Department; he received temporary promotions to corporal and then quarter sergeant, but these were never made permanent. When he was demobilised at the end of the war, he remained in England. As his quarrel with Surrey had long been settled, he resumed his association with the county.

But times had changed a little: Crawford’s request that the Committee find him employment to allow him to play was declined, although they suggested (perhaps not without a little malicious glee) that he was welcome to play as a professional. Crawford presumably was thinking more along the lines of his arrangements with Adelaide and Otago, but in England a former public schoolboy could not play professionally without considerable social disgrace. Although there were a growing number of “shamateurs” in county cricket — amateurs who were given roles such as “assistant secretary” to allow them to maintain the fiction that they were not paid for playing — Surrey clearly were not prepared to consider this for Crawford. With that route closed, he took up a position as games master at his old school of Repton and made sporadic appearances for Surrey in 1919, resuming his county career ten years after the acrimonious split.

Jack Crawford as a spectator in Australia in 1912 (Image: State Library of South Australia)

Crawford was not quite as good as he had been and his bowling was no longer a force at first class level. However he was still capable of devastating batting in the right circumstances. His most spectacular innings was an unbeaten 144 against the touring Australian Imperial Forces team; it began with Surrey 26 for five in reply to the Australian’s score of 436; he scored 73 out of a ninth wicket partnership of 80 runs in 35 minutes to help avoid the follow-on. In another game, he and Jack Hobbs shared an opening partnership of 96 in 32 minutes (12.1 overs) against Kent, hitting off an apparently impossible (by the standards of 1919) fourth innings target against the clock without being parted. But he was only available in August owing to teaching commitments, and after he left Repton before the 1920 season, he only played four more times in first-class cricket (and just once for Surrey).

There are just the smallest hints that his break from Repton was acrimonious. In 1921, a cricket team for Repton “Old Boys”, the Repton Pilgrims, was created; Crawford was not invited to join until 1952. This might, however, have reflected disapproval of the events of 1909 as much as those of 1919.

In the winter of 1920–21, he worked for Dunlop Rubber in Rochdale, Lancashire — during which time he played for Rochdale in the Lancashire League as an amateur, alongside the fiery Cecil Parkin. After that he worked for Elders and Fyffes, a company that imported bananas. His only cricket was at club level. In 1926, having been divorced from Anita Schmidt, he married Hilda May Beman. He died from a coronary thrombosis in 1963, largely forgotten by the cricket world. Most obituaries printed in England glossed over his years in Australia and New Zealand and focussed on his time as a precociously talented schoolboy; the rest was forgiven and forgotten, the rupture of 1909 worthy of no more than a sentence.

But he was not forgotten — nor forgiven — by historians. The concept of historiography — the study of what historians have said in the past — is a largely unfamiliar one to the cricket world but in the case of Crawford it is revealing to look at how judgements of his conduct have changed over the years. Various people have written about Crawford, and each had their own interpretation.

In the aftermath of the controversy of 1909 coming to light, reactions towards Crawford were mixed. For example, Punch featured an article, written in the guise of a series of letters depicting him as an errant schoolboy being punished. Many publications reproduced the letters in full but without any comment. Some writers expressed sorrow at the argument but many concluded it was a private matter between Crawford and the Committee. Reactions in local newspapers varied from siding with the way the Committee handled the affair to suggesting that Crawford had been harshly treated. Perhaps the consensus was that he was in the wrong, especially for going against such senior cricketers as a young man (although two Surrey members wrote to the Committee in support of Crawford). Philip Trevor, the cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph at the time, took Surrey’s side, expressing shock at the tone of Crawford’s letters and remarking that Alverstone’s were “more than kind and courteous — they are merciful”. Trevor said: “I still think that Crawford has been the victim, as well as the subject, of some extremely bad advice. Otherwise, I cannot understand him writing such letters to one who so clearly showed that he was more than anxious to be a good friend to him.” He concluded: “He had to do what most of us who are twice his age frequently have still to do. He had to admit that he had been wrong and to apologise in consequence. Unfortunately for everyone, he has not seen fit to do that, and though many people who have a high admiration for his abilities as a cricketer and a distinct interest in his career have spoken to me on the subject, I have not yet met a single person who does not regret the course of action which — acting, as we all assume, on bad advice — he has seen fit to take. It is a thousand pities.”

One of the first to bring the story of his clash with Surrey to a modern audience was the writer (and jazz saxophonist) Benny Green, who edited several Wisden anthologies between 1979 and 1983, and wrote his own A History of Cricket in 1988. Crawford featured heavily in both — including extracts in the anthologies about his schoolboy feats as well as the events of 1909. Green was wholeheartedly on Crawford’s side. In the anthology covering 1900 to 1940, compiled in 1982, he judged that the “Surrey committee must be held accountable for a degree of idiocy rarely met with even in the realms of cricket administration” for their handling of “one of the world’s most prodigious all-rounders.” In his longer work — an unusual book which describes many lesser-known personalities and events — he was even more dogmatic. He repeated word-for-word his assertion about the idiocy of Surrey and added that Crawford’s writing revealed “a literate and quietly self-confident young man who will not easily be manipulated”; his stand against the Surrey Committee was to preserve “the freedom of the gentleman-cricketer to conduct his leisure affairs as he saw fit.” He even made a comparison to the case of the Somerset amateur Herbie Hewett, who refused to play after clashing with his committee (and, later, with an unhappy crowd). For Green, Crawford was the hero of the story, Alverstone the villain; Surrey should have apologised — “nobody among the Surrey committee ever seemed abashed by the events leading to Crawford’s departure” — and the mistake was wholly theirs. But Green was writing before later works uncovered Crawford’s less-than-glorious escapades in Australia and New Zealand.

In 1993, Chris Harte was the first to uncover some of the details of Crawford’s time in Adelaide as part of his History of Australian Cricket. He wrote: “Crawford stayed in Adelaide for four and a half years, living in idle luxury in the South Australian Hotel for a large period of that time as a ‘guest’ of the management. His demands and whims eventually made him a liability to the Association and when he left for New Zealand in May 1914 — leaving behind a heartbroken young wife, numerous debts and much bad feeling — the SACA committee resolved to be more careful in future about importing players.” While some of the “facts” are inaccurate — such as the idea he left a “heartbroken young wife” in Adelaide — and do not concern the events in Surrey, this was a very different interpretation of Crawford.

Consensus thereafter turned against Crawford. An article by Robert Trumble for the Journal of the Cricket Society in 2001 argued that Crawford should have seen that he had placed Alverstone and Surrey in a difficult position and therefore offered — rather than expected — an apology. In 2003, Nigel Hart wrote a brief but influential biography on Crawford; he noted: “Crawford’s financial dealings with the SACA reveal him both as mercenary and as an awkward ‘cuss’. The latter aspect of his personality needs to be taken into account lest he be considered merely an establishment victim in his parting with Surrey.” He also took the view that Crawford’s problems with Surrey, South Australia and Otago were all part of a larger pattern. He noted how Crawford’s early life resembled an implausible story from boys’ magazines from this period, such was his success at every step. But his career then “stalled” after the dispute. Hart concluded:

“Crawford appears to have been almost an Edwardian [Ian] Botham in his capacity to get on to the scoreboard and up establishment noses. He could turn games around and agreements over, antagonise the powerful, endear himself to the young and those young enough at heart to care to characterise great personal performances as ‘heroic’. Unfortunately when he returned to England he did not bring with him that boon or gift, sustained all-round ability, which could have remedied the deficiencies about to be exposed in English cricket by Warwick Armstrong’s Australian team of 1920–21. Instead Jack Crawford quit the first-class scene after a dozen matches, playing league cricket at Rochdale and club cricket around London before spending the last four decades of his life in comparative sporting obscurity.”

Michael Burns’ 2015 biography A Flick of the Fingers took a different view, that Crawford was feeling pressure from several directions. Some possible factors included: his “restless spirit” given that he was unable to find a job and apparently contemplating moving abroad; possible frustration at the “suffocating constrictions” of living with the “controlling presence” of his father; a run of poor form that he had never experienced in the first few years of his career; press criticism of his captaincy at the beginning of the 1909 season. Burns concluded: “The pleasure of donning Surrey’s chocolate cap must have been wearing a little thin when he was handed the weakened team for the second Australian game. Young Jack was in the mood for a fight.”

Keith and Jennifer Booth, in their 2016 book on Crawford, Rebel With A Cause, noted that his “front loaded” career was soon forgotten, perhaps because he retreated into anonymity afterwards. They placed Crawford alongside Kevin Pietersen, Geoffrey Boycott, Fred Truman and Cecil Parkin as talented players who were “self-made cricketers … [Their] playing ability was vastly superior to most of their contemporaries … None could be described as modest; all had an awareness of their own ability and clashed with authority.” They were “mavericks with ego and attitude, rebels in their day and prepared to kick against the pricks.” The Booths suggested that Crawford, although an amateur, had a professional attitude to the game through constant practice; they even indicated that perhaps the Surrey professionals sympathised with him or saw parallels in how they were treated. The Booths also defended him from charges of being “unlikeable” and suggest in places that the Surrey Committee were at fault.

These undulating views of Crawford perhaps reflect how unusual such a public clash was in the world of cricket — in 1909 and for a long time afterwards. As is often the case, it is more likely that the personal opinions of those writing inform their judgement than any other factors; and it was these that might make Crawford either the hero or the villain of his own tale. While it is likely that most of the cricket-viewing public in 1909 would have sided with Surrey — and certainly the wider Establishment would have done so — there was little public condemnation; that is not how things were done in 1909. Ostracism was a more powerful weapon than criticism.

And in that sense, Surrey and Lord Alverstone were the undoubted winners. What might have been a long and glorious Test and county career was curtailed; as great as Crawford’s achievements in Australia were, these played out in a lesser spotlight and revealed a character that was not sympathetic. The result was that historians, instead of judging Crawford by his own achievements, discuss what went wrong. And Crawford is forever compared to great cricketers with a reputation for causing trouble, but owing to the brevity of his career, can never be numbered among them.