Gentlemen v Players: The contrasting path of amateur and professional cricketers 100 years ago

Eton v Harrow at Lord’s in 1919

Let’s suppose you are a promising young cricketer. Today, several routes are available if you wish to pursue a professional career. If all goes well, and you reach the top of your game, there is money to be made. Your options are varied, there are many teams from which to chose; they will no doubt offer many perks in return for joining them. If you are successful, maybe other teams will come calling, or you could perhaps make your fortune in a lucrative T20 league.

What if you had lived 100 years ago? How would the promising young cricketer have fared in 1919? His fortunes would be inextricably tied up in his background. For a member of a rich or influential upper class family, several routes were open. He would attend a public school, all of which played cricket. The more prestigious ones offered a high standard and the chance of exposure to a wide audience as their schoolboy cricketers were often famous. The very best schools played at Lord’s; the annual match between Eton and Harrow at Lord’s was a massive social occasion, drawing enormous crowds (the 1914 match attracted 40,000 spectators over two days) and was widely covered in newspapers as far away as Australia. Success in this game ensured lasting fame in the pages of Wisden, which carried a list of century makers in the fixture as late as the 1993 edition. Other schoolboy cricketers could also play representative schools matches at Lord’s.

Archie MacLaren (Image: Wikipedia)

Success at public school could be followed, if his family could afford it (not all could: Archie MacLaren attended Harrow school but never went to university), by more cricket at Oxford or Cambridge University. Intelligence was not a prerequisite in those days, just ability at sport; Gilbert Jessop left Cambridge without a degree after three years; Gubby Allen only survived at Cambridge for two before the university tired of his lack of academic work.

After that? Well, if he had made an impact, our young cricketer would be something of a celebrity and could be sure of invitations to play in prestigious cricket matches for years to come, particularly the Gentlemen v Players match in which amateurs faced professionals. At this point, he may decide to pursue a career such as a stockbroker or trader; or he may chose to play county cricket. Most counties snapped up amateur talent, and there would often be the opportunity to become captain as well. Our young amateur had options, particularly as his (or his family’s) wealth would mean that he was not tied to his birthplace. But the rules of the time prevented cricketers playing for whoever they liked and it was deliberately difficult to change counties.

Our cricketer could only represent the county of his birth or one in which he had lived for at least two years. If he wished to play for a different county, he had to take up residence there. Before 1900, it was a little easier: an additional rule stated “a cricketer may elect to play for the county in which his family home is, so long as it remains open to him as an occasional residence”. As Cricket magazine made clear in 1882, this rule was designed to allow amateurs some flexibility over their choice of county:

“[The aim of the counties] was to provide on the one hand the necessity of a bonafide residence of two years; on the other to thoroughly encourage county cricket, by allowing the admission of amateurs, under a third qualification, distinct from either birth or residence.”

This rule was removed in 1900. But for the pre-1900 amateur, no-one was too insistent on rules; a gentleman’s word was enough. For example, S. S. Schultz was an amateur cricketer who played for Cambridge and toured Australia under the leadership of George Robert Canning, more commonly known as Lord Harris, in 1878-79. When Scultz first played for Lancashire in the 1880s, Lord Harris protested that he was not qualified. Harris’ friends Albert Hornby and E. B. Rowley vouched for his qualification; Harris did not press the issue, even though he wasn’t convinced. Similarly, when Ranjitsinhji first played for Sussex in 1895, he was almost certainly not qualified: Ranji himself said that he was about to move to Eastbourne shortly before his first game. Wisden diplomatically stated: “Ranji’s appearance in the team took most people by surprise, as the fact of his qualifying for Sussex was practically unknown until the early part of May”. No-one protested, so that was that.

Fred Root, in A Cricket Pro’s Lot (1937), bitterly notes that several amateurs had questionable qualifications after the war:

“Other qualifications have consisted of a day’s shooting in the county or the permanent hanging up of a blazer in the pavilion of the county ground as visible evidence that the player has at least been there. During my early days it was a fashionable saying among first-class cricketers that it was only necessary to perform a certain operation on Charing Cross Station to become qualified for Middlesex.”

Percy Chapman in 1920 (Image: Wikipedia)

If rules were tighter by 1919, there was still plenty of scope for the ex-public schoolboy. Percy Chapman, born in Berkshire, is the poster child amateur cricketer of this period. Attending Uppingham School, he played for the first eleven from 1916 to 1918. Although his school did not play at Lord’s, he was selected to play in the schoolboy match at Lord’s, “Lord’s Schools v The Rest” as one of the best cricketers in the country in 1917 and 1918. In 1918, while still a schoolboy, his portrait appeared in Wisden (as the war was still ongoing, there were no “Cricketers of the Year” in 1918, just “Five Public School Cricketers of the Year”). He went to Cambridge in 1919 and was a glorious success for three seasons from 1920 to 1922, culminating in his scoring two centuries at Lord’s: for Cambridge against Oxford and, a week later, for the Gentlemen against the Players, something only done once before in the same season. He then began to work for a brewery, and played for Berkshire and in club cricket while he qualified for Kent. He went on to play for, and captain, England in Test matches, and led Kent for several years. Many others followed a similar route, and were household names in England: CB Fry, Stanley Jackson, Gubby Allen, Greville Stevens. There were many others who faded from the game, having had their hours of glory, not wishing to play full-time cricket.

But these men were amateurs. They were not paid for playing cricket and had careers that provided their income. Others, like JWHT Douglas, who did not necessarily follow the school-university-county route, had sufficient wealth to allow them to play whenever they liked, particularly before the war. Others may have wished to play cricket but could not afford to do so. Given their background, there was no question of playing professionally. It was not sporting to be paid to play cricket, and reduced a man to the status of a hired hand. If your old school was Eton, Harrow, Repton, or many others, that was quite simply not an option. The loss of social status would have been crippling. Only a handful of amateurs in this period turned professional: Ric Sissons, in The Players (1988), names nine Victorian amateurs who turned – in some cases briefly – professional. Also, a small number of those who would have qualified as an amateur by their class chose to play as professionals (such as George Lohmann and Arthur Paul). These attitudes changed later on, but not much.

What could the impoverished aspiring amateur cricketer do if he were not to take this dreadful step? There were ways around it. Many amateurs, including England captains such as WG Grace and Andrew Stoddard, were given very generous expenses allowances which allowed them to play. The matter of amateur expenses was a sensitive one, especially when these approached or even surpassed the wage of professionals. Others, like Sammy Woods at Somerset or Charlie McGahey at Essex, were appointed as county secretary or assistant secretary, which gave them a wage but crucially did not pay them for the act of playing cricket. Others became journalists, writing match reports or opinion pieces; sometimes matches in which they were involved. Some, like Archie MacLaren, did a combination of these things. But such an approach always danced around the line of what was morally and socially acceptable for the upper classes.

What if your background was not wealthy? What if you were not part of the upper class? What could the talented working class cricketer do? He would want to be paid for his efforts, enabling him to live comfortably and support his family. For these men, money certainly was an issue. But they were not permitted to seek the best deal that they could, or find the county which offered the highest wage. Here we need slightly more background.

William Clarke’s All-England XI pictured in 1847 (Image: Wikipedia)

Before 1873, cricket in England was dominated and ruled by professionals, not the privileged. It was first taken around the country – and following the first overseas tours by English cricketers, other parts of the world – by bands of professional cricketers who ran their own teams. William Clarke’s All-England Eleven, according to Ric Sissons, “revolutionised the public’s awareness and perception of cricket”. Several teams emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, often in competition on and off the field, copying Clarke’s model of a professional team touring the country playing all-comers. Thanks to these men, it had become increasingly possible to earn a living as a professional cricketer who could chose the most suitable team and seek the best deal.

But cricket was also the sport of the upper classes as it recovered from a slightly disreputable phase in the early 19th century. For a variety of reasons, by the 1860s, it was at the vanguard of a certain philosophical and moral idealism emanating from public schools and universities from which emerged the notion of cricket as a metaphor for fair play and sportsmanship. For these people, professionalism was something to be kept in its place so that it wouldn’t tarnish the great and noble game. And it was not right that this great sport was ruled by professionals. From the 1860s, the amateur establishment began to fight back.

The main weapon for the amateurs was that they ran the committees of the growing number of County Cricket Clubs, for whom all the leading players (including the ex-public school and university amateurs, or stars such as WG Grace) regularly, albeit haphazardly, played. County cricket was increasingly popular and had surpassed the attraction of the touring teams of professional cricketers like Clarke’s All-England team. It grabbed the attention of press and public, and now provided the greatest source of income for professionals.

The key year was 1873 when the County Cricket Clubs established a framework of rules for inter-county cricket. One of the most important new playing conditions stated that a cricketer could only play for one county per season (several men regularly appeared for two counties per season). Qualification rules were also introduced. Before this time, professional cricketers moved easily between counties, going where the money was. Now, the rules favoured more geographically mobile wealthy amateurs and put a severe restraint on professional cricketers being able to strike a good financial deal for themselves.

So now, for our aspiring professional cricketer, the county qualification rules imposed a limit. For he had to qualify through one of the two criteria: birth or two years’ residence in a county. But what if his county of qualification did not offer the best wage, or did not have good prospects, or presented some other difficulties such as disagreement with a captain? Or they offered a deal that didn’t represent good value? What could our professional do? The answer now was not a lot: by this stage, the county committees held all the cards.

Walter Wright in 1896 (Image: Wikipedia)

For example, in 1886, Walter Wright asked the Nottinghamshire committee for a £10 fee for playing the Australian team; they refused and dropped him for the rest of the season. Given that professionals were only paid if they played, this would have been a considerable hardship and Wright chose to move counties and play for Kent. But this involved more hardship. If you wished to move counties, that meant a two-year wait without pay. Worse, a convention was established by 1900 that said:

“A cricketer, already qualified for a county but wishing to qualify by residence for another county, must give notice in writing to the Cricket Club Committee of the former county before he commences such residence; and a County Cricket Club wishing to engage, under a residential qualification, a cricketer who is already qualified for another County Club, must inform the committee of the latter before commencing negotiations with the cricketer.”

In other words, the permission of the cricketer’s county was required before he qualified for someone else. The movement of professionals, or worse, the poaching of professionals by other counties, was frowned upon, and the counties tried various measures to keep it all in check. As a Derbyshire representative once said: “What would they think of any gentlemen who tried to bribe their private servants from their employment?” An article in Cricket magazine (26 February 1891), reprinted from the Evening Standard, observed: “While a man is engaged with the team of his native county, it would be exceedingly unfair to tempt him to desertion by the offer of higher remuneration.” Even when Yorkshire’s Bobby Peel was sacked for drunkenness by Lord Hawke in 1897 and signed for Accrington, other Lancashire League clubs expressed concern that Peel had been “stolen” from Yorkshire, and Accrington had to make the point that they had waited to make sure it wasn’t just a minor disagreement before they signed him.

In practice, the need for permission to move was not insurmountable. Many players – including famous names such as Cecil Parkin and Len Braund – who represented two counties. There were even some who went a stage further: among players who began their career before the Second World War, sixteen men played for three counties. However, this was a rarity; four of them began playing before the imposition of qualification rules in 1873, and only eight began their career after 1900; two of these made their third move after the Second World War, when qualification rules had eased slightly. And eleven of the sixteen (and six of the eight post-1900 movers) were amateurs, reinforcing the idea that it was much harder for professionals to move.

But moves could be difficult. There were several disputes over qualification in the 1880s and 1890s. Jack Crossland, a bowler with a controversial and dubious action, was the cause of a bitter dispute between Lancashire and, through Lord Harris, Kent; but it was qualification that ended his career. Crossland was actually from Nottinghamshire, qualifying for Lancashire by residence and first playing for them in 1878. In 1885, after several counties refused to play Lancashire owing to Crossland’s unfair bowling action, Nottinghamshire protested to the MCC that Crossland had breached his residential qualification by returning to live in Nottinghamshire in the winter of 1884-85. The MCC ruled that Crossland was no longer eligible for Lancashire. Nottinghamshire also complained in 1890 over the number of players in the Surrey team who were born in Nottinghamshire. Other disputes also occurred: Braund’s move from Surrey to Somerset in 1899 was controversial, and when William Montgomery followed him in 1904, Surrey refused to play Somerset again until 1907.

Attempts by professionals to take a stand were few and far between. Seven Nottinghamshire players attempted to strike over their desire for more secure employment terms in 1881, but were forced to back down when Nottinghamshire easily found replacements. Some Test players attempted a strike over pay before an England game in 1896, but were also forced to back down.

Bobby Peel in 1895 (Image: Wikipedia)

A professional cricketer also had to behave or risk the wrath of the county authorities. This was the fate of several cricketers, particularly before 1900. Part of the amateur drive to control cricket was to introduce more discipline, self-control and “respectability” among professionals, driven by the county captain – who was, of course, an amateur by this period. Edward Pooley was suspended by Surrey in 1873 for not trying in a game against Yorkshire; although he returned to the team, his many personal problems meant that he ended his days in a workhouse. Frank Shacklock was suspended for poor behaviour in 1893 and left Nottinghamshire for Derbyshire afterwards. Peel was sacked for drunkenness in 1897. Other players were discarded when they became less effective and many, particularly before 1900, were left living in poverty. Alfred Pullin (“Old Ebor”) highlighted the desperate state of many former Yorkshire cricketers in his Talks with Old English Cricketers (1900).

Additionally, not all counties paid their professionals equal amounts, and while many (but not all) professionals often received a benefit match after several years of service with their counties, which gave them something to support them in their retirement, less glamorous counties did not generate as much as their larger counterparts. Which was unfortunate if you did not qualify for a county like Surrey or Yorkshire.

Adverts in the Yorkshire Post  (28 August 1875) for professional cricketers. The clubs were careful not to mention the wage they were offering.

Furthermore, not every professional cricketer was good enough to make a career out of county cricket. According to Sissons, of the 131 professionals who played for Nottinghamshire between 1870 and 1913, 53 played in just one season, over half did not survive three years and only 28 managed to play for the county for over ten years.

What could the unsuccessful professional do, or what were the options when his career came to an end? Or what were his alternatives if he fell out with his county? In truth, there were few other opportunities for professional cricketers. For example, there were no cricket leagues in much of the south of England as these were considered vulgar in the amateur ethos that dominated cricket: too competitive and with the potential for corrupting the purity of the game. Further north, leagues sprang up in Birmingham, Lancashire, Staffordshire, Leeds and Bradford. Clubs in these leagues were usually allowed to employ one professional cricketer. Sissons reports that eight of the 13 Lancashire League clubs in the 1890s employed at least one ex-Nottinghamshire professional.

Advert in Cricket, 22 February 1900

How did this compare financially to being a county cricketer? County wages were fairly standard. Most counties paid £5 for a home match and £6 for an away one. Professionals received a win bonus of £1, end-of-season performance bonuses and, from most counties by the end of this period, winter pay. Surrey professionals before the First World War could earn up to £245 during the season and £45 winter pay: an annual wage of £290. A member of the ground staff could earn up to £70 in the season and £30 winter pay: £100 annually. Lancashire, by contrast, paid members of the groundstaff (including winter pay) up to £70 annually and leading players around £200 annually.

Direct comparisons are difficult as wages for professional cricketers outside county cricket were rarely advertised, presumably to limit wage inflation; therefore few figures are available. An article in the Burnley News several years later (3 June 1922), discussing wages in the Lancashire League, suggested that professionals in the 1890s were paid £3 and 5 shillings a week, which would equate to £65 for 20 weeks of cricket. An advert in Cricket magazine in 1900 offered a professional at a London Club 30 shillings a week: £30 for 20 weeks. In 1920, Ernest Dickens was paid £6 per week by Heaton Cricket Club for 24 weeks (£144). Farnsworth paid W Blackburn £39 for the whole 1926 season and £40 for 1927. Star names could earn more. In 1910, Alex Kermode of Bacup was paid £10 per week (which if it covered 20 weeks would be £200 for a season’s work). On balance, expect for star players who could command high fees in the leagues, county cricket offered greater security and wealth, plus the possibility of a benefit match after sufficient years’ service. In short, it was not desirable to leave county cricket. Which meant that amateurs ruled the roost.

There were other options for professionals such as coaching, including at public schools, many of whom employed a professional coach. If cricket was no longer an option, what did other jobs pay? Skilled manual workers in London in 1900 could earn up to £100 per year, those elsewhere slightly less. An agricultural labourer might earn £40 per year. In other sports, professional footballers had a maximum wage of £208 per year; jockeys could earn up to £5,000 a year with a wealthy patron. Overall, a career in cricket compared favourably to most of these alternatives; which may be why professionals were generally unwilling even to attempt rocking the boat.

Main sources:

  • Derek Birley, A Social History of English Cricket (1999)
  • Ric Sissons, The Players (1988)
  • Jack Williams, Cricket and England: A Cultural and Social History of the Inter-war Years (1999)

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