“A quiet, unassuming sort of chap”: Edwin St Hill at Lowerhouse

Edwin St Hill practising in Australia in 1930-31 (Image: National Library of Australia)

Up until the end of his first-class career in 1930, Edwin St Hill’s biography could be written on a postcard for all that we know of him. All the usual sources (which for West Indian and Trinidadian cricket of this period generally means CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary) are largely silent. We can trace his rise, first for Shannon Cricket Club in the Bonanza Cup in Trinidad; then for Trinidad in the Intercolonial Tournament; and finally for the West Indies. Without setting the world alight, he played a total of seventeen first-class and two Test matches. While he made a good impression for all these teams, he remains an anonymous figure in the records. In some ways, we even know more about his brother Cecil from the few lines that CLR James wrote about him. Other than dry statistical facts, all we know about Edwin is that he was a reliable, nagging medium-paced bowler of perhaps limited penetration and, from a snippet in an Australian newspaper, an occasional boxer. But from 1931, all that changes because St Hill moved to Lancashire to play league cricket, and became a local celebrity. Suddenly he starts to come alive in the sources.

Before touring Australia with the West Indies team, St Hill had signed an initial one-year contract to play Lancashire League cricket for Lowerhouse, a club based in Burnley. The fact of his signing was quite remarkable because unlike many of the growing number of overseas professionals in the Lancashire League, St Hill had never played cricket in England – as far as we know, he had never even set foot in the country.

However, it was not unprecedented for a clubs to gamble on an overseas professional. In the early 1920s, several Lancashire League clubs began to recruit some lesser-known overseas players. Among these were Australia’s Frank O’Keefe, who never played Tests, and the Lancashire-born AE Hall, who played Tests for South Africa in the early 1920s, but never toured England. As the decade progressed, clubs moved towards higher-profile signings, prompted by the success of Australia’s Ted McDonald, probably the fastest bowler in the world at the time, when he played for Nelson between 1922 and 1924. McDonald was followed by South Africa’s JM Blankenburg, Australia’s Arthur Richardson and, most successfully, Trinidad’s Learie Constantine. All three were signed after attracting attention during tours of England with their Test side; other players such as Alan Fairfax (Australia) and George Headley (West Indies) followed this well-trodden path in the 1930s. But St Hill was largely unproven when he signed – perhaps more unproven than any previous overseas professional.

Helm Spencer, the Lowerhouse professional before St Hill (Image: Lowerhouse Cricket Club)

Learie Constantine recommended St Hill to Lowerhouse, who were perhaps persuaded not just by his testimony but by what he had himself brought to Nelson, in terms of results on the field and vastly increased attendances. At the time, Lowerhouse were generally a middling club. They had never won the Lancashire League and usually finished in the lower half of the table. Having been last in 1924 and 1926, they had risen to joint sixth in 1928 and fifth in 1929, but fallen to eleventh in 1930. The professional that season was Helm Spencer – the former Lancashire and Glamorgan cricketer’s 346 runs and 28 wickets were far from impressive, but he had spent many years at Lowerhouse, moving to Bacup and then Colne before returning for a single season in 1930. He later returned to play for them team as an amateur, including alongside St Hill in 1932. Spencer had, in turn, replaced Fred Webster as professional. Webster had been very successful, but had moved to the Central Lancashire League to play for Littleborough. Although both Spencer and Webster had played county cricket, neither was a star name; nor were any of Lowerhouse’s previous professionals. Perhaps St Hill was an attempt to compromise – an international cricketer whose name may have been known, but who would not have been as expensive as someone like Constantine, or a leading county professional.

At the Annual General Meeting in March 1931, the Lowerhouse chairman revealed a little more about the signing of St Hill. In a speech (reported in the Burnley Express) which began by lamenting the poor attendances and fraught relationship between the club and its members during the previous season, he talked about the new signing. The club had:

“… seen good reports from people who had seen [St Hill] play in the West Indies. They had been told that he would make a useful cricketer for Lowerhouse. He could vary his bowling, and he had the makings of a very good batsman. He was a quiet, unassuming sort of chap, said those who had seen him. The Lancashire League wickets would probably suit him, because he was a spin bowler, and he varied his bowling greatly. They had also been in touch with his friend, Constantine, who had said that St Hill was a better bowler than he was, and would do well for Lowerhouse. Mr Jackson added that he thought the committee, in engaging Edwin St Hill, had used a little bit of good judgement.”

There was considerable anticipation in the press about the new recruit, and extensive profiles appeared in local newspapers. When he arrived in England, St Hill was given a reception by the club (reported in the Lancashire Evening Post). He thanked them for their “hearty welcome” and said that he had expected such a good reception as he knew of the “geniality of Lancashire people” from previously meeting representatives of Nelson Cricket Club in Trinidad when they visited Constantine. Saying all the right things, St Hill also “agreed the climate was not what he was accustomed to, but he would have a good try to get used to it.” Giving an interview to the Burnley News, he revealed that in Trinidad he had worked as a “dry goods clerk”, was teetotal and did not smoke. He expressed determination to overcome the problems of different weather in England, and the differences in the pitches given that he was accustomed to bowling on matting in Trinidad. When he was interviewed, he had a cricket ball in his hand as he tried to get used to the type used in the Lancashire League.

Edwin St Hill during his time at Lowerhouse
(Image: Burnley Civic Trust Heritage Image Collection)

At the time, the role of a Lancashire League professional was not confined to the playing field. He was expected to become involved in coaching and was largely responsible for setting the tone for the whole team on the pitch. Aside from this, particularly for the more high-profile professionals, there was also a social aspect to the role, in which they had a leading role in the local community. Early in his time in England, St Hill found himself involved in this world. Supported by Constantine, he presented the prizes as the Annual Presentation of the Burnley Sunday School Football League. A few days later, St Hill presented medals to Wheatley Lane Wesleyan billiards team who had won “‘A’ Division of the Reserve Section of the Nelson Sunday School Billiards League”. In a ceremony, covered in the Burnley News, at the Wheatley Lane Wesleyan School, a large crowd gave him “a splendid reception”, and he “spoke very feelingly of the welcome he had received in England, and said he had enjoyed the sporting manner in which they had entertained him.” Again, he made a good impression, speaking self-depreciatingly and noting that while billiards was not popular in the West Indies, he “hoped to make good as a billiards player himself and some day challenge those men to a game.”

However, his prime role was on the cricket field. By any measurement, St Hill was a success in 1931. Midway through the season, the Burnley News commented on his enthusiasm and determination, and credited him with creating an excellent team-spirit which was making the team both attractive and popular. Lowerhouse finished equal fourth in the league, their best result since 1910, and a review of the season in the Burnley News in September was clear:

“From every point of view Lowerhouse have reason to congratulate themselves on their enterprise in securing the services of Edwin St Hill, for he not only restored circulation to an almost inanimate body … but spurred that body on to give some good exhibitions of cricket, and certainly he aroused a good deal of interest in the doings of the club.”

The Burnley News noted that he was a leading batsman (scoring 288 runs at 14.40 to be third in the club averages) for the team as well as a leading bowler; of his 68 wickets (at an average of 12.20), 46 were bowled, and on four occasions he bowled five batsmen in an innings. The review of the Lancashire League in the Cricketer Annual for 1931-32 said: “St Hill, the West Indies all-rounder, enjoyed quite a good first season.” In the league averages published in the Cricketer, St Hill did not qualify to feature in the top batting averages, but was 20th overall in bowling.

St Hill’s encounters with Constantine attracted a lot of attention in that first season. In the Worsley Cup, Nelson scored 137 for three in their innings; Constantine scored 57 not out while St Hill took three for 59 from 15 overs. In reply, Lowerhouse were bowled out for 67; St Hill scored 16 but Constantine did not take any wickets, bowling just seven overs on a rain-affected pitch. Almost a month later, the clubs played each other in the league. The first match was rained off without a ball bowled, but in the second Lowerhouse scored 114 (St Hill 10, Constantine two for 24 from 15.3 overs); Nelson scored just 84 in reply (Constantine 10, St Hill four for 36 from 18.4 overs), falling to their only league defeat of the season. In the next two seasons, Lowerhouse and St Hill were less successful: Nelson won all four matches in 1932 and 1933 in which Constantine and St Hill opposed each other (Lowerhouse won by 5 runs when Constantine was absent playing for the West Indies in early 1933; St Hill took six wickets), and Constantine’s record was considerably better than St Hill’s in these games.

Lowerhouse were evidently happy with their new professional; St Hill signed an extension to his contract for another two years at some point during 1931. At the end of the season, the return of Constantine, Francis and St Hill to the West Indies was covered in the Burnley News: they travelled to Bristol at the end of the season to travel home. The Burnley News hoped that St Hill “will have a happy meeting with Mrs St Hill”.

When St Hill and Constantine arrived back in Trinidad, a large crowd greeted them. Interviewed about his experiences in England by a correspondent of the Port of Spain Gazette (an interview reproduced in the Burnley Express), St Hill had a lot to say and had clearly enjoyed his experiences. He discussed some of the differences with cricket in Trinidad, including the sodden grounds at the start of the season, and the behaviour of the ball through the air and off damp pitches. Discussing his best performances, his modesty comes through; the report stated: “‘I feel I have been a success in the League,’ he said diffidently when asked about himself.” But he suggested he had struggled until late in the season to adjust to batting in England. Of his reception, St Hill said: “I received quite a good reception from the crowd witnessing the League matches. They are a very nice and appreciative people and they delight in bright cricket. I looked forward quite a lot to my return home. It was quite cold when we left but I have two more years to spend with Lowerhouse and I am hoping to renew my contract.” He revealed that he spent a lot of time with Constantine, who lived just seven miles away, and hoped to travel to watch the Intercolonial Tournament in Barbados in January 1932 (he would not have been able to play as he was now a professional cricketer). St Hill added: “I am decidedly not averse to playing for the West Indies in England [in 1933], but according to my contract Lowerhouse will have to consent to my service being given to the West Indies. He also denied a rumour that the East Lancashire club had tried to sign him for 1932 and revealed that his nickname in Lowerhouse was “Teddy”, although he was not sure where it came from.

Edwin and Iris St Hill photographed outside their home in Burnley in 1932
(Image: Burnley Express, 23 April 1932)

When he arrived for the 1932 season, St Hill was accompanied by his wife Iris. Having arrived in Southampton and spending a weekend in London, the couple travelled north and were interviewed by the Burnley Express soon after their arrival. St Hill revealed that he had been playing in Trinidad’s Bonanza Cup during the 1931-32 season (the report mistakenly said that he had been playing for Trinidad), which he suggested was of a slightly higher standard than the Lancashire League. Iris said that the weather would take some getting used to, but she hoped that she would quickly adjust. The newspaper added that the trip was a belated honeymoon for the pair, who had married shortly before St Hill’s visit to Australia with the West Indies, after which he had travelled straight to England. They planned to spend the English winter in Burnley. The article, which said that they lived at 4 Brunel Street, was accompanied by a rather nice photograph of the couple.

St Hill enjoyed another good season in 1932, although Lowerhouse dropped to fifth position, and he headed both the batting and bowling averages for Lowerhouse. His batting improved greatly, as he scored 477 runs, with a highest score of 85, at an average just over 20. The Burnley Express suggested that he had surprised people with his batting ability, playing several longer innings and scoring runs by “delightfully played cricket”. That publication judged that his bowling was less effective than the previous season: “His bowling has not been uniformly good, and it is rather a surprise to find that his average is very little different from that of last year.” Nevertheless, he took 77 wickets at 13.87. The season review in the Cricketer observed that St Hill, along with some of the other lesser-known professionals, were of such a high standard that they were but a “little behind” the leading Test players who appeared in the Lancashire League that season. The review noted his “good forcing cricket” with the bat, and judged that he had “enjoyed another good season.” In the overall league averages, he was 21st in batting and 20th in bowling.

St Hill also continued to be involved in the social role that went with his job. Teams chosen by him and the Australian Arthur Richardson played a match to raise funds for Burnley Lads Club. He also presided over a concert held by the Briercliffe Male Voice Choir at the Memorial Park. Meanwhile, a report at the end of the season confirmed that he and Iris were spending the winter in Burnley: “The St Hills have made many friends in the district, and exhibiting a true Lancashire trait these friends conspire to make the winter months as bright as possible for them. Mrs St Hill has evinced considerable interest in the game of bowls. If she becomes as proficient on the ‘green’ as her husband is on the cricket field, Ightenhill ladies will have to look to their laurels next summer.” At some point, St Hill also began to attend All Saints’, the local church, as revealed when he presented trophies and medals to Habergham All Saints’ Football Club, part of a Sunday School league, in early 1933.

What makes St Hill’s decision to stay in England interesting is that by doing so, he ruined any chance he might have had of selection for the 1933 tour of England by the West Indies. George Francis spent the English winter back at home, and played in the trial match used to aid the selection of the 1933 team (although he was not selected). Learie Constantine, who also remained in England during the 1932-33 winter, was committed to playing for Nelson during 1933 but would have been guaranteed a place when he was available, and he played a few games on that tour between his league commitments. But St Hill had only ever been on the fringes of the West Indies team, and like Constantine, was committed to his league club. Had he gone home to Trinidad like Francis, perhaps he could have challenged for a place. But when, during the 1933 tour, the West Indies team was short of bowlers, it was the 36-year-old Francis – by then playing for Radcliffe in the Bolton League – who was summoned to reinforce the team for the first Test.

There is another interesting aspect to St Hill’s life at this time. In 1932, CLR James moved to England to pursue his literary ambitions, and lived in Nelson. We know from Beyond a Boundary that he spent a lot of time with Learie Constantine, with whom he was working on a book. He also began to write for the Manchester Guardian. In April 1933, he wrote an article about George Headley, about whom there was a great deal of anticipation before the forthcoming West Indies tour. In the course of the article, James revealed:

“He and Edwin St Hill, the Lowerhouse professional, are great friends, a friendship which began at the nets before the first Test at Barbados in 1930. Edwin St Hill, bowling strong fast-medium, was amazed to see the little Jamaican wristing the good-length ball away between mid on and short leg or jumping in to drive it … In Australia he failed at first to get runs against [the leg-spinner Clarrie] Grimmett. ‘I have to make a century against Grimmett,’ he told his friend St Hill. Batting very carefully, he made it in the third Test. ‘Satisfied?’ asked St Hill. ‘Not yet; I have to master him now.’ In the fifth Test he made another century in a little over two hours, playing so brilliantly that even Bradman, Kippax and the rest joined in the applause. ‘Satisfied?’ asked St Hill. ‘Ye-es,’ said Headley, hesitatingly. He had been brilliant, but it galled him that he had had to treat Grimmett with some respect.”

The most likely source for this story – given that it was published only two days after the West Indies arrived in England on 16 April – was St Hill himself, who as a close friend of Constantine must have spent time with James during 1932 and the winter of 1932-33. Yet James makes little mention of him in Beyond a Boundary, and says nothing about his time playing in England. Nor does he include the story from St Hill in his chapter on Headley, and his success against Grimmett in Australia. The silence is a curious one, and there is no obvious explanation.

Lowerhouse Cricket Club (Image: Lowerhouse Cricket Club via Twitter)

The 1933 season was a high-scoring one, and bowling averages in general rose. St Hill was no exception. But in his case, this was offset by a considerable increase in his run-scoring. He scored 602 runs at 28.66 (only 90 runs short of the record seasonal aggregate for Lowerhouse) and took 56 wickets at 18.82. He headed both batting and bowling averages for his club, and finished as high as 11th in the overall batting averages for the Lancashire League, although he slipped to 25th in bowling. The Burnley Express noted in the middle of the season that St Hill’s bowling was not as good as previously, but expressed surprise that, at the time, he was ahead of most other league professionals in terms of wickets taken. The newspaper’s end-of-season review also noted that he was less successful with the ball, taking fewer wickets at a higher cost, but added that he gave “some delightful batting exhibitions”.  Among these performances with the bat, he scored two centuries. For some context, during St Hill’s time at Lowerhouse, there had been just four centuries across the Lancashire League in the whole of 1931 and seven in 1932; the number increased to eleven in 1933. The review of the season in the Cricketer observed that “Cromb, of New Zealand, and St Hill both batted in sparkling style, if their bowling was disappointing.”

The season overall was disappointing for Lowerhouse, and they fell to 11th in the league. St Hill’s contract expired at the end of the season, and Lowerhouse chose not to renew it, announcing mid-season that Robert Milne, a professional at Whitburn in the Durham Senior League, would take over in 1934. Milne had played for Durham, a minor county at the time, in 1933, but never played any first-class cricket. Incidentally, he finished 10th in the overall bowling averages for the league in 1934 but Lowerhouse fell further to 13th place.

Part of the reason that Lowerhouse replaced St Hill may have been financial. A newspaper report in the Burnley Express at the beginning of July related how several clubs aimed to reduce their wage bills – the writer suggested that it was proving too much of a gamble to recruit overseas players who might prove unsuccessful, particularly as there was a danger that adverse weather would affect gate receipts and reduce the income required to pay their high wages. The writer concluded: “I foresee lower salaried professionals in future, and very probably professionals with previous experience of English cricket.”

More specifically, Lowerhouse reported an annual loss of £300 at their Annual General Meeting in February 1933. The club ascribed the loss to a lack of support from the public, who were affected by the economic depression in the area at the time. There was considerable debate at the acrimonious AGM about how much the club was spending. The balance sheet for 1932 revealed that their expenses included nearly £397 for “Wages, Professional and Groundsman”. Although it does not specify how much went to St Hill, the bulk of this would almost certainly have been his wage. Somehow, the loss was reduced to £50 in 1933, and would presumably have been even less for 1934 when St Hill’s wages came off the books.

In the middle of the season, St Hill told a reporter that he planned to return to Trinidad after the 1933 season as his wife was homesick, but there were rumours that other Lancashire League clubs were seeking his services. The Burnley Express writer (in the same article which discussed the costs of overseas professionals) observed: “If the young West Indian will develop a little more discrimination with the bat, and produce that ‘wrong ‘un’ occasionally in the shape of an off or leg spinner slower than his usual ball, very few [Lancashire League] professionals will beat him in the averages table.” However, in August, he signed to play for Slaithwaite in the Huddersfield and District League for 1934. The newspaper reports in Burnley were a little dismissive of the quality of cricket in the Huddersfield League, and it was certainly a lower standard. But St Hill told the Burnley Express that his experience in Lancashire had been invaluable and said: “I am sure that if a professional can succeed in the Lancashire he will be successful anywhere.” In March 1934, the house in which he had been living in Burnley was advertised (“good family home … modern, and in good condition”) as being to let.

In three seasons at Lowerhouse, St Hill played 76 league matches and scored 1,377 runs at an average of 21.51. With the ball he took 201 wickets at 14.69. Incidentally, the “Hall of Fame” on the Lowerhouse website currently has St Hill as 29th on their list of wicket-takers, which is quite impressive given that he was only there for three seasons. His replacement, Milne, remained at the club until 1935, when Lowerhouse returned to a policy of signing more high-profile players: the former England Test players Richard Tyldelsley (1936) and Fred Root (1938-39) and the Lancashire cricketer Leonard Parkinson (1937) held the role until the war, and the West Indian Test bowler Manny Martindale played for a few years from 1947. But it was not until 2004 (when they won the Worsley Cup) and 2005 (when they won the league for the first time) that Lowerhouse won a competition, since when they have been very successful.

But if St Hill’s career at Lowerhouse was over, his career as a professional in England continued for many more years. And if the rest of the story is perhaps one of diminishing returns, there is no doubt that he made a considerable impact in various northern leagues over the next decade…

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