Stephen Hill has written this new book about Somerset County Cricket Club and if you’ve read the histories of the club by David Foot or Peter Roebuck and believe you know all there is to know, then think again. This book is something entirely different. Against the backdrop of the county club’s changing fortunes, the author offers up short biographies of each of the men who have played, addressing them in chronological order.
After a bright and breezy run through the early history of cricket in the county we encounter Herbert Fowler, the first man in the list, a gentle Quaker but a brutish hitter of the ball who opened the batting in Somerset’s first match in 1882. We are treated to an outline of Fowler’s skills as a cricketer but, more interestingly, the man’s hapless career as a bank owner and his success as a chrysanthemum grower, his spells as mayor of Taunton and the fluctuating fortunes of his beloved herd of Guernsey cattle, which he was forced to sell when bankruptcy loomed. We hear about his daughter who, for whatever reason, was kept hidden from society and died a spinster, and we learn how Herbert finally found his niche as a famed golf-course designer.
This breathless and fascinating outline of his life sets the tone for the whole book. We are introduced to each of the 227 men who represented the county prior to the First World War. Some of them are sad tales of decline – like the story of Rev Frank Reed, a priest and then a headmaster who ended his days as a vagrant, drifting from one London doss house to another and disowned by his family. Many of the biographies are packed with surprises and wry observations on the author’s part. One of the great revelations for me, as someone who has studied the history of the club, was to find out not just the true identity but also the whole life story of men who were just shadowy figures where even their Christian names were previously unknown or just plain wrong in the archives.
In his foreword, Vic Marks confesses to being ‘surprised and enchanted at every turn of the page’ and I can’t disagree with that. Nor can I argue with David Wood of Somerset Cricket Museum who calls it a ‘monumental labour of love’.
I like the fact that some of the one-match wonders are given as much prominence as legends like Somerset and England captain J.C. White. The writer has a real eye and nose for the more quirky facts and makes short detours into social history. The biographies are embellished with images of most of the players. Of necessity, some of them are of the men in later years and some of them are imperfect, but we should be grateful that the author has taken the time to root out pictures that had laid hidden from view sometimes for over a century. With copies of autographs also included, we gain a rounded picture of each of the men.
It’s the sort of book that you can either keep coming back to as an encyclopaedia. Or you can read it from cover to cover as I‘ve done and come away with a newfound understanding of how things were … and why the Championship has proved so elusive.
“Somerset Cricketers 1882 -1914” is published by Halsgrove (IBSN 978 0 85704 291 0) £16.99