When Tom Abell was batting for Somerset at Taunton in September, his first ever first class innings, people in the ground and those following the game online excitedly started to recall the legend of Harold Gimblett. Young Tom was nearing a maiden century and therefore getting closer and closer to matching Gimblett’s amazing achievement almost 80 years before by scoring a century in a debut innings. Unfortunately Tom fell just five runs short of the feat but it was a magnificent debut nonetheless.
So who was this man Harold Gimblett? To some his is just a name, while many others would know the legend. Gimblett’s introduction to first class cricket remains one of the most remarkable tales in the history of the game, not just because of his record-breaking performance on the field but the off-the-field events building up to the match that started play on Saturday 18th May 1935 on a freezing cold day at Frome.
This debut kick-started a magnificent career for the Bicknoller born Gimblett, but he also had a remarkable life. So remarkable, in fact, that if cricket was more understood and celebrated around the world, particularly in the United States, then the story of Gimblett would most certainly have been celebrated in film and immortalised for generations to share. For this was a life full of the traits to create Hollywood legend.
Gimblett is often described as Somerset’s greatest ever batsman. The 21,142 runs he scored in Somerset colours – the highest aggregate by any Somerset player – would substantiate these claims. He scored these runs for the county at an average of 39.96.
He is also a former Test match opener, possessor of the record for scoring the fastest century on debut (in 1935), scorer of 50 first class centuries and 23,007 career runs.
And his legend was created not just by the volume of runs scored but the cavalier manner in which they were acquired. This was an age long before Twenty20 Cricket, yet Gimblett was so dashing that it is rumoured that word of his walking out to bat at Taunton emptied the streets and market adjacent to the County Ground and the staff in the offices and shops nearby all rushed to watch the great man in action. It was nothing for Gimblett to hit a six in the first over of a three-day match – a feat rarely seen in modern times, let alone during the period that encompassed Gimblett’s career between 1935 to 1954.
Yet however charismatic and expressive he was on the field of play, Gimblett’s life was marred by bouts of depression, attacks so bad they would be responsible for his premature death in 1978.
Sunday 19th October was the 100th anniversary of Harold’s birth and friends, former colleagues and locals paid tribute to the life of Gimblett in a service at Bicknoller Church.
Harold Gimblett’s rise from farmer’s son to county cricketer was gradual. His first experience of playing cricket was for Watchet CC, for whom he scored 91 on debut against Wellington. At this time he was also playing for West Buckland School, a boarding house near Barnstaple.
In 1930 a 15 year-old Gimblett played for the school in their annual match against the Somerset Stragglers, a nomadic collection of amateur and ex-professional cricketers who played throughout the county and even across the border in north Devon at the Valley of Rocks, the home of Lynton & Lynmouth CC. Gimblett took 3 wickets for 48 against the Stragglers who were impressed enough to keep a close eye on the young man.
In 1932 he was asked to play for the Stragglers for the first time and he hit 142 runs in just 75 minutes on debut against Wellington School.
A year later, having left school, Gimblett starred for the Stragglers in a game against W.G. Penny’s Somerset XI by smashing 168 of his team’s 272. Penny, a tailor from Watchet, was an influential figure in Somerset cricketing circles and he would become Gimblett’s mentor in his early playing days.
Penny continually sang Gimblett’s praises to the hierarchy at Taunton encouraging them to take a close look but there appeared to be some reservations over temperament and the impetuous batting style. Eventually the 20 year-old Gimblett was offered a two-week trial by Somerset in May 1935. Before the period was complete, and just a few days before the county was due to play Essex at Frome, Gimblett was told he was not good enough to cut it as a county cricketer and was sent home early. Somerset paid his two weeks in full and his bus fare.
But, in a twist of fate, Somerset had a late withdrawal for the Essex game when amateur Laurie Hawkins called in sick and the county searched for a late replacement. The Somerset captain Reggie Ingle, himself a Straggler, had no hesitation in asking Gimblett to step in and the offer was willingly accepted. Plans were made to get the young Gimblett to Frome and his requisite was to catch the bus to Bridgwater to arrive by 9 a.m. from where he would travel with Somerset’s wicket keeper Wally Luckes, an established enough player to own a motor car.
Harold missed the bus to Bridgwater and, with the next bus due in another two hours, he started the long walk. A curious lorry driver stopped to ask the pedestrian what he was doing. When told by Harold he was going to Frome to play for Somerset the driver laughed loudly but agreed to take Gimblett to Bridgwater to meet his lift.
Despite the unexpected hindrance Luckes and Gimblett arrived at Frome in good time. The county club enjoyed a small but passionate support in the town and the wicket keeper was greeted warmly by those waiting in the car park whereas the unknown Gimblett walked into the ground and changing room without interruption.
Ingle won the toss and decided Somerset should bat first. This decision looked a poor one as Somerset slipped to 35 for 3 before Frank Lee and Cecil Case took the score to 101. Three more quick wickets fell for only 6 runs and Somerset were struggling at 107 for 6. Gimblett went into bat at number 8.
The debutant negotiated the first two balls successfully before getting off the mark with his third. He then went mad, batting like a man possessed! Who knows what was going through Harold’s mind? Maybe he accepted that this was likely to be his only appearance for Somerset and was going to make the most of it and play his natural game? Maybe it was the cold, biting wind and he was just trying to keep warm? Maybe he was sticking an invisible middle finger to those who had rejected him a few days before? Whatever it was that motivated him it made him magnificent.
His 50 came with a six after just 28 minutes off 33 balls. He watched Wellard and Luckes lose their wickets with the score on 176 for 7 and then, with the score at 228 for 8, when Bill Andrews stepped into the fray and also hit powerfully, helping himself to 71 runs.
Gimblett scored 99 runs in just 55 minutes. He was then marooned at the non-striker’s end for three overs in ten minutes before he made it to three figures and into the history books.
Gimblett’s century in just 65 minutes was the fastest of the season and was made out of 130 runs added while he had been at the wicket. He finished with 123 in 80 minutes hitting 3 sixes and 17 fours.
Somerset’s total was 337 and they then bowled out Essex for 141 and 147 to win the match by 49 runs with an innings to spare.
Wisden said of Gimblett in their obituary of him in 1979: “The start of his career was so sensational that any novelist attributing it to his hero would have discredited the book.”
Gimblett retained his place for the next match, against Middlesex at Lord’s, but only because of another injury to a regular player, and though he top-scored with 53 in the second innings (still batting at number 8), he suffered an injury missing the next month and playing out the season with little success.
But he grew to be Somerset’s greatest batsman, particularly after the war winning the Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1952.
I wonder if that lorry driver ever later recognised the impact he unwittingly had on the future of cricket in Somerset?
Harold was briefly an international player when selected for the England team for the first Test of the 1936 series against India at Lords. He opened the batting with Yorkshire’s Arthur Mitchell and scored 11 in England’s first innings of 134 chasing 147. The home team then managed to remove the Indians for 93 and in response England scored 108 for 1 to win by 9 wickets. Harold scored his highest Test score of 67 not out.
But he only played two more Test matches scoring just 51 more runs in three innings.
It was around this time in 1936 that Harold’s depressive illness first became evident. He reacted badly to scathing criticism for a dropped catch in the Old Trafford Test. When he was dropped for the final Test he said to all who knew him: “Thank goodness that’s over!”
But he took the rejection by England personally and his illness was compounded by being constantly overlooked by England later in his career when his form was as good as any on the county circuit.
His Somerset team-mates also saw a complex character. The smiling face, witty jokes and booming laugh were a positive front for a man who would often act in a morose way, worrying about money, health and class. They witnessed his depression most often after his being out. In one game Gimblett struck an exceptional 60 or so and the crowd oozed with admiration. But the man at the centre of this adulation sat in the changing room sulking, talking only of failure to those that had marvelled at his brilliance.
They asked him: “If you hate being out so much then why play with such reckless abandon?”
In later life Harold approached the author David Foot to write a book about his life. Foot agreed and the two shared many hours talking to a tape machine while Harold reminisced about the past. From these tapes came Foot’s book “Harold Gimblett: Tormented Genius of Cricket”.
It was a fitting description of a great man; an extrovert on the field but such a complex and troubled man off it. The book is highly recommended but it has to be said can be a hard read at times and not always enjoyable. When the final chapter is finished the reader can feel more than a sense of sadness.
The book brilliantly portrays Harold’s woes and the following is transcribed from the book.
“I’m in a tunnel that has no end – and no light. There is no point in continuing to struggle against the odds … The psychiatrists don’t know what is wrong with me and there is nothing they can do in any case. Now I know what my father went through – I inherited it from him. The only thing I could do was play cricket and they threw me back into the first-class game, after my earliest breakdown, before I was ready… I get more and more depressed. The only peace of mind is when I go to bed with a very heavy dose of tablets.” *
Harold could cope with being a high profile cricketer no more and effectively walked out of his contract with Somerset midway through 1954. When he returned to Taunton to watch a game later in the season he was ordered to leave the ground and reportedly manhandled out by club stewards.
After finishing with first-class cricket he played pro for Ebbw Vale CC in south Wales and worked at Millfield School. But his behaviour was erratic and he fell out with those at Millfield in the same fashion as those at the County Ground. But he made his peace with Somerset helping out with fund raising and hospitality on match days when his moods allowed him.
He retired to find peace, initially to Minehead then later to a mobile home in Verwood, Dorset. But tragically he didn’t find the solace he craved for.
On 30th March 1978 he was found in bed by his wife, Rita, who he had married in 1938. He had taken an overdose of sleeping tablets. They had one son.
He is probably the greatest west countryman to play for the county and as Exmoor and Somerset as one could be. Consider that Palairet was from Lancashire, Botham born in Cheshire, Viv heralded from the island of Antigua, Wellard was from Kent, Woods was Dublin born and raised in Australia and even Marcus was born in Keynsham which is south Bristol (if you want to be really pedantic!).
100 years after his birth people still talk about Gimblett the farmer’s boy from sleepy Bicknoller that went on to play at the highest level for England.
His legacy rages on. This was the man who put Somerset on the cricket map, the showman that lit up even the darkest day with his batting by developing a brand of attacking batting that had even the cricket purists gasping for air and was the precursor for all the great showmen that followed, years ahead of twenty over cricket that now leads the world for entertainment.
And people will talk about his debut back in 1935 when folklore was formed on a freezing cold day in Frome for another 100 years.
And many more.