Six feet tall and, in his prime, fourteen stone of pure muscle, he was a phenomenon who transcended the sport of cricket. His prowess and will to win were matched by his generous heart. Sam played the game and lived his life with fearless abandon. A sometimes erratic but penetrating fast bowler with an ungainly action, and an attacking batsman, he was also a superb close fielder.
Born in Ashfield, Sydney, on 13 April 1867, he was sent to England, in order to benefit from an education in the mother country. His parents had emigrated from Ireland and had made a tidy sum from part-ownership of a paper mill and some shrewd investments in land. The fortuitous Somerset connection was that Gilbert Burrington, bank manager of Fox, Fowler & Co.’s branch in Bridgwater, was appointed as young Sam’s guardian.
Sam first demonstrated his sporting prowess at Brighton College. He was accepted into Jesus College, Cambridge, entirely on the basis of sporting rather than academic ability. Stories of his lack of intellect are numerous and probably all apocryphal. On the basis of his performances at Cambridge, he was drafted into the Australian cricket team, for whom he played three times and he also made thirteen appearances as a wing forward for the England rugby team, some of them as captain. Later, he would be capped six times as an England cricketer. His exploits for Somerset are extraordinary and well-documented and on numerous occasions he proved the match-winner.
Woods spent much of his youth playing sport, partying and relating anecdotes, and very little of it applying himself to work or studies. In later life he watched sport, drank heavily, continued to relate anecdotes and failed to apply himself. Appointed as captain after Hewett’s departure, he led from the front and was an inspiration, but you can only win so many matches in this way. Captaincy demands considered strategies and disciplined application, both anathema to him.
Sam struggled to hold down any job for long. A couple of years as a bank clerk were not a success. Working for Hancock Breweries in Wiveliscombe and subsequently at the brewery attached to the George Hotel in Bridgwater, where he lodged, was probably more to his liking. For all his generosity, he rarely ever had to stump up for a round. Everyone wanted to show him their gratitude for the joy he had brought, which was why his waistline expanded in later years.
He tried to join up for the war but was refused, on the basis of his age and his rheumatism (which he blamed on having had to throw himself off a charging camel and breaking his leg in Egypt) but a friend secured him a commission with the Somerset Light Infantry depot near Taunton. He never saw active service. Chapman and Hall published his autobiography in 1925. A review asserts that he ‘is still probably the best known man in the West Country’, referring to ‘a body that could breakfast off hot lobster and audit ale and then take all ten wickets, and … a mind supremely untroubled by examinations’.
In later life, Sam resided in the George Hotel, in Taunton, owned by Somerset cricketer Ted Lock. In 1931, it was confirmed that he was suffering from cancer of the oesophagus. When he died on 30 April 1931, aged sixty-four, flags were lowered to half-mast as far away as The Oval. The Taunton streets were lined by the throng who mourned his passing.
He had never been married. Why would he have been? He was wedded, for better or for worse, in health and then in sickness, to his beloved Taunton and Taunton’s residents loved him with a passion.
Stephen Edden was born and brought up in the Taunton area and began watching Somerset in 1963. After retiring from a career in business, he is now a writer. He has just completed a set of biographies of the 167 players who appeared for Somerset CCC in the County Championship up to 1914 and he hopes that the book will be published in 2016. He’s already started to repeat the exercise for the men who played first-class cricket for Somerset in the 1880s and is always on the look-out for early photographs or documents.