When Stephen Hill first contacted me looking for help to compile a book about Somerset County Cricket Club, I thought he must be mad. No disrespect intended, but considering his target was to write about all 227 players who represented the cider county from 1882 – 1914 you realise that this was no small task. The book would have short biographies of the lives and times of all Somerset players from this era, however brief or extended that career may have been. To add to that he was seeking pictures and autographs of every player too.
So can you see why I was initially dismissive?
But he achieved his target, along with trusted friend and fellow Somerset historian, Barry Phillips (author of the brilliant book No Mere Slogger, the Arthur Wellard autobiography). The two spent hours sitting in libraries and museums, trawling through archives, old newspapers, birth certificates, marriage certificates, school records, military records – you name it! And the result was to the gain of every Somerset fan who loves to turn the clock back and read about the club’s illustrious and – more times than not – not so illustrious past. Somerset Cricketers 1882 – 1914 was published in 2016 and is a fantastic read and a worthy addition to any fans book collection. The book is still available at Amazon.
But, undeterred by all those hours of painstaking research, the deadly duo were soon at it again. This time the focus was on the 124 players who first appeared for Somerset after the 1914 – 1918 war and the result is a second book, Somerset Cricketers 1919 – 1939 and it is another belter of a read.
I spoke to the writing partners about the pains and gains of such projects.
Stephen, what gave you the idea and incentive of writing such a detailed analysis of Somerset CCC from a time when records and information was in such short supply?
SH: I’ve always been a fan of Somerset CCC, ever since I started going to see them regularly in 1963 and I’ve also always loved history, particularly the lives of ordinary people. I guess that’s because I’m pretty ordinary myself, having been born and brought up on a council estate in Bishops Lydeard. My parents were teachers at Kingsmead in Wiveliscombe. After working in business for many years, I’ve had the luxury of being able to write of late. They say you should write about the things you know about and/or are passionate about and I’d been leafing through Eddie Lawrence’s tome with images and topline details for Somerset players. Eddie had put heart and soul into it and deserves huge credit for his achievements but I was frustrated that I couldn’t find out much about the lives of the men who’d appeared for the county. That was the spark that led me to find out about the lives of every man who’s ever played for Somerset and to track down their image and their autograph.
You and Barry must have realised this was going to be a lengthy project with much frustration?
SH: To be honest, I started off with zero knowledge. I’d heard of the likes of Lionel Palairet and Sam Woods (who hated being referred to as ‘Sammy’, by the way!) but not much else. After about six months, I was beginning to wonder if this would remain forever a work in progress. Then I noticed that a guy had been dealing in Somerset cricket memorabilia on eBay and clearly knew his stuff and because they’re really protective about identity, I had to send him a convoluted message saying something along the lines of ‘Sorry I have no idea who you are but this is what I’m trying to do and please could you contact me at consult followed by a full stop followed by steve followed by the at sign etc etc’ and Barry being a bright chap worked it out and dropped me a line, immediately. I was a bit nervous about how he’d respond but he was intrigued by what I’d unearthed and quickly got swept up in the whole project and it’s definitely the case that there’s no way I could ever have progressed things much further if he hadn’t come on board. I think our skills complement one another but we both love the whole process of sleuthing and sniffing around in unexpected places for the right info. Barry’s much better than me at brazenly knocking on people’s doors and announcing himself, too. I’m the shy one! You ask about the level of frustration. Yes, there was lots. We sat down near the end of the process and calculated that if you looked at birth and death dates and places and names, then nearly a quarter of the information for the pre-1914 period was incorrect. So you can imagine the number of blind alleys we went down along the way!
BP: I remember the ebay message well and most of the 10,000 or so emails that have passed between us since! I thought Steve was being ambitious but nonetheless offered to help in any way I could. I have collected Somerset memorabilia, particularly autographs and photographs, for as long as I can remember (my first autograph was from Peter Burge when the 1956 Australians came to Taunton), so I knew that I could help Steve with his project. I had also stalked quite a few inter-war cricketers during the 1990s as part of my research for the Arthur Wellard biography and had kept notes of my conversations which were useful. I have a lot of expertise in family research so that came in handy too. Had I known how much time, effort and expense would be involved in the three books I might have had second thoughts, but I am pleased with what we have achieved.
Looking at the first book, 1882 – 1914, where there any players that you thought you wouldn’t track down? Who were the hardest to find?
SH: I think the hardest one was ‘F. C. Roberts’. He’d been listed as ‘Frederick Charles Roberts’ and we spent ages chasing people in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and the USA and we were wondering if we’d be defeated when, in a last throw of the dice, we found a fleeting reference in an old nineteenth century Wellington School magazine, hidden away in the Somerset Heritage Centre. It mentioned the cricketing exploits of schoolmaster ‘F. Cramer Roberts’. We knew we’d struck gold but in terms of image, all we had was a school team photo. None of the players matched the grainy image in Eddie’s book (unsurprisingly as we found out, given that the guy in that book is actually a young G B Newport) but when we approached Shrewsbury School we found that they had an unnamed photo for the correct year when he played for them. We were then able to match the right man from the two sets of players. There were many other tricky ones where misinformation led us on wild goose chases. The likes of William Massey and R. E. T. Ingram (who for years had been incorrectly listed as P. R. Ingram) proved very problematical. I was rather sad that we had to rework the Ingram one as the misidentified man (who never played cricket) was a very interesting character who played a vital role in setting up the pre-cursor to the National Health Service.
There were some rewarding ones like unearthing the true identities of Gilbert Burrington, William Sloman or Alec Crowder, all of whom died tragically young.
BP: I am slightly obsessed with tragic lives and the ‘what might have been’ so cricketers like Burrington, Crowder, Sloman, Harold Hippisley and Percy Hardy resonate with me (F.M.McRae would do the same in book 2). Hubert Garrett was another cricketer who died tragically, and it was good to explode the long and widely-held belief that he was the son of the famous Australian Test player, something that became apparent from a visit to the National Archives in Kew Gardens. Our greatest achievement must be the discovery of an extra first-class cricketer in Arthur Bucknell. The statistician F.J. Gustard had made the mistake in 1925 of assuming the 10 matches played by a professional called Bucknell (they were never accorded their initials in those days) were down to one man whereas the matches were shared by two brothers, John and Arthur. It has taken almost a hundred years to correct Mr Gustard and we would have missed it too if I had not had a set of 1899 autographs in my collection and Steve had not noticed that Arthur not John had signed the sheet. It is something I had missed entirely, and it shows the value of our collaboration.
So having gone through all that pain, what made you go through it all again?
SH: Yes. Definitely. I’ve learned a lot and I don’t want to blow our trumpets too much but we were told that we’d taken Somerset from being probably the least well served county in terms of historical records to the best. But the best thing is the people we’ve met on the way. We’ve included them in the Acknowledgements but so many people have helped us, it feels like a communal effort. To be honest, when we’d finished the first book, we said that even if was never published, we would let the Somerset Cricket Museum have access to it all, as they’d been so helpful. When Halsgrove agreed to publish, that was a real thrill and made it seem even more worthwhile.
BP: I never went into this for personal reasons. This was not a vanity project. My objective has always been to add to the sum of knowledge about Somerset cricketers, to provide a definitive record that can be preserved for future generations. The Somerset Cricket Museum has done a great job and they have supported us all the way.
For this second book there are some major names, including Wellard, Gimblett, Luckes, Hazell and Longrigg. But you seem to take as much pleasure unearthing some of the lesser known names and this brings up some great stories. What are your favourites?
SH: You’re right. Tracking down the ‘one-match wonders’ is much more rewarding! I had a great time visiting Algy Bligh’s daughter, Heather, at her lovely manor house in Staple Fitzpaine. Algy was one of life’s great eccentrics and a gentle-natured man. Anyone who reads the biography in the book, will know what I mean! Heather was rightly still a bit sore that Peter Roebuck had maligned her father in ‘From Sammy to Jimmy’ but he wasn’t the only man to be castigated with withering asides based on no information! His history of the club is a great read but not always accurate! Peter Roebuck was a wonderful writer but tended to make ‘facts’ up as he went along to suit the narrative thread of the tale and throw in jokes at his subjects’ expense! Anyway, Heather was pleased to put the record straight and invited me to have a look through some of the materials she’d kept. I was taken to the dining room and there before me was an amazing collection of notebooks, photographs and letters covering Algy and the Bligh family. He was related to Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame and also Ivo Bligh who captained the England side who won back The Ashes. That trip will linger long in the memory.
An incredible number of families were hugely helpful. I remember wondering if we’d ever track down an image of Brian Gomm. He’d played football for West Brom and cricket for Somerset but no one seemed to have a clue what he looked like. (The image in Eddie Lawrence’s book was actually one of Boris Collingwood!) Then, from memory, Barry managed to track down his daughter via ancestry and facebook and she had a whole treasury of stuff including a fabulous head-and-shoulders of him in his West Brom shirt.
BP: There are some great characters in Book 2 and I was lucky to have known and conversed with quite a few of them, now sadly all passed on. Men like Trevor Jones, Jake Seamer, John Cameron, Thomas Garnett and Frank Irish come to mind. However, Arthur Wellard will always be my absolute favourite followed reasonably closely by Bill Andrews. Bill’s widow Ennyd Andrews was a huge help with the Wellard biography.
And, again, who were the real challenges to track down?
SH: I guess James Jones was the trickiest. Not only had he gained an incorrect middle initial in the archives but no one knew anything about his birth or death. All we had to go on was the odd snippet of information that Andrew Hignell, the Glamorgan archivist, had unearthed that he was at some point a publican in the Bristol area. Now, if you’ve ever tried to narrow down a ‘James Jones’ in the records, you’ll know that there are literally hundreds of options in the right ballpark. We were pretty confident (but not 100% sure) that the middle initial (given as M. on the archives) didn’t exist as we’d seen his autograph come up for auction and he’d just signed himself ‘J. Jones’. We did any number of searches on the newspaper archive and found a passing reference to ‘Jones the Chard professional’ being selected for Somerset. After some further searches, we managed to work out where he came from and got hold of his birth certificate. That confirmed that he was indeed plain ‘James Jones’. We then had to slowly work through all the Jones deaths until we found a handful that would have been born in the right year. Among them was one for the landlord of The Old Duke in Bristol and sure enough, the signature matched up and the will listed his son and daughter. Then we had a stroke of fortune. His son died quite recently and so we were able to contact the solicitor who dealt with probate for him and they generously agreed to pass on our request to Jim Jones’s daughter. She was brilliant and told us his life story and provided us with photos. Coincidentally, Andrew Hignell (the Glamorgan archivist) is Secretary of the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians and when they presented us with an award for the book, Andrew expressed himself gobsmacked that we’d cracked the details of a Somerset and Glamorgan wicketkeeper who’d eluded him!
The other tricky ones included about half a dozen players whose names were listed incorrectly in the archives. In most cases we were able to make contact with sons or daughters and they were absolutely delighted that their father had been restored to the records. The most poignant was probably William Ewart Berry (who had been listed as Wilfred Ernest Berry – completely the wrong guy). The correct player was a talented club cricketer who had taken his own life after suffering ill health and his son was really helpful, providing us with a rare and unseen image of his father. Similarly, identifying the real Cecil Leach and making contact with his daughter and daughter-in-law and seeing how much it meant to them was pretty special.
BP: Steve has pretty much covered it!
Are there any myths or stories being busted in this book, as there was in the first? If so, which?
SH: On some occasions, we’d felt like killjoys with the first volume. As a case in point, the folklore that a fifteen-year-old named ‘C. E. Winter’ had played for Somerset was proved to be nonsense and just another error. The real chap worked for Fox’s Woollen Mills and was the protégé of Harry Fox, who was a big-wig in the early days of Somerset cricket. We were surprised to find that even with the inter-War debutants there were lots of cases of mistaken identity. But it was also sometimes great to uncover a positive story. For example, Peter Roebuck had claimed that Sonny Ewens (real name Percival, but no one ever called him that) was a bankrupt who relied on the charity of others but he was in fact a wealthy man and a generous benefactor who bank-rolled the Baker Cup and owned Priory Park, where he let Taunton Town FC play without rent for many years.
BP: William Berry comes to mind but for sheer fictional qualities it’s Harry Pruett for me.
So what is next in the pipeline for you guys, either as a team or individually?
SH: The latest volume – Somerset Cricketers 1946-1970 – is currently with the publisher, Halsgrove, and will come out next year. Barry always said he’d take a back seat after 1970 but I know he’ll bale me out if I come unstuck. Somerset Cricketers 1971-2000 is going to be another team effort. Richard Isbell, a long-term fan of the club has already tracked down copies of every autograph for me and John Lee, a lifetime collector of memorabilia has unearthed loads of images, as has my brother, Phil, who works for the County Gazette …… but if anyone has high quality original images of any of the following (i.e., not just copies from books), please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org :
Richard Cooper, Mike Bryant, Simon Ferguson or Saqib Mahmood.
And if anyone knows the whereabouts of Saqib Mahmood, they’ll be able to save me weeks of searching!
BP: I have always been more interested in the distant past. There were so many characters in Somerset cricket but those days are long gone. I would find it hard to write about a modern cricketer who had followed playing cricket with coaching it or commentating on it. Where’s the story in that? So good luck to Steve but he knows he can count on my help with book 4. I am going back to my theme of tragic lives and there are few more interesting than Henry Thomas Stanley and his Quantock Lodge Cricket Club which flourished briefly for a little more than a decade in the 1890s. No-one will have heard of the club yet it featured the cream of Somerset cricket. It is a story of a bygone age, of privilege and vast wealth that ends in tragic circumstances. A story right up my street!
On behalf of Somerset fans, thanks for the books so far and we look forward to reading more in the future.
SH: Thanks for that, Steve. I hope we’ve brought pleasure to a few fans of this very special club – and the more you read about it you more you realise how special it is. I don’t think there’s much that can beat the feeling when someone writes or comes up to you and says they loved the books.
BP: I am excited about book 3 coming out next year. It has been a pleasure to be involved.
Somerset Cricketers 1919 -1939 is available at