Northamptonshire CCC and the First World War

By Andrew Radd

As the country pauses to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War – at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 – Northamptonshire County Cricket Club also remembers with pride its players who served in the conflict, and especially the three who didn’t return.

Their names appear on the club’s war memorial in the small, peaceful garden close to the Lynn Wilson Indoor Centre.  The four-year conflict had a profound impact on this club, as it did on every other facet of life in Britain and far beyond.

When the war began on August 4, 1914, the cricket season was in full swing, with Northamptonshire in the middle of a home County Championship match against Leicestershire.  The British government’s ultimatum to Kaiser Wilhelm expired at 11pm on the Tuesday night, after the second day’s play; the local press criticised the ‘drunken patriots and hobbledehoys’ who filled the streets when the news reached the town.  Strangely, at least to modern eyes, the match at Wantage Road resumed next day (after a hold-up for rain) with the visitors struggling at 11-3 after being left to score just 84 for victory.  Northamptonshire shaded victory by four runs in a thrilling finish – helped by the absence of Leicestershire batsman Aubrey Sharp who had received a telegram ordering him to re-join his regiment.  “You’ll be back in a fortnight,” shouted some of the spectators as he left the ground.  He did come back, happily, but it took rather longer.

The Championship season drifted on for another month, drawing sharp criticism from the likes of WG Grace who insisted in a letter to The Sportsman: ‘It is not fitting at a time like this that able-bodied men should be playing cricket by day and pleasure-seekers looking on.’  He urged cricketers ‘of suitable age’ to do the decent thing and join the colours.  Northamptonshire finished their programme at Old Trafford on Monday August 31, as fighting raged on both the Western and Eastern Fronts.

NCCC officials weren’t entirely sure what to do next, apart from deciding that no retaining fees could be paid to the club’s professionals during wartime.  Northamptonshire had relied heavily again on the generosity of Lord Lilford – who donated £500 – to see them through the 1914 season financially, and a special meeting in November revealed total debts of around £2,600.  On the assumption that no county cricket would be played in 1915, members were asked to pay their regular subscription plus an extra donation of ten shillings to enable the club to clear its financial liabilities by the start of 1916.  ‘This small sacrifice the members will gladly make,’ declared the Northampton Mercury, optimistically.  There was a commitment to organise a few Club and Ground matches ‘to encourage young cricketers as far as possible.’

But what of the players who’d appeared for Northamptonshire in 1914?  A national newspaper reported approvingly in December that both former skipper T.E. ‘Tim’ Manning and batsman Claud ‘Dick’ Woolley were already serving in the forces.  Manning’s military career was put on hold briefly in 1915 when he suffered a head injury while playing polo.  All-rounder Sydney Smith, captain that summer, secured release from his clerical duties at Wantage Road to take up a job with a bank in Ipswich, and sailed for New Zealand the following year ‘without communicating his intentions’ according to the committee minutes.  He settled there and was still turning out for Auckland in the mid-1920s.

As a regular soldier, James Henry Aloysius Ryan from Roade – who made eight County appearances, the last of them against Somerset in June 1914, and also played for Ireland against the touring South Africans in 1912 – sailed for France in the first week of the war, serving with The King’s (Liverpool) Regiment.  Early in 1915, aged 22, he was awarded the Military Cross ‘for gallantry and great ability’ and promoted to Captain.  But in the bloody attack on Hill 70 at Loos that September he was killed in action, the club’s first casualty.  ‘I don’t believe anyone else could have led his men across that terrible piece of ground,’ wrote a fellow officer to his parents, living at Tilecote (later Tylecote) House in his home village.  ‘But they would follow him anywhere.’  James’s father, Doctor Walter Ryan, had played for Northamptonshire back in the 1880s and 1890s.

Cricket continued at Wellingborough School in 1915 with S.T. ‘Tommy’ Askham and A.D. ‘Don’ Denton very much to the fore.  Born a few weeks and few miles apart – Askham in Wellingborough, Denton (younger brother of the famous cricketing twins, Jack and Billy) in Rushden – their playing careers followed very similar paths.  Denton made his first-class debut for Northamptonshire against Sussex in late-July 1914, scoring an unbeaten 51; when he was forced to miss the next match (the momentous one at home to Leicestershire) to represent The Rest against Lord’s Schools at Headquarters, Askham was drafted in to take his place.  Both were county cricketers at the age of 17, and both joined the army as soon as they were able – Askham foregoing his scholarship to Cambridge University.  Commissioned in the Suffolk Regiment, he was ordered to lead one of two platoons in a night-time trench raid at the height of the Battle of the Somme in August 1916, near the village of Beaumont Hamel.  The operation quickly descended into chaos as the party encountered a German patrol in the darkness, and in the confusion Tommy Askham was killed, a few weeks short of his 20th birthday.  His body was never found and he is commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval.  The grim news soon reached his family home on Castle Street in Wellingborough, just around the corner from his old school.  Two years later his brother Willie became another war casualty.

Don Denton, serving in the Royal West Kent Regiment, was reported to be ‘recovering from an attack of trench fever’ in November 1916.  The following summer – on July 24, 1917 – he was badly wounded in action and had to have a leg amputated below the knee.  ‘The future of county cricket is uncertain, especially in Northamptonshire,’ wrote a local journalist at the time, ‘but the game is bound to be much more of a game for the amateur than it has been in the past, and Lieutenant Denton was one of the men of whom great things were hoped.’  Remarkably, and courageously, he played three first-class matches after the war with the aid of an artificial limb and a runner.  Permission for the latter was requested from opposing teams, and in the circumstances no-one was remotely likely to refuse it.

Away from the fighting, Northamptonshire suffered further heavy blows in these dark years.  Within a few weeks of each other, early in 1916, the club lost three of its most loyal supporters; Sir Herewald Wake of Courteenhall, a key figure in the purchase and preparation of the County Ground in the 1880s, Bertie Wentworth Vernon, Squire of Stoke Bruerne and a generous benefactor, and committee member John Hume Smith of the Oundle Brewery.  Smith’s only son was killed in the early weeks of the war, back in September 1914; it was said he never really recovered from the blow.  In 1917 two former players, Roger Hawtin and Lancelot Driffield, died of natural causes in their thirties.  A stalwart of the pre-war County side, Billy East, spent much of this period in and out of hospital as his own health deteriorated.  He never appeared for Northamptonshire again but the club gave him employment as an odd-jobs man, umpire and subscriptions collector (on commission) up to his death in 1926.

East’s cricketing brother-in-arms for so many seasons, George Thompson, was nearly 37 when war broke out.  In the summer of 1916 he was running a dairy business in Leamington and was granted a three-month exemption from military service by the local tribunal.  At the end of that he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery, rising to the rank of Sergeant, but an injury in training necessitated surgery in Winchester and by the end of the war he was reported to be dangerously ill with pneumonia – his wife Charlotte moving down there to be with him.  After a lengthy convalescence (he was still walking with sticks when county cricket resumed in 1919) he was able to pick up his career with Northamptonshire for a couple of seasons before retiring in 1922.  Thompson’s Northamptonshire team-mate John Seymour also applied for exemption in 1916 on the grounds that his work as a farmer was ‘of vital importance’ – but the tribunal disagreed.

The military authorities used the County Ground from 1915 and proved stubbornly resistant when it came to paying compensation (or even making good the £82 worth of damage caused by a fire for which they were responsible), despite much chivvying from the club over the next few years.  The committee was also having to deal with an ongoing spat involving the tenant of the County Hotel – Mr Marriott – who demanded a substantial reduction in his rent for the duration and to keep the billet money paid for accommodating soldiers.  With the club’s own bills pressing it was suggested that sheep should be grazed on the ground, especially after the Petrol Committee refused to allocate any precious fuel for the mower.  But the old place still welcomed crowds on occasions – not least in August 1916 when it staged a ‘Grand Military Torchlight Tattoo’ with more than 400 torch-bearers including representatives of the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and Church Lads’ Brigade.

And then there was the rugby.  Not a game usually associated with the County Ground, around 5,000 spectators packed in to watch servicemen from New Zealand and South Africa play a match there in December 1917 in memory of Lieutenant-Colonel Edgar Mobbs, killed four months earlier.  The New Zealanders won 14-nil and a good sum was raised for the Northamptonshire Prisoners of War Fund.  The first ‘official’ Mobbs Memorial Match was staged in 1921 and the fixture survives to this day.  On Boxing Day – with frost still in the ground – an Australian side beat their rivals from across the Tasman Sea by 16 points to 3, the Kiwi contingent taking the field in East Midlands jerseys having lost their kit en route, and in March 1918 teams representing the Army and Navy also met there – the senior service winning comfortably – before being entertained to dinner at the Peacock Hotel.

Welcome though these diversions must have been, there was no escaping the grim realities of war.  During the German offensive in the spring and early-summer of 1918 Corporal Charles Bryan Tomblin from the village of Walgrave died of his wounds whilst serving with the 2nd Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment at Sissonne.  His name is one of 164 listed at the British Cemetery there.  Tomblin made two first-class appearances for Northamptonshire, against Kent and Sussex in June 1914, and also turned out for the County’s Second XI.  Around the same time as Tomblin’s death, the Denton family home (‘Eastfields’ in Rushden) received more bad news – the twins, Jack and Billy, had been posted missing in action.  It transpired they had been taken prisoner in France and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp on an island in the Baltic, returning home via Denmark at New Year 1919.  Two other Northamptonshire players were also captured; Mark Cox, who was a member of the side in the club’s inaugural first-class fixture at Southampton in 1905, and Rushden’s Sid King. 

In August, William ‘Bumper’ Wells – the popular fast bowler and big-hitter from Daventry – was gassed and brought home to England for treatment at Duston War Hospital in Northampton.  Thankfully he recovered and was able to resume his playing career when peace came.  For others, the effects of war service stayed with them for the rest of their lives.  Henry Benjamin Simpson, a master at Wellingborough School who played eight matches for the County between 1905 and 1911, suffered severe shell-shock as a Captain in the Northamptonshire Regiment and was invalided home in 1916.  Never robust in health thereafter, he died following a stroke at his home in Chelveston a few years later, aged only 45.   

The end of the war – ‘after 1,561 days’ according to the Northampton Daily Echo – was greeted with joy and relief across the county.  Meanwhile, Northamptonshire CCC’s committee gathered on November 22 for its first peacetime meeting since 1914.  It’s inconceivable that the thoughts of those present would not have turned to the men the club had lost.  But they also looked to the future, welcoming a scheme proposed by W.H. Holloway – editor of the Northampton Independent newspaper – for raising £3,000 to fund the County’s return to first-class cricket.  In the event it didn’t realise quite that much, but most of the debts were cleared and a Northamptonshire team duly took the field against Lancashire at Wantage Road on June 4, 1919.  The torch had been passed on.