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‘At Lord’s’

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Poetry is something I’ve always had mixed feelings about. The famous romantic poets and the likes of Tennyson, Wordsworth and the like have seldom done much for me. I think it is probably a question of subject matter as the only poems I have enjoyed and seen the genius of are the war sonnets of the likes of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. Cricket, by far my favourite subject when it comes to choosing reading material, has always struck me as a subject not suited to verse and whilst there are plenty who disagree with me, evidenced by the not inconsiderable number of publications that are devoted to the subject, my opinion has never been swayed.

The above said over the years I have found many situations where the phrase ‘it’s the exception that proves the rule’ can be deployed, and the question of cricket poetry is one such, the famous words of Francis Thompson being those I have in mind;

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,

Though my own red roses there may blow;

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,

Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.

For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,

And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,

And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host

As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,

To and fro;

O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!

Those famous lines are known to anyone who has embarked on any serious reading about nineteenth century English cricket and indeed have gone so far as to provide or inspire titles for three cricket books. First came The Field is Full of Shades by poet Gerald Martineau in 1946, although that book was a collection of pen portraits of the ancients of the game rather than of poetry. Many years later, in 1989, academic social historian Eric Midwinter titled his history of the Lancashire club, Red Roses Crest the Caps, and most recently Dan Waddell looked to At Lord’s for the title of his account of a club tour of Nazi Germany in 1937, Field of Shadows.

The men immortalised in At Lord’s are the Lancashire opening batsmen Albert Neilson ‘Monkey’ Hornby and Richard Gorton Barlow. The two men could not have been more different. Hornby was a dashing and impulsive amateur batsmen who made his Lancashire debut at 20 in 1867 against Yorkshire, and did not play his last match for the county until the summer of 1899. Barlow was also 20 when he began, again in a Roses match, in his case in 1871, and he played for the county for 20 years. Barlow, in contrast to but clearly complementing Hornby had almost infinite patience at the crease and eschewed all risk. He was just as miserly with the ball, maintaining a career economy rate of 1.90 with his left arm medium pace. Both men were capped by England, Hornby three times and Barlow seventeen.

Hornby was a fortunate man. Born into a mill owning family in Blackburn neither money nor a need to earn a living were ever an issue for him. He was educated at Harrow and was destined for Oxford until he realised that would involve some small amount of studying. The man himself wanted nothing more than to stick to sporting endeavours, so gave higher education a miss.

A short man Hornby became a stocky and powerful one although when he first made a mark on the cricket field at Harrow he was said to weigh less than six stone, bat included! His well known nickname was acquired because of the immense power Hornby could deploy for a man of such limited stature. Above all he was always highly competitive, and he excelled at many sports other than cricket. He was capped nine times by England’s Rugby Union selectors and played a few games of soccer, including the first match the club ever played, for Blackburn Rovers. He was also a fine horseman and a good shot. He was not a man to be trifled with either as he was a keen boxer, sparring on more than one occasion with professional fighters, most notably former champion Jem Mace.

Although he was a wealthy amateur and his Test record of 21 runs in six innings suggests otherwise Hornby was a decent batsman. Between 1870 and 1881 Hornby, doing so seven times, was the only Lancastrian to score a century. In 1881 alone he made three hundreds and with more than 1,500 at an average of more than 40 he was the leading batsman in the country. Twice in that summer he scored more runs off his own bat in one visit to the crease than Lancashire’s opposition did in two completed innings.

In looking at Hornby’s achievements in 1881 it is worth remembering that both his aggregate and average comfortably exceeded those of a 33 year old WG Grace at a time when conditions were nothing like as favourable to batsmen as they would be in the ‘golden age’. Once that period began, around 1890, Hornby had decided to drop himself well down the order at Lancashire in order to give more opportunities to his younger batsmen – after succeeding to the captaincy in 1880 he might have been an autocrat, but he was never selfish and certainly didn’t play for his average.

Hornby’s first Test match was during the 1878/79 winter and was therefore only the third Test match ever played. The England side was captained by Lord Harris and, containing as it did just two professionals, Yorkshiremen Tom Emmett and George Ulyett, could never be considered as being truly representative of the full strength of England. The side lost the only Test, played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, by ten wickets with Hornby contributing just two and four. The most memorable involvement of Hornby in the tour came in a match at the Sydney Cricket Ground when, the crowd, displeased at a decision made by one of the umpires, came on to the pitch and troubled ensued. There is perhaps no better illustration of Hornby’s character than what he did, grabbing a stump and going to the defence of the umpire, arresting his assailant and then, despite picking up a number of blows himself, not relaxing his grip on the man until he was able to hand him over to the custody of the police.

The second of Hornby’s three Tests was the only such match played by the Australians on their 1882 tour of England and as such is one of the most famous of all. This time Hornby, after his wonderful summer in 1881, was invited to lead England. It was a task he was happy to accept, and in doing so he lead a very strong team including, making his Test bow in England, Barlow. Hornby lost the toss and Australia batted first but, Barlow to the fore in taking 5-19 from 32 four ball overs, were dismissed for just 63. Hornby let Barlow go in first with WG and held himself back to number ten. He would have been a little disappointed when England were all out just before the close for 101, but in a low scoring match a lead of 38 was certainly worth having. Barlow scored 11 and Hornby just two.

The match finished the next day. Australia were only able to set England a target of 85. This time Hornby opened up with WG. He was bowled by Fred Spofforth for nine with the score on 15, and Barlow departed the same way from the very next delivery. After that however the good Doctor and ‘Happy Jack’ Ulyett took the score to 51-2 before Spofforth and Harry Boyle turned the game on its head and took the remaining eight wickets to give Australia a seven run victory. It was after this match that the famous mock obituary of English cricket appeared in The Sporting Times.

When Ivo Bligh followed the Australians back down under for the winter of 1882/83 and drew a four match series 2-2 a bail was famously burned and its ashes placed in the small terracotta urn that is so well known today. Hornby did not tour with Bligh. He was however back, and as skipper, for the first Test of the 1884 series. After scoring nought and four in a rain affected draw that Australia had the better of he left the Test arena, to be replaced for the remaining two Tests of the summer by Harris.

The first of Barlow’s 17 Tests came in Australia in 1881/82. He didn’t travel with the 1884/85 team but that series apart played all his Tests consecutively. He never made a Test century, and indeed his only two fifties came in his first series, but he was a durable batsman at the top of the order and twice took seven wickets in an innings and is one of the few to have been selected for a Test match specifically to open both batting and bowling. He also played a great role in the third Test of Bligh’s series when his 7-40 hastened Australia’s demise as they capitulated in their second innings for just 83. With two useful contributions with the bat as well Barlow was presented with a silver cup, effectively the first man of the match award in a Test. The cup appeared at auction in 2017, selling for £35,000, well above the auctioneer’s estimate.

Barlow’s other great Test performance came in 1886. He started slowly, taking 1-19 in 23 overs in Australia’s first innings before anchoring England’s reply. Coming in at 109-4 he then carried his bat through for an unbeaten 38 as the lower order added 114 to give England a lead of 18. A haul of 7-44 in 52 overs helped restrict the fourth innings target to just 106, which was just as well as England lost six wickets in getting there, and without a steely 30 from the Lancastrian it might have been a repeat of 1882.

The run stealers famous partnership began in 1873, and the inspiration for the sobriquet was most certainly Hornby. Always looking for runs he needed little encouragement to go for the short single. Barlow rapidly got used to it, but Hornby was certainly not an infallible judge of a run and there were plenty of occasions when Barlow was run out, the blow softened a great deal by the sovereign that would generally be handed over by way of compensation.

As for Barlow he was much more circumspect and, on those occasions he survived his opening with Hornby, went on to carry his bat through a First Class innings on no less than ten occasions. In all cricket it was a feat he managed 53 times. The most interesting of those innings came against Nottinghamshire in 1876. Barlow carried his bat for 34 in an innings of 187 all out. When Hornby was out, for 44, Barlow was still not off the mark! Six years later, again at Trent Bridge, Barlow’s unbeaten score at the end of an innings of 69 was a mere five.

So what of the man who has made sure that the names of Hornby and Barlow are inseparable? Francis Thompson was the son of a Preston doctor, born in 1859. He was brought up as a Roman Catholic and packed off to a seminary in the North East of England at 11, an experience that doubtless helped shape his future path through life. Thereafter, no doubt again through paternal influence after being rejected for the priesthood, he went to Manchester University to study medicine. He never qualified. Thompson’s interests were in writing poetry and watching cricket and, having discovered the delights of opium he started to spend his time well away from his studies. He slept on park benches, read poetry in the public library and spent his summer days at Old Trafford.

There is no record of Thompson, nor indeed any member of his family, playing the game but he was passionate about watching cricket and about the statistics and numbers that are such an important part of it. By the mid 1880s he had drifted southwards to London where he lived the life of a vagrant. He sold matches and newspapers and carried out other menial tasks in order to fund his addiction. When ejected from public libraries he slept rough. Occasionally he would interest people in his writings and, for a while, there would be benefactors who would try and assist him to make the most of his talents, but he generally tossed them aside before very long.

In 1888 a serial killer known to this day as ‘Jack the Ripper’ stalked the streets of East London and, over a three month period, five women were brutally murdered. The crimes were never solved and in recent years the theory has been expounded, based on his medical training, presence in London at the time and the dark content of some of his contemporary work that Thompson was the culprit. He therefore joined a long list of suspects for the crimes, which includes another man with significant cricketing links, barrister Montague Druitt.

Eventually Thompson found a stabilising influence. He managed to get a few scraps of his work to Wilfrid Meynell, the editor of a Catholic journal, who was sufficiently impressed to take the wayward soul into his home. With the support of his wife Alice, another poet, Meynell supervised Thompson’s change from the pitiful wretch he had first met to a creative if still somewhat eccentric character. He always wore an overcoat, even in summer, and whilst he would sometimes keep appointments he would usually be very early or very late for any commitment.

In time Thompson moved on from the Meynells. He would spend time in Catholic retreats, not always in London, and took lodgings at times. He never sunk so low as he had in his youth and did acquire, thanks to Meynell, a certain reputation as a minor poet who later turned to writing prose. He never entirely shook off his drug dependency however, nor did he enjoy the best of health and he died of tuberculosis in 1907 at the age of 47, his final days spent in a hospital little more than a stone’s throw from Lord’s.

At Lord’s was not published until after Thompson’s death. The story of how it came to be written is that a friend, concerned at his low mood, gave Thompson a ticket to watch Middlesex play Lancashire in the hope that the experience would lift his spirits. The tale goes on to record that in the end Thompson could not face the emotion that renewing his acquaintance with the county game would cause, and that he stayed at home and wrote the poem instead.

Exactly when the poem was written is not known, but it seems highly likely to have been the summer before Thompson died. Certainly it was towards the very end of his life. What can be deduced without any doubt is the memory that inspired it. The poem consists of four stanzas, the first being repeated at the end. The other two verses are, in terms of quality, lacking in comparison with the unforgettable words quoted, and indeed did not even appear in the first published version, but they contain the evidence of the match that Thompson was remembering. It was played in 1878, and was the first ever match between Lancashire and Gloucestershire. The match ended in an honourable draw. WG Grace starred for the visitors and there was a solid performance from older brother EM, and a less substantial role for the younger brother GF. For the home side the run stealers put up an opening partnership of 108 before Barlow was out for 26. Hornby went on to make exactly 100.

Dick Barlow left the county game at the age of forty. He had done well financially, setting up a sports outfitting business with outlets in Manchester and Blackpool. In the seaside town he also build a substantial residence and enjoyed all the trappings of success. Despite his financial stability Barlow never stopped working and was clearly something of a workaholic. The business remained, though it seems that due to his other commitments it was unlikely Barlow had too much day to day involvement. For three seasons Barlow continued to play professionally in the Leagues, and then from 1894 he became a First Class umpire. He stood once in a Test and, although he had been in failing health for some time, was umpiring a Championship match between Yorkshire and Gloucestershire a week before his death at the age of 68 in 1919.

Although Barlow’s senior by four years Hornby outlived his old opening partner by five years. In view of the energy he expended through most of his life Hornby’s was a sad decline as, at 76, he was pretty much an invalid and his faculties were also on the wane. In the manner of the times ‘senile decay’ was given as one of the causes of death, along with heart failure. His obituary in the Guardian contained a line that would doubtless have appealed to him as well as Barlow, and indeed Francis Thompson; Although when Hornby was at the wicket nobody could be certain what was about to happen, the one thing we could be pretty sure was, sooner or later, Barlow would be run out.

 

 

 

 

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