The Life and Times of a Great Victorian Sporting Hero: Albert Neilson Hornby

Published: 2022
Pages: 300
Author: Hoole, WH and Wall, Peter
Publisher: Max Books
Rating: 3.5 stars

For a biographer ‘Monkey’ Hornby is not a subject whose story lacks interest. A 5’ 3” and 13 stone pocket battleship of a man he captained England at cricket and Rugby Union, played soccer for Blackburn Rovers, boxed, rode, shot and enjoyed a privileged life in Cheshire as a member of a family whose wealth came from the cotton mills of the North West of England.

Against that background it is not surprising that Hornby has featured in books before. In fact one of the co-authors of this one, WH Hoole, published The Cricketing Squire back in 1991. It is one of the not inconsiderable number of books that I have a copy of but have not read, so I will comment no further on that one. The other, by Stuart Brodkin and part of the ACS Lives in Cricket series, we reviewed here. The clue there is in the series title and, decent read that Brodkin’s book is, by its nature it concentrates on Hornby’s cricket.

Mention of the name of Hornby to any cricket lover with a soul brings to mind the famous poem of Francis Thomson in which Hornby shares the most famous line in cricketing poetry with his Lancashire opening partner, Dick Barlow. That has also led Hornby, primarily the cricketing Hornby, to play a significant part in a couple of other recent books; Keith Hayhurst’s The Story of a Stained Glass Window and Kenneth Shenton’s biography of Thompson which uses that classic line for its title, Oh My Hornby and My Barlow Long Ago, both also published by Max Books.

So there is plenty of scope for a comprehensive life of Hornby and, at more than 300 A4 sized pages perhaps this one is it? It isn’t however, and in fact other than what it is not, which is a biography, it is not a book that is easy to categorise. Indeed if I did not know better, that the ‘scrapbook’ format is a deliberate one, I would be inclined to think that what I had was a comprehensive set of research material that was ready to be written up.

There is some narrative in the book, though all are self-contained pieces of writing none of which are lengthy. There are a vast number of images, some of photographs, others of diary entries, press cuttings and other items of memorabilia. The fact that Hornby’s sporting achievements are what he is remembered for today means that sporting themes crop up at regular intervals. As important however are the other roles of Hornby and the various members of his extended family, and what they accomplished in their various fields of endeavour and their influence in or around the area in which they lived.

The question therefore has to be asked as to whether this unconventional approach works? Books without any sort of pagination are unusual for a start, and in addition there is no list of contents or index, and whilst the reader eventually gets used to the way in which the material is presented the approach is unusual even for a scrapbook.

But there are also advantages. Without a detailed narrative to follow and with a vast quantity of illustrative material the book is one that can be picked up and read for just a few minutes, that being plenty of time in which to pick up on some aspect of Hornby’s life and times that has never really been dealt with in any of the other books on his life.

Something else that the scrapbook approach makes much more bearable is the variable quality of the images that are reproduced. It must be that the poor quality of the originals hampered the publisher’s efforts, but in a different kind of book this would certainly have been more of a disappointment than it is, the haphazard and at times distinctly eccentric style of the scrapbook admirably suiting the approach taken.

It must also be borne in mind that this is a bulky volume, and one that would, had it been published in a different way, doubtless have ended up with a prohibitive price tag. As it is at £40 a copy it is still not cheap but, appearing as it does in a limited edition of just 50 copies, this interesting and entertaining book is well worth acquiring.

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