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Frederick Ashley-Cooper: The Bibliophile’s Historian

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Rowland Bowen described Frederick Samuel Ashley-Cooper as the greatest cricket polymath – excluding always the actual practise and playing of the game – who has ever lived. Statisticians have Ashley-Cooper to thank for the groundwork that he did in that field, and similarly historians have cause to be grateful for the many discoveries that his diligent research made possible. His being an accomplished writer who was well able to document his work accurately was a great bonus. In addition over his lifetime Ashley-Cooper amassed a cricket library of upwards of 4,000 books and pamphlets. That would be an impressive number today. Back in the early 1930s, when only a handful of mainstream titles appeared each year, it must have been a remarkable collection.

Ashley-Cooper was born in Bermondsey in South East London in 1877. The family name was Cooper, the Ashley, being added by Ashley-Cooper as soon as he started venturing into print. His first contribution was a letter sent to Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game in 1896. His subject was a list of the grounds on which WG Grace had scored his runs. As far as Bowen’s rider is concerned there is no record that Ashley-Cooper ever played the game something explained by his never enjoying robust health. His afflictions included diabetes, nephritis and, in later life, alopecia.

Two generations before Frederick’s birth the Coopers seem to have been a farming family in Nottinghamshire, although clearly at some point Ashley-Cooper’s father moved south to London. He seems to be described as ‘gentleman’ when required to give an occupation so whilst the family does not seem to have been particularly affluent that description and having one servant and a private income suggests a degree of wealth.

The young Ashley-Cooper would no doubt have spent time at the Oval, and he undoubtedly knew the Surrey secretary, Charles Alcock, as a young man. He met the historian HT Waghorn, who worked at the British Museum, and clearly spent a great deal of time there. In time Ashley-Cooper wrote extensively for Alcock who began Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game, and soon afterwards he started working for Wisden where, by dint of sheer hard work, he turned the Cricket Records and Births and Deaths of Cricketers sections into the accurate and comprehensive resources that they became.

Only twice in his life did Ashley-Cooper move away from the work he loved. The first occasion was in 1907 when, following Alcock’s death, he took charge of Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game. There was no falling off in the quality of his contributions, but he did nothing to change the fortunes of a publication that was already past the peak of its popularity. 

After a war in which the absence of cricket and cricketing publications presumably made it more difficult for Ashley-Cooper to earn a living he applied for and was offered the position of Nottinghamshire secretary and returned to his family’s roots to do that job. The day to day business of running a county cricket club took Ashley-Cooper right out of his comfort zone, and by September of 1920 the committee were happy to accept his resignation. Ill health was cited as a factor and Ashley-Cooper and his wife returned south to Milford in Surrey where he went back to the research and writing that he loved so much.

A complete collection of Ashley-Cooper’s stand-alone publications would run to more than a hundred items. A list of those to which he had contributed but not been directly credited on would be much longer. In the main his books, and his contributions to those written by others were at their heart historical or statistical. He contributed to some famous publications as well, important histories of Kent, Middlesex, MCC, Surrey and Nottinghamshire amongst them. Ashley-Cooper was also heavily involved in ‘Plum’ Warner’s Imperial Cricket and, from Arthur Haygarth’s notes, he put together Volume XV of Scores and Biographies, albeit that was a book that contained no scores, simply biographies. 

There are two other books that I intend to mention, one relatively briefly, and the other, Cricket Highways and Byways, at much greater length. The latter is a fascinating collection of writings which deserves much greater recognition than it receives today. In short it is a classic, and should have a place in the collection of every cricketing bibliophile.

The book begins with a chapter entitled Three Great Players, and this demonstrates that in addition to being a historian Ashley-Cooper could write as well. The three are the old Notts batsman George Parr, and two Australians, Fred Spofforth and Victor Trumper. Ashley-Cooper described the latter as the beau ideal of a cricketer, alike in build, temperament and skill. He possessed a charming personality, which caused him to be the most loved, as he was certainly the most gifted, of all Australian batsman.

The second chapter is an illustration of the lengths that Ashley-Cooper would go to in his researches, and also his fondness for the unusual and the quirky. Winter Cricket does just what the title suggests, and scours history for details of cricket matches played in the depths of winter.

In An Old Cricketer’s Story Ashley-Cooper reflects on conversations with a man who had died in 1907, aged 89, and over his lifetime had seen many of the great players first hand. After that he goes back to historian mode with A Girdle Round the Earth, a look at cricket as it had been played outside its traditional heartlands.

From global history Ashley-Cooper then moves on to fiction, and a look at cricket in the work of Charles Dickens. From there his reader is treated to Some Notes on Old Time Cricket. This is exactly what it promises to be with Ashley-Cooper looking at many of the curious stories from the game’s past that his researches had uncovered, and choosing the most entertaining on which to dwell.

Chapters on The Cricket Bat and Umpires and Umpiring follow and, on page 159, there is proof positive that anyone can make a mistake, even Ashley-Cooper, where in error he refers to Essex when he actually meant Sussex. Such gremlins, and that is surely all it was, creep into most non-fiction books. There is nothing wrong with book reviewers picking up on errors in their reviews, and certainly when those are numerous and easily avoided criticism is warranted, but it does irritate me when some seem to take delight in dwelling at length on minor slips.

Cricket and the Church revisits the subject of one of Ashley-Cooper’s sought after limited editions, and from there he goes back to his quest for the obscure with a chapter on Slow Scoring in the Olden Times.

The most fascinating chapters in the book, dealing as they do with subjects that in those days were not frequently written about, are Cricket as a Hobby, which looks at the passion that so many who fail to excel on the field have for the game’s memorabilia, and Books and Writers, which requires no further elaboration. They are two chapters I have read several times, each time wistfully noting the value in 1926 of a set of Wisden, said to be between £100 and £150.

The book’s penultimate chapter is one dealing with more curious episodes, Some Memories of Minor Cricket, before it closes with a collection of interesting pieces of correspondence. My personal favourite of these is one from one Australian club secretary to another in 1899 in order to cancel a forthcoming match with the explanation; I am sorry to have to inform you that it is impossible for us to meet your club on Saturday. Our ground is situated on a gold field reserve and a rush took place on it last week. Our ground was pegged out, and is being sunk upon, so that it is totally unfit for play.

The other book that merits a paragraph of its own is the one full length biography that Ashley-Cooper wrote and which appeared in 1916, five years after its subject’s death. The title is Edward Mills Grace, Cricketer, and it is a thoroughly researched story of the life of a man who may always have been in the shadow of his younger sibling, but remains a most interesting character in his own right. The measure of the quality of Ashey-Cooper’s work is, perhaps, that despite the passage of more than a century since his book was published no other writer has felt it necessary to attempt to tackle the subject again.

Ashley-Cooper finally lost his battle with his health problems in January of 1932 when he died at his home in Milford at the age of just 54. A two-page obituary in Wisden was testament to how highly regarded he was in his field, and in the early 1960s his memory was revived as he became the subject of a spat between two of the more difficult cricketing men of letters, Bowen and Rosenwater. 

Tasked with writing an article about Ashley-Cooper for Bowen’s then fledgling Cricket Quarterly Rosenwater produced FS Ashley-Cooper: The Herodotus of Cricket, a piece of writing that is best described as a gushing tribute, and that from a man who was never slow to criticise when he felt criticism was due.

Unfortunately Bowen did not like what he received from Rosenwater. Whilst Bowen also held Ashley-Cooper in high regard he was not keen on his faults being glossed over in the way they were in Rosenwater’s effort. In particular Rosenwater had attached no importance to the failed time at the helm of Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game, nor to the unfortunate year spent as Notts secretary. In addition Bowen felt that Ashley-Cooper did make mistakes, and that on occasion he was not prepared to recognise them. 

As I noted earlier there cannot be anyone who has written about the history of cricket or its statistics who has not made the occasional error, and as I have illustrated Ashley-Cooper was no different so, in that respect, Bowen had a point. That said, certainly in the view of Notts’ current historian Peter Wynne-Thomas, who was responsible in 2003 for an excellent and easily obtainable booklet about Ashley-Cooper that was published by the ACS, Bowen did rather overplay his hand on that one.

The upshot of all this was that Bowen did not publish Rosenwater’s article, and went on to publish his own. Rosenwater’s piece instead appeared in the Journal of the Cricket Society and soon afterwards in one of the more desirable of Rosenwater’s privately published limited editions. Bowen and Rosenwater remained at odds for the remainder of Bowen’s life and, partly for that reason, remain the two most interesting historians of their era and, certainly in part based on their disagreement, Ashley-Cooper remains a ‘person of interest’ for anyone with a serious interest in cricket history.

And what of the momentous memorabilia collection? In the end it was purchased in its entirety by Sir Julien Cahn, then a great patron of the game. When Cahn died, in 1944, some of the collection went to the MCC but the bulk of it was scattered to the four winds following an auction that was poorly advertised and where many treasures were sold for nothing like what they were worth.

The main reason why Ashley-Cooper’s name is revered today amongst bibliophiles is how rare and collectable some of his work is. His books are desirable items and whilst not cheap are common enough and can be picked up without too much difficulty. His tour and county guides are much the same but the real rarities, some of the limited edition offprints and particularly those whose contents did not appear elsewhere, can and do achieve selling prices of well over £1,000.

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