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From Kensington Oval to Perdition

From Kensington Oval to Perdition

A Jamaican fast bowler, Leslie Hylton is remembered not so much for his deeds on the cricket field, which represented a considerable contribution to the sides for which he played, as for the fact that he is the only Test cricketer to have been convicted of the crime of murder and, subsequently, executed.

Hylton was born in 1905 and, after a troubled childhood in which he lost first his mother and then, later, the aunt who took her place, he left school on becoming a teenager and started to work in the tailoring trade. Hylton cannot have been particularly successful in his chosen career as by 1933 he had made a complete change and started working as a docker – by that time he was becoming a well known cricketer having played for Jamaica as a fast bowler and aggressive lower order batsman since 1927.

It was clear that Hylton had caught the eye of the Test selectors when he was invited to Port of Spain, Trinidad, to play in two trial matches that were arranged to assist the selectors in picking the touring party for England in 1933. Hylton’s contribution to those two games was steady, if not spectacular, and a review of contemporary events would suggest that the selectors’ decision was, ultimately, a straight choice between Hylton and Vincent Valentine whose performances in the trials were similar. In the event Valentine was the man who was selected in what must have been a close call. It is interesting to speculate whether Hylton’s life might have taken a different direction had he travelled to England instead of Valentine.

History records that Valentine’s tour was unsuccessful and, despite having played no First Class cricket in the meantime, the selectors had not forgotten Hylton when it came to choose the West Indian side for the first Test against England of the 1934/35 series, played in Barbados. The Test is one of the more remarkable in cricket history and, given the significant contribution that Hylton made to it, merits a digression.

The 1934/35 MCC tourists were the second to play a Test series in the Caribbean. These were the days when England did not deem it necessary to send full strength touring parties to anywhere other than Australia. For the first series, five years earlier, the selectors had under-estimated the strength of their hosts and the home side gave as good as they got in a drawn series. That England side was, at best, a third XI, and only Patsy Hendren and Bob Wyatt of the party were to appear in 1930 against Australia. The selectors weren’t so foolish again in 1934/35 when the presence of Walter Hammond, Les Ames and Maurice Leyland, together with Wyatt and Hendren again, meant that only Herbert Sutcliffe of England’s frontline batsmen was missing. That said of the bowlers who played in the 1934 Ashes only amateur pace bowler Ken Farnes made the trip.

The tour started in Barbados and after a difficult first game against the Islanders, which the tourists were relieved to draw, they began to get used to the local conditions in the second game which was also drawn, but in the course of which a number of the Englishmen, particularly Hammond who scored 281, found their form. There was heavy overnight rain before the first Test and then on the first morning there was another shower just after the pitch had been rolled. Wyatt, having won the toss, had no hesitation in inviting the West Indians to bat. Conditions were difficult. Some deliveries skidded through but generally the ball leapt after pitching and all Farnes had to do was pitch the ball on a half volley length to put the batsmen in trouble and he was rewarded with four early wickets. The hosts took lunch precariously placed at 31 for 5 with just the great George Headley standing between them and embarassment.

After lunch the wicket had dried and Farnes had lost his menace. Nonetheless Hylton found himself at the wicket with Headley when the sixth wicket fell at 49. Hylton, tall, determined and continually chewing a toothpick, applied himself well and by taking several sharp singles he and Headley raised the score to 81 before Hylton finally lost patience and was stumped, after which the innings folded for 102. Headley was eventually run out for 44 after a masterly display. Of the rest of the home side only Hylton with 15 had reached double figures.

When England went in to begin their reply the conditions were the best for batting that the game would see, yet such was the quality of Manny Martindale’s opening spell that he soon dismissed Wyatt, Hendren and Leyland and England were 28-3 with only Hammond, as imperious as Headley had been, playing with any certainty. Ames departed at 52 which brought the Middlesex hitter ‘Big Jim’ Smith a promotion to number seven in the order. The gamble didn’t work as Hylton was brought back and with his first delivery tempted Smith to hook. Smith connected alright, but his miscued stroke did nothing more than provide Charles Jones with the opportunity to run from long leg to deep square leg and hold a comfortable chance. Lancashire’s elegant left hander Jack Iddon then joined Hammond and these two took England through to the close at 81-5 without further alarm.

Overnight more heavy rain fell and despite intermittent sunshine and a stiff breeze there was never any prospect of a prompt start. As the day wore on there were a few more light showers but finally, just before tea, the umpires decided that play could start. After considerable thought Wyatt elected to use the light roller and Hammond and Iddon made their way to the wicket. West Indian skipper Jackie Grant threw the ball to Hylton whose second delivery leapt and climbed steeply towards Hammond’s left ear. England’s greatest batsman could do nothing more than fend the ball away and into the hands of short leg. When, with Hylton’s very next delivery, Erroll Holmes was dismissed, Wyatt decided that batting conditions were impossible and declared despite still being 21 behind.

Grant made the only decision he could and all but reversed his batting order, Hylton coming out to open with Grant’s brother, Rolph. With just four runs on the board Grant, Manny Martindale and left arm spinner Puss Achong (after whom the chinaman was named) had all been dismissed by Smith for nought. The light was poor and the crowd, who a little earlier had been protesting about the lack of play, now called for the days entertainment to conclude. An initial appeal against the light surprisingly failed and Wyatt brought on left arm spinner Paine in order to try to persuade the umpires they had made the correct decision, but after just one more over and a further slight deterioration in the light Hylton’s appeal was upheld and, at 33-3, the day ended with the home side just 54 runs on. Again Hylton had batted very well and remained impassive despite the chaos around him.

The clouds, seemingly inevitably, remained over the ground and emptied their contents overnight again and it was 3.20 next day before the umpires decided that play could start. The bowling was lethal again and Smith removed wicketkeeper Christiani (who would, at just 24, tragically die of malaria in 1938) with the score at 44 and then Hylton, at 47, for what was to prove the top score of the innings of 19. Headley was held back until number seven but was dismissed for nought by Farnes, caught at short leg from a delivery that leapt at him and hit his thumb. With Headley’s dismissal the West Indies were 51-6 and just 72 in front. Jackie Grant came to the crease, with the thought that he had three frontline batsmen to follow him but he realised when he got to the middle that batting was still a nightmare. There was little to be gained by batting on. The day was drawing towards a close and an extra 30 or 40 runs would be useless if England came back next day to chase 100 or so on a dry easy paced wicket whereas Hylton and Martindale that afternoon might just have enough to bowl at. That said Grant still made a brave decision to declare there and then to give his bowlers a chance of bowling while the wicket was still at its worst.

Wyatt decided to have no roller at all. He took the view that if any moisture at all were brought to the surface it would perpetuate the demons in the pitch so he left well alone. He also, taking a leaf out of Grant’s book, sent in two tailenders to open the batting. Farnes and Smith were those selected, Wyatt, perhaps not solely in jest, justifying his decision on the basis they were the two tallest men in the side. Neither lasted very long and both were back in the pavilion with just seven runs on the board – at this point every member of the England side were padded up so unsure was Wyatt of the best batting order.

On advice from the number three batsman, the Surrey amateur Erroll Holmes, imparted by Farnes on his return, Hendren was sent in at four on the basis that the pitch had calmed sufficiently for the hook shot, of which Hendren was a master, to be usefully deployed. Hylton bowled too short at Hendren who struck a six and two fours but despite Hylton’s waywardness Martindale was magnificent and even with Hendren’s counter attack England had slumped to 48-6 when Wyatt joined Hammond at the wicket. Wyatt enjoyed some luck, Hylton and Martindale began to tire, and the wicket eased a little. With Hammond again demonstrating his class at 69-6, with just three needed for an England victory, Martindale began his ninth over. The first two deliveries were fast and straight and treated with the greatest of respect by Hammond. The third ball did not, to those in the pavilion at least, seem any different but Hammond had had enough and he stepped back and lifted the ball over the long off boundary for six and a four wicket victory for the tourists. Hylton would have been disappointed in his bowling in the England second innings. He had bowled eight overs and conceded as many as 48 runs with just the wicket of Farnes to show for his efforts – had he emulated his first innings effort, when he took three wickets for just eight runs in 7.3 overs then he and Martindale might have brought off one of the more remarkable victories the game has seen.

As things turned out Hylton had no need to be despondent. He retained his place for the rest of the series which, despite England having taken the lead, was won by the home side, in the end with some comfort, by two Tests to one. Hylton’s 13 wickets at just over 19 apiece meant that he made a full contribution to the success. It was to be another quarter of a century before England would finally win a series in the Caribbean

Hylton played little First Class cricket between the 1934/35 series and the selection of the 1939 touring party to England but at the age of 33, and enjoying a reasonable degree of success in the trial game that was played before the tour, there was something of an outcry in Jamaica at his omission. As a result of that selectorial snub the Jamaican public rallied round and raised sufficient funds to cover the cost of Hylton’s passage and he was added to the touring party. As things turned out the selectors on this occasion were shown to have acted with some wisdom as Hylton was ineffective in the two Test matches in which he played, taking only three wickets at more than 55 runs each, and the tour as a whole did nothing to enhance his reputation.

Following his return from England in 1939 First Class cricket saw no more of Leslie Hylton and he changed jobs for the final time, this time joining the Jamaican Civil Service in the Rehabilitation Department, eventually becoming a Grade One Foreman.

It was around 1940 that Hylton met Lurline Rose, who he married in 1942. The early years of the marriage seem to have been happy and a son was born in 1947. In 1951 Lurline, with Hylton’s agreement, decided to move to the USA to further her career as a dressmaker and the separation that ensued was to end in tragedy. Lurline’s absence in the USA continued, on and off, until April 1954, when Hylton received a letter, signed only ‘An old friend’ reporting his wife’s adultery. As a result of the emotional communications that followed Lurline returned home and, initially at least, normal married life appeared to have been resumed with Hylton being happy to accept his wife’s denial in relation to the allegations contained in the letter.

Unfortunately it seems that Hylton, perhaps understandably, maintained a nagging doubt and following an incident over his becoming aware of a letter Lurline had posted to the USA, she made a full confession to Hylton as to what had taken place and told him that the marriage was over. In the course of the ensuing argument Lurline was shot and killed.

Hylton was promptly arrested and later charged with Lurline’s murder. His account was that having received the totality of his wife’s confession he informed her that, he being her lawful husband, she would never be rid of him at which point, according to Hylton, she grabbed his revolver from the window cill, pointed it at him and declared if you stand in my way I will shoot you. Hylton went on to say that the trigger was pulled, that he heard a click, and there followed a scuffle while he attempted to get control of the revolver. Hylton’s account was that the next thing he knew was that there was blood all over Lurline and the room.

The Police were immediately alerted and arrived promptly where they were greeted by Hylton, who explained what had happened. Lurline was, just, still alive at this point but died before she could be taken to hospital. On being formally arrested, despite the account he later gave in interview, Hylton made the damaging comment, I am sorry….I guess I lost control of myself.

A considerable amount of time was taken up at Hylton’s trial, and even more so at his appeal, with the issue as to the admissibility of various comments made by Hylton, in view of the delay in his being cautioned (in effect being warned of the dangers of self incrimination). Once the Trial Judge ruled in favour of admitting the comments, and the Court of Appeal and the Privy Council agreed with him that they were admissible, then the issue in the case, given that the jury at that point could have had no possible problem in concluding that it was Hylton who fired the fatal shot, was whether he should be convicted of murder or manslaughter. The law then, as now, was that Hylton was entitled to be convicted of manslaughter rather than murder if he was able to rely on the defence of provocation. Legally speaking provocation is some act, or series of acts, done by the deceased to the accused which would cause in any reasonable person, and actually causes in the accused, a sudden and temporary loss of self control, rendering the accused so subject to passion as to make him for the moment not master of his mind. Hylton’s difficulty was that there were as many as seven bullet wounds to Lurline’s body which meant that, given the six barrel chamber of his revolver, he must have broken the weapon and reloaded it and fired a further shot, an action clearly inconsistent with a sudden and temporary loss of self control.

Hylton’s jury took around three hours to return a unanimous verdict of guilty although his demeanour, or perhaps it was his sporting achievements, must have had an effect on the all male panel as they added a recommendation to mercy. Hylton, as indicated, appealed to the Jamaican Court of Appeal and thereafter sought permission to appeal to the Privy Council in London, then as now the ultimate Court of Appeal for Jamaica. Hylton’s legal team did, as legal teams tend to do, raise many points in support of his appeal but almost all were spurious and the few points that did have some merit failed to persuade the more Senior Members of the Judiciary that the Trial Judge had done anything wrong.

His routes of appeal exhausted Hylton’s last hope was to petition the Governor of Jamaica for a reprieve in the light of the jury’s recommendation to mercy, and such a petition was duly submitted on Hylton’s behalf but rejected. Leslie Hylton, having accepted his fate and, not unusually for men in his position, having been hurriedly received into the Roman Catholic faith, was hanged at St Catherine District Prison on 17 May 1955.

Wisden, remarkably, managed to make no mention of the nature of Hylton’s demise in its obituary in its 1956 Edition. CLR James, the great contemporary Caribbean cricket scribe, appears not to have set his views on Hylton’s case in writing and the only contemporary player who went into print, Sir Learie Constantine, published his first four cricket books prior to 1955 and his only later cricket book, co-written with journalist Denzil Batchelor in 1966, did not have a subject matter which called for comment on Hylton’s case. We are therefore left with the observation made by Jeffrey Stollmeyer, who played alongside Hylton in 1939, and was subsequently West Indies Captain, who stated in an autobiography that was published in 1983 It seemed a great shame that one so powerful and vital should have to pay the full penalty, but his temper had let him down for the last time.


Fascinating account of a tragic story. Hopefully his case will always remain a unique one.

Comment by stumpski | 12:00am BST 5 October 2009

Top piece there Martin. Really interesting stuff. 🙂

Comment by Burgey | 12:00am BST 5 October 2009

top piece.

Comment by Bagapath | 12:00am BST 5 October 2009

never heard of him. very interesting article.

Comment by bagapath | 12:00am BST 5 October 2009

Ind33d – I first stumbled upon that crazy game at Kensington Oval which is mentioned so prominently in the above piece purely by coincidence, while I was researching a pattern which had nothing at all to do with the particular events of that game.

Comment by Richard | 12:00am BST 6 October 2009

Just to echo what’s already been said, really. Very engrossing subject matter presented in a thoughtful, understated but always very readable way. High quality stuff. 🙂

Comment by BoyBrumby | 12:00am BST 6 October 2009

A great thing about cricket, in fact many sports (but cricket in particular), is that there are so many interesting characters and matches that can be found just off the beaten track of the game’s history

Comment by fredfertang | 12:00am BST 6 October 2009

Yeah, fascinating stuff Martin.

Comment by Uppercut | 12:00am BST 6 October 2009

Yep, add me to the list of the impressed – a really good read Martin, nice work. 🙂

Comment by The Sean | 12:00am BST 6 October 2009

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