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Sir Pelham Warner

To all intents and purpose ‘Plum’ Warner’s First Class career ended when he led his county, Middlesex, in the then traditional season finale when the Champion County played the Rest in September 1920. Not unnaturally the Rest usually won, so the honourable draw that the county achieved was, together with the elusive Championship, a fitting end to Warner’s long career. He had played for Middlesex for more than a quarter of a century and had led them since 1908. The title was only the second the county had won, its previous success being in 1903

In its 1921 edition Wisden wrote; there have been many greater cricketers than Pelham Warner, but none more devoted to the game. Having committed his first 46 years to cricket Warner then proceeded to do the same for the remaining 42 years of his long life. In 1921 this twice Ashes winning England captain founded The Cricketer, still going strong more than one hundred years later. He also wrote for newspapers, authored numerous books on the game, served as a Test selector and held various administrative roles, as well as acting as manager for the MCC in the most famous tour of them all.

Warner was a Trinidadian by birth, his father having spent many years as Attorney General there. He was 13 and at school in Barbados when news of his father’s death reached him. His mother, having to adjust to life on more limited financial resources than previously, then decided to relocate to England and Warner went with her. Whatever may have been lost the family finances were still sufficiently comfortable to enable his mother to educate Warner at Rugby School, and for him then to go to Oxford University. After that although he was always able to play cricket as an amateur he was never, in adult life, spared the task of having to earn a living.

Whilst at Oxford Warner was first diagnosed with the duodenal ulcer which was to periodically affect him for the rest of his days, and without it his statistics would no doubt have been better than they are. As it is the numbers are certainly respectable, almost 30,000 career runs at over 36 with 60 First Class centuries. An occasional slow bowler he took 15 wickets over his long career. Being of slight built there was no power hitting from Warner, but he drove well and had a deft late cut. He nonetheless generally scored at a decent rate and could certainly be obdurate when necessary. Generally an opener he carried his bat as many as ten times in his First Class career. 

It is doubtful if Warner ever aspired to join his father’s profession, but Law was the subject he studied at Oxford and he did qualify as a Barrister, being called to the bar at the end of 1896. He did not go on to practice law however, preferring to spend the early months of 1897 back in the West Indies with a side led by Lord Hawke. Warner had not been back to the Caribbean since leaving and was given a wonderful reception when he walked out to bat in Port of Spain on the first match of the tour. That he took the opportunity to make his first century was an added bonus. On his return centuries for Middlesex against Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, two of the stronger counties, firmly established him, and in July he was opening the batting with WG Grace for the Gentlemen against the Players.

By now a full time cricketer Warner was earning his living from writing and therefore able to accept whatever offers to tour overseas came his way. In September 1897 he captained a side to the USA, and before the start of the 1898 season visited Portugal with a side raised by a wine merchant, Thomas Westray. He was back to North America at the end of the 1898 summer, this time playing in Canada as well as the USA. In the New Year it was off to South Africa with Lord Hawke’s side, who were scheduled to play two matches against South Africa’s best eleven.

The first of those two matches began on St Valentine’s Day 1899. Some would, not without good reason, challenge whether the matches should rank as Tests or not, but they were later awarded that status and after having been in the record books as such for over a century nothing is going to change that now. The South Africans were at full strength, but the same cannot be said of England. Of those who appeared only one, Lancashire’s JT Tyldesley, would be in the side for the first Test against Australia in 1899 and just two more, Warner and the Yorkshire seamer Schofield Haigh, ever played a home Test. Even then Warner only won three home caps, and Haigh four.

South Africa would certainly have won the first match had it not been for Warner who in the second innings and, even if he didn’t realise at the time on Test debut, carried his bat for 132. The fact that the rest of the England side could manage only 95 between them underlines the quality of Warner’s innings. The second match was much more comfortably won, by 210 runs, but even then only after Haigh and Albert Trott had run through the South African second innings for just 35. This was particularly disappointing for them given that the home side had taken a first innings lead of 85 after dismissing England for 92. Warner had top scored with 31, and then contributed 23 to a much improved second innings display which saw England total 330.

There was never any likelihood of Warner playing against Australia in 1899, but he did well for Middlesex and in the following two summers his aggregate of runs increased significantly. There were no overseas tours for Warner in 1901/02 so, when an England side under Archie MacLaren was in Australia, he went to France. Two years later, with MacLaren still the incumbent England captain, there was a great deal of controversy when, the MCC having been persuaded to organise the 1903/04 trip, it was Warner who was invited to lead the side. The previous winter had seen Warner, after Hawke dropped out, lead a side to New Zealand that had, on its way home, played three matches in Australia. Warner had impressed his hosts and whilst undoubtedly an inferior batsman to MacLaren in the diplomacy stakes he was a much safer pair of hands.

The previous four series between cricket’s greatest rivals had all been won by Australia, so not too much was expected of an England side lacking MacLaren, Fry, Ranji and Stanley Jackson. In fact however Warner’s side triumphed 3-2 in a series during which Bernard Bosanquet gave the game the googly. Warner himself did pretty well with the bat, although on what at the time he regarded as his Test debut he managed just 0 and 8. Another debutant, ‘Tip’ Foster scored 287 however, so there were plenty of runs around. When England went 2-0 up Warner scored 68 and 3. His best performance came in the defeat in the third Test when he scored 48 and 79. An unbeaten 31 after another duck were the skipper’s contributions to the series clinching fourth Test win before, in the dead rubber that Australia won, he managed just 1 and 11.

After he returned home Warner published a well received account of the tour, How We Recovered The Ashes. The title came in for some criticism, the reference to The Ashes being described as slang. The phrase had not been used for twenty years but the critical reviewer was proved wrong as the expression passed into the language of the game. Warner’s success in Australia did not lead to a place in the England side in 1905 however, when Jackson was persuaded to accept the captaincy and went on to lead the English batting and bowling averages in a successful series. 

Another trip to South Africa was due in 1905/06 and Warner’s reward for his success in Australia was the chance to lead that. The visit proved disappointing however as the emergence of the South African googly bowlers, in particular Reggie Schwarz, Aubrey Faulkner and Ernie Vogler, meant that a significantly understrength England side lost the series 4-1. On a personal level Warner’s form was poor, his only score of note being 51 in the first Test. In his other nine innings he scored just 38 more runs, to give him an average of 8.90.

England’s next tour of Australia, 1907/08, was again an occasion when none of the country’s leading amateurs were available and the England side, that lost 4-1, was led by Arthur Jones of Nottinghamshire. It seems that Warner wasn’t asked, on the face of matters surprising given his previous success and also that he had just enjoyed a fine summer, scoring 1,891 runs at 46.12 which left him second only to Fry in the national averages. In reality it may well be that he was himself, for once, not available, his first son being born soon after the party left.

In 1909 Warner, by then 35, made the first of his three home Test appearances and, just to show that any antipathy between them was in the minds of others, he did so under the leadership of MacLaren. It was an odd decision in many ways because Warner’s health was not at its most robust, and his form was unspectacular, but he was brought in for the fourth Test of a difficult series. In a drawn match Warner scored 9 and 25, putting on 78 with Reggie Spooner in the second innings, but it wasn’t enough to keep him in the side for the final Test.

In an era when doing so was not unusual Warner only once exceeded 2,000 runs for a season and that was in 1911, the summer before another Ashes series downunder. The selectors’ first choice to lead the party was Fry, but his commitments to the training ship he ran with his wife were such that he could not accept. Warner on the other hand was happy to accept and led a strong side. He celebrated his 38th birthday during the tour and started in fine form with 151 at Adelaide in the match against South Australia. Sadly it was to prove his only innings of the trip as serious problems with his ulcer laid him low. He stayed in Australia and was still involved and despite his poor health he was he was doubtless cheered by the 4-1 victory his men achieved without him and he was able, for the second time, to write a full length account of a successful quest for the Ashes.

Despite the problems that laid him low on tour Warner was fit for the start of the 1912 season and, no doubt to his surprise as much as anyone else’s, there were two more Tests for him, one against South Africa and one against Australia in that summer’s still unique Triangular Tournament. He scored 39 against South Africa, but just four against Australia. His Test career then ended with a total of 622 runs at 23.22 in his fifteen Tests.

After continuing as Middlesex captain until the Great War ended the county game Warner was keen to serve his country. He had been a member of the territorial army for some years and had always had a keen interest in military matters, although he had been invalided out of the territorials in 1912 after his health problems. He did however find work with the War Office, but he was never going to see active service and indeed his health broke down more than once during the war years. With the return of a full cricket programme in 1919 he was back at Lord’s though and, at 45, captain of Middlesex once more.

The 1919 season was unusual in that the decision had been made to limit County Championship fixtures to two days with each day’s play ending at 7.30pm. The long days suited few, and certainly not Warner who only managed to play in around half the matches for which he was available. His 170 runs in the Championship came at an average of 13.07, although rather greater success in the few three day matches he played swelled his overall figure to 22.90. He would have retired there and then were the two day experiment not abandoned for 1920 and had not the Middlesex secretary persuaded him to give it one more summer. That he did was something Warner was eternally grateful for as the many neutrals in the country happily watched Middlesex make their way to that famous Championship win. For Warner some form did return, as he scored 804 runs at 27.72, a final century coming early in the season against Sussex at Lord’s.

Writing had long been something Warner had indulged in, both in the press and in less ephemeral form. His first book was Cricket In Many Climes, an account of his early tours to West Indies, South Africa, Portugal and North America. He followed that with further accounts of his trip to New Zealand as well as his Ashes winning trips. He was also the editor of Imperial Cricket, a luxurious limited edition that was published in 1912. The book is a credit to publisher and editor, but made very little money. 

After retiring from the game Warner, as noted, founded The Cricketer, and also became cricket correspondent for the Morning Post. A book of reflections, Cricket Reminiscence, appeared in 1920, although that was essentially a collection of newspaper articles. A full blown autobiography, My Cricketing Life, was published in 1921 and a further autobiography, Long Innings, in 1951. In addition there were books on the 1926 and 1930 Ashes series although not, perhaps unsurprisingly, for that of 1932/33. In all Warner wrote 18 books on the game. His books are certainly thorough and set a new standard for tour books even if, certainly by modern standards, they are somewhat bland.

The impression that anyone studying him gets of Warner is that by and large he led a very contented life. He was able to thoroughly immerse himself in a world he loved and, if there was not great wealth behind him, he was certainly always comfortable. His income no doubt fluctuated as is the case for all writers who are, essentially, freelance, but his wife also had some means of her own from investments  so, at least until the ‘Great Depression’ seriously impacted on Mrs Warner’s finances, the family enjoyed a good standard of living.

Paradoxically one of the times of Warner’s life that should have been amongst the most pleasurable, when he returned to Australia as manager of the 1932/33 tour, turned out to be a most unhappy experience for him. The fact that, in modern times, his role on that famous tour is what defines him would doubtless cause him much distress. In a letter home to his wife after the flashpoint of the third Test he wrote; nothing can compensate me for the moral and intellectual damage which I have suffered on this tour.

Warner thoroughly disapproved of Jardinian leg theory and his relationship with his captain was made exceptionally difficult as a result of clashes on the subject, and Warner was not unnaturally upset when he was rebuffed by Australian skipper Bill Woodfull following his famous visit to the Australian dressing room during the third Test. Warner had hoped for a congenial and enjoyable return to Australia with his performing his diplomatic and ambassadorial functions with his usual aplomb. He was not expecting to be nor was he suited to being in the eye of a storm in the manner in which he was.

Should Warner have seen what was coming? He had been part of the selectorial group that chose Jardine as skipper and who, at Jardine’s request, added Yorkshire’s Bill Bowes to the party at the last minute, and that after Warner had openly criticised Bowes for his excessive use of short pitched bowling at the Oval just a few days beforehand. In 1911/12 Warner had, albeit from his sick bed, overseen the Warwickshire all-rounder Frank Foster bowling leg theory, so he wasn’t unfamiliar with the tactic, and although he was by then retired he had also witnessed Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald repeatedly bumping the ball down at England’s batsmen in 1921. A further factor, for what it is worth, is that the antipathy Jardine felt towards most things Australian was also something that cannot have escaped the attention of anyone who, as Warner believed he did, knew him well.

In the circumstances Warner clearly realised that Jardine’s tactics would be to use his pace bowlers, and he must have therefore expected there would be a few deliveries flying around the batsmen’s ears. There is however no evidence to suggest that he was aware in advance of any plan to use leg theory and indeed if he had, on the basis its purpose was to restrict the areas in which the Australians, more particularly Don Bradman, could score then he probably wouldn’t have objected. What Warner didn’t know, and nor did anyone else, was that the wickets on which the Tests would be played would have the uneven bounce that made ‘Bodyline’ so dangerous. 

Sufficiently disillusioned to turn down invitations to be Chairman of Selectors in 1933 and 1934 it was nonetheless, with Jardine safely retired from the game, a position that Warner felt able to resume at the end of 1934. In the meantime he carried on with his writing and his role at The Cricketer. He also on occasions involved himself in broadcasting, although it would seem that, like his writing, his oratory lacked charisma and his involvement with the BBC, which began in 1925, was intermittent.

After the 1938 Ashes series Warner chose not to continue as a selector, a decision that might reasonably have expected to bring down the curtain on that part of his life. In fact it didn’t as, at 79, he reappeared to help choose the party that visited the West Indies under Len Hutton in 1953/54. In 1939 Warner was appointed as assistant deputy secretary at Lord’s, the word assistant being quickly dropped and to all intents and purposes Warner ran the place for the duration of the Second World War. In 1946 his most successful book, at least in financial terms, was a book about the ground, unsurprisingly titled Lord’s 1787-1945.

Living on until 1963, his ninetieth year, Warner became something of a national treasure. He was awarded an MBE and was knighted in 1937. He was perhaps just as proud at being invited to be President of the MCC in 1950. Later in 1958 the stand between the Pavilion and the Grandstand at Lord’s was named the Warner Stand and there is a much more impressive new structure of that name now in its place that has recently been completed. The final honour bestowed upon Warner was being made the first ever life Vice-President of MCC in 1961. 

Despite all his cricketing accomplishments Warner wasn’t quite perfect, amongst other indiscretions maintaining a mistress for many years who, eventually, after the death of Warner’s wife had to be ‘bought off’ as a result of his somewhat reduced financial circumstances. But what of the suggestion, oft repeated, that Plum was Gubby Allen’s father? There is no doubt that Warner was, to say the least, attracted to and a close friend of Allen’s mother, Pearl, but when Allen would have been conceived Warner was in France, and I am not aware of any evidence to the effect that Pearl was anywhere other than at home in Australia at that time.

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