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The Major – A Biographical Sketch of Rowland Bowen

the major

There have been plenty of cricket magazines that have, for varying lengths of time, graced the newsagents and bookstalls of the UK, and a not inconsiderable number in other countries where the game has a hold. Uniquely amongst them The Cricketer has survived for almost a century, but the majority last only a few years. Finest of them all has been The Cricket Quarterly that was published on 32 occasions between 1963 and 1970. I fully intend to write a post on the subject of CQ, but I have come to the conclusion that that is not something that can be written in isolation, and that before that can appear I have to introduce the proprietor of the Quarterly, Major Rowland Bowen.

For such an interesting character there is not too much source material on Bowen. The Australian writer, resident in London for many years, Murray Hedgcock, is in the process of writing a memoir, but then he has been so engaged for many years. Let us hope that one day his book does put in an appearance, but if not Hedgcock did at least contribute a fascinating essay on Bowen to the splendid Between Wickets 3. That apart the renowned Nottinghamshire archivist and historian Peter Wynne-Thomas wrote an essay on Bowen for Cricket Lore back in 1995, and then journalist Russell Jackson wrote a long piece for The Guardian in 2017.

In the circumstances I do, for the content of this piece, have to admit to relying heavily on Messrs Hedgcock, Wynne-Thomas and Jackson. That much conceded in an effort to put up some some sort of defence to charges of plagiarism I have managed to secure a few snippets of my own from those individuals I know who had at least some dealings with Bowen.

Our man was born Hampstead in 1916. His father was a solicitor and in time there were two more children. Attending Westminster School Bowen seems not to have been a cricketer of any note and he did not follow his father into the law. After leaving school it seems that Bowen initially took up a role in commerce, but after deciding business was not for him he joined the Indian Army. In time he was promoted to Major and in 1958 returned to England. He was then placed by the War Office with the Joint Intelligence Bureau.

What was this organisation? Apparently it was designed to collect and collate economic, topographic, and operational intelligence. In time it had an expanding role and broader impact on international intelligence during the Cold War and was significant in acquiring intelligence about Soviet military and economic weaknesses. Bowen was an inveterate correspondent, generally on matters related to cricket but occasionally straying beyond the game. The suggestion has been made that he may have been some sort of spy. Hedgcock has seen more of the correspondence and knows more about Bowen than anyone else alive but doesn’t believe his life with the Joint Intelligence Bureau was particularly glamorous. He does not however dismiss the notion completely.

Whatever the detail of Bowen’s job was the little we know of it clearly marks Bowen, whatever other qualities he did and did not possess, as being a clever man and a diligent researcher with an eye for detail. Add to that a distrust of anything he could not verify with his own eyes and a distinctly prickly temperament and you have a man who, as soon as he decided to delve properly into cricket history was going to ruffle almost all of the feathers in the, up until then, largely cosy and congenial nest of cricket historians.

Following his return to the UK Bowen lived in Eastbourne with his divorced mother. He was an MCC member and, within the world of cricket tragics, first made a name for himself in 1958. A furore arose as a result of a television quiz show when a contestant was ruled incorrect when he asserted that Sussex had won the County Championship in 1875. The contestant relied on the views of Roy Webber, a man who at that time had a lofty reputation as a cricket statistician. The producers of the show had relied on the contents of Wisden, and the Almanack’s then editor, Norman Preston, enlisted Bowen’s help.

It was not difficult for Bowen to demolish Webber’s theory, although his efforts were something of a double edged sword for Preston as whilst Wisden was vindicated on the Sussex point Bowen nonetheless found a good deal wrong with the long established Wisden list. The full story of the fall out from this episode appears in the Wynne-Thomas article in Cricket Lore, but for my purposes it is sufficient to say that the end result of the row that ensued was that Bowen burned so many bridges that, in order to get his views on cricket history into print, he had no choice but to do what he did with CQ and launch his own Journal. The sub-title of CQ said all that needed to be said about his mission statement – A Journal devoted to the Noble Game of Cricket.

Wynne-Thomas knew Bowen pretty well although, like many others, Bowen eventually chose to discard the friendship. What that knowledge does mean though is that Wynne-Thomas is able to make it clear that Bowen had other interests besides cricket, and that his views on those were aired in the letters columns of the national press, particularly the Daily Telegraph, on a regular basis. Wynne-Thomas also reports a vituperative correspondence with a soft drinks company regarding the existence or otherwise of a flavour of fruit squash that the company claimed to manufacture but which Bowen could not obtain, and a long-running dispute with the station master at Eastbourne over the need or otherwise for a particular London bound train to sit outside the platform for five minutes before pulling in.

It is against that background that the most bizarre Bowen anecdote arises, and one on which Jackson concentrated in his Guardian piece. The incident occurred in September of 1968 and involved Bowen, in perfectly good physical health and being sound of limb, attempting to amputate his own right leg without assistance. He came sufficiently close to achieving his goal to require the professional intervention he eventually summoned to have to finish the job he had begun. Jackson identifies a condition now known as Body Integrity Dysmorphia – the entry in Wikipedia is, to say the least, food for thought.

Clearly Bowen was, essentially, a loner but he was certainly not a man unable to love, as a bizarre insert posted out to subscribers with one of the final issues of CQ is testament. That a master should choose to write an emotional tribute to a lost canine companion is not of itself particularly unusual. But the intimate details of Bowen’s relationship with his devoted West Highland White Terrier, Rob, certainly represent what my children would proclaim in mock horror to be too much information! Quite how the then 13 year old Rob reacted to his master’s self-mutilation is not something that, as far as I am aware, Bowen ever commented on.

There was only ever one full length book that appeared from Bowen, Cricket: A History of Its Growth and Development throughout the World, published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1970. It is a remarkable book, as relevant half a century on as it was on publication. The book did and continues to attract much praise, the only real criticism of it coming in a review in The Cricketer from Irving Rosenwater,

Rosenwater and Bowen were men who in some ways were very similar, in particular in their both having serious issues with their views being disagreed with and they fell out spectacularly in the early 1960s over their differing opinions on the subject of the renowned historian of the early twentieth century, Frederick Ashley-Cooper. Rosenwater clearly read Bowen’s book thoroughly as he was able to single out 18 errors and a handful of typos. At one point Rosenwater writes one of the dangers of this book is that statements are made which are simply not true, but made with such forthright authoritativeness as to make them seem facts. He writes of Bowen creating new myths on ones he has dismantled and, just before listing his 18 errors, reminds his reader of Bowen’s statement in his introduction that he is intolerant of incompetence.

I have not checked Rosenwater’s list of errors and will rely on his lending his name to it as sufficient evidence of it being correct but, in truth they are not the sort of mistakes that cause a reader to question the overall content of Bowen’s book. In any event despite his comments and personal animus against Bowen Rosenwater does make a number of positive comments about the book, and still manages to conclude it is worth reading and singling out the 124 pages of appendices for particular praise. In reality Rosenwater in his review, perhaps unwittingly but possibly deliberately, makes as cogent a case for the importance of Bowen’s book than many of the more gushing tributes to it that have appeared.

Back in the real world Bowen’s self mutilation had brought about the decision by the Ministry of Defence to dispense with his services. As a result he sold up in Eastbourne (he had been living alone since his mother’s death in 1962) and moved to Mullion in Cornwall, taking CQ with him. According to Jackson the circumstances of his leaving his job were such as to deprive him of a pension and, its specialised content meaning that the CQ had never been a bestseller, one is left with the suspicion that only the buffer of a not inconsiderable salary had enabled Bowen to keep it going as long as he had. In any event he continued the magazine only until 1970 when, after some discussions with Wynne-Thomas over the possibility of his taking it over, Bowen’s ultimate preference was simply to close it. Whether he really wanted to do that or not the decision left the eight volumes of CQ as a lasting monument to Bowen’s success at accomplishing what he set out to achieve.

Having closed CQ and having no further need for it (and very possibly needing the cash) Bowen set about disposing of one of the best cricket libraries in private hands. Eventually he sold it to a Jamaican lawyer, James Richards. The current whereabouts of Richards and accordingly the library is unknown. Bowen had got many of the books from Leslie Gutteridge of Epworth Books, the only specialist dealer around during the 1950s. By the 1970s Gutteridge’s mantle had fallen on to EK Brown, coincidentally also located in Cornwall. Brown was offered the collection but felt unable to buy it. Bowen’s library had been a working one rather than that of a bibliophile and over the years he had simply not shown his books much in the way of tlc. Back in 1962 when a youthful Roger Page, visiting Bowen at home on a trip to England, had noted in his journal of the visit that the Bowen library was phenomenal, 40 years in the making.

After CQ was no more Bowen made his last move, a little way eastwards, to Buckfastleigh in Devon. There, to the astonishment of those who knew him, the 58 year old lifelong bachelor married. Sadly it did not prove to be an enduring union as Bowen died four years later in 1978, but by all accounts whilst it lasted the marriage was a happy one. For a man who caused so many ripples in the world of the study of cricket history Bowen’s passing was barely marked anywhere. He has not however been forgotten. A set of CQ is a sought after collectors’ item with a price tag to match and Cricket: A History of Its Growth and Development throughout the World is acknowledged as an essential research tool. It may be somewhat belated, but Bowen’s legacy is now recognised.

But I did mention that I had some new Bowen stories, so will mention those before I close. The first is from a South African who came to England in the 1950s. Bowen was a man before his time in terms of the depth of his disgust at the apartheid laws in South Africa and he was a vociferous supporter of the Stop The Seventy Tour campaign. My South African acquaintance knew Bowen only through correspondence about cricket, and was delighted to be able to arrange to meet Bowen at his Devon home. Shortly before the appointed time however Bowen learnt the nationality of his correspondent and that was that. He cancelled the meeting without further enquiry or ado.

My second story is of a man who, as a schoolboy living in Surrey in the 1960s, wrote to Bowen and in doing so was able to negotiate a special student rate for CQ. In one of the early issues he received he noticed a reference by Bowen to the use of the term ‘the Ashes’ only coming into vogue after Warner’s visit in 1903/04. George Giffen’s 1898 autobiography had contained two chapters entitled Fights for the Ashes. In light of the Bowen reputation it was with some trepidation that the Surrey sixth former raised the issue with Bowen. In the circumstances Bowen could not really argue, but it is still to his credit that he took the trouble to write to the youngster acknowledging his mistake*

And finally, two people I can quote. The first is David Kelly, now of Cranbrook in Kent but, in the 1960s, a cricket enthusiast who travelled widely and contributed occasionally to CQ on the subject of the game’s far flung outposts; I signed up to subscribe to the CQ following Bowen’s advertisement in The Cricketer during 1962 and then started corresponding with him, initially when I sent him a very basic draft of what turned into my piece on early East African cricket, once I had seen the first couple of issues in 1963.

I met him just the once, around 1965 or ’66. I was then in my early 20s so I hadn’t really met anyone like Bowen before. But I have to say I don’t recall too much about the occasion.  Bowen was then working at the Ministry of Defence and we met at the reception there before walking to the nearby National Liberal Club for lunch.

I do remember a conversation about cricket in North America and we wondered, bizarrely, whether any cowboys from the so-called Wild West would ever have happened across a game of cricket somewhere on probably the western edge of the development working west from the eastern seaboard.  This would have been some time after his booklet on North America in International Cricket appeared, followed by relevant updates and further information published in CQ.

We did talk of course about the work I had done for him, principally on East African cricket. And I remember chatting about the CQ itself and some of the material that he had included. My impressions of him are however pretty sketchy, I am afraid.  He was a fairly robust man and certainly had a bearing, borne out from his military days, I am sure.  But he was pleasant and interesting, and my thoughts after the meeting were entirely positive

Bowen and I fell out in 1967 but, as you will know, he fell out with everyone sooner or later!  This concerned my sending him a short article on the Dorset Rangers tour of Portugal in 1967 which he included in CQ. At about the same time The Cricketer included a piece on the same trip and Bowen accused me of sending the report to The Cricketer as well.  I indignantly told him (starting the letter with “Dear Bowen”!) that (a) I hadn’t done so and (b), if he cared to note that The Cricketer included just the matches against Lisbon, excluding the Oporto leg, he might deduce that that report emanated from Portugal. I did eventually receive something approaching an apology.

Subsequently we sort of got back on an even keel, although that was mainly due to my moving to St Lucia and Bowen wanting to find out about Roulez-la-bas (see pages 72-73 of his History, which led to his including me in his Acknowledgements in the magnum opus)

And in closing I will return to Roger Page, and his 1962 journal in which he recorded his first impression of Bowen as; a plumpish, middle-aged man with an easy manner. We talked for the rest of the day – or rather I listened and learned adding that his dogmatism was overwhelming.

Roger also recorded Bowen’s views on some fellow historians, none surprising, and recorded as:-

He bitterly decries Roy Webber.

He has no time for Irving Rosenwater.

He claimed that Ashley-Cooper was not honest enough to reveal mistakes.

But it wasn’t all carping, Roger observing (bear in mind this was 1962) that; he spent much time analysing his research into the social background of cricketers, stating that whereas in 1914 First Class professionals received a salary three times that of an unskilled labourer, both jobs would be on a similar scale today.

And Roger is also able to assist us with some of Bowen’s opinions on other matters, and he was certainly a man of firm views some of the more striking of which were:-

England should not join the Common Market: English people would never shed their national identity. And economic prosperity for the country would not follow”

the higher one travels up the social scale the higher the intelligence, and

He would abolish all motor-powered vehicles.

Perhaps inevitably Roger did eventually manage to upset Bowen, although it did take a number of years. The flashpoint came as a result of Bowen inviting Roger, when he next visited the UK in 1969, to read through a pre-publication draft of Cricket: A History of Its Growth and Development throughout the World. A month later Roger caught up with Bowen again and Roger’s views on the draft were sought. He made a comment that was intended as constructive, only to be met by a clearly much irritated Bowen roaring at him; that’s what my publisher said, and you’re both wrong!

And that, dear reader, was the man who gave us The Cricket Quarterly.

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