Features Icon 1 FEATURES

A Life Well Lived

There are probably more apocryphal tales about Lionel, Lord Tennyson than any other First Class cricketer, let alone England captain. That said even if only half the stories written about him were true he would still be one of the more interesting characters who have graced the game of cricket. Whenever I read about him I am reminded of an exchange involving a man who had the talent to be the finest footballer of his generation, but whose career lasted just three years. If you could settle down for three or four years you could play for England, was one entreaty delivered to try and lure our hero back into the game. His rejoinder was I’m half your age and have lived twice your life. In a different age the multiplier in Tennyson’s case was probably nearer four, and he of course did play for England.

The grandson of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, poet laureate for most of Queen Victoria’s reign, Tennyson seems to have acquired his cricketing talent from his mother. Certainly his talent for poetry was limited, as evidenced by his inability to extract from the Morning Post what he considered to be an appropriate fee for a four verse effort he penned in celebration of England’s 4-1 win in Australia in 1928/29.

For many years prior to his death in 1892 Tennyson’s father, Hallam, had acted as his own father’s secretary and was engaged in the endeavour of writing his biography in the years following his death. Hallam, who inherited his father’s Baronetcy on his death was, unusually amongst his extended family, a steady, reliable and safe pair of hands and was a responsible custodian of the family fortune. Wisely his eldest son was never given control of the family’s wealth and had to rely on an allowance, albeit a fairly generous one, that ended on his death. Lionel never succeeded in acquiring any wealth of his own and on his death his estate was minimal.

In 1899 the Tennyson family moved to Australia when Hallam accepted an offer from Joseph Chamberlain to become Governor of South Australia, and subsequently Governor-General of Australia before returning to England in 1904. This was planned, it having always been Hallam’s intention to ensure Lionel and his brothers were educated in England.

Lionel was sent to the most famous Public School in the country, Eton College, where he enjoyed himself immensely, rapidly becoming attracted to the bright lights of London and regularly ‘breaking out’ of school to catch a train to the capital for an evening’s entertainment. As far as his cricket was concerned Lionel was, at this stage, primarily a fast bowler but although he did eventually get into the first team his cricketing achievements at school gave no hint of what was to come.

After his time at Eton ended Lionel, a distinctly ordinary scholar, wanted to join the Coldstream Guards. Hallam, well acquainted with the elite nature of the Guards and wary of their reputation for living life to the full would not permit Lionel to join. Instead he made arrangements for him to follow in his footsteps and those of Alfred by securing a place for his eldest son at Trinity College, Cambridge. Unsurprisingly with racecourses nearby, London within easy reach and plenty of country house events to attend Lionel found no time for any studies. Seeing the way the wind was blowing Hallam eventually allowed Lionel to leave University without completing his degree and, despite his misgivings, the Guards seemed a better bet. It is also worth noting that despite the University XI not being particularly strong whilst Lionel was there, he never once managed to force his way into the first team.

His time in the Army cemented the Tennyson reputation. Nothing suggests he did anything other than carry out his duties satisfactorily although it is difficult to understand how. Many were the occasions that Tennyson, to all intents and purposes, stayed out all night carousing before his ceremonial duties. He also gambled, mainly on the sport of kings, and was noted for generosity towards his many friends. Tennyson was not short of income, enjoying an allowance of £500 a year from his father (the equivalent of more than £50,000 today) as well as his commission, albeit at a rate of around £170 a year that would have been a sum unlikely to even have covered his mess bill. Winning more often than he lost Tennyson’s bank balance at one point in 1912 was around £5,000, so half a million on 2018 values.

From that high watermark Tennyson learned the lesson that many gamblers learn and in the space of a week of frantic activity he managed to lose not only the £5,000, but to run up another £7,000 worth of debt with bookmakers. His father, understandably beside himself with rage, eventually agreed to cover the debt in order to maintain family honour. The quid pro quo was that, his instincts about the Guards having been proved correct, Tennyson transferred to the Rifle Brigade. Perhaps because of what had happened Tennyson decided to concentrate on his cricket at last and so well did he perform in the Army that he was invited to play for the MCC against Oxford University at Lord’s in July.

By now Tennyson was primarily a batsman, and one who had got used to English wickets after learning most of his craft in Australia. Never dull he was an aggressive bat who drove with great power, and was also particularly strong off the back foot. On debut Tennyson scored a century and, finally noticed by Hampshire, was then selected for nine championship fixtures. There were two more centuries, and 96 against a powerful Yorkshire attack at Harrogate. Tennyson ended the 1913 season with an average of 46.22, a figure he was destined never to better in an English summer. To put that in context only Phil Mead and Jack Hobbs averaged more than 50 that year, and then only fractionally.  Overall Tennyson was fifth, the only other men ahead of him being George Gunn and an amateur, Leslie Kidd, who enjoyed by far the best summer of a brief career. When PR Johnson of Somerset withdrew from the party Tennyson was offered the chance to join the 1913/14 tour of South Africa, an invitation the War Office were persuaded he should be permitted to accept. Named as one of the Five Cricketers of the Year in the 1914 edition of Wisden the editor wrote; It is scarcely too much to say that Tennyson’s success as a batsman was the most surprising feature of last season’s cricket. Rarely indeed has a player quite new to First Class matches done so much.

Only one man (DW Carr) has ever played in a Test for England so soon after his First Class debut as Tennyson and only three having played fewer matches (Carr again, Ian Peebles and Ken Cranston) and Tennyson played in all five Tests in South Africa. He started well enough with 52 in the second innings of the first Test but after that, on wickets that brought the great Sidney Barnes 49 wickets in four Tests, the variable pace and bounce of the mat coupled with the sideways movement skilled bowlers could achieve left Tennyson with a series average of just 16.57. His Army commitments meant that First Class cricket saw Tennyson only four times in 1914, and thereafter the game closed down for the next four summers.

The Rifle Brigade were sent to France and Tennyson first saw action in early September of 1914. Conditions were difficult and his men poorly equipped and a couple of months later Tennyson suffered a leg wound which was made worse when he fell into a shell hole. He tore various muscles and ligaments and was invalided home. It was October of 1915 before, by now a Captain, he was back at the front at the Battle of Ypres. Tennyson saw all the horrors of trench warfare at first hand over a period of many weeks.

In June of 1916 Tennyson was mentioned in despatches but three months later was back home again, having sustained a gunshot wound to the mouth and shell shock. The Daily Mail reported his death, and Tennyson had to quickly send a telegram to his parents to assure them the report was untrue. It must have been a difficult time for the family. Tennyson’s younger brother, a Naval officer, had lost his life in January 1916. His other brother was to perish in action in January 1918.

After a second mention in despatches in January 1917 Tennyson was back in France in June of that year and ended up at the famous Battle of Passchendaele. On 22 November he was wounded again and, although a week later he was promoted to Major, that was to all intents and purposes the end of his war. In a sense Tennyson had a lucky war, as very few men saw action in all of the major battles of the Great War and survived. There can be no doubt that Tennyson was a brave man, and it is surprising that, despite two promotions and being twice mentioned in despatches he was not decorated for his sacrifices. It is understandable that he remained embittered at this lack of recognition for the rest of his days. The reason for it can, realistically, only be the various scandals he had been involved in.

The major cause celebre in which Tennyson had been involved was in his marriage in 1918 to his first wife, Clare. The couple had married a couple of days after Clare’s previous marriage had been dissolved after three years. Tennyson was the co-respondent to the petition issued by Clare’s husband. The couple were to have three children in the ten years before their marriage too ended in divorce. It seems to have been an acrimonious break up there having been court proceedings (lost by Tennyson) to try and set aside a matrimonial settlement. Throughout their time together the couple had continued to live an expansive and fast paced life, in the main at Clare’s expense.

In 1919 Tennyson retired from the Army and accepted the Hampshire captaincy. Although much was expected of him after his success in 1913 in truth he was a disappointment. His men clearly had the greatest fondness and respect for him, and he proved a good captain, but he seldom made many runs averaging just 17.74 for the season. He was a little better the following season but even then averaged only 25.29. His bowling was something he would regularly try in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, but by the end of the 1921 summer even he realised he was not going to make it as a bowler and after that he seldom bowled. When he did, as he did with a bat in his hand, he threw everything he could at his task. He took a long run that culminated in a flurry of arms and legs as he tried to deliver the ball with as much speed as he could. He was pretty quick for a couple of overs, but seldom moved the ball and did not trouble good batsmen.

As the 1921 season began despite England’s 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Warwick Armstrong’s 1920/21 Australians there will have been no one predicting a return to the England side for Tennyson in the return series that was due to take place that summer. In the event however Tennyson’s season began with him rediscovering some semblance of form and, with the express pace of Jack Gregory and Ted MacDonald obliterating England inside two days in the first Test, the cricketing world was suddenly a very different one.

The England selectors were looking backwards and trying to persuade CB Fry, by then 49, to accept the captaincy. He had declined for the first Test, and although he made himself available for the second and was duly chosen he ultimately pulled out again, citing a lack of match practice. Fry did however suggest that Tennyson, being a fine player of pace bowling, would be an ideal replacement. Fry’s advice was followed and Tennyson called up to play at Lord’s. In the first innings he was out for just five, attempting to hit Arthur Mailey out of the ground. In the second Mailey might have had him again, caught at the wicket for nine, but Sammy Carter put the chance down. It was far too late by then to change the course of the game, but Tennyson did what he was picked for and scored an aggressive unbeaten 74 with the tail. Twice on the second evening the man who had taken everything the Germans could throw at him drove MacDonald back over his head. He really does seem to have known no fear.

Tennyson’s performance at Lord’s has always been overshadowed by the twin 90s recorded by Frank Woolley, but no one else made any runs and there were seven changes for the third Test at Headingley. Again Fry was one of them, but again he didn’t appear, this time injury finally calling time on his career. The captaincy, again on Fry’s recommendation, passed to Tennyson who would at least lead from the front. One of the more remarkable Tennyson stories, surely at best an exaggeration, is that he turned up for his first match as England captain driving a Rolls Royce. The car was allegedly his winnings from a bet, the subject matter of which was said to be which of two flies would defecate first.

Armstrong won the toss and chose to bat. Australia scored 407 and to make matters worse Tennyson split the webbing on his left hand in trying to stop a flowing drive from Charlie Macartney. He wasn’t fit enough to bat but, as England slumped to 67-5 vowed that he would. He could only use one hand, and had a wire cage made for the other. He also went out and bought a junior bat that he could wield more easily with one hand. After a recovery of sorts Tennyson came in at 165-7, still well short of the 257 needed to avoid the follow on. When he was out the score was 259, and he had scored 63. The tide was turning for Gregory and MacDonald and while the match was still lost (Tennyson added 36 more in the second innings including, a remarkable testament to his strength and eye, a straight six) the psychological hold on England had been broken thanks to Tennyson and he led England to honourable draws in the remaining two Tests. Tennyson himself didn’t get to the crease in the fourth Test, but he added another 51 in his only innings at the Oval to leave him with an average of 57.25 for the series. He did not, however, play for England again.

Had Tennyson enjoyed a better relationship with Lord Harris he might, in 1924/25, have fulfilled his ambition of returning to Australia as England captain. It is certainly true that his batting would have been suited to Australian conditions, but his county form in 1922 – 24 was patchy to say the least. In none of those summers did his average get as high as even 23. There were still special days from time to time however and Tennyson still made his share of headlines, none more spectacular than leading his county to victory after they were all out for 15, and then, after being invited to follow on, responded with 521. You can read the story here.

When passed over for the England captaincy in 1924/25 Tennyson led a side to South Africa instead. A great lover of the Caribbean and the opportunities that gave for pleasure seeking Tennyson also toured the West Indies in the next four English winters, three times as captain of his own side and once with Sir Julien Cahn. On the voyage out with Cahn Tennyson got himself into debt and, much as he had done with his father twenty years previously, was able to persuade the wealthy Sir Julien to cover his liabilities for him.

At this stage of his life Tennyson was, nominally at least, in regular employment and was involved in Surrey skipper Percy Fender’s wine business. Tennyson had no head for business, and doubtless was not allowed anywhere near the company cheque book, but his seemingly limitless contacts, natural bonhomie and complete familiarity with the company’s products made him a shrewd signing and the business prospered through the inter war period.

Tennyson’s last season for Hampshire was in 1935, by which time he was 46. He had given up the captaincy in 1933, although he skippered the side on a number of subsequent occasions. In 1925 his average crept above 30, but generally his numbers were unimpressive. Tennyson’s main problem was impetuosity and inconsistency as despite his disappointing averages he usually managed to raise his game once or twice a season. In 1928 for example a side from West Indies played Test matches in England for the first time. When the tourists came to Southampton the pace of Learie Constantine and Herman Griffith had reduced Hampshire to 86-5 before Tennyson got to the crease. By the time Tennyson was out another 313 had been added, of which he had scored a chanceless 217, the highest score of his career. Constantine and Griffith had been struck to all parts of the ground in a remarkable innings.

Four years on from his pyrotechnics against West Indies, at 42, Tennyson led his men to their first victory over Yorkshire for a decade, and did so at their headquarters at Headingley. In a low scoring match Tennyson coming in at first drop and scoring 43 out of 65 and 54 out of 68 were crucial contributions. In the very next match against a powerful Derbyshire seam attack at Chesterfield he repeated his feat with 69 out of 81 and 44 from 55 before, at The Oval, he chose the Gents v Players match in which to record his final First Class century in England. He had, of course, bet his teammates a bottle of champagne that he would do so. After his dismissal he had not even taken off his pads before he collected and drank his prize.

The last First Class cricket of Tennyson’s career came, perhaps appropriately, on tour. In 1937/38 he took a strong team to India for a ‘goodwill’ tour. He turned 48 during the tour and had put on a good deal of weight since his days as a Test player (so much so that his second wife, who accompanied him, was said to be delighted when a dose of dysentery much reduced his bulk). In the opening First Class fixture on the tour, against relatively modest opposition from Sind, Tennyson scored his final First Class century but it was a rare highlight. The five representative fixtures against the full strength of India brought him just 53 runs in eight visits to the crease. Whatever shortcomings he displayed on the field on a long tour Tennyson was, of course, an excellent ambassador for the MCC, happy to give his all at the many social functions that were arranged.

In the 1930s Tennyson generally split his time between the UK and California where, as can be imagined, he had a most enjoyable lifestyle mixing widely with the great and the good of Hollywood. In 1934 he had married his second wife, an American widow, but this marriage was dissolved within a decade. Tennyson did not marry again although he was not short of offers. There was one lady to whom he was particularly close, the mysterious ‘IM’, to whom he dedicated his 1950 autobiography, and who was the beneficiary of his very modest estate. The lack of a settled family life was the price that Tennyson paid for his pleasures. He had three sons by his first wife one of whom tragically died at just two weeks of age. Neither parent was considered suitable to have care and control of the surviving boys and Tennyson therefore had fractured relationships with both and only in his final years did he even begin to get to know them.

During the Second World War, as a former officer, Tennyson was put to work as a ‘defence adviser’ at an RAF base near Winchester. He played a little cricket and, when funds permitted, would slip off to London to enjoy what was still available to him of the high life he had always enjoyed. After the war, his only source of income being the allowance he received from the trustees of his late father’s estate, Tennyson took up residence at a hotel in Cooden Beach in Sussex. It was there on 6 June 1951, apparently sitting up in bed smoking a cigar and reading The Times, that Lionel, Lord Tennyson breathed his last. A minute’s silence was observed at the Trent Bridge Test against South Africa when the news broke.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Martin Chandler