Features Icon 1 FEATURES

An audience with James Southerton’s biographer – Adrian Gault on “The Man of Three Counties”

I’ve got a notebook full of questions here. The first is about Southerton the man—his personality, his character. He seems, from his writings and from the public record, to have been a pretty sober fellow—certainly by comparison with a few of his professional contemporaries, who led rather wild lives. In fact I recently came across the manifest for the Alhambra, the ship that conveyed Lillywhite’s 1876-77 team from Bluff to Melbourne for the inaugural Test Match, and it made for pretty fascinating reading (more fascinating than ship manifests tend to be). My favourite detail that is every member of this all-professional side lists his occupation as “gentleman.” That’s a sweet touch. But then there’s the fact that they all lie about their marital status: All of them are hitched, but all claim, with exception of Southerton, to be single gentlemen. On top of that, all lie about their ages as well! So Southerton really stands out—knowing what we do, even aside from the above, about their complicated domestic arrangements and some of their on-tour antics.

Yeah, he does seem to have been a pretty well-balanced and sober bloke. By all accounts he had a very happy marriage, and he would have been quite a long time married at the point of that tour. There are stories that he would race home after cricket games. Although he spent an awful lot of time travelling around the country in different places, he was always quite keen to get home.

If he had to put an occupation down, then certainly in the censuses he’s recorded generally as a hairdresser. That was the other way he made most of his money.

In terms of his character, I would say he got on with people very well, so he was very well liked. Despite falling out with some people at certain times, they still remained friends in the longer run.

And I reckon he comes over as pretty stubborn. If he thought he was right on something, he wouldn’t give in. It would be very hard to change his mind. Even on some things where he was probably in the wrong, if he believed he was right he would just maintain that position, whatever the facts.

Perhaps you’d like to elaborate a bit on that point. He had a few clashes with authority.

He did. He had some time with Sussex early in his career that ended in a bad way, but it’s not quite clear why. Subsequently he fell out with the South Hants Club in Southampton, where he had a contract, and left them—broke his contract—to go to play for Surrey, where he could earn more. But he was the one who took South Hants to court, saying that they owed him money, despite the fact that he’d broken the contract. It’s pretty clear that he was in the wrong, and the case was found against him, and he was ordered to pay costs, but the South Hants club didn’t pursue it. They footed the bill and remained on friendly terms with him. So there’s something there: If he thought he was owed money—and he was a professional—he would pursue that. But he seemed to do it in a way that did not cause personal problems for him. He remained friends with the people at South Hants.

Reading about that episode in your book, I was put in mind of Sydney Barnes and his independence of spirit. There are a few commonalities there—but without the same surliness of character. For Southerton seems to have been universally loved. You tell a great anecdote, via Charles Alcock, about what a warm and kindly figure he could be.

Yes, he brought back from one of his trips to Australia a pill box and gave it to Alcock as a present. It had been inscribed for him. Alcock didn’t want to take it, but Southerton insisted. He wasn’t a rich man, but he did give these gifts away. Alcock treasured it, and it seems that many years later he still carried it on his body. They liked and respected each other, and that seems to be a general position: Southerton was respected for his cricket, but also for his manner.

Another clue as to his independence of spirit we get in the subtitle of your book: “The Man of Three Counties.” Pretty self-explanatory, but give us a précis of his various engagements.

Basically Southerton would play cricket for whoever would employ him. He played lots of games for many, many different clubs. He was born in Petworth, so he was eligible to play for Sussex, and they could claim him as the home county; he played for Surrey on the basis that he lived most of his life in Mitcham; and he played for Hampshire, because he had that contract which took him to South Hants, and Hampshire were on the brink of resuming a first-class county career. He started his first games with Sussex, then played for Surrey and then South Hants, and then went back to Sussex and Surrey. He ended up in one season playing for all three counties in the same season: for Sussex, firstly, because they had first call on him, but also for the others. In that season he was playing against teams that a couple of weeks earlier he had played for. So it was quite a remarkable career.

Do you not say at one point that he was partially responsible—that his example, at least, was partially responsible—for the tightening up of qualification rules? The sort of thing that made Lords Harris and Hawke infamous in later years.

Yeah, I think he was one of the players who was responsible for the changes. He was in a position that one week he’d be playing for one team, and then a couple of weeks later he’d be playing for the opposition. He played against teams like Kent, for example, week after week, first in Sussex’s ranks and then in Surrey’s, and it caused a bit of bad feeling. It was one of the things that contributed to the fact that the regulations were changed. Eventually he had to choose his county. At that point he chose Surrey.

There’s another side to his life, of course (less appreciated than it should be, I think): his journalism. Would you tell us about your forthcoming project, which ought to do a bit to resuscitate his reputation in that area?

He wasn’t a particularly highly educated man, but he was, I think, reliable. He was employed firstly by The Sporting Life to write back to England on WG Grace’s tour of Australia in 1873/74, and then in 1876/77, on Lillywhite’s tour, he sent reports back to The Sportsman. Every couple of weeks these letters, these long screeds about the tour and about the matches, would appear in those newspapers. Personally I think they are better written than you might have expected from someone of his background.

They’re certainly more interesting and more entertaining than James Lillywhite’s (submitted to one of the rival papers, and slightly expanded for publication in his annual).

Yeah, I think so. I mean, they give you some details of the games, but they also tell you a bit about what they were doing and the places they went to and their sometimes horrendous travel experiences, so I definitely think they’re worth a read, and relatively well written. He seems to have gotten a reputation in some quarters for <i>not</i> being very interesting. I’m not quite sure where that comes from, because there’s a lot there—a lot about social history as well as the cricket—and I find that fascinating.

Of course he passed on that writerly competence to his son, didn’t he?

He did. Sydney Southerton became an editor of Wisden.

Now, it’s often claimed that Test cricket’s oldest record—its most enduring one, at any rate—belongs to Charles Bannerman, famous for his 165 retired hurt in the inaugural Test, which comprises more than 67 per cent of the very first Test innings. But in fact that’s not the case, is it? James Southerton, when he stepped out onto the pitch the day before the conclusion of Bannerman’s innings, established a record which stands to this day: At forty-nine years and 119 days, he remains Test cricket’s oldest debutant (although I should say that he, too, lied about his age on the Alhambra manifest, claiming to be forty-six). And it’s appropriate that he should hold this record, because as your book shows, he was a very late bloomer.

Yeah, I think he does remain the oldest male debutant. (I think the record may have been broken in the ladies’ game in recent years.) He holds the record of the first Test cricketer to die as well.

In terms of the development of his bowling ability, it did come very, very late. He started out as a batsman, and had a reasonable reputation—that’s how he was first chosen in county cricket—and when he bowled in his early years, he was a medium-fast bowler. He developed his slow bowling after the regulations were changed in the early 1860s to allow bowling from a greater height. And he developed a new style of right hand off-spin, which previously wouldn’t have been allowed. He was he was very old when he came back and started with that new bowling, and he had great success.

It kind of stands to reason, doesn’t it? Anyone who tries to bowl off-spin will find that a high action is a pretty much requisite. You simply cannot bowl it round-arm.

Yeah, absolutely. Spin bowling, in effect, was something that was new. He had a number of hugely successful seasons, as players were trying to get used to this new style of bowling and the spin that he put on the ball. By reputation he wasn’t quite as accurate as Alf Shaw, but he put a lot of spin on the ball, and he changed his style and his speed an awful lot. It seems he was a thinking bowler. He was always thinking about how to get someone out.

“Bowled with his head,” as the Victorians liked to say.

Yeah, absolutely. He had huge success for a number of years through the 1860s, taking more than 100 wickets every season. I think he was the first bowler to take 200 in a season. And he was in his forties at the time.

One by-product, of course, of his late blooming as a bowler is that his reputation as a batsman has suffered. In his youth he was fairly handy, but now he’s judged on what he was doing in his mid-to-late forties. And he really quite fancied himself with the willow…

He did. There are quotes from him where he was really quite disappointed about the fact that his batting wasn’t rated, and he obviously thought he was better than that. I think even Charles Alcock acknowledged at one point—Southerton was complaining to him—that, yes, he did rate him as a batsman. And Southerton did have times, even late in life, when he would go in and score some useful runs. I think he also managed to hit the ball out of the Oval at one point, so obviously he could bat. But increasingly he was regarded as just a bowler.

A mighty smite, to hit it out of the Oval in those days. George Bonnor famously lifted one into the deep, 120 meters, only to get caught on the fence. So you had to give it a fair tap.

One of the most famous stories about Southerton actually involves his batting. He was once retired in rather interesting circumstances…

In fact, something similar happened last summer. I don’t know if you saw Temba Bavuma’s dismissal during the Sri Lanka series in South Africa: He missed the ball by a margin of inches, and was the only man on the field who thought he’d hit it. I remember thinking to myself, as he tucked his bat under his armpit, Surely that should be “retired,” too? If the umpire doesn’t think you’re out, and the fielding side doesn’t think you’re out, and you’re the only one who does, you’re “retired,” aren’t you?

Well, in Southerton’s case, it went down in the scorebook as “retired, thinking he was caught.” This was around 1870. He was playing for Surrey against the MCC, and it seems that he hit a ball pretty much into the ground in front of WG Grace, who claimed the catch. Grace always said this was just a joke; he was having Southerton on, because he thought that Southerton often batted with his eyes closed. But Southerton walked off, and although Grace and the other players and the umpires tried to call him back, he kept on walking, and wouldn’t come back.

This is another instance of his stubbornness, I think. If he thought that something had happened and he’d made his decision, he stuck with it. But yeah, it’s an unusual occurrence.

Just as he was the oldest Test debutant, he was ironically also the first test cricketer to die. There’s a morbid appropriateness about that. He was only fifty-two when he passed. Perhaps you’d like to say a bit about his final years?

Yes, after that tour with Lillywhite to Australia and New Zealand in 1876/77, he came back to England and resumed playing for Surrey for another couple of seasons, and then he had he had a benefit, after which he finally retired. But that retirement lasted less than a year. He was engaged at Surrey as a net bowler, and it seems that he caught a chill. He died quite quickly, in 1880, of pleurisy, and was greatly mourned, by Mitcham people in particular. There was a long trail, a procession, of Mitcham locals, who followed the coffin to the parish church. A great many cricketers from Surrey and elsewhere attended. It seemed to have happened pretty quick, but things like that did in those days.

Maybe you’d like to say a bit about the origins of your own interest in Southerton. I know you have a connection to the Mitcham club.

Yes, I’m currently treasurer at Mitcham Cricket Club, and also one of the coaches for the junior sections. On Mitcham Cricket Green there is a memorial to famous Mitcham cricketers of the past, and it includes James Southerton. That sparked my interest a number of years back, when I was trying to write up some brief lives of the cricketers recorded on that stone. And seeing that Southerton had played in that first ever Test Match, and also that he had owned The Cricketers pub just across the way from the Cricket Green, I delved into it and found out that he’d written these various articles for the newspapers. That just kind of developed into writing up more about his life. I was surprised that there wasn’t a biography of him to be honest, and I thought he deserved one, so that’s what I proceeded to produce.

Talk about your writing process and research, and the challenges you encountered in their course

There are elements of his life which are a bit difficult to get into—I couldn’t find anything in terms of living descendants and personal writing—but there is a lot in his articles back to the newspapers. He was well liked by contemporaries, so you have writing from WG Grace and others. And obviously there’s a huge amount of material in terms of the matches he played, but the scorecards are very dry, so I’ve tried to supplement that kind of material with what you can get from his writings and other sources. So it still means there are parts of this that are a bit of a gap. It’d be nice to have more about his personal life, but I think you can get enough to see something of the man he was and why he was so well respected and liked.

Is there anything else you you’d like to bring to our attention?

[Adrian:] I think we’ve covered the key stories about him. I think that the really interesting thing for us is his position as a Mitcham cricketer. He played frequently on Mitcham Cricket Green. Even at the end of the season, he’d come back and play in games like “Fathers against Sons.” As you said, one of his own sons, Sydney, went on to become an editor of Wisden, but he also had others, who continued to play for Mitcham for many years.

Through Mitcham, of course, he retained a pretty close connection with his Australian opponents. They were apt to begin every tour there.

Yeah, you’re right. I think the first Australian tour (other than the Aboriginal one) was in 1878. After beating Surrey in two days, they were driving on the third to Epsom for the Derby, and stopped en route at Southerton’s pub in Mitcham for a few drinks with the proprietor, who had written very favourably about the standard of cricket in Australia. I think they were quite well disposed to him. Thus began the tradition of the Australians, whenever they came to England on tour, going to Mitcham Cricket Green for their practice. That went on into the 1890s. It’s unlikely to resume, but it was there for quite a while, and they clearly liked and respected Southerton as a cricketer and as a man.

Where can readers get your biography of Southerton, and when will your anthology of his writings be available?

The book about Southerton, James Southerton: The Man of Three Counties, is available through Amazon. You can buy it online through that source. The next book is his writings about the 1876/77 tour: the letters that he sent back to The Sportsman, with some notes that I’ve added. That is very near completion. As you know, it often takes a while to get these things finalised, but I hope it will be available towards the end of this year, or the start of next. That will probably be available through the Mitcham Cricket Club . In each of these cases the profits, over and above the publishing costs, go back to Mitcham Cricket Club. So that’s likely to be made available fairly soon in the next few months. I hope that people will find it interesting.

Thanks, Adrian. Do keep in touch. And I’ll let you know when his diaries show up. I’ve managed to give the people at Nottinghamshire a physical description of them, courtesy of Greg DeMoore, who worked on them a few years ago. By his account they’re tiny, barely A5 sheets of paper, so I imagine they’re at the back of some shelf in the club library.

Yeah, it would be nice just to have a chance, wouldn’t it, just to look at them and see if there’s anything else in there? They’ve been mined mainly for what they say about WG Grace, I think.

Well, maybe you should you should relay what they say about WG for the benefit of our readers.

Well, they do say that WG Grace was “a damn bad captain.” I think partly this was Southerton feeling that he hadn’t been bowled enough on the 1873/4 tour, and of course there were all those problems with the amateur/professional distinction. But there’s clearly also a great deal of respect between the two. I mean, obviously WG Grace was and is renowned in terms of batting ability, and was a huge draw for people. And he did play in Southerton’s testimonial game. He had good things to say about Southerton—even if he thought he batted with his eyes shut.

In fact, we owe to those diaries one of one of the least flattering vignettes we have of WG. On the voyage out to Australia, we have him drinking enough to drown a calf, while mowing down flocks of birds with a shotgun.

Yeah, he doesn’t come out well in some of those stories.

No, he does not.

But I think WG Grace was someone who you didn’t want to be too disparaging about. I mean, Southerton says these things in his diaries; they don’t appear in the written articles in the press. Grace’s contemporaries knew where their bread was buttered, and that Grace was a great draw and an attraction for crowds—someone you wanted to be on the right side of.

Leave a comment

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

More articles by Rodney Ulyate