Cotton, Cricket and Football

Published: 2023
Pages: 271
Author: Kaye, Paul
Publisher: Pitch
Rating: 4 stars

Many professional cricketers have been the subject of biographies, but not too many whose entire First Class careers comprise just eleven matches over a period of less than two years. The man concerned here is William ‘Billy’ Cook, who played ten times for Lancashire in the latter part of the 1905 season, and then just once more in May of 1907.

It wasn’t that Cook wasn’t good enough. He was a man whose right arm pace bowling brought him 51 wickets in those eleven matches at the excellent average of 18.54, and whilst he never made a First Class fifty a batting average of 21.92 suggests he might well have gone on to become a genuine all-rounder.

So why didn’t Cook go on, and why so many years after his brief career has Paul Kaye chosen to write up his life? In relation to the first question Cook was a friend of and, seemingly, cut from much the same cloth as the legendary Sydney Barnes. It seems that Cook simply didn’t see the point in earning less for the daily grind of the county game than he could make for a much lighter workload in the leagues. 

As to the second question Paul Kaye is Cook’s great grandson, and was brought up on tales of the stirring deeds of his forebear. That this is not one of those self-published vanity projects should therefore be borne in mind. Pitch clearly expect the book to sell well enough to justify their outlay on it, and they haven’t backed a dud yet.

There are a number of strands to Cook’s life that contribute to the story that Kaye has to tell. The cricketing one is that between 1904 and 1930 he played as a professional in the Lancashire League for Burnley, Lowerhouse, Enfield and Colne, and he continued to play the game as an amateur until 1936. Consistently successful his haul of almost 2,000 wickets in the League remains a record to this day.

And Cook was not the only member of his family who was a successful sportsman. His brother ‘Lol’ is, having chosen a different career path, the better known as he took 839 wickets at 21.20 in a lengthy career for Lancashire either side of the Great War. Another brother, Jack, also played in the Lancashire League and for Cheshire and Durham in the Minor Counties Championship and Cook’s son, also Billy, played in the Lancashire League as well. Their lives, all interesting, are chronicled as well.

Cook was also a professional footballer, and thus for a number of years made his living from sport all the year round. He was briefly on the books of Preston North End, but never played for the first team. His time came in 1908 when he joined Oldham Athletic, a club he served until 1920. And Oldham were not then the fifth tier club they are today. The Latics were a power in the land in Billy Cook’s time, and would have been League Champions in 1914/15 had they been able to avoid defeat in either of their final two matches.

As the title of the book suggests the narrative is also about rather more than sport, and it would not have been inappropriate for the title to have been Cotton, Cricket, Football and the Western Front. Cook’s service in that horrific theatre of war is reconstructed as indeed is the history of Burnley and its environs, and the rises and falls in the fortunes of the industry on which the town depended for so long.

Sadly Cook was not a man who maintained a personal archive, illustrated by the fact that the mounted ball presented to him after taking a career best 10-36 (nine of them clean bowled) against Todmorden in 1914 stayed out of sight, at the bottom of his wardrobe throughout his life. But the absence of anything from the man himself is more than made up for by the memories of Kaye’s grandmother, Cook’s second daughter.

There are one or two gaps in the narrative. It would be interesting to know why the entire Cook family changed their surname from Whalley to Cook around the turn of the century. It would also be good to know to what extent an inability to get on with Archie MacLaren and the whole amateur/professional divide prevented a First Class career. But the specific memories of Kaye’s grandmother, and his having been brought within the family enable Kaye to give a convincing picture of his great grandfather’s character.

Well outside the mainstream of cricket literature Cotton, Cricket and Football works on every one of the many levels of the lives of Billy Cook and his contemporaries that it explores, and it is highly recommended.


Martin, many thanks for the review. I hope your readers enjoy learning about Billy Cook – he led a remarkable life in turbulent times.

Comment by Paul Kaye | 9:34am GMT 5 November 2023

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