Forgotten Pioneers

Published: 2024
Pages: 320
Author: Wilcock, Giles
Publisher: Pitch
Rating: 4.5 stars

It is possible that in the past I have been guilty of overusing the word ‘remarkable’ when reviewing books. If so I apologise now, and will be much more sparing in my use of that particular adjective in the future, but if ever it was appropriate then the time is now.

Giles Wilcock is a diligent researcher and historian, with the added bonus of being a decent writer, as anyone who has read his excellent blog or his biography of George Macaulay will know. Those concerned will know also that he is a man who likes to shine his torch into the hitherto unexplored corners of cricket history, and in that aim he has most certainly succeeded with this one, the subject matter of which I have to confess was completely new to me.

The story Wilcock has to tell is of the Original English Lady Cricketers, a group of professional women cricketers who, between 1890 and 1892, traversed the country playing matches at a variety of venues. Almost always the group split in two, and the ‘Reds’ played the ‘Blues’.

For a time there was considerable interest from the public, but the success did not last and the venture fizzled out and by June 1892 it was all over and, perhaps predictably, ended in recrimination and litigation. But once the dust settled that was it and the Original English Lady Cricketers were forgotten.

What isn’t clear from the book, although other than to satisfy my curiosity the answer is of no significance at all, is what inspired Wilcock to attempt to reconstruct the story and, from there, how he managed to find enough hours in a day to carry out the extraordinary amount of research that he has clearly done.

The initial question is who was behind the idea in the first place, and Wilcock has found out a good deal about the men concerned. As with every aspect of the venture there are questions that are left unanswered, but always Wilcock explains what he was looking for and why and, if he is able to give it, explains what he believes might have been the answer.

That a considerable amount of information is missing might suggest that the book is, to some extent at least, a disappointment, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are certainly some tantalising questions raised on all sorts of issues (many on the subjects of the lady cricketers’ backgrounds and what became of them), but if anything those gaps add to the appeal of the narrative.

Forgotten Pioneers is undoubtedly a first, and its appearance alone is a credit to publisher and author, but much more than that it is a fascinating story, and one which transports its reader back to a very different world. Social mores in the late Victorian era are often difficult to understand, but on the other hand, just occasionally, surprisingly forward looking.

But just as Wilcock’s reader believes that the story effectively ends in the 19th century there is a pleasant surprise towards the end of the book. Although the press did not interview any of the ladies at the time, or for many years afterwards, as late as 1956 Test player, administrator and writer Netta Rheinberg tracked down one of the Original English Lady Cricketers, the then 88 year old Marie Beckenham,

Ms Beckenham’s story is all the better for her life having been far from conventional, and it did reinforce one thought in my mind. The story of the Forgotten Pioneers strikes me as being the sort of thing that could very easily be turned into a cracking screenplay – are you up for that Mr Wilcock?

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