The History Men

As if the history of Somerset cricket isn't rich enough Stephen Hill and Barry Phillips have unearthed a treasure trove of new stories from the pre- first-class era

The men behind the four-volume Somerset Cricketers series which provides biographies of every player to have represented Somerset in first-class cricket up to the year 2000 have been at it again with the imminent publication of Somerset Cricketers 1876-1890: The Rise to First-Class Status

Many of you like me will, like me have read the wonderful Somerset Cricketers series written by the dedicated and deeply knowledgeable Stephen Hill and Barry Phiilps. A set of books that I regularly dip in and out of, randomly picking a profile to re-read. I’m delighted to say that not only has SomersetNorth been given a sneak peak of the new volume but have been speaking to Stephen and Barry to find out more about the book and the processes behind it and its predecessors. As an added bonus I’ll be doing an interview next week in the gap between the Gloucestershire and Leicestershire games and dipping in an out of previous volumes through the season.

The new book will be published in early May, but only in a signed limited edition of 110 copies, available from Barry Phillips (email: [email protected]) at £25 (Free P & P). Somerset fans will have to be quick to secure a copy though as there are, at the time of writing, fewer than fifty still up for grabs and more being bagged each day.

Somerset CCC is a life-long passion for both Stephen and Barry with them looking back on the crumbling old County Ground, a favourite haunt while they were growing up, and the many happy memories it evokes. Stephen moved up to Scotland recently and, during lockdown has had time to think a lot about the things he misses. Watching Somerset play at Taunton is right up there,  “It’s the backdrop to my childhood” he tells me. 

Stephen goes on, “I can’t be 100% sure, because when you’re seven years old, everything’s a blur and memories are fragmentary, but I think the first match I went to see was Somerset against the West Indies in 1963. I can still recall being mesmerised by the intimidating long run-up of the West Indian pace bowler, Wes Hall. I imagine most of the Somerset players were quaking in their boots at the time, although, from what I’ve been told, most of them would rather have been facing Wes than Charlie Griffith, at the other end. One of them told me that Wes took great delight in flattening a batsman’s stumps, whereas Charlie took greater delight in flattening the batsmen!”

The ‘Somerset Cricketers’ series is a monumental piece of work by any standards. What I wondered was the motivation for the authors to embark on the project? 

Back in 2015, Stephen was looking for a new challenge in retirement and his thoughts turned to Somerset CCC. “I’d read the usual histories of the club – notably by David Foot and Peter Roebuck – and I had a copy of Eddie Lawrence’s book, where he made a brave attempt to show images of a majority of the men who’ve appeared for Somerset since 1891, but I was left frustrated” he recalls. 

Hill describes himself as the sort of person who needs to understand why something is as it is. “It’s one thing to learn the facts but the ‘why?’ and the ‘how?’ are important to me. I wanted to know more about the lives of the men who’d played – the names and statistics didn’t hack it – and I wanted to understand the reasons why the county had failed so spectacularly to land the County Championship, losing out where other less well-supported county clubs had succeeded.” So he embarked on this “hare-brained project” (his words not mine to write biographies of every man in order of debut appearance, secure images of them and facsimiles of their autographs. Hill, reflectively says that he now realises that this was madness and soon discovered he was going to struggle. That was when he came across Barry, whom he noticed had sold a number of rare items of Somerset cricket memorabilia on eBay! Hill contacted Phillips and asked him for help on the project. Luckily for all Somerset cricket lovers, Phillips agreed and the pair became equally ”obsessed with the quest”. Neither knew at the time of this initial discussion it would take over their lives for about six years.

Their publishers, Halsgrove have been incredibly supportive, commissioning the first four volumes, which outlined the lives of every first-class cricketer up to the year 2000 and are still available from the expected sourses as well as direct from the publisher. At that point Stephen and Barry thought that was the end of this particular literary journey. So why did they opt to go back to the very beginnings of the county club and why go for a signed limited edition this time around? 

“The truth of the matter is that we just don’t know how many people are as fired up as we are by the history of the club. Quite a few fans think history began in about 1970s, when Beefy and Viv began to light up the place! We’ve never done the books for any financial gain – which is fortunate because there hasn’t been any! In fact, had we bothered to tot up our expenditure over the last six years, we would find we’ve lost a shed-load of money. A good thing, then, that we did it for love.” 

This volume, as with the others gave Hill and Phillips a choice between simply depositing their latest findings with the Somerset Cricket Museum or at least getting a few copies out there for the diehard fans to enjoy realising that this era is what could be described as “niche”. “I guess”, says Hill, “we might not have bothered had the stories we found not been so incredible.”

As to how this prequel come about, Stephen admits a bit of reluctance on his part. He’d wanted his life back and blames Barry who he says got “a bit restless” after the pair were contact by a descendant of Robert Savery, who made his Somerset debut in 1886. The Somerset Cricket Museum throw a number of these sorts of queries Hill & Phillips way.  Some of them feel, the pair say, like hospital passes, but this one was intriguing. The descendant wanted to know why his ancestor wasn’t included in Somerset Cricketers 1882-1914. “Having explained that we’d only covered Somerset’s first-class players, we dug around and established that Robert Savery was a boy wonder who’d broken all the Taunton School batting records”, records which wouldn’t be surpassed until Tom Abell came along over a century later. 

Savery simply couldn’t stop scoring centuries in club and schoolboy cricket. He made his county debut at seventeen but had walked away from cricket entirely by the age of twenty-one. There was more, though. His family owned a brass and iron foundry based where the car park is now.  On old postcards you can see the huge chimney roughly where the Jack White gates now stand. 

Savery’s sisters were interesting characters too. One founded Weirfield School in Taunton. Another was seduced at the age of thirteen by her private tutor, Rev Berrington, a bad egg who later slunk off to the Netherlands after deserting the girl and their child. That was all Hill and Phillips needed to whet their appetites and get cracking, unearthing the life stories of the 84 players who’d appeared only in non-first-class matches for Somerset. 

It’s not all been plain sailing. They were already used to a whole range of challenges thrown at them while writing the earlier volumes. About a quarter of all the ‘facts’ surrounding players (including their names) were incorrect and trying to track down someone called James Jones who played for Somerset in 1922 and about whom next to nothing was known proved far from easy. There were several hundred people of that name whom it could have been and it took several months of trial and error until telephone contact was made with the woman thought to be his daughter. Their perseverance paid off as not only was the lady in question Jones’ daughter but she said that she had a stash of photos from his time playing for Somerset. Moments like that understandably make Stephen and Barry metaphorically jump for joy and make all the heartache worthwhile! Similar problems were encountered trying to piece together the stories of the likes of John Green and Tom Ford for this book. Both of those names are a genealogist’s nightmare. But they got there in the end. Not a single player eluded them.

Hill and Phillips remain fascinated by the players they have tracked down.  “I don’t know what it is about Somerset cricket, but it really is true that they’ve attracted a disproportionate number of larger-than-life characters. Finding out the details can be a bit like drawing teeth – a painful process. But we try to share only the joy of discovery in the books, rather than the sometimes agonising search.” Hill adds, “ I don’t know how he does it, but Barry has an amazing ability to unearth real gems with his research. He comes to me with a wealth of information that I then try to play my part in crafting into a story that hopefully flows nicely for the reader. We both prefer sniffing out the more unusual (and sometimes scurrilous) aspects of people’s lives. That gets slightly tricky with the more recent players.”

Of course there needs to be some editorial propriety, some things are best left unwritten. When players give you an open and honest account of their lives, you have to respect that what went on behind closed doors stays behind closed doors. The needs of the writer come a lowly third behind the people featured and the pleasure of the reader. All Hill and Phillips hope is that their love of Somerset cricket and their genuine fondness for the players – the good and the bad, both as men and as cricketers – shines through. 

What about the characters in this book? A lot of them were definitely flawed individuals.  The pair were both amazed to discover that Somerset’s first club captain, S. C. Voules was arrested, a few years after he’d retired from the priesthood, for molesting a boy scout in a cinema. Another Somerset player, Charles Gilby, who was an esteemed pillar of the Bath community, was sentence for flashing!

Other colourful characters included Arthur Dickens, a blackmailer who spent time in Bedford Jail and became a notorious drunk, going around the USA, claiming to be the long-lost nephew of Charles Dickens, before blowing his own brains out in a Los Angeles doss house. And Arthur Treadgold, who was aptly named because he left his job as a teacher at Bath College to seek his fortune in the gold rush in the Klondike, made a lot of money and then lost it before spending the rest of his life fighting his corner in the law courts. He also happened to be the country’s foremost authority on moths! 

For sheer brass neck, Fred Cole tops the bill. In later life, he went on stage telling audiences about his amazing exploits, including his role in the American Civil War. Which was fascinating, except that it was a pack of lies as he’d been at primary school at the time. He wasn’t the only one to land himself in hot water. John Larpent, the 9th Baron de Hochepied, was an impoverished member of the aristocracy who was declared bankrupt.

At the other end of the spectrum was the fabulously wealthy Tankerville Chamberlayne, who tried unsuccessfully to wrest control of Somerset CCC from Rev Ainslie, who wanted Taunton to be the centre of gravity of Somerset cricket. Anyone who loves the County Ground should probably be pleased that Tankerville lost that battle, but disappointed that it cast the die on Somerset’s chances of competing for honours for another hundred years. 

Then there was the accident prone Harty Haigh who was nuts about his pet cats. Maybe the most touching story, though, is Ernest Cassan’s. The book explains the reasons for his suicide on Christmas Eve 1904. 

Asked if they have a favourite and a least favourite? Hill tells me that the man he liked least was Edward Whitting, a drunken wife-beater and generally arrogant, nasty piece of work while the one he liked most was a Quaker called Travis Mills someone he’d have liked to have spent a week walking with in the Lake District (which he loved to do) and talking to him about his life. Mills died in 1948, so that was never going to happen! 

Perhaps the most astonishing part of this mammoth research project was when Barry was fortunate enough to spend an afternoon with the cricket writer, John Woodcock, who, amazingly, is the son – yes, the son – of Rev Parry Woodcock, a man who played cricket for Somerset more than 140 years ago, in 1879. 

Hill closes by saying, “If our books are still around in 140 years’ time and someone picks them up and enjoys them, the last six years of hard work will have been worth it. And maybe Somerset will have landed their first County Championship by then!”

I’ll beg to differ on the first part of that statement. 

Stephen Hill, Barry Phillips, thank you. The last six years hard work have been more than worth it.