Thornton's great hit
An investigation by Gerald Brodribb
His reputation as a hitter went back to his schooldays when in his last match for Eton v Harrow at Lord's in 1868 he drove a ball over the pavilion (not the present one put up in 1890). This hit was considered by John Lillywhite to be the best straight drive he ever saw. It seemed that Thornton's intention whenever he went in was to make some great hit, and though he scored only five hundreds in his first-class career, he played many memorable innings including one of 107 not out out of 133 runs in only 70 minutes with eight sixes and 12 fours in a match at Scarborough in 1886. Thornton was largely responsible for the creation of the Scarborough Festival, and was a notable figure there until his death in 1929.
He certainly produced many long hits during his career, in which he played for Cambridge University, Kent, Middlesex and various scratch sides. We know of at least seven hits which were measured at between 130 and 150 yards. An even longer hit than this appeared in publications of the 1890s - said to have been made in practice at Brighton in 1871. Ashley-Cooper in his Chats on the Cricket Field (1910) accepts this date, and Wisden's obituary of Thornton repeats it.
I was anxious to find out more about this prodigious hit claimed to be in the 160-yard range, and as the name of the old cricket historian A. J. Gaston was associated with the reports I first looked at his books of cuttings in the Brighton Public Library, many of them from his articles in the Evening Argus, which appeared under the name `Leather Hunter'. This produced nothing, so I next approached Desmond Eagar, who possessed some Gastoniana, and he kindly found an undated cutting referring to the Thornton hit, which stated that `there was abundant evidence to prove its authenticity.' The note also referred to a recent letter published in the Sussex Daily News by one who remembered the hit well. He was H. E. Harris, secretary of the Brighton Club, who had invited Thornton to play for the club in a game against Horsham at the county ground in 1876. This letter later proved to have been written in 1919. The statement that the year was 1876 and not 1871 was very important: in 1871 the old Brunswick ground was being used, and the present county ground was not in use until 1872.
I looked at many newspaper files before at last a brief note was found about a two-day match between Brighton and Horsham on August 25-26, 1876. Thornton was playing and scored 22 and 0. (Scores and Biographies records this match). So Harris's letter had been confirmed: he had gone on to say that the hit was made from a point where Thornton was practising before the match in front of the pavilion, and that the ball went right over the entrance gate. Harris also mentioned that the Rev. James Pycroft happened to be present, 'and had the hit measured with the tape'.
The next thing to do was to find out if Pycroft himself said anything about this. Search of his books produced a brief reference in Oxford Memories (1886) that `Thornton from in front of the pavilion at Brighton hit straight over the bowler's head, 140 yards, clearing the entrance gate into the road, measured by me', and in a letter to the editor of Cricket for September 12, 1889 he wrote of this same hit: `I saw Thornton hit straight into the road by the paygate. The distance was measured by me with the chain as 142 yards. From the height the ball passed over the gate, and the fact of the ball dropping amidst some cabmen, I can safely say that the ball grounded full 160 yards from the bat.'
It would seem that the precise point of landing was not exactly noted, but that the distance was at least 160 yards. W. G. Grace's book Cricket (1891) states that Thornton hit a ball 168 yards at Brighton `the distance being measured by Pycroft'. In an interview in 1892 Thornton says the distance was 162 yards, and in Pearson's Athletic Record of July 24, 1897 Gaston repeats the same figure. In 1899 the hit was being claimed in three different publications as `the longest authenticated hit ever made', and W. J. Ford's Giants of the Game refers to the `record of 168 yards 2 feet which stands to Thornton's credit'.
Many years later, in 1921, Thornton wrote that `the ball pitched in the road close to where Pycroft was passing. He made a mark then and there, and we measured it with a chain-160 yards.'
It is a pity that Pycroft was not more specific about the circumstances of the measuring, but whatever the true distance was, it was certainly a remarkable hit.
When I began the research, I knew little, but now at last I had learn the exact date, the exact ground, and discovered personal statements from Thornton himself, from Pycroft, and the club secretary. What else could be learnt?
By a stroke of luck I found a series of letters on big hits in The Field in 1912, among which P. M. Thornton, cousin of C.I., quoted a letter he had received from G. Lionel King, son of the Sussex secretary G. W. King. Lionel King had played in this match: he was 19 at the time and had just left Rugby. A charming portrait of him as a boy was done by the great Nicholas Felix, and hangs in the pavilion at Hove. Lionel King wrote to say that he was bowling lobs to Thornton before the match started, and that Thornton hit one of them straight over the entrance gate: `I have never seen such a carry before or since. In those days there were no regular practice wickets, but before a match a stump was stuck up somewhere in front of the pavilion and people had a knock there. The hit had an enormous amount of beef in it.'
So I now had an eye-witness account from the man who had delivered the ball, and further information comes in a letter which Lionel King wrote to A. J. Gaston in 1922. I quote it in full:
Dear Mr Gaston,
I see that you say you were present at Thornton's big hit. I bowled the ball and sent Bettesworth a plan of the ground and told him all that I could remember. I have always been under the impression that Pycroft was not there, but came up afterwards. Anyhow he had to guess where the ball actually pitched. I should say the ball was hit by the bat just opposite the pavilion gate, and that the distance from there to the entrance is 140 yes to 150.
Would you let me know your facts? Bar H. E. Harris I could not put my finger on any of those who I know were there. I had not the least idea that you were, or I should have saved myself much though
G. Lionel King
I doubt if we can find out anything further about a great hit that was possibly the greatest hit of the greatest hitter the game has knows I hope that my researches have done justice to it, and may be of interest they also show what exciting facts still lie buried in obscure files, waiting to be excavated.
Let all those who pass through the main gates of the County Ground at Hove touch their caps to the memory of a hit that on the morning of August 25, 1876 would have sailed over their heads and fluttered the nearby cabbies.