The unlikely philanthropist
Sir Julien Cahn's XI was country house in style, first-class in performance. Stephen Chalke looks back on the game's most eccentric benefactor
Sir Julien Cahn wanted to be an English country gentleman. And what better way was there to do that than to buy a country house, become a Master of Hounds and run his own cricket team?
What a team it became! He owned grounds at West Bridgford in Nottingham and Stanford Hall near Loughborough. He signed up Test cricketers from the southern hemisphere and he entertained all the touring sides except the Australians. His team lost only 19 of the 621 matches they played between 1923 and 1941, and their winter tours - to such places as Canada, Argentina, Jamaica, Ceylon and New Zealand - were still spoken of years later.
His father, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, had built up a furniture business in Nottingham before the First World War and Julien - seeing a fresh market in hire purchase sales - expanded it to the point where his `Jays' and `Campbells' stores could be found in towns all across Britain.
By the 1920s he was a wealthy man who spent lavishly and generously. It is said that he fell in love with cricket when, as a boy, he sat under Parr's tree at Trent Bridge, listening to the great Arthur Shrewsbury. In 1925 he joined the committee at Nottinghamshire, where his donations covered much of the cost of a new scoreboard, indoor nets and two new stands.
In 1926 he completed his West Bridgford ground, building a luxurious pavilion that housed a collection of ancient bats and that could also be converted into a badminton court. Two years later he bought Stanford Hall, where he created a second cricket ground, a nine-hole golf course, a bowling green and a large lake stocked with trout. He built a pond for performing sea lions, an art-deco theatre with a Wurlitzer organ and a secret tunnel for the magic tricks that he loved to perform.
He became a notable philanthropist and was made a baronet. He saved Byron's home, Newstead Abbey, buying it and donating it to Nottingham Corporation. He funded research into the grass used by impoverished Welsh hill farmers. With Stanley Baldwin's wife he founded the National Birthday Trust, funding a maternity home in Stourport and introducing the use of gas and oxygen in childbirth. He was a patron of musical concerts in Nottingham and such was his generosity towards the Leicestershire hunts that he became Master of three of them, the first Jewish man ever to acquire such status.
But cricket was his first love and such was the strength of the sides he assembled that several of their matches were accorded first-class status. So in Kingston, Jamaica in March 1929, aged 46, he made his first-class debut, captaining a team containing eight Test cricketers - including the former England captain Lord Tennyson and Surrey's Andrew Sandham, who would return to the island the next winter and make Test cricket's first triple century. Cahn batted at No. 11, broke a finger and was bowled for nought - but he made his contribution in other ways, bringing with him plenty of Fortnum and Mason hampers. When his grandson visited the island many years later, he was introduced to an old Jamaican who, as a boy, had carried Cahn's bags and had been so taken with him that he had changed his name to `Julien Cahn'.
No English first-class cricketer of the 20th century can have had less ability than Cahn. He was a hypochondriac, often preferring his electric wheelchair to walking, employing a nurse and thinking nothing of hiring a private train to bring Lord Horder, the King's reserve physician, to Stanford Hall. Conscious of brittle bones, he batted in special inflatable pads that it was his chauffeur's duty to pump up. His umpire John Gunn, the old Notts cricketer, never gave him lbw and - keen to retain this fixture - neither did opposition umpires. According to Jim Swanton, "the pads were very large, and the ball bounced readily off them for leg-byes, which the umpires conveniently forgot to signal". Philip Snow, younger brother of the novelist CP Snow, recalls playing for the Leicestershire Gentlemen at Stanford Hall on the occasion when the pads deflated: "He'd no sooner come out to bat than there was a loud hissing noise. I liked him but he was a real autocrat, a martinet. He stalked off the pitch, sacked his chauffeur on the spot and declared the innings."
Nevertheless Cahn hit a match-winning 64 against the London Press in 1930 and 10 years later, at 57, scored 35 in an opening partnership of 178 with `Lofty' Newman, the former Surrey batsman who was his personal secretary.
He also loved to bowl, throwing the ball high in the air and relying on athletic fielders to take boundary catches. As one observer remarked: "His bowling was not so much up and down as to and fro." Yet on a mantelpiece in Stanford Hall, his elder son Albert recalls, there were several mounted balls, "each with a little inscription of what he'd done." In Ceylon and Malaya in 1937, he finished with tour figures of 10 for 159 in 29 overs and nestled in the averages between the Australian Jack Walsh and the South African Test allrounder Denijs Morkel.
By the mid-1930s Cahn's philanthropy had extended to the near-bankrupt Leicestershire. He arranged for Stewie Dempster, the great New Zealand batsman, to work as his store manager in Leicester so that he could captain the county. "At that time," Philip Snow says, "Dempster was regarded as the best player of slow bowling in the world. He was incredibly quick on his feet." He was outstandingly successful at Leicester but Cahn, who often took him off to play for his own team, limited his appearances. It was the same story with Jack Walsh, whose chinamen took 216 wickets for Cahn's XI in 1938 but who was released for only four county matches.
Such was his financial clout and such the fun of his cricket that he retained the loyalty of many first-rate players. Dempster, Walsh and Morkel would have been assets in any county side, as would the adventurous fast bowler Bob Crisp, who took 107 wickets for the South Africans in 1935. Wicketkeeper Cecil Maxwell represented the Gentlemen against the Players in 1935 on the strength of his performances for Cahn and both Ian Peebles and Walter Robins, the England legspinners, could often be found at West Bridgford and Stanford Hall. Not everybody was lured, though. `Topsy' Wass, Notts' greatest wicket-taker, expressing disapproval of Cahn's hire purchase business: "I'm not working for a fellow who sells you a lot of furniture and takes it back six months later."
Sir Julien Cahn's XI were far too strong for most opponents and that was how he wanted it. Minor County sides were often beaten by an innings and beside the West Bridgford pavilion the fox's tail that was raised for victory was rarely down. "Lunch was terrific," Philip Snow recalls. "He always saw that the opposing side were well victualled. But he kept an eye on his own team not to have too much wine."
The British establishment fascinated him. "His parents were strict Jews but he was an atheist," son Albert says. "He got great fun from finding out about Freemasonry and all the secret handshakes. He used to pull their legs."
He became a member of MCC, acting as its intermediary in approaching Harold Larwood after the Bodyline tour, but his Jewish roots and his trade background were not easily accepted at Lord's and he fell out with the club when he was not allowed to serve on any of its committees.
He sent Albert to Harrow - a smaller school than Eton; there would be more chance of his making the cricket XI - but, alas, the boy had no more ability than his father. A message was sent to the coach Patsy Hendren that he would be amply rewarded if Albert were selected. Back came the reply: "You could pay me a thousand pounds; I still couldn't manage it."
Sir Julien was a driven man, requiring his office staff to start at 5.30am on cricket and hunting days and, when advised by his doctor to slow down, he refused, dying at his desk at Stanford Hall in September 1944 after a day on duty as a magistrate at Nottingham Guildhall - he had already sold his business to Sir Isaac Wolfson, upset by bad publicity about rationing irregularities at some of his stores. His widow sold Stanford Hall to the Co-operative Society the following year, retiring to Sussex where she never watched another cricket match.
But another Julien Cahn, Albert's son, born after his grandfather's death, has revived the family tradition, playing cricket with no great skill in fund-raising ventures for cancer research at the Royal Marsden Hospital and supporting "the real grass roots of cricket" with the London Community Cricket Association. "My grandfather could be impossible at times but he was a great man. He lived his life to the full, his staff adored him and he took his civic duties very seriously. His work for the National Birthday Trust lives on."
So, too, does the pavilion at West Bridgford. After a spirited local campaign against demolition, Rushcliffe Council is renovating it: a memorial to one of cricket's greatest eccentrics - and most generous patrons.