It may have been the `golden age of cricket' but Edwardian professionals were treated as a lesser breed, their lives often ending in alcoholism and suicide, as Robert Palmer reveals...
"Smith EJ £1 weekly during winter if willing to work (or 10% weekly if no employment found): £2 weekly during summer and farm out at Leamington if possible, or elsewhere, failing which on ground staff."
Such was a minute in the Warwickshire CCC records for August 23, 1907, referring to the famous 'Tiger' Smith, who later became the club coach until his retirement at the age of 77. The minute reads as a very inhuman entry - especially 'farm out' - and reflects the undignified haggling which went on to obtain players as cheaply as possible.
In the early years of the 1900s, these players were known as 'professors', the term possibly originating from their role as coaches at universities. The players may have felt that the term conferred upon them some status, but it certainly did not fill their pockets.
Although the players were at liberty to work in the winter, opportunities were not abundant and many relied solely on their wage from the county. At best, this provided a hand-to-mouth existence. Even Willie Quaife, who was probably the highest paid player at Warwickshire at that time, earned only around £125 per year. This sum compared to the pay of a railwayman or a clerk but these professions carried a job for life and a pension at the end of it. A cricketer was usually finished when he was 35.
In those clays, there was a huge gap between the income of a working man and those of the upper classes. As the Englishwomen's Domestic Magazine stated, "A well bred young woman's trousseau in the early 1900s for lingerie alone was expected to cost £100". In other words, roughly Jim 'Tiger' Smith's wage. Furthermore players were expected to buy their own kit and to pay their own hotel bills and rail fares. `Tiger' recalled that "the return fare Birmingham- London then was 9s 7d and you could get dinner, bed and breakfast at the Adelphi in Adam Street for 7s 6d. We had nothing to grumble at".
Admittedly clubs like Warwickshire were not well off. For example, in 1902 there was a bill for the new pavilion of £1,374 to find. The profit for that year was a slender £60. Possibly this was why the players were invited to a dinner in 1902 with the touring Australians on the understanding that they paid for their own drinks. Contrast this with the conditions of today's cosseted cricketer, with his generous salary, perhaps an England contract, lucrative sponsorship, book deal and six-figure benefit cheque. A Geoffrey Boycott speaking engagement would bring in more than a professor's annual salary.
Of course the lucky player might expect a Benefit after 10 or 11 years as a capped player. Smith in fact had two Benefits: in 1922, he received £700; and in 1954, he had a testimonial worth £698. This, however, was a rarity. And very often much of a player's benefit went on paying off debts. The Warwickshire player Johnnie Shilton earned £700 from his Benefit, but he was an undischarged bankrupt and most of the funds were already spoken for by various debtors. The committee was forced to have a discussion about his position, "he being in prison for debt". Shilton died three years later, aged 37.
It has been claimed that Shilton was 42 when he died but, having been unable to gain employment at Warwickshire because he was born a Yorkshireman, he used the birth certificate of his cousin John, who was born in Coventry five years before Shilton.
Cricket, generally, was not a long-lived profession in those days. A further hazard was the weather, which could destroy a player's one chance of putting by a nest egg for his old age, or perhaps of buying a small shop. A player called Syd Santall, who had taken more than 1,000 wickets for Warwickshire, had his benefit in the match against Yorkshire spoilt by rain and he received only £400, which would be worth about £8,000 today. Scant reward indeed.
It was not altogether surprising, therefore, that many players ended their days in penury. This was often due to their own failings, among which an addiction to drink ranked high. The players could not afford much to spend on drink. It was their admirers who were the danger, and clubs made appeals to the public not to treat professionals to a tipple. The impecunious Shilton, who was known as Lord Warwick because he was often seen riding around in a hansom cab, said: "Drink, sir, why I could swim in drink. I wish they wouldn't give me drink. I wish they would give me the money." Another said he could have drowned in drink.
It was not unknown for players to take to the field the worse for drink. Another Warwickshire player, Frank Foster, who was an amateur but strongly inclined against those of his status, recalled that he had hardly tumbled into bed at seven o'clock in the morning after a night's carousing than two team mates came into his room, stripped him, put him in the bath and for an hour "pummelled and punched" him. They then ordered him a beef steak and a pint of beer for his breakfast. He recalled that he could hardly crawl to the wicket when play began. Even so, he managed to catch Wilfred Rhodes in the first over. On another occasion he remembers leaving the card table for the breakfast table.
These anecdotes are not meant to malign old cricketers as a breed. On the whole they were fine, hard-working, steady types, which made it even worse that they should be treated the way they were. We have all heard Lord Hawke's dictum "Pray God no professional player is ever allowed to captain England". The magical gift of leadership was felt to reside only in those who had been to a decent public school.
Patsy Hendren, the old Middlesex and England player, spoke about the professionals not only having separate dressing-rooms to the amateurs, but also separate gates to the playing area at Lord's. In one match it happened that 10 amateurs were in the side together with a solitary professional, Hendren. As a concession he was invited to use the amateur's gate, but with his quirky sense of humour he insisted on using his own gate in solitary splendour.
It was much less humorous for the professors when inferior amateurs, such as public school teachers on their summer holidays, took their places, which often led to them losing badly needed match fees. Also galling was the rule at many clubs that professors were not allowed in the pavilion except at meal times or when they were specially called for.
A particular indignity was the extraneous duties that the players were required to carry out. For example, the professors were expected to umpire club and ground games or to bowl to club members in the nets for a couple of hours. This latter chore was greatly resented, as evidenced by the experience of Shilton. After bowling his heart out at a corpulent member for an hour, he was rewarded with tuppence, the price of half a pint of ale. Legend has it that he threw the money at the member's feet and shouted, "You must bloody need this more than me".
On another occasion Shilton told a member, a parson wearing a gaudy Free Foresters cap, to "get back to your pulpit where you'll be more bloody use". One can imagine the response of the great Fred Trueman to being asked to bowl to plump members wearing multi-coloured hats. 'Dick' Lilley and Sam Hargreave, who were both senior Warwickshire professionals, paid £15 apiece in order to secure their release from having to bowl at the members.
For all the penury and the indignities, life for the old professors was largely enjoyable; glorious days, in retrospect anyway, of endless sun with springy turf beneath their feet, performing legendary feats in front of adoring crowds. The reality once they hung their boots up was grim. Many could not cope with life after cricket. Then the hangers-on quickly melted away. Presents and souvenirs went to the pawn shops. Suicide was not uncommon: even the great Arthur Shrewsbury, unable to face a summer in which he would not play cricket, shot himself.
I once assumed that all cricketers found some congenial benefactor when they retired, someone who provided pleasant work somehow connected with cricket. Unfortunately there were many professors in the early 1900s who had to fend for themselves in the brutish world of the Edwardian underclass. With no marketable skills, many were forced to take ill-paid jobs: if they were lucky, a coaching appointment at a public school; if they were less lucky, working as an unskilled labourer.
How surprised the old professors would be if they could come back and see the grounds of today: the ample accommodation, with no separate dressing-rooms, nor gates for amateurs: no amateurs full stop: free and plentiful equipment; a physiotherapist to minister to aches and pains; the indoor schools, the parking spaces for the sponsored cars. The old-timers only had their bicycles to ride.
This article first appeared in The Cricketer in September 2002