Honesty observed Archbishop Whateley, is the best policy, but lie who acts on that principle is not an honest man.
Now to be celebrated for honesty among cricketers. who are apt to take that quality for granted, is tribute indeed, and, while the Rambledonians were human enough to err on occasion, they were always acutely observant of a man's character as it was revealed by his actions on the field of play. There are indeed few more acid tests.
"What's bred in the bone," wrote Neville Cardus, "will come out at the wicket." So it was with Honest John Wells.
"He was a man," declared Nyren, "of a trans-parent and unflawed integrity - plain, simple, and candid; uncompromising yet courteous; civil and deferential, yet not a cringer."
Clearly the fellow was not cut out for politics!
John Wells was born in 1759--the year of victories--and came from the village of Wrecclesham, near Farnham, like the great William Beldham whose sister he married. The distance from his home to Hambledon was 27 miles, and Wells and his brother-in-law had to ride there and back in the day. Eventually they decided to build a cart for the journey, but the dart-tax was laid on about that time, so they continued to ride.
John Wells was as upright physically as he was morally. He is described as short, thick, well-set, built like a cob-horse, and just as strong, active, and hard-working as that animal.
He had a very good underarm delivery and shared with T. C. Howard the reputation of being one of the two best fast bowlers of his time. He was a steady, effective, and-dependable batsman and a good fieldsman in any position. This latter quality was aided by the deadly accuracy of his throw-in, for which he became celebrated.
Indeed it was so marked that, on one occasion in a single-wicket match, Lord Frederick Beauclerk warned the younger Tufton (afterwards the last Earl of Thanet, who was arrested in France by Napoleon's orders in 1803) to beware of Honest John's marksmanship. But the warning was not sufficiently heeded and the honourable gentleman's wicket was thrown down from the side, where only a single stump was visible to the fieldsman.
His physical strength was evidently allied to phenomenal quickness in gathering the ball. Once he was so quick that Beldham saw him tear off a finger-nail against his shoe-buckle in the process.
All this solid worth as a cricketer was balanced by the sturdy character of the man himself. He was not only an accomplished all-rounder, but a sound judge of the game, and one to whom others appealed for his opinion on any doubtful point. It is seldom that Nyren goes to such trouble to stress a man's reliability.
"John Wells," he writes, "possessed all the requisites for making a thoroughly useful cricketer; and in his general deportment, he was endowed with those qualities which render a man useful to society as well as happy in himself."
Here, then, was both one of the finest cricketers in England and a rare fellow to meet, one whom success did not spoil nor adversity dismay.
There is, as usual, a lack of statistical record for his name does not appear in any match till 1787, when he was 28, and he must certainly have been playing before then. Nor is there anything to show- precisely when he retired from the game but, if this is the date at which he began to assist Hambledon, it seems to suggest that much of his great reputation must have been built up elsewhere, possibly in the ranks of Surrey. He was assisting the Players XI in 1806. There was a George Wells, possibly his son, who played in first-class cricket between 1814 and 1821.
John Wells was believed to be a baker by trade, but it is highly probable that he delivered more cricket-balls than loaves. He died at his native village in 1835, at the age of 76, and was laid in the same grave as his wife, with a humble "also" preceding his name on the tombstone. But, for many years afterwards. there might be seen in Wrecclesham a tribute to the memory of Honest John Wells and his illustrious brother-in-law which is surely unique in the history of Cricket. This was a sign, outside a small public house, which bore the words:
"The Rendezvous of the Celebrated Cricketers Beldham and Wells."