A Great Team Built: 1933-1939
That remark had a dreadful dramatic irony. Lionel Hedges died on 12th January 1933, only thirty-two years of age. So Woof retained the captaincy and he had to start the season under a pair of very severe handicaps. Not only was there no Hedges in the batting order but Bowen drifted off to Bristol in the (unfulfilled) hope of making his career with the County, so the bowling too was weakened. The loss of those two players would in any case have made it hard to continue the improvement so far shown, but in addition the established batsmen failed to take full advantage of a fine summer. Reg Smith and Edge in particular had a hard time.
In June not one match was won and the first total of over 200 in a weekend fixture came only at the end of August. On this occasion Yeend and Smith pulled the Worcester game round with a stand of 100 after seven wickets had gone for 118. The nadir of the season was reached early in July when defeat at Stroud by 152 runs led to a protracted “dressing-room meeting” and an exasperated press remark about “an epidemic of timidity”.
From then on some improvement was shown. Jack Sewell, only nineteen years old, established himself in the First XI with a consistent run of scores, beginning appropriately with 68 not out against Cheltenham College. Later came 57 off Stroud at the Victoria Ground, 47 not out in a dismal total of 109 against Gloucester and 91 in the last match of the year at Cirencester. His average of just over 30 was enough to put him at the head of that season’s batting.
The weather in 1934 remained fine and Cheltenham’s playing record improved, though too many matches were drawn for lack of penetrative bowling. Yet when one looks at the averages Billy Woof took 97 wickets and Jack Sewell and the very useful Alleyne Davies collected another 75 between them. The combined average of the trio was only 13. For some reason not apparent in match reports Yeend bowled fewer than 100 overs in the entire season; strange, because those tantalising spinners were as likely to undo good batsmen as anything else.
The batting showed marked improvement, not before time. Sewell made the greatest advance, using that unfair reach to reduce every type of bowling to shambles on his day, and he ended with an aggregate of 568 and his maiden century for the club, against Worcester in September. Business compelled Ince to become a Wednesday XI player, but Jack Smith formed an admirable opening partnership with Peter Barnett and Davies made some valuable contributions with the bat to supplement his bowling.
Two of the fixtures with Gloucester ended in emphatic victories for the Town, but in the third Gloucester recovered from 18 for 3 to total 220 and win by 128 runs. On another occasion it was Cheltenham who had to be rescued. Facing Worcester’s score of 151 they were 29 for 5; then Cyril Price and Ken Fisher, neither of them then First XI regulars, added 84. There was brief entertainment at Bourton Vale. The Vale, chasing 187, were 62 for 9 when Leonard Hill, later well known nationally for his involvement with penguins but then a very useful left-arm bowler, arrived and promptly hit the first two balls he received from Woof into an adjoining field. The closest finish was at Stroud. Cheltenham made only 128, but Stroud had their last two batsmen together and still needed two runs when one of the pair hit up a steepling skier. Three fieldsmen converged on the ball, and down it went to give Stroud their victory.
At the AGM in 1935 admission charges to the Victoria Ground were abandoned. Until then sixpence was taken at the gate from non-members, and teas were served at 9d. The paying entrance was between the then clubhouse and the groundsman’s shed, but how regularly it was manned is open to question, for in 1930 we find one member concluding a long catalogue of discontents (including the eternal one about late starts) with the comment that a total take of £15 from ninety matches was “disgraceful”. So now two young members, Phillip Woof (a joint treasurer) and Jack Sewell, successfully proposed that admission to all games should be free. The money thus lost was in the event more than recovered by instituting ground collections.
At last the Town hit their collective form. Only four games were lost in 1935 and two of these were during the Kent tour. Sewell led the batting with 760 runs and an average that matched the other achievements of Hedges and Charles and Edgar Barnett. Three times he reached 100, including an innings of 119 not out in August that won the match for Cheltenham after Swindon Great Western Railway had declared, apparently safe, at 244 for 5. Yeend, Davies and Jack Smith provided fine support, and a new name appeared; Cyril Gibbons, captain of the Grammar School the year before, who won his promotion to the First XI by making 109 not out for the Second against Cheltenham Banks on 11th May. (A fourteen-year-old A.G.S. Wilcox had also played in that match). Gibbons began with 44 at Swindon, scored 95 not out against Tewkesbury at the end of July, when he and Jack Smith shared an opening stand of 117, and in all made 472 runs in less than a full season.
Woof remained the principal wicket taker, though he had help from Sewell, who joined him in June in demolishing Cirencester for 28, as well as from Yeend and Charles Osborne, another College master, who married Hedges’ widow.
Not everything was satisfactory; one wonders about Gloucester’s reaction on that late August evening when, with the Town 66 for 8 and still 111 short of their target, the players came off the field because of bad light. Stroud fared better, recovering from 87 for 6 to overhaul a Cheltenham score of 171 and win by a single wicket for the second year running.
The English climate compensated itself for the 1933-35 dry spell with a wetter summer in 1936. Seven matches had to be cancelled, including two of the Gloucester fixtures. Not surprisingly, it was a bowler’s year; in the regular batsmen’s averages only Yeend bettered 30, and only one hundred was made. That was not by George Emmett, for whom this was the first of two seasons spent with the Town while he was fulfilling his two-year qualifying period with Gloucestershire. Emmett, surely one of the most beautiful stroke-players ever seen in English county cricket, had a best score of only 67 for Cheltenham in 1936, and that was at Herne Bay on the Kent tour. In weekend matches his best was 47 against Stroud. He distinguished himself more as a bowler, leading the final averages and taking six for six against Bourton Vale.
In all no fewer than five of the Town’s bowlers took their wickets at under ten runs apiece. Needless to say, Woof was one of the five. During the Kent tour he secured all ten against Folkestone for 36 runs – the first Cheltenham bowler, as far as can be ascertained, to perform this feat. For the only time between the wars, the Town won every game on tour, though they only beat Ashford (by just two runs) after being themselves dismissed for 50.
A new idea in 1936 was a cricket week to be held on the Victoria Ground in early June. In the event the weather expressed itself against cricket weeks, and only Friday’s match was played. This was against Cheltenham Grammar School, and the School included future Town First XI players in D.N. Perry and P.L.Gregory, as well as that great sporting character of later years, Bob Parker. The boys’ batting responded creditably to Cheltenham’s intimidating 258 for 4 (Sewell 128) but they were beaten by 103. The next cricket week put on in 1947, in a very different manner. Young players who actually came into the Town’s senior side that year included a batsman, Jack Blake, and an off-spinner, George Ward, both of whom were soon to be noticed.
With Billy Woof finally resigning the captaincy at the age of 55, the AGM of 1937 made the youngest appointment in the history of the Club. Jack Sewell responded by heading the batting and the bowling averages with 712 runs and 37 wickets. Even his run aggregate was eclipsed by Jack Smith’s 773, and in all five batsmen made centuries, one of them being Cyril Gibbons’ maiden success against the Bristol Aeroplane Company. Reg Smith’s long spell of indifferent form came to an end and he averaged nearly 40.
On the Wednesday of the Devon tour Cheltenham, facing an Exeter total of over 200, soon lost Emmett. Sewell and Jack Smith then put on 216 and won the match. That partnership remained Cheltenham’s best for any wicket until 1980, when Howard Clifton and David Waterston added 282 for the third wicket in a National Club Knockout tie.
Emmett did not play after the tour; he remained in Torquay for the rest of the season, but by this time he had already made 486 runs for the Town, including a murderous 144 in 98 minutes at Gloucester. Cheltenham’s total, in 128 minutes, was 275 for 4. They also made 257 against Swindon and 245 at Worcester, but 200 was not always enough. Stroud at the end of June went in needing 209 and won by three wickets.
Woof still bowled nearly 300 overs in spite of missing the last three matches with a sprain, but in 1937 there was a healthy tendency to spread the load. Emmett took 24 wickets and a returned Jack Watts (who injured himself at the same time as Woof) had 22, but the best strike rate of all was shown by Yeend’s leg spin. He took 52 wickets in only 152 overs.
This was the season that saw the last of county cricket on the Victoria Ground. In June Kent were the visitors and the game, like several earlier ones , ended in two days with an innings victory for Gloucestershire, who included Jack Sewell. Their innings had a somewhat lop-sided makeup. Charlie Barnett and Walter Hammond shared a second-wicket stand of 173 in only 95 minutes, but even so the score was 233 for 9 when Neale and Goddard added a final 46. This match was memorable for the biggest hit ever recorded on the ground. Hammond’s straight drive off Alan Watt, no mean smiter himself, cleared the boundary wall, the garden, the housetop, and Kings Road itself before falling into the opposite garden.
In the same summer the touring Australian Womens’ team played the West of England on the ground, but the first-class game was not to be seen again until 1986. Colonel Henson, Gloucestershire’s secretary, came to the Club’s annual dinner of 1938 to explain that the expense could no longer be borne. There was renewed hope when in 1939 plans were being made for the county, who faced the loss in 1940 of their Bristol Headquarters, to become nomadic and play a proportion of their home matches on the Victoria Ground. But in 1940 there was no county cricket and on its resumption in 1946 the position in Bristol had totally changed.
By the time the 1938 season began there had been political changes in the Town. In the summer of 1937 Sir Walter Preston, the Club President, announced his retirement from the House of Commons. Alderman Daniel Lipson was so aggrieved when he failed to gain the Conservative nomination that he stood against the official candidate in what not surprisingly developed into a particularly mud-bespattered by-election. (A similar situation nearly developed in 1962). But Lipson won, and as the Borough Member of Parliament he was duly elected as the Club’s new President. Emotions remained strong among Cheltenham Tories, and a determined attempt was made at the 1939 AGM to elect a new President, but Lipson survived, and even after he lost his seat at the 1950 election he retained the Club’s highest office until his death in 1963.
A move was made at the AGM in March 1938 to introduce Sunday play to the Club. John Slingsby and George Ward lost by a single vote out of 29, but when they tried again twelve months later their proposal was not even pressed to a show of hands after the President had urged that in the shadow of coming events of 1939 “it was not the time”.
George Ward waited only six weeks to be heard of again, but this time for his bowling. Cheltenham’s 1938 season began with a tie at Stratford-On-Avon, when both sides made 152 and Ward took seven for 61. Seven days later he had five Bath wickets for 34, and this time the Town won, by 125 runs. Ward’s total bag of 33 wickets was exceeded only by Yeend, who took 40, and the inevitable Billy Woof with 45.
June saw the entry into the First XI team sheet of two outstanding players who at this time were still in their teens. The story began on Whit-Saturday when at the Victoria Ground Gloucester bowled out the Town for 65 and won comfortably by eight wickets. Not surprisingly the Selection Committee made changes. Into the side for the Tewkesbury match came the 17-year-old Alfred Wilcox, and the young left-hander responded with an innings of 49. The Town scored 221 for 8 and won by 53 runs. Woof eight for 77. Wilcox went on to score 392 runs in the season at an average of 28. Next the selectors found a place for Don Perry, only eighteen years old and a bowler of distinctly sharp pace. Perry did not achieve very much in that first game, against Bristol Aeroplane; indeed at the end of July he was back in the Second XI, scoring 78 runs in the unlikely role of opening batsman against Gloucester. But in August he regained a place he was not to relinquish, apart from his years of war service, until 1970, and at the season’s end he stood head of the bowling averages with thirteen wickets for 82 runs. His batting had helped to rescue Cheltenham in late August after Stroud had taken seven of their wickets for under 70. Reg Smith (68) and Perry put on 84 and the final total was 179, after which Stroud were dismissed for 89, Perry three for 28. A third teenager showed promise that year when Charles Hitchman made 95 against a touring side.
Most of the established players enjoyed their usual success. Jack Smith was the best run-getter with over 600 to his credit. He shared in three century opening stands; one with Arthur Vollans, who himself scored over 400 runs in his first full season, and two with Gibbons. At Oxford in August Smith and Gibbons made 157 and Sewell declared at 191 for 1, only for Morris Motors to beat this score and complete a double.
Sewell himself had an uneasy start, but eventually regained his form and ended with nearly 500 runs; 81 of these, made in 49 minutes, drove (literally) Stratford-On-Avon to demoralisation. There never was a more dangerous straight driver than Sewell. Yeend in fact was the only regular to suffer a poor batting season, and on those occasions when the early batting broke down either Meadows, who made the Club’s only hundred of 1938, or Reg Smith could be depended upon to secure the middle order.
The cricket season of 1939 was inevitably played under the shadow of those greater events which eventually cut it short. Through the efforts of Alleyne Davies a new venue, South Wales, had been arranged for the tour. It was cancelled as early as mid-June, whereupon Davies tried again to organise a private party to replace it; but there was little response from Club members, and the plan was abandoned well before the worsening international outlook would have made it impossible to go in any event.
Under a new captain, Fred Lewis, the playing record for the year was most satisfactory, and only two clubs, Tewkesbury and Bristol Imperial, got the better of the Town. Tewkesbury just won by one wicket after a splendid game in which young Charles Hitchman had made 52 not out for Cheltenham.
Apart from Hitchman’s promise there was rapid progress in Wilcox’s batting and Perry’s bowling. Four times Wilcox passed fifty, including an innings of 85 against Stratford-On-Avon on the opening day of the season. Almost at once he was playing in the Minor Counties championship for Gloucestershire II against Kent II at Tewkesbury and making 31, and a fortnight later he took 86 runs at Old Trafford off a Lancashire II team in which appeared Winston Place and Bill Roberts. On June 21st he made his debut for the county side against Cambridge University at Bristol and scored 39.
Perry did little in the Stratford game, but in the next fixture, at Hereford, he took wickets with his first two balls of the Hereford innings, had a slip catch dropped off the third to lose him a sensational hat-trick, and ended with six for 17. There followed five for 33 at Evesham, seven for 19 in the return game at Stratford and seven for 34 against Bristol Aeroplane; in this last season he made local news during Cheltenham’s innings by contriving to split his bat across the grain. The next week he and Monty Cranfield bowled out Tewkesbury for 34. Already formidably quick, he had not yet acquired the accuracy combined with variety that would later make him one of the most feared bowlers in good club cricket, but in 1939 he took 45 wickets and deservedly headed the bowling with an average of 10.17.
The more experienced members contributed their share. Sewell scored over 500 runs and took 21 wickets, while Jack Smith’s 499 included 100 not out against Evesham. Gibbons totalled nearly 400 and against Gloucester at the Victoria Ground on Whit-Saturday he and Sewell, who made 112 not out in 88 minutes, shared a third-wicket stand of 156. Cheltenham declared at 257 for three and won by 127.
It may seem strange to find Billy Woof, even at fifty-seven, bowling no more than 83 overs. Yet these brought him nearly 30 wickets, and he was to the fore as peacetime cricket ended. When Cheltenham visited Morris Motors on 26th August several of their playing members, including Reg Smith, had already been called up for reserve service of one kind or another. Woof took four wickets for 48 while Don Perry, just one-third of the veteran’s age, had five for 48; then young Wilcox made 52 not out as Cheltenham won by eight wickets. The next Saturday, with the German armies already invading Poland, the British Government banned all large gatherings, which eventually included the Bath v Cheltenham cricket fixture. On September 5th an emergency meeting of the Committee decided to cancel all remaining fixtures.