Top-hatted star who put Norfolk on the sporting map
PUBLISHED: 11:56 28 June 2014
Immortalised in verse as well as newsprint, Norfolk cricket legend Fuller Pitch was the peak of his game 175 years ago. STEVE SNELLING salutes a top-hatted sporting superstar.
It was cricket, but not quite as we know it. Batsmen wore top hats rather than helmets, there were no boundaries which meant that every scoring shot had to be run and play lasted as long as there was light enough to see. But it wasn’t the conditions that bothered Norfolk’s most famous cricketing son on a summer’s day 175 years ago.
Fuller Pilch, the greatest batsman of his generation, had just seen the top order of his illustrious Kent team demolished in successive balls by one of England’s finest round-arm bowlers.
Pilch knew all about Sam Redgate. The 28-year-old from Nottingham had been terrorising batsmen for years with an action described somewhat understatedly as “very fast and ripping, with a good deal of ‘spin’.”
In one notable encounter four years earlier, he had succumbed twice to Redgate’s venomous attack with what were, by his high standards, only paltry scores to his name.
On this particular day and in this particular four-ball over, however, Redgate appeared to have scaled new heights of hostility. His first ball clean bowled William Stearman and his second delivery sent Alfred Mynn packing - each success being toasted with a glass of brandy brought out to the wicket by an enthusiastic spectator.
Next in was Pilch. True to form and with his customary grace and skill, he had accumulated 35 runs, the second highest score, in his first innings. The second innings, however, was a different story.
It lasted just two balls. The first fairly fizzed off the pitch narrowly missing his off stump. The second clattered his stumps, allowing Redgate the rare satisfaction of downing a third brandy in four balls while raucous spectators clamoured to make fresh wagers.
During the course of the three-day match huge sums of money changed hands. One well-heeled punter was said to have lost £1,500; another kissed goodbye to £500 - fortunes in early Victorian Britain.
There were, indeed, plenty of losers, but Fuller Pilch was not one of them. As well as celebrating victory by the narrowest of margins over the strongest England team the MCC could then muster, he pocketed the lion’s share of the gate receipts since the match, now regarded as a classic of the pre-Test, pre-County Championship era, was staged as a benefit in his honour.
And there was an added bonus for Norfolk’s finest cricketer. At the end of the game, Pilch disclosed that Sussex had made him an offer he could not refuse to play for them, prompting the ‘gentlemen’ backers of Kent to rally round and match their rivals’ proposition, thus ensuring that the best batsman of cricket’s so-called ‘middle ages’ continued to ply his trade in the ‘Garden of England’.
In a 34-year career filled with incident, the dramatic game played out at Town Malling in August 1839 was an undoubted highlight. But, in truth, it was only one of many peaks that punctuated the sporting life of a tailor’s son from Horningtoft who became a 19th century superstar long before the term had ever been invented.
Widely acknowledged as the greatest English batsman before W G Grace, Fuller Pilch was, in the words of former Prime Minister and cricket chronicler John Major, “a giant of times past”.
To Mike Davage and Stephen Musk, who are currently working on a biographical history of Norfolk cricket spanning 1826 and 1875, Pilch’s stature in his home county was on a par with the late, great Bill Edrich in the 20th century.
“He was the best player of his time,” says Davage, “and what’s more he was every bit as popular as Edrich. By all accounts, he was an extremely personable fellow who was well-liked within the game.”
Both men came from strong Norfolk cricketing clans. Both were selected to play for their country, albeit the process was rather different in Pilch’s day, and both received the adulation and adoration of supporters. But there the similarity ends. Whereas the phrase ‘wine, women and song’ might have been invented for the five-times married Edrich, whose cavalier lifestyle seemed to one commentator to epitomise the peculiarly ‘British breed of incurable scallywag’, Pilch was the consummate professional who approached life with an altogether more straight bat.
Modest rather than showy, he was nevertheless a “great stylist”, a peerless exponent of front-foot batting, “long-legged and elegant” in John Major’s description, who was capable of dealing with all kinds of bowling, from under-arm to round-arm, from “creeping grounders” to “regular flings”.
A bachelor all his life, he was wedded to the game he loved more than anything and which he served faithfully as player, coach, groundsman, administrator, umpire and supporter.
“As a man,” writes cricket historian Patrick Morrah, “he was simple and unassuming, with a dry humour that made him the best of company.” As a cricketer at the height of his fame, he was beyond compare, with an “impeccable defence and a reach that enabled him to stride forward and smother the ball” and a cover shot played from an upright stance to rival any in the game.
In an age of erratic and sometimes infrequent matches and slow scoring on pitches of often dubious quality his record was remarkable. According to his biographer Brian Rendell, Pilch amassed nearly 14,000 runs, perhaps more, in all grades of cricket, including 10 centuries in a period when three figures “was as rare as a triple-hundred is today”.
Of those, more than half were scored in the course of 228 matches deemed to have been ‘first class’ games and such was his prowess that six years out of 10 during the 1830s he was leading scorer at the game’s highest level.
Yet, for all his success and subsequent acclaim, Pilch was far from being the instant success that the setting for his debut might have suggested. He was just 16 when he turned out at Lord’s for what was billed as a clash between Norfolk and the MCC, but was, according to Davage and Musk, nothing of the kind.
Referring to the “infamous” match, Musk insists that the ‘Norfolk’ team “wasn’t really Norfolk at all, but Holt”. Or at least, eight Holt players, including the three cricketing brothers Pilch - Nathaniel, William and Fuller - with three ‘MCC’ men added to make up the numbers.
“Basically,” says Musk, “it’s counted as a ‘first class’ match because one of the MCC players scored a then record 278 runs and when the Association of Cricket Statisticians all got together to classify which of the games should be considered ‘first class’ they decided to count it simply on account of the wonderful score.”
What is not in doubt is that a game that would prove to be the first of many Lord’s outings was a relatively inauspicious one so far as the teenage prodigy from Norfolk was concerned.
Even then, though overshadowed by his elder brothers, he evidently did enough to impress William Ward, the game’s prodigious run scorer, of his great potential. Proving himself to be as prophetic as he was gifted with the bat, Ward declared: “If that young Pilch goes on in his play, there is much promise in him.”
And so it proved. As Patrick Morrah observes: “During the next 10 years Fuller Pilch brought batting to a perfection never yet realised.” Featuring prominently for Holt, a variety of Norfolk elevens and, most notably, as professional for Bury St Edmunds between 1824 and 1831, he garnered an enviable and richly deserved reputation with bat and ball.
Described by Morrah as “a fine figure of a man, a little over six feet tall, and well proportioned”, he impressed with the “best type of forward play”, making the most of his reach and driving with commanding ease. “In an age of small scores his were consistently high,” notes Morrah.
A year after joining Bury, Pilch starred in a famous victory over Nottingham in a “grand match at cricket”, a 100 sovereigns-a-side game, played at Rougham Park before a crowd of several thousand which included “the High Sheriff, the Duke of Grafton and their families and numerous assemblages of neighbouring gentry”.
After a slow start, his Suffolk career prospered to the point where he was in demand for paid ‘guest’ appearances all over the country. From then on, and throughout his time as professional at Norwich (1831-1835) and Town Malling in Kent, where he was lured by an offer of £100 a year plus the living from the George Tavern, he would enjoy a confusion and profusion of allegiances.
In 1829, for instance, he played six matches in five weeks, appearing both for Norfolk, in two games against the MCC, and against them, as a member of the Suffolk team. The following year he was hired to play for no fewer than eight different teams, including Norfolk at Dereham where he helped defeat a strong MCC side by eight wickets.
In all these outings, his standard rarely slipped. Of the six-match run played between July and August 1829 five ended in victories for his team with him contributing 237 of the 804 runs scored with top scores in seven of the 12 innings.
1834 proved a golden summer for Pilch and his home county. He recorded two centuries and four half centuries to end the season with an average of 61.22 and a grand total of 551 ‘first class’ runs, almost 400 more than the second-highest scorer.
Three of his highest scores were against Yorkshire. The first was in an astonishing 272-run thrashing of their northern visitors on a Norwich wicket prepared by Pilch himself, and the second a controversial, five-day rain-disrupted match which ended with Pilch marooned on an unbeaten 153 and Norfolk 124 runs short of their target with four wickets standing.
The match was drawn because the Norfolk team could not afford to stay another night in their lodgings. According to Nathaniel Pilch, the match sponsor, the wonderfully named Squire Rippingall, was “hopping mad, but not mad enough to cover their extra expenses”.
Such epic displays by the younger Pilch came as little surprise, least of all to followers of Yorkshire cricket. Only the previous year, Norfolk’s finest had bested their own hero, the Sheffield all-rounder Tom Marsden, in two famous single-wicket matches which were marketed as being for the Championship of England.
These matches held great appeal to spectators but rather less to Pilch who had spent three years studiously avoiding Marsden’s ‘gauntlet’.
In the event, he won both matches, played in Norwich and Sheffield, easily. The latter, played in front of more than 20,000 people, was so one-sided that, according to one newspaper report, “had it not been for the great popularity of the Norfolk man the spectators would never have allowed the match to be completed”.
Variously described as the “crack player of England” and the “great gun of the south”, Pilch would remain, in many people’s eyes, the finest batsman in the land until the mid-1840s, long after his Norfolk heyday and a decade after helping turn Kent into the country’s leading cricketing county.
Though occasionally he would fail to “put a stopper” on a ball which “insinuated” itself in his stumps, Pilch was still good enough and a big enough draw to command a place as one of nine professionals in William Clarke’s cricketing circus which toured the country under the title of the ‘All England Eleven’ in 1846.
A purely commercial venture which nevertheless succeeded in promoting the game at grass roots level, particularly in northern England, the tour gave thousands of people the chance to see glimpses of Pilch’s greatness towards the end of a glorious playing career that would eventually close in 1854.
For years, he had effectively managed Kent cricket off the field, been the county’s principle selector and talent scout and been largely responsible for creating two of the best grounds in the country. But sadly for a hero whose exploits would be celebrated in verse as well as newsprint, there was to be no happy ending.
A life crammed with sporting success faded like so many others into failing health and financial ruin. When he died in his adopted county of Kent in 1870, the former undisputed king of English cricket was reliant on a pension of £1 a week from one of his old clubs.
A memorial paid for by public subscription saluted Kent’s most famous Norfolk son with a Latin inscription, ‘Viro simlici, constanti probo’ - ‘a straightforward man, constant and honest’. He was all of that and much more besides.
Personally, though, I prefer a different epitaph, one that came from his own lips as he gave vent to the manner in which the game he so loved should best be played – full of spirit and positivity. “I like a young gentleman who is active in the field,” he said, “and as mischievous as a ship’s monkey when he is in – who doesn’t care for anybody, and who will hit her all over the shop.”