Leo Harrison © Getty Images
Leo Harrison © Getty Images

Like many other seaside villages in Dorset, this particular area had what is euphemistically referred to as a ‘dark’ past, notably in the 1700s. While the legitimate activity centred round fishing, tales were recounted of nefarious activities occurring after dark, about brandy and silks, and tea and perfume being smuggled in from the sea and of shadowy figures walking the sea front under cover of the night. It was in 1745 that a ‘reformed’ smuggler had stated in the course of an inquiry that the smuggling of brandy and wines alone had netted him an income of about £40,000 per annum! Stories were told of the infamous ‘Slippery Rogers’ and of Mother Sellars, mistress of the public house The Ship in Distress, who used to be the ‘protecting angel’ of the local smugglers. Time passed, however, and the area gradually became a quiet and respectable fishing hub that went by the name of Mudeford.

It was at Mudeford, then in Hampshire, that a son was born in the household of a local builder named Harrison on June 8, 1922. The lad was christened Leo and was educated at Twynham School in nearby Christchurch, also a part of Hampshire at the time.

Harrison joined the Hampshire staff straight after his schooldays were over at the age of 15. The first mention of his name in a published scorecard is from a game Petersfield in 1937 when he played for Hampshire Club & Ground XI against Petersfield & District XV.

He was barely 17 when he made his First-Class debut for Hampshire against Worcestershire in 1939. He scored 9 and 12.

The debut game in 1939 heralded a long and fruitful association between Harrison and Hampshire during which he played 396 First-Class games as a professional, scoring a total of 8,854 runs as a right-hand bat. His career highest score was 153 and he averaged 17.49 with bat. In all, he scored 6 centuries and 27 fifties.

Harrison, whose usual fielding position was behind the stumps, held 578 catches and made 103 stumpings. his career as a wicketkeeper had begun in the post-War season of 1946, and he played 296 matches as a ’keeper, holding 521 catches behind the stumps in addition to his stumpings. In their tribute to Harrison, The Times makes the startling revelation that Harrison had initially started out as a left-handed batsman before changing his grip and switching his batting stance.

Harrison had just about wet his beak, so to speak, in First-Class cricket, having played only 2 games when World War II broke out and the youth of England flocked to the enlistment counters in answer to the patriotic call to arms. Harrison, however, was debarred from active service in RAF on account of his poor eyesight. He was sent off to Slough to train as an engineer and spent the duration of the war making instruments and outfitting the Lancasters of the Bomber Command, never leaving the shores of Britain. In his later years he would speak of his graveyard shift of 8 PM to 8 AM and how that had affected his eyesight adversely. His less-than-perfect vision did not, however, prevent him from taking on wicket-keeping duties once the War was over.

He had been in his teens when he had made the acquaintance of a certain local Hampshire policeman who would arrange his beat to go past practice grounds, occasionally joining in the cricket himself. The policeman happened to be John Arlott. The chance meeting would develop into a deep and lasting friendship allowing them to holiday together, drink wine together and talk cricket endlessly together in the characteristic mellow Hampshire accent. In 1957, Harrison’s benefit year, Leslie Thomas John Arlott was to write a privately published monograph on his friend entitled Leo Harrison: An Appreciation in a limited edition of only 70 copies, each signed individually by Arlott for the Leo Harrison Benefit Fund. Today, a copy is available on Amazon for an estimated £360.

Dave Allen, retired University lecturer, musician, music historian, and Hampshire cricket archivist, in his own appreciation of Harrison, provides a wonderful pen-picture of the life and times of the famous and popular Hampshire professional, one who happened to be the first-choice ’keeper in the Hampshire team of 1961 when the county won their first ever Championship title.

When County Championship resumed in 1946, Desmond Eagar was the new Hampshire captain, having inherited a relatively ageing group of players from the pre-War days. Eagar set about building the team for the future. Neil McCorkell, the veteran ’keeper, was still very much in evidence, though he was getting on in years. Harrison was in the team as a batsman at this time, though his performances with the bat in the immediate post-War phase were not very impressive. In a way, Harrison compensated with brilliant ground fielding for Hampshire, inspiring David Frith to comment that he had “one of the best throws I’ve ever seen, as demonstrated at Alresford Fairwhere he smashed coconut after coconut.” Harrison aggregated 567 and 256 runs respectively in 1947 and 1948 from 22 matches in both seasons, not figures that would encourage a captain to retain him in the team purely as a batsman. On the other hand, Eagar was all praise for Harrison’s fielding, calling it “outstanding”.

It was in 1948 that Eagar began experimenting with Jack Andrews and Harrison as ’keepers. Wisden had remarked that “in the absence of McCorkell, Harrison proved a capable wicketkeeper”. By 1950, there were two other young wicketkeepers in the fray for Hampshire in addition to the veteran professional McCorkell and the younger professional Harrison with amateur David Blake (a Portsmouth Dentist) and professional Ralph Prouton also putting their hands up for the job.

Harrison finally made his mark both as batsman and ‘’keeper in 1951: in 30 matches scored 1,189 runs with 2 centuries and an average of 30.48; season also saw him keeping wickets in glasses, his poor eyesight becoming more and more of a problem for him. Hampshire awarded him his county cap in 1951. 1952 turned out to be another good season for Harrison with his tally of 1,191 runs (his career-best) and 3 centuries.

It was not until 1954 that Harrison began to establish himself as the first-choice ’keeper. Harrison’s proud father had been in the habit, common to many at the time, of maintaining a scrapbook of press and other clippings connected with his son’s cricket career. The tome contained a telegram from Lord’s reading, “MCC committee invite Harrison replace Evans in Players side Wednesday.” It was almost like a military order. Quintessential professional cricketer that he was, Harrison’s reply had been equally terse, “Harrison available and honoured play Wednesday.”

And that was how, Harrison played one game for the Players (as replacement for Godfrey Evans) against the Gentlemen at Lord’s in 1955 scoring 13 and 20 and holding a catch. Not being accustomed to keeping to Alec Bedser’s prodigious in-swinging deliveries, Harrison had conceded some byes down the leg-side, something that had not endeared him to the skipper of the team, Bedser himself.

He finished that season with 45 catches and 10 stumpings. Hampshire finished third in the Championship, their best effort till date. The major contributors to this remarkable position had been Roy Marshall (1,890 runs) and 21-year old Peter Sainsbury (102 wickets). It was a major triumph for Eagar and his young team.

Harrison played 387 matches for Hampshire in all. They awarded him a benefit year in 1957 that raised £3,188 for the bespectacled wicketkeeper. Helped by his builder father, Leo built himself a house at his native Mudeford with the money he had received from his benefit year takings. He moved in to his new house along with wife Joan Bird, whom he had married in 1944, and his three children, two daughters and a son. This new house was not far from the ground at Bournemouth where he had made his First-Class debut, and from the balcony of which Colin Ingleby-McKenzie was to wave to the crowd after winning the championship in 1961.

Things were slowly changing for Hampshire in 1957. The effervescent Ingleby-McKenzie, an inveterate gambler, gradually eased into the leadership role of the team, Eagar moving on to become the Club’s Secretary at the end of the season. Another noticeable change was in the bowling attack, with the faster men, Derek Shackleton, Vic Cannings, Malcolm Heath and medium pace of all-rounder Jimmy Gray accounting for more than 300 wickets in the season between them.

For Leo Harrison, 1959 season proved to be a fruitful season. He scored 509 runs and held 76 catches behind the stumps (a Hampshire wicketkeeping record at the time) and made 7 stumpings. Hampshire finished eighth, being unable to win any of their last 4 games. In the match against Lancashire at Liverpool, Harrison broke his hand while taking a fast delivery from ‘Butch’ White, and could play only one more match later in the season.

Harrison, the professional cricketer that he was, found a coaching job in Argentina in the English winter of 1960-61. In the first week of December he had the strange experience of turning out for Brazil against the Argentine Cricket Association Colts at Buenos Aires, the visitors being one man short. Well, Harrison fulfilled his desire for an international century in this game by remaining not out on 106 out of the Brazil total of 276 for 7 declared. It was during his time in Argentina and when he had almost completed his coaching assignment that he developed severe pain abdomen and had to undergo an emergency operation for acute appendicitis, later sailing back to England to recuperate.

Though he was almost 40 by then, Harrison had a fairly successful batting season in 1961, scoring 656 runs at an average of 22.62. He held 52 catches and made 10 stumpings in the Championship-winning season.

Although he did miss a few games in the season, he played some pivotal innings as well. An example was the rearguard action in the match against Warwickshire at Southampton. The visitors had put up a 343 for 9; and Hampshire, at one stage, were 7 down at 217 when Harrison joined Mike Barnard. The eighth wicket realised 101 as Harrison scored 34 and Barnard remained not out on 114. Ingleby-McKenzie declared at 344 for 9 as soon as a first-innings lead had been achieved. Warwickshire ended the second day at 20 for 4 and were dismissed for 125 in the second innings, Shackleton (6 for 36) and White (4 for 31) taking all the wickets. Hampshire won by 8 wickets.

Leo Harrison (note the glasses) loses his cap while attempting a catch © Getty Images
Leo Harrison (note the glasses) loses his cap while attempting a catch © Getty Images

In 1961, between the matches against Derbyshire at Derby and Bournemouth, Hampshire won 5 consecutive games to clinch the Championship for the first time in their history. Referring to his skipper in 1961, Harrison had this to say: “Colin made some diabolical declarations. He shouldn’t really have got away with it but he did — he was a born gambler.”

Harrison’s last full season was 1962 when he played 24 matches, scoring 509 runs at an average of 18.85. He held 40 catches and made 10 stumpings. He decided to call it a day, given his rapidly failing eyesight and the fact that he was, by now, over 40. Between 1963 and 1969 he kept up his cricket connection by coaching and playing for the Hampshire 2nd XI, and mentoring future Hampshire stars like Trevor Jesty, David Turner, and the young West Indian colt Gordon Greenidge, whose talent had initially been spotted by Arlott.

Harrison found himself assuming his cricket creams one last time for his decidedly last First-Class match in 1966. By sporting the Hampshire crest on his attire for his final outing in 1966, Leo Harrison became the last professional player from the pre-War years to play First-Class cricket after the War.

It seems that the coaching stint with Hampshire was not an economical success for Harrison. In his own words, “the pay was dreadful.” To make ends meet, he joined a local building firm called Lamberts from where he retired in 1987 as a Director.

He celebrated his 90th birthday in his Mudeford home in 2012, a short while after McCorkell, his predecessor with the Hampshire big gloves, had turned a sprightly 100. His other wicketkeeping comrades-in-arms, Prouton and Blake, were still very much in evidence, having retired from active cricket of course, but still alive. The man to whom he had handed over the Hampshire gloves, Brian Timms, born 1940, was in his early 70s at the time.

Leo Harrison passed away on June 8, 2016 aged 94, leaving 102-year-old John Manners, the Hampshire amateur cricketer, as the oldest living English First-Class player at the time. This was Arlott’s summation of his friend: “Honest as the day and a trier to the last gasp himself, he finds it hard to forgive anything which is not straight, or any cricket played with less than full effort. Know Leo Harrison and you must trust him and like him.”

The demise of Harrison left a pall of gloom over his numerous friends and admirers. A celebration of the life and times of the man was arranged at All Saints Church, Mudeford on November 14, 2016, followed by a gathering at the adjacent Christchurch Harbour Inn.