Peter Wynne-Thomas — Man behind Trent Bridge library, chronicler of Nottinghamshire cricket
Peter Wynne-Thomas in the Trent Bridge library.
Peter Wynne-Thomas is the man behind the Trent Bridge Library and as much of an institution. He is a historian, writer and statistician, the force without whom most of Nottinghamshire’s cricketing deeds would have gone undocumented. He has compiled the history of Nottinghamshire cricket, written the biographies of the local heroes from Arthur Shrewsbury to Harold Larwood to Derek Randall. He has even travelled around the county to discover unknown cricket grounds, sketching the diagrams of the fields in meticulous detail. Arunabha Sengupta caught up with him at the Trent Bridge Library during the first Test match.
Behind the William Clarke stand, one cannot walk through the crowd during the lunch interval.Indian drummers beat their instruments into a crescendo, the stalls with Cornish pasties overflow with huge queues, the spectators spill out of the stadium, the journey to the library turns out to me a voyage through a dense mass of humanity. I give up. It is way easier to make one’s way through the new stands with their curious canopy and triangular skylights.
In the ticket office to the left of the pavilion, I make my way through the winding passages to the Trent Bridge Library. It is home to the largest collection of Nottinghamshire cricket books, and the second largest collection of cricket literature in the world, two floors full of books and memorabilia of the Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club.
Seated behind a huge desk with books, scorecards, and a typewriter which has gone out of fashion with Harold Larwood, is Peter Wynne-Thomas. He is 79, neatly attired in shirt sleeves and suspenders, his snow white moustache wiggling in a welcome smile. Bill Voce’s jacket hangs over his head. Around him are scattered memorabilia – the tankard presented to Voce by the English captain Gubby Allen for taking six Australian wickets during the 1936 tour, the ball used by the first Australians playing in England in 1878, a bat signed by the visiting West Indian team of 1939 … the list is endless.
Peter Wynne-Thomas is the man behind the Trent Bridge Library. Well, he is the library himself – at least as much of an institution. He is a historian, writer and statistician, the force without whom most of Nottinghamshire’s cricketing deeds would go undocumented. He has compiled the history of Nottinghamshire cricket, written the biographies of the local heroes from Arthur Shrewsbury to Harold Larwood to Derek Randall, he has even travelled around the county to discover unknown cricket grounds, sketching the diagrams of the fields with meticulous detail.
During the course of two lunch intervals of the India-England Test match, Peter patiently answers the many questions that I had listed for him, covering more than a century and a half of cricket.
CricketCountry (CC):I believe you were an architect before you moved totally into this field.
Peter Wynne-Thomas (PW-T):Yes, I trained in London for five years, from 1952-1957 and then got a job with a West End firm. I worked there for about seven years and another five for a firm in Bond Street. After that a friend of mine started his own business and I joined him. Cricket gradually took over because my friend could pay me mornings only. So I spent the afternoons researching cricket.
CC: Did cricket help add to your earnings at that time?
PW-T:No, no, it was purely researching historical things, mainly to do with Nottinghamshire. I was trying to compile biographies of all the Nottinghamshire players. I would come down to Nottingham on the weekends and knock on doors trying to find sons, grandsons, great grandsons of cricketers – any relations. Spent a lot of time going through the old newspapers, in the days when you could actually look at the papers rather than at a screen. I went through papers spanning a hundred years from 1780s to 1880s. I tried to find out which villages players came from, whether there were any notes about them. I amassed a great pile of notebooks. Then in 1971, I was more or less three quarters retired from architecture. My friend got fed up and went to Canada, leaving the practice with me. So I took on these jobs, small alterations of houses and soon got fed up myself. You spent all your time shouting at builders and asking for permission from the planning council, and they would get back saying you can’t cram 500 people in a house or whatever. And then there was trying to get money from the clients. So, I came back to Nottinghamshire. By coincidence, the book I had written came out that year…
CC: Which book was that?
PW-T:It was called Nottinghamshire cricketers 1821 to 1914. The notes had grown so much, I had to do something about them. No one had ever done a book like that before. We printed 250 copies which I paid for. I paid £4 each and sold them at £5 each, so I guess I made £250. They are worth £60 or £70 now. In 1974 the club wanted me to do a Notts yearbook, because if I did not do one they would not have one. So I did one. Then in 1977-78, there were several thousands books donated to the club, and that is how the library started in May, 1979. We were fortunate that the man who was the chairman of the cricket club was also the company secretary of Boots, the chemists. So, your pills paid for the shelves here.
I started writing more commercial cricket books I was commissioned to write. The Hamlyn Book of Cricket Records. They had done a similar book on football, featuring best feats and photographs and explanations rather than lists, and they wanted to do something along the same lines for cricket. They had made a fortune with gardening and cookery books, and wanted to move into football and cricket with similar flashy illustrated books. I did quite a few for Hamlyn.
Then there was a firm doing a history of each county. I was asked to be the editor of the series, and I had to do the Nottinghamshire volume. John Arlott, who was slated to do the book for Hampshire, asked me to write it as well, saying he would do the foreword. Someone was commissioned to do Lancashire, but some other firm paid him more and I ended up writing that as well. We did 13 or 14 in all; we did not do the Somerset, Sussex and Essex ones because other firms cashed in on the idea and started producing their own books on these counties.
These kept me pretty busy, because I was anyway running the library here, doing magazine articles and so on. One of the agreements I had with the club was that I could write my books in here. There were visitors, schools coming in and I had to give them tours. As long as it did not interfere with anybody coming into the library asking for my help, I was free to write my books.
Back in 1973, I was on the founding committee of the Association of Cricket Statisticians. I was the secretary for 30 years. It was amazingly successful and it is still going on producing several books every year. That was completely unpaid, a hobby, but the important thing about it was that you met all the experts from other counties and you could ring up experts all around the world, Indians, Australians, South Africans. Before the internet started there was no way ordinary people could buy books with match scores of early cricket matches. There was the Wisden Almanac but that cost you a fortune. We started reprinting those scorecards, I typed out several – every match till 1939, also 1946 and 1947. We did a book for every county with a Who’s Who of everyone who has played some important match in the British Isles. Phillip Bailey, who works for Cricketarchive now, did the stats for them. I put it all together, and bits of essays for all the cricketers. There was a sheet of paper for each cricketer and we passed them around from Phillip Bailey to Phillip Thorne to me… mailed them around, normal non-electronic mail, and I still have enormous drawers full of the notes. If I get a photograph of any of the cricketers now, I just chuck into the filing cabinets.
CC: What about the biographies?
PW-T:The first one was Bomber Wells, a book called Well Well Well. Arthur Shrewsbury was another. Basher Hassan was still another. I was very interested in Basher because he came from Kenya in the 1960s. His father had emigrated from India to Kenya in 1910 when this mad railway was being built from Mombasa through to the middle of Africa. Nairobi was created because of this railway, and they couldn’t get too many Africans to bother with it. After a while Indian workers were brought to help with building the railway. Basher Hassan’s father was brought in and he ran an Indian restaurant in what became Nairobi. I was very interested to learn how he grew up. Bashar started playing cricket before Kenya became independent and he saw all these matches between Europeans and Asians which were very popular during that time. The only county that offered him a place in the staff was Nottinghamshire. It was intriguing to find out all about him, it was a new territory. I could not go to Nairobi, you could get your throat cut. I had to find a street map of Nairobi, and try to fit where he lived, where his father’s restaurant was and where the cricket pitch was. Things were complicated because the street names have changed from former English ones to new ones. It took a great deal of work.
CC: What about your book on Ivo Bligh?
PW-T: Well Ivo Bligh was more of a statistical work, for ACS. Not very deeply detailed about how he met his future wife on the boat and all that. The great debate is who brought the urn and what was in it.
CC: Was the urn really about cricket or more of a covenant of love between Ivo and his lady?
PW-T: It was more of a joke and not meant to be more than that. The urn came back with Ivo and it remained on his mantelpiece till he died in the 1920s. It was his wife who gave it to Lord’s. I don’t think that it was till 1903 that the newspapers really picked up on the Ashes. The series played in the 1890s were not specifically called the Ashes. When the Australians came in 1884, 1886, 1888 and they were not playing for the Ashes. Although nowadays you see Ashes results from 1882.
CC: There was also the one on Larwood
PW-T: Yes, that was again an ACS publication. The nice thing about the Larwood book was that one of the young lads here, who played youth cricket for the Notts colts, bought a copy. He was mad keen on Larwood and went to meet him when he was in Australia.He showed him the book I had written. And I got a letter from Larwood asking whether he could buy five books from me so that he could give them to each of his five daughters.
CC: You did one on Randall as well.
PW-T: Randall was much more interesting. I was asked to do the biography. I had a few brief chats with Randall, nothing more. But I insisted on meeting his father and mother and spending the day with them to find out what interest in cricket the father had, how the young Derek had grown up and so on. I also went to see his wife and children. He discovered some scrap books which his mother had maintained.
After that he came down to the library one day a week for a whole winter. We would go through the scorebooks that would remind him what had happened. So it was quite detailed.
At the end of all, one year in the early 1990s the book, was going to come out in July. It was not yet completed when the cricket season started. I was sitting here in the library working on my typewriter, and three or four people were here researching and Nottinghamshire were playing Middlesex. Notts were batting, and Randall was slotted to bat at number five. He came in. The library was in the old pavilion at that time and he had to come up all the way through the long room, and asked me whether he could help. I said we were in the last stages and I was quite all right. And then he asked each of the others whether they wanted tea or coffee. They were people whom he had never seen before, whom I had never seen before, one was a boy from Cromwell who had come to do some school research. And then he went out and they all thought they would probably never see him again. He was the most famous player in the match with the highest number of Test matches by far. He was towards the end of his career, but still people had come to see him. Ten minutes later he turned up with a tray with coffee and tea for those people he would never see again in his life. This was special for the people, especially that lad. He is probably still telling the story now in Cromwell or Devon. It illustrates what sort of a person Derek was.
I drew a cartoon of me out in the middle sitting in front of a table, typing away on my typewriter, and Derek next to me in the slips dictating his story.
CC: The Arthur Shrewsbury book as also very scrupulously researched.
PW-T: Shrewsbury and Alfred Shaw were partners in a bat making business. There was a book that came out about Shaw in 1908. And I was sitting in the library one day and there was an auction in the aid of the club.This guy came in asking whether wewanted a bat for the auction. I took his name and it was Gerald Shrewsbury. I asked if there was any relation and he said he was the great nephew. I asked, almost as a passing joke, “I suppose you have all his diaries in your attic then.” And he answered as a matter of fact he did. And then he went away and I discovered I hadn’t taken his address.
A few weeks later he turned up with just one diary but a number of old letterbooks Shrewsbury used for business communication – with carbon copies of all the pages. I said to him whether we should do a book on him. So, that was the start, we covered his cricket and life till his tragic end which hadn’t really been researched. Nobody seemed to have gone through the newspapers of the time when he died. He was living in his sister’s house, about a mile and a half from Nottingham, with his girlfriend. He went into Nottingham, bought a gun, and could not put the bullets in it. So, the following week, he went back all the way to Nottingham, got the gunsmith to put the bullets in for him, and came back. He returned, asked his girlfriend to make cocoa, and went upstairs. His girlfriend heard a bang, and when she asked what it was he shouted that he had knocked a chair over. He shot himself again after that. The first time he had not killed himself, the second time he succeeded. He had lived most of his life at the Queens Hotel, near the station, with his parents – played most of his cricket at the Meadows Cricket Ground.
Sketch of an obscure Nottinghamshire ground by Peter Wynne-Thomas
CC: Not a lot of people know about him in spite of his being one of the best batsmen of the world.
PW-T: I suppose he had the misfortune of being overshadowed by WG. His career started in 1873 and he died in 1902. And Grace played from 1865 to 1908. And Grace took a lot of wickets as well.
In 1901, towards the end of his career, he had come to the ground for indoor practice on a Saturday afternoon in winter, and complained that most of the others had gone to watch football. He was the best known batsman in England and there he was practicing when the rest of his lesser colleagues had gone to watch Nottingham Forest.
What has not gone down in the book is that his sister, with whom he was living, had a daughter, and this daughter had two daughters in the 1920s. Both these two granddaughters of Shrewsbury were seduced as teenagers by the man who had come to sort the plumbing in the house. Both had children and I tracked them down. One refused to speak, but the other one came down to Trent Bridge and had a load of information about her grandmother, Arthur Shrewsbury’s sister.
CC: He wore a cap to hide his baldness
PW-T: Yes, he was famous for taking his sweater off without removing his cap. He also liked to get home as quickly as possible. For several seasons he coached in Birmingham and he insisted on coming back home. He was rather like Geoff Boycott, absolutely devoted to scoring runs, berating everybody else. Oddly enough, although he captained England he refused to captain Nottinghamshire.
CC:You also wrote The Illustrated History of Ashes…
PW-T: I did not even know I had done that till I saw it my name on the spine in a shop. The publisher had actually taken out everything else we had been working on and published England versus Australia. I did not get paid for that, but anyway, I think he went bankrupt publishing it.
CC: What about the Cricket Grounds of Nottinghamshire?
PW-T: Back in the 1990s the ECB suddenly announced how many adult cricketers play recreational cricket in England. I have forgotten the number but it was something like 290000. I thought this was complete rubbish. We don’t even know how many cricket clubs we have in Nottingham, how could anyone know about all of England. So, I startedgoing around the countyphysically, and noted down the location of the cricket pitches to get an idea of how many people played cricket here. After I started doing that people started coming into the library and talked about a ground in so and so village. And often by the time I went there, an apartment building stood in the place. I counted 463 within living memory, and190 odd modern ones. I made drawings of each and jotted down names. And then my daughter asked me what I was doing. When I explained, she said it would be the most boring book in the world. She advised me not to make a list and rather to write the story of my going around Nottinghamshire hunting down cricket grounds.That was how it came about.
CC: Do you have any other book in the pipeline?
PW-T: My book on William Clarke is coming out soon. It is, of course, about the man who formed the All England Eleven and established cricket in Trent Bridge after marrying the landlady of Trent Bridge Inn. There are many interesting highlights in the book. For example, the reason William Clarke did not stick to Trent Bridge and went away leading the All England team around the country was only partly because he was not making money from the local games. He also had a huge row with his wife.
Peter Wynne Thomas paused and observed with a twinkle, “But I must have exhausted you by now.”
I hastened to reassure him that the cricket was way more exhausting. James Anderson was batting past 80 and India had not picked up a wicket all morning. This conversation had been the most thrilling part of the day.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)