David Niven (centre) stars with Olivia De Havilland (left) and Douglas Walton in the Samuel Goldwyn film Raffles, based on the novel 'Raffles The Amateur Cracksman' by E W Hornung and directed by Sam Wood © Getty Images
David Niven (centre) stars with Olivia De Havilland (right) and Douglas Walton in the Samuel Goldwyn film Raffles, based on Raffles The Amateur Cracksman by EW Hornung and directed by Sam Wood © Getty Images

EW Hornung, born June 7, 1866, was an author and poet who created the most famous fictional cricketer — the gentleman thief AJ Raffle. Arunabha Sengupta traces the cricketing links of this cricket aficionado and his celebrated creation.

AJ Raffles. Exceptional cricketer — a dangerous bat, a brilliant field and perhaps the finest slow bowler of his decade. He is a dandy, with an indolent, athletic figure. He is handsome, debonair, witty, masterful and brave. Raffles played for the famous I Zingari team, and turns out for the Gentlemen of England against the Players. One of the early stories featuring Raffles is even titled ‘Gentlemen and Players.’

However, he himself takes incredibly little interest in the game. He explains: “Cricket is good enough sport until you discover a better. What’s the satisfaction of taking a man’s wicket when you want his spoons? Still, if you can bowl a bit your low cunning won’t get rusty, and always looking for the weak spot’s just the kind of mental exercise one wants.”

Yes, Raffles is a cricketer and a criminal. He does not fix matches, but breaks safes. He is a thief – to be precise, ‘an amateur cracksman’. The first Raffles book – The Amateur Cracksman — was published in 1899. The first name of Raffles was borrowed from Arthur Conan Doyle, and the character to some extent caricatured Sherlock Holmes. There is much common in style, written in second person, the narrators being awestruck inferiors in intellect, recounting the amazing deeds of the slightly snobbish heroes.

In fact, Ernst William Hornung dedicated the first volume of Raffles stories to ‘A.C.D. This form of flattery.’ Only, the final character was formulated as a curious inversion of Sherlock Holmes from sleuth to thief.

The very first story, published in Cassel’s Magazine in 1898, was described in the publication as ‘Being the confessions of a late prisoner of the Crown, and sometimes accomplice of AJ Raffles, Cricketer and Criminal, whose fate is uncertain.’ In the story we are introduced to Bunny Manders, the narrator. In desperate need of financial assistance, he approaches Raffles, once captain of his school cricket team. Raffles, the suave gentleman who plays cricket by the day, gives him a patient hearing. Subsequently Manders is led to help his friend steal from a jewellery shop in Bond Street.

Conan Doyle himself was not too amused by the creation. “I think there are few finer examples of short-story writing in our language than these, though I confess I think they are rather dangerous in their suggestion. I told him so before he put pen to paper, and the result has, I fear, borne me out. You must not make the criminal a hero.”

Well, Conan Doyle did have major problems with the unconventional. A keen cricketer himself, whose solitary First-Class wicket was none other than the great WG Grace, he was also against left-handers playing the game. According to him it slowed down the proceedings.

He was rather uncharitable in describing his friend Hornung after the latter’s death, “He was a Dr. Johnson without the learning but with a fine wit. No one could say a neater thing, and his writings, good as they are, never adequately represented the powers of the man, nor the quickness of his brain.”

The wit however struck home decisively, and Conan Doyle’s sister, Connie, was smitten by it. In 1893, Hornung married the attractive Connie Conan Doyle, the lady having decided to bestow her charms on him among her many suitors. Thus the creator of the world’s most popular fictional detective became the brother-in-law of the creator of one of the world’s most popular fictional criminals.

The two men, however, did not really enjoy the best of relationships all the time. In fact, Lord’s of all places played a role in one of their fallouts. It happened in 1900, when Conan Doyle’s first wife, Louise, was ill with tuberculosis. Hornung, watching cricket at the hallowed ground, was shocked to see his brother-in-law accompanied by Jean Leckie, who later became the legendary writer’s second wife. The following day, Hornung went to Conan Doyle’s residence and voiced his disapproval. Conan Doyle refused to answer.

While Conan Doyle may not have approved of Raffles, the gentleman cricketer and amateur burglar did develop a legion of admirers. One of the more prominent ones was George Orwell, who was charmed by the inclination of Raffles to take extra risks in the name of ‘sportsmanship’ and even for aesthetic reasons. Conan Doyle was not amused by the success of Raffles and the apparently harmless way they parodied the Holmes stories. It has been argued that the publication of Raffles volumes might have prompted Conan Doyle to resurrect Sherlock Holmes in 1901 with The Hound of the Baskervilles after he had killed him off at the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem of 1893.

EW Hornung. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
EW Hornung. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The inspiration behind the cricketer-criminal

Hornung’s son was christened Arthur Oscar, following the devotion of the writer to two supreme figures of the English literary world of that era – Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. The apparent fondness of Hornung for Wilde led biographer Peter Rowland to suggest that the character of Raffles was based on the Irish playwright. But, whatever be his merits, Wilde was no cricketer. It is much more likely, and more widely believed, that the inspiration behind the cricketing criminal was the charismatic George Ives.

Ives played cricket alongside Hornung for the Allahakhbarries — the curious team of travelling writer-cricketers founded by JM Barrie. While Hornung tagged along with the team, playing occasional matches without real talent or distinction, Ives was one of the better cricketers in Barrie’s side.

Never blessed with a sturdy constitution, Hornung had to spend some years of his early youth in Australia due to health reasons and was never exactly a sportsman. Yet, cricket tickled his imagination strongly enough to generate his curious hero. Ives, on the other hand, was a cricketer of considerable ability, as well as a writer, criminologist and sex psychologist. Throughout his life, he kept a collection of newspaper cuttings on topics as diverse as murder, theories of crime and punishment, sexual orientations and cricket scores. He was gay as well.

Yes, somehow both the men conjectured to be the real life models for Raffles were known homosexuals. In fact, Ives even had an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, celebrated for his relationship with Oscar Wilde. Andrew Lycett, the biographer of Conan Doyle, was of the opinion that Hornung had not really understood the sexual side of Ives’ character while creating Raffles in his image. However, Raffles nevertheless seems to enjoy a remarkably intimate relationship with sidekick Bunny Manders.

Coming back to cricket, Hornung’s contribution to the game did not end with the creation of Raffles and playing occasional matches for Allahakbarries. Neither was it limited to being the brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle, the best author-cricketer before PG Wodehouse and Samuel Beckett.

In 1905, EV Lucas joined hands with Conan Doyle, Barrie, Hornung and Andrew Lang to start a fund for three poverty-stricken ladies. These unfortunate women were the granddaughters of John Nyren —the old Hambledon cricketer and author of the first classic works on cricket.

(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)