Vintage illustration of John Conway on Harper’s Weekly © Getty Images
Vintage illustration of John Conway on Harper’s Weekly © Getty Images

Commander William Henry Norman, master of Her Majesty’s Colonial Steam Sloop Victoria, stationed at her home port of Melbourne, noted the following weather report on New Year’s Day in the year of 1862: “New Year’s Day, and a very fine one after the great discharge of electricity from the heavens for the last four days.” The reports for the following three days, up to Saturday, January 4, spoke of fine weather with light breezes. The sun was out, the day was warm and there was optimism excitement in the air. A hum of expectancy pervaded the environs of Richmond as the first ever cricket team from England prepared to face off against their colonial cousins at what is now known as The “Ground”.

The Melbourne catering firm belonging to Felix Spiers and Christopher Pond had arranged for Charles Dickens to visit Australia on a lecture tour for a consideration of £7,000, a princely sum at the time. The great novelist, however, had cried off. Encouraged by the success of the English cricket team that had toured North America in 1859 under George Parr, the enterprising caterers then advised their England contact, a Mr Mallam, to explore the possibility of bringing a cricket team over instead. Deliberations followed until, finally, a team of 12 players were contracted to tour Australia for a sum of £150 per person plus expenses. The team was to be led by the Surrey right hand batsman, right arm round-arm fast bowler and occasional wicket-keeper, Heathfield Stephenson. The season was 1861-62.

The first match of the tour was to be against XVIII of Victoria, captained by George Marshall, at MCG on January 1, 1862. Being a match against odds, it was not going to be a First-Class fixture. The visitors won the match by an innings and 96 runs. Perhaps lost in the melee of the Victorian innings of 118 and 91 was a fresh-faced young man playing his first cricket match of any significance, a right-hand bat and right-arm round-arm fast bowler, not yet 20, named John “Jack” Conway, known as “The Colt”. Conway was run out for a duck in the first innings and was dismissed for 1 in the second. But he did pick up 4 wickets for 60 runs in the visitors’ only innings, one of them being that of the visiting captain’s.

John Conway made his First-Class debut playing for Victoria against New South Wales, also at Melbourne Cricket Ground, from 9th to 11th Jan/1862 of a timeless match. Victoria won the match by 10 wickets and Conway was required to bat only once in the match. He did not cover himself with glory with the bat on his debut, being run out for a duck in Victoria’s only innings. His contribution came with the ball; he picked up 3 for 17 (all bowled) and 2 for 22 (both bowled). He also held a catch in each innings.

Born on February 3, 1842 at Fyansford, Victoria, Conway was to later develop into “a cricketer with bulging thighs, and knotty calves and a chest of 43 inches,” and to play 10 First-Class matches between 1861-62 and 1879-80; 8 of these were for Victoria, one for a team called The World, and one, his last, for Otago.

In all, he scored 156 runs from 17 innings with a highest of 49 and an average of 11.14. He also took 32 First-Class wickets with a best analysis of 6 for 42 and an average of 13.25. He picked up 5 wickets in an innings thrice. He also played 32 Second-Class matches between 1861-62 and 1878-79.

Along with his cricketing skills, he pursued his love for Australian Rules Football to the extent that he was appointed the captain of Carlton Football team in 1866, and later came to be known as one of the great Carlton Captains of 1867: “the man who made Carlton what it is.” Having picked up an injury, his football career ended with his last match in July 1871.

Conway played in 3 “odds” matches against the second English team on Australian shores in 1863-64, led by George Parr of Nottinghamshire with mediocre success. In his first match against the third English team in Australia in 1873-74, led by “The Champion” — WG Grace himself, also an “odds” match, the visitors were defeated by an innings and 21 runs, Conway scoring 32 and taking 2 wickets in the visitors’ 2nd innings. He played in 4 more “odds” matches against WG’s XI, taking 9 wickets in one but doing nothing of note in the other 3.

The fourth English team in Australia led by James Lillywhite Jr was the first to play local teams on even terms. As history has chronicled, they played the first 2 Test matches of all, both at MCG. Surprisingly, although this English tour of 1876-77 was well within his playing span, Conway did not play a single match against the visitors. The popularity of the visitors and the standard of play exhibited soon planted the seed of an idea in the minds of the cricketing fraternity of both countries, that of a reciprocal tour of England by an Australian team.

John Lazenby, in The Strangers Who Came Home, depicts how John Conway threw himself heart and soul into making the tour a reality. Indeed, Lazenby’s narrative is so compelling that one can almost see the events unfold before one’s eyes. It seems that Conway had a very willing and able ally in Lillywhite himself, who promised to look after the logistics of the English side of the projected tour, the first by a fairly representative Australian side to the Home Country.

Australian cricket team in England, 1878. Back, from left: Jack Blackham, Tom Horan, George Bailey, Dave Gregory (c), John Conway (manager), Alec Bannerman, Charles Bannerman, William Murdoch. Front row: Fred Spofforth, Francis Allan, William Midwinter, Tom Garrett, Henry Boyle © Getty Images
Australian cricket team in England, 1878. Back, from left: Jack Blackham, Tom Horan, George Bailey, Dave Gregory (c), John Conway (manager), Alec Bannerman, Charles Bannerman, William Murdoch. Front row: Fred Spofforth, Francis Allan, William Midwinter, Tom Garrett, Henry Boyle © Getty Images

Conway turned recruiter, organiser and man-manager, coaxing and cajoling, sometimes humoring the personnel he hoped to take with him to England. An unexpected setback surfaced in the fact that the selected players all had full-time jobs as their means of living and the tour would take up the best part of about 8 months to be completed. Their jobs would be at stake. Conway used his oratorical skills to persuade all the employers into guaranteeing that the chosen players would all be taken back into the fold on the conclusion of the tour — a great victory in terms of assuring the futures of the players.

We next see Conway as an entrepreneur sitting down with the selected band of players and mooting the idea of each man putting up a stake of £50 to form a sort of joint stock organization in which the profits and losses would be equally shared. Along with James Lillywhite, by then back in England, he negotiated for a fixed amount as gate-money for the English matches to finance his venture.

At last he had a team of 6 New South Welshmen — the 32-year old bearded father of 16, Dave Gregory, the designated captain; Billy Murdoch, wicket-keeper and batsman; the brothers Bannerman, Charles and Alec’; Fred “The Demon” Spofforth; and Tom Garrett, 5 Victorians in Jack Blackham, “The Prince of Wicketkeepers”; Tom Horan; Harry Boyle; Tom Kendall; and Frank Allan, and a Tasmanian, George Bailey.

It is said that it was Conway who had “discovered” Blackham as a lad keeping wickets behind a kerosene tin at Carlton and with no idea about his own exceptional skill. They were to be joined in England by Billy Midwinter, who was already in England, playing for Gloucestershire.

Of the selected 12 men, however, Kendall, though a very fine bowler, was showing an inordinate fondness for the bottle. In his capacity of a strict disciplinarian and being responsible for the image of the team on tour, Conway, very reluctantly perhaps, decided to leave him out of the England tour. That left a travelling party of only 11 men.

Despite the meticulous planning by Conway, however, there was a serious problem shortly before the team was to set sail for England. The steamer Chimborazo, that was to convey them from Adelaide to England, was wrecked. A man of lesser mettle would have been crushed by this setback, not Conway, however. Alternate arrangements were made for the departure by a trans-Pacific route, from Sydney to San Francisco on the City of Sydney and the team finally set sail on March 29, 1878. Conway went ahead of the team to welcome them on English soil on their arrival.

The team arrived at San Francisco on April 26, 1878, and proceeded to New York by the Transcontinental Railroad, a journey that took a week. Finally, the Eleven, as they were called, boarded the City of Berlin and reached Liverpool on Monday, May 13, 1878. Conway was the pier to greet his men, and very glad they were to see him after their long and exhausting journey.

With the bare minimum number of players available to him and the punishing schedule ahead of a gruelling four months, it became quite a logistical problem for Conway to plan the amount of travel the team were obliged to do to present themselves at the various venues in time to confront their several opponents. They travelled by night, more often than not deprived of any restful sleep, and played by day. The strain began to take its toll and players fell prey to injuries from the excessive exertion.

Then there was the celebrated incident on June 20 of Billy Midwinter being virtually kidnapped, presumably on the orders of Grace, from the team hotel on the morning of their match at Lord’s against Middlesex by members of the Gloucestershire team, who were also at London, and scheduled to play Surrey at The Oval on the same day. It led to an extremely ugly incident. The redoubtable WG and the equally formidable Conway stood almost eye-ball to eye-ball and nearly came to blows over this incident and the rancour between them took a long time to cool down. This left Conway with another man less and with only 11 men.

And thereby, as they say, hangs a tale. When Grace had taken the third English team to Australia in 1873-74 (the tour he has often referred to as a glorified honeymoon), he had made many enemies: first with his extremely overbearing and condescending attitude towards the Colonials and then by going out of his way to behave in an extremely obnoxious manner on many occasions, he had not, to put it as mildly as possible, exactly endeared himself to the Australian players and public.

Another issue that had irked the Australians was the fact that, while projecting himself as an amateur and gentleman, he squabbled in an extremely unseemly manner over personal payments on that tour. Even during the 1878 tour, Grace and a few others insisted on being paid “appearance money” to play against the Eleven.

There may have been a desire in the hearts of Conway’s men to set the record straight on their English tour. The incident of Midwinter provided a flash-point and had far-reaching effects. Conway let it be known that the projected match between the Eleven and WG’s Gloucestershire team, scheduled for September 5, 1878, would be called off unless the Doctor issued a written apology for his unforgivable behaviour in connection with the incident.

It came as somewhat of a shock to the Champion who was not accustomed to being challenged. He deemed it to be something amounting to impudence on the part of Conway to call his behavior to account. However, Conway stood his ground resolutely for more than a month until WG was persuaded by the right-thinking elements to admit his lack of courtesy and use of unseemly language towards John Conway and Harry Boyle in the form of a letter dated 21 July and addressed to captain Dave Gregory, containing a very contrite apology and assuring him that the Eleven would receive a warm welcome at Clifton. The denouement of all this was the surprising failure of the Champion against the Eleven in almost all the matches he played. It was as if Spofforth, Boyle and company had put the voodoo sign on him.

The archives tell us that the Australian Eleven played 42 matches of different categories in England between May 20, 1878 and September 16, 1878. These included 5 “fill-up” matches when some matches were completed before the scheduled last day. Of the remaining, 15 matches were accorded “First-Class” status. Conway himself, at 36, appeared for his team in 5 of the matches against odds to give his players some respite. On occasion, Conway was also seen at the turnstiles in some of the matches, taking in the gate-money for entrance to the matches. William Gibbes acted as assistant manager and secretary to Conway for the tour.

All this time, the Australian team had, among their numbers, two reporters who sent back match reports by telegraph so that the folks back home in Australia could read them barely two hours later, Tom Horan (under the nom-de-plume of “One of Them”), and the indefatigable Conway, who had his own by-line, in another of his numerous avatars.

At the conclusion of the English leg of the tour, the Eleven boarded the City of Richmond on September 18, 1878 for the next part of their tour – in North America. The Eleven played 7 matches through the length and breadth of the land. Only one of them, however, was of First-Class status, the match against Philadelphia from October 3, 1878 — a drawn affair. Conway himself played in 3 of the remaining 6 matches, all of them against odds. His performances were poor, to say the least.

The team landed back at Sydney on November 25, 1878 following 22 days at sea and after an absence of about 8 months to a tumultuous reception. Crowds thronged the wharf and everybody wanted to shake their hands. The Eleven had the satisfaction of a completing very satisfactorily a logistically almost impossible endeavor. Each member came back richer both financially and in experience.

We see Conway in another of his several incarnations, that of an umpire in 3 non-First-Class matches between January 1878 and April 1899, one in New Zealand, one in North America and one in his native Australia. We find him assuming the long white coat to umpire his only First-Class match between Tasmania and Victoria at Launceston in January 1901, a match that Victoria won by 5 wickets and in which the heroic Tasmanian, Charles Eady scored a second-innings century.

In the 1880s, Conway and his wife Elizabeth relocated to Sydney and to a career as sports writer for Sydney Morning Herald and Sydney Mail and, briefly, as the proprietor of Sporting Life. He also contributed reports about coursing and racing to such papers as Age, Leader, Australasian and Federal Australian.

A man of robust health and physique, Conway prided himself on his endurance and was fond of greeting friends by beating his large palms on his great chest and saying, “Hard as nails, no embonpoint, no adipose tissue, all sinew and strength.”

Sadly, however, all that changed when he fell ill. He gradually began the inevitable journey in the way of all flesh. The final curtain rang down on the life and times of this remarkable man on Sunday, August 22, 1909 at Frankston, at the age of 66.

In his busy and action packed life, he had, perhaps, fulfilled the aphorism stated by the Bard of Avon so many years ago that “one man in his time plays many parts…”, and how well he played them!

(Pradip Dhole is a retired medical doctor with a life-long interest in cricket history and statistics)