John Trask Somerset Europeans Army active services
John Trask (courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The inscription on the family memorial stone in Section B of the Smallcombe Cemetery of the Church of St Mary the Virgin at Bathwick reads as follows:

In loving memory of
JAMES TRASK,
WHO ENTERED INTO REST
SEPTEMBER 25 TH 1889,
AGED 54.

Also in loving memory of
JOHN ERNEST TRASK
(SON OF THE ABOVE)
SURGEON-CAPTAIN A.M.S. WHO DIED DURING
THE DONGOLA EXPEDITION, AT KOSHEH, EGYPT.
ON THE 25TH JULY 1896.AGED 35 YEARS.

“FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH.”

In loving memory of
MARTHA
WIFE OF THE ABOVE JAMES TRASK.
WHO DIED ON THE 7TH AUGUST 1898,
AGED 65.

“LOOKING UNTO JESUS”

It is often described as being “one of the most beautiful houses in England” and has a long and interesting history. In 1220, one Thomas d’Evercy had purchased some land at Brympton, a civil parish and electoral ward near Yeovil in the south Somerset district. The property was to remain within the family till 1325, by which time, the property could boast of a stately mansion with well laid out gardens.

Over this time, the property had come to be known as the Brympton d’Evercy estate. Since then, the estate had undergone several additions and alterations, but had remained in the possession of a very restricted number of prominent families, including that of the Ponsonbys, one member, Sir Spencer Ponsonby-Fane, later becoming a famous cricketer and one of the founders of I Zingari, in 1845.

Our story begins with James Trask, District Auditor of the Local Government Board, and his wife Martha, both of whom were to be found residing on the extensive Brympton d’Evercy estate in the late 1850s. The couple had three children, the eldest being their daughter Alice, followed by their two sons. All three children were born on the estate, the elder son being brought into this world on October 27, 1861, and being subsequently named John Ernest, the youngest child being known as Charles.

John was educated at Somerset College before joining Bristol Medical School, affiliated with the University College, Bristol, in 1879, before being formally amalgamated with the university in 1893.

A cricketer by inclination and choice, the 5’ 10” tall right-hand batsman, Trask is first documented as playing alongside EM Grace in a Second-Class game for Lansdown at Bath, in 1884. Trask seems to have done rather well in the game, top-scoring with 66 out of 171 in the first innings, and then capturing 5 wickets in the second.

Trask made his First-Class debut for Somerset against Hampshire at Bath the same year. There was another Trask in the same team, his cousin, William. Hampshire were bowled out for 179. The first day ended with Somerset on 121 for 5, with Bill Roe on 22 and debutant John Trask on 3. Roe extended his score to 132 the next day, sharing a stand of 106 with Trask (30), as Somerset piled up 330.

Hampshire’s were then bowled out for 88. The enigmatically named Edward Bastard (one wonders how much of youthful persiflage he would have had to endure during his school days) was the most successful bowler with 6 for 33. John Trask thus enjoyed a happy debut with his team winning by an innings and 63 runs.

Since Trask was in the process of undergoing his medical studies during this time, he could only find the time for this one match in 1884, adding two matches for Somerset in 1885. Somerset got the better of Surrey in one before going down to WG Grace’s Gloucestershire in the other.

More important matters were occupying the mind of the trainee Doctor at this time. Having graduated from Bristol Medical School, Trask entered the British Army Medical Staff in 1887, and underwent military training at Aldershot for two years. A notification in The London Gazette, dated July 27, 1887 provides a list of 25 names of “Surgeons on probation to be Surgeons.” The 11th name on the list reads John Ernest Trask, who was then posted in India on colonial service.

The expatriate British community welcomed the young Doctor quite enthusiastically in India. It was not long before Trask was assuming his cricket creams one again after a lapse of five years, and joining other young British males in their favourite pastime of cricket. Seeing that he had already had the experience of playing 3 championship games in England, Trask was drafted into the Europeans team for the first ever First-Class game played on Indian soil, starting August 26, 1892.

Ernest Steel, brother of Lancashire stalwart AG Steel, won the first toss in a First-Class game in India. The Europeans batted first at Bombay Gymkhana. The Parsees bowled fairly well as a team, and the Europeans were dismissed for 104, MD Kanga capturing 4 for 30. Francis Rhodes scored 22 while Arthur Newham got 23.

During the remainder of the first day’s play, the Parsees reached 54 for 4 with Kanga on 16 and RE Modi on 6. The heavens opened up after that, and there was no more play in the match. The ball, however, had been set rolling, and cricket in India had entered a new and phase of its colourful history. Trask contributed 16 to the European innings total and held the catch to dismiss wicketkeeper Dinshaw Kanga off Steel in the truncated Parsee innings.

In a First-Class career spanning 1884 to 1895, John Trask was to play 16 matches, scoring 515 runs at 19.07, with 3 fifties. Although he took no wickets from his 10 deliveries bowled, he held 9 catches in all.His figures may be condensed as follows:

Team Span M R Ave HS 50s C
Somerset 1884 — 1895 9 228 15.20 46 7
Bombay 1892-93 1 70 35.00 62 1
Europeans 1892-93 — 1894-95 6 217 21.70 78 2 2

During his long First-Class cricket career (1881 — 1911-12), Lord Hawke was a true champion of the concept of widening the ambit of cricket throughout the corners of the British Empire. With this in view, he had arrived at India with a 14-member team in 1892-93 after playing 3 games in Ceylon. Of the 20 games Hawke’s team had played in India from late November to early March, only 4 were attributed First-Class status by historians and statisticians.

Trask played in only one of these, his solitary appearance for Bombay, at the Gymkhana Ground from Boxing Day. The visitors won the match by 8 wickets. Trask did not bowl, but opened batting in both innings, scoring 8 in the first innings. Bombay were required to follow on, and Trask top-scored with 62 out 140.

While on furlough in England towards the end of 1894, Trask turned out for Somerset in the championships 6 more times. He played his last First-Class match for Somerset against Kent at Blackheath in 1895. Kent won the low-scoring game quite comfortably by 117 runs. With scores of 16 and 0, Trask carried his total of First-Class runs past the 500-mark.

The Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, in its June 1897 issue, gives extracts from a lecture delivered by Captain A Hilliard Atteridge of the London Irish Rifles on the background of the Dongola Expedition of 1896. It seems that the Dongola Province used to be a fertile area in the Upper Nile region.

This area passed out of the control of the Egyptian army with the British rearguard, under the command of General Brackenbury, beginning the gradual withdrawal of troops from Dongola town on July 5, 1885, paving the way for the vanguard of the Drevishes contingent, about 3,000 in number, to march into Dongola under Emir Abdel Mejidel Khalik, the occupation of the town being completed by August 17, 1885.

The political situation of the region continued to be a complicated one with Sudan and Egypt both claiming sovereign control of the area. The media were full of reports on March 17, 1896 of how an Egyptian Expeditionary Force, numbering about 8,000 armed men, were about to march up the Nile to Wady Haifa, thence proceeding to reconquer Dongola. A large number of British troops were to be part of the force.

A despatch from Major-General Sir Horatio Herbert Kitchener, Sirdar of the expeditionary force, to the Under Secretary of State for War in London, dated Dongola, September 30, 1896, provides some insights into the events connected to the Dongola Expedition of 1896.

Describing events on early June 1896, at a time when the Expeditionary Force was preparing to make a definitive move against the Dervishes, Kitchener reports: “During this period an outbreak of cholera occurred, and I have to deplore the loss of several valuable officers and men from this epidemic which — though severe whilst it lasted — was not of long duration, and I attribute its being effectually stamped out to the energy and ability displayed by Surgeon Lieutenant-Colonel Gallwey and the officers of the Medical Staff.”

One member of the Army Medical Staff involved in the cholera outbreak was Surgeon-Captain John Ernest Trask.

In the same despatch, Kitchener made special mention of the following particulars of the valiant efforts of the Army Medical Staff in fighting the outbreak of cholera: “The resources of Surgeon-Lieutenant-Colonel T. J. Gallwey (Principal Medical Officer), and the six British medical officers of the Egyptian Army, were strained to the utmost in coping with the sudden and unexpected outbreak of cholera amongst the troops. Owing to the prevalence of the epidemic in Egypt, all hope of assistance from there was cut off, and it was only by their untiring energy and incessant devotion to duty that the disease was successfully stamped out and many valuable lives saved, though I regret to record the loss by cholera of one of their number, Surgeon-Captain Trask. All officers of the Medical Staff worked indefatigably throughout the various other phases of the campaign.”

Trask is reported to have succumbed to the effects of the cholera outbreak mentioned above on July 25, 1896, aged about 35, one day after reporting for duty at Kosheh, in Sudan. With his demise at the battlefront, Trask created his own little niche in cricket history by becoming the first Championship cricketer to die on active service.

The passing away of Trask was reported in The Morning Post of July 27, under the heading The Nile Expedition, by Reuter’s Special Service, as follows: “I regret to report that two more of the small band of British officers who are directing the present Expedition have fallen victims to cholera. Captain Fenwick, of the Royal Lancaster Regiment, and Surgeon-Captain Trask yesterday succumbed to the disease.

“Surgeon-Captain Trask … arrived here only yesterday morning from Korosko, where for several weeks past he had been battling gallantly against the cholera epidemic. On his arrival here he complained of fatigue. Choleric symptoms supervened, and he died in the course of the afternoon. It is impossible to adequately appreciate the work which has been done by the Medical staff, both English and Egyptian, since the Expedition began, and Captain Trask was always one of the foremost where duty called. During the action at Firket, he behaved with the greatest coolness and bravery, often attending the wounded under a heavy fire. He has died in harness, and the Medical staff will feel his loss acutely.”

The saga of Surgeon-Captain Trask did not, however, end with the regretfully mundane fact of his death. In Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, author Andrew Lycett takes us into the nebulous realm of the psychic and the paranormal. He refers to one of the pet hobbies of the great writer of detective fiction; his interest in the psychic, and his habit of often participating in séances with some trusted friends.

It seems that one such séance had been conducted on October 25, 1896 by a group of Conan Doyle’s friends in his newly constructed house. One of the spirits raised had been called Dorothy Postlethwaite, known in her terrestrial life to one of the ladies present. In his eagerness to identify another spirit raised more definitively, Conan Doyle, the psychic researcher, had been provided with the initials TR. He had then made the helpful suggestion that it may have been that of Surgeon-Captain John Trask, the former Somerset cricketer, who had died of cholera in Sudan just three months earlier.

Surprisingly, the spirit had then confirmed the identity and had then proceeded to recall meeting Conan Doyle at the Mena House Hotel in Cairo. Referring to the Sudan war, the spirit had regretted not meeting General Gordon or the spirit of any other famous person in the after-life.

Conan Doyle’s notes of the séance state that he had been told that “spirits live in families and communities”, that “married couple do not necessarily meet again, but those who love one another do.” The spirit of Trask had then allegedly caused a series of tilts of the table to indicate “Good Night,” and then departed for good.

Well, even after all these years, one admires the thought processes of the one and only Bard of Avon, and wonders at the truism stated in one of his oft-repeated quotations:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Hamlet (1.5.167-8)