Joseph Conrad: The Polish-born novelist was not really a cricket enthusiast but his funeral procession got tangled up with the game. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Joseph Conrad: The Polish-born novelist was not really a cricket enthusiast but his funeral procession got tangled up with the game. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

August 7, 1924. As Joseph Conrad, one of the greatest novelists in English language, made his final journey to the Canterbury Cemetery, the town was overflowing with visitors and festooned with flags for the Annual Cricket Week. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the death of this remarkable Polish-born writer whose funeral procession was overshadowed by the Canterbury Cricket Festival.

Victory and The Shadow Line

It was a slow wicket, and the most remarkable aspect of Frank Woolley’s batting that day was the square cutting.

There was no sight in England more pleasing than Woolley at the wicket, no setting more picturesque than the St Lawrence Ground. On the rain curtailed opening day of the 79th Annual Canterbury Cricket Week, the supremely elegant left-hander walked out at 131 for 2 and stroked the ball delightfully to remain unbeaten on 51. Kent ended the day at 215 for 4 against Hampshire.

That same morning, in the nearby village of Bishopsbourne, Joseph Conrad got into his car with the Scottish author Richard Curle. The latter was at Oswalds, the Conrad home, during the Bank Holiday week. Charley Vinten, the chauffeur of the Polish-born novelist, had discovered a new house about to be vacated. Conrad was thinking of moving in there. He was most eager to show it to Curle and get his opinion.

As they drove along the Dover Road, Conrad felt pains in his chest, an obvious repetition of the attack which had occurred a few days earlier. Curle urged that they return to Oswalds immediately, but Conrad insisted on continuing the journey. However, as they reached around a mile and a half from the destination, he felt worse. Vinten drove back to Oswalds.

By the time they returned, the breathlessness and arrhythmia had passed. However, soon the symptoms returned, accompanied by shooting pains down his arms. Relations arrived and were summoned to his bedside. Dr Fergusson, called in from Canterbury, ordered cylinders of oxygen from the town hospital. That evening Conrad told his son Borys, “You know, I am really ill this time.” The novelist spent the night in discomfort, dozing fitfully, sitting up in his chair quite often.

The Sunday dawned rather gloomy. The cricketers took a break on the day of rest. At about half past eight in the morning Conrad’s heart stopped, his body fell from his chair to the floor. He was dead.

During the night it rained. However, cool breeze and occasional sunshine ensured that the Kent-Hampshire match could resume at the scheduled hour. Woolley continued to strike the ball delectably as he moved to his hundred.

Meanwhile, the papers had struggled to deal with the Bank Holiday crush at the railway terminals. There were also several notices on the declaration of War that had taken place exactly a decade earlier. In all this frenzy, very few could get the spelling of Conrad’s real name correct. Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski is indeed complicated.

As biographer John Stape noted, “it fell to posterity to make what it could of him. Its first attempts were fumbling.”

Most of the papers limited themselves to referring to Conrad as ‘a sea writer’. Edinburgh’s Weekly Scotsman noted the passing of ‘The Skipper-Novelist’; the Daily Sketch wrongly placed his birth in Cracow (it was actually Terekhove); a few remembered the failure of the dramatic version of The Secret Agent; Cork’s Weekly Examiner even took a swipe at Romance as ‘the poorest’ work ‘with which Conrad’s name is associated’.

The Times named its piece ‘The Philosopher of the Sea’ but did mention that Conrad was most remarkable at adorning a language that ‘was not by birth or upbringing his own’. Yet, at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Hugh Walpole voiced his disappointment at the ‘rather mediocre’ coverage in The Times, which said ‘all the obvious things’.

However, the general consensus, however grudgingly, was that Conrad the Polish-born had made a permanent mark on English literature as a great stylist.

Canterbury Festival Match in progress: Kent vs Hampshire 1924 Photo courtesy: The Cricketer archives
Canterbury Festival Match in progress: Kent vs Hampshire 1924 Photo courtesy: The Cricketer archives

Meanwhile, the tantalising Kent googly bowlers ‘Tich’ Freeman and ‘Father’ Marriott were at work. By the end of the day, Hampshire were bowled out for 172 in the first innings and were 56 for 2 in their second. After scoring 101, Woolley had pitched in with the first wicket of the Hampshire second innings.

The following day, as wife Jessie got her grief under some sort of control and started with the arrangements for the final rites, Marriott and Freeman destroyed Hampshire again to obtain victory by an innings and 21 runs.

The Festival and the Funeral

Conrad had lived most of his life in Kent. However, there is hardly any written record of this Polish-born author developing an affection for the national sport of his adopted country.

That being said, he did attend the Canterbury Cricket Week from time to time. Ralph Pinker, the son of his literary agent JB Pinker, occasionally visited him during the cricket week and Conrad played the gracious host by accompanying him to matches and putting up lavish lunches near the ground.

He hardly ever wrote about the game in his works. In Typhoon one does come across a seaman with dirty cricketing shoes. In one of his weaker novels, Chance, a cricket match is mentioned in passing by Marlowe. However, the most endearing reference comes through in Mirror of the Sea, in which Conrad describes a 12-year-old boy who is cricket mad and chatters endlessly about the exploits of WG Grace.

So, yes, Conrad was aware of the game, if not enthusiastic about it. He did use it sometimes to voice his views about the English public.

When there was an attempt to censor the dramatic version of Secret Agent, he wrote an angry letter to his friend and fellow writer Edward Garnett. He used terse words that unequivocally underlined what he felt about the critics and public: “To have a court official standing by to warn off criminal attempts on the delicacy of their morality will appear to them flattering — and natural too. For morality must be protected. That is self-evident. Such protection is worthy in every sense and mostly in this that its existence in the corporeal shape of the Censor expresses the great fact of national self-righteousness. Which fact is great and praiseworthy and very English. On the other hand the public will learn of your existence. They will hear your name, and Chesterton’s, and Galsworthy’s and Archer’s and, say, mine too and 40 other names. They will perceive dimly that we are not stockbrokers, not clerks, not manufacturers or bankers, or lawyers, or doctors or bishops or cricketers or labour members, or scavengers, or company directors.”

The other cricketing connection of Conrad is interesting.

One of the first publishers to show interest in his writing was Sydney S. Pawling of the newly established Heinemann’s. By the end of the 1890s, Heinemann had published the works of Conrad, Stephen Crane, HG Wells and Rudyard Kipling. Conrad often had meetings with Pawling, once a combined one along with Crane.

Pawling was one of the fastest bowlers of England who played three times for Middlesex in 1894, capturing 9 wickets at 24.33 apiece. By limiting his run-scoring to 5 in four innings, he is also in the select group of cricketers with more wickets than runs in their careers.

But Conrad’s final association with cricket was forged, unfortunately, by his funeral procession.

On Thursday, August 7, Jessie Conrad took her last farewell of her husband. Due to a recent operation, she could not join the final journey.

At a quarter past eleven, the hearse left for Canterbury, preceded by a police cyclist and followed by a car carrying flowers. There were three other cars in which sons Borys and John travelled, along with Curle and Ralph Wedgwood, Conrad’s executors. Also present were his brothers-in-law and his friend Edward Garnett.

Almost at the same time, the second day’s play started at the St Lawrence Ground. It was the second match of the Cricket week, played against Nottinghamshire.

In complete contrast to the match against Hampshire, Kent were having a terrible time. The previous morning, fast bowler Frank Matthews had destroyed the local batting by taking 8 for 33, and had broken the local hearts by clean bowling Woolley for a duck. The Kentish side had been bowled out for 67, Wally Hardinge scoring 35 of them. In response, in spite of the efforts of Marriott and Freeman, ‘Dodge’ Whysall had hammered a hundred and when play started on the second day the Notts were on 233 for 9.

Yet, as Bishopbourne’s church bell tolled solemnly, there was no dampening of spirits of the cricket crowd. Many had come over from neighbouring towns and countries. Flags were waving all around. And the Kent supporters had the additional attraction of watching another Woolley innings.

The cortege was caught in the crowd, and delayed in its march by the festivities. Garnett, especially, was irritated by the rejoicing of the public.

Finally, when it came to a stop at the small Roman Catholic church of St Thomas of Canterbury in Burgate, Father Edmund H Sheppard performed the last rites. The official representatives travelled from Victoria and reached the Canterbury East station at 12:29. They were taken to the cemetery for the service at 1:15. Among the dignitaries were representatives of the Polish Ambassador Count Edward Raczyński, members of the Royal Society of Literature and the Dean of Canterbury.

By the time the funeral was over, Woolley had scored 64, and added 110 with Hardinge, to give the Kent supporters something to relish. The next day, Nottinghamshire completed a 10-wicket victory.

The number of mourners amounted to just about a hundred. Edward Garnett was hurt, really hurt. In fact, he could not forget the way the funeral procession had been caught up among the cricket fans.

He wrote: “To those who attended Conrad’s funeral in Canterbury during the Cricket Festival of 1924, and drove through the crowded streets festooned with flags, there was something symbolical in England’s hospitality and in the crowd’s ignorance of even the existence of this great writer.”

Brief scores:

Kent vs Hampshire

Kent 330 (Jack Bryan 42, Wally Hardinge 67, Frank Woolley 101, Godfrey Bryan 50; George Brown 4 for 18) beat Hampshire172 (Charlie Mead 66; ‘Tich’ Freeman 4 for 59, ‘Father’ Marriott 5 for 66) and 137 (Father Marriott 5 for 44) by an innings and 21 runs.

Kent vs Nottinghamshire

Kent 67 (Frank Matthews 8 for 33) and 229 (Wally Hardinge 50, Frank Woolley 64; Sam Staples 5 for 65) lost to Nottinghamshire 242 (‘Dodge’ Whysall 109*, Arthur Carr 42) and 55 for no loss by 10 wickets.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)