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Peter Wynne-Thomas: He is 81 and still chronicling the lives and times of cricketers

Cricket historian, statistician and librarian at Trent Bridge, Peter Wynne-Thomas, has written enough books to fill up a small library on their own. Yet, at 81, he is still at work, writing the biography of Arthur Carr with every bit of painstaking research that has characterised the man for over half a century. Arunabha Sengupta spoke to him in the Trent Bridge library about his current project.

He is 81. The white shirt is still spotless, the snow white moustache still wiggles welcomingly as the lips part in a smile, the smile itself still reflects in his eyes and touches the heart of its recipient, the suspenders still remain as much a part of his persona as the man himself.

Peter Wynne-Thomas has perhaps written more on cricket than most writers can aspire to, but, at 81, he is still hard at work.

After all, after the recent publication of the life of William Carr, one would really expect a similarly detailed and defining biography of another fascinatingly interesting and important Nottinghamshire cricketer — Arthur Carr.

It is not an easy task, though. For Wynne-Thomas the book has to be scrupulously accurate to the final detail, and therein lie several stumbling blocks.

 

He says:

“There are mysteries that I need to get to the bottom of“Arthur Carr’s father was a millionaire who bred racehorses. It is such an important part of the Carr story. The Jockey Club was found in 1750, around the same time as MCC, and yet they have not got an archive! I contacted them in London and asked them about an archive. And they said no, they did not have one. I said I was trying to find some people who bred racehorses and they could not direct me.”

That’s just one block on the landscape. There are others too.

Wynne-Thomas adds: “Carr’s father, as I said, was a millionaire and so was his grandfather, and they were into stock-broking. I think his great-grandfather was in the same line as well, but there is no sort of book on the history of stock-broking. I rang up the Stock Exchange in London, and no one seemed to know; they kept shoving me from person to person. So that is mystery number two.

“The Guildhall Library in London apparently might help me to sort all that out. It is a question of ploughing through all the annual books … And looking up the archives of the Bank of London.”

Even the cricketing history of Carr is not without the odd blank page.

“The really annoying thing is that the only time Carr went overseas to play for England was during the South Africa tour of 1922-23 and there was no book written on that tour. None of the England players who went wrote a book on the tour or their biography.

“Also, none of the South African newspapers are online. There is no way out apart from going through the Cape Times or the Johannesburg Star and the only place where you can find copies of that is now in the British Museum Library which has moved to Yorkshire. A real pain in the neck, that.

“The problem is that in cricketing terms it was just a minor tour. The major players did not go. The captain was Frank Mann who, but for that tour, never played for England. None of the players wrote an autobiography (apart from Carr himself) or produced a ghosted one.”

From the cricketing point of view, it was hardly a great tour for Carr. But, the man must have had a whale of a time there.

“Carr was hopeless. He played in all five Test matches and got just one fifty, and his batting average was 19.45 for all the matches of the tour. It’s hence a question of all the drunken banquets he went to, how they travelled from Johannesburg to Cape Town to Durban. They must have shot a lot of lions. It’s the little details of the social side that I need. [Lionel] Tennyson wrote about it when he went to India — in 1937-38, although the standard of cricket was more or less the same. But, there is nothing on this particular tour.”

Apart from the revolutionary methods of sustaining the fearsome pace of Harold Larwood and Bill Voce by providing a steady supply of beer, and his subsequent role in the conceptualisation of Bodyline, Carr led an incredible life away from cricket.

Wynne-Thomas says: “He had the most bizarre army career. He was made a lieutenant in France in 1913. I think he got invalided once and was mentioned in the despatches once. And then he was in the reserves between the two World Wars and was called up in 1939 when the Second World War broke out. But he was still a lieutenant. How he managed never to be promoted, or whether he was promoted and got demoted again, I don’t know. He was definitely a pain in the neck for the army.

“The bizarre thing is that he was too old to go overseas in the Second World War and he went to Catterick, a large army base in Yorkshire. And what does he do? He seduces the Colonel’s wife, which ends up in a messy divorce for the Colonel.”

Carr however did not manage to obtain a divorce himself.

“Carr’s father, the very wealthy stockbroker, didn’t trust him with money. When he died, in his will he left a lump of money to Arthur’s brother and Arthur’s sister, but the money for Carr himself was kept in a Trust. The trustee of the Trust was his wife, the very one he deserted to go off with the colonel’s wife. Hence he could not get a divorce from his wife. He had to wait twelve years before his first wife died and he could marry wife number two. They lived together and called themselves Mr and Mrs Carr, but weren’t really married —which back in the 1940s was a bit odd.”

There are plenty of other remarkable things in his life.

“The only reason he ever played for Nottinghamshire was strange too. His father was a stock-broker in London and the family lived in the Home Counties around the city. And being a racehorse breeder mad keen on horses, his father suddenly wanted to join the poshest foxhunt in England. It was the Quorn Hunt in Leicestershire. Suddenly, having no connection whatsoever with Midlands, he bought a large mansion in the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire border, which happened to fall just within Nottinghamshire. Arthur was 15 then.

“I have been to see the house and took photographs of it. If you look out of the window, 500 yards down the road is Leicestershire. It was a complete fluke that Carr came to this county and qualified to play. Else, the history of cricket could have been very different, including Bodyline.”

Even in other ways, as Wynne-Thomas says, it was one of those model lives one craves to write about.

“Carr never worked, apart from a bit of an army career. His father supported him during his cricket career, when he captained Nottinghamshire and then captained England. He never worked in his entire life.

“He went to Eton and was thrown out, and had to complete his schooling in Sherborne. He tried to get into Sandhurst and kept failing the exams.

“I bought his marriage certificate and know that Carr had made his first wife pregnant when he got married, resulting in a shotgun marriage in the first place. He took this wife to the tour of South Africa, which leads to more reasons for finding out about the tour.

“So you can see he has a bit of model life to be written about.”

Wynne-Thomas maintains that there is a lot to be researched, which can take years.

“The son of Carr was killed fighting in North Africa in the Second World War, only in his 20s, and that was the only child Carr ever had. His brother did not have any children. I found his sister’s daughter, aged 88. Her memory is pretty good, but she was only born in the late 1920s, and so does not remember much before the mid-1930s. She knew Carr after the Second World War, she went to meet him in Yorkshire where he lived with his strange lady friend, this Colonel’s wife. But, she said that he was not very talkative.

“I can’t find anyone who knows him here. After the row about Larwood and Voce, Carr got thrown out as captain here, and from then had nothing to do with the Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club either. He died in 1963 and a year or two before he died somebody from the committee made amends and he did come down to watch one Test match or two.”

So, at 81, Peter Wynne-Thomas is still diligently following the trails of long-dead Nottinghamshire cricketers, trying to piece together fascinating lives that we may have never known about but for his assiduous efforts.

“If you come back next year and if I am still alive, I will still be working on this, and probably even the year after.”

What can you do but doff your hat to such a man?

(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)