Neville Cardus making a speech at the Cricket Writers Club dinner for England’s team for the tour of the West Indies at the Press Club, London, in May 1950 © Getty Images
Neville Cardus making a speech at the Cricket Writers Club dinner for England’s team for the tour of the West Indies at the Press Club, London, in May 1950 © Getty Images

Neville Cardus, officially born April 2, 1889, revolutionised cricket reporting, transforming it from a staid description of events on the field to a series of metaphors invoking Greek gods and heroes. However, he was also notorious for his refusal to let the facts get in the way of a good story: he frequently wrote supposed “first-hand” reports of matches at which he was not present, and sometimes of ones which never actually took place. Michael Jones discovers that this cavalier disregard for the small matter of truth was exhibited in accounts of his own life as much as in his cricket reports.

Neville Cardus hosted a party for his seventieth birthday on April 2, 1959; some simple arithmetic enables one to deduce that he thought — or at least wanted other people to think — that he was born April 2, 1889. However, it is always good journalistic practice to check a claim before publishing it as fact, and particularly so when the person making the claim had such a track record of fabrication as Cardus.

The first problem one encounters in trying to trace his birth record is that there was no one named Neville Cardus born in Manchester at around the time he claimed to have been — because Neville was not his birth name, but one he chose for himself in adulthood; perhaps he thought it sounded more distinguished than the forenames which were originally given to him, John Frederick.

It is under those names which one can find an entry in the register of births, at 4 Summer Place, Rusholme, Manchester — on April 3, 1888. In addition to the different forenames and different date, a further curiosity of Cardus’ birth certificate is that his father’s name does not appear on it. Although every certificate was supposed to identify the father, in practice many did not, and the omission was usually an indication of something specific about the birth; we will come back to this later.

Neville Cardus’ birth certificate: different name, different date, different year — and no mention of his father © Crown
Neville Cardus’ birth certificate: different name, different date, different year — and no mention of his father © Crown

In countries which do not issue birth certificates, it is plausible that someone might not actually know when they were born — not many people can remember the event, still fewer claim they looked at a calendar — but in England a certificate is issued at the time the birth is registered. If Cardus ever happened to forget how old he was, he only needed to look at his birth certificate to check. We may presume, then, that he did know his real date of birth, but chose to tell the rest of the world one which was a year — less a day — later. Why?

Some people do lie about their ages, for a variety of reasons. At school, a child who is in fact several years older than he or she claims to be, will gain an advantage, both physically and academically, over others who really are that age.

Playing against others of a similar age, while claiming to be younger, gives the impression of precocity and enables one to claim records. Ahmed Mustafa supposedly made his First-Class debut shortly before his 11th birthday; Alimuddin, at the age of 12; Hasan Raza claimed to be 14 at the time of his first Test; Mushtaq Mohammad, 15. All four ages, along with those of a number of other players born in countries with no birth registration, are open to significant doubt: when Alimuddin died in 2012 and Mustafa in 2013, their respective obituaries in Wisden included discussions of their probable real age, concluding in both cases that it was most likely around five years greater than that officially stated.

At the other end of the age scale, those of more advanced years often understate their true age, not to gain any practical advantage but simply because they do not wish other people to know the real number. One of the more curious English habits is for people to respond to questions about their age with “21”, even when they are clearly some decades older; it is a politer way of suggesting that the question is none of anyone else’s business.

But why pretend to be 70 when one is in reality 71? The difference between them is of no practical significance. If one does not wish to admit to being 71, why not claim to be ten or fifteen years younger rather than only one? In order to answer this question, it helps to consider some English social history.

Nowadays the word bastard is used as a generic insult (except in Australia, where it appears to be almost a term of endearment: when Douglas Jardine visited the home team’s dressing room during the Bodyline series to complain that one of them had used the term to him, the response — variously attributed either to Jardine’s opposite number Bill Woodfull or his vice-captain Vic Richardson — was to demand of the other players “All right – which of you bastards called this bastard a bastard?”), but it originally had a specific meaning: a child born to parents who were not married at the time. It was used in legal terms such as bastardy bond, a court order compelling the father of such a child to pay maintenance to the mother.

In the twenty-first century it has become so common for couple to delay marrying until after having children, or for a child to be born to a relationship which does not last long, that such circumstances are considered normal and the term is no longer used in its original sense — but the fact that it is still used as an insult reflects the stigma which was once associated with it. In the eleventh century, enemies of William, Duke of Normandy reminded him of the circumstances of his birth by nicknaming him “William the Bastard”; his subsequent invasion of England and coronation as its king ensured that history would remember him by the rather more favourable epithet of “the Conqueror”.

Even into the mid-twentieth century, it was considered shameful for an unmarried woman to have a baby, and one who did, depending on the level of compassion — or absence of it — in her family, could be pressurised by them into giving the child up for adoption. In seeing the word written in the child’s entry in a church baptism register, one can almost sense the vicar’s disapproval (one vicar was rather more forgiving, and wrote instead “father known unto God”).

A bastard was considered inferior legally as well as socially: if a parent died without leaving a will, the inheritance fell to legitimate children only; an extramarital child could not inherit. The treatment of such children did not, of course, prevent more being born in the same circumstances; anyone researching their ancestry in England is likely to discover at least one bastard in their family sooner or later. What is the most common clue that a child’s parents were not married? The absence of the father’s name from the birth certificate.

Now we have a hypothesis, it takes only a little further research to prove it. In July 1888, three months after the birth of the boy later to call himself Neville, Ada Cardus married John Frederick Newsham.

Wikipedia’s article on Cardus blithely states that “Apart from their shared forenames, there is no evidence that Newsome was Neville’s father” (the spelling of English names was rather flexible in those days: a man whose surname appeared as Newsham on one document might well be Newsome on another); not for the first time, nor the last, Wikipedia is wrong. The names in themselves should be evidence enough — a woman did not give birth to a son, give him two forenames, then shortly afterwards marry a man with the same two forenames, by complete coincidence; she did so because the man she married was the boy’s father.

Yet, if we are not satisfied with that evidence, there is more available in the first census taken in England during Cardus’ lifetime, in 1891. Ada’s marriage had broken down by then, and although she retained her married surname, she was living with her parents at 4 Summer Place — at least Cardus was telling the truth when he later stated the address at which he had grown up (making it plausible that he might have watched matches at Old Trafford, around three miles away), even if he was not when he described the nature of the area: it was nothing like the slum he depicted it as in an attempt to portray his life as a “rags-to-riches” story.

1891 census: the use of the surname Newsham betrays the identity of the boy’s father © Crown
1891 census: the use of the surname Newsham betrays the identity of the boy’s father © Crown

The details recorded of the youngest member of the family are telling: for a start, he was three years old, which again contradicts his later claim to have been born in 1889. Then there is his name: Frederick Newsham. A child whose mother married a man who was not his father would retain the mother’s birth surname: the boy’s use of his mother’s married surname is proof, if any further were needed, that John Frederick Newsham was his father.

Newsham had no musical background: Cardus’ later description of his father as playing first violin in an orchestra was presumably an attempt to give his opinions on music an authority which they did not merit. Neither does it seem likely that anyone would have had a motive for conspiring to send Newsham to Africa and arrange his death, which Cardus claimed as the fate of the mysterious father; the absence of his real father from his childhood allowed Cardus to make up any fairy tales he liked, if the knowledge that Newsham was highly unlikely to come forward and disprove them.

Knowledge of Cardus’ character is sufficient to understand why he lied about his date of birth. “Snob” is not usually considered a compliment, and most people accused by others of being one would themselves deny it; Cardus, in contrast, revelled in the label. However, being a snob would be incompatible with being a bastard; one looked down on the rest of society, the other was looked down on by it. By stating a date of birth in April 1889, Cardus could claim to have been conceived shortly after his parents’ marriage, and born nine months later; if he had admitted to the real date in 1888, he would have been forced to acknowledge his illegitimacy, shattering the image he had built up for himself: just one more lie in the career of a man who made them his stock in trade.

(Michael Jones’s writing focuses on cricket history and statistics, with occasional forays into the contemporary game)