Claude Newberry made his Test debut at Old Wanderers (above) © Getty Images
Claude Newberry made his Test debut at Old Wanderers (above) © Getty Images

Claude Newberry, who played for South Africa against England in the last Test series before the First World War, remains a gap in cricket’s records: he is one of only two Test players whose exact birth date is unknown. He was killed in The Great War on March 1, 1916 at a mere 27 (or 26). A Michael Jones looks back at his all too short life — with thanks to Carol Victor at the Africana Library in Port Elizabeth, and Carol Beneke of eGGSA, for their help with research.

Cricket historians, as a rule, like to be thorough in their research: they do their best to make sure that every international player, no matter what his achievements or how little he is remembered by the wider cricket-watching public, has his biographical details on record.

Of almost three thousand Test cricketers to date, major databases give an exact date of birth for all but two (although in some cases it is open to question whether the officially stated date is correct). One of those with a year only is Frederick Cook, who made a single appearance against Lord Hawke’s touring team in 1896; the difficulty in tracing him is due to his birthplace of the Dutch East Indies — the State Archive of Batavia (the colonial era name of Jakarta) does hold some birth records for the period, but Cook’s is not among them.

The other is Claude Newberry, who also played for South Africa in the pre-War period. His First-Class debut came for Transvaal in 1910-11, in a practice match for the national team shortly to depart on its maiden tour of Australia, when he dismissed Test captain Percy Sherwell on the way to innings figures of 3 for 103; he went on to perform consistently for the domestic team that season, peaking with 6 for 28 against Eastern Province and making a key contribution to Transvaal’s second place in the Currie Cup.

He was not selected for the tour party to England for the 1912 Triangular Tournament, but his chance was to come. After an innings defeat in the first of 5 Tests against England in 1913-14, South Africa made four changes for the second, including Newberry in place of Harold Baumgartner; the left-armer’s omission left the home team with an all-seam attack, the days of the ‘googly quartet’ well and truly over.

Making his debut at Johannesburg, he gained a prized if somewhat fortuitous maiden wicket when Jack Hobbs swung and missed at a full-toss, to be trapped in front. Adding Frank Woolley and Morice Bird to his haul, he finished with 3 for 93, which the Dundee Courier was moved to bracket with Jimmy Blanckenberg’s 5 for 83 as ‘magnificent’ in taking the visitors’ last 8 wickets for 70.

All other performances in the match, though, were overshadowed by Syd Barnes’s 17 wickets, and England won by an innings again; the combination of Barnes and Bert Strudwick made Newberry the answer to a trivia question, as the first player to be out stumped in both innings of his Test debut (Strudwick was also responsible for the second and, to date, last: Reginald Hands later in the same series).

Newberry improved on his debut performance with 4 for 72 in the next match, and finished the series with 11 wickets at an average of 24, second for the home team behind Blanckenberg’s 19 at 23; both would have looked more respectable had they not faced comparison with Barnes’s record 49 at 11 for the visitors. Newberry could claim an illustrious bunny in Woolley, whom he dismissed 4 times in as many matches.

A bright future seemed in prospect, but within months War had broken out, and for Newberry, as for hundreds of other cricketers, it ended not just his career but his life; he joined the South African Infantry, and was killed at Longueval, France on the Western Front in 1916.

Even Newberry’s listed date of death is inexact: he had been reported missing in action, and August 1 was the date on which he was officially recorded as “presumed dead”; like many others in similar circumstances, he may in fact have died some days earlier.

He had not made a will — no doubt death was far from his mind when he left for Europe — so the court system had the responsibility of administering his estate. Esther Roberts, Newberry’s aunt, identified herself as his next of kin in a letter to the magistrate in Johannesburg, attesting that “his parents left him when he was six weeks old and since then we have not heard one word of them”, and in their absence she had taken responsibility for his upbringing.

Here, then, lies the explanation for the uncertainty as to his date of birth: parents with no qualms about abandoning their child may not have bothered either registering the birth or having him baptised, the two ways of leaving an official record of it.

As if the death of her nephew and adopted son at the age of only 27 was not enough tragedy for Esther Roberts to bear, her letter to the magistrate goes on to state that her husband, suffering from loss of memory, was being kept at the Ingutsheni Asylum, Bulawayo.

In the lives of Test cricketers lie many tragedies: some were born in poverty; a number killed in the two World Wars; others, once their playing days were over, descended into destitution, depression and in numerous cases eventual suicide. Even amongst these, though, the story of the player abandoned as a child, whose life was cut short while his adoptive father’s mental illness saw him confined to an institution, stands out as perhaps the most piteous of all.

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