This is the tale of Billy Midwinter, one of the greatest pioneers that cricket has ever known. Born in England 150 years ago tomorrow, he made his name in Australia where he blazed a trail from outback prodigy to record-breaking teenager. He changed the ethos of his sport, becoming the world's first transoceanic professional and a player of such prowess that the legendary W G Grace once resorted to kidnap to secure his services. As this summer's Ashes series approaches, Billy also remains the only man ever to have played at Test level for both Australia and England against the other.
He was born William Evans Midwinter in St Briavels, Gloucestershire, on 19 June 1851, the eldest child of William John Midwinter, a farm bailiff, and Rebecca, née Evans, the latter's wife. When Billy was nine, his father decided to join the gold rush and, on 2 February 1861, the family set sail from Liverpool for Australia, where they arrived on 24 April that year.
The Midwinters made their home in a shack at California Gully, near Sandhurst in the Bendigo goldfields, some 100 miles from Melbourne. It was not long before Billy was playing cricket on improvised dirt pitches and it was there that he struck up a friendship, which would endure throughout his life, with Harry Boyle. It was Boyle, who later became a prominent player and administrator, who founded the bush-based Sydney Flat Cricket Club, Billy's first team.
By the 1864-65 season, according to Grahame Parker's painstakingly researched 1971 essay in Wisden, the 13-year-old Billy was playing for Bendigo United's senior side. In the 1869-70 season, while still a teenager, he became the first person in Australian cricket to score a double century, making 256 for Bendigo against Sandhurst. By 1873, Billy's name appeared as a player at Melbourne Cricket Club for the first time.
Billy was, according to contemporary reports, "quiet in demeanour, but had a happy knack of saying excessively funny, dry things without appearing to be in the least conscious about it." By his early 20s, he was a 6ft 2in, 14st athlete of all-round ability. A batsman and medium-pace bowler, he was also a fine quarter-miler, a decent shot and not bad at billiards. He was nicknamed 'The Bendigo Giant.'
The lives of Billy and W G Grace were intertwined from the time they first met in 1873, when the latter led a touring party to the colony. Billy represented the state of Victoria against the tourists twice, the second time in March 1874, when he clean bowled both W G Grace and one of his brothers, G F Grace. W G obviously made a mental note of his opponent's ability. It was later to be become apparent to a wider audience.
The first-ever Test match, a four-day affair, started on 15 March 1877. Billy represented the victorious All Australia against James Lillywhite's All England in Melbourne and his figures of 6 for 101 in two innings (5 for 78 in the first) spoke for themselves. It was time, Billy then decided, to try his luck in the old country, and he thus embarked on a career that would take the era of commuting professionals to a new level. He left for England on 21 April 1877 on the S S Durham, listed on the passenger list as "W Midwinter, male, 25 years, cricketer, English." It was likely that W G Grace knew he was coming, and Billy was soon playing in his United South of England XI side. His first recorded appearance for Gloucestershire (where Billy was the first full-time professional) was in one of the county's most famous matches. England were beaten by five wickets at The Oval. Billy took 7 for 35 and 4 for 46 along the way.
It was in 1878, during the first Australian tour of England, that Billy became embroiled in one of cricket's most enduring mysteries, his "kidnap" by W G Grace. The tourists, led by John Conway, arrived in the country with just 11 men and with the intention of Billy joining them on their arrival. The fact that he was also being paid to play for Gloucestershire that season should not have mattered. If there had not been a fixture clash, it would not have mattered. But on Monday 20 June 123 years ago on Wednesday there was just such a collision.
The Australians were playing at Lord's. They lost the toss and their openers, Alex Bannerman and Billy, were padding up. Over at The Oval, meanwhile, W G Grace found his Gloucestershire team a man short. His solution was to head for Lord's with his brother, E M Grace, and another colleague, the strapping J A Bush, and "persuade" Billy where his loyalties lay. Billy, so the story goes, was bundled into a carriage and taken back to The Oval. The stunned Australians rounded up a posse, including Harry Boyle, to give chase. There was an "unhappy altercation" at The Oval gates. W G Grace called the Australians "a damn lot of sneaks" for enticing his man away from his Gloucestershire duties. The Australians were outraged. Billy ended up playing for the county side that day, but the matter was far from over.
The tourists threatened to cancel a game against Gloucestershire unless they received an apology. Eventually, after an admission by W G that he had used "Parliamentary language" during the fracas, they got one. When the tourists eventually played Gloucestershire, Billy represented neither side, claiming a split thumb.
It is not known for certain, to this day, precisely what happened on the day of the "kidnap". Did the Australians use the low tactic of money to entice Billy to play for them, as he had been enticed to play for Gloucestershire in the first place? Did he then succumb to a bigger enticement from Grace to change his mind?
Or did he agree to play for Gloucestershire because of his roots in the county, then have a pang of national pride for Australia and then have another pang and switch back? Nobody will ever know for sure, as differing family folklore illustrates.
"I'd love to know if the story about him being kidnapped by Grace was right, or if, as I suspect, he was bribed," Anne Midwinter, a distant relative of Billy's who was traced by The Independent in New Zealand, said. Closer to home, the cricket statistician and author, Eric Midwinter, whose grandfather, he has been told, was Billy's cousin, does not believe anything so sinister.
Eric, a biographer of W G Grace, points out that Billy was first and foremost a man for hire. "Fixtures weren't as fixed or certain in those days. Billy was a professional and thought he'd play for Australia on that day," he said. "He found out too late that the match clashed with a Gloucestershire game. When faced with conspiracy or cock-up, it's usually cock-up and I think that's probably what happened in this case."
The incident did nothing to curtail Billy's career. He played seven games for Gloucestershire in 1878 for £8 a time and later expanded his portfolio of jobs significantly. At one point he was playing for Gloucestershire, was also on the bowling staff of the MCC at Lord's and was, incredibly, commuting between England and Australia for the cricket season in each country. Between 1880 and 1882 he played six consecutive seasons in two hemispheres and, in those 36 months, he spent 12 months at sea. Journeys at the time took some 50 days or more each way. It was during one trip to Australia in 1881-82 that Billy played his four Tests for England in Alfred Shaw's touring team.
At the end of 1882 Billy went back to Australia and according to reports "he returned greatly polished in his manner, having to a great extent lost the rawness which characterised him as a youth." Billy himself insisted that he was "an Australian to the heart's core" and he objected to being called an Anglo-Australian.
He did not stop playing but other activities took priority. He was married in 1883 to Lizzie McLaughlan and, after an unsuccessful spell as a stockbroker, he took over as the landlord at the Clyde Hotel in Melbourne. The pub stills stands today and has recently been taken over by the major brewer, Toohey's. There is nothing there to commemorate Billy, although the venue's manager, Megan Larnach-Jones, has a registry document showing Billy's tenure from 1885-86. A copy of today's Independent, Larnach-Jones said last week, will soon adorn the bar.
The latter years of Billy's life were as eventful as the rest, but tragically so. His eldest son, William, born in 1884, was a sickly child and was later to die aged 12. His daughter, Elsie, died of pneumonia in November 1888, aged 10 months. His wife died of apoplexy in August 1889 and then his second son, Albert, died aged three in November of the same year. After the deaths of Lizzie, Elsie and Albert, Billy went insane. He was committed to the Kera Asylum in Melbourne on 14 August 1890 suffering from a "depression" that left him paralysed. Although he enjoyed brief bouts of lucidity, as when Harry Boyle paid a visit in November 1890, he died at 11am on Wednesday 3 December.
He is buried, alongside his family, in the Roman Catholic section of Melbourne General Cemetery, where his grave though it was restored in 1982 by members of the Australian Cricket Society remains difficult to find.
At the time of Billy's death, Cricket magazine remarked that "pale death has lately removed a cricketer whose form was almost if not quite as well known on English as on Australian grounds." Given that even today no memorial exists in this country, perhaps the most fitting epitaph remains the one that was printed in a late 19th century edition of Haygarth's Scores and Biographies. It read simply: "May the death of no other cricketer who has taken part in great matches be like this".Reuse content