To every cricket-loving schoolboy of the 50s and 60s, Fred Trueman might well have been plucked from the pages of folklore. But the first full biography of one of England’s greatest cricketers, by Chris Waters, reveals a much more complex character
ONE thing Yorkshire cricket lovers do tend to agree about is that Fred Trueman was correct when he said he was “t’finest fast bowler that ever drew breath”.
However, “Fiery Fred” was a man of sweeping contrasts and stark contradictions.
This is revealed in a new book by the Yorkshire Post’s cricket correspondent Chris Waters. He has dug deep into the background of a sporting legend who was born next to Maltby Main pit in February, 1931.
The author has put together a picture which presents Fred as much more than a one-dimensional hero who became the first to capture 300 Test wickets.
Fred became a symbolic figure in post-war Britain, an era that embraced his Jack-the-lad image and enhanced it through the new medium of television.
During the 1950s – a decade that began with food rationing and ended with Harold Macmillan’s “you’ve never had it so good” election – many pre-war values were challenged by the rise of an affluent youth culture.
The coronation in 1953 was the first to be televised live and when it was over it needed new events and fresh celebrities to satisfy a fast-growing audience eager to put austerity behind them and hungry for something different.
Amid a growing sense that anything was possible, the closed world of the British establishment found itself on a collision course with the cocky new Britain growing up around it. Fred Trueman – cockier than most – was a role model for those who refused to kowtow.
Fred – bolshie, outspoken and anti-authoritarian from the start – was a figurehead. He was also a paradox, a man born in the mining heartland yet a royalist and long-time supporter of the Conservative party. And just as others were inclined to inflate his behaviour, so Trueman was guilty of fanning his legend. He basked in the kudos of his militant image and macho status on the county cricket circuit. He then spent his retirement trying to distance himself from stories and situations he’d once trumpeted.
There was so much tittle-tattle, gossip and hearsay, no-one was sure which stories were true and which were false – perhaps not even himself.
There is, however, something profoundly affecting about Fred’s birthplace. One of 12 miners’ cottages next to the pit yard, 5 Scotch Springs was buried in the 1970s when Maltby tip pressed up on its doorstep. There is no trace now of these isolated houses, just a slurry pit near to mounds of landfill.
“When you think of where Fred came from to where he reached, it brings a tear to the eye,” said Bob Platt, one of his closest friends and a former new-ball partner at Yorkshire. “Fred didn’t just hail from a humble background. He hailed from practically nothing. He might have been hewn from the rock of that South Yorkshire countryside.”
Legend has it the momentous event took place in the outside toilet backing on to the pit yard when Fred sprang a surprise on his mother, Ethel. His father, Alan, braved a snowstorm and sub-zero temperatures to dash to Stainton to fetch the doctor.
By the time he returned, Ethel was cradling the fourth of their seven children – a brother for Stella (aged seven), Phyllis (three) and Arthur (two). The baby was delivered by his grandmother, Elizabeth Stimpson, in whose honour the boy was christened Frederick Sewards – the latter her maiden name.
According to a resident, the family was perceived in unflattering terms. “‘I think some folk in Maltby perhaps looked down on them in those days. They were a bit grubby in appearance and rough around the edges, and Fred was different to the other kids at school; scruffy is putting it mildly. They were gypsies really – albeit stationary ones.”
The Fred Trueman story is rendered more powerful, more poignant by the fact he came from such conditions to conquer the world.
It also perhaps explains his actions – having made his mark with the county following a debut in 1949 – during his trips backs home from national service with the RAF.
As a capped Yorkshire player with plenty of money, he was perceived by some as a big-time Charlie. “Fred had a bad habit of going into a pub, chucking his money on the bar and saying ‘drinks all round’,” recalled his contemporary John Gibson. “That offended quite a few people. It was bragging, you see, showing everyone he had some money, whereas most of us didn’t. Quite a few folk got fed up with that.”
There was a pointed element to Fred’s showy behaviour. He and his family had been looked down on locally and now he relished that people looked up to him. Folk who’d previously given him a wide berth were only too pleased to share his success.
Indeed, the very key to understanding Fred, the essence of what made him such a rebellious figure and so different from his peers, is found in that tough and uncompromising upbringing.
Of the hell-raising image that developed around his exploits on the field, Bob Platt says: “Fred wasn’t a candidate for canonisation and there were times he fell foul of the eleventh commandment – thou shalt not get caught.
“But even in the Yorkshire team there were a lot worse boozers and party animals than Fred. Our former captain, Vic Wilson, for instance, used to disappear regularly at the weekends with his toothbrush in his top pocket, telling us all in the team hotel he was off to visit some cousin or other. As Fred used to say, ‘He’s got a lot of f***ing cousins, that one’, and yet no one batted an eyelid at Vic.”
In reality, Fred couldn’t drink to save his life. It was the biggest myth that built around him. “Fred was a useless drinker,” said former Yorkshire and England all-rounder Richard Hutton. “He couldn’t take alcohol in serious quantity. But folk always wanted to buy him a drink if he happened to be in the bar after a day’s play and, of course, he never said no, so you’d find all these pint pots lining up at his elbow that he was never touching and myself and the rest of the players would drink them instead.”
The impression that Fred drank for England was furthered by his work on Indoor League. He presented the 1970s pub game show on Yorkshire Television with a pint in one hand and a pipe in the other. His widow Veronica recalled: “Fred used to say, ‘Why do people always offer me beer whenever we go out?’ And I would say, ‘Well, Fred, you do spend half your life standing in front of a television camera with a foaming tankard in your hand mouthing the catchphrase ‘Ah’ll si’thee’, so of course people are going to think you drink beer’.”
Fred’s former team-mates say Veronica’s strength of character, allied to her organisational skills, rescued him at a time when the twin pillars of his life – cricket and marriage – had collapsed.
“I honestly think that without Veronica, Fred would have been a goner,” said Don Wilson. “His life was going nowhere at the end of the 60s – his career had finished and his marriage had broken up – and Veronica came along at just the right time. She put his life back on track when he needed it most.”
Richard Hutton agrees. “Without Veronica, Fred might have been dead. She completely organised him and saved his life. Without someone to look after him and help him along, Fred would have been useless. God knows what might have happened if he hadn’t met Veronica.”
His first marriage to Enid Chapman, the strong-minded daughter of a former mayor of Scarborough, had been stormy at the best of times but rendered twice as tempestuous by the stories she’d heard of him living it up with some floozy or other.
A 1964 BBC film of Fred’s life was remarkable for a scathing attack by his wife that left him hurt and profoundly shaken. In anguished tones, Enid complained it was impossible to have a normal marriage.
Within weeks he had moved out, vowing never to return. The strain of long periods apart – in those days, cricket tours lasted six months or more – took a heavy toll. Some marriages survived; others didn’t. With Fred and Enid, there was the additional pressure of his vast celebrity, which deprived them of valuable time together.
With his playing career also at an end, Fred faced up to life without cricket with none of the certainty that typified his bowling.
Then in 1968 he had a chance encounter with Veronica Wilson. He had been staying with his solicitor, Jack Mewies, who lived not far from Veronica’s pub. A friendship developed between Fred and Veronica, whose own marriage was on the brink of collapse.
They offered each other a shoulder to cry on before friendship evolved into full-blown romance.
By 1970, their bond had strengthened to the point they wanted to live together. They bought a detached bungalow in Flasby, near Skipton, and set about creating a brighter future.
All that remained was to sort their divorces.
With Mewies’s help, Fred’s went through as quietly as possible in November, 1972. Veronica’s was finalised two months later. They married at Skipton Register Office on 28 February, 1973.
Although blissfully happy, Fred and Veronica agonised over how their divorces would affect their children. Fred had Karen, Rebecca and Rodney to consider, while Veronica had two children – Sheenagh (born in 1958) and Patrick (1960) – from her marriage to motor mechanic Keith Wilson.
Enid was awarded custody of her two, who stayed with her in Scarborough. Veronica was granted custody of Sheenagh and Patrick, who went to live in Flasby.
But Fred found separation from his own children difficult and disturbing.
“I was beside myself worrying about the effect the split would have on them,” he confessed.
“I wondered what they would think of me when they grew up. I wanted them to love and respect me throughout their lives, but tortured myself wondering how this could be possible given the circumstances.”
Fred’s marital travails were also far from over. In the spring of 1984, when the Yorkshire troubles were at their peak as members rallied in support of Geoff Boycott to overthrow the committee (which included Fred) he embarked on a five-year affair with Diane Watkin, a 38-year-old from Beckenham in Kent.
Perhaps the kindest thing to say is that Fred was traumatised by events at Yorkshire and was emotionally vulnerable. But his conduct seemed to vindicate at a stroke those who reckoned he was a womaniser, rather someone who, for want of a better term, made a mistake.
In Fred’s case, it was a pretty big one and led to sordid headlines in a Sunday newspaper. Naturally, the revelations had a devastating effect on Veronica who, however, steadfastly stood by him.
Fred, awarded an OBE in 1989 for services to charity, tore around like a 20-something until May 2006, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Shortly after noon on Saturday, July 1, 2006, Fred Trueman passed away.
Veronica rang Ted Corbett, whom she knew would be covering the one-day international between England and Sri Lanka at – of all places – Headingley.
Corbett rose to his feet in a crowded press box and solemnly announced the death of a legend.
Minutes later, the news was conveyed on the giant replay screen above the West Stand.
Without prompting, the crowd broke into sustained, moving applause that sent a shiver down the spine.
During the break between innings, the teams observed a minute’s silence, while flags at the ground were lowered to half-mast.
• ‘Fred Trueman: The authorised biography’ by Chris Waters (Aurum, price £20, ISBN 978 1 84513 453 2). To order your copy of Fred Trueman at £18, saving £2 on rrp £20, please add £2.85 p&p. By phone: 01748 821122 Mon-Sat 9am-5pm. By post: Send cheque made payable to Yorkshire Books Ltd, 1 Castle Hill, Richmond DL10 4QP. www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/shop. Or call in at our reception in Wellington street, Leeds, Mon-Fri 9pm-5pm and save postage.