Dennis O’Keefe: Battling for Britain in the shadow of war

WITH no Test or County cricket in England 100 years ago as the First World War was fought, why did the game continue in Halifax and the Calder Valley?

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira

In its recently closed chapel in the Upper Calder Valley was displayed a compilation of portraits of members of Mytholmroyd Wesleyan Sunday School Cricket Club. These were its 11 young men, an entire team, who perished in the Great War. The club had played on into the 1915 season, when it was finally forced to stop due to a shortage of players. The continuation of cricket during the war, however, was highly controversial.

In 1914, cricket was linked to national self-perception and patriotism. Considered quintessentially English, cricket from the mid-19th century had undergone a metamorphosis into a code of behaviour which fashioned the gentleman-amateur sporting values of the country’s ruling elite.

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Many felt that cricket should be committed to the war effort. W.G. Grace considered it wrong “that able-bodied men should be playing day by day and pleasure-seekers look on ... I should like to see all first-class cricketers… set a good example, and come to the help of their country without delay in its hour of need”.

The game came under pressure to cease, driven by the public school-educated Establishment. County cricket and almost all club cricket in the South had ended by early 1915.

However, in the North, league cricket carried on, incurring hostility for this “unpatriotic” approach. The principal target was the Bradford League which employed redundant County players, including Jack Hobbs and Sydney Barnes, attracting thousands of spectators.

On a more typical scale, cricket also continued throughout Halifax and the Calder Valley. Despite the MCC’s denunciation of them as overly competitive and tainted with professionalism, leagues were the lifeblood of the district’s cricket. The Halifax Parish League encapsulated the area’s attitude. In November 1915, its minutes stated that “the war has made havoc with our clubs and their members but nationally the call of the country comes first & we hope that the Allied armies will eventually come out victorious & crush the heel of despotic Germany”.

Hardly unpatriotic. Yet, the resolve to continue playing was equally striking. In March 1916, the league determined that a big effort should be made by the clubs to run at least one team during the season and, where one club was unable to raise a team, it would be all right for numbers to be made up from even the opposing club.

The newly-formed Halifax Council League resolved in April 1916 to forge ahead with competitive cricket even for second teams. Moreover, the Halifax Parish Challenge Cup, overcoming huge difficulties, took place throughout the entire conflict.

Very little opposition appeared in the area’s press, particularly from the Front. In October 1915, the Halifax Evening Courier recorded: “Sergt. Stott, Heptonstall, with the 13th Battalion Rifle Brigade, in France… sends hearty congratulations to the Heptonstall Slack Cricket Club upon having won the League Cup and adds that he followed their progress week by week with the keenest interest”.

In June 1916, a playing member of Todmorden CC informed the Todmorden Advertiser: “There are a few Todmorden boys in this Battalion who follow the doings of the old club with great interest. We have had all the results up to the Nelson match and would like to see the old club win the championship this season.”

As well as exhorting his local club to keep the flag flying, Tommy Atkins played and spectated when on leave. Furthermore, reports of casualties in the local newspapers highlighted the cricket or football club of which the serviceman had been a member.

In this part of industrial Yorkshire it was a point of honour to keep playing the game during the war. Alongside the letters and parcels sent to the Front, keeping in touch with their local sports clubs boosted the men’s morale.

It helped them retain a crucial link and a sense of continuity with their families and their town or village. It was about preserving a way of life – what the war was in large measure about. It was ultimately a patriotic stance. Regrettably, the gentleman-amateur concept of sport had not equipped critics to understand this.

Sport in industrial areas like Halifax and the Calder Valley was part of the very fabric of communities created or transformed during decades of economic and social change.

Local cricketing rivalry helped to mould the identity of these communities. When, in 1894, Greetland players returned to their village after defeating Sowerby Bridge in the Halifax Parish Cup Final, a “large crowd were awaiting their arrival, and cheered vigorously when the team came in sight, holding aloft the much coveted cup”.

During the war, the clubs’ matches and highly popular social events were often employed for charitable causes. A fixture between Todmorden and Walsden in 1915 engaged the Yorkshire professionals Rhodes, Hirst, Drake and Holmes, raising over £70 for the local Military Hospital.

Eventually the country’s social and political elite recognised the continuation of sport at home as a valuable diversion from the pain and deprivations of the conflict.

This realisation was to shape attitudes during the Second World War. In northern industrial areas like Halifax and the Calder Valley, however, cricket was not merely a distraction. It was about people’s roots and communities. It was about who they were. That is why they played on during the Great War.

• Dr Dennis O’Keefe is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Huddersfield. His essay – WWI and the day Northern cricket stood against the Establishment... and won! – has won the Yorkshire Society’s history prize, the Bramley Award.