Sporting War and Sporting Peace 1914-1919 - Part Two

With what the journalist David Frith called their “forest of initials” and the honorific “Mr.” Gentlemen amateurs played alongside the professional Players in county cricket on either side of the Great War, and against them in three Gentlemen versus Players matches each season. In the first two articles of our new series, volunteer Peter Bloor looks at the contrasting styles and lives of two gentlemen amateur cricketers and a player.

Part Two: Mr. Foster, Mr. Douglas and Billy Bestwick – Two Gentlemen and a Player post-war

Only one of the three amateur cricketers who had contributed most to the Gentlemen’s victory over the Players at Lord’s in 1914 played again when the fixture resumed in 1919.

S.G. Smith of Northamptonshire was in New Zealand and F.R. (Frank) Foster of Warwickshire had been forced to retire through injury, but J.W.H.T. (Johnny) Douglas of Essex, now playing as Major Douglas following his war service with the Bedfordshire Regiment, did return to play in all three of the matches that year.

'Fine bowling by Major Douglas'

The war years had not lowered the fixture’s standing and at The Oval ‘One always felt this was a real match, a sensation not always experienced at a county match this season'. Unfortunately, this match, and the one following at Lord’s, were badly affected by rain, although there was still plenty of playing time in the latter for Johnny Douglas to repeat his 1914 performance there.

Five years previously he had scored a necessarily slow 22 to halt a batting collapse and had taken nine wickets for 105 in the Players’ first innings. Now, again at Lord’s and then at Scarborough, he showed why Australian crowds mocked and laughed that his initials stood for Johnny Won’t Hit Today - following two slow 30s, one in each match, he then scored 24 in two and a half hours, attempting the defensive innings that was needed to save the Scarborough game which, despite his efforts, was still lost.

As he had in 1914, Douglas also took wickets. He grabbed eight wickets for 49 in the first innings at Lord’s, keeping an excellent length and varying his pace on a pitch that wasn’t difficult to bat on, and five for 110 at Scarborough with a wet ball. Johnny’s bowling on a pitch deadened by rain was however still not sufficient to prevent the Players from scoring 397 all out, a total that included a brilliant 116 by Jack Hobbs, his third Gentlemen versus Players century of the summer.

'Former Warwickshire Captain’s failure'

Three months before the unexciting Johnny Douglas had crossed the Channel for the Western Front in November 1915, the brilliant Frank Foster had sustained a compound fracture of the leg when his motor-cycle skidded on tram rails in Worcester. This injury was so serious that at one time it was thought his foot would have to be amputated and it ended his cricket career.

Some reports stated that he had been travelling at 'a fairly fast pace', which was perhaps a tactful phrasing of going too fast for the conditions and a further indication that his judgement and decision-making had become more erratic and impulsive.

At the beginning of May 1911, just before the start of the season in which he would lead Warwickshire to their first County Championship, Frank had announced that he was retiring from cricket to join the family business, only to agree a week later to the club’s pleas that he return as captain following an innings defeat to Surrey.

A similar capriciousness showed itself in October 1915 when he married his nurse, Norah Pritchard, having become engaged to a Freda Heath just 11 months earlier. Marriage did not however settle Frank, who left the family business in 1928 'owing to differences', separated from his wife in 1930 and was the subject of a bankruptcy hearing in 1936, at which he admitted to heavy gambling losses. 
This sorry sequence ended in 1950 when he pleaded guilty to obtaining money by false pretences and cheque fraud; sentenced to one year’s probation Frank was also obliged to go into what was termed 'a home in Northamptonshire', where he eventually died, forgotten, in 1958 aged 69.

Billy Bestwick - 'a magnificent figure of a man'

One of the two unconventional selections for the Gentlemen versus Players match at Lord’s in 1919 was William (Billy) Bestwick. He had also appeared in a court, in 1907, following the death of a miner named William Brown who had attacked him with a kitchen knife accusing him, in the terminology of the time, of 'familiarity with his wife'. Billy, a fast bowler for Derbyshire and also a miner with the physique to prove it, defended himself, killing Brown after sustaining wounds to his own head and face. He was arrested but after the inquest jury had returned a verdict of Justifiable Homicide the Police took the matter no further and Billy was discharged by a Magistrate.

Twelve years later he made his appearance for the Players at the age of 43, but to little effect on an unhelpful pitch, bowling 16.3 overs in the match and taking only one wicket, that of the Gentlemen’s own unconventional selection, G.T.S. Stevens of University College School. A miner had taken the wicket of a public schoolboy – the strains of the First World War may have toppled the Kaiser, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor and the Tsar from their thrones, but they had certainly not ended the social and class distinction between the amateurs and the professionals in English cricket.

Remembering Johnny Douglas

Johnny Douglas drowned on December 19th 1930 when the ship he and his father were aboard, the Oberon, collided with another in fog between Denmark and Sweden and sank in three minutes. At Johnny’s memorial service, his Essex county colleague, the Reverend F.H. Gillingham, told the congregation that 'He had heard officially that John Douglas might have saved his life but he went to look for his father and they perished together'.

References and Credits

The quotes and other information in this article are taken from The Times, The Sportsman and from other, local newspapers, particularly those from Birmingham, Derbyshire and Gloucester 1907-1958.

Images – cigarette cards of F.R. Foster and J.W.H.T. Douglas both F.&J. Smith, 1912, and of Jack Hobbs and J.W.H.T. Douglas both Ogden’s, 1926. Banner image Wills,1929.

Comments: 0 (Add)


We’re always on the lookout for volunteers to help run our clubs all across England, Scotland and Wales – find out more here.

Find a club

Want to know where your nearest Sporting Memories club is? View our Club Finder page here.

Our impact

Reducing Isolation

Bringing older people together to reduce isolation and loneliness

Mental Wellbeing

Supporting older people to improve their mental wellbeing

Physical Wellbeing

Getting older people active to live healthier lifestyles

Sign up to our newsletter