Editor Tanya Aldred makes her selection from the Autumn 2015 issue. We publish one article from each edition on the website, but you can see the rest if you subscribe or buy a single issue or multiple. Tanya has selected Hugh Chevallier’s piece reflecting on the similarities between the sad tale of Ben Stroud and the untimely death of Phillip Hughes.
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Hugh is not one to shout about his writing, his modesty precludes that, but his piece on Ben Stroud is beautiful. He manages to unpick a mystery which happened on a Hampshire field just over his garden fence more than 80 years ago, one which horribly echoes the terrible death of Phil Hughes, but he does it with great empathy and without tipping over into sensationalism.
Tanya Aldred, September 2015
CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORGOTTEN
Hugh Chevallier remembers Phillip Hughes in the sad tale of Ben Stroud
On the face of it, there’s little to link a game of village cricket with a Sheffield Shield match. Still less if you compare the venues: Upton Grey were hosting Crookham on a pitch grazed by sheep, while New South Wales were playing South Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground. And the connection recedes even further if you look at the dates: the village game happened in August 1933, the Shield match in November 2014.
Yet there is a fearful symmetry to these two encounters, a symmetry that gives irrefutable proof of the enduring danger of cricket. Both matches were abruptly abandoned when a player was fatally injured doing something he loved. There were differences. After Phillip Hughes was struck – in a fixture being live-streamed on the internet – bulletins flew around the globe, the cricket community could talk of nothing else, and a nation was consumed by sorrow. In Ben Stroud’s case the blow was witnessed by a handful and, though there was widespread grief in a small community that keenly felt the loss of a dear son, his death has left barely a trace.
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The field at the back of my north Hampshire garden has grown many crops over the years. Just now it’s potatoes. In the spring, a squadron of tractors builds up wave upon wave of ridge and furrow, ridge and furrow. The evening sun transforms the ridges into miniature mountain ranges that stretch to the far distant hedge. As the days lengthen, young plants burst from the ridgetop and the earth turns green. By midsummer, the sea of leaves is white-flecked with potato flowers. The scene has a beauty, and a sadness. For more than a century, the whites would have been worn by cricketers; the flowers would have been daisies in the short-cropped turf. And the farmworkers here would have been discussing tactics with the skipper or chatting by the rickety pavilion, not contractors brought in to blitz a field with as much heavy machinery as nearby RAF Odiham.
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In 1964, the year Geoffrey Boycott made his Test debut on a bigger stage, cricket left Upton Grey. It’s not clear when it arrived, though the village were playing Basingstoke in 1842 – and defeating them a year later. Odiham, three miles away, trace their cricket history to 1764, so perhaps Upton Grey began in the 18th century too. Like every rural club, they drew from those who worked on or with the land. The captain might have lived in the big house, but few of his team did. Their days were spent in farm or forge, yard or stable, garden or mill. Village cricket allowed landowner and landworker to play together – and compete – on a proverbially level playing field. Except the downland of North Hampshire is rarely flat, and the slope at Upton Grey beat Lord’s into a cocked hat.
After the war, the influx of newcomers picked up speed. (I would be one many years later.) The new villagers worked in Basingstoke or Reading or London, and breathed prosperity into the community. Houses (and their prices) were done up. All looked well. But the hike in property values – and rents – was not reflected in rural wages, and many who worked in the village found it harder to live here. Meanwhile many who did live in the village but worked elsewhere found a busy week punctuated by a lengthy commute made it harder to devote time to a game of cricket, let alone the preparation of a pitch. Though farming was not yet today’s agro-industrial monster, employment in the countryside was growing thinner, and the club struggled to raise a team from Upton Grey and the two nearest hamlets, Weston Patrick and Tunworth. More and more, numbers were made up by friends, or friends of friends, from Fleet or Basingstoke. The heavy lifting, though, fell on an ageing and diminishing band.
By the early 1960s, the ground was leased to the club at the nominal rent of a shilling a year by Jim Turner, from Manor Farm. Peter Bedford, the last secretary of the UGCC, describes Turner as “a straightforward man focused on his farming – in which cricket had no role to play”. To others, he was known as “Prairie Jim” or “Texas Turner” for his strong dislike of hedges.
The team’s fixtures were starting to dwindle, recalls Peter Carter, another member of the side in its last years, and who first turned out for the club in 1947, aged 13, and later had a trial for Hampshire. The start of the 1964 season was particularly slow: week after week went by without any cricket, though several matches – including the fixture against the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston – were planned.
What happened next is unclear. One version has Turner, apparently without warning or discussion with the club, deciding that good land was going to waste and taking a plough to the pitch. Another claims that the farmer, seeing the team drifting towards oblivion, gave a year’s notice of his intentions. Whatever the truth, as the share bit into the turf, so a club quietly vanished, the ground destined to grow wheat, barley, oats – and now potatoes. Bedford and Carter agree there wasn’t the outrage one might have expected. There were other reasons the club was floundering: a curmudgeonly landlord in The Hoddington Arms, where the team repaired for tea and more, had made them feel unwelcome, the pavilion-cum-shed was falling down, and the sense of camaraderie wasn’t what it was. Yet if you find someone who grew up in the village, there can still be a trace of anger.
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Nearly 25 years ago, my wife and I moved into a tiny cottage in Tunworth, a mile or so from Upton Grey. I was keen to play some village cricket, and asked around for a local team willing to put up with my shortcomings. There had been a club, I was told, but it had folded some while back. Before the subject took a different course, my neighbour recalled that someone involved with the Upton Grey team had died during a game, but it was a long time ago, memories were hazy and details hazier still. Anyway, I made do with an occasional team put out by colleagues at AA Publishing. Or they made do with me. We played an execrable standard, but we had fun.
Twelve years on, and with two growing children, our Tunworth cottage was bursting at the seams. We eventually fetched up in Upton Grey, in a house named Spinners. I assumed a connection with the wool trade, but in fact a previous occupant called Malcolm Hooker – apparently a slow bowler of some talent – had been keen to leave his stamp on the village. The apostrophe, if ever one existed, had been mislaid before we arrived. The guilty party was unlikely to have been Hooker’s successor at Spinners. Like me, Jeremy Westwood was a cricket-lover and a publisher. Unlike me, one imagines, his daughter would marry Robin Martin-Jenkins, the Sussex all-rounder and son of the inestimable Christopher. Given that I was now on the staff at John Wisden & Co, the various cricket connections suggested this was the right move.
Over the next dozen years, a couple of people, after hearing I worked for Wisden, told me the field at the back of my house had once been the village cricket ground. No one knew anything of the chap who had died – or maybe they did and I never asked the right question. The club and the pitch had faded like a rainbow after a shower. Once or twice, as I gazed from the garden gate on a warm evening, the sounds peculiar to a game of village cricket would come to me. The thwack of a mistimed drive; the call for another amble up the wicket; the “Ooh!” from fielders as another catchable slip chance goes begging; the rattle of leather on ash as a wicket falls; the slap on the back for a successful bowler; the gentle commiseration for an out-of-form lower-order slogger on yet another duck. The soundtrack, of course, was to my own cricketing life. Of summer after summer of Upton Grey cricket there was not the faintest echo.
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This spring, I was asked to write a piece – this piece, it transpires – for The Nightwatchman. I’d long meant to find out more about the story I heard almost a quarter of a century earlier, yet done nothing. The commission was the spur, though initial enquiries proved dispiriting: a friend who is also the village historian had no record of a cricket pitch, let alone anything so remarkable as a death. Jeremy Westwood was similarly in the dark; he knew nothing of the men and boys who had played for the village, not even that there had been a pitch beyond his back garden. A family who for 40 years or more had lived in the big house up the hill could confirm the site of the pitch, but that was as far as it went. And a Google search proved fruitless.
Or so it seemed. Then my wife tried a different combination of terms, and sent me a link to a short article in the Western Daily Press, dated 23 August 1933. I shelled out the £6.95 that allowed me to read beyond the first few words, and the story emerged:
Struck on Back of the Neck by the Ball
While playing cricket at Upton Grey, near Basingstoke, Hampshire, Benjamin George Stroud (28), of Weston Patrick, near Basingstoke, was struck by the ball on the back of the neck, and died on the way to the hospital.
At the inquest, yesterday, Charles Toomer stated that he was batting with Stroud when the bowler delivered a well-pitched ball and Toomer hit it. The ball hit Stroud as he turned his head to avoid it.
Dr E. A. Widdowson stated the death was due to a ruptured artery at the base of the brain, and a verdict of “Accidental death” was returned.
The parallel with Phillip Hughes was shocking. As Andrew Ramsey, writing in Wisden 2015, said: “He had received a blow to the left side of his neck, just below his helmet. The impact crushed his vertebral artery, causing it to split and resulting in a massive brain haemorrhage… Fewer than 100 cases had been recorded in medical literature, only one inflicted by a cricket ball. In most instances death had been immediate.” Could Ben Stroud have been that one previous instance?
The footage of Hughes putting his hands on his knees and then falling, face first, to the ground was appalling, yet this brief, detached report of a long-ago death affected me as much. It happened in my village – might even have been visible from my back window. How could I not have known about it? Armed with a name and a date, I needed only a few minutes’ research in Basingstoke Library to unearth a detailed account, published six days later, in the Hants and Berks Gazette.
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The game between Upton Grey and Crookham starts at three o’clock on Saturday, 19 August. The pitch is no friend of batsmen, and earlier in the season a visiting team from Water End dismissed them for 18. So Upton Grey’s 57 for 5, reached in 45 minutes, has the look of a decent total. Charlie Toomer, the No.3, is on 22; Ben Stroud, the team’s keeper, is on three. It is Toomer’s second summer in the team, and his all-round talents make him an instant success. After his first season he sweeps the board at the end-of-year awards, winning the cups for best batting and bowling averages, as well as the five-shilling purse for most catches. It’s no surprise he’s now vice-captain.
The scorebook – or at least the relevant page – survives, but for the crucial delivery the bowler’s name does not, unless it’s Hall, with three wickets under his belt, or Chillery, who has cleaned up the other two. Whoever it is, he loses his length, and the batsman’s eyes light up. “The ball came straight to me,” Toomer later remembers, “and was rather well pitched. I hit it rather harder than any ball I had hit during the match.”
Charlie Toomer lives outside the main village. His employer is Percy Bullivant, a Yorkshireman who bought the stately Tunworth Old Rectory from the church in 1917. Bullivant prefers horses to cars, and Toomer works as a groom. His modest home is a cottage next to the allotments and opposite the tiny school. Neighbours play for Upton Grey too: Jack Lucas, who runs the Tunworth post office, has just been bowled for five.
Ben Stroud, quite tall for a wicketkeeper, comes from a long-established Weston Patrick family, and as if to prove it he lives with his parents, Edward and Emily, in a house called Strouds Cottage. He works as a labourer for WJ Hunt, and is fit because Hunt’s yard is in Herriard, at the top of a long and unrelenting hill. Sport occupies much of his free time, and when he’s not playing cricket, chances are he’ll be on the village tennis court. Or arranging whist drives to help fund the two clubs. Or helping out with the scouts. At 28, Ben Stroud is a couple of years younger than Toomer; he is a busy, happy, cheerful, optimistic young man, full of energy and buoyed by the love of his family, neighbours and teammates. And of his fiancée, Peggy McCallum.
“It went straight back without touching the ground, and would have hit Stroud full in the face,” recalls Toomer at the inquest. “But he turned to avoid it, and the ball struck him on the back of the neck. He fell to the ground.” The effect of the impact is catastrophic and instant. The story is later told that Stroud grunts a terse “Bugger!” and collapses. Fielders and teammates rush to him, now unconscious, and bundle him into a car. It speeds along the narrow road that twists through the downs to Odiham. In the car is Walter Kinge, the Upton Grey captain. He believes Stroud dies on the journey, and at 4.15 Dr Widdowson, after dashing to the small hospital, confirms Kinge’s fears.
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The inquest at Odiham’s Parish Room on the afternoon of Tuesday, 22 August comprised Dr Widdowson, from the hospital, and HM Foster, coroner for the Aldershot district; there was no need for a jury. Emily Stroud identified her son’s body. Widdowson said a post-mortem showed the deceased had been in good health and that he sustained an external injury on the left side of the neck, though not a fracture of the skull. A ruptured vertebral artery at the base of the brain had caused an extensive haemorrhage. Charlie Toomer, Walter Kinge (employed as a chauffeur in Weston Patrick) and Ernest Tipper, the secretary, all gave accounts of what had happened. Answering questions from the coroner, Toomer said there had been no rough play and that the game was being carried on according to the rules. The verdict, as the papers reported, was accidental death.
The next day, the little church of St Lawrence in Weston Patrick could not contain the mourners. Despite it being a working day, all Ben Stroud’s teammates had come, plus several from the Crookham side. He was buried beside his older sister Rose, who had died, aged 29, six years earlier; his matching gravestone would later read “IN LOVED MEMORY OF BENJAMIN GEORGE STROUD – ACCIDENTALLY KILLED AT CRICKET”. The Hants and Berks Gazette gives details of the flowers and their tributes. They number 69.
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Life in the village somehow went on. It had to. Before the club AGM the following February, held in the Scout Hut where Stroud helped out, the chairman, the Reverend Henry Sewell, said a brief prayer, and the meeting stood in silence for a few moments. The minutes start with the incongruous words “1933 was another successful season”, before recounting one or two highlights of Stroud’s career – he shared a partnership of around 70 with Kinge against Burkham in 1929. The meeting also decided “that there should be no match on the third Saturday in August… it was resolved to keep that day as a memorial to their late comrade, Mr B Stroud”.
In terms of results, 1933 had been a reasonable summer: of the 24 completed matches, 13 were won and 11 lost. Toomer dominated the bowling, and his figures, even on helpful pitches, proved his skill: 115 wickets at 4.33 apiece. The Hants and Berks had reported him as being “very deeply affected” by the tragedy, but he was not a man to show it, at least not publicly, and he accepted the captaincy for 1934. He promptly trimmed his bowling average, claiming 88 at 3.71, and led the batting. The results matched his achievements: 18 wins, four defeats and a draw.
In 1939, the club shut down for the duration of the war, and the ground fell quiet. When cricket returned, Toomer did not. He was in his early 40s, and had left Tunworth. He came back for a few matches in the 1950s, but his children were growing up, and his connection with the village had weakened.
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During my research, I discovered that Toomer’s son, Phil, lives in Basingstoke. He knew of the awful events of 1933, though it was his mother, and never his father, who spoke of them. Phil played cricket too, and he remembers his dad giving him clear advice: “Always watch the ball; always watch the ball.”
Ben Stroud had no children, but his sister Rose had two daughters, Emily and Eileen, who grew up with their grandparents. Eileen married Frank Young, a stalwart of Upton Grey CC, and their son Mick (Ben’s great-nephew) now works at Manor Farm, which includes the old cricket pitch. The field is called Home Bidden, betraying no hint of its past. Back in the 1990s Mick and I played a couple of games for a Hoddington Arms side. But I never thought to ask him about the half-forgotten tale of a player being killed during a game of cricket…
Phil and Mick have known each other for years, often going beating together. But neither had any inkling about their connection until this June. And it dawned on me that I also have a faint link to the tragedy. Jack Lucas, who had batted at No.4 on that day in August 1933, was Tunworth’s postmaster – and the cottage where I lived in Tunworth was The Old Post Office.
The sudden death of any young person is horrifying. It is impossible to imagine the grief of Edward and Emily, burying a second child in St Lawrence’s churchyard. Spare a thought too for Charlie Toomer, who never talked about what happened that day, when he middled a ball from a Crookham bowler. As far as I am aware, and I have consulted cricket historians with a deep knowledge of the game, this is the sole instance of a batsman being killed by a teammate, the only time the non-striker has died after being hit by the ball.
That isn’t precisely how Phillip Hughes died – he was struck by a bouncer from Sean Abbott, a New South Wales opponent – but the injury that caused the deaths was identical. There is one other poignant parallel between the two tragedies. Sitting in the stands at the SCG were Hughes’s mother, Virginia, and his sister Megan, who saw the events unfold. The scorer for Upton Grey that August afternoon, and who also watched the events unfold, was Stroud’s fiancée, Peggy McCallum.