Ungentlemenly Conduct: The 1881 Nottinghamshire Cricket Strike?

By Jim Grundy

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On 2nd June 1881 the Nottinghamshire cricket team that walked out at Old Trafford was missing several regular players, including the leading bowler Alfred Shaw (pictured), who sent down the first delivery in Test Match cricket, and leading batsman, Arthur Shrewsbury. The new-look Nottinghamshire did not fare well, losing the match by 10 wickets and, eventually, their status as county champions to Lancashire. But why would Nottinghamshire field such a weakened side? Seven professionals had gone on strike in what became known as the ‘Nottinghamshire Schism’, a story practically unknown today.

The roots of the dispute ran deep and centred on the differential treatment accorded to those who earned their living through the game – the players – and the so-called gentlemen ‘amateurs’. Gentlemen and players entered cricket grounds by separate gates, dressed in different rooms, ate apart and their respective status was even on display on the scorecard, with only the amateurs being referred to as ‘Mr.’

As might be expected, professional cricketers’ contracts were long on players’ duties to the counties but light on their responsibilities to the players. Between appearances for their sides, men like Shaw and Shrewsbury arranged exhibition matches to earn extra income. One such game took place in September 1880 when they organised a ‘North of England XI’ to play the touring Australians at Bradford. Nottinghamshire sought to cash in and a match at Trent Bridge was hastily arranged shortly afterwards. However, when Shaw was told that each Nottinghamshire professional was to be paid £6, whilst the ‘amateur’ Australians would pocket at least £19, he made his feelings known to the county secretary, Captain Henry Holden. Holden, ‘Hellfire Jack’, the local Chief Constable in his spare time, was already committed to putting on the game and had no choice but to up the offer to £20. But Holden could not and did not leave it at that. He made a point of giving £21 to those who were not part of Shaw and Shrewsbury’s radical group, sending a letter to the local press to make his point.

The following February, having heard that Shaw and Shrewsbury had arranged a Nottinghamshire XI to play against Yorkshire in the coming season, Holden wrote to Shaw, “I have been informed that you have arranged, or are about to arrange a match Nottinghamshire v. Yorkshire, to be played at Bradford. I therefore think it best to write at once, and say that the committee strongly and decidedly object to any county match being arranged by anybody, except those… home matches arranged at the annual meeting of county secretaries at Lord’s” [1].

What this meant for the county’s professionals was that Nottinghamshire was denying them the right to work on the 36 days during the season when their county had no work for them. In their reply of 26th March, Holden was reminded that there were several precedents, including a similar fixture arranged by Richard Daft (great-grandfather to Sir Robin Butler, Cabinet Secretary to Thatcher and Major) in 1873. Shaw and Shrewbury’s letter concluded: “Before writing [to] us, we should imagine you were cognisant of [the precedents]; at the same time it appears, strangely enough to us, that since R. Daft arranged the Huddersfield match, and unknown to the subscribers to the county and also the players, fresh laws and regulations have been substituted for the laws which then governed the club” [2]. In other words, ‘just how daft do you think we are?’

Shaw knew his value. In the same year that Daft’s team played Yorkshire, Shaw refused W.G. Grace’s offer of a place in a team touring Australia. He was unhappy that, as a professional, he would only be allowed to travel second class on the long voyage to Australia and his fee, £150, was just 10% of that to be received by the ‘shamateur’, W.G. Grace. If any restrictions on the professionals’ ability to earn their livelihood were to be accepted, Shaw and Shrewsbury wanted concessions: greater security of employment; payment for all games in the season, as cover for illness and injury; and a guaranteed benefit match for any player with ten or more years at the county.

The matter was not concluded before the first match of the 1881 season when Nottinghamshire hosted Sussex on 26th May. Shaw returned match figures of 94.1 (four ball overs)-58-70-8 in an innings victory inside two days. If he thought the county might reconsider in light of that reminder of what he contributed towards the club’s success, he was wrong. Nottinghamshire was not about to enter into dialogue with mere players and attitudes hardened.

By this time, the local press had picked up on the story and, in an article headlined, “Trades Unionism in Cricket”, the ‘Nottingham Journal’ raised the spectre of New Unionism infecting the great game. After outlining the distressing circumstances of the case, it reported, “that there are influences at work which have induced the players to look out for fresh grievances” [3]. One cricket commentator went further, the dispute was, “a deliberate combination against recognised administration… it was not merely a question of the welfare of one county, but it involved a distinct and material alteration in the relations between paid cricketers and their employers which vitally affected the interests of every club of importance” [4].

Eventually, Nottinghamshire offered five of the seven, including Shaw, employment for the whole season. Shaw refused – it was for all seven or none.

By the end of the season, Shaw and Shrewsbury were carrying out their final preparations for their 1881-82 tour to the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The other five professionals returned to the county, their dispute lost, as did Shaw and Shrewsbury the following season. And the ‘Nottinghamshire Schism’ was forgotten. At least you could be forgiven for thinking so, given its absence from many histories of the game, including one of the most recent by John Major.

Of the relationship between gentlemen and players, Major had this to say, “The distinctions were absurd and insulting, but in Victorian Britain they were commonplace” [5]. Like much of what we now find ‘absurd and insulting’ – imperialism, racism, class snobbery – Major and his ilk may well recognise that now but seem silent on how that change was effected. Change was not brought about by Captain Holden and the like but by men such as one-time framework-knitter, Alfred Shaw.

[1] ‘Nottingham Journal’, 6th June 1881.
[2] Ibid.
[3] ‘Nottingham Journal’, 1st June 1881.
[4] James Lillywhite, quoted in Brookes, Christopher, “English Cricket. The game and its players through the ages”, p.150, Reader’s Union, Newton Abbot, 1978.
[5] Major, John, “More Than a Game. The Story of Cricket’s Early Years”, p.268, HarperPress, London, 2007.

One thought on “Ungentlemenly Conduct: The 1881 Nottinghamshire Cricket Strike?

  1. Pingback: The Bedroom Tax: The Unkindest Cut of All? | Think Left

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