Saturday, 7 July 2012

Lionel Robinson and Old Buckenham cricket

Cricket one hundred years ago
The following item has been provided by Tom Walshe for use on the blog and in the village newsletter.

The Lionel Robinson's story is soon to be told in new biography. A hundred years ago this September, international cricket came to Old Buckenham when South Africa played at Lionel Robinson's smart new ground at the Hall. Robinson, an immensely rich Australian stockbroker, had bought the Old Buckenham Hall estate from Prince Frederick Duleep Singh six years earlier, and indulged his sporting passion by creating some of the best facilities around for cricket, shooting and the breeding of racehorses.
Many readers will be familiar with the story of how he engaged the former England captain Archie MacLaren as his cricket manager and famously arranged for the all-conquering Australian tourists of 1921 to play an England team (for whom Jack Hobbs opened the batting and played a masterly innings of 85). However, much of the story of Robinson's background and influence, and of the cricket and cricketers he and MacLaren brought to Old Buckenham, has been lost in the mists of time.
It is fitting, therefore, in the centenary year of Robinson's ground which still flourishes today as the home of Old Buckenham Cricket Club, that work is advancing on a biography which will provide a fascinating chronicle of the matches, the people and, most revealingly, the larger-than-life financier who invested part of his fortune, and much of his soul, in the village he came to love and which became his last resting place following his death 80 years ago this month (July).
With my own background as a journalist and a former captain and chairman of the Old Buckenham Cricket Club, the story is one I have researched and written about in the past, but my efforts have really only scratched the surface compared with the painstaking work put in by the author of the forthcoming book, Stephen Musk. He has traced Lionel's story right back to his birth in Ceylon, his schooling in Australia and the tumultuous fortunes he made, lost and made again as a financial big hitter during the Australian mining boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
"Robby", as he was affectionately known by friends, was a strange contradiction of a character - a man who could be loyal, kind and generous and yet who had a ruthless streak and a formidable temper; and, by all accounts, it was those in his employment who saw both sides of his personality at closest quarters. Sadly, there is no one alive today who remembers Lionel and Archie MacLaren - the latter having also lived in the village with his Australian wife and their children for ten years courtesy of his association with Lionel. Stephen Musk's book, though, promises to bring back to life this very evocative, and sometimes poignant, chapter in the village's rich history.
Stephen, who lives in Norwich and is a great enthusiast of Norfolk cricket, has previously written a well-received biography of one of the county's greatest players, Michael Falcon, whose cricket career spanned four decades and was combined with a five-year spell as an MP after the first world war. Stephen has been aided in his research of the Robinson story by two notable contacts in Australia. One is Lionel's great nephew, Michael Robinson, an eminent Melbourne lawyer, and the other a former resident of Old Buckenham, Colin Riley, a regular at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and a volunteer in the library of the Melbourne Cricket Club. Colin, a retired lecturer, lived at Willow House, opposite the Mill, in the 1970s before he emigrated to take a post Down Under.
Over here, Stephen has accessed a lot of documentary evidence, and uncovered some surprising details about the nature of the country house cricket played at the Hall, both in Robinson's time and in the years following his death when the colourful Everard Gates was the bon viveur owner of the Hall, and the cricket was largely orchestrated by village schoolmaster Len Hart.
Stephen's biography, due for publication in 2013, is almost complete, but he is still interested in acquiring information, and especially photographs, to include. A couple of unsolved mysteries remain: there is documentary evidence of three cricket grounds having existed on the Hall estate - one created by Duleep Singh and two by Lionel Robinson. We know the present ground came into use in 1912, but where exactly were the others located and what became of them? There is also a conundrum over the thatching on the pavilion(s) that appear in photographs dated 1910 and 1921. The first pictures show a pavilion with patterned thatch, while in the 1921 photos the thatch is plain. As the matches concerned would have been played on two different grounds, were there originally two pavilions? Or was the pavilion in the 1910 photos moved to the present ground and re-thatched (that pavilion still exists at Brettenham, Suffolk, where Old Buckenham Hall School re-located following the 1952 fire). 

The watercolour of the 1921 match, Lionel Robinson's XI v Australia, painted by Arthur Batchelor.
Meanwhile, a couple of intriguing items have recently come to light. One is a watercolour of the famous 1921 match painted by Arthur Batchelor, a well-known East Anglia artist of the inter-war year. Roger Wilson, who has been very helpful in providing Stephen with photographs and historical records, was able to provide provenance for the picture in the form of a letter published in Norfolk Fair magazine in 1974. Dorothea Bryan wrote that she had cycled with Batchelor from Norwich to Old Buckenham where he had sketched the match, and later presented her with the finished painting. It is now in the possession of a lady in Wymondham who was delighted to discover its history.
The other 'find' is a photograph album kept by Archie MacLaren's son, Ian, dated 1920, when the family was living at The Warren. It includes photographs of Archie and his wife Maud at The Warren, a splendid portrait of Lionel Robinson sitting on a bench outside the Hall reading a copy of 'Country Life' magazine, and a picture of the legendary "Squibs", cricketer, runner, assistant groundsman, odd job man, amateur naturalist and all-round enthusiast whose story is one of the threads that runs through the story of a golden era of cricket at Old Buckenham that began 100 years ago.
If anyone has information or pictures that might be of further interest for Stephen Musk's biography, they can contact Tom Walshe in the first instance on 01953 789510 or by email 

1 comment:

Arthur Clapham. said...

Most interesting article about the history of cricket at OB CC, my father played there in the 1920-30s for .
Captain Smalleys XI a Cambridgeshire landowners team.
The team often included pro players from Northants.
Playing against against such sides as Sir Julian Khans XI,
At his country estate in Nottinghamshire.
I would dearly love to speak to someone who knows the history at OB, I would alsol like to purchase the book.
Ideally enjoyed the article.
Kind regards Arthur Clapham
Tel no 01354740323.