Bats of Willow and Balls of Leather

The History of Burbage Cricket Club

Wilfrid Ashford Hall — The Burbage Professional

Wilfrid Ashford Hall with his parents and younger sister, Phyllis, in 1896.
Wilfrid Ashford Hall with his parents and younger sister, Phyllis, in 1896. (left), Wilfrid (right)

Wilfrid Hall was born in January 1891 in Hinckley the first and only son of Frederick and Florence Hall. At the time the family was living in Arguile House, New Buildings and the 1891 census shows Frederick as a Railway Clerk and Florence as a Dressmaker, but the 1890 trade directory has Frederick listed as the landlord of the Cross Keys Inn in Burbage. Perhaps this was a time of transition for the Hall family were landlords at the Cross Keys for the next 58 years. Wilfrid grew up in Burbage and attended the National School just across the road from the Inn before attending Hinckley Grammar School. Cricket was played on the field known as Top Close that was accessed from the Inn garden and by the time that the club joined the South Leicestershire Cricket League in 1897, Frederick had taken up the position of treasurer and no doubt young Wilf had taken his first steps to becoming the 'Burbage Professional'.

Wilfrid would have left school at 14. We do not know what profession his parents had in mind for him, but a postcard written by his mother in September 1905 was to Wilfrid care of The Deutsche Bank in Lombard Street, London,- perhaps a banking career? It would seem he did not remain in London because by 1911 he was playing regularly for the Burbage team and making a name for himself. There is no record of Wilfrid being on active service during the First World War and his father died in 1916, so it is likely he would have helped his mother at the Inn as well as looking after the cows — he was noted as a cowherder in the 1921 census whilst living at the Cross Keys.

Stories have been related to us that his mother wished to keep Wilfrid in Burbage and this was the reason why she purchased the cricket field in 1920, but this was not to be because in 1925 he accepted a post as cricket professional with Colonel Sir Lawrence Williams' private team in Anglesey. He was now 34 years old and had been playing some of his best cricket for the two previous seasons, heading the batting and bowling averages. In 1924 he received a bat in commemoration of his batting performance of 19 innings and 367 runs giving an average of 21.5. (by the time Mick Snow topped the 1st Division batting averages in 1985 his figure was 34.88, no doubt in some measure becouse of improvements to the ground conditions.)

The plate from the bat presented to Wilfrid in 1924 when he topped the batting averages
The plate from the bat presented to Wilfrid in 1924 when he topped the batting averages.

At a farewell evening in April 1925 Wilfrid was presented with a silver cigarette case and took with him the best wishes of not only Burbage Cricket Club team mates, but also Hinckley Cricket Club where he had also played. A nice touch was the fact that Wilfrid presented a new bat and cricket ball to the best players at the National School at the end of the summer term in 1925. He had spent several summers coaching the children at the school.

Wilfrid's time in Anglesey had been productive. In one match he scored 119 not out and took 5 wickets for 21 runs and he was chosen to play in an Anglesey representative match against Denbighshire. In 1926 he was again playing in North Wales, in one match taking 8 wickets for 10 runs when the opposition were all out for 23 runs. In reply Wilf scored 54 not out for Colonel Pearson's team. 1927 found him playing professionally for Shotton Cricket Club in Flintshire. The newspaper coverage stated "Mr Wilfrid Hall has been offered and has accepted an all the year round engagement with the Shotton Cricket Club for 1927". There he received a benefit match playing against Colwyn Bay and he also represented North Wales playing against Staffordshire.

Wilfrid had kept his promise to organise a tour for Hinckley Cricket Club who visited North Wales that summer. Hinckley proved too powerful for Shotton although Wilf took 6 wickets (five clean bowled) for 31 runs and also took a catch. His victims included W E Pratt who had spoken at Wilf's farewell party two years earlier.

Around 1929 Wilfrid organised a tour of North Wales for members of the Burbage Cricket Club and from the photographs they appear to have enjoyed themselves. No reports exist of the matches. The only recollections we have are from Ben Waring who remembers going with his uncle in a Robinson coach to collect the team from Leicester railway station.

Wilfrid's career now took him to Scotland where in 1931 he accepted a position as Club professional with The Grange in Edinburgh. The Grange is the Scottish equivalent of Lords and was an exclusive sporting club founded in 1732. We have been able to establish from the Minutes Books still kept at the club that "W A Hall, who came to them from England with a promising reputation both as a cricketer and a groundsman, had been engaged". The position was confirmed again at a meeting of the club in April 1935. The Minutes also record that Hall scored a century the previous season.

Wilfrid on the steps of the Members' Dining photograph and it Room at The Grange, Edinburgh, where he was now in a professional from 1931-1936.
Wilfrid on the steps of the Members' Dining photograph and it Room at The Grange, Edinburgh, where he was now in a professional from 1931-1936.

The current Secretary at The Grange tells us that the photograph was taken on the front steps of the main pavilion and is very much the same now as it was during the 1930s. This leads to the Members Dining Room that was and is still referred to as the Long Room since it was apparently modelled on its namesake at Lords. The club has been sent a copy of this Members' Dining Room.

Wilfrid returns to Burbage in 1937 and is listed on the census for that year living at the Cross Keys with his wife, Florence Irene known as Renee. We have no record of their marriage and they did not have any children. Florence Hall dies in 1942 and Wilfrid and Renee remain to continue the family tradition of landlords at the Cross Keys Inn.

Was it during this period just before or during the War that the 'challenge' match took place between Wilfrid Hall and 'Big Spoff' Fred Charlton?

Fred Charlton was a big man in many respects — he was well over six feet tall and had been goalkeeper for Hinckley United for seven years at the turn of the century. We think he was called 'Spoff', as many Freds were, after Fred Spofforth an Australian cricketer who toured England in 1878 when W G Grace's team were bowled out for 33 and 19 for the two innings and Fred Spofforth took 6 wickets for 4 runs and 4 wickets for 16 runs respectively. He was known to be a 'wonderful fast bowler of deadly variations in pace'.

The story is retold that Wilf Hall challenged 'Big Spoff' Charlton who was his senior by 20 years that he could bowl him out in six balls 'any time he liked and 'Spoff' said he couldn't and the wager was set. 'Spoff' had a huge bat made out of a plank by William Dawson the local carpenter and wheelwright. The bat had a blade 31" long and 10" wide with a 10" long handle. This would easily cover the stumps! Wilf heard about the bat and quietly had a set of wickets made, equally large — they measured 60" high and were made from 3"x2" timber and the bails were 6" long. There was apparently a good deal of betting done on the outcome and many turned up to watch the over being played. Wilf won, bowling out 'Spoff' with the 4th ball. This is one version of the tale - was the challenge made by 'Spoff ', was the wager for £5 or a gallon of beer? We may never know the full story but the Big Bat and Wicket are still to be seen at the Cross Keys Inn displayed in a cabinet.

During the Second World War Wilfrid helped to keep the Burbage Cricket Club playing with some other stalwarts of the 1930s such as Harold Waring, Harold Alsop and members of the Rice family. In 1945 Wilf is recorded as being Chairman of the club.

Wilfrid and Renee left Burbage in 1948 severing the family link with the Cross Keys Inn and Burbage, taking the Big Bat and Wicket with them, and went to live in Lutterworth at 67 Bitteswell Road. He was rumoured to have secured a job as groundsman/coach at either the Lutterworth Grammar School or at Lutterworth Cricket Club, but we have been unable to verify either story. His home on the Bitteswell Road is very near to the Grammar School, so he may well have worked there. By 1948 he would have been 57 years old.

The Big Bat and Wicket are returned to the Cross Keys Inn in 1969. Harold Waring holding the bat.
The Big Bat and Wicket are returned to the Cross Keys Inn in 1969. Harold Waring holding the bat.

Wilfrid and Renee disappear from the Lutterworth electoral roll in 1953 and we find them, by a great stroke of luck, living in Woodbridge, Suffolk on the Conach Road. We had made contact with Wilfrid's niece, Margareta, a lady of 83 years living in Virginia, United States of America and she had a very torn letter written by Wilf to his sister in 1953 on the occasion of her 59th birthday. From this we have been able to deduce that Wilfrid had taken a position with a local school as groundsman and Renee was working as a seamstress also for the local school. The local school in Woodbridge is a minor public school but unfortunately their records do not have any details of groundsmen working at the school, they only keep records of teachers who had taught there. We pursued a lead that Wilfrid had died in 1960 and traced a copy of his death certificate. The certificate stated he was working as a groundsman at the school, but it gave his age as 57 when in fact he was 69 at the time of his death. Had he reduced his age to get and keep a job — did his wife actually know his correct age? He had obviously kept himself fit and it seems, from his obituary that he died quite unexpectedly. He was cremated and his ashes lie in the cemetery at Ipswich.

We do not know what happened to Renee but there is a further twist to the story of the Big Bat and Wicket. When Wilf and Rene left Lutterworth to live in Woodbridge, the bat and wicket were left with friends, Mr and Mrs Eric Scotton of Ashby Parva, and in July 1969 they were returned to the Cross Keys Inn where they remain today — a fitting reminder of past happy times.