Jeremy Lonsdale examines how Yorkshire cricket clubs faced the challenges of starting again after the First World War
Exactly 100 years ago the first cricket season after the First World War got under way. All across the country thousands of local cricket clubs again took to the field, nowhere more enthusiastically than in the county of Yorkshire. After the terrible events of the war, there was relief and high expectations, even though for many involved, the 1919 season was marked by deep sadness at the tragic loss of friends.
Cricket had lived on in Yorkshire during the First World War and had been a significant part of the what passed for normal life at home. True, many clubs stopped playing altogether or limited their programmes to friendlies involving older men and youngsters. And there were only a few rudimentary matches involving some of the county’s top players who were waiting to go off to fight or who worked in local munitions factories. But it is also clear that many people wanted to continue to watch and play cricket when they could, and the game acted as a source of relaxation during a period of prolonged stress. Many clubs and leagues continued to operate, with the Bradford League, in particular, attracting some top-class cricketers, including the Surrey and England opener Jack Hobbs, and the great Sydney Barnes, at the time respectively regarded as the best batsman and best bowler in the world.
Much of the cricket that continued was also intimately linked to the national effort through the many war charity matches played after 1915 to raise funds to buy ‘comforts’ for troops abroad, and through the efforts of Yorkshire County Cricket Club and certain newspapers to gather donated cricket equipment and have it sent to France and Egypt for troops to use when off duty. Cricket was also closely associated with patriotic notions of what the country was fighting for, and there was a strong sense among many that the game should be carried on at home because it was what those fighting abroad would want. Even so, as the war carried on into 1917 and 1918, those cricket clubs that continued faced the increasing challenge of military call-ups, travel difficulties and fuel shortages, deteriorating facilities and the loss of fields to food production and allotments.
When the war ended in November 1918, there was an immediate rush to restore the game across the county. Over the winter of 1918-19, thousands of people revived the club game. For many, it was now acceptable to play sports again, and the local press was full of the prospects of local sides. Some, but not all, the leagues which had closed were re-established, and as more and more men were demobilised and arrived home, playing cricket gave them a chance to return to some kind of normality. In the middle of April 1919, the two biggest leagues – the Bradford League and the Yorkshire Council, both of which had carried on during the war – started their seasons, and others followed.
Clubs and leagues had much to do to prepare for the new season. Hull Cricket Club had to repair the damage done to its ground by four years of military occupation. York Cricket Club – which had stopped playing during the war – considered how to restore the game in the city, including by reviving the old York Cup Competition. All over the county there was also a sudden increased demand for professionals and groundsmen, and numerous jobs were advertised in the Yorkshire Post. The ending of war also allowed some leagues to end their ban on medals and trophies – which had been seen as inappropriate in wartime.
There were many immediate practical challenges. Club finances were in a bad state and whist drives and dances were held to raise funds. Cricketers were soon faced with the reality of shortages of equipment, and many complained about the cost of cricket gear, which was affected by the price of wood and rubber. Some clubs were homeless and had to advertise for a ground to rent or buy. The distances to be travelled to away games were also a major concern because of continuing fuel restrictions and some clubs had to negotiate with league officials to keep their opponents local. At least to start with, leagues took account of the unusual circumstances and changed their rules to allow registration of new players until mid-summer with demobilisation still taking place. Even so, for some clubs, it was all too much, and they decided to wait until 1920 to resume playing seriously.
Inevitably the spectre of war was present given that so many men had not returned at all or had sustained life-changing injuries. Harrogate Cricket Club, for example, published a list of the 160 of its members who had fought, of whom 20 had been killed. The Norton and District League in Sheffield raised money for a memorial to local cricketers who had fallen in the war, and altered league rules so each club could set aside a summer fixture as a charity match. Some of those who had returned could not play cricket again; for example, Barnsley’s longstanding captain was unable to continue after the war due to the effects of malaria contracted abroad.
Nevertheless, as the summer went on, blessed by warm weather, there were signs of the game returning to normal. Sports editions were again printed on green paper and were full of club gossip and tales of local rivalry, while attendances rose at all levels of the game. As a result, by June 1919, the Yorkshire Evening Post felt that hopes that cricket would recover had been easily exceeded. The enthusiasm was added to by growing interest in different forms of the game which had emerged during the war. Evening cricket competitions expanded, made possible by the wartime Daylight Savings changes which meant it was lighter later. Women’s cricket became more popular in certain clubs, and works cricket expanded, with some large employers providing recreation facilities as part of a new interest in a healthier workforce.
The 1919 season was a hastily organised but triumphant return for the game, as part of the beginnings of the wider reconstruction and renewal of the country. Thousands played and watched cricket, thrilled simply by the chance to relax with friends. And to top it all, Yorkshire County Cricket Club won the restored county championship, its side a combination of pre-war stars, men who had survived the fighting and a series of new findings.
Ultimately, cricket carried on in Yorkshire during the First World War and flourished after it because of the range of responses to the ethical dilemma posed by the conflict for those who played sports. Had everyone approached things in wartime like the Bradford League, with its hard-fought Saturday afternoon competition in front of thousands of spectators, far more people would have been alienated, and the reputation of the game would have been tarnished in many more people’s eyes. Had everyone advocated abandoning the game entirely for the duration of the war, it might have died in places and resumed differently (or perhaps not at all) in peacetime. It was because people involved in cricket came to a number of different conclusions about what was an appropriate way to behave in wartime, that the game in Yorkshire was sustained between 1914 and 1918, and recovered so effectively in the years immediately afterwards.
Article © Jeremy Lonsdale
Jeremy Lonsdale is the author of ‘A Game Sustained: The impact of the First World War on cricket in Yorkshire 1914-20’ (195 pages, 38 photographs), published in May 2019 by ACS Publications. It is available at
He is also the author of ‘A Game Taken Seriously: The Foundations of Yorkshire’s Cricketing Power’ (336 pages, 40 photographs), a history of the development of Yorkshire cricket in the 19th century, also published by ACS Publications.