George Parr and Ted Barratt shuffled off this mortal coil in 1891, their deaths a reminder that on All England’s first visit Durham was a cricket backwater. The formation of Durham County Senior League swept Durham to the mainstream of the game’s advance. Durham Senior League, as it would become in 1903, is the fifth-oldest cricket league in existence. Two sections comprised Durham City, North Durham, Philadelphia, South Shields, Sunderland and Whitburn in the north; Barnard Castle, Bishop Auckland, Darlington, Norton, Stockton and West Hartlepool in the south. One point was awarded for a win, a point deducted for a defeat, nothing for a draw. Challenge Cup winners could earn promotion to the league if they defeated the club with the poorest league record. Clubs reverted to their traditional fixtures when not on league duty.
Mallet’s venture was not guaranteed success. A Northumberland league had just foundered and many viewed a league system with disdain :
…league competitions sap the existence of healthy cricket and deprive the competitors of all true sportsmanlike feeling.
(Letter in Newcastle Journal, 6 June 1890)
…league competitions dislocate more legitimate cricket in the neighbourhood.
(Letter in Newcastle Journal, 8 July 1890)
If those opinions provoked misgivings, one doubts if Mallett conceived his offspring illegitimate or unhealthy. It got a cold reception. Not from critics but hail, sleet and snow. Sunderland and Norton won through to the play-offs. The first was twice rained-off. Norton won the second and were champions. Seven clubs had a professional. Norton recorded the first league 300; H.S.Crosby the first century; Fred Butler and A.B.Crosby each exceeded 300 runs. Welch was the most successful bowler and Charlie Sharp (North Durham) did the first ‘hat-trick’. There was much to encourage Mallett. The quest for league points persuaded clubs to declare more often, attendances increased and the Challenge Cup stimulated competition among minor clubs. It was won by Consett but the challenge match to replace bottom club Philadelphia was cancelled.
Sunderland, again defeated by Norton in 1892, lost a third play-off when Darlington amassed 442. E.S.Laurie made 149 and forceful left-hander Jim Brown, on vacation from Eastbourne, hit 127. Son of a Gainford stone-mason, Brown played for Sussex in 1890. In 1894 Brown hit 194 in another huge Darlington total of 392 for 6. This was sheer purgatory for Coundon who endured the leather hunt after being dismissed for 12. Eight of their regulars had opted to attend a ‘fives’ match.
For all its growing popularity the game was beset by damaging social factors. Rapid rise in urban population and consequent need for housing land made it difficult for clubs to find town fields. Some had to disband because it was costly to re-locate out of town. It did not affect village clubs as rural population rose less steeply and kindly landowners leased fields. The 1892 coal trade dispute brought more hardship and reduced club memberships and ‘gates’. Drunkenness increased as public houses multiplied. Unruliness spewed onto the field. Though not alone, Philly’s followers got a bad name. Their “eccentric old men and empty-headed boys” lashed out with sticks and tongues against South Shields. On another occasion they threatened an umpire, “even the women” pelting him with mud. It was upon such unsavoury elements that the influences of clergy and Temperance Movement were of ultimate benefit.
In 1893 Mallett introduced a pyramid structure for the county’s 76 affiliated clubs : 12 in the Senior League, 24 in a Junior League and 40 in the Challenge Cup, now organised on a league basis. All were integrated into a system of promotion and relegation. The Junior League comprised four geographical centres. North and south winners could challenge, and replace if they won, the bottom club in the relevant geographical section of the Senior League. The same applied for centre winners in the Challenge Cup and bottom clubs in the Junior League.
League cricket stimulated intense fervour. Philly’s fanatics gained notoriety but there was no doubting their enthusiasm. All week their field swarmed with men preparing for a local ‘derby’ with Sunderland. Latest scores were relayed by telegram. Competition was keener as the skill-gap between clubs narrowed. Of eight title / relegation issues in 1894-95, five were decided on average-runs-per-wicket after two clubs finished level. Norton and Durham City were joint top in curious circumstances in 1894. West Hartlepool’s innings came to a halt at 39 for 4 when the rest of that tardy team failed to turn up. West promised to concede the match if Durham City would continue when the others arrived. City agreed but failed to get the required runs for victory. City won after losing by six runs! However Norton won the group by virtue of superior average and beat Philly in the play-off to regain the title.
PRO-FILE (No. 2)
(b. Radcliffe-on-Trent, 29 Dec 1857; d. Sailors’ Snug Harbor, Staten Island, New York, 26 Feb 1923)
45 matches for Nottinghamshire (highest 171), many in their championship years and a number while at Sunderland (1887-92). Accomplished bat who inherited the leg-hitting style of his uncle, George Parr. He stroked the ball “as though the bat possessed sensibility, his cuts and drives appeared to be just flicks which found gaps in the field”. Rose to the big occasion, hitting 186* in opening match at Ashbrooke and taking 10 for 18 in 1892 benefit. Returned to Sunderland (1900-06). Was paid all year round as groundsman and coach, earning great reputation in latter rôle. Pro in New York (1885-86) where he returned in 1908 to join his brother.
Sunderland record : over 8,000 runs (av 30), 8 hundreds
Sunderland were champions at last in 1895. Darlington and North Durham were reprieved from the relegation play-offs. Before leaving the area Mallett proposed a single division to enable the best compete regularly. The majority feared increased travel costs so the motion failed. It so angered Norton they resigned. As events turned out Mallett’s plan was implemented because Stockton and Darlington were elected to North Yorkshire League. With Durham clubs added it was re-named North Yorkshire and South Durham League (hereafter NYSD).
Arthur Welch admitted a league system was more business-like but noted subtle defects. “It cuts short the career of many a cricketer who otherwise would continue the sport. The want of success for a few matches compels the Committee to leave out a player, or he drops the game rather than meet the critical spectators, and this is not good for the game.” In other words it pruned out the ‘duffers’. Welch regretted the loss of traditional fixtures at pleasant village grounds. Understandable, for it seems man and nature could co-exist amicably on a rural cricket field : “A cow was listlessly grazing on the high side when Jim took the ball in one hand extended over the animal’s back.”
The advent of league competition coincided with what became known as the ‘Golden Age’. A period held in awe by cricket historians. A period when stylists learned the game on excellent public school pitches; when matches at Norton had “the character of a cricket garden party”. Norton’s fame was fanned by four men powerful in mind and body. Each educated at public school; each represented Durham, three as captain. The Crosby brothers were educated at Sherborne and Cambridge. Arthur Burgess Crosby, solicitor, Mayor of Stockton and NYSD president, usually headed the club’s batting. Hugh Stowell Crosby was a fine off-side player and clever bowler. The Crosbys were at the hub of the county hierarchy. They embraced all that was new in cricket yet found it hard to relinquish old habits. Like Grace, these imperious amateurs believed spectators came to watch them bat. A year after the declaration was introduced A.B.Crosby did not declare when Norton amassed 549 in the Challenge Cup. Even six years after it was introduced the pair hogged the crease all afternoon while Norton made 414 for 7 against hapless Barnard Castle. A.B. hit 30 fours in 168; H.S. made 109. Teesdale Mercury condemned the run orgy as “a performance which can hardly be looked upon as sportsmanlike at the present day, when the object is to endeavour to win matches if possible”.
The Whitwell brothers were educated at Uppingham. William Fry Whitwell, fine athlete and brilliant cover-point, hit freely and bowled fast right-arm. W.F. had undoubted class. He was another Stockton man to play for Yorkshire; he topped the bowling for Lord Hawke’s side in the United States and represented the Gentlemen v Players. Joseph Fry Whitwell, a stubborn accumulator of runs, took his own life in 1932. Others prominent at Norton were bricklayer Joseph Rowntree who took all ten wickets in 1881, dashing Reg Williams and Dr H.E.Hoffmeister who made 693 (av 49) in 1895. Hoffmeister, house surgeon at Stockton Hospital, married Mary Page, sister of the Norton secretary.
Sunderland could not match Norton’s honours but lost only five of their first 50 league games. Butler and Mewburn were remarkable talents; a third, Alleyne Burn, in the ascendant. Burn was tall and angular, a perfection of self-conscious good breeding. Fine rugby footballer and oarsman, there was a negligent air about all he did. He batted with leisurely poise, never better than during a lordly, undefeated 184 when he out-scored Elliot two-to-one in an unbroken partnership of 296. Effortless, seductive bowling lured unsuspecting batsmen to a lorelei doom. Away from the action Burn strolled languidly about the ground, hands in pockets, pipe aglow. Detached, distant, contemplative.
This sovereign trio was ringed by fine players : deceptively quick pro Davy Nichol, lightning stumper James Chrisp and H.S. ‘Squashy’ Squance, a gusty gale of humanity who hit sixes with a roar of triumph. Each segment of this elite circle was a personality and law unto himself, each performing in a manner intensely his own. Watching their lordly progress were the sons of Thomas Elliot, MP, one destined to be the club’s greatest cricketer. Sunderland eventually, and reluctantly, granted membership to the less well-to-do. Exposed by their motley, men like shipyard-worker Isaac Robinson found the cost, the priggishness and the club’s exclusivity a strain. Determination and love of cricket carried them through and, in time, they conquered feelings of social inferiority.
Left-armer Jenneson Taylor’s lively sense of humour did not prevent him fretting for a decade over the words of brusque, Australian captain Warwick Armstrong : “You have a ground fit for a Test match, but you have not a pavilion.” Taylor exorcised Armstrong’s words, and at the same time honoured his mother’s memory, by financing the addition of two wings to the pavilion. It was opened with a golden key in 1931 by H.D.G.Leveson-Gower who captained a team of England players with unforgettable initials : L.E.G.Ames, A.P.F.Chapman, F.E.Woolley, K.S.Duleepsinhji and R.E.S. Wyatt. Wyatt and ‘Duleep’ were largely responsible for a total of 541 against a Durham XI.
 Birmingham and District League formed on 30 November 1888. Bolton and District Association formed in the same year followed by North Staffordshire and District League in 1899 and Lancashire League (formerly North- East Lancashire) in 1890.
 Consett & District Cricket Club handbook 1907 : description of a catch by James Oliver on Consett’s old field.