Cricketers’ attentions were deflected in the spring of ’39. Ironing flannels took second place to more pressing needs like preparing for their children’s evacuation in event of war. Leslies’ players concentrated on building HMS Kelly, a destroyer destined to go down famously in sea history. Evacuation started at dawn on 1 September. At sunset, welcomed only by lovers and criminals, the ‘black out’ began. Queues formed at Registry Offices as marriages increased four-fold. The expected news was broadcast on 3 September : “This country is at war with Germany.” The government banned outdoor sport so championships were abandoned with a couple of matches to play.
W.G.Grace passed away at the beginning of World War I. His namesake quit this life at the start of World War II. Finding his name and initials on scorecards, the pulse of many a historian has quickened at the notion of W.G. playing in Durham. Not so, of course. William Grace Grace was born at Hallgarth Hall, Winlaton and educated at Repton and Durham University. Passionate about cricket, Grace needed no excuse to get up an eleven. When work took him to Yorkshire in 1938 he expressed a wish to be buried in Shincliffe cemetery. One June morning, having first acquired a length of piping, Grace drove his yellow car from a Pontefract hotel to a country lane near the cemetery, penned farewell and fulfilled his wish.
New Year’s Eve awakened intimations of mortality. Followed by a trivial thought. Would there be any cricket? Despite doubts about finance, scarcity of vehicles and petrol rationing, leagues resolved to soldier on with first teams only. Overs replaced time cricket. Veterans and boys stood in for men on active service. Sunderland drafted John and Denys Witherington into their side. Denys, “something of laughter dwelt in him”, scored 159 not out against Whitburn. The brothers seemed destined for a bright cricket future. As did Arthur Townsend who hit 152 not out for Norton.
War-time privations reshaped the game. Factory sides downed bats to work on the war effort. Other teams turned out short. Shift-work forced Latchford to scamper off the field to ‘clock on’. The game lacked vitality but spectators were grateful for play of any kind : “It was a cricket match, and we almost forgot for a few hours.” The overhead drone of Blenheim bombers brought them back to earth. NYSD ruled that, in event of an air-raid, “the game should continue until danger actually threatens and resume as soon as the danger ceases.” Defence Regulations controlled entry into coastal areas and five miles inland. Coastal clubs could only host coastal clubs or else play away. Ration books controlled life’s essentials. Clothing coupons could not be ‘wasted’ on cricket whites. The words ‘plain teas’ had new meaning. Slivers of spam cowered between grey slices of the National loaf; cakes were baked with dried egg. Cricketers walked home to boil water on the fire then carried it to the field to serve tepid tea. Ground maintenance was hampered, the use of hosepipes banned. Petrol shortages immobilised cutter and roller; fields were cut with domestic lawn-mowers. The horse-drawn roller creaked into use again, heaved manually. Yet Durham City remained in excellent condition. Jack Harrison’s toil was one reason, his ingenuity another. A Royal Canadian Air Force unit was stationed nearby. Jack ‘came by’ some 73-octane petrol used to fuel Tiger Moths and City’s machines fairly flew over the turf. In sum it was a remarkable effort by smitten souls to keep spirits and cricket alive until normality resumed.
First-class cricketers emerged from nearby camps. Jack Robertson at Durham City; Maurice Tremlett, Jim Bailey and Bill Roberts at Barnard Castle; Test cricketers at Feethams. Herbert Sutcliffe played for Darlington and for Catterick Garrison with Hutton, Leyland and Verity to raise Red Cross funds. Verity’s last appearance in England is believed to be at Darlington on 31 August 1940. Captain Verity died from wounds received in the invasion of Italy. Private Denys Witherington fell in Italy, too. Flight-Lieutenant John Witherington perished in 1941. Arthur Townsend was killed in a flying accident a week after his big innings for Norton. In the final test it mattered not whether combatant played for Easington or England.
Survivors returned battle-scarred. Alan McQueen needed more than his grit batting for South Shields to endure the horrors of a Japanese Prisoner of War camp. He never played again. Charlie Wright moved to Burnopfield the year Jack Milburn, “the hitter from the hill”, needed all of 45 minutes to belt 17 sixes in a club record 164. Jack, father of Colin, was to receive a commemorative bat next match at the tea interval. The presentation was somewhat diminished when Charlie hit 169 before tea. Years later I got a couple of wickets as a young second-teamer. “The next man’s a hitter,” warned the skipper. A burly batsman limped to the crease only to hole out tamely and limp lamely back to the pavilion. He was Charlie Wright, crippled in an aeroplane crash on a mission in 1942.
“Except under grave emergency, there would be no interference with private cricket grounds” promised the Ministry of Agriculture. The Luftwaffe, less considerate, bombed North Durham’s ill-fated ground which was again occupied by the military. Fifteen looters ended up in court for stealing wood and scrap metal from the pavilion. Tudhoe’s pavilion was wrecked by a ‘doodlebug’ and even poor Daisy, Etherley’s horse, was killed during a raid.
A Royal Australian Air Force XI landed at Ashbrooke before hostilities ended. Keith Miller hit 75 for a side containing evocative names that schoolboys recited with pleasure : Carmody, Cristofani, Pettiford, Sismey. Miller came on to finish the tail. Jack Carr was batting. Romantic confrontation. Legendary, grey-haired pitman who rocketed the ball like a meteor with a bat seemingly no bigger than a match-stick. Debonair, black-maned Mosquito pilot, who propelled the ball like lightning off five paces should he wish. Miller had Carr caught for nought. That battle over, the war ended.
Victory in Europe was declared on 8 May 1945. Bomb-scarred streets transformed to arcades of red, white and blue. A deformed crocodile of tables proffered the best available food at a Victory Tea. Children played games, ran races for treasure called chocolate. At dusk, flaming bonfires consumed effigies of Hitler. Adults usurped the night. Naked bulbs illuminated the streets. Both twinkled and danced till dawn to sounds of accordion and harmonica.