Cricket history to relative obscurity

Ned Willsher changed the way cricket was played when his determination to bowl over-arm eventually prevailed. He made his debut at the Kennington Oval in the derby between Kent and Surrey – and walked off after being penalised for the first time at the same ground 12 years’ later. Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries’ vice-chairman Mike Guilfoyle reveals he died in obscurity in Lewisham in 1885, and recounts his story.

For some years now one of the unrealised ambitions of the more active tombstone hunters of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries group has been to locate the final resting place of the Kent and England cricketer Edgar Ned Willsher (1828-1885).

Willsher wrote his name into cricketing history as the catalyst for the shift from round-arm to over arm bowling.

The quest for his final resting place was finally realised when working with a black and white photograph of the stump of the Willsher headstone in Ladywell cemetery – featured in Giles Phillips’ 2012 biography on Edgar Willsher,

The Lion of Kent. Three members of the friends group, searching together before first lockdown, experienced that jubilant eureka moment, having lighted on the remnants of the family grave close to one of the inner pathways not far from the Ladywell chapel.

Born in Rolvenden, Kent in 1828 into a family already with cricket in their blood, Edgar whose fast left-handed bowling was to be his trademark, made his debut for Kent in 1850 at the Kennington Oval against Surrey.

The faint carved inscription reads: Sacred to the memory of Edgar Willsher, cricketer who played with his native county Kent for over a quarter of a century, died 7th October 1885. This stone was erected to his memory by a great number of those who had witnessed his brilliant performances in the cricket field and who respected the sterling qualities of his character.

By 1860 his impressive wicket tally meant that he was now established as the key bowler for Kent, including securing a career best innings figure of eight wickets for 16 runs, as well as scoring a maiden half-century with the bat.

Although by the 1860s round-arm had replaced underarm as the standard method of bowling, over-arm was still illegal.

But in August, 1862 at the Oval, Edgar became the first cricketer to be no-balled for bowling overarm.

Playing for an England X1 against Surrey he was called no less than six times by the umpire, John Lillywhite – of the famed sports outfitters family – for delivering the ball with his hand above his shoulder.

Edgar then left the field with eight of his team-mates and the game was abandoned for the rest of the day.

When the game was resumed – with Lillywhite being replaced as umpire – he recorded six wickets for 49.

As a result of the game, cricketing law was changed and from the beginning of the 1864 season, overarm bowling was legalised.

Although Edgar remained good friends with Lillywhite and later became his business partner, sadly his fortunes waned over the years of his retirement.

Edgar played first class cricket for Kent from 1850 to 1875 and took over 1,300 first class wickets – in spite of having only one lung.

He led a tour of Canada and the USA in 1868 – which included games of baseball – and after retiring from cricket he became an umpire.

Edgar played alongside the legendary WG Grace in his final invitation game, although they had been cricketing adversaries in the past.

Mike Guilfoyle with FOBLC colleague Mick Martin at the grave of Edgar Willsher Picture: Phillip Barnes-Warden

William Gilbert Grace is buried in Beckenham cemetery. The renowned bowler, known as the Lion of Kent died in relative obscurity, his business ventures having failed, while living on Lethbridge Road, Lewisham in 1885.

But he is forever famed in the annals of cricketing history for his bold move in walking off the Oval field in 1862 having been no-balled six times, to draw attention to the growing clamour to introduce over-arm bowling.

Perhaps with Edgar’s final resting place in Ladywell cemetery having now been found, this largely forgotten cricketing legend will be better remembered.

He rests alongside other famous cricketers with headstones in the cemetery, like the Hearn brothers and Colin Blythe, and who knows, maybe his headstone can be restored?

For the cricketing devotee Giles Phillips 2012 book: Lives in Cricket Edgar Willsher, the Lion of Kent (ACS Publications) is recommended reading.

Main Pic: Team line-up: The team that toured North America in 1868-69; standing (from left): Joseph Rowbotham, Alfred Shaw, George Freeman, Edgar Willsher, George Tarrant, Thomas Humphrey, Ted Pooley; sitting (from left): Henry Charlwood, George Griffith, John Smith, James Lillywhite Junior, Harry Jupp Picture: Getty Images


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