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FAMOUS EDWARDIAN CRICKETERS - RT. HON. ROGER THORNHILL / VICTOR KAPLAN

Edwardian amateur cricketers were a breed apart from their professional team-mates. Many were men of their own financial means, which meant that they could come and go as players as they wished, not needing to make a living from the game. However one such amateur earned an eventual reputation for living a double life, the truth about his existence emerging long after his death.

Roger Thornhill was born into a reasonably wealthy family based in the emerging Birmingham suburb of Selly Oak, the family having made their money from the textile industry in the North West in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the time Thornhill inherited his wealth, he had also become Member of Parliament for Solihull, but he also had a keen interest in, and aptitude for cricket. An influential figure locally, Thornhill began playing for Warwickshire regularly in the 1890s, operating as a useful middle order batsman and off break bowler. He was nothing spectacular as a player but his infamy was more focused on off the pitch activities.

Thornhill was known to gamble extensively, and by 1899 was believed to be in severe debt to unsavoury characters, including a number of Birmingham and London bookmakers. It has emerged thanks to extensive research that many of the games Warwickshire played in the 1900 and 1901 season included what might be termed today 'severe irregularities'. Some professionals of the era were known to be susceptible to bribery to influence their performance, many were unhappy with their terms of employment with their counties and happy to make a living via other means. Warwickshire lost many games in the 1901 season in particular from advantageous positions, and Thornhill is believed to have benefited financially from this, although some bookmakers refused to pay leading in one case to Thornhill being found severely beaten outside an Aston public house.

Down in London, Thornhill fared no better, and indeed was rumoured to be in heavy debt to fellow members of the Conservative party at the time of his disappearance in March 1902. His clothes were found on Brighton beach and he was never seen again. Or so it was thought at the time.

Edwardian cricketing Historians are still divided on what may have happened next. By 1905 a professional had emerged in the Somerset team named Victor Kaplan. He frequently refused to travel to away games, citing travel sickness as an excuse, but the visit of Gloucestershire to Taunton in 1906 was apparently nearly his undoing (if the conspiracy theory historians are to be believed). The visitors had recently signed a professional by the name of Hitchcock who apparently told WG Grace that Somerset's new middle order batsman, who made a hundred in rapid time against them, bore an uncanny resemblance to a former team-mate of his at Warwickshire called Thornhill.

Hitchcock admitted he did not know the man too well, as Thornhill had been an amateur at the time and rarely changed in his presence, and never spoke to him. Grace dismissed this as the ramblings of another crazed professional, but did include this in his memoirs. Kaplan played another three seasons for Somerset before disappearing as suddenly as he had emerged. Local historian James Mason is convinced that Kaplan and Thornhill were indeed the same man, this view bolstered by the information that Kaplan absconded owing several hundreds of pounds to bookmakers in Exeter and Taunton around the time of early 1907 and was never heard of again.

 

 

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