WG Grace was born near Bristol and the vast majority of his career was spent playing for Gloucestershire and England. The blog touched on his final cricketing home a few months ago whilst exploring the route of the Little Quaggy in Mottingham and, with the centenary of his death approaching, it seem apposite to spend some time exploring the ‘swansong’ of his career in SE London.
Grace played his final Test in 1899 and severed his almost career long relationship with Gloucestershire the same year; the reason for the latter was that he had accepted an offer from the Crystal Palace Company to set up a new county team, the London County Club – Grace was secretary, manager and club captain of the new County club. He was given an annual salary of £600, probably very well paid for the time, and worth around £58,000 at 2015 prices, so quite moderate compared to the earnings of the current cricketing elite.
Grace was already 51 when the 1900 season started. The matches played by London County were given ‘first class’ status but were not part of the County Championship which had started ten years earlier – Grace had opened the batting with his brother Edward in the very first County Championship match against Yorkshire. The lack of involvement in the County Championship meant that Grace was able to attract various leading lights of the days to play for London County in what were effectively exhibition matches, whilst they retained their attachment to their counties. Notably amongst these was CB Fry, who retained his link to Sussex.
WG Grace in London County colours – source Wikimedia Commons
The County had an inauspicious start losing to Surrey at the Oval by an innings in mid April 1900. The first home match at Crystal Palace was a draw against the same opposition three weeks later, both were the cricketing equivalents of pre-season friendlies.. The club played another eleven first class matches that initial season – although almost half were against teams other that counties – such as the Oxbridge Universities and the M.C.C.
Grace was the club’s big attraction though and he still averaged 37.09 with the bat in 1902, scoring 1187 runs; but as Grace’s form deteriorated with age, so did attendances and the London County lost its First Class status in 1904 and while it survived for another few seasons it folded in 1908.
One of Grace’s biographers, Robert Low, noted that
In truth, London County was never the serious cricketing project its backers had envisaged but more of a jolly swansong for the Champion in his twilight years.
The cricket ground was located roughly where the decaying 1970s athletics stadium is now located. It was also used for FA Cup finals, the 1905 final being the only surviving panorama picture (below) of the stadium. The stadium was taken over by Cristal Palace football club in 1905 who remained there until the park was requisitioned by the military in WW1, and slightly later by a speedway team that was later to become New Cross Rangers (covered in the blog in 2014).
Whilst at Crystal Palace, Grace was also involved with lawn bowls persuading the Crystal Palace Company to turn some of the tennis courts into bowling greens and was instrumental in creating England’s first indoor bowling green under the glass within the Crystal Palace. He was also involved in some of the early internationals and governance of the sport.
Whilst playing for London County Grace lived in nearby Sydenham at 7 Lawrie Park Road, a house called St Andrews. The house is no longer there is a new development there with a maroon plaque and the roads either side are named Cricketers Walk and Doctors Close.
He then moved to Mottingham in 1909, living at Fairmount on Mottingham Lane, now a residential home. The plaque was unveiled in 1966 by Stuart Chiesman, Chairman of Kent County Cricket Club, who was a son of one the founders of the Chiesman’s department store in Lewisham – which had been founded in 1884 – and was taken over by House of Fraser in 1972.
Grace played for the local team, Eltham, who were based at Chapel Farm, the current location of Coldharbour Leisure Centre – where he played his final game on 8 August 1914 although he neither batted nor bowled. The last match he had batted in was against Grove Park, where he had scored an unbeaten 69 a couple of weeks earlier.
Grace died on October 23 1915, following a major heart attack, and was buried in the family grave at Beckenham Crematorium and Cemetery in Elmer’s End, close to the resting place of Thomas Crapper.
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