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|Full name||William Beldham|
5 February 1766|
Wrecclesham, Surrey, England
|Died||20 February 1862
Tilford, Surrey, England
|Bowling style||RM (underarm)|
|Domestic team information|
|1787 to 1789||Hambledon|
|1787 to 1821||All-England|
|1788 to 1817||Surrey|
|1790 to 1818||MCC|
|1794 to 1807||Hampshire|
|Source: CricketArchive, 13 July 2009|
William ("Silver Billy") Beldham (5 February 1766, Wrecclesham, near Farnham, Surrey – 20 February 1862, Tilford, Surrey) was an English professional cricketer who is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest batsmen of the sport's underarm era. In 1997, he was selected by John Woodcock of The Times as one of his 100 Greatest Cricketers of All Time. In some sources, his name has been given as "Beldam" or "Beldum".
His exact birthplace has not been precisely identified but was probably Yew Tree Cottage (built in the early 16th century) as in 1820 – the year before his retirement and move to Tilford – the house was surrendered by a William Beldham to a John Wells (the significance being that Beldham's brother-in-law was fellow cricketer "Honest" John Wells): additionally, there is a strong local tradition that this was his birthplace. He was the fourth of six children (and third son) of George Beldham (1728–1811) and Ann Benfil (or Bonfil) (1728–1793), and his ancestry in the area can be traced back at least seven generations to Allen Beldham (born mid-16th century). Nothing is known of his schooling but, as he was able to sign his name on his first marriage certificate as opposed to making a witnessed mark, it is likely he had a basic grounding.
Beldham's recorded career spanned the 1782 to 1821 seasons and is one of the longest on record by a top-class player. He is credited by CricketArchive with 189 first-class appearances from 1787 to 1821 but this is subject to the caveat that records of matches played prior to 1825 are incomplete.
The earliest mention of Billy Beldham seems to be in a reference to two players called Beldum (sic) who represented Farnham Cricket Club in its earliest known match at Odiham on Tuesday, 13 August 1782. The source provides a scorecard. Farnham, who won, included J. Wells (probably James Wells), G. Beldum (almost certainly Beldham's elder brother George) and Beldum (no initial), who scored 1 and 16. If the latter was Billy Beldham, as is possible, he would have been 16 at the time and so this was his first known match.
There was a Beldham (unspecified) in the Odiham team for two matches against Berkshire in October 1782, and again in May the following year against Maidenhead. Farnham apparently played no matches in 1783, and only one has been recorded in 1784, against Odiham & Alton, in which both Billy & George played. 1785 saw a more extensive fixture list, comprising matches with Alresford, a home-and-away series with Petworth (or, more accurately, Petworth, Northchapel & Tillington with six of Hambledon), which led to another three matches, this time against Hambledon itself for a purse of £100. Farnham were outclassed in the first match at home, losing by an innings and 119 runs: the scores of the second and third games at Windmill Down have been lost, but Beldham's comments when interviewed by Pycroft some 50 years later indicate that Farnham won at least one of them, and quite possibly both, for in June 1786 Hambledon declined a challenge from Farnham. 1786 saw Farnham pitted against such varied opposition as Berkshire, Warfield (twice), a Guildford & Godalming XXII, a Godalming XII with four of Hambledon and Hambledon with four of Sussex, and given his absence from the Hambledon scorecards, it's reasonable to assume that he played in some, if not all, of these games.
In his reminiscences to James Pycroft in 1836, Beldham said that, when he was eighteen years old (i.e., in the 1784 season), he had played for Farnham against Hambledon and scored 43 against an attack including David Harris. He was watched by George Finch, 9th Earl of Winchilsea who was cricket's most influential patron at the time. Next spring, Winchilsea visited Beldham at the farm where he worked and arranged with his employer, Mr Hilton, for him to have time off for playing cricket. Beldham was invited to play for Hampshire in June 1785 against All-England at White Conduit Fields and that began his career in top-class cricket.
There are a few discrepancies and problems with Beldham's recollection as recounted above (e.g., there is no record of Farnham having played Hambledon on 1784), but it is beyond doubt that, aged nineteen, he was a Hambledon player during the 1785 season, for in the minutes of the weekly club meeting of 26 July that year it was "order'd that John & James Wells, Wm. and George Beldham be considered as Players belonging to this Club and be paid their Expences when they come to play at the discretion of the stewards".
Beldham played for Hambledon in the latter years of the club's golden era until about 1794 (in essence, the names Hambledon and Hampshire (and indeed, sometimes England) were interchangeable). He and his brother George and their brothers-in-law, John and James Wells travelled 27 miles each way between Farnham and Hambledon, usually on the day of the match. Saddle-soreness made them consider building a cart for their journeys but the government introduced a tax on vehicles and they abandoned the idea.
Beldham recalled that he was paid five guineas a game in the 1780s if his team won and three guineas if they lost, plus two guineas for Tuesday's practise. Twenty years later the figures were six and four. This was a pittance compared with the money that the gentry could make from their wagers: e.g., Lord Frederick Beauclerk remarked that he made some £630 a year from cricket, but it was a good income compared with those of artisans and labourers: at the time the weekly wage of a farm labourer was something like seven shillings and sixpence. Thus, to take the 1788 season as an example, Beldham played in 10 known matches, his side winning six of them, for which he was paid 42 guineas, or £44 & 2 shillings, or slightly over two and a quarter years wages for a farm worker.
Although his last recorded first class match was in 1821 (aged 55), there is strong anecdotal evidence that he continued to play to a very advanced age, for in his Oxford Memories, Pycroft stated "Beldham's was a green old age. Even when between sixty and seventy [1826-1836] he was barred in county matches". The wording very strongly suggests that he was only barred from playing in county matches, and not cricket entirely.
According to CricketArchive, Beldham's known first-class batting career from 1787 to 1821 realised 7,045 runs in 348 innings over 189 matches with 20 not outs for an average of 21.48 and a highest score of 144. He scored 3 centuries and 38 fifties. He held 333 catches and made 49 stumpings. Bowling details exclude catches taken off his bowling and he is credited with 213 wickets. Possibly his best single performance was playing for Surrey against England at Lords in 1794 when he scored 72 and 104, took at least two wickets and held three catches in a 197-run victory. If the other fully recorded matches he played in are added to these figures, the totals rise to 8,290 runs from 416 innings over 227 matches, 24 not outs for an average of 21.15, 3 centuries, 42 fifties, 409 catches, 52 stumpings and 281 wickets.
Gentlemen v. Players
Beldham had the unusual record of playing for both the Gentlemen and the Players in the inaugural and second Gentlemen v Players matches in 1806. He and William Lambert played as given men[b] for the Gentlemen in the first match and Beldham returned to the Players team for the second match.
Style and technique
Though remembered primarily as a fine attacking batsman, Beldham was in fact an all-rounder who took many wickets by operating as a change bowler and was evidently a safe pair of hands in the field, available evidence indicating his preferred position was in the slips. He is also credited with many stumpings, although whether he was ever a regular wicket-keeper remains unclear..
Along with other greats such as John Small and Tom Walker, Beldham did much to lay the foundations of what can now be recognised as modern batting technique. He had a sound defence, like Small and Walker, but was also a fluent strokemaker like Small and the later Fuller Pilch. It is said that his brother-in-law John Wells impressed upon Beldham the importance of the high left elbow, although a Farnham gingerbread maker, Harry Hall, has also been credited with this. This was a novelty at the time but has since become a standard part of technique for a right-handed batsman.
When he was interviewed by James Pycroft, Beldham claimed that he, William Fennex and Harry Walker had revolutionised batting by introducing the cut (Walker) and forward play (Beldham and Fennex). However, this is contradicted by John Nyren who says that the earlier Hambledon batsman Tom Sueter was noted for his cut shot and probably invented forward play, being the first player known to leave his crease and play the drive.
In The Cricketers of My Time, Nyren eulogised Beldham's batting prowess: "...(he was) safer than the Bank"; "...he would get at the balls and hit them away in gallant style. But when he could cut them at the point of his bat, he was in all his glory; and, upon my life, their speed was as the speed of thought"; "...one of the most beautiful sights that can be imagined, and which would have delighted an artist, was to see him make himself up to hit a ball. It was the beau ideal (sic) of grace, animation, and concentrated energy".
Beldham was "an excellent judge of a short run, had a good knowledge of the game and was a very fine field".
Beldham was described by Nyren, who knew him personally, as "a close-set, active man, standing about five feet eight inches and a half". He was called "Silver Billy" because of his light-coloured hair and fair complexion.
Unlike his contemporary Lord Frederick Beauclerk, Beldham was noted for his integrity and fair play. It was said of him that the only blot on his playing career was that he once biased a ball he bowled against Beauclerk, during a single wicket match at Lords in June 1806, with a lump of mud and sawdust. It had the desired effect.
During a period of the game's history when betting and match-fixing was rife, Beldham was not immune to the lure of easy money. When interviewed by Pycroft in the late 1830s, he said: "You may hear that I sold matches. I will confess I once was sold myself by two men, one of whom would not bowl, and the other would not bat, his best, and lost ten pounds. The next match, at Nottingham, I joined in selling, and got my money back. But for this once, I could say I never was bought in my life ; and this was not for want of offers from C and other turfmen, though often I must have been accused. For where it was worth while to buy, no man could keep a character; because to be out without runs or to miss a catch was, by the disappointed betting-men, deemed proof as strong as Holy Writ".
Family and personal life
Beldham retired to Tilford, where he was initially the landlord for some years of a public house, The Barley Mow, and spent his last 41 years there. The census returns of 1841, 1851 and 1861 refer to him as, variously, a "bat maker" and an "old cricketer". In his seventies, he was interviewed by James Pycroft, author of The Cricket Field. One of the common misconceptions concerning Beldham is that he fathered anything up to thirty six children by two wives. While he did marry twice, he was in reality far less prolific: by his first wife Ann Smith (1765–1800) he had one daughter, also Ann, born (and died) 1800. His second wife, another Ann (1779–1869), bore him eight children between 1804 and 1819 and eventually outlived him by some seven years. Beldham and his second wife are buried in the local churchyard, just up the road from the green: their graves are unmarked, but are thought to be in the north-west corner. Beldham's cottage still sits by the side of the pub, albeit with the later addition of an upper floor.
Beldham's sister Hannah (1786–1842) married another leading cricketer of the day, John Wells. As late as 1861, forty years after his last important game and while he was still living, a wall of The Cricketers pub in Wrecclesham still bore the legend "Rendezvous of those Famous Cricketers Beldham & Wells" (another version has the sign as "Good Beer as drunk by those Famous Men Beldham & Wells"). That an early landlord of this pub may well have been one of Beldham's brothers may have something to do with this early example of celebrity endorsement.
Beldham's fame was evidently not quickly forgotten once his first-class playing career ended, for the July 1862 edition of London Society magazine reported that "Old Beldham died last winter (February) near Farnham, aged ninety-six. Not long before, the old man was invited to Lord's, and received with all honours in the pavilion: he was also advertised as expected at the Oval, to increase the attraction of a match between the old players and the young".
In 1997, in an article in The Times, former Wisden Cricketers' Almanack editor John Woodcock named Beldham in his 100 Greatest Cricketers of All Time. Simon Wilde rated him as the best batsman in the world for the period 1787 to 1805. He is the earliest cricketer for whom a photograph exists.
• a)^ Note that surviving match records to 1825 are incomplete and any statistical compilation of a player's career in that period is based on the known details.
• b)^ "Given men" were players specially selected from other teams, including current opponents, to try and ensure that the teams were evenly matched for the purpose of gambling on the match result. The practice was common in the 18th century but declined as gambling was forced out of cricket in the 19th century.
- Mote, p.120.
- The preceding information is sourced from Collyer, pp.12–15, and also the Ancestry.co.uk & Familysearch.org websites
- "Billy Beldham – career summary". CricketArchive. Retrieved 7 September 2012.
- Waghorn, p.55.
- "From Lads to Lord's – 1782". Stumpsite. 2007. Archived from the original on 29 June 2011. Retrieved 8 September 2012.
- Collyer, p.9.
- Ashley-Cooper, p.101 (footnote).
- Underdown, p.157.
- Ashley-Cooper, p.74.
- Underdown, p.163.
- "All-England v Surrey 1794". CricketArchive. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
- "Gentlemen v Players 1806 (first match)". CricketArchive. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
- "Gentlemen v Players 1806 (second match)". CricketArchive. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
- "Gentlemen v Players 1819". CricketArchive. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
- "Gentlemen v Players 1820". CricketArchive. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
- "Gentlemen v Players 1821". CricketArchive. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
- Haygarth, p.72.
- Altham, p.46.
- Nyren, p.60.
- Nyren, pp.90–91.
- Lucas, p.206 (footnote).
- Pycroft, Oxford Memories Vol. II, p.125.
- "Billy Beldham – profile". CricInfo. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
- Collyer, p.17.
- "Welcome to Aldershot – Wrecclesham". VisitorUK.com. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
- London Society magazine, July 1862 edition, p.240.
- "Woodcock's Hundred". CricInfo. Retrieved 31 July 2009.
- Wilde, p. 26
- The Cricketer, Spring Annual 1962, p.67.
- H. S. Altham, A History of Cricket, Volume 1 (to 1914), George Allen & Unwin, 1962
- F. S. Ashley-Cooper, The Hambledon Cricket Chronicle, Herbert Jenkins, 1924
- Graham Collyer, Farnham Cricket Club Bi-Centenary 1782-1982, Farnham Castle Newspapers, 1982
- Arthur Haygarth, Scores & Biographies, Volume 1 (1744-1826), Lillywhite, 1862
- E. V. Lucas, The Hambledon Men, Phoenix House, 1954 (reprint of 1907 original)
- Ashley Mote, The Glory Days of Cricket, Robson, 1997
- John Nyren, The Cricketers of my Time (ed. Ashley Mote), Robson, 1998
- James Pycroft, The Cricket Field, Longman, 1854 (2nd ed.)
- James Pycroft, Oxford Memories Vol. II, Richard Bentley & Sons, 1886.
- H. T. Waghorn, The Dawn of Cricket, Electric Press, 1906
- David Underdown, Start of Play, Allen Lane, 2000
- Simon Wilde, Number One: The World's Best Batsmen and Bowlers, Gollancz, 1998, ISBN 978-0-575-06453-9