Richard Bentley on the nervous negotiations behind West Indies’ 1939 tour of England, first published in The Nightwatchman.
Test cricket between the two World Wars now seems very far away. Norman Gordon of South Africa is the one man still alive to have played before 1939 and only flickering fragments of Test matches exist on film. Yet during the 1920s and ’30s cricket developed into a global game played between nations, with many of the same conflicts that confront 21st-century cricket.
West Indies had been awarded Test status in 1926 and in the 1930s leading West Indians came to England to play in the Lancashire leagues. Only in England was it possible to earn a living as a cricketer, which was of particular relevance to non-white West Indians who lacked the money to self-finance their cricketing careers. So the West Indies cricketers invited to tour England in 1933 and 1939 had to make a seemingly modern choice: Test or club cricket?
In the spring of 1933 William Findlay, secretary of MCC, wrote to the Lancashire League’s Nelson Cricket and Bowling Club (NCBC), asking them to make the Trinidadian Learie Constantine available for the forthcoming Test at Lord’s. Constantine brought athleticism and excitement to 1930s cricket. He was probably the most famous West Indian in the world and MCC wanted him to play for both financial and cricketing reasons.
Constantine’s involvement was important not only for that 1933 series but for the broader development of Test cricket. In 1926 the Imperial Cricket Conference (ICC) had admitted New Zealand and India alongside West Indies as Test-playing nations. But international cricket in the 1930s wasn’t properly multilateral; it was instead a series of bilateral relationships between England and the other Test-playing nations. South Africa had succumbed to sporting apartheid and would not play West Indies or India. The Australian Cricket Board so resented the dilution of its special relationship with England and MCC that New Zealand did not play a Test in Australia until 1973.
Learie Constantine – playing club cricket as a professional rather than for West Indies as an amateur – posed a threat to Test cricket. Was the successful model for cricket’s future a club-based entrepreneurialism that transcended national boundaries? Findlay applied all the moral authority at his disposal to try and get Nelson to do the right thing: “They [the MCC Committee] do feel in the interests of cricket generally everything possible should be done to enable the West Indies to place their best side in the field.”
But Nelson would not be swayed and, whilst England played West Indies at Lord’s, Constantine turned out at Seedhill for Nelson against bitter rivals Colne. The Nelson club received many letters of criticism. The writer of Northern Notes in The Cricketer reported that: “One missive was particularly sarcastic and abusive and was signed by a person who if I gave his name would look small as he is captain of one of the London clubs.”
But MCC had applied moral persuasion to what was, at heart, a financial issue. Nelson paid Constantine £650 for a summer’s cricket. Applying a price index, £650 in 1933 has a modern-day value of £40,000 and, if a wages index is applied, it’s worth over £100,000. And he earned his money: Lancashire League games that involved Constantine could draw crowds of up to 10,000; the ‘crowd’ at Lord’s for the first day of Derbyshire v Middlesex in August 1933 was less than 1,000.
Despite Constantine’s absence from two of the three Tests of the English summer of 1933, the West Indies tour was a financial success, with total gate money of £9,000 and a surplus accruing to the WICBC of £2,500. This was in part because George Headley and Manny Martindale established themselves as star players during the tour. It was Headley’s first tour of England and he persuaded both journalists and the English cricketing public that: “A Test Match can still provide the highest and most pleasant form of cricket.”
Martindale was one in a long line of West Indies fast bowlers who combined pace, aggression and skill. He had a bowling average of 17.92 in the 1933 Test series, and took 19 wickets at 12.57 in the England v West Indies Tests of 1935.
Constantine had shown West Indian cricketers that, in England, they could both play cricket and earn a decent living. By 1938 Headley was playing for Haslingden, Martindale for Burnley and Constantine had switched from Nelson to Rochdale. If the three star players didn’t turn out for West Indies in 1939 it was unlikely that the tour would be a success either on or off the field, and the WICBC decided that they would have to offer the three professionals proper contracts. This would take West Indian cricket into a new era, but could negotiations succeed?
At first the signs were good. Constantine, Headley and Martindale indicated that they wanted to play for West Indies rather than their league sides, and the clubs – who were approached in advance – were prepared to release the players from their contracts. All that needed to be decided was: how much?
Initial approaches were made to Constantine and Headley when they spent the winter of 1937–38 in the Caribbean, and there was verbal agreement that both would play for West Indies in the summer of 1939: Constantine for £600 and Headley for £500. Both Headley and Constantine were taking a pay cut to play for West Indies; Constantine was paid £750 by Rochdale, and Headley earned £700 plus “success money” at Haslingden.
The offer of £500 to George Headley looks a little shabby. In 1938 Headley had a Test average of well over 60 and, as a cricketer, he was the most valuable of the three players the WICBC were trying to sign. But Headley was Jamaican, Constantine was from Trinidad, and maybe the hope was that Headley would sign his contract without becoming aware of the offer to Constantine. But no contracts were signed at this stage. The three professionals returned to England in the spring of 1938 and it was left to Richard Mallett to finalise the agreements.
Richard Mallett was an Edwardian gentleman and sportsman who played cricket for Durham and rugby union for Hartlepool Rovers. He was also an amateur sports administrator who had close links with West Indian cricket. As early as 1906 he had managed a West Indies tour to England. Twenty years later he had travelled to the West Indies and helped to set up the WICBC, and on his return to the UK he continued to act for the WICBC.
Mallett conducted negotiations with the three players in the north of England and various WICBC members in the West Indies. This was done mainly by letter – it took less than a week for a letter to travel from then British Guiana to Mallett’s home in Ickenham, Middlesex – and much of this correspondence is in MCC’s archives.
At first Mallett was successful in his negotiations and a substantive agreement was reached with Constantine in May 1938. But, by June, Martindale and Headley had become aware of the £600 offered to Constantine. They were angry about the gap and Martindale wrote to the WICBC: “My remuneration in a league season exceeds by a big margin whatever I shall receive for playing with the West Indies, with much less cricket. Therefore considering all of the above-mentioned circumstances, I feel I am doing West Indies cricket a great favour in deciding to play on tour, for which I must be paid £600 and expenses.”
There is no biography of Manny Martindale, but the letter gives the strong impression of a man who, by 1938, isn’t going to be messed about. When Constantine and Mallett write to each other there are generally a few paragraphs of general discussion before getting down to business, whereas Martindale cuts to the chase.
The WICBC tacitly acknowledged that they had been trying to put one over on Headley and Martindale and, in July 1938, they were offered the £600 plus expenses that were being paid to Constantine.
But still Martindale and Headley held out. Their understanding was that expenses would include the customary £50 clothing allowance that was made available to amateur players, but the WICBC felt pros should pay for their own kit. As the negotiations were reduced to points of detail, both sides became entrenched.
The sensitive issue of money was destabilising cricketing relationships already built on the fault lines of race and class. The administrators of West Indian cricket were drawn exclusively from the propertied, white sections of West Indian society, but Constantine, Martindale and Headley were all black men. And now they were demanding what was good money by the standards of the 1930s. Jack Kidney was manager of West Indies tours to England in 1933 and 1939, and was paid £200 plus an expense allowance of £3 a week. In 1933 that put him in a much better financial position than the players on 30 shillings a week, but in 1939 he would be managing three players being paid three times more than he was. West Indian society had been turned upside-down by a combination of cricket’s meritocracy and the free market.
The correspondence between Mallett and Kidney reflected their distaste with the new order. Mallett wrote to Kidney in September 1938: “All of them are lacking in any sense of gratitude, all of them have become gentlemen with expensive tastes and with an immense idea of their importance.”
When Mallett writes to the three players he addresses them by their surnames. Learie Constantine is just Constantine, for all that he was to end his life as Baron Constantine of Maraval in Trinidad and Nelson in the County Palatine of Lancaster. But the players always address Mallett as Mr Mallett. Even 75 years after the event it makes for uncomfortable reading.
But it is wrong to see Mallett as nothing more than a bumptious administrator. He worked for the establishment of West Indian cricket from 1906 right up to his death in November 1939. There is no sign that he received any payment for this, indeed in his correspondence with WICBC members he is often urged to claim his expenses. Kidney and deputy MCC secretary Pelham Warner tried to sort out the tangle of monies due after the tour and noted that Mallett had always dealt with this type of “detail” in the past. Modern Test cricket owes something to the unpaid labour of Richard Mallett.
Although 80 years old in 1938, Mallett played an important part in convincing the more old-school elements of the West Indian cricket establishment that paying West Indies players was unavoidable. And he was no cartoon racist. In October 1938 Constantine wrote to Mallett: “I have not read the Barbados paper on the subject of discrimination as you so kindly mentioned, and should be pleased if you could forward same on to me when you are done with them. I know enough though to be able to appreciate your feelings of surprise and regret. I too am sorry.”
Mallett tried to smooth over the vexed issue of the £50 clothing allowance in a rare face-to-face meeting with Martindale and Headley on 15August. Headley and Martindale remained adamant that the deal was £600 plus expenses plus an additional £50 clothing allowance, and eventually the WICBC decided they would have to concede the clothing allowance. Martindale was a good shop steward – now he and Headley had better terms than Constantine had accepted. Contracts were drawn up but there was still one more twist in the tail.
This time it was Constantine who became aware of the offer that had been made to Martindale and Headley. He felt that the parity they had achieved compromised an earlier agreement that he would receive preferential terms. And there was such an agreement, although it was informal in nature. Constantine had written to Mallett in March 1938, asking: “Am I going to be the senior professional engaged, not merely from the point of view of age and experience, but also from the point of remuneration?” From subsequent correspondence between the WICBC and MCC, it’s apparent that Mallett gave Constantine the assurance he was looking for. But the WICBC didn’t consider the word of a gentleman to be contractually binding.
In January 1939 Constantine took the long journey back to the West Indies to argue his case. The WICBC was determined not to budge. Throughout 1938 they had suspected that the three professionals were working together to force up their wages. In July 1938 the WICBC had written to Mallett, complaining: “You were only too right when you suspected that the three of them would get together and hold a pistol to our heads. Headley would have taken £500 plus clothing allowance.”
It’s unlikely that the three professionals were colluding. Both Martindale and Constantine put forward their arguments for increased wages in terms of what was fair rather than brute market forces. They may have felt this was a way to ask for more money without seeming greedy, but the concern over parity rings true. If money had been the most important thing for any of the three players, they could have remained contracted to their league clubs and earned more money playing one half-day match per week than they did from the six-days-a-week slog of the 1939 tour.
Even if the original intention had been that the three professionals would act in concert, the eventual result was a rift between Martindale and Constantine. Peter Mason’s 2008 biography of Constantine records a “vituperative” correspondence between the two former friends. It must have made for an interesting tour.
Whether or not the three professionals were acting in concert, the WICBC decided that they weren’t going to make any significant improvements to the contract that Constantine had signed. Constantine’s account is that he was offered a small share in any profits from the tour. He left the West Indies without committing to play, but ultimately the desire for one final series proved stronger than his disappointment over the way he had been treated. In fact, things were worse than Constantine thought as he was still unaware that Martindale and Headley were to receive a clothing allowance. Eventually the WICBC extended the £50 to Constantine to prevent any further ructions.
The third, and final pre-war Test was at The Oval, with barrage balloons tethered to the gasometers and hovering above the cricket. It was a draw and Constantine – in what turned out to be his last Test – took five wickets in the first innings and scored a quick 70 runs. The remaining scheduled games of the tour were cancelled and the tour’s early termination meant that there were apparently no profits for Constantine to share in. The West Indies team sailed for home but Constantine remained in England and worked for the Ministry of Labour throughout the war.
Despite the unpleasantness and recriminations, the contract negotiations of 1939 created a template for Test cricket in the post-war era. It established that players would be paid to play, but it wasn’t a simple triumph for market forces. The three players had accepted less money to play Tests than they could have got in the Lancashire leagues, while Test cricket had established itself as the measure of cricketing worth.
The settlement also demonstrated that playing cricket could afford non-white West Indian cricketers financial security whilst enabling them to represent their countries and communities. And after the Second World War that mixture of financial incentive and national pride became so potent that it propelled the small, geographically disparate, islands of the West Indies right to the summit of international cricket.
With many thanks to MCC for the use of their archive and in particular to MCC archivist Robert Curphey for his assistance.