May 3, 1894
Queen Victoria is closing in on her diamond jubilee. Aston Villa have just been crowned League Champions for the first time. Telephones are appearing across the UK. The world of science is digesting Professor Wilhelm Pfeffer’s dazzling recent address on The Irritability of Plants.
And Warwickshire County Cricket Club enters first-class cricket.
Just 12 years after the club’s formation, Warwickshire joined the elite of English cricket and were allocated a tough baptism, against one of the Big Six – Nottinghamshire, at Trent Bridge.
The Bears hit the first-class environment running. As evening closed in on that momentous day, they sat down to supper able to reflect on a fine start. The foundations for a shock six-wicket win had been laid thanks to a century from Ernest Hill.
The 26-year-old from Handsworth went in at number six with the innings perched at an uneasy 83 for four. Against an attack including England bowlers William Attewell, John Sharpe and Wilf Flowers, he batted with composure and solid defence, mixed with attractive off-side stroke-play to rebuild the innings.
Just before the close, the proud scion of Handsworth Wood CC became the first Warwickshire player to score a first-class century. At the close he was on 103 out of 283 for eight.
Hill’s skilful work had set up a win which announced Warwickshire to the cricket world as a coming force. Next morning he finished on a chanceless, four-and-a-half hour 139 not out after a merry last-wicket stand of 65 with John Shilton (an intriguing pairing: Hill, a lawyer, went on to become public prosecutor for Birmingham – Shilton’s future courtroom roles were to be from the dock) as the Bears totalled 351.
Mighty Notts were then rolled for 149 (James Whitehead 41.4-24-47-8) and 275 (Teddy Diver 30.3-14-58-6 while Whitehead completed a busy match with 53-20-98-2) before the Bears knocked off 74 for four for a historic win. A wonderful start.
Hill’s batting made it possible, yet that was to be his only first-class century for Warwickshire – not due to any lack of ability but to the legal career which would take up so much of his time in the summers. He played just 25 first-class match for Warwickshire, the last in 1898, yet there was never a truer case of ‘once a Bear, always a Bear.’
The son of a local medical officer, Hill played his last match for Warwickshire against West Indies in 1900 – and signed off in style with a century. The match was not designated first-class as West Indies undertook a hurriedly-arranged first tour of England after the scheduled South Africa tour was cancelled due to the Boer War, but just as on that famous occasion at Trent Bridge, Hill’s work set up a handsome win. His 145 lifted Warwickshire to 466 – enough to press home an innings-and-111-runs win after the tourists were undone by 12 wickets from William Ward and Bert Whittle.
Hill retired to Wales after the First World War but his heart never strayed from Edgbaston. In 1950, when a dinner was held to celebrate the opening of the new Thwaite Scoreboard, he was among the guests. A year later, he was there to share the celebrations when Warwickshire won the county championship for only the second time. In November 1958, aged 91, he attended the inaugural meeting of Warwickshire Old County Cricketers Association – and was duly elected its first president.
When Hill passed away, aged 96, in Smethwick, Warwickshire chairman Edmund King commented: “His life ran parallel with the club’s full history.”
Part of that history was the famous match against Yorkshire at Edgbaston in 1896 when The White Rose piled up 887 after batting through the first two days. Hill, who bowled his only three overs in first-class cricket during that mammoth innings, was the last survivor of it and, when asked about it later in life, always pointed out with a chuckle: “Yes, but they didn’t win the match, you know…”
Ernest Hill – always a Bear.