Book Review: England’s First Football Captain: a Biography of Cuthbert Ottaway, 1850-1878

(by Michael Southwick, Soccerdata Publications 2009, pp67, Paperback £8, ISBN 978 1 905891 27 6, available from Tony Brown, 4 Adrian Close, Beeston, Nottingham NG9 6FL, 0115 973 6086,

At first glance on a shelf in a bookshop the cricket enthusiast might not pick this book up unless they knew that Ottaway was an exceptional cricket player who appeared for a number of first-class teams including The Gentlemen, Kent, Middlesex and Oxford University and also featured in R.A. Fitzgerald’s team that toured North America in 1872.
Ottaway was the first England football captain in the match against Scotland at the West of Scotland Cricket Club in Glasgow that same year, making a remarkable double for this sportsman, another of the Corinthian players of that era who could turn their hand successfully to virtually any sport. There is very little written about football at this time and football historians I know welcome this contribution to the history of the game. In reality, however, Ottaway is better known as a cricketer.

Our subject was born in 1850; at the age of 13 he went to Eton, where he stayed for 6 years. As might be expected he forced his way into all of the sports teams culminating in him appearing in the Eton v Harrow match at Lord’s in 1867. He also excelled at Fives and Rackets, winning numerous trophies in the public school competitions. He played for Kent in 1869, when still at Eton, arriving at Brasenose College at Oxford University the following year. He won four cricket Blues and numerous half blues (although the author does not appear to recognise this term) in rackets, real tennis, athletics and association football. He was picked to play for the Gentlemen in their match against the Players, the most prestigious match of the time, in 1870 and also on two other occasions. He opened the batting with W.G. Grace on the Fitzgerald tour of North America so it can be seen that his cricket was of the highest class. His football exploits, as a fast-running forward, were also exceptional: besides captaining his country twice, he appeared in three consecutive FA Cup Finals (1873-5). He later played for Crystal Palace. After qualifying as a solicitor and marrying a girl he met in America he seemed well set for a prosperous future. But it was not to be as in 1878 he contracted pneumonia and died after a short illness aged just 27. He could have achieved great things in his chosen fields.

The list of acknowledgements is impressive but I am a little concerned about the validity of some of the information included in the treatise because the bibliography makes extensive references to Wikipedia sites that are not renowned for their accuracy. I hope the author has verified any information from those sources elsewhere. I was surprised there is no reference to R.A. Fitzgerald’s Wickets in the West (Tinsley Brothers 1873) which gives a detailed account of the 1872 tour. Some of the writing style, such as “Cuthbert John Ottaway of Dover, and of Oxford – and indeed England – take a bow” is also a little grating.

Despite my reservations this is a very worthwhile and much-needed biography of an early cricketer and I would recommend it as a worthwhile addition to any cricket library.

Roger Heavens – Verdict: 8
Summer 2010


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