Our thanks go to Wisden Cricket Monthly and the Nightwatchman for providing us with this article on former Middlesex man - the legend that is Albert Trott.
Trott played for the club between the years 1898 and 1910 and both his career and his life make for extraordinary reading. Our thanks go to Steve Neal for this brilliant read.
Steve Neal on Albert Trott, the man who cleared the Lord’s Pavilion
On 30 July 1914, Mrs Crowhurst, landlady of Albert “Alberto” Trott, found the body of her lodger on his bed. He had shot himself in the temple, a Browning pistol still resting in his right hand – the great hand that had bowled 71,549 balls in first-class cricket, the hand that had gripped the bat and hammered the ball over the Lord’s Pavilion. He was 41 years old and had lived in Denbigh Road, Harlesden, for the last two and a half years.
Financial matters were clearly on his mind. There was only around £4 in his room, and on the back of a laundry ticket he’d written his will, leaving his wardrobe and its contents to his landlady. Clothes were as good as ready cash in those days – easily pawned or sold, although at a price considerably less than their true value.
Albert Trott had always liked his clothes. In December 1898, when he turned up at Harlesden Magistrates’ Court, the reporter noted, “Prisoner was well dressed but looked older than 25.” He was charged with disorderly conduct, after making a great noise with 25 others at Willesden Green and being sarcastic to a police officer. “He had been drinking but was not drunk”, and was bound over for six months, as the magistrate said “It’s a funny thing for a man of your station to place yourself in this position.” The lack of money and the availability of drink found him in some unusual situations throughout his career.
Alberto was born in Abbotsford, Melbourne in 1873. His father, Adolphus Trott – the son of a schoolmaster and a freed slave – had arrived in Australia from Antigua in 1855 and worked as an accounts clerk, while Mary, his mother, was born in Sussex. (Today, Alberto would qualify to play for three countries: England, Australia and the West Indies.) Cricket ran right through this respectable but not rich family. His father had taught the boys the rudiments of the game, and his elder brother, Harry Trott, captained Australia, playing 24 times for his country.
In his teenage days, Alberto practised for long hours with a fierce sense of purpose. In the Abbotsford nets he used a wooden crate to represent the batsman and called it George Giffen, the leading Australian player of the day. Using his strong fingers he tried to spin and move the ball around the box in different ways, continually experimenting with style of grip and delivery. Years later, as one of his party pieces in the Middlesex dressing-room, he would make a lacrosse ball spin and unexpectedly rear up, once hitting a novice pro on the nose. In the winter, he played baseball to keep fit, with the beneficial impact on his cricket that he learned how to swerve the ball like a pitcher. It also made him an exceptional fielder, both close to the wicket and in the deep – in his use of the sliding stop, he was a century before his time.
Alberto made his debut for Australia at Adelaide in 1895. It was the third Test against AE Stoddart’s XI, the home team 2-0 down in the five-match rubber. High temperatures roasted the players on the unshaded field, but Alberto took the game by the scruff of the neck, making telling interventions with both bat and ball. Going in at No.10, he scored a combined 110 runs in his two innings without losing his wicket, and at one point he hit the fast bowler Lockwood into a horse-drawn buggy. In the English second innings, he took eight for 43 from 27 overs with his off-breaks – interspersed with a murderous yorker – including two catches off his own bowling. That day he was unplayable.
A comeback and a debut performance had brought the Ashes series to life. Or, as the Adelaide Advertiser put it: “There was ‘joy unspeakable’ all over the continent when the news was flashed from shore to shore that the colonials had gained a magnificent victory by no less than 383 runs.” Alberto was showered with gifts, ranging from a guinea for each wicket to a loaf of bread, from specially written doggerel in his honour to great praise from his opponents. “One of the finest cricketers Australia has ever produced,” said AE Stoddart, the English captain. G.M. Evan, chairman of the South Australian Cricket Association, added a schoolmasterly caveat: “To succeed in the future he must practise and take care of himself.” Practice was never going to be a problem.
In the fourth Test at Sydney, Australia were put in to bat on a drying wicket. Tom Richardson, the English fast bowler, made the ball lift and Australia were soon 119 for seven. Alberto, promoted to No.9 in the order, was hit on the temple and knocked out for 10 minutes. But he shook his head clear, got to his feet and made 85 not out. More rain over the next couple of days meant that England were caught on a drying wicket and were bowled out twice although, on a pitch suited to his bowling, Alberto couldn’t get the ball; instead, George Giffen, the captain, greedily kept it to himself. The rubber stood at 2-2.
The newspapers talked of fresh energy in the country, of a federation of the colonies on the back of the success of the combined Australian team: what could be done on the cricket field by joining together could also be achieved in commerce and politics. They also said that the face of “Saint Albert Trott would look well in a coloured window”. Alberto was a national hero.
The deciding Test in Melbourne was finely balanced. Australia gambled and went into the match without a specialist fast bowler, dropping Charlie Turner and bringing in mystery bowler Tom McKibbin, with Alberto expected to provide the fast bowling cover.
Put in to bat, Australia made 414 in their first innings, with Alberto missing an opportunity for some late runs by getting out with an extravagant hit to cover. He picked up a wicket in England’s first innings, but was bowled for a duck when he batted again. In the fourth innings, Australia were favourites, setting England 297 to win the match and the series. A confident Giffen only bothered to prepare a speech for victory. England won by six wickets and Alberto’s match figures read 1-140 off 49 overs.
In his post-match interview, Giffen complimented the English professionals John Brown and Albert Ward: “It was a phenomenal performance for those two men to go in and make those runs.” But when asked about the Australian bowling he was clear on where the problem had been: “Our fellows did not bowl as well as they have done. Not even Albert Trott. He was not at all in his best form, and a fast bowler makes a lot of difference to a side.”
The reason why Alberto was not selected for the Australian tour of England in 1896 has always been shrouded in mystery but, ten months after his Melbourne post-match criticism of Alberto, Giffen was on the three-man selection panel for the England tour. During the first three Sheffield Shield matches of 1895–96, Alberto did not play well against Giffen’s South Australia and his only indication of form was a five-wicket haul against New South Wales. There was also talk of Alberto spending too much time coaching the Victoria ladies cricket team. In January, fast bowlers Charlie Eady and Ernie Jones were picked ahead of him for the tour. Outrage was expressed across the country and the English press was puzzled and disappointed in equal measure at his non-selection. Under pressure, Giffen finally said if he could take 15 players rather than 14 he would take Alberto.
But by then Alberto had decided to go to England on his own account. Encouraged by the entrepreneurial Dimboola Jim Phillips, he signed a contract to play for AE Stoddart’s Middlesex. He would have to spend two years qualifying for the county, playing for MCC at thirty shillings a week plus £5 for playing a first-class match and £3 for a second-class.
In March 1896, he boarded the RMS Cuzco for England with the Australian team, on the understanding that he would be used on the tour if they needed him. A few miles off the coast of Australia, Harry Musgrove, the tour manager, called the team together to elect a captain. There were two nominations, and Harry Trott was elected ahead of Giffen. With his brother in charge, Alberto – even at this late stage – may have held out hope of joining the touring party. Ever-helpful, when the boat docked at Ceylon, he turned out for the Australian team against the colony.
But the Test call-up never arrived: the closest Alberto came to a Test appearance was a few minutes as a substitute fielder in the Lord’s Test. Under brother Harry, the Australians lost the three-match series 2-1, while Albert qualified for Middlesex by playing for MCC against the Universities, the Minor Counties, and Ealing and District. Against Cambridge University, his bowling was too quick, and after a bouncer that “cut over” one of the students, the MCC secretary ordered the captain to take him off. Having been lauded for his cricketing skills at international level, it must have been something of a comedown to play at this level, and while the money may have been some compensation, he knew that the Australian amateurs were each making £300 after expenses out of the trip.
Alberto never played for Australia again. At the age of 22, his batting average for Australia stood at 102.50 in five innings. As a bowler, he had delivered 474 balls, taking nine wickets at an average of 21.33.
In October 1896, Alberto – tanned by sea breezes – arrived back in Australia on board the Oruba. The press swarmed on deck, waking him up when the ship docked at Adelaide, anxious to hear about his impressions of English cricket. He was delighted with England: “I like London, I like the people, and I like the cricket ground. I shall make my home here.” When he first played in England he had been “despondent” at his inability to time the ball, but as soon as he “understood” the wickets he made some good scores, although after June his “cricket was confined to second rate matches”. He talked at some length about how much he’d been paid: “They give you a pound if you make 50 in a first-class match, and likewise a pound if you do the hat-trick in any game. I did the hat-trick once, and ought to have secured it in the next match, but a gallant captain missed an easy ‘pot’ chance which would have completed the hat-trick. Anyhow, I didn’t suffer because he dubbed up a sov from his own pocket. Oh yes, I am satisfied.” If there were any hard feelings about his non-selection for Australia then he didn’t reveal them at this point. Instead he complimented the team on their play and said that brother Harry’s stand of 221 with Gregory at Lord’s was one of the best he had seen.
Alberto also told the reporters about his plans for the future. At the end of the Australian summer he would return to England and probably not come to Australia for many years. During the English winter he intended to take up well-paid coaching engagements in South Africa, which was “handier to London than Australia”. He was a man of his word. Whether it was understandable pique at his non-selection for the 1896 tour or simply because he’d secured more profitable employment, he was turning his back on the country where he’d learned his cricket. That Australian season he worked for the post office and turned out for East Melbourne, playing no part in the Sheffield Shield. His last act before leaving Australia was to marry 21-year-old Jessie Rice. MCC wired him £70 for the newlyweds to travel first class to England.
By 1898, Alberto had qualified to play for Middlesex, but in his first match for them – against Cambridge University at Fenner’s – he injured his hand in a curious off-field incident. The official reason was a self-inflicted wound with a table knife, but it’s difficult to imagine how this could cause an injury that kept him out of the game for five weeks. Undeterred by this setback, he soon became the leading wicket-taker in England, bowling quicker than he had in Australia and also getting more work on the ball. In 1899, he was one of Wisden’s cricketers of the year and played two Tests for England in South Africa, picking 17 wickets at 11.64. Between matches he continually badgered his captain, the patriarchal Lord Hawke, for advances on his pay, which soon disappeared on drink and gambling.
But all was good on the field. When the Australians toured that summer, he played against them for MCC at Lord’s and hit Monty Noble over the Pavilion and into the garden of the dressing-room attendant. It was and still is, the be-all and end-all of big hits, achieved with a primitive bat by modern standards. He tried to repeat it many times, and came close, but never succeeded. No one has managed it since.
That year, he also achieved the all-rounder’s double of 200 wickets and 1,000 runs in a season, the first player to accomplish this. The next year he did it again and, against Somerset, he took all 10 wickets for 42 runs. What drove him on was not a chip on the shoulder but an intense, single-minded anger to prove himself, to show the world he was the best cricketer. Back home, the papers said he should never have been allowed to get away – that he was the prophet without honour in his own country.
Alberto still held out hopes of playing Test cricket but, although he qualified for England and Australia, he was deemed ineligible for selection by both countries. The Australians selectors said he had left the country, while the English selectors penchant for drafting in Australians had temporarily gone out of fashion. As Archie MacLaren said, “The first bowler I would have chosen for Australian wickets was A. Trott, but I want to beat Australians with Englishmen if possible, and not Englishmen assisted by Australians.”
Despite his absence from Test cricket, by 1901 Alberto was acknowledged as the best bowler in the world and one of the leading all-rounders, at the very height of his powers. As a bowler, he didn’t mind giving away runs, as long as he got the man out. He would bowl a looping leg-break, followed by off-breaks, then a ball of medium pace, and was one of the few players of the era who could successfully bowl a bouncer. Sometimes he would seem to forget his yorker, as he pursued some obscure private theory on how to get a player out, infuriating his captain Gregor MacGregor in the process. Always competitive, he nevertheless played with a generosity of spirit, giving a young player a free leg-side delivery so that he could make his century before bowling him next ball. When batting, he featured beneath his ability down the order: his search for the big hit over cover or the bowler’s head meant that he was never in for long, but the crowd were always entertained. Alberto played the game like a gilded amateur, confounding the stereotype of the professional who parsimoniously protected his batting and bowling averages in the hope of a contract renewal.
A practical joker, he was always game for playful mischief – usually harmless – such as filling his mouth with paper pellets and firing them with machine-gun rapidity at players and umpires. But in the sweltering heat of July 1901, during a match between Middlesex and Sussex, things took a more dangerous turn. When someone served up a donkey drop, his favourite technique was to step to one side and smash it behind the wicket in the direction of the boundary. On this occasion, in attempting the stroke, he struck Harry Butt, the popular Sussex wicketkeeper, full on in the groin. The unfortunate Butt played no further part in the game. “I damn near killed him,” Alberto is quoted as saying.
By now he had settled in a comfortable end terrace in Balmoral Road, Willesden, with Jessie and their daughter, also named Jessie. Another daughter, Mabel, was born in 1904. At this point in his life he was prosperous enough to employ a live-in housekeeper, and he’d sent for his younger brother, Fred, who lodged with the family and – with Alberto’s help – secured a place on the ground staff at Lord’s. But away from the family set-up, Alberto was fond of liaisons with women. The gossip in Taunton doing the rounds that he visited a local prostitute when he played in the August fixtures at the County Ground. When the woman was murdered, the police questioned him, according to an elderly Somerset member speaking to David Foot in the 1960s. But there was nothing to connect him with the case.
That self-destructive uncontrollable urge was always there. His Aristotelian flaw in character was self-indulgence, whether it was his desire to repeat his big hit of 1899 – further, longer, higher – which ruined his batting, or the fact that he liked a drink. In his younger days his naturally strong physique had shrugged off the effects of alcohol, but as he grew older it stealthily robbed him of his athleticism. As Lord Hawke pointed out, “the trouble was not the player but the hangers-on, who, mainly for the sake of being seen talking to a famous cricketer, pestered professionals with their attentions and, worse still, by their offers of wholly unnecessary drinks”. Never one to refuse a “cooler”, the upshot was that Alberto gained weight and the quicker ball disappeared from his armoury. After 1901, his decline as a bowler set in and his yearly total of wickets fell to 100 and then into the 60s.
A permanent downturn in form can only be truly ascertained at the end of a career. Despite not taking so many wickets, for a while he was still able to cash in on his earlier achievements. He was paid for a ghost-written book, Bowling, and his name appeared above a weekly column in the newspapers. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and George Robey, the leading music-hall star, were pleased to be in his company and to pay him for the privilege of some net practice. Robey was always good for ten bob and a drink in the bar afterwards.
In 1905, the Pulvermacher Company, concerned by declining sales, turned to Alberto and asked him to recommend their “medical” electric belt. This once-popular product was used to treat a range of conditions ranging from general tiredness to nervous exhaustion. In particular, it was claimed to restore “vigour” when the mature male was troubled by a loss of semen, wasted through an excess of masturbation earlier in life. Who better than the virile Albert Trott to advertise such a device? In a full-page illustrated newspaper advert, he said, “The Appliance is most convenient to use – sometimes I have worn it while playing, and on other occasions I have put it on when I went to bed. In my opinion the Pulvermacher belt is a man-builder!” There is no record of the response of the professionals in the Middlesex dressing-room.
As Alberto went into the 1907 season, his benefit year at the age of 34, he must have wondered how much longer he had in the game. But in the opening fixtures, playing for MCC and Middlesex, he seemed invigorated and recovered some of his old form, ready for his benefit match against Somerset between 21 and 23May. The game was his last chance to get together a pile of money to ease him through his retirement years, but the first two days were full of London cold and damp and kept many spectators away from the ground. It was not until Middlesex’s second innings that Alberto made an impact on the game, hitting with “a good deal of vigour” for 35 and playing with “more discretion than he is wont to show”. Then on the final day, on an easy pitch, Somerset had to make 264 to win with all wickets in hand. It looked cut and dried.
Somerset made 56 runs before they lost their first wicket, and they had reached 74 for 2 when Alberto struck. He took four wickets in four balls – an lbw and three clean bowled – while the fifth ball was left by wicket-keeper Gregor MacGregor, as he thought it had hit the stumps. Alberto then took a catch at slip off Frank Tarrant’s bowling. The final three Somerset wickets fell in three balls to Alberto – two caught and a clean bowled. It was the first double hat-trick in a first-class match and it has only been achieved on one occasion since. TheTimes credited his skill in deceiving the batsmen with flight but also lamented some poor Somerset efforts, putting it down to “the uncomfortable necessity of batting under unpleasantly dramatic conditions”.
The game was over by lunch, and Alberto found his fine bowling had cost him gate money from those who had intended to turn up in the afternoon. Sammy Woods, Somerset’s Australian captain, presented him with a hat woven with hand-painted ribbon featuring seven bunnies to recognise his achievement. But due to the poor weather the benefit match had raised little money.
In December of that year, it was announced that Middlesex had increased the amount of Alberto’s benefit to £800 – worth around £82,000 today. When compared with the benefits of other leading professionals of the period – such as George Hirst’s £3,703 and Wilfred Rhodes’ £2,202 – it seems far less than Alberto’s due in light of his achievements. And compared to the second testimonial of the amateur WG Grace (£9,703), it seems positively scant. Nevertheless, within a few years it was all gone. “Possibly he had too many friends, if a man can have too many,” observed Plum Warner, who played with him for many years.
Alberto’s appearances for Middlesex had grown less frequent. The winter coaching assignments in the southern hemisphere had dried up. Thirteen years after his last game for Australia, in February 1908 he turned out for a week at Oswald Stoll’s London Coliseum in a four-a-side match on stage – Middlesex v Surrey – alongside fellow professional Jack Hearne. It was tip and run, on a 15-yard pitch with the audience given scorecards and protected by netting from fierce shots. Tension was maintained through until Friday night, when Middlesex won and the players were presented with a cheap tankard trophy and £5 each for their efforts.
In 1910 Alberto took up umpiring and proved capable, although with his increasing weight brought on by dropsy, the long hours standing in the field must have strained his weary legs.
By 1911, Jessie had left him, taking their two daughters back to Australia. He moved out of the family home in Balmoral Road, and into lodgings at Mrs Crowhurst’s house in Denbigh Road – there was nothing for him to return to in Australia. In August 1913, he received news that his father, Adolphus, had been admitted to the asylum at Kew – the second member of the family to appear on the register of patients. Harry, Alberto’s elder brother and the popular captain of Australia, had spent two years there in 1898–1900, recovering from insomnia, loss of memory and debilitating apathy. Despite its re-designation from an asylum to a hospital for the insane, Kew was overcrowded – a place of detention rather than treatment, and few patients recovered. All of this must have played on Alberto’s mind and, when his father died in November that year, he must have felt alone in London, without family, for his brother Fred had left London and moved to Scotland to work as a professional cricketer.
Alberto’s health grew worse as he developed nephralgia and a heart condition as well as the dropsy. Although he was able to umpire some matches in May, it was not long before he was admitted to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington under the care of the cricket-loving Sir John Broadbent. But Alberto couldn’t stand the tedium of hospital life and he discharged himself on 28 July, a hospital orderly paying for his cab home. He was broke and broken. For the first time in his life, he was away from the world of cricket, its camaraderie and routines. It was cricket that had brought him to England, that had allowed him to express his true nature. Without the game he was nothing.
On the morning of 30July 1914, someone heard him singing as he went out to a local club in search of fresh air and company, passing the newspaper placards with their shrill cries of Serbia and war. For days he’d been in pain, unable to rest. When he returned to his room, he asked Mrs Crowhurst to send out for a sleeping draught. But the chemist refused to supply one without a prescription. Alberto didn’t take the news well. “I don’t think I can get through another night,” he said. Unable to bear the pain, he took his own life.
Alberto’s graveside was packed with mourners, shocked by the manner of his death. An imposing wreath covered his coffin: “With love and deepest sympathy to dear old Trottie”. There wasn’t enough money for a headstone, nor even enough for a grave. Jack Hearne paid for the plot and the burial fees.
The day before his funeral, Britain had declared war on Germany and the British Expeditionary Force had been despatched to France. In the conflagration of the next four years, more than 200 men from the world of first-class cricket would lose their lives. Alberto, the greatest of Anglo-Australian cricketers, would have to wait another 80 years for the headstone on his grave in Willesden Cemetery.