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John William Henry Tyler Douglas (1882-1930)





Johnny DouglasJohn William Henry Tyler [Johnny] Douglas, (1882–1930), was a cricketer and an all-round sportsman, was born on 3 September 1882 at 2 Stamford Terrace, Stamford Hill, London, the elder son of John Herbert Douglas (1853–1930), timber merchant, and his wife, Julia Ann, née Tyler. His father combined a successful career as a businessman—he was head of the City-based family firm—with that of an influential sports administrator, being a member of the National Sporting Club, president of the Amateur Boxing Association, and chairman of the Club Cricket Conference.

Johnny Douglas, as he was known from an early age, was more at home on the sports field than in the classroom. He became a pupil at Moulton grammar school, near Spalding in Lincolnshire, in 1895, and in May 1897 gained entry to Felsted School in Essex. It was natural, if not inevitable, that he would gravitate towards the two sports in which his father was most closely involved, boxing and cricket, though he also revealed himself to be a capable middle-distance runner and footballer. He was quick to show all-round ability as a cricketer at Felsted, forcing his way into the first eleven as a fifteen-year-old and captaining the side in his final year—though even as a schoolboy there was a functional dullness to his batting. Wisden, which in 1915 named him as one of its cricketers of the year, reflected after his death: ‘Sometimes, so intent was he upon keeping up his wicket, that he carried caution to excess and became tiresome to watch.’ Thankfully, he was more dynamic as a bowler. He operated at a lively fast-medium, swung the ball both ways, and his exceptional fitness enabled him to bowl spells of uncommon length. He made his first-class début for Essex in 1901, just a few weeks after leaving Felsted, and succumbed twice to the redoubtable Yorkshireman George Hirst, as he recorded a pair.

The same strength of character and self-discipline which marked Douglas as a doughty opponent on the cricket field served him equally well in the boxing ring. A muscular middleweight, he enjoyed his finest hour at the London Olympic games, in October 1908, when he beat an all-round sportsman of even greater versatility, the Australian Reginald ‘Snowy’ Baker, to win the gold medal. The bout was so even that the two boxers could only be separated by an extra, fourth round. The Times (22 Dec 1930) described it as ‘one of the most brilliant exhibitions of skilful boxing allied to tremendous hitting ever seen’. In common with his younger brother, Cecil, Johnny Douglas went on to become a boxing referee; Cecil, conversely, widely known as Pickles, followed his brother into the Essex team in 1912. In this period Johnny also represented both the great amateur football sides, Corinthians and Casuals, and played for England in an Amateur Football Alliance international.

The family business gave Johnny Douglas the financial independence to play cricket as an amateur throughout his adult life, regularly appearing for the Gentlemen in the fixture against the Players at Lord's. It was claimed, though never proved, that his father, who held the mortgage on Essex's ground at Leyton, used a threat to foreclose as a means to secure the county captaincy for him in 1911. Whatever the behind-the-scenes machinations may have been, Johnny Douglas held the position unchallenged for the next seventeen years. He was popular, unfailingly loyal, and tactically inflexible. The following winter (1911–12) he was picked for England's tour of Australia and also found himself captaining the side when Pelham Warner fell ill. Although Douglas's test début, at Sydney in December 1911, was marked by defeat, England bounced back to win the series 4–1. It was also on this tour that a typical innings of dour defiance prompted a quick-witted Melbourne spectator to transform his initials into the jeer, Johnny Won't Hit Today. He went on to captain England in South Africa, during the winter of 1913–14, gaining four test victories and one draw.

Douglas enlisted in the Bedfordshire regiment at the start of the First World War and rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In the middle of the hostilities, on Christmas day 1916, he married Evelyn Ruby Case, née Ferguson (b. 1884), widow of Thomas Elphinstone Case; her family was closely involved with amateur boxing. The couple, who lived after the war at Colonsay, Theydon Bois, in Essex, had no children together, but Evelyn had a son, Gerald, who was twelve when they married.

The success of the Ashes tour of 1911–12 contrasted starkly with England's first series in Australia after the war, contested during the winter of 1920–21. This time Colonel Douglas—as he was styled—was the original choice as captain to defend the Ashes, but in the absence of Sydney Barnes, who had rejected contractual terms, the bowling was threadbare and Douglas's unimaginative captaincy exposed. A long batting ‘tail’ and dropped catches in the field compounded England's weakness against a strong Australian side, captained by Warwick Armstrong. Douglas's side lost the series 5–0, an unparalleled humiliation for England against Australia until matched by Andrew Flintoff's side in 2006–7. Douglas could point to his side's ill fortune with injuries and sickness, and even the loss of practice at the start of the tour, when the team spent a week in quarantine at Fremantle after a typhus outbreak on board ship, but he acknowledged that the Australians had ‘whacked us well’ (The Times, 2 March 1921). He then led England for the first two tests against the Australians in England, in the summer of 1921, but lost both and was replaced as captain by Lionel Tennyson. He played the last of his twenty-three tests at Melbourne in January 1925, as a member of A. E. R. Gilligan's touring side, finishing with 962 runs and 45 wickets, both at a modest average. In 1927 he became an England selector.

Douglas performed the double of 1000 runs and 100 wickets four times in the first five seasons after the war, but his lead-by-example stewardship could not lift a moderate Essex side from mediocrity. He was effectively ousted as captain after the 1928 season, when they finished next to bottom in the county championship. Douglas did not approve of his successor, H. M. Morris, and never played for Essex again. Although he had by now succeeded his father as head of the family concern, Johnny Douglas was still in demand as a cricketer and played his final match, for MCC against Wales, in August 1930. His long career yielded 24,531 runs, at an average of 27.90 and 1893 wickets, at a cost of 23.32 apiece.

Just four months after his retirement from the game, the world of cricket was mourning Johnny Douglas. He and his father were returning from a business trip to Finland when the boat on which they were travelling, Oberon, collided with another steamer, Arcturus, in thick fog on 19 December 1930, just off the Danish coast. The captains of the two ships were brothers who, minutes earlier, had wired Christmas greetings to each other, unaware of the boats' fatal proximity. The Douglases were among forty-two people who lost their lives in the disaster; it was reported that Johnny Douglas died trying to save his father.






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