When The Dominant Perth-Dundee Sporting Rivalry Was On The Cricket Field
The growing anticipation, the newspaper column inches devoted to the big-match build-up. Perth and Dundee expatriates returning from far and wide to make sure that they were there; special transport arrangements being put in place to accommodate the thousands who will travel from the Tayside cities for the big game of the season.
No, not the 2014 Scottish Cup Final of the football variety involving Perth’s St Johnstone and Dundee United, but a description applicable to the original Perth-Dundee sporting rivalry that was a mid-summer institution on Tayside for the first 60-odd years of the 20th century: the great inter-county cricket ‘derbies’ between Forfarshire and Perthshire.
Neutrals and the citizenry of Perth could enjoy the romance of St Johnstone’s 2-0 triumph over Dundee United at Celtic Park on Saturday, thus ending the Fair City’s 130-year wait for major football silverware. This historic success was made all the sweeter for Perth in that they vanquished a representative of the ‘auld enemy’ from along the Tay (it could only have been bettered from a Saints’ perspective had it been Dundee’s dark blue half put to the sword.)
With 15,000 travelling from Perth, and almost 30,000 United fans from Dundee in attendance, it stirred echoes of when Tayside cricket was able to attract crowds of Test Match proportions, sadly now long vanished.
This type of local rivalry predates organised sport, however. Civic competition between Perth and Dundee can be traced back at least 500 years, as Dundee’s Evening Telegraph of 22 June 1927 noted:
“Time was when there existed intense rivalry between Dundee and Perth, not in one thing only but well-nigh everything.
“Precedence in charters, in importance of population, navigation of the Tay, salmon fishing rights, &c. These things have all at one time or another satisfactorily adjusted themselves as years rolled on and people recognised that there were other folk in the world as well as themselves.
“Of late years city rivalry between Dundee and Perth has passed out of the range of municipal politics into that of sport…”
Perthshire had become the leading Scottish cricket club of the late Victorian age, having played continuously on Perth’s North Inch since 1826. The North Inch was, indeed, a magnificent location for cricket – its expansive, manicured outfield bordered by Georgian terraces, flanked by the Tay, and overlooked by Kinnoull Hill – and its position as the epicentre of the sport in Scotland for decades was recognised by the commission of a painting of the ground, which hangs in the museum at Lord’s.
Neighbouring Dundee was slower off the mark, but by 1880 some prominent local businessmen decided to form a county club to rival that of Perthshire, and the Forfarshire club was established (that being the original name of County Angus.) Forfarshire set-up their ground at Forthill, in Broughty Ferry, a one-time fishing village on the Firth of Tay, which was transformed in the latter half of the 19th Century as a wealthy Dundee suburb to where the super-rich Jute manufacturers escaped the crowded city. It was eventually incorporated within the Dundee city boundary in 1913, by which time Dundonians could travel by tram to ‘the Firry’ for the cricket, supporting ‘Forfie’ at Forthill.
The Perthshire-Forfarshire enmity intensified in the 1890s when both clubs were spearheaded by two outstanding fast-bowling Yorkshire pros – Schofield Haigh on the North Inch and Peter ‘Patsy’ Higgins at Forthill.
The formation of the Scottish Counties’ Championship added a competitive edge to the cricketing rivalry and heralded the golden age of Tayside cricket. The inaugural Perthshire v. Forfarshire Championship derby of 1902 on the North Inch was played over two-days and watched by an astonishing 21,000 spectators (6,000 on the Friday and 15,000 on the Saturday.)
The record inter-county derby crowd at Forthill came 6 years later, in July 1908, when The Aberdeen Daily Journal reported that:
“…for the last three hours at least 14,000 people watched with breathless excitement the varying fortunes of the match.”
Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, whose brother John ‘Rufus’ Bruce Lockhart and nephew Rab Bruce Lockhart both represented Scotland at cricket and rugby, was a renowned diplomat, banker and journalist in the first half of the twentieth century. He had received his early education at the former Seafield Preparatory School in Broughty Ferry where his father was Headmaster, and recalled that Edwardian era Tayside cricket rivalry when writing in his 1937 biography, My Scottish Youth:
“Forfarshire cricket in those days was run by W.R. Sharp, one of four brothers, each of whom left a fortune of several hundred thousand pounds. “W.R.”, a rotund and jovial sportsman, excelled at all games. As a golfer he had played in the amateur championship. At rugby football he was once selected to play full-back for Scotland, but in those days even international games were kept in proper proportion, and with a casualness which now seems difficult to understand he declined the honour because it entailed a long journey to Wales. His cricket he had learnt in England as a schoolboy at Clifton College. He was kind to boys, and whenever he made a good score there was always tea for us in the pavilion which was his gift to the county.
“The great event of the season was the match against Perthshire, and in his keenness to defeat the enemy “W.R.” used to collect a side by methods which did not always appeal to other members of the club. In this annual encounter both sides were limited to the service of one English professional. Great care was taken to secure the very best available, and, indeed, some of England’s greatest professionals, notably Haigh, Ringrose, Smailes and Andrews have made their debut for Forfarshire or Perthshire. “W.R.”, however, went outside the spirit of this restriction by enlisting as amateurs such talented cricketing football professionals as Hillman, the Dundee goalkeeper and J. Sharp, then the Dundee full-back.
“The annual match at Forthill was always played on the Perth holiday, and thousands of Perthshire supporters made the journey to Broughty Ferry. The atmosphere was therefore that of a Yorkshire v Lancashire match supplemented by extraneous excitements which are absent from Bramall Lane or Old Trafford. The Perthshire supporters brought ample supplies of whisky, and there were few present who had not a bottle in their pockets. Like the football supporters of the Rangers and the Celtic in Glasgow, the rival factions took up their stand on opposite sides of the ground, and woe betide the unfortunate Forfarshire cricketer who happened to be fielding close to the Perthshire partisans. He was subjected to a running fire of venomous back-chat, which covered his ancestry, his physical appearance, and the cut of his trousers with a completeness which is to be found neither in Debrett nor in the Dictionary of National Biography. If he were an Old Harrovian like Charlie Gilroy, he was regarded as a “bloody to-ff” and was told so with a frequency which was as insistent as it was irritating. And, if he happened to make a catch to dismiss a Perthshire batsman, a shower of bottles, bananas and ham sandwiches ensured that he missed the next.
“Infected by this partisan exuberance, we watched every ball of these encounters with eyes glued to the pitch, and I remember one tie not only for the glorious thrill when, with the scores equal, Whitehead, the Forfarshire fast bowler, knocked the last Perthshire batsman’s off-stump out of the ground, but also for a more painful emotion when, as I was leaving the ground with a last whoop of jubilation, a disgruntled Perthshire “tough” lunged viciously at me and gave me a stinging crack on the seat of my pants with a heavy blackthorn stick.”
These huge cricket crowds also had a downside, and the press in 1912 reported on the suggestion from the Perth civic authorities that the derby match be moved from a holiday week-end due to the unruly behaviour of spectators in the city centre. That the enthusiasm of the Perth crowds could get out of hand was not a new phenomenon. The North Inch had also been witness to some dramatic moments not normally associated with Scottish cricket. A grandstand collapsed during the Perthshire v Forfarshire derby match of 1903, resulting in many injuries but, thankfully, no casualties. In 1905, it was the scene of Scottish cricket’s first and only riot, when the home support became upset at an lbw decision which caused Perthshire to lose a match with Stirling County, sparking a mass field invasion and riot on the North Inch. Police had to protect the umpires and dozens of arrests were made (Never mind Hampden Park in 1980, mounted police et al, cricket got their first by some 75 years!)
The late John Carruthers, a young cricket enthusiast growing up in Edwardian Perth, described the North Inch in his The Story of Cricket in Scotland, published in 1950:
“...the Perth County Cricket Ground on the North Inch, that beautiful setting surely designed, from the beginning of time, not for any Battle of the Clans or bloodshed or friction, but simply for the playing of cricket and for the good sportsmanship and the spirit of tolerance and goodwill which the playing of cricket implies.
“The Perthshire cricket pitch on the North Inch! – paragon of wickets – queen of all meadows! – beautiful in almost any of the moods in which nature can show it – deep under snow or when the autumn mists come creeping over it – but unsurpassable when the sun shines out of a cloudless summer sky on to the green expanse, with the white flannelled figures moving backward and forward over the close-cropped turf between the screens – the Grampian Range far to the North, unchanging through the centuries...”
He continued in this vein for several more sentences. Fairly heady stuff, and the cynical might suggest that Perth aficionado Mr Carruthers was not the best qualified to provide an impartial view. But what about this passage from the autobiography of Bill Andrews, The Hand That Bowled Bradman, published in 1973. Somerset bowler Andrews was pro with Forfarshire in 1933 and 1934:
“We pulled the crowds in. During the two years I was there we averaged 5,000 for the home match with Perthshire and more for the away fixture at North Inch.
“There was a terrific atmosphere and I remember one match against Perthshire on the wonderful turf of the North Inch ground in Perth. In the outfield it was like walking on a thick carpet. The crowd came right up to the boundary edge and when Scot Symon, of football fame, square-cut me towards the ropes I’m certain I saw the leg of a home supporter shoot out in an attempt to bring the fielder down and let the ball go through for 4.
“The Perthshire professional, Bert Marshall, was chaired off the field at the end of this game. His final figures were 7 for 21 and that was worth a bumper collection of £80 15s 1d, a princely sum in 1933.”
That collection would be worth in excess of £5,000 in 2014; little wonder that the respective professionals from that period always chose the home derby match for their benefit.
Leicestershire fast bowler Ewart Benskin was Perthshire pro from 1910 to 1914, and the North Inch crowd adored ‘Bennie’; his 1912 benefit against Forfarshire netted him £70, almost £7,000 at today’s value.
Not to be outdone, Forfarshire secured England Test fast bowler Percy Buckenham as their principle paid performer for the fateful summer of 1914 – one of three professionals employed each season by the wealthy Dundee club at that time
The Yorkshire and England legend Wilfred Rhodes finished his stellar career with a season as Perthshire professional in 1937 as a 59-year-old; he pocketed £100 from his North Inch benefit against Forfarshire – equivalent of £6,000 now – and a nice tax-free bonus to complement his season’s haul of 82 wickets at 8.5 apiece.
Forfarshire, too, had an England player as their pro in the 1930s – but Gordon Hodgson was a football international, who spent the summers of 1935 and 1936 in Dundee. A Lancashire all-rounder, he was Liverpool inside-right when he first arrived at Forthill, but was transferred to Aston Villa before he returned north in 1936.
Former Perthshire captain and president Tom McCrea, recorded how such phenomenal spectator interest continued through the inter-war years and survived until the early 1960s, as he described in his 1979 book, Perth County Cricket Club 1926-1976, With Backward Glance, A Brief History:
“…even greater enthusiasm would have enveloped the Forfarshire ‘derby’. The same tense throng of knowledgeable appreciation, the relieved roars of triumph, the mutter of dismay or hope deferred. A mass social ritual for which ‘Midsummer Saturday’ at Forthill was as much part of the Calendar as Ne’erday itself. This was the age of twin Tayside migration quite comparable with ‘Roses’ crossings of the Pennines. Perth and Dundee populations simply inter-decanted and, while gentler in age and sex sought other solace, phalanxes of strained male faces, identifiably the same at home or away, vied in drams, derisions and dogma mingled with real discernment. With corresponding boom in junior club cricket a great many were player-spectators. These splendid occasions survived the war…”
McCrea’s reference to junior club cricket is important, as an array of local clubs provided a broad-based infrastructure, with the best players striving for a place in the County XI. Dundee had a plethora of local cricket competitions, with a variety of clubs competing in two ‘public park’ leagues – operating out of Lochee Park and Caird Park respectively, courtesy of eight grounds provided by the City Council. Willie Young, Forfarshire and Scotland batsman of the 1920s was probably the most accomplished cricketer to come out of Lochee Park cricket.
The demand for the playing of cricket in the ‘Fair City’ was equally strong. Even into the 1950s there was a thriving City League to cater for a variety of local Perth clubs such as Railway Athletic and Pullars, and even an Inter-Company Boys’ Brigade Cricket League. Cricket was certainly the Perthshire game, as a network of village clubs across the county – Auchterarder, Pitlochry, Errol, Wolfhill, Luncarty and many more – provided a breeding ground for talent who aspired to make the step-up to the ‘Big County’ side on the North Inch.
Perthshire cricket’s pre-eminence continued through a halcyon period of almost continual success in the 1950s and 1960s, a record of near-invincibility akin to that of Yorkshire’s domination of England’s County Championship prior to the Second World War. The North Inch team was served by an array of talented cricketers over these two decades, with Scottish internationals in Jimmy Brown, Len Dudman, Mike Kerrigan, Bobby Young, Arthur Dewar and the Laing brothers.
That spectator numbers, at one time measured in the thousands, could be counted in dozens by the 1970s, was a quandary for Tom McCrea in his 1979 book:
“Why, in the 1960s, this mass support began to thin on every county ground, even with Perthshire achieving and maintaining unparalleled triumph, is a big question for a future social historian.”
Sadly, the death of inter-county cricket as a spectator sport in Perth and Dundee was merely a precursor of a decline and fall unimaginable to earlier generations. It was followed by the disappearance forever of countless cricket clubs and grounds across Tayside over the past 40 years, culminating in the demise of the Perthshire club itself in 2009.
Forfarshire thankfully survive, but they are inevitably diminished without their derby rivals from Perth. The Forthill ground now contains no tangible evidence of the great days of the inter-county derby: the grandstand, of course, has long since gone, as has the magnificent original Victorian pavilion, purchased for the club by the philanthropic W R Sharp, which suffered an ignominious end at the hands of the demolition men after being torched by vandals.
Ironically, the current football club that has brought such honour to Perth owes its very existence to cricket, as it was formed to provide winter exercise for the members of the original St Johnstone Cricket Club back in 1884.