Yorkshire nostalgia: Visiting Research Fellow Dr Dennis O’Keefe’s history essay wins the Yorkshire Society’s history prize, the Bramley Award

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AFTER Britain went to war in 1914 it was expected in certain cricketing quarters, especially in the South, that bat and ball would be put away for the duration.

But in many industrial areas of the North, cricket clubs soldiered on for as long as they could, refusing to draw stumps. This is because the game had a particular significance in such communities, according to University of Huddersfield historian Dr Dennis O’Keefe. Now his analysis of the continuation of cricket – in defiance of the Establishment line – has been awarded a prize.

But although many cricket clubs and competitions managed to play on until 1918, the war took a terrible toll on their ranks. Dr O’Keefe has discovered two photographs depicting members of a Sunday School club from Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley. One is from 1910 and shows a team of proud young players displaying their trophies. The other is a collage from some ten years later and is a memorial to 11 members – amounting to an entire team – of this single, small club who perished in the conflict.

The picture is “a stark and poignant reminder of how far into the fabric of normal life the conflict penetrated,” writes Dr O’Keefe in his essay entitled Not Playing the Game? The Continuation of Cricket in Halifax and the Calder Valley during the Great War.

Dr O’Keefe was awarded a PhD at the University of Huddersfield – where he is now a Visiting Research Fellow – for a thesis in which he focussed on cricket clubs that were linked to churches in Halifax and the Calder Valley in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Now, he has investigated the fortunes of clubs in the district between 1914-18. The essay that resulted from this new phase of research has been announced as the 2015 winner of the Bramley Award, given annually bythe Yorkshire Society as an element of its Yorkshire History Prize.

Establishment hostility

“The carrying of on sport during the Great War generated considerable tension,” writes Dr O’Keefe in his prize-winning essay. “Some, particularly in the higher echelons of society, were angered that fit young men were playing football and cricket while their compatriots were risking their lives in the trenches.”

By early 1915, country cricket and almost all club cricket in the South had ceased. But league and cup cricket in areas like West Yorkshire carried on, despite incurring Establishment hostility.

Dr O’Keefe says that he was intrigued by the contrast between the largely public school-derived clamour that sport should cease, and the overwhelming determination in areas such as Halifax and the Calder Valley that it should carry on.

It is not that the clubs lacked patriotism, he contends, but that cricket in their locale was community-based and had meanings that were different to those understood by many of the vocal minority calling for sport to end.

“On the one hand, a social and political elite saw sport as to do with sportsmanship, discipline, and in a few cases a way of demonstrating what a fine fellow you are,” said Dr O’Keefe. “It was to do with the promotion of attitudes that could be useful in future life, particularly the military. In some respects, it was seen as a preparation for war.

“But in the local situation, in the industrial North, it was much more to do with communal identity, with the club being seen as an asset to the village or town. It wasn’t just a game, but something that was vital to community and identity.”

Determination to carry on

Dr O’Keefe also encountered the argument that it was important to keep cricket going until the boys came home – and some did come safely back to resume their playing careers. During the war, however, it was often difficult to raise sides – with teams even borrowing from the opposition – and there is evidence that older people came out of cricketing retirement. Soldiers on leave from the Front did also take part in games as well as attending clubs’ social events, which often raised money for servicemen’s charities. Men at the Front also sought news of how their local clubs were faring.

Some clubs did fall by the wayside, but there was real determination to carry on if possible. One of the district’s premier competitions, the Halifax Parish Cup, continued throughout the war. And there was even some Establishment acknowledgment that such clubs were justified in their stance, said Dr O’Keefe.

“From about 1916 onwards, the social and political elite came to realise that sport was actually good for morale and this became the prevailing attitude in World War Two.”

Dr O’Keefe receives his Bramley Award at a Yorkshire Society function in September. He hopes to publish his essay on the continuation of cricket in a leading journal. He is one of a succession of University of Huddersfield lecturers and students who have had success in the Yorkshire History Prize.