The opinion of William Ansell, one of the founding fathers of Warwickshire County Cricket Club, was that Johnny Shilton "had done perhaps more than any other" for Warwickshire cricket.
That might appear a strange claim considering that Shilton took only 56 first-class wickets for the club. But the left-armer took only 56 wickets because he played for the Bears in just two seasons of first-class cricket – 1894 and 1895.
They were Warwickshire’s first two years as a first-class county, but for Shilton, the very epitome of a flawed genius, they were the last two in senior cricket.
“At his best,” according to Wisden, “he was a first-rate, left-handed bowler, slow to medium pace. Bowling with a high and very easy action, he combined plenty of spin with accuracy of pitch.”
Johnny Shilton, sometimes known as Jack and occasionally as Jim, was born in Yorkshire but qualified for Warwickshire after ‘borrowing’ the birth certificate of his Coventry-born cousin and namesake.Brian Halford
That spin and accuracy, invariably deployed in tandem with bowling partner Harry “Knack” Pallett, provided the wickets which delivered the wins which built the case, ultimately successful, for Warwickshire to be accepted among the elite of English cricket. It was just a shame that when the hallowed first-class status was bestowed upon the club, Shilton, in his mid-thirties, was in serious decline.
Behind him lay hundreds of wickets taken despite a colourful and not entirely disciplined lifestyle. Ahead of him, as that lifestyle caught up with him, were just four more years before his death in 1899, five days short of his 38th birthday.
Johnny Shilton, sometimes known as Jack and occasionally as Jim, was born in Yorkshire but qualified for Warwickshire after ‘borrowing’ the birth certificate of his Coventry-born cousin and namesake. Coventry John was four years older, so Shilton’s duped contemporaries thought he was born in 1857, rather than 1861. Little about Shilton was what it seemed, but among the hardest things of all to fathom, if you were holding a bat 22 yards away, was his bowling.
From 1885 to the Bears’ first-class entry nine years later, Shilton took 675 wickets at 13.49 apiece. Twice he exceeded 100 wickets in a season – in 1889 (108 at 12.94) and 1890 (110 at 12.70). In 1886, he played in the inaugural match at Edgbaston, against MCC, recording match-figures of 44-24-53-3, and then lodged match-figures of eight for 55 against the Australians. At the close of the first day against the Aussies, Warwickshire’s supporters chaired him from the field, almost certainly straight into the bar.
Shilton was, as well as a brilliant bowler, a gregarious man and an excellent host. The pubs he kept at Dudley and West Bromwich were known for the warmth of their hospitality. Like all professional cricketers of that era, he needed other income because players were poorly remunerated. In 1886, Warwickshire paid Shilton just £3 10s/week for 22 weeks in the summer and £1 10s/week for the other 30 weeks of the year (the latter sum being reduced if he found other income).
Shilton evidently found other income. He was known as ‘Lord Warwick’ because he was often to be seen purveyed around Birmingham and the surrounding area in a Hansom Cab. That incoming money, however, did not stay in for long.
In 1894, Warwickshire’s first first-class season, Shilton’s bowling was still potent enough to secure 50 wickets at 20.92 apiece but, around his cricket, his health was failing and his finances dwindling. Early the following season he was unavailable for selection, “being in prison for debt.” His health finally broke.
Warwickshire did their best to help. In May, Shilton suffering from asthma and bronchitis, was presented with £7 10s on condition that he spent it on a recuperative visit to Torquay. They also made him the club’s first beneficiary. His benefit match in June, against Yorkshire, raised £700 which went some way towards alleviating his debts, but Shilton bowled just four overs in the game. It was his last in first-class cricket.
In his fine book ‘100 Greats of Warwickshire County Cricket Club’ Robert Brooke reveals the extent of Shilton’s disarray. By 1897, writes Brooke, “the only furnishing he had in his room off Bristol Road were lots of empty bottles.”
Shilton returned to his native Yorkshire and coached briefly over the border in Cumbria at Sedbergh School but died in 1899 from kidney and liver failure. That lifestyle got him in the end.
The end of a fine cricketer; a convivial chap, perhaps, to share a drink with – but not a good one to share a life with.
“At the graveside,” wrote Brooke, “his widow vowed never to mention him again.”