The Extraordinary Life of William Gunn

Tuesday 02 February 2016
reading time: min, words

"Billy Gunn put together an impressive CV for a man forced to practice his batting in the middle of the night because that was his only spare time from his job working in a shop"

Back in 1838, when William Clarke laid out the boundaries of a ground in West Bridgford behind the Trent Bridge Inn (largely for the purposes of gambling, incidentally), cricket was still in its infancy. From its new home Nottinghamshire would play a key role in the evolution of the game over the next century. Many famous names, including George Parr (who for a long time had a stand named after him at Trent Bridge), Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury would be prominent for both club and country.

One name that featured on Trent Bridge scorecards for 70 years was that of Gunn. Four cricketers over three generations played for the County, three of them played for England and their names live to this day in many Nottinghamshire records. It also lives on in the city in the shape of bat manufacturer Gunn & Moore, which is still a going concern in Colwick over 130 years after William Gunn helped found it.

William was the first and in many ways the most remarkable of the Gunns to play for both Nottinghamshire and England. His batting was so easy on the eye that in 1882 his teammate William Oscroft asked to be omitted from the side selected to face the touring Australians. He asked the committee to replace him with William, explaining that he would rather see Gunn make 50 than either WG Grace or Shrewsbury make a century.

It was an unusual step for Oscroft to take, particularly as Gunn was only 23 and was yet to fulfil his early promise let alone deserve such favourable comparison to the two great batsmen of the Victorian Age. However, Oscroft was not alone in marking Gunn out for greatness. Nottinghamshire greats Shrewsbury, Alfred Shaw and Richard Daft all played key roles in the developments of the tall, elegant batsmen. Gunn repaid that faith as his sporting career flourished and he became one of a handful of men to win England caps at both football and cricket.

Billy Gunn put together an impressive CV for a man born and raised in one of the poorest parts of Nottingham, a man who was forced to practice his batting in the middle of the night because that was his only spare time from his job working in a shop. The shop in question was Richard Daft’s cricket outfitters and to even land a job there it is likely Gunn would have had to display some talent with the bat. And if he hadn’t shown that talent before his arrival, he would remedy that soon enough. As one historian commented: “He displayed remarkable ability in determining the weight of a bat, and was fond of practicing a favourite cut or drive, sometimes in the shop, and much to the detriment of the windows.”

Gunn stood 6’ 3” tall, a giant by the standards of the day, and he had long arms that he could use as levers to project the ball long distances in the field. He used this skill to good effect in his football career, hurling throw-ins prodigious distances using the one-armed technique prevalent at a time. Gunn could launch the ball into the opposition box from his own half like a Victorian version of Rory Delap. In fact his performance in an England v Scotland fixture gave the Scottish defence so many problems they proceeded to press for changes to the throw-in laws, resulting in the two-handed style we are familiar with today.

As a footballer Gunn played as a wing-forward and although he also turned out for Nottingham Forest he is most associated with Notts County, for whom he played over the course of nine years. He earned his two England caps in 1884, against Scotland and Wales. After retiring as a player Gunn became the first ex-County footballer to serve the club as a director and was its president from 1920 until his death the following year.

However, it is as a cricketer that Gunn excelled and after serving his apprenticeship at Daft’s cricket emporium he was given his chance at Nottinghamshire in 1880. His selection came on the back of a century while playing for Nottingham Castle and a 32 for Colts of England v MCC.

He was also taken onto the ground staff at Lord’s that summer but struggled for runs and form, putting his place in the Notts batting line-up in jeopardy. Gunn finally settled arguments about his inclusion with a well made 29 in the second innings of a county match against Surrey. “The runs were so well got that his title to a place in the Notts team was never again questioned,” commented Shaw.

He cemented his place further the following season as he continued to play for Notts while the professionals – led by Shaw and Shrewsbury – went on strike. In 1884 Gunn was second only to Shrewsbury in the Notts batting averages and a year later scored 203 for the MCC against Yorkshire at Lord’s.

He made his England debut in January 1887, playing both Tests down under as the Ashes were retained 2-0 in Australia. Gunn would go onto play 11 times for England – all against the Aussies – over a 12-year period, scoring 392 runs at an average of 21.77. He recorded a best of 102 in the 3rd Ashes Test of 1893 at Old Trafford.

A fine summer in 1889 saw Gunn named one of Wisden’s Cricketers’s of the Year in 1890, heralding the best decade of his career. He topped the Notts batting averages in 1891, 1893, 1894, 1896 and 1897, coming second on four other occasions, and this at a time when the county’s batting line-up was considered amongst the best in England, containing, as it did, the masterful Shrewsbury.

Wisden commented: “No batsman of the same height has ever played in more elegant and perfect form. Certainly we know no professional at the present day whom it is a greater pleasure to watch. Even before he rose to his present fame as a batsman, Gunn was one of the most brilliant fields in the country, and it is the general opinion of practical cricketers that in the long field and at third he has never had a superior.”

His agility in the field was exceptional. After being dismissed by one of Gunn’s more stunning efforts, the opposition batsman AN Hornby remarked: “No one but a damned giraffe would have got near it.”

Many praised his elegance as a batsmen although some critics insisted that he should be scoring more quickly. Gunn himself put this down to a desire to make big runs when in the middle, stating: “I can make as big hits as anyone if I like, but if I begin to lift the ball I never score more than 40.”

For all the criticism of his conservative play, he did possess a unique stroke that was neither a cover drive nor a slash, but which would fly past point. One observer noted: “Stepping well out of the crease with a quick and very forward placement of the left leg down the wicket and towards the flight of the ball, the bat was brought back steeply and the half-drive, half-slash stroke aimed with great force… few fieldsmen within range would have much chance of stopping the ball.”

Even in the twilight of his career he remained a fine player, making his highest first class score of 237 against Derbyshire in 1901 and, two years later, his penultimate season for Notts, he scored 998 runs at an average of 38.

By the time of his retirement the baton had been well and truly passed to a new generation of Gunns. William’s nephews George and John both emulated their famous uncle playing for Notts and England. George remains the county’s highest run scorer with 31,592 while John is the only man in Notts’ history to make over 20,000 runs and take over 1000 wickets. 

Update August 2022: The William Gunn Pub and Kitchen is set to open soon in West Bridgford, and is named after the main himself.

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