William (Billy) Buttress


This is a summary of what I know about William Buttress. Derek West’s articles for the Cricket Society Journal- “Old Buttress the Cellarer” and “Billy Buttress’s Obituary” – and chapter one of his book “Twelve Days of Grace” give some of the information in greater detail.  I would love to know what he looked like.

Born 25 / 11 / 1827 – son of William and Martha.

Died 25 / 08 / 1866

Family and Home

William Buttress and Sarah Mott married in Cambridge on 25th June 1848. The witnesses were Edward Cornwell, a fellow cricketer, and his wife Ellen. By the time of the 1861 census they had four children: Sarah Elizabeth (14 years old), William (12), Frederick (9) and Elizabeth (4).

In 1848 (marriage) & 1849 (court appearance) his address was given as Prospect Row. By 1851 (census) it was 152, East Rd. and by 1861 (census) 11, Eden St. At the time of his death in 1866 his address was given as 39, Eden St. All these addresses were within the same square mile area in the parish of St. Andrew the Less or Barnwell. His father and mother also had several different addresses while he was growing up.

William’s father and mother (nee Wilson) were married in 1825. His father , variously described as a labourer, gas man and lamplighter, was buried, at the age of 54, on 28th July 1855.


William is said to have left school at the age of 11 or 12. One obituary gives his initial trade as gas fitter (see West), although he is more commonly referred to as a lamplighter. His marriage record gives him as a labourer and his father as a lamplighter. By 1849, at the age of nearly 22, he was described in the local newspaper as a cricketer; a description concurred with in the 1851 census records. There are 2 other Buttresses given as lamplighters in the 1861 census, who may have been relatives, perhaps an uncle and cousin. It is not clear, though, that Billy himself ever worked as a lamplighter.

Billy Buttress the Cricketer

As a cricketer William (Billy) Buttress was highly respected as a slow to medium paced right-arm, round-arm, leg-break bowler. He “could get as much break on the ball as any man I ever saw” (Richard Daft). “The father of break bowling” (Canon J McCormick). “…the only really scientific bowler I have ever known” (Henry Mayers Hyndman). He “could almost make the ball speak” (Fred Miller). “…one of the cleverest bowlers” (Wm Caffyn). “…of no man have I heard so much praise” (Rev. James Pycroft). A thoughtful and accurate bowler, who could change his pace imperceptibly, at his best he was “well nigh unplayable” and despite his general lack of pace could make the ball fly around the batsmen’s heads on a poor wicket. He was often used as an opening bowler.

His name first appears in cricket records in 1847 as a member of the squad for the Cambridge Town and County Club (CT&CC) team to play the Auberies. His first recorded game was for Huntingdon in the same year. Unfortunately for him the CT&CC imploded at that point but he did get to play for a Town team versus the County in 1848, taking 7 wickets in the first innings. In 1849 Billy took up the first of several engagements as a club professional away from Cambridge, at Lynn, a sensible move given the collapse of the Cambridge Club.

Also in 1849 Billy made the first of many appearances for a side playing with extra men against an England side. Since 1846 William Clarke of Nottingham had been taking a troupe of mainly professional cricketers, known as the All England Eleven (AEE), around the country playing local sides, usually at odds of 11 players against 22. Clarke’s team was soon followed by the United All England Eleven (UAEE) and others. Together they did much to change the status and collective strength of professionals in the game, giving them the chance to make an independent living, although there is some suggestion that Billy fell out with William Clarke. In this sense Buttress came into the game at a good time for a young cricketer. Several of Cambridge’s youngsters from around this time, in the absence of a home team, took the same route. The extent of the increased appeal of cricket as a profession is illustrated by a discovery I made while looking for Billy Buttress in the 1861 census. In that year 21 Cambridge men described themselves as professional cricketers from the one parish of St Andrew the Less alone.

Between 1849 and 1865 Billy played for at least 39 teams of 22 / 18 etc., mostly as a paid given man and mostly against the AEE or the UAEE. He took 5 or more wickets in an innings in such matches on at least 35 occasions, an average of nearly once per match. This made him much sought after as a “given man”, giving local sides the chance to upstage the “champions”. He also played at least 15 times for the AEE and 5 for the UAEE, both in 11 a side games and against odds. His top wicket haul for an ‘odds’ side was, to my knowledge, 7 for 46 and 9 for 28 for Dorset (18) v the U A E E in 1854. His best against a ‘22’ was 15 for 78 for the AEE against the Earl of Stamford’s Side in 1855. His best in an 11-a-side match was 6 and 8 wickets for Leicester Gentlemen v MCC in 1851.

He was not known for his batting. He was nicely said to have “seldom deviated into run getting.” He did once score 32 runs (for AEE v 18 of South Wiltshire in 1855) and reached double figures on a few other occasions. Even as late as 1854 the local press appear to have had some hopes for him as a batsman, claiming his to be “a difficult wicket to make”, but generally such hopes were not realised. A typically amusing story about Billy has him sitting up a tree when it was his turn to bat and saying, “What’s the good of me goin’ in? If I miss ‘em I’m out, and if I hit ‘em I’m out. Let’s start the next innings.” Suggestions that he was the second worst batsman in history (Altham) may overstate the case a little, however.

My figures for the number of matches Billy Buttress played are likely to be underestimated by a considerable amount. Most of my information comes from either “Scores and Biographies”, a Victorian reference book which was selective in its coverage, or local newspapers which only cover Cambridgeshire. So we can safely assume that Billy played far more matches than the 126 that I presently have records of.

As far as I can tell, then, Billy hit his peak, in terms of number of matches played, in 1854-6, while his peak for wickets taken per match was around 1851-5, although he was a consistently high wicket taker throughout his career. He appears to have largely stopped playing by 1863 at the age of 35.

Although much praised for his bowling both at the time and in retrospect, Billy only played in a few top-class matches. Most of his cricket was played either at town club level or in ‘odds’ matches in which he played with the advantage of either extra fielders or inferior opposition. West seems to feel that his drink habits led to the lack of top-grade matches. It may be, however, that his bowling style was not as highly valued as that of the outright fast bowlers. Pycroft, who had seen him bowl, somewhat sniffily commented that his pace “was rather slow”. He did not often open the bowling for the England Elevens and was sometimes not called on to bowl at all. Despite the respect in which he was obviously held by colleagues he may to some extent have been a victim of his own skill.

His engagements away from Cambridge and Cambridgeshire included Lynn, Manchester, Shrewsbury, Peterborough, Godmanchester, Oxford University and, briefly, Eton. Nearer to home he appeared for Cambridge Town Club, Cambridgeshire, the Gentlemen of Cambridge / County Club and in Cambridge University CC practice matches. I have also found one-off appearances for such sides as West Kent, Horseheath and Bury St Edmonds, giving an impression that he was willing to play for anyone.

Ventriloquist and practical joker

As well as having a career as a professional cricketer, Billy Buttress was said to be a gifted ventriloquist and an inveterate joker. The following description of one of his tricks appears in “A Cricketer’s Yarns” by Richard Daft (published 1926), a contemporary of Billy:

“Buttress, the old Cambridgeshire bowler, was a great amateur ventriloquist. He could imitate a cat mewing to the life, and used, it is said, often to carry a stuffed kitten about with him to which was attached a piece of string. This animal he would often place under a railway carriage seat before any passengers entered, and when the compartment was filled would begin to imitate the cries of a kitten, jerking the string at the same time to cause the stuffed one under the seat to knock against the passenger’s legs, causing a great amount of confusion. Billy used to prefer playing these tricks when the compartment happened to be full of old women who were going to market. On these occasions he often escaped detection by making the cat hiss and ‘swear’ in the most alarming manner when the old ladies tried to drive it out from under the seat.”

This picture is elaborated on by AA Thomson in “Odd Men In”, but this was written even further after the event than Daft’s recollections and there is no indication as to this version’s source or accuracy:

“…A search would begin under the seats and behind the racks. The mewing became fainter and fainter only to rise to a shriek as a new character was introduced into the drama. This time it was an invisible puppy, woofing good – naturally at the kitten, and so the two non-existent creatures careered round the compartment, the dog barking and the kitten spitting and raging, until almost everyone in the compartment was driven into a state of uncontrollable agitation, all except the wicked Mr. Buttress who lay back in his corner…dozing peacefully.”

It would appear that Buttress was not averse to playing jokes on the cricket field. William Caffyn and Daft seem to have recalled him as a loveable eccentric. A newspaper report on a last wicket stand of 51 between Buttress and Reynolds in 1860 seemed to agree:

“…the soul of Buttress dilated with an ardour that could only find an outlet in the exercise of his galvanic eccentricities.”

Even when acting as umpire he is reported on one occasion, having been hit in the stomach with the ball, to have responded with, “Well I’m blessed I must have been asleep” (Cambridge Daily News 8 /4 / 1961). Although West calls Billy “a boon companion” (“Elevens of England”), he also implies that such “buffoonery” might not have gone down too well at the time.

A Liking for Drink

Given Billy’s itinerant way of life and his frequent participation in events where drink was sold conspicuously, it is not surprising that if drink was an issue for him it would be particularly so in his profession. For a start i imagine he would be constantly bought drinks by spectators.  It is hard to tell the extent of Billy’s drinking and just how much it effected his work or family life. I have found one entry in the local press court reports, from December 1849, in which he appeared before the magistrates on a drunk and disorderly charge. He was discharged with a reprimand. One report is interesting in that it describes Buttress as having been in a state of “glorious inebriety.” This was not the last time that an affectionate tone was to be taken on his drinking habit, particularly from fellow cricketers. There are references to his drinking interfering with his cricket but most are unspecific. West, who concludes that the details of Billy being minded in order to stay sober were at least exaggerated, examines the main instance where a specific match is cited in some detail. West still assumes that his drinking led to the deterioration of performances, although up to 1862 at least his wicket taking remained consistently good. There does not seem to be any clear evidence that when he did bowl badly it was any more than having an off day. The impossibility of knowing exactly how many matches he played also makes it difficult to tell whether or not his career suffered from his reputation. The impression from records, however, is that the number of matches he played per season tailed off after 1861, when he was still only 33 years old, but the reason for that must remain conjecture. West’s talk of an “evil” reputation seems harsh.

In his novel, “The Meadow at Chapel Hill Cross”, Roger Mann uses Buttress as a source of comic relief, depicting him as a rather pathetic figure of fun with no merit as a cricketer.  This also seems to me to be a harsh perspective to take.

Events in 1861, by which time any reputation for drunkenness and unreliability would presumably have become established, may suggest that he was still a popular team member nevertheless. Having been called up to fill a sudden vacancy for the UAEE against the AEE, he was retained in the side, which he had not previously played for since 1854, for another two matches. Either he was not considered too much of a liability or his popularity as a person overcame any such fears. I have also found a letter from Billy in the Cambridge Chronicle of May 29th 1858 thanking the Cambridge University Cricket Club for playing a match for the benefit of Cambridge cricketers and thanking FP Fenner for the use of his ground. It is a short and formal letter and tells us little about him but it is interesting that he should take on the role of representing the Cambridge players.

Financial Struggle

The life of a professional cricketer in the 1850’s was not a secure one. In order to earn a living Billy traveled all over the country and for some periods was attached to clubs such as Lynn in Norfolk and Bradford, Yorkshire for reasonably lengthy periods. He would thus have spent much of the summer months away from his home and family in Cambridge.

Only 1854 and -55 would appear to have given him enough matches to earn a living from – 17 and 21 respectively – so it is to be hoped that private engagements and other matches that I have yet to find did help to push up his earnings. Even so he was travelling all over the country to earn this money and, with his drinking to consider, it is hard to imagine how he provided for his family, especially in such a seasonal profession as cricket. In later years – 1857-64 at least – he was engaged by the University CC as a bowler / coach, which would have helped for a month or so per year. The 1861 census refers to Sarah, his wife as a laundress, from which she would have made some sort of regular income. Life cannot have been easy for them as a family and it is not surprising that John Walker, a former Cambridge University player, was apparently assisting them.

An early death
William Buttress died of T B in 1866. His obituary in the Cambridge Independent Press for 1st September was simple and remembered him for the one thing he did best and, in one aspect at least, better than anyone else of his time:

BUTTRESS––Aug. 25, at Eden-street, Cambridge, Mr. William Buttress, the well-known cricketer.

A longer tribute to Billy appeared a few months later. It doesn’t tell us anything new about him but does give a feel of the esteem in which he was held.

“Some of our readers may be unaware that Buttress is dead, for it will be hardly believed that not one journal out of a hundred noticed the fact; and yet, according to all accounts, he was the most accomplished bowler that ever lived. For several years his skill was at a premium. Go where you would his fame was patent: peer and pleb placed him upon the highest pinnacle. No man ever had such command of the ball, and his variation of pace was nothing short of consummate delusion. Truly his fame was not newspaper-made: he won his laurels in the field[.] [H]e was not the favourite of reporters afflicted with prejudice nor was he placed in a false position by men who laboured under an imperfect knowledge of the game. Doubtless he had many faults; but who shall say that time had not ringed them with the grace of sorrow? Grief-spots are not always seen; and who could notice the shattered wreck tottering about at the mercy of the winds, and believe that a few hours had not been given to serious reflection? His final illness was slow, yet certain, and one little incident, which shone like a star in the cloud of his misery, is worthy of special notice. Gasping in the terrible toils of consumption, almost his last effort was to smile upon the kindness of John Walker, to whose name we attach no superfluous appendage; but who can fail to imagine the thought which flashed upon the mind of the invalid happy in the remembrance that he was not forgotten by one of the noblest supporters of the game? Poor Billy! Death ran him out last August for 39.”

Overall Billy Buttress’s life and career are a bit of an enigma – a mixture of success, personal problems and a mixed reputation.  From the cricketing point of view, however, his abilities are undoubted and should not be underrated.