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  Sydney Francis Barnes (1873–1967), by unknown photographer, c.1910 Sydney Francis Barnes (1873–1967), by unknown photographer, c.1910
Barnes, Sydney Francis (1873–1967), cricketer, was born on 19 April 1873 at Cross Street, Smethwick, Staffordshire, the second son of the five children of Richard Barnes, a metal tester and later foreman shipper, who worked in Birmingham for the Muntz Metal Company for sixty-three years, and his wife, Ann Wood. He made four appearances for Warwickshire (1894–6) but was, from the start, reluctant to play on the day-to-day basis expected at first-class county level. Nor could any county offer him the financial return which he could achieve from Saturday afternoon cricket and a job during the week.

An association with Rishton (1895–9) in the Lancashire league, for whom he took 411 wickets in Saturday afternoon games, typified Barnes's cricketing allegiance to the leagues throughout his career. Nevertheless, he agreed to play two matches for Lancashire in 1899 while declining to join the staff. Instead, he joined Burnley (1900–01). At the end of 1901 the Lancashire captain, A. C. MacLaren, persuaded him to play against Leicestershire in the last match of the season. Barnes took six for 99 in the match (besides making 32 with the bat). On the strength of this performance and of his reputation as a bowler, MacLaren offered him a place in the team he was taking to Australia in less than a month's time.

Barnes justified his surprise selection by adding nineteen wickets in the first two tests to the mere thirteen he had taken in first-class cricket up to that point. MacLaren, however, overbowled him, and he broke down with a knee injury after bowling seven overs in the third test and did not play again on the tour. But he had done enough to top the England bowling averages for the series. With some reluctance—and a certain obligation imposed by MacLaren—he played as a professional for Lancashire in 1902 and 1903. His injury still troubled him but in two seasons he took 213 wickets. His relations with the county committee were never easy, and he parted company on three counts: there was no guarantee of winter employment; the terms offered were no better than those made to any other professional; and there was no promise of a future benefit in the match of his choice.

Barnes married Alice Maud, daughter of Charles Pearce, jeweller, and divorced wife of George Taylor, on 25 May 1903. They had one son. Having parted company with Lancashire, Barnes returned in 1904 to the comparative obscurity of league cricket. Wisden caustically remarked that had he ‘possessed enthusiasm for the game … he might have made a great name for himself’ (Wisden, 1904, 63). The point was missed. Barnes was ahead of his generation in his genuine concern for the financial security of the professional cricketer. League cricket and regular employment gave him what county cricket could not. As for the ‘great name’, the years to come established him, in the view of the critics—especially Australian ones—as the best bowler in the world.

Barnes bowled medium-pace off an accelerated run. He was capable of swinging the ball one way and breaking it the other in an era when one ball had to suffice for a whole innings. Pelham Warner wrote in 1909, when Barnes had shown his skills at the highest level, that he kept a perfect length, was deceptive in flight with a leg-break ‘not only accurate but very quick off the pitch [and had] every attribute of a great bowler’ (Wisden, 1910, 161). ‘His greatness’, wrote Neville Cardus, ‘was directed by a subtle reserve power of destruction. The prehensile fingers, curving the ball gloatingly, were directed by one of the sharpest of all cricket intelligences’ (Cardus, 153).

After leaving Lancashire, Barnes played for various clubs in seven different leagues from 1904 to 1940—including the First World War and with the single exception of 1939. In 1940, at the age of sixty-seven, he took twenty-eight wickets (at an average of 8.28). He also began an association with Staffordshire (1904–14, 1924–35), for whom he took 1441 wickets (8.15) in the minor counties' championship. His numerous successes included fourteen wickets for 13 runs against Cheshire (in one day) in 1909, fourteen for 29 against All-India in 1911, seventeen for 59 against Monmouthshire in 1912 and—as late as 1932 at the age of fifty-nine—thirteen for 50 against Lancashire. Throughout these years he took 4069 wickets (6.08) in league and club cricket.

Yet it is in his performances in test cricket that Barnes's stature must be measured. Like some meteor suddenly descending with awesome power, he went on to appear for England in a further twenty-three test matches up to 1914. He returned to Australia both in 1907–8 and in 1911–12, and helped England to a one-wicket win at Melbourne in 1908 by taking five for 102 and making a crucial 38 not out. On the same ground on 30 December 1911 he opened the test match, in dramatic fashion, by dismissing Australia's top four batsmen in five overs for one run. Against the South Africans, during the triangular tournament of 1912, he took thirty-four wickets for 282 in three tests, and finished his test career against the same opponents in 1913–14 by taking forty-nine wickets (10.93) in the series, including seventeen for 159 at Johannesburg, a test match record which stood until 1956. He was invited to tour Australia for a fourth time, in 1920–21, at the age of forty-seven, but he declined as he was not allowed to take his family with him as part of his remuneration. In test cricket he took 189 wickets (average 16.43) in twenty-seven matches. He was the last man to play test cricket regularly who did not have a first-class county affiliation.

Barnes made other occasional forays into the first-class game. He made his highest score of 93 for MCC against Western Australia in 1908. There were matches at home for MCC, the Players (against the Gentlemen), the minor counties, and Wales. In 1929 he was again the scourge of the South Africans. Against them, for the minor counties, he took eight for 41 in thirty-two consecutive overs. A month later, again versus the South Africans, playing for Wales (for which he had a brief residential qualification) he had a match analysis of ten for 90: at one point he had taken six for 8. His record in first-class cricket (1894–1930) was 719 wickets (average 17.09) together with 1573 runs (12.78). In all cricket it has been estimated he took 6229 wickets (8.33). At lower levels, he was a useful batsman and made several centuries.

Before 1914 Barnes earned his regular living as the clerk in a Staffordshire colliery. He was over forty when the First World War broke out. Too old to serve, he continued as a clerk and as a league cricketer (for Saltaire in the Bradford league). Thereafter he worked in the legal department of Staffordshire county council well into extreme old age. He was a calligrapher of rare quality and inscribed illuminated documents. In 1957 he presented Elizabeth II with a scroll of his own work describing the visit of Elizabeth I to Stafford.

Barnes was thus the epitome of a self-made Victorian, but without the deference to his superiors displayed by many another working-class man (including professional cricketers). The establishment found him hard to handle, while his fellow county cricketers failed to realize that he was taking a stance for their own future economic and social status. His taciturn manner, authoritative tone, and gaunt appearance did not make for easy relations with fellow cricketers; popularity and acceptance came only with the dignity and mellowness of age. Yet Pelham Warner saw him as a man who responded to kindness and the courtesies of life and he believed (in 1948) that there had ‘been no greater bowler in the history of the game’ (Duckworth, 202). The claim that Barnes was the best bowler of his generation gains credibility from the fact that all his contemporaries said so. The idea that he was the greatest bowler of all time must be tested against such statistics as length of service, aggregate of wickets, and test career. Wisden in 2000 conducted a voting survey of the greatest cricketers of the twentieth century. Of those who were strictly bowlers, Barnes was placed fourth (Wisden, 2000, 17).

Barnes was, in 1949, among the first list of professional cricketers made honorary members of the Marylebone Cricket Club, and four years later a testimonial match took place at Stafford in which many test cricketers participated. Barnes, who had just turned eighty, bowled two overs. Ten years later, at the age of ninety, he was elected president of the Warwickshire Old County Cricketers' Association. Age had conferred its accolades on the doughty nineteenth-century defender of players' rights. In his later years he was a firm friend of Pelham Warner, his exact contemporary and his antithesis in social background. They would be seen together watching cricket at Lord's. Barnes died at his home, 59 Moss Street, Chadsmoor, Cannock, Staffordshire, on 26 December 1967.

Gerald M. D. Howat


W. S. White, Sydney Barnes (1935) · L. B. Duckworth, S. F. Barnes: master bowler (1967) · Wisden (1895–1968) · A. Searle, S. F. Barnes: his life and times (1997) · b. cert. · m. cert. · N. Cardus, The Playfair Cardus (1963) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1968)


photograph, c.1910, Hult. Arch. [see illus.] · photograph, 1953, NPG

Wealth at death  

£3788: probate, 31 Jan 1968, CGPLA Eng. & Wales