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One Shot More..Part 19
Wednesday 10th June 2020
Pictured: Willie Dempster who did more than anyone to keep cricket alive at The Green during the post war years
Tough Times at The Green
Finance to keep North Down going was a major challenge with limited gate money, but stalwarts like Jim Baxter rallied to the cause and played a significant role in maintaining the ground and the pavilion. The Ministry of Home Affairs needed a hut for shooting practice and the Nissen hut was erected at the top of the ground on a ten-year lease at a fiver a year. The club treasurer was also pleased to receive £70 when the top field was used for assault course training.
The Nissan Hut - Our War Legacy
Not surprisingly, Willie Andrews lost no opportunity to secure military assistance and in 1942 he received help from the commanding officer of the Ordnance Corps, who were stationed in Comber, to assist with work on the ground.
Most surviving Ulster cricket clubs adapted to the challenge of war-time cricket, and there was the added bonus of seeing top class players like England test cricketers Hedley Verity and Norman Yardley in action either at Strabane, playing in representative matches or for the Green Howards, the regiment that was stationed in Omagh in 1940. American troops were also billeted in the province but while they didn’t take to cricket some Canadian soldiers got into the spirit of the game playing in their pyjamas due to the shortage of cricket gear. Perhaps the earliest Twenty/20 exponents?
Charity games were played against the Services teams to raise funds for the war effort and cricket played a big part in these events both in England and in Ulster. The Governor’s Red Cross Fund was one of the most popular Appeals and at times North Down players like James Macdonald and Willie Dempster played their part, while North Down’s international umpires Neil Petts and Jim Baxter stood in many of these games without asking for their match fee.
Several of the members also served on NCU committees with Willie Andrews, Raymond Crosby and Gerry Spence being mentioned in the NCU minutes of the time. As expected, the Andrews family took a prominent role in many aspects of everyday life and James Andrews was awarded a Baronet in 1942 for his services to the legal fraternity and became Sir James Andrews, while his brother John Miller took over the demanding role of Northern Ireland Prime Minister from 1940 to 1943.
On the field of play club results could not have been much worse, as the club languished at the bottom of the ‘Friendly League’ table in four of the six war seasons with creditable mid-table placings in 1943 and 1944. First round exits in the Senior Challenge Cup became the norm, and for a club with such a distinguished cup record these were ignominious occasions. But it was a fight for survival at The Green rather than the pursuit of cricket honours.
Wartime North Down teams were barely recognizable from the pre-war teams as was evident when the club lost to Waringstown by seven wickets in 1941. The ten-man team read; Willie Andrews (Capt.), Gerry Spence, Willie Dempster, JH Abernethy, Sergt. Footitt, Young, Colour-Sergt. Prince, Pte. Williams, Pte. Faulkner, and Sergt. Gascoyne.
Low totals were a feature of wartime cricket and, unfortunately, North Down was on the receiving end of many of them. League wins were a rarity and cup wins non-existent.
Muckamore (by five wickets) knocked us out in the first round in 1940 after only 68 runs were posted, while Woodvale gave us a cricket blitz in 1941 skittling us out for a paltry 26 runs in 35 minutes! It was said 1941 was the worst season on record for North Down but 1942 wasn’t much better and in the cup competition Waringstown’s 187 total, including a sparkling 106 by the Reverend Bobby Barnes was 105 runs too many for North Down.
The Villagers were the best team around during the latter war years and they showed no mercy on North Down the following year when they dismissed them for only 44 in the cup again, and then scored the required runs in just under 30 minutes. Waringstown played their part in the war effort, just as much as any other club in the Province, but in contrast to their rivals, when it came to important cricket matches they always seemed to field a strong team.
Downpatrick knocked us out of the cup in 1944, a tough season with barely a win to record and serious difficulties in fielding a team of any description on several occasions. In 1945 Cregagh had the dubious honour of adding to our cup demise, a sad occasion because James Macdonald was in attendance, just days after it had been announced that he had been forced to retire from the game on medical grounds. In more ways than one it was the end of an era because victory in Europe and the Far East was imminent.
Throughout the period DGR McKibbin was in a class of his own and a useful bowler when needed. He was ably supported by JH Abernethy, Gerry Spence, JA Hunter, Tom Magowan and Raymond Crosby. Willie Dempster was the leading bowler supported by Norman Murphy and G Cargo. There was also mention of a promising young wicketkeeper EA ‘Eddie’ Marks who would later play for Ireland, and of the good work achieved at boys level by some of the older members.
The seconds suffered badly and struggled to put out full teams let alone competitive teams. Their key batsmen were AD May, WJ Baxter Jnr., T Patton and JV McDowell, while Roy Maxwell and F McCullough were promising young players. Marks and Baxter were the bowling stars but when AD May left for military duties in the Far East the team was further decimated. Some of the 2nd XI teams during the war years were almost military teams but, slowly, more young local players emerged after 1943. In 1945 there was some semblance of order and hope for the future, when five members of the Maxwell family featured in a junior league game, a match that also saw a young Walter Wishart emerge. Shades of better things to follow?
The war did finally end in the spring of 1945 and acting NCU secretary Jimmy Picken later recorded the season as “successful and enjoyable wartime cricket.” There was certainly a great feeling of jubilation and relief all round, as barely 11 days after the Germans surrendered on 7th May 1945, Warrant Officer Lindsay Hassett led the Australian Services team out at Lords to face Wally Hammond’s England in the first of the Victory tests.
Slowly but surely cricket returned to normality but for North Down Cricket Club it was to be a long time before the club got back to its pre-war position at the top of NCU cricket. The war years were tough times at The Green and more of the same was to follow for the next three decades.
John Miller Andrews
The second son of Thomas Andrews, John Miller was born at Ardara in 1871 into one of the most prominent and influential families in Ulster society. Like the rest of his family he grew up with a keen interest in sport and cricket in particular, but his destiny in life was to be politics. He was particularly close to his brother Thomas and took his untimely death in 1912 particularly badly. He had grown up playing cricket with Thomas and James at Ardara and at The Green, and he was a guiding influence with young Willie, who was 15 years his junior but arguably the most fanatical cricketer in the family. He enjoyed the fellowship of sport and family, and was particularly fond of the annual Andrews family challenge match against his fellow members at North Down where he spent so many happy days at cricket.
John Miller Andrews
John Miller never rose to the cricketing heights of his talented brothers largely because he was so committed to working at the spinning mill and later because of his heavy commitment to politics. He was essentially a 2nd XI player, making only sporadic appearances for the 1st XI in friendly and tour games. He played in the inaugural Junior Cup final in 1891, which North Down lost, but he later captained the seconds to Junior Cup wins in 1897, 1902 and 1904.
He was MP for County Down and Mid-Down from 1921 to 1953 and was a key member of the first government of Northern Ireland following partition in 1921. He was Minister of Labour from 1921 to 1939, Minister of Finance from 1937 to 1940 and then Prime Minister from 1940 to 1943 in the difficult war years. He was also chairman of the family firm John Andrews and Son, a director in the Belfast and County Down Railway Company (1916 to 1921), Belfast Ropeworks Co Limited (1919 to 1941) and was President of the Chamber of Commerce in 1936. Like most of his family he was a staunch Unionist and held senior positions within the Ulster Unionist Council and the Orange Order.
John Miller with the Junior Cup and with his illustrious family
John Miller’s son JLO ‘Jack” Andrews inherited both his father’s passion for sport and politics. He was also primarily a 2nd XI player although he played in the losing Challenge Cup final team of 1921 against Waringstown. He succeeded his father as managing director of the Spinning Mill and was also an MP and a prominent Ulster Unionist. He rose to the lofty status of Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Senate.
John Miller Andrews was almost 70 when he became Prime Minister and the heavy responsibility and stress of the job took its toll on his health. Although he continued as an MP until 1953 he reduced his commitment considerably as each year passed. He died in 1956, aged 85.
The war years brought out the best in the members who had to keep the club alive during the toughest of times on and off the field of play. North Down had a small core of willing workhorses, some of whom had enjoyed the good years before 1939, but who stayed loyal to North Down in its hour of need. One of these loyal club stalwarts was the effervescent Gerry Spence.
Gerald Spence was a Comber man who lived most of his life in Railway Street, a location that produced as many critics as cricketers. He was 14 when he made his senior team debut, rubbing shoulders with seasoned club legends and scoring 20 runs. From this modest start he went from strength to strength and played for 35 years, winning many admirers, as much for his charm and charisma off the field as his excellent batting on it. He helped the club to many Senior Challenge Cup and Senior League successes and played interprovincial cricket for Ulster at senior and junior level. He was a great traveller to away games and did more for team spirit than any other member of the team. He was a warm friendly character and while he played to win, he enjoyed sport and the camaraderie it brought to those who participated.
Gerry, front right with the 1937 side
In an era when there were many talented players vying for 1st XI places, Gerry Spence held a middle-order batting position in the strongest of North Down teams and played in seven senior cup finals from 1926 to 1939. He played on four winning sides including the hat-trick of wins from 1926 to 1928 and in the 1936 senior league and cup double ‘dream team’. Unlike many senior cricketers, Gerry continued to play on after 1939. He topped the batting averages in 1941 and captained a much-changed side for two years in the early Fifties, dealing with relegation into the Qualifying League. When times were difficult Gerry was always there to assist during the war years, especially when Willie Andrews was stationed away from home. Almost every time it was Gerry who dealt with the demanding off-field captaincy issues.
He was a great tourist and played against some useful cricketers like Blackpool’s Cecil Parkin, stealing more than a few runs in tandem with James Macdonald and the rest of his fellow travellers. Off the field on tour he was full of fun and music and hosting club members loved his company.
So did all of his colleagues, both at cricket and at hockey. He played in the great North Down hockey teams of the 1930s and won two interprovincial caps and many accolades. He won Senior League and Kirk Cup medals and featured in Anderson and Irish Cup finals. He also had the distinction of playing for the Ulidians, an Ulster touring side renowned for playing with success in the Irish hockey tournaments.
Whether it was a sign of ‘misspent youth’ or a matter of convenience to his place of work we don’t know, but top-class billiards players need time at the table or exceptional talent and Gerry was one of the best billiards players to come from the town! He played in a talented 1931 Andrews Memorial Hall team that won the Belfast and District Senior League and Senior Charity Cup and he also won the Individual Championship one year and was runner up the following year.
At golf Gerry was a useful eight-handicapper who played most of his golf at Mahee Island, where he won a beautiful and much treasured clock as the Captain’s Prize in 1937 and where he became club captain in 1968.
Throughout his life Gerry played his sport like a true sportsman and won many friends and admirers, none more so than his daughter Barbara and son John, the former a hockey player at Regent House and the latter a promising fast bowler who, like his father, had diverse sporting talents.
All his life Gerry worked as a bookkeeper in Comber Spinning Mill, an institution renowned for its association with Willie Andrews and the cricket club and what a loyal, devoted and talented servant to North Down he proved to be.
Willie Dempster emerged into the North Down senior team at the start of the war and was to leave an indelible imprint on the club for many years. He assumed a wide variety of roles in his time, not least as an excellent spin bowler in an era in Ulster cricket when many of the best spin bowlers were at their peak.
Willie had a great ability to set a field to his own bowling and then put the ball on a nagging length so that his well-placed fielders would snare the errant shot. He was an astute captain in the post-war era and a tough opponent who gave no quarter. His round-arm slinging action was hardly textbook orthodox bowling, but it was very effective and won him the nickname of ‘Spin King’ with the younger members. Unfortunately, Willie never played in the great North Down teams so representative honours were hard-earned, although he did represent Ulster on several occasions. He also lived and played in an era when there was a plethora of top class spin bowlers in NCU cricket and most of them were playing in Senior One while North Down struggled down the leagues.
Willie donned many hats at North Down over 50 years and his name is deservedly up there with the all time greats who served the club with distinction. He captained the 1st XI from 1954 to 1961, and in 1964 and 1965. He was a staunch supporter of ‘Mr. Willie’ and James Macdonald, and followed in their footsteps as a dedicated and stalwart committee member. He was later appointed as a trustee of the club and for many years he was the groundsman, the one-man grounds committee and the man who got things done. Many of the improvements around the clubhouse and on the ground were almost single-handedly undertaken, including the transformation of the top field into an excellent cricket ground. Willie severed his day-to-day connections with the club in the late Eighties and will always be remembered as a colossus at a time when fortunes on and off the field had dropped to an all-time low.
During the war years the young Willie Dempster became North Down’s most successful bowler and from as early as 1941 his name was engraved on the 1st XI Bowling Cup, an occurrence that was to become all too familiar in the years that followed. He was a regular wicket-taker in every match and a useful bat in his early years, renowned for always batting without gloves. He gave plenty of encouragement to the younger players and was never short of an opinion on every subject.
Leading out the side in the 50s
He had a deep interest in the ground and, after several unsuccessful appointments, he took on the role himself and in time became judge and jury on whether the ground was fit for play or not. He virtually lived at The Green during the day and every evening returned to the club via the stepping-stones across the river Enler from his Dunsy Way home, some ten minutes walk across the meadow. Willie’s arrival from the Scrabo Road end was invariably preceded by Rusty and Ranger, his faithful patrol dogs for many years.
Willie’s part-time employment as groundsman brought controversy in 1963 when the NCU Senior Committee deemed him a professional and threw North Down out of the Challenge Cup, a decision that was later rescinded when it was accepted that the role was only part-time.
He was a tireless fundraiser and his general handyman skills played a major part in the successful extension of the clubhouse in 1957. He was also responsible for bringing the ‘Guiney Stones” to the Green and everyone sees them immediately they walk through the gate. These stones have a long history as a meeting place for locals at the top of Castle Lane and when the road was being widened they risked being lost, but Willie saw their historical importance and quickly had them ‘resettled’ at The Green.
For commitment and service to North Down over the years there weren’t many members who gave more to the cause. Willie also produced two cricketers in sons Geoffrey and Ivan, who played many fine innings for North Down before leaving to join Woodvale.
Their departure was another twist to the Willie Dempster story, a story that should be remembered for all the positive things he brought to the club.
Willie with Raymond Crosby, Jim Barry,Eddie Doherty and Jim Baxter