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One Shot More...Part 20

Friday 19th June 2020

One Shot More...Part 20

Pictured: Miller O'Prey and Miller Jnr


 'How are the Mighty Fallen' 1946-1968

“This has been coming for some time in Comber, and no doubt they will accept it as part of the bargain.  Outside Comber too, there are some who say that North Down are no different from any other Club and that having been such sticklers for rules, they are now getting their just desserts.  How are the Mighty Fallen.”

Ireland Saturday Night 1947 when North Down was relegated

 Post War Comber

The headlines said it all: ‘Japan Surrenders Unconditionally’, ‘Germany’s Surrender’; and the celebrations began throughout the British Empire, Russia, the USA and all the countries liberated from German and Japanese oppression.

Comber celebrated too with a united thanksgiving service conducted by the local clergy in the Andrews Memorial Hall. Following the service, the bands paraded through the town accompanied by their enthusiastic supporters and when darkness set in a huge bonfire was lit on Maryborough Hill. The bands played into the night and the dancing and rejoicing continued in floodlit Comber Square.

On the following morning after a parade of the local services, a drumhead service was held at The Green when all the local clergy officiated and where the afternoon was given over to sports for the children.  In the evening at the Andrews Memorial Hall a big crowd patronised a victory dance well into the early hours.

A concert in aid of the ‘Welcome Home Fund’ was also organised in the Andrews Memorial Hall and the crowd was entertained to three hours of variety including the stars of the show, the ‘Faulat Minstrels’, a group of coloured dancing and singing ladies.

It was relief and rejoicing at the same time and who could blame them? But after the euphoria had died away, reality quickly set in and the problems of social decay became very apparent.

Difficulties with provision of adequate housing, suitable water and sanitary conditions had been put on the back burner during the war years, but they now became major priorities.  At that time many houses in Comber had dry toilets, although the new Public Convenience had been opened in 1955, but it wasn’t until 1957 that piped water replaced pumps and street fountains in the older houses. The town was expanded with the building of council housing estates in the early 1950s and two of the streets were named after war heroes and former North Down members, De Wind Drive and Bruce Avenue.

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 provided much excitement in the town and plans were drawn up for a Coronation Eve competition for the best ‘dressed’ street, house and business premise. A Coronation Wagon toured the town and all the children assembled in the Square and paraded, to the accompaniment of bands, to The Green where a ‘monster’ sports day was held.  Each child received sweets and a souvenir and in the evening a fireworks display and bonfire was followed by a late night dance in the Andrews Memorial Hall.

Life returned to normal when the Chronicle reported on the new films available in Comber cinema, detailing the Wills of the dead, naming pools winners, and scrutinising the 450 entrants for the Comber Cage Bird Show!

 Cricket in Ulster

 The administration of the NCU from 1929 until 1947 had been expertly marshalled through the chairmanship of Sydney Jackson, a former North of Ireland and Ulster player, and a popular man of many talents and expertise. Other fine administrators who loyally guided the NCU during and immediately after the war included Cliftonville men JC ‘Jimmy’ Picken, who received an MBE for services to the game, and WL McClay, secretary from 1946 to 1958. The chairman of the senior committee was in effect the chairman of the union and in 1948 the reigns of office passed to our own William Andrews at the mature age of 62.

In a way his elevation to this position was almost inevitable but when it finally came it was ironic that his years of leadership coincided with a period of struggle within his own club that was sinking fast into the obscurity of the Senior Qualifying League.

The war had taken its toll on many clubs but not all had suffered the same fate as North Down. The Belfast clubs seemed to get their act together in post-war NCU cricket much quicker and Lisburn emerged as the best of the country clubs. Cregagh won the Senior League twice and North of Ireland, Woodvale and Waringstown each won the accolade before Lisburn took over in the early Fifties with a hat trick of wins.

In the Senior Challenge Cup, Lisburn’s win in 1946 was followed by the only outright win from a North-West side when Sion Mills beat Armagh by one wicket, after winning both the North West Senior Cup and their Senior League. Then Woodvale took over with a tremendous hat trick of  Challenge Cup wins, a feat they had threatened to accomplish after their 1939 victory over North Down.

There were also signs of growing strength in Mid Down with the Intermediate Cup and Lindsay Minor Cup heading to Downpatrick and the latter to Crossgar in the late 1940s.

James Macdonald may have retired as a player but the North Down man was an influential member of the senior committee, alongside the great EDR ‘Donald’ Shearer who had briefly been a member of the club in the pre-war years, but who played post-war at North of Ireland with some distinction.


Tough Times at The Green

Despite the demands on his time at work, within the NCU and as 1st XI captain, Willie Andrews continued as chairman of the club until his death in 1966. He was ably assisted by James Macdonald who acted as secretary from 1949 to 1951 with assistance from Walter Fawcett and John Smyth, the latter taking over until 1959.

Willie Morrow had the financial responsibilities of the club through the war years until 1946, but AD May, who was secretary of the NCU until his posting to the Far East, took over in 1947.  Gerry Spence was much to the fore as well, but the administrative input of Andrews and Macdonald at the time was arguably as important as their pre-war contributions on the field.

Mr Willie had captained North Down 1st XI since 1910 and throughout that time he rarely missed a committee meeting or a match.  But after 36 years, Norman Murphy, who had joined the club in 1940, was able to rally enough support to win the captaincy vote at the Annual General Meeting for the 1947 season.  It didn’t affect Mr Willie’s cricket as he went on to top the run makers and turn in more than useful bowling figures for the season, but the rare misjudgement’ was rectified the following year when Willie Andrews won back the captaincy going into his 62nd year.

Mr. Willie had an inherent belief in his own leadership qualities and was certainly not going to bow to old age without a fight!

The war years had raised many questions relating to the club’s future and such was the concern that an audit on the state of cricket in Comber was commissioned by the chairman and penned by Terence G Andrews*, who had assisted with treasurer’s duties before the war.  The object of the report was to set down certain facts about the club and to outline proposals for broadening the scope of the club with a view to setting it on a sound financial footing and, at the same time, enabling it to cater effectively to the sporting and recreational requirements of the community as a whole. So wide were the implications contained in the report that the members of the committee were given the opportunity to consider and discuss the whole matter before it was raised officially.  For this reason the report was circulated privately among the committee members with their comments to be written confidentially in the report book.

The financial position of the club was at the heart of the report, both the current position and the prospects.  At the time of the issue of the report in May 1946, the club was in debt to the tune of £126, though it owned the 16 acres of land that had been bought for £428, and various other fixed assets.

At a seemingly inappropriate time, a ‘Special Appeal Fund’ was launched in 1939 for rebuilding the pavilion and improving the ground.  But by 1946 this fund had reached only £300.

The average annual income for the five years prior to the war was £177; the average expenditure over the same period was £170 but the bank overdraft had risen from £63 in 1927 to £125 by 1938. It was judged that the existing borderline situation in 1946 was going to become much more serious when lack of success on the field was augmented by the increase in wages and cost of equipment.

The report was detailed to the point of costing the ‘pro’ and his ‘boy’ at £8 in 1946 against £3 ten shillings pre-war. The cost of cricket gear, which the club paid, had spiralled post-war, as had repairs and even postage, and the audit reckoned that an annual additional £100 was needed to run the club.

Adding to the foreseen financial problems was the decline in membership, which fell from 107 members in 1929 to 76 in 1938 and 53 members in 1946 with no optimism about an upturn.  This ‘ever decreasing measure of public support’ caused great dismay. The report stated:

 “If the Club continues on its present basis I doubt very much whether it can survive for the simple reason that there is not adequate popular support for it among local people or even real enthusiasm among the majority of the members.”

 There was another concern added to finance and membership as the audit notes.

 “More and more people are giving up cricket in favour of other sports.  Why is this happening? It is happening because in recent years there has been a great extension of facilities for other sports.  Moreover, many of the newly popularised sports are those in which women as well as men can take part.  As time goes on an ever increasing number of young women are turning to sport for their recreation.  They don’t want to watch – they want to take part.  It is this fact which explains the rapid growth and increasing popularity of tennis, golf, badminton, cycling and sailing clubs throughout the province.  As might be expected husbands and boy friends have been ‘encouraged’ to take up those sports in which their ladies could join.  In the event cricket has suffered more than any other old established game – firstly because it is played in summer in the best weather and, secondly, because it occupies so much time.  Most wives would not grudge an hour or two of their men’s leisure time but they definitely do grudge the loss of the whole of every Saturday and of several mid week evenings throughout the summer.  Therefore however much they may wish to play cricket, many men give it up simply because they are not prepared to be entirely selfish about their recreation at their wives’ expense.”

 Nothing changes.  Not even the proposals as to what would have to be done to change the situation. The following and final section of the audit asks what can be done?  It makes for interesting reading, as some of the comments are as relevant today as they were 61 years ago;

  “The cricket club is ideally situated in the very centre of the town but, at present, it caters for a very small proportion of the local people.  That must change.  We have a splendid opportunity now to broaden the scope of the Club and thus essentially to increase its value and its appeal to the community as a whole.  We can do this by co-operating with other interested parties and transforming the cricket club to a Sports Club that will provide facilities for a really wide variety of healthy outdoor and indoor sports.

 The location is ideal and we already own the ground.  There is plenty of room in the field at the north end of the ground to make a first class football pitch and with modern equipment the necessary levelling could be done very quickly.  Cricket and hockey are already catered for. Tennis courts can be built.

 The Club must cater for men and women of all ages.  It must have a really comfortable clubhouse with central heating, electric light and ample bathing and dressing room accommodation.  It must have nicely furnished lounges, a snack bar serving light refreshments and rooms set aside for table tennis, darts, billiards etc. It must have a hall large enough to be used for entertainment, club dances, badminton, boxing etc.  It must be a home from home where people can go and read, write letters, listen to the wireless.  In brief, it must be a real recreation centre for the whole town.

 In the reorganisation and running of the Club all sections and interests in the town must be fully represented.  One of the first steps must be to put the ideas over to people at a big public meeting.  If this is done I believe that at least 400 members can be enrolled.  With such a large membership the Club would be in a position financially to provide really first class facilities for all types of sport and a high standard of comfort in the clubhouse itself.”

Was this report woefully out of touch with reality as a later report in the 1980s was deemed to be?  This may have been the case as no action was taken on the audit and the club continued to scramble through the post-war era towards the celebration of the centenary in 1957.

Sadly James Macdonald’s illness prevented him from playing much after the war, while his brothers, George and Tom, moved to England.  Jackie Shields had gone to live in Ballymena, in those days a long way from Comber, and Neville Petts had carved out a successful career in England. William Miller, Albert Anderson, David Taylor and DC Lindsay had passed to a greater calling.  Cadogan, who became a Colonel, was captured by the Japanese Army and spent two years in a Prison of War camp.  Jack Dearden, Bert Hill and Willie Morrow had all given up the game while Teddy Bebe became a Major in the Army and remained in the service after the war.

Jim Montgomery received the DFC from His Majesty the King in 1943 but struggled to recover from his combat injuries and didn’t play after the war. Jim, now in his Nineties, lives in Cranbrook, Kent and remembers, with great clarity, the 1939 cup final against Woodvale and the pre-war cricket and hockey successes.

Back row: W.Andrews, T Killick, S Glover, C Richardson, J McBurney, R Rowan, J O'Prey

Front row: J Maxwell, D O'Prey, Miller O'Prey, S McBurney, M Cairnduff

Young Miller O'Prey and H McGreeghan

Gerry Spence and Tommy Maxwell were still playing, the former doing a good job on the 1st XI but Tommy’s best days were gone and he struggled to regain former glories under captains David Kirk, Gerry Condlin and AD May on the 2nd XI.

Although the club fielded three elevens the falling membership was a concern and it was recommended that a positive effort be made to attract young players.

Of the nine teams in the Senior League in 1946, North Down had probably suffered more than any other with regard to loss of key personnel, but the 1947 fixtures were as substantial as ever with military games against the Headquarters of the Northern Ireland Command, RAF Aldergrove and the 28th Training Battalion based at Palace Barracks.  The tours to the mainland were replaced by a tour to the North West and matches were scheduled against Eglinton, Sion Mills and Brigade, but before that the side made yet another early exit from the Senior Challenge Cup when beaten by City of Derry at Duncreggan.  In an effort to continue to attract teams to the Green, Thornlebank and Kilmarnock were entertained at home.

These were tough times but reality finally sank in when a defeat by CPA in 1947 relegated the club, for the first time in its illustrious history, from the Senior League.  The view was taken that since North Down had been unequivocal in their attitude in applying the rules of the union to other clubs they had no way out.  The press took the view that the rules of the union were abysmally out of date with regard to the percentage system. Friendly matches were still filling clubs fixture cards and taking precedence over rearranged league games and with the weather intervening North Down were caught out on all counts and paid the price, even though there was a belief that pressure might be brought to give North Down an escape route.  

However, despite the rumour mongering, this didn’t happen.

The harsh reality was that the players that had replaced the old guard weren’t of the same calibre and had to find their level, but it didn’t help when the excellent young wicket-keeper Eddie Marks joined an ever-strengthening North of Ireland.

Was it a coincidence that the first year of the club being relegated out of senior cricket was the only year that Mr Willie wasn’t captain in a 39-year span!

The advent of the Senior Qualifying League in 1948 brought better results in a lower standard of cricket.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom as the club won the Senior Qualifying League in 1949 and began the new decade back in senior cricket.  Strength in depth would be critical in trying to maintain this status and there were encouraging signs when the 3rd XI gained success against a strong Woodvale team.  North Down scored 217 for nine with H Farran scoring 38 and Wallace Boyce 35. The team was; D Maxwell, B Scott, J Heaney, Wallace Boyce, H Farran, Jack Maxwell, Miller O’Prey, J Mills, J Oliver and one other.

The Senior Challenge Cup matches immediately after the war were few, with first round exits in 1945 against Cregagh, 1947 against Derry and 1949 against Armagh. Second round exits in 1946 against Cliftonville and North of Ireland in 1948 reflected the difficulties in batting; the firsts averaged 100 runs in all cup games between 1945 and 1950 yet Basil Irwin, Walter Wishart and Willie Dempster showed that they were capable of matching senior opposition in the bowling department. 

The 1950 season was seriously interrupted by bad weather to the extent that North Down played only seven of their scheduled 18 games.

Armagh, CPA, Cliftonville, Cregagh, Downpatrick, Lisburn and Waringstown provided the opposition and North Down had Basil Irwin as their new captain.  He had a fair side with Walter Wishart and John Copeland providing back-up to his own pace bowling and Bobby Todd and Willie Dempster two of the best slow bowlers in the league.  There was also the aggressive stroke play of Wallace Boyce and the excellent wicket-keeping of Walter Fawcett, later to be capped by Ireland. The batting was centred on David McKibbin, Willie Watt, Dennis Murray and Gerry Spence. LC Head was a useful all rounder that Mr Willie brought in from time to time to avert a crisis.  In the wings was Raymond Crosby, who epitomised everything that was good about the club, on and off the field.  He had a distinguished career as an all round sportsman, starting with the Boys’ XI and eventually winning a place in the 1st XI in the late 1930s at the age of 16. He was of great value to the club during and after the Second World War when he was a mainstay of the team. Capped by Scotland at hockey he also played a number of times for the Ulster team and won a Steel and Sons Cup medal at football. Raymond was not only a fine all round sportsman, he was a lovely person and in later life extremely popular with the members.

Willie Dempster took 42 wickets in 1951 and won the relegation match against Cliftonville despite a dismal North Down batting display. Young Bobby Todd played his first senior season and took 37 wickets for the 1st XI and 27 for the 2nd XI.  They played in Section B of their Division and, like the previous season, finished third with Tom Magowan and Raymond Crosby the main run makers and Bobby Todd and Leslie Thompson taking the wickets.

Gerry Spence succeeded Basil Irwin as 1st XI captain, but the team finished bottom of the league and into Qualifying league cricket in 1952 where they finished runners up.  Occasionally glimpses of ability shone through as when Lisburn, who were the strongest NCU team in 1952, were the cup opposition at Wallace Park in June and Raymond Crosby scored 61, with Walter Wishart taking three for 37 in a creditable five-wicket defeat.

Willie Watt inherited the general apathy and lacklustre performances of the firsts when his side were 68 all out against CPA in the league in the first match the following year. The opposition was St Mary’s, Holywood, Muckamore, Drumaness, CPA, Hilden, and Queen’s University. He wasn’t helped by the loss to Waringstown of Walter Fawcett and the non-availability of Walter Wishart who had gone to work in Kenya.  On the plus side, the arrival of the Lapsley brothers, the Reverend David and Josh along with M Ford, was some compensation.

1955 Senior Qualifying League Winners

Willie Dempster took over as captain in 1954 and a year later the Senior Qualifying League was won. Two crucial games at the end of the season would determine their fate but they lost the first one to Instonians.  Willie Watt, Wallace Boyce and Walter Coey all hit thirties in the 145 for eight total, but Instonians passed the score with four wickets remaining.  The final match against Drumaness had to be won and with Watt and Dempster scoring twenties, it was left to a young Alex Gregg, with an unbeaten 77, to be the hero of the day.  It won the league, but with the complex percentages taken over a number of years it didn’t win promotion. The following year Instonians won the promotion race in another nail-biting finish and it wasn’t until 1957 that promotion was attained by North Down. 

Back in the senior league, Jackie McBurney and Willie Dempster each took over 50 wickets, supported by 32 from Bobby Todd and 28 from the rising star Jimmy Boucher. It was the custom at the time to leave the wickets uncovered and open to the elements that greatly favoured the bowlers, and the new groundsman, Jimmy Cairnduff, wasn’t going to apply new fangled ideas about covering the wickets.

How the times have changed!

The McBurney family, Sam, Jackie and Ronnie had spells of success at the club, with Ronnie showing a lot of promise as a quick bowler at youth level and Sam playing good 2nd XI cricket.  But Jackie was the best of the McBurney boys and played cricket at Regent House and Ulster Schools before turning in many good performances as an all rounder for North Down. He was one of the few players at the time that would have made an impression at the higher level, but he was a Comber man and stayed loyal to the cause.

The Senior Challenge Cup matches in the 1950s followed the pattern of the previous decade with first or second round exits every year apart from 1955, when victories against CPA and Cregagh produced an unexpected semi-final tie against the very strong Lisburn side.  Almost inevitably North Down lost by 145 runs.

Willie Watt captained the 1st XI in 1953 and usually opened the batting with the forerunner to the ‘pinch hitter’, Alex Gregg.  Left-hander Jack Maxwell, Dr. Denis Murray, Miller O’Prey, swashbuckling Stanley Glover and David O’Prey occupied the middle order. There was a strong and varied opening attack with Leslie Thompson, Jimmy ’Slinger’ Boucher and John Craig.  John bowled sharply off two paces and could unsettle any opposition, while the O’Prey brothers provided guile with the slower variety.

The 2nd XI performed well in the 1950s in a variety of sections within Division 2 and played in the Intermediate and Junior Qualifying Cups, being defeated in the latter in 1951 by Ards, when 65 year-old Mr Willie opened the batting and was run out for one run.

The O’Prey brothers, Miller and David, were the principal run makers and towards the end of the period a young Malcolm Campbell began to show a lot of batting promise.

By 1957 Alan Simpson was captain and wins over Sirocco Works and Short & Harlands in the Junior Qualifying Cup set up a difficult third round tie away to Hollerith. The batsmen could not have been confident chasing a victory target of 233 runs after tea, but it was Malcolm Campbell’s day, as he proceeded to score a century, receiving great support from the up and coming Billy Artt and Dennis Murray. A semi-final place was booked but it was as far as the team went, despite another sound batting performance from Campbell. At Woodvale they crumpled to 94 all out and a six wickets defeat.

Painting the flagpole in 1957

Bobby Rowan, Miller O'Prey, Alan Simpsonand Jim Barry each took their their turn to captain the side during this period, with mixed fortunes.

* Major Terence George Andrews was the son of Cecil Frank Andrews who lived at Pekisko (23 Railway Street Comber, now the Rifle Club)

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