Cricket ball making was a main provider of employment in this area of Kent for over a century, if not longer. Many Leigh men worked in the business as can be seen from the census records (see article: Census and Cricketers in the Leigh area – 1881).
The article below was written in 1999 by Harold Farrington who lived in Hildenborough.
HAROLD FARRINGTON – CRICKET BALL MAKER
Although he lived in Hildenborough for nearly sixty years, Harold Farrington and wife, Myrtle, adopted Leigh as a second home, attending the Church here for many years – “We’ve found real spiritual happiness in St Mary’s” – and being seen by Leigh people as one of them. Harold was born in 1922 and, after being in the Army during the Second World War, he became a cricket ball maker in 1946, a trade he continued with two interruptions for the next forty years.
“When I got back from the War, I worked in the butchers, Sainsburys, but there wasn’t much meat to sell with rationing and so on. So when I heard they were looking for cricket ball makers, I was keen to try. My first firm was Grey Nichols in Mount Pleasant Road, Hildenborough. I met Ken Mundy there. He’s now in charge of the cricket ball making factory/show place at the Whitbread Hop Farm. I worked at Grey Nichols for eight years but then I was made redundant – things weren’t going all that well for the English cricket ball makers, with imports coming in from places like Pakistan. There was no redundancy money in those days and I had to get another job quickly – I’d just got married to Myrtle!
“The head station master at Tonbridge was a Baptist colleague and when he heard I was looking for a job, he offered me the post of leading porter at Hildenborough station. There was a station master, Mr Adams, and two porters, Harry Hogwood and me. We used to do shifts, one from 6.00 am to 2.00 pm and one from 2.00 pm to 10.30 pm which met the last train at 10.15 pm. A three month season to Charing Cross was £11-5-0. I expect it’s well over a thousand now; but people earn more I suppose. Being a leading porter meant being assistant station master, selling tickets, keeping the fire going in the waiting room and generally helping people. I also had to clean the oil lamps above the track all the way to Sevenoaks Tunnel. Sometimes, when there was a heavy wind, the gantries would be swaying around – with you on them. I still remember all my regulars – Mr Biddle: he was first class, and Mr Magnus at Porcupine House and lots of others. They were always very kind. They’d get together at Christmas and give me a present to thank me for looking after them. One very foggy night, the train got into the station and people rushed up and said ‘Mr Magnus has fallen out’. The train had stopped further up the line and Colonel Hugo, thinking it was the station had opened the door and said ‘After you, Magnus’, and Mr Magnus had stepped out into the darkness. So I set off up the track and before long I met him – walking along like a Grenadier Guardsman, with his umbrella over one arm and his briefcase and his bowler hat at an angle.
“After a few years, I got a job with another cricket ball firm, Ives, in Tonbridge, but that factory closed too, so I went to work for Sullivan’s, the butchers. Then around 1962, five of the local cricket ball makers merged to become Tonbridge Sports Industries – it became British Cricket Balls later. They all moved to the Wisdens factory at Chiddingstone Causeway – the far end on the right. As well as Ives and Wisdens plus Grey Nichols, there was Lillywhite Froude who’d come from Lyons Crescent in Tonbridge and Stuart Surridge who were by Tonbridge Station on The Approach. Nearly a hundred people all came together.
“There are lots of stages to making a cricket ball but there are a number of specialist jobs in the factory. First, there’s ‘the quilt makers’. They make the inside of the balls. Then there’s the people who cut the leather and stitch the four bits of leather into the two halves – that’s what I did. And there are ‘the seamers’ who put the two halves together which make the first bits of the seam and ‘the stitchers’ who put the final two seams on the ball before it is polished and finished.
“The quilt – the middle of the ball – has an inch of cork to start with. In some factories they had a secret middle which they made in ‘the Secret Room’ – they still do at Alfred Readers at Teston and British Cricket Balls which is the one at the Whitbread Hop Farm. They’re the last two real English cricket ball makers. Then you put on thick layers of cork, bound on tightly with wetted worsted twine. You’d hammer the quilt into a cup to get it evenly round and then bake it in an oven.
“Then the job that I did starts. The cow hide comes in white and has to be dyed red. When that’s done, I’d cut out four pieces in a special, nearly oval shape. You had to cut the edges of the two quarters at an angle so that when they were stitched together, they fitted properly without a gap. When you’ve got the pieces cut you have a curved awl and you make a series of holes from about half an inch from one side into the thickness of the leather so that the awl comes out at the edge of the leather. Then you stitch two of the quarters together, making a cup shape, with the stitching on the outside only. When that’s done, you turn it inside out so that the stitching doesn’t show. I could sew two dozen covers a day.
“The thread you use is traditionally six strands of hemp waxed together. I used to use a straight awl with a wooden knob on the end to do the sewing but some people used a needle. You wound the thread round the awl and pulled it through. To get it tight enough, I wore a half glove made of leather. Myrtle says I used to come home with my hands all cut and sore and that that was the cause of my arthritis. But I don’t think it was really. Anyway, once you had finished sewing the halves and turned them inside out, you added a little leaf of thick leather that you’d cut in a sort of ellipse. That was to compensate for where there wasn’t any stitching. You glued those in and you put the halves in special hydraulic presses. These had an inner cup and then you screwed another cup over it, so that you got the right shape. It took about a minute maximum in the press.
“I had to sharpen my tools two or three times a day – and though Myrtle used to complain – I’d sharpen them when I got home in the evening, too.
“When I’d finished my job, the seamer could do his bit, sewing the two half covers that I made round the quilt. At the turn of the century they used to put ninety five stitches on each of the three double circles. Nowadays, even the best balls – they’re called Grade A – only have eighty. Afterwards, the stitcher adds the final two rows of stitches to each ball and then the balls go into another press to make sure that they are entirely round before they are polished and finished and stamped.
“We would each put our own mark on the ball we’d made, so that if there were any complaints, they would know who had made it. The cricket balls I made each had a number seven stamped on.
“Quite recently, after my time, there was great rivalry between cricket ball makers and some of them started making the seam bigger to please the bowlers. Everything got so out of hand that the cricket authority introduced a series of regulations which nowadays apply for all the top quality balls.
“Of course, we had to do cheap balls as well. They were made with only two pieces of leather which started as a circle and were then cut to a special shape and put in a press with a thinner, inside part. Then the two halves were sewn on to a solid composition cork core, rather than the proper quilt, although it’s still referred to as ‘the quilt’.
“Although there had always been out-workers, our Union inside the firms was very strong and it was a closed shop. The Union was not in favour of out-workers because they could make more balls than the people in the factory if they wanted to – and get more money. They were all on piece rates. Charlie Ingram who lived at Oak Cottage on the Green from the 1920s was a great Union man at Wisdens. There were several quite serious strikes, even in my time. And Myrtle will tell you that after one five week strike, we were down to our last bit of food.
“There were a lot of cricket ball makers in Leigh. Bert Stubbins at Ivy Cottage – he was a volunteer fireman at one stage when they had a horse-drawn fire engine where Healy’s Garage was – Leigh Service Garage now; Fred Whibley, who was the Parish Clerk; and los of others.
“When I was about a year and a half from retirement, Wisdens decided to move to a new factory in a development area, where they got a grant. I get a pension from them. It’s £3.39 a month which makes us laugh each time it arrives. It’s lucky I did another contributory pension as well.
“I should tell you about a strange coincidence which took me back into history. I used to teach at the St. John’s Church Sunday school, the main Hildenborough Church, and I was telling the children about cricket ball making. There were some boys from the Coles family who lived nearly opposite Mill Garage – the second house up. They said that they’d got something interesting at home that they’d bring to show me. They brought in some old clay pipes and some bits of leather that the family had found under the old floorboards. You could see that all the bits of leather were very near the shape we used for making cricket balls. The Coles traced everything back and it was thought that the house was probably the oldest known cricket ball making pace in the country but I’ve forgotten the details.
“It’s funny: all over the years Myrtle didn’t like cricket. But now she has become a fan – at last”.