Lead image: Jill Mead/Guardian/Eyevine
Wes Stewart arrived in England from Jamaica at the age of 10. Fifty-six years later, three of those spent as a fast bowler on the books at Middlesex, he was told he was no longer welcome in the country that had become his home. Rod Edmond tells his story.
First published in issue 25 of Wisden Cricket Monthly (November 2019)
The hostile environment experienced by many of the Windrush generation as they sought homes and jobs in their new country might have eased a little when West Indian cricket teams toured. The Lord’s Test in 1950 sounded the keynote. Clyde Walcott scored 168 not out, the mystery spinner Sonny Ramadhin took 11 wickets, his spin twin Alf Valentine took seven, and England lost by 326 runs. The West Indies won the series 3-1 and the Trinidadian calypso singer Lord Kitchener celebrated with Cricket Lovely Cricket.
The 1957 tour was a disappointment for the visitors. Ramadhin and Valentine were now past their best and a younger generation of cricketers, headed by Garry Sobers and Wes Hall, was still learning its trade.
England took the series 3-0. But the tours of 1963 and 1966 were a triumph for the tourists. Rohan Kanhai, Conrad Hunte and Seymour Nurse scored prolifically; Charlie Griffith, Lance Gibbs and Hall led a formidable attack; and Sobers was Sobers. In the 1966 series he scored 722 runs, took 20 wickets, 10 catches and would no doubt have proved a gifted wicketkeeper if Jackie Hendriks had been injured. The West Indies won both series 3-1.
These victories were relished by a young Jamaican who had come to England as a Windrush child in 1955, aged 10. Richard Stewart, always known as Wes, was an opening bowler for Middlesex for three seasons in the late 1960s. He died in June this year after an eight-year struggle with the Home Office to avoid deportation, establish his right to British citizenship and claim the compensation which, as one of the Windrush victims, it had been agreed he was entitled to.
Wes was born in Portland Parish on Jamaica’s north-east coast, famous for its surviving Maroon communities of Moore Town and Charles Town – survivals of the early 19th century runaway slave settlements. He was sent to England to be raised by his much older sister, a nurse who was lonely in her new life and wanted the company of her little brother.
Wes’ bowling talent was spotted while playing school cricket in Tottenham and in 1961 he joined the MCC groundstaff. His life as a groundstaff boy would have been similar to Gordon Greenidge’s at Hampshire later in the decade. Greenidge joined the Hampshire groundstaff in 1967 and in his autobiography The Man in the Middle (1980) describes how he was immediately put to work picking up paper, cleaning dressing rooms, painting seats and helping the groundsman prepare wickets.
Greenidge was soon playing for Hampshire Second XI but for several seasons Wes’ cricket came from MCC groundstaff out-matches at venues across the south-east and regular practice with the Middlesex Seconds.
But Wes had duties particular to the MCC groundstaff. Any MCC member at this time could call the Bowlers Room for a pair of young bowlers to come and give them a net. Harry Latchman, the Jamaican-born leg-spinner who went on to have a successful career with Middlesex and later Nottinghamshire, was a groundstaff boy with Wes. He recalls that tips were likely to be more generous if a member’s stumps had not been rearranged too often but that Wes, who loved taking wickets, would never ease off. As a result he got less pocket money than the others.
The groundstaff duties described by Greenidge were standard for the time, but he also recounts an eye-popping incident of the racial prejudice a young black cricketer could meet. Putting the finishing touches to a wicket being prepared for a county game, several of the groundstaff took hold of Greenidge and tried to smear him with whitewash. With his genitals about to be whitened, Greenidge broke free and grabbing a spade threatened to break it across their heads. “Never again,” he wrote, “did I become the butt of racial jokes or of misguided horse-play at Hampshire.”
There’s no evidence that Wes Stewart experienced anything like this but Latchman tells me “that as boys on the staff… it was obvious that we would need to perform better than the others to get recognition”.
Latchman had also come to England from Jamaica in the mid-1950s and, like Wes, spent four or five years in the junior ranks at Middlesex before breaking into the county team. Even then, he says, although “our future seemed a little more respected, it never felt secure”.
Wes, by all accounts, was soft-spoken and mild-mannered (apart from enjoying clean-bowling MCC members), much less feisty than Greenidge. But whatever their character, casual institutional racism would have been an everyday part of the cricketing life of the few homegrown county cricketers of colour in the years before overseas signings became common.
Wes Stewart’s first county season was 1966, at the end of which Wisden wrote: “Stewart, a West Indian fast-medium bowler, signed from Gloucestershire after the start of the season, proved a useful acquisition. His best performance came in his first game against Glamorgan, where he displayed the virtues of straightness and length.”
There is no record of him playing a match for Gloucestershire and his former wife, Jenet Heron, has no recollection of him doing so. The Glamorgan match, in which he took 6-65, was only the second of the season, so any time spent at Gloucester must have been very short-lived. His bowling statistics for that year were impressive: 605 overs, 164 maidens, 1,435 runs, 64 wickets at 22.42. Batting much less so: 17 innings, 18 runs, highest score 5 not out, average 1.28.
For Wes, the highlight of the season would have been in July when he played against the touring West Indies at Lord’s. His particular hero Wes Hall – from whom he took the name he always went by, and after whom he was to name his son – wasn’t playing. Nor was Garry Sobers. But he opened the bowling to Conrad Hunte in tandem with the England pace bowler John Price, and would also have bowled to Rohan Kanhai.
The match itself was painfully slow. The West Indies scoring 187 and 242 at around two runs per over; Middlesex were only a little brisker in scoring 243-8 and 85-2, the match petering out into a pedestrian draw. The only performance of note was from Charlie Griffith, described by Wisden as bowling with “extreme pace” in taking 6-69. Wes had figures of 0-50 and 2-33 and made 4 not out, perhaps an edge off Griffith.
“It would be ironic if, in coming to England, the grandchildren of the Windrush generation have been stripped of their love of cricket.”
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) December 17, 2019
Wes Hall was not his only hero. “One of the great highlights of Wes’ time in the Middlesex dressing room was meeting with Muhammad Ali during his visit to Lord’s,” recalls Latchman. “Wes’ lifetime hero. It was something he never forgot.” This would have been during the Lord’s Test of 1966 when Sobers and his cousin David Holford had their famous seventh-wicket partnership of 274 and denied England from what had looked like a straightforward victory. There are dressing-room photos from that visit of Muhammad Ali with both Sobers and Hall, and reports that he was very taken with Hall’s run up and athleticism. I imagine that seeing Ali together with Hall must have thrilled Wes almost as much as meeting the world boxing champion himself.
In his second season with Middlesex, Wes took 45 wickets at 23.28, comparable figures with his first because he bowled fewer overs. “Straightness and length”, as Wisden described it, seems to have been his defining characteristic. Figures such as 2-29 from 28 overs, 3-25 from 22, and 2-18 from 17 across his first two seasons are the most striking feature of his county performances, although they are also symptomatic of the dreary run-rate typical of county cricket at the time. Against the touring Pakistan team he took 2-48 off 27 overs, clean bowling both Asif Iqbal and Javed Burki.
Things went downhill in 1968, Wes’ third and final season. Much of his cricket was with the Seconds where he performed solidly enough – 21 wickets at 25.09. But apart from typical Wes Stewart figures against Yorkshire, 2-26 off 28 overs (and no, Boycott wasn’t playing, though Close, Hampshire, Illingworth and Trueman were), his performances were ordinary.
Everything was not well at the club either. Wisden pulled no punches: “The county’s approach remained so laboured and uninspired that it became evident that the reasons went deeper than poor form. [Fred] Titmus, recognising that his methods of captaincy were accelerating the decline, resigned. Under [Peter] Parfitt, their new leader, the side immediately appeared reinvigorated.” Only by winning their last four matches did Middlesex manage to lift themselves from the lower reaches of the county table. Wes had no part in these.
He featured in the Gillette Cup semi-final against Warwickshire, taking 1-51 off 12 overs and coming up against one of his West Indian heroes again, Kanhai, who top-scored in the match with 53. After two more County Championship fixtures, his career was finished.
There were probably several reasons why Wes’ contract was not renewed. Most obviously, his form had slumped and he’d become a more peripheral figure during his third season. Alan Connolly, the Australian opening bowler who had been his country’s leading wicket-taker in the 1968 series against England, joined the club for the following two seasons, strengthening Middlesex’s pace attack which had depended heavily on the injury-prone John Price. A former teammate recalled that Wes had weight and fitness problems that affected his fielding, although he wouldn’t have been the first opening bowler at that time to graze idly at fine-leg.
Jenet Heron recalls that someone at the club who had been Wes’ mentor departed and that this left him without an advocate. This seems likely to have been Jack Robertson, former England opening batsman and inaugurator of the county’s highly effective scouting system, who retired as Middlesex coach at the end of 1968. Former Essex opening batsman, Brian Ward, who was also on the ground staff with Wes, believes that Robertson had been responsible for Wes’ contract with Middlesex in the first place.
And who knows what else? Wes’ career record with Middlesex – 131 wickets at an average of 23.91 – is impressive enough to still make me wonder why he was let go. He was only 23. Another Middlesex teammate I spoke to thought that perhaps Wes “was felt to lack appropriate aggression or some sort of swagger or obvious self valuing”. Latchman remarked that Middlesex had “a record of sacking staff which often seemed unreasonable”.
Wes played club cricket in north London for many years after he was released by Middlesex. He worked in a furniture factory and a factory making cookers before setting up as a painter and decorator.
In 2011 he decided to make a trip back to Jamaica, which he hadn’t visited for over 40 years. He wanted to see his ageing relatives and take his son, Wesley, to visit his mother’s grave. When he applied to the Home Office for a new passport he was told he was an illegal immigrant and that if he wanted a British passport he would have to apply for naturalised UK citizenship. Otherwise he would be deported.
Wes had a British passport as a child but there had been no call to use it until 1968 when his mother in Jamaica suffered a serious stroke. His passport had by then expired and because there wasn’t time to get it renewed he was given a temporary six-week one to visit her. Worried that six weeks might not be enough, he was told that if it expired while he was away he could apply for a Jamaican one and return on that. In the event his mother’s illness, which resulted in her death while he was there, meant that he did outstay the six weeks. He obtained a Jamaican passport, as he had been advised, and returned to England. He was not told, however, that because Jamaica had declared independence in 1962 his new passport might disqualify him from ever renewing his British one.
He lived in north London unaware of this for the next 43 years, never leaving the country, always in work, paying his taxes, visiting Lord’s whenever a touring West Indies team was playing and attending the annual reunions of ex-Middlesex players. Then in 2011 the nightmare of his last few years began. Applying for naturalisation involved a fee of £1,400, money he didn’t have. And having held a British passport as a child he couldn’t understand why he should now have to pay for an application, the result of which was uncertain. He had lived in this country for almost 60 years assuming he was a British citizen.
His case was taken up by his local MP, Kate Osamor, but the Home Office insisted that Wes had lost his British nationality when his passport expired after Jamaica declared independence, that he was therefore an overstayer and would be deported unless he applied for naturalisation.
As his son, Wesley, told the Guardian after his death: “His treatment by the Home Office was blatant discrimination. The government made him feel like: you’re black, you shouldn’t be here, full stop.” Wes would point out that he had been in the country for longer than David Cameron had been alive, but was nevertheless facing deportation.
It was only in 2018, in the wake of the Windrush scandal when a Home Office taskforce was set up to examine cases such as Wes’, that he was finally granted British citizenship. His British passport arrived at the start of 2019 but the promised compensation, which would have paid for his long postponed visit to Jamaica, had still not arrived at the time of his death. Indeed, at the time of writing, 18 months after Theresa May promised financial compensation to the Windrush victims, not a single payment has been made.
Wesley has described how the long years of dealing with the hostile environment administered by the Home Office caused the stress and depression which he believes contributed to his father’s sudden death. It might also be that the seeds of his later soul-destroying entanglement with Home Office incompetence and intransigence which were sown back in 1968 also contributed to bringing Wes’ cricket career with Middlesex to a close.
According to his son, Wes took the passing of his mother “very hard… telling me he was still crying about her 10 years later”. She died in the summer of 1968 and so Wes would have returned from Jamaica to county cricket grieving for his loss – which must surely have affected his form – and having confronted for the first time the citizenship and passport difficulties of the Windrush generation which more than five decades later have become a national scandal.