Billy Bancroft

Image Credit – Glamorgan Cricket Archives.

Billy Bancroft was one of the leading sportsmen in Wales during the late Victorian and Edwardian era.

A cobbler by trade, Bancroft played rugby and cricket for his native Swansea, often alongside his father William (junior), who had been a leading player with the early Glamorganshire club with the family living in a cottage at the St. Helen’s ground in Swansea which their grandfather William (senior) had secured following his work in the 1870s in helping to create the wicket. Cricket and rugby were therefore in the Bancroft family’s blood and by the late 1880s young Billy was making a mark in both sports. In 1889 he played as a professional in Glamorgan’s inaugural county match at the Arms Park, before making his debut for the Swansea rugby’s 1st XV in October. So impressive was the strong and confident-running full-back that in February 1890 he was drafted into the all-amateur Welsh side – the first of 33 Welsh caps, won in consecutive fashion until the 1901 season.

His prowess at rugby was no surprise given the fact that from boyhood he spent two hours per day kicking, running and catching the ball on the hallowed turf at St. Helen’s. These were invaluable skills given his slight frame, and his kicking on the move was a highly-prized skill, learnt after years of practice on the outfield at the Swansea ground. However, Wales only won two out of Bancroft’s first nine appearances and a few questions were raised about his defensive capabilities.

These were swiftly answered in 1893 as Wales, under the captaincy of Arthur Gould – another talented cricketer from Newport – won the Triple Crown for the first-ever time. The first match of that season saw England visit the Arms Park – a venue where Wales had never previously defeated England – and in the days leading up to the game, there were doubts that the game would go-ahead, before eighteen tons of coal were burned in braziers the night before the game to prevent frost getting at the pitch.

It did the trick, and a thrilling game ensued, with England leading Wales 11-9 until a couple of minutes before the final whistle when Wales were awarded a penalty kick, about thirty yards out and just in from the touch-line. Gould called up Bancroft, who insisted on drop kicking the ball rather than opting to place kick. Gould initially disagreed, but Bancroft convinced him that he could slot the ball over the posts to win the game. After a heated exchange, Bancroft duly slotted the ball over the posts to win the game, and after subsequent victories over Scotland and Ireland, Wales lifted the Triple Crown. Bancroft returned to Swansea as a hero, but despite many fine words on his behalf, plus some magnanimous gestures, he did not derive any financial benefit from Wales’ success as rugby was still an amateur sport. In fact, at the time, cricket was Billy’s main source of income, based on his professional duties with Swansea, topped up by match fees for playing for Glamorgan, plus coaching duties in and around the Swansea area as well as privately for JTD Llewelyn at Penllergaer.

1894 saw Billy enjoy his most successful season to date with the bat for Glamorgan. Previously he had recorded solitary fifties, but in 1894 Bancroft scored four fifties. By the end of the summer, his stock as an all-round sportsman was in the ascent, and a lucrative offer came his way from Wiltshire to join them on a full-time basis as a professional for the 1895 season. For a couple of weeks, it looked as if Glamorgan’s most promising young player would accept the offer which, at the end of the day, would more than provide him with financial security. The reaction however from sporting circles in Swansea was one of complete shock, and public meetings were held in the town to discuss the issue.

A couple of other, highly successful Swansea rugby players had previously turned professional by playing rugby league for teams based in Lancashire and Yorkshire, but not for the first time, JTD Llewelyn solved a potentially tricky situation by suggesting to Jack Brain, the Glamorgan captain, that the Welsh county themselves should offer Billy decent terms to be their full-time professional. This was in keeping with Jack’s thoughts, especially his musing over how the county could become a more professional outfit. On several occasions, amateurs had failed to turn up for matches, and hiring more professional players on a decent retainer was one option, although one with a price for the Welsh county.

However, the committee saw the logic in having a regular professional, especially someone who was locally born and well-known to the sporting public. The sticking point was the quite modest sum that the committee originally had in mind, and it may have been no coincidence that around this time, news filtered through about a more lucrative offer to Billy from Wiltshire. Soon after hearing about the details from the Chippenham club, JTD made some more diplomatic noises, as well as dipping into his pocket, allowing more generous terms to be offered to Billy.

To the delight of sporting fans in Swansea, he quickly agreed terms with Glamorgan, allowing him to remain with Swansea RFC. Billy’s fee with Glamorgan was the princely amount of £20 week for twenty weeks, allowing him to continue in the rather paradoxical situation of representing Glamorgan as a professional sportsman during the summer, whilst in the winter, playing as an amateur rugby player for Wales.

His career subsequently blossomed, with Billy subsequently leading Wales on eleven occasions from 1898, including their Triple Crown win in 1900. He also developed a reputation of being one of the game’s finest kickers – a richly deserved honour at a time when games were staged using heavy, leather balls. Despite often being saturated with water and mud, Billy developed a skill to almost nonchalantly drop or place kick a ball with unerring accuracy. Another party piece saw Billy catch the ball, before waiting for the opposition to run towards him, but just before they were poised to tackle him, he would jink and quickly dart away, leaving the would-be tackler sprawling on the floor.

As far as Billy’s cricket was concerned, he recorded his maiden county century in 1896, with an unbeaten 119 against Monmouthshire, and for the next dozen years he was a stalwart presence in the Glamorgan middle-order in their Minor County Championship games. In 1899 he enjoyed a fine game against Surrey 2nd XI, scoring 102, and taking a career-best 5/20 with his seam bowling. However, his finest match in Glamorgan ranks came in 1903, fittingly on his home ground in Swansea, as he recorded 207 against Berkshire. Glamorgan won this match at St. Helen’s by the commanding margin of an innings and 325 runs, with local newspapers reporting how Billy repeatedly drove with authority, and “gave fewer chances than usual by opting to drill the ball along the ground, rather than chipping it in the air. Overall, it was an innings of authority and power.”

In 1905 Berkshire were on the receiving end again, as he made his fourth hundred for Glamorgan with a solid 105. In the course of the next four years, Bancroft added centuries against Northumberland, Devon and Cornwall. In the years leading up to the Great War, Billy succeeded his father as groundsman at St. Helen`s, and then during the inter-war era, Billy turned his attention to coaching, painstakingly passing on many tips to a host of promising young players in the Swansea area, including Gilbert Parkhouse, who duly went on to play Test cricket for England as well as the pupils of Christ College, Brecon.

In later life, Billy also acted as a match-day steward at the St. Helen’s ground when Glamorgan were playing their fixtures at the Swansea ground, and for many years, he proudly sat at the foot of the steps leading up to pavilion, opening and closing the gate as batsmen made their way out to bat on the turf which for so many years he and other members of his family had tended.

BANCROFT, William John (‘Billy’)

Born – Swansea, 2 March 1871.
Died – Swansea, 3 March 1959.

Batting and Fielding Record  

MC Championship    15824311563424.306331342
MC Friendlies    721168259624.0011842 

  Bowling Record  

MC Championship95475710.701
MC Friendlies16281024(+1)25.50

Career-bests performances

Minor County Championship –   207 v Berkshire at St Helen’s, Swansea, 1903 and 5/20 v Surrey 2nd XI at St. Helen’s, Swansea, 1899.

Minor County Friendlies – 119* v Monmouthshire at Rodney Parade, Newport, 1896 and 2/40 v Monmouthshire at Rodney Parade, Newport, 1900.