He was often referred to in print by his initials, and "W.G." became something of a sobriquet for him. To his family, he was generally known as Gilly – but Gilby, Willy and William are also said to have been used. (His mother is described as admonishing him, after he had been dismissed playing a poor shot: "How many times, Gilbert, have I told you how to play that ball?") He was also known in his later career as "The Doctor", "The Old Man" (although this came about when he was still in his early thirties) and, most auspiciously, "The Champion".
In many of the tributes paid to him, he was referred to as "The Great Cricketer". The anti-establishment writer C. L. R. James, in his classic work Beyond a Boundary, included a section "WG: Pre-Eminent Victorian", containing four chapters and covering some sixty pages. He declared Grace "the best-known Englishman of his time", and writes of cricket as "the game he [Grace] transformed into a national institution".
In a career spanning 44 years, Grace's batting average was 39.45 at first class level, an average undoubtedly dragged down by playing into his late fifties. At his peak in the 1870s his first-class season batting averages were regularly between 60 and 70, at a time where uncovered, poorly-prepared pitches meant that scores were far lower than the modern game. His career bowling record of 2809 wickets at the outstanding average of 18.14 speaks for itself. Grace played Test cricket against Australia from 1880 onwards, when he was past his peak.
He was a doctor by profession and played cricket as a (nominal) amateur throughout his career.
His mother, Martha, wrote the following in a letter to George Parr in 1859: "I am writing to ask you to consider the inclusion of my son, E. M. Grace—a splendid hitter and most excellent catch—in your England XI. I am sure he would play very well and do the team much credit. It may interest you to learn that I have a younger son, now twelve years of age, who will in time be a much better player than his brother because his back stroke is sounder, and he always plays with a straight bat. His name is W. G. Grace."
Grace was married in 1873 to Miss Agnes Day. One of his sons (WG junior) played for two years in the University of Cambridge XI (and also for Gloucestershire, London County, and the MCC). He did not live up to his illustrious namesake, averaging 15 with the bat and nearly 40 with the ball. Another son, CB Grace, played a few matches for London County.
His great-great-great-grandsons Rupert and George are both budding cricketers themselves and are in the squad of the England U14 and U16 respectively.
He was also a fine runner, 440yds (400m) over 20 hurdles being his best distance. It has been quoted as an indication of his fitness that on 30 July 1866 he scored 224 not out for England v Surrey, and two days later had sufficiently recovered to win a race in the National and Olympian Association meeting at the Crystal Palace.
Grace became an enthusiast of lawn bowls when he moved to London as manager of the London County Club in 1900. He was a prime mover in the founding of the English Bowling Association in 1903 and was elected their first president. He also helped found an international competition with Scotland, Ireland and Wales, captaining England from their inaugural international, at Crystal Palace in 1903, until 1908.
The title of champion was well earned by one who for forty-four years (1865–1908 inclusive) was actively engaged in first-class cricket. He represented the Gentlemen in their matches against the Players from 1865 to 1906, though his final appearance in those matches played at Lord's was in 1899. When an Australian eleven visited England, he was an automatic selection to play for the mother country up to and including the first of the five contests in 1899. When he was finally omitted, it was primarily because his age and bulk had made him a liability in the field.
1899 could be said to mark the beginning of the end of his career, although he would continue in first-class cricket for another nine years. Not only did he play his last Test, and for the last time in a Lord's Gentleman v Players match, but he also played his last County Championship match for Gloucestershire. This was the result of his falling out with the Gloucestershire committee over his involvement with London County.
As late as 1902, though aged fifty-four by the end of the seaon, he scored nearly 1,200 runs in first-class cricket, made 100 or more runs on two different occasions, and had an average of 37 runs. Moreover, his greatest triumphs were achieved when only the very best cricket grounds received serious attention — when, as some consider, bowling was maintained at a higher standard, and when all hits had to be run out. He, with his two brothers, EM and Fred, assisted by some fine amateurs, in one season turned Gloucestershire into a first-class county. Gloucestershire was "Champion County" in 1874, 1876 and 1877; they also shared the title in 1873.
It was Grace who enabled the amateurs of England to meet the paid players on equal terms in the Gentlemen v Players fixture and to beat them more often than not. The list of Gentlemen v Players matches makes for revealing reading. In the 24 matches played between 1850 and 1864 inclusive, the Players won 22, the Gentlemen just one, with one being drawn. In the 36 matches played after Grace began playing for the Gentlemen, between 1865 and 1879, the Players won just four, with eight matches being drawn and the Gentlemen winning the remaining 24.
In 1884, Grace unusually took up position as wicket-keeper in a Test against Australia, so that the usual wicket-keeper, Alfred Lyttelton could bowl. Billy Midwinter was immediately caught behind, down the legside. Grace remains the only Test wicket-keeper to have taken a catch off the first ball bowled with him behind the stumps.
By profession, W.G. Grace was a medical man, although he did not finish qualifying as a doctor until he was thirty-one. He was finally awarded his L.R.C.P. by the University of Edinburgh in 1879, having been admitted to the Bristol Medical School on 27 October 1867 (thus following in the footsteps of his father and three older brothers). The apparently eternal nature of his studies was a cause for a fair amount of friendly abuse from his cricketing friends.
After his time at Bristol Medical School, Grace trained first at St Bartholomew's Hospital and then at Westminster Hospital Medical School, both in London. After qualifying he worked both in his own practice at 51 Stapleton Road in Easton, Bristol. which was a largely poor district of Bristol, employing two locums during the cricket season, and for the Bristol Poor Law Union. (There is now a leisure centre on the site.) There are many testimonies from his patients that he was a good doctor. Poor families knew that they did not need to worry about calling him in, as the bills would never arrive.
It seems that, despite his amateur status, the greater part of his income came from cricketing activities. He was the recipient of two national testimonials: the first, amounting to £1,500, was presented to him in the form of a clock and a cheque at the Lord's ground by Lord Charles Russell on 22 July 1879; the second, collected by the MCC, the county of Gloucestershire, the Daily Telegraph, and the Sportsman, amounted to about £10,000 and was presented to him in 1896.
He lived for some years in Mottingham, a south-east London suburb (a blue plaque marks his residence, 'Fairmont' in Mottingham Lane, where he died on 23 October 1915). He is buried in Beckenham Crematorium.
Grace visited Australia in 1873–1874 (captain), and in 1891–1892 with Lord Sheffield's Eleven (captain). He visited the United States and Canada in 1872, with R A Fitzgerald's team.
His 344 was the third highest individual score made in a big match in England up to the end of 1901. He also scored 301 for Gloucestershire v Sussex at Bristol in August 1896. His 318 against Yorkshire stood as a Gloucestershire record for 128 years until it was broken by Craig Spearman's 341 against Middlesex in June 2004.
He made every figure from 0 to 100, on one occasion closing the innings when he had made 93, the only total he had never made between these limits.
In 1871 he made ten centuries, ranging from 268 to 116.
In the matches between the Gentlemen and Players he scored three figures fifteen times, and at every place where these matches have been played.
He made over 100 in each of his first appearances at Oxford and Cambridge.
Three times he made over 100 in both innings of the same match:
In consecutive innings against the Players from 1871 to 1873 he scored 217, 77, and 112, 117, 163, 158, and 70.
He only twice scored over 100 in a big match in Australia, nor did he ever make 200 at Lord's, his highest being 196 for the MCC v Cambridge University in 1894.
Playing against Kent at Gravesend in 1895, he was batting, bowling, or fielding during the whole time the game was in progress, his scores being 257 and 73 not out.
It is said that he once hit a ball 36 miles after a shot landed on a passing steam train.
While playing against F Townsend's XI at Cheltenham in 1874, Grace agreed to bat with a broomstick while everyone else was to use a normal bat. In spite of this, he made 35 runs, the second highest score.
(statistics taken from CricketArchive and).
There are several unconfirmed stories regarding Grace. The most popular holds that Grace was bowled out on the first ball of a charity match, but continued to play, exclaiming "They came to see me bat, not to see you umpire". Essentially the same story is told of Harry Jupp (although it is more easily verifiable with him, as eye-witness Lord Harris relates the story in his autobiography).
The above may be a version of the true story that Grace, playing for a London County XI against an Irish side in Dublin, was caught and bowled for a duck by Arnold Harvey, later to become a Bishop. Another future Irish Bishop, Jack Crozier, did a cartwheel as Grace walked reluctantly to the pavilion. Grace allegedly complained to the umpire that the crowd had come to see him bat and not to watch Harvey bowl! This is a common myth - it was the umpire who said "No, lad these people have come to see the Doctor bat, not to see you bowl." See W. G. Grace:A life by Simon Rae. Similar incidents reputedly occurred on two other occasions, at the grounds of football clubs Glossop and Loughborough.
Another, is that the Australian pace bowler Ernie Jones bowled a short-pitched delivery so close to Grace's face that it appeared to go through the great and famous beard which made him so instantly recognisable, and raced away to the boundary for four byes. Jim Swanton wrote thus of an incident whose authenticity has been so frequently called into question: "This 1896 Test was probably the scene of the most famous ball ever bowled, the one by Ernest Jones that went through his beard. I raise the doubt because there is conflicting evidence. P F, who became Sir Pelham Warner, in his history Lord's 1787-1945, says that the first ball of England's first innings was very short and very fast. J J Kelly, the wicketkeeper, 'lost sight of it in Grace's beard and it went to the sight screen'. Lord Harris, in his reminiscences, confirms the ball, the place and the occasion and adds that it also touched the top of the bat handle - which, of course, probably made it a chance to the keeper.
"The great Harris's word was law. Yet C. B. Fry, in his autobiography Life Worth Living, declared that the encounter had taken place previously at Sheffield Park. He was playing for Lord Sheffield's XI there, as was Jackson, who went in first with W G and, according to Fry, said likewise. 'What the hell are you at, Jonah?' or alternatively 'What, what, what?' cried W G. Both versions agree on the immortal reply, 'Sorry, doctor, she slipped'. The question never to be answered is whether she slipped twice.
F.S. Jackson, however, recalled in the 1944 edition of Wisden that the event had occurred in the Sheffield match: "I went in first with W. G. Grace and we had to dance about a bit. One ball from Jones hit W. G. under the arm, and later in the innings another one went head-high past him and over Kelly's head to the boundary. This was the ball about which the Beard Story originated. I can see W. G. now. He threw his head back, which caused his beard to stick out. Down the pitch went W. G., stroking his beard, to Harry Trott and said: 'Here, what is all this?' And Trott said: 'Steady, Jonah.' To which Jones made that famous remark: 'Sorry, Doctor, she slipped.' I do not think the ball actually touched W. G.'s beard. That story was told after-wards, and I believe I was responsible. When I was out and returned to the Pavilion, I said: 'Did you see that one go through W. G.'s beard?'" That, then, would seem to go some way towards clearing up this long-debated issue. Forever thereafter, Grace referred to Jones as "the fellow who bowled through my beard".
His style as a batsman was more commanding than graceful, but as to its soundness and efficacy there were never two opinions; the severest criticism ever passed upon his powers was to the effect that he did not play slow bowling quite as well as fast.
He played Test cricket against Australia in the 1880s, but he was already past his peak at that stage. He played his last Test at the age of 51.
The Doctor had made his final first-class appearance on 20-22 April 1908 for the Gentlemen of England v Surrey at The Oval, where, opening the innings, he scored 15 and 25. That year, on 26 June, he scored his final century (111 not out for London County v Whitgift Wanderers, a match in which he also took seven wickets, including a hat-trick).
During the Great War he was known to shake his fist and shout in his famously shrill voice at the German Zeppelins floating over his home in South London. When a friend remonstrated that he had not allowed Ernie Jones' thunderbolt deliveries to unsettle him, Grace retorted "But I could see them!" It was also at about this time, at Grace's Eltham home, that HDG Leveson-Gower famously asked him to name the greatest batsman whom he had known in all his fifty years' cricketing experience. Grace stroked his silvery beard, and there was certainly a twinkle in the eyes behind those bushy brows as he announced with complete certainty that he himself ought to be regarded as the finest ever. Regarding second place, however, Grace's answer was quick and decided, and has been quoted innumerable times since then: "Give me Arthur."
WG Grace died on October 23, 1915, aged 67 after suffering a stroke.
Grace supposedly wrote four separate autobiographies, but he was no writer and these were all "ghost written" for him according to Alan Gibson (see The Cricket Captains of England, 1989, p51). These are:
Biographies of Grace and works containing profiles of him include (not an exhaustive list):