TW Roberts and His Cricketing Moments

Michael Roberts**   courtesy of … where the title is different

young TWRThomas Webb Roberts was born on 27th April 1880 at Black Rock in Bridgetown, Barbados. He was an only son of Thomas Clarke Roberts by Isabelle Marshall following their marriage in 1869. Of slave lineage, TC Roberts (1840-1927) had a leather goods shop which soon expanded into a furniture store. The family must have belonged to the numerically small Black middle class of his time. This conjecture arises from three facts: (a) Thomas Clarke himself was at one stage a church warden at St. Michaels Cathedral in Bridgetown; (b) they were able to send their son TW to the prestigious elite school of Harrison College where the fees were steep[1] and (c) Isabelle Roberts accompanied her son to England and Europe before his entry into Oxford, though unfortunately receiving a leg injury in Paris which must have turned into septicemia because the wound killed her.[2]

Isabelle Roberts nee Marshall had supplemented the family income with a catering service from home and music lessons. The young couple were able to send their son, called by his pet name of “Humphrey”, to the Greaves’ Private School run by three spinster sisters which served as the foundation for his entry into Harrison College in 1988.[3]

Since TW was coffee coloured in complexion and not as dark as his father it is likely that the family would have been embraced by the local category of “high browns” in distinction from the “blacks” and “dark blacks” which differentiated the Negroid Bajan populace who were non-White — terminology deployed within the non-White world as well as the dominant Whites.[4]

Harrison~CollegeHarrison College in modern times -Pelham_Warner_Vanity_Fair_3_September_1903 Plum Warner

Moment I: Harrison College not only housed many of the boys from the White gentry who dominated the plantation and financial circles of Barbados; it had a good cricketing genealogy that served up many of the Barbadian (Bajan) cricketers. An old College photograph for the season 1994/95 shows him lounging next to the captain, one C. Yearwood, the only Black among twelve White Bajans (including the Sports Master). Young TW Roberts honed his cricketing skills within this environment — so much so that he played for Barbados in 1896/97 and enters the archives as having played four matches for Barbados in the period 1896-to-98, involving 6 innings for a total of 72 runs with a highest score of 24.  Hardly earth-shattering of course; but recall that he would have been a teenager, a young stripling. One of the few tales from his Bajan days[5] that I recall is the fact that the Englishmen laughed when he walked in to open the innings because he was so young. He promptly went after their bowling and collected a few boundaries, but his rashness led to an immediate dismissal.

Checking the archives I find that he represented Barbados against Lord Hawke’s XI in two matches played at Kensington Oval on the 25-27th February   and 2-4th March 1897. He opened the innings for Barbados on three of these occasions and his scores were 02, 24 run out, 24 and 02 sequentially. On two of these outings he was dismissed by Christopher Heseltine of Hampshire and England, who had already represented his country against South Africa. Lord Hawke’s side included several Oxbridge players from elite schools, but perhaps its most renowned player was Pelham ‘Plum’ Warner (1873-1963 — later knighted).[6]

young TWR Young TW

However, where Harrison served TW best was in the education imparted. He secured the Barbados Scholarship to Oxford circa 1898, where he attended Hertford College and went on to pursue a course in classics (known as “Greats”), a task he completed with “some distinction” (his own words: 1963). A letter from his son Tommy (TFC) to Pearl and Kitty Nicholls in Barbados (dated 20 February 1976) goes further: TW got “a First in Mods and Greats.” Considering his disastrous introduction to Europe, namely, the death of his beloved mother, this achievement is all the more remarkable.

Hertford College College — pic from

Moment II: Thus far, I have hardly any other information about his Oxford days. Through happenchance we know that he played for Hertford College because one of the biographies of CEW Bean, the famous Australian reporter at Gallipolli who went on to become a historian of renown associated with war memorials in Australia, places TW within a photograph of a Hertford XI in 1899 (see McCarthy 1983). TW Roberts’s typically succinct memoir (written in 1963) refers to “having some distinction at cricket” in Oxford; while Sri Lankan cricketing lore asserts that he played in the Oxford trials of 1900, but was not selected and therefore did not gain his Blue (Perera 1999: 99).

Hereford College Group

bean Charles Bean in the trenches CEW bEan in office -AWM CEW Bean in his office –Pics courtesy of the Australian War Memorial

I remain surprised that he was not considered worthy of a spot in the Oxford team. Racial prejudice may have been a barrier,[7] though it is also possible that his studies took precedence over due preparation. Sri Lankan lore claims that he also played cricket for Hertfordshire (thus at Minor County level).

His memoirs note that on graduating he “failed in [his] efforts to find employment as a schoolmaster in the U. K., probably because of a colour bar in the teaching ranks of public schools;” while adding: “I nurse no grudge because I found room in the colonial service.” His eldest son Tommy’s letter provides greater detail: “Dad took the Home Civil Service exams [in England] and came second.” However, “he decided to join the Ceylon Civil Service [because] as a coloured person he felt there was no future in the Home Civil Service in England and India was an unhealthy place.”[8] He reached the island in November 1902, leaving his English wife back in England where a second son, Gilbert Clyde Roberts, was born in February 1903.[9]

Moment III: The Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) in British times was, of course, hierarchical like any bureaucracy. But within this hierarchy the few Ceylonese locals, such as Paul E. Pieris and Ponnambalam Arunachalam, who had surmounted the educational and prejudice barriers to gain entry to the CCS, were generally shunted into the judicial branches or specialist departments rather than the posts of Government Agents or Assistant Government/Agents who oversaw districts as “lords of all they surveyed.”[10] TW records that he “met with a fair deal” and was received “kindly [by] almost all my British fellow officers.” But he also notes that there was “one qualification” to British fairness: “civil servants of brown complexion were not appointed to substantive administrative posts [because] Government cherished a belief that pure Britishers had more talent in this sphere.”

This meant that he was not placed in Colombo, but was located initially at Matara and also spent some of his early years in such spots as Batticaloa and Ratnapura. Such outposts were not conducive arenas for the display or development of his cricketing prowess. However, there were years when he was stationed along the south western coast and it is here in 1908 that he etched at least two indelible marks in the annals of Ceylon cricket.

GF Green 1890s natives++ Natives watching cricket at Galle Face Green in Colombo in the 1900s — Pic from HW Cave: Book of Ceylon, 1908, p. 53.

The second of these occasions was in March 1908 against a team of MCC Amateurs led by A. O. Jones when the MCC team stopped over in Colombo on the way back from Australia, with of the match being played at that famous venue on Galle Face Green (see Roberts: Essaying Cricket, 2006: Fig 1).  George Vanderspar, a doyen of Ceylon cricket in the 1900s, had organised the contest, but could not persuade the professional cricketers in the MCC team to participate because the latter demanded a prohibitive fee of ten pounds sterling per person. So the team was listed as A. O. Jones Team and comprised the Amateurs in that touring squad and some shoe-ins from the British garrison and the Colombo Sports Club (Perera 1999: 99).  They were faced by a Ceylon team of XII … yes twelve. This XII was made up of local Europeans (6) and Burghers (4), with one Tamil and one TW Roberts, the Bajan West Indian. The brief report in SP Foenander’s Sixty Years of Ceylon Cricket (Colombo, 1924: 84) reads as follows:

“On Galle Face Green on March 26th 1908: The M. C. C. Amateurs made 252 and beat the Ceylon Team, who made 157, by 95 runs.

F.L. Fane 81, R. A. Young 12, K. L. Hutchings 58, A. O. Jones 1, J. N Crawford 96 n.o. scored most runs for the tourists. For Ceylon T. W Roberts made 70, D. Joseph 30, W. A Cave 19, S. R. Christoffelsz 10. The other Ceylon men were E. B. Alexander 0, G. Vanderspar 8, A. S. Eliyathamby 0, E. W. Mackwood 6, E. A. Bartlett 3, F. J. Siedle 0, J. F. Marshall 2, T. Kelaart 2. J. N. Crawford took 5 wickets for 57, A. O. Jones 2 for 28 and Hutchings 2 for 25. D. Joseph 4 for 49 and Siedle 4 for49 bowled best for Ceylon.”

Gathering one half of a relatively small total, as anyone will tell you, suggests a batting achievement of considerable skill.

Vanderspars XI vs MCC Amateurs -1908 TW is standing second from the end on the right as one faces the image –Pic from SP Foenander, 1924

Elsewhere in the cricketing history Foenander (1924: 189) sums up the local reading of TW’s sporadic ventures on the local cricket field:

 “TW Roberts who holds the Ceylon record [in 1924] for the highest individual innings, namely 247, was a well-known cricketer in the Barbados and at Oxford University, before he came out to Ceylon to join the Civil Service. Roberts had played for Barbados in the nineties against PF Warner’s team. He took part in the Seniors Match at Oxford and just missed his Blue. Playing for the Colombo Sports Club for many years he was one of the most aggressive batsman that Ceylon had between 1905 and 1914. His magnificent innings of 70 for Mr. Vanderspar’s XI vs the MCC Amateurs who included J. N. Crawford and K. L. Hutchings, will long be remembered in the annals of Ceylon cricket. His most memorable feat in local cricket was the great innings of 247 that he played for the Kalutara Bar in 1908.”

So, this account marks the first of these moments in Sri Lankan annals: when he pulverised the Galle Lawyers at the Kalutara esplanade, gathering “his first 183 runs before lunch in two hours and his next 58 runs in 77 minutes after lunch!” (Perera 1999: 98).

TWR after scoring 247 for record in 1908 Pic from SP Foenander, 1924

We are fortunate to have an image of TW after this feat, quite typically holding a pipe in his hand, with a cadjan shed in the background that may well have served as a clubhouse. That is surely local colour that caps and consummates Bajan flair.

I thank Nirgunan Tiruchelvam for his comments, leads and encouragement & Joe Hoad for many vignettes on Bajan life ways …… Michael R



Foenander, S. P. 1924 Sixty Years of Ceylon Cricket, Colombo: eylon advertising & General Publicity Co.

Glendinning, Victoria 2006 Leonard Woolf: A Biography, New York: Free Press. ISBN 978-0-7432-4653-8. OCLC 71779088.

McCarthy, Dudley 1983 From Gallipoli to the Somme. The Story of CEW Bean, Sydney: John Ferguson.

Nicholls, Kitty 1997 Memorandum on Thomas Clarke and Isabelle Roberts.

Perera. S. S. 1999 The Janashakthi Book of Sri Lanka Cricket, Colombo.

Roberts, T. W.  1963 A Memoir, typescript [written at the behest of his son Michael] … available in Barr Smith Library Special Collections, University of Adelaide.

Roberts, Michael 2003 “The Bajan Connection in Sri Lanka,” in BCCSL Cricket Souvenir for West Indies Tour.

Roberts, Michael 2006 Essaying Cricket. Sri Lanka and Beyond, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Russell, Jane & Ruth Allaun, 2014 “Leonard Woolf: His Political Vision – From Innocent Imperialist to Pragmatic Internationalist,” 28 May 2014,

Woolf, Leonard 1961 Growing: an autobiography of the years 1904–1911 (1st American ed.). New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. OCLC 494500. Also OCLC 21246847 (1977), OCLC 67527334 (1967).

Woolf, Leonard 1963 Diaries in Ceylon, 1908–1911, and Stories from the East: records of a colonial administrator. London: Hogarth Press. OCLC 30240642. Also OCLC 4194108


** This presentation is a modified version of the web-posting of 6th April –with typos corrected and expanded footnotes and a few more bibliographical items.

[1] Information from Joe Hoad.

[2] Isabelle Roberts is buried at Kensal Green, London (Kitty Nicholls, 1997).

[3] Details from a self-bred local historian Miss Kitty Nicholls sent to the Robertses in Australia in 1997. Kitty was the daughter of Pearl Nicholls whose home-from-home nourished TW Roberts’s sons. TFC and Gilbert C Roberts, when they were sent to Harrison College and Barbados for their schooling.

[4] Critical information on the colour coding and life world of Barbados was gathered from Joe Hoad (aged in his 80s and younger by the day), a White Bajan living now in Adelaide, a man who does not have one iota of race prejudice and has related many stories of the underside of racial interaction in his home land.

[5] It is my eternal regret that I did not seek reminiscences from my pater regarding his life in Barbados and his Oxonian days. Even my recorded interviews with him as one figure embraced in the Roberts Oral History Project (1965-69) related solely to his life work in Ceylon as it was then known.

[6] Plum Warner had himself attended Harrison College. See and

[7] Nirgunan Tiruchelvam demurs:  “I doubt that the colour bar was a factor at Oxbridge at that time. Ranji played for Cambridge in 1890s. James Pieris became the first coloured President of the Oxford or Cambridge Union in 1882” (email. 3 Aril 2015).

[8] The Indian Civil service was second to that of the Home CS in the pecking order and way above the Colonial Services.

[9] His elder son Tommy (TFC) was born on 27 April 1901, so TW must have married Florence Tarrant in 1900 if not earlier. The couple had ten children over the long run, with two dying at infancy and Isabelle, the eldest girl contracting typhoid and passing away circa 19 years. Florence Roberts died on 25 August 1925 and her gravestone at Kanatte Cemetery , Colombo, also memorialises Isabelle and Diana. Gilbert and Tommy both migrated to Ceylon in the 1920s and also played cricket at the local level, with Gilbert serving St. Johns College as a teacher cum sports master and playing with some success for Panadura SC. Gilberts’ daughter Beverley represented the Ceylon Women on 12 November 1948 when the English Women’s team played a whistle-stop match on their way to Australia.

[10] A detailed picture of this position I has been rendered familiar to Sri Lankan aficianados by the printed version of Leonard Woolf’s diaries as well as his autobiography  and his interview for ROHP (see Russell & Allaun 2014 at leonard-woolf-his-political-vision-from-innocent-imperialist-to-pragmatic-internationalist-2/).



Filed under child of empire, cricket and life, performance, Sri Lanka Cricket, unusual people, West Indian Cricket

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