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Lion of Kent's Grave Discovered in Ladywell Cemetery

EDGAR’ NED’ WILLSHER (1828-1885)

For some years now one of the unrealised ambitions of the more active tombstone hunters of the friends group has been to locate the final resting place of the Kent and England cricketer Edgar 'Ned' Willsher (1828-1885) who was to write his name into cricketing history as the catalyst for the shift from round-arm to over arm bowling. That ambition was finally realised when working with a black and white photograph of the stump of the Willsher headstone in Ladywell cemetery (featured in Giles Phillips' 2012 biography on Edgar Willsher, 'The Lion of Kent'). Three members of the friends group experienced that jubilant eureka moment, having lighted on the remnants of the family grave close to one of the inner pathways not far from the Ladywell chapel.

Born in Rolvenden, Kent in 1828 into a family with cricketing associations, Edgar whose fast left-handed bowling was to be his trademark, made his debut for Kent in 1850 at the Kennington Oval against Surrey. By 1860 his impressive wicket tally meant that he was now established as the key bowler for Kent, including securing a career best innings figure of 8/16 as well as scoring a maiden half-century with the bat.

Although by the 1860's round-arm had replaced underarm as the standard method of bowling, over arm was still illegal. But in August, 1862 at the Oval, Edgar became the first cricketer to be noballed for bowling overarm. Playing for an England X1 against Surrey he was called no less than six times by the umpire, John Lillywhite (of the famed sports outfitters family) for delivering the ball with his hand above his shoulder. Edgar then left the field with eight of his teammates and the game was  abandoned for the rest of the day. When the game was resumed (with Lillywhite being replaced as umpire) he recorded 6 wickets for 49. As a result of the game, cricketing law was changed and from the beginning of the 1864 season, overarm bowling was legalised. Although Edgar remained good friends with Lillywhite and later became his business partner, sadly his fortunes waned over the years of his retirement.

Edgar played first class cricket for Kent from 1850 to 1875 and took over 1300 first class wickets (in spite of having only one lung!) He led a tour of Canada and the USA in 1868 (which included games of baseball) and after retiring from cricket he became an umpire. Edgar played alongside the legendary WG Grace in his final invitation game (although they had been cricketing adversaries in the past). William Gilbert Grace is buried in Beckenham cemetery.

The renowned bowler, known as the 'Lion of Kent' died in relative obscurity in Lewisham in 1885. But he is forever famed in the annals of cricketing history for his bold move in walking off the Oval field in 1862 to draw attention to the growing clamour to introduce over arm bowling. 

Perhaps with his final resting place in Ladywell cemetery having been found, this largely forgotten cricketing legend can now be better remembered and who knows, his headstone restored?

Mike Guilfoyle (Vice –Chair) with Mick Martin at the grave of Edgar Willsher (photo courtesy of Phillip Barnes-Warden)
The faint carved inscription reads:
Sacred to the memory of Edgar Willsher cricketer who played with his native county Kent for over a quarter of a century died 7th October 1885. This stone was erected to his memory by a great number of those who had witnessed his brilliant performances in the cricket field and who respected the sterling qualities of his character.