I had a wizard time – Joan Wilkie Wilkinson the mill girl who played cricket for England

Eileen Ash (nee Whelan) who died recently aged 110, was a member of the England Women’s Cricket team which toured Australia and New Zealand in 1948/9. So was Joan Wilkinson, formerly of Burnley CC, a weaver’s daughter from Foulridge, read her story on our website.  Here she can be seen, easily recognisable being very short and stocky, batting briskly against Australia in Sydney in 1949.  The commentary is breathtakingly patronising.


I had a wizard time – Joan Wilkie Wilkinson the mill girl who played cricket for England

Eileen Ash (nee Whelan) who died on 3.12.21, aged 110, was a member of the England Women’s Cricket team which toured Australia and New Zealand for six months in 1948/9. Also in that party were two former Burnley CC players, one, Betty Snowball, had a long and distinguished cricketing career with England  https://www.lowerhousecc.com/womens-cricket-part-4-betty-who/.

This is the story of the other, the forgotten one. Joan Wilkinson was a weaver’s daughter from Foulridge, not quite 5 foot tall, stocky,  and really good at cricket. She started playing for Burnley CC Ladies aged 17 in 1936, and was just attracting the notice of Lancashire when war broke out and the team folded. She was also an excellent hockey player.  Oh, and she also played football post-war for Dick, Kerr Ladies.

The outbreak of the second World War was Joan’s means of escaping from the drudgery of the mill and pursuing her sporting career.  In 1941, she enlisted in the WAAF (WRAF), where she stayed for 25 years. She played a lot of cricket and hockey during that time.  The WRAF always gave her leave, albeit unpaid, to go and play cricket, but she had to pass up on promotions, and increased pay, until her playing days were over. She was a Warrant Officer when she finished, having started as a PT instructor, then moving into admin. roles.

She toured Australia and New Zealand twice, in 1948/9 and 1957/8, when she was already 38. Particularly in 1948/9 the England team were welcomed as good-will ambassadors everywhere they went. They were delighted by all the food they were given after years of rationing.

Joan was an entertaining batter, fond of cutting and hooking, quick between the wickets, and a useful spin bowler but had only modest success at test level. In all she played 24 innings in 13 Test matches, scoring 436 runs at an average of 19.81. Her highest score was 90 in the second test at Auckland on the 1957/8 tour.  This newsreel footage shows Joan, an easily recognisable figure, batting against Australia in Sydney in 1949. She appears almost from the start of the film, up to the point where they show Bill O’Reilly in the crowd.  The commentary is breathtakingly patronising. The match was drawn, Joan scored 27 in the first innings, a duck in the second, and took a couple of catches. https://m.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=80&v=U5fjtkkFz_o&feature=emb_title

The Women’s Cricket Association were permanently broke and constantly fund-raising. Players had to contribute towards the cost of a tour, and also be able to take six months off work, so many of the England players were from middle class/professional backgrounds.  Joan was an exception, but she had become used to getting along with all sorts of people in the Air Force and had a kind, friendly nature, with a good sense of humour. For the 1957/8 tour Joan had to find £240 for the travel, £100 clothing and equipment, plus pocket money. Her colleagues in the WRAF helped by collecting waste paper, aluminium foil and rags which were then sold.

She left the WRAF in 1965, and took an office job at Johnson & Johnson in Earby so she could look after her parents.  She finally got to watch the Clarets again, after years following them from afar.  When her younger sister Hazel retired, they shared a home until Joan died in 2002. She rarely talked about her sporting successes and her story was largely forgotten until family members, realising what a valuable archive she had left behind, self published a memoir, ”Joan Wilkie Wilkinson – I had a wizard time” with lovely photos from Joan’s scrap book.  Some of her memorabilia is part of an exhibition on Women’s Cricket at Lord’s.

This is a really good, interesting book, about a modest but determined woman who loved cricket, and who deserves to be remembered.  It is available on Amazon, in a recently updated version as paperback or kindle. https://amzn.to/3paK80T. Photos copyright the authors.

By Anne Cochrane


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