The Extraordinary Life, and Death, of Johnny Douglas


England and Essex Captain, Olympic Gold Medal-winning boxer, footballer, Wisden Cricketer of the Year. The life of John “Johnny” William Henry Tyler Douglas was one crammed with intrigue and achievement in equal measure.

On the anniversary of his unfortunate death, we take a look back at his life of sporting achievement and the scarcely believable events which led to his death.

Born on 03 September 1882 in Clapton, Douglas developed a love for cricket at Moulton Grammer School in Lincolnshire before moving to Felsted School where his skills were honed under the supervision of Thomas Perkins, a renowned cricketer for Cambridge and occasionally Kent.

Douglas’ father combined a successful career in business with being an influential sports administrator, National Sporting Club member, Amateur Boxing Association President, and Club Cricket Conference Chair. You might say that sport was in his blood.

After impressing at Felsted, Douglas had his first taste of cricket in an Essex shirt in 1901 with his first match coming against Yorkshire at Leyton. It would be an inauspicious start for Douglas who bagged a pair in a game in which Essex scored a combined 71 runs and legendary Yorkshire bowler George Hirst wreaked havoc.

Despite his prowess at throwing punches in the ring, Douglas was not known to be as assertive on the cricket pitch and watching him bat could at times be painstaking. He was given the nickname Johnny ‘Won’t Hit Today’ Douglas, a play on JWHT Douglas, by spectators who groaned at his glacial progress.

Extraordinarily, it would not be until 1908 that Douglas’s true prowess as a cricketer was revealed – with the exception of one instance in 1905 when he picked up five wickets in eight balls, also against Yorkshire, also at Leyton. In the 1908 season, he scored 1010 runs and took 68 wickets, finally achieving success after a start to his career that didn’t hint at his decorated future.

27th October 1908: John Douglas of Great Britain who won the Middleweight title at the 1908 London Olympics. He was also a well-known cricketer, known as J W H T or 'Johnny Won't Hit Today' Douglas, because of his defensive batting style. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

27th October 1908: John Douglas of Great Britain who won the Middleweight title at the 1908 London Olympics. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

However, that year Douglas would be less known for his cricket and more for his boxing as the Olympic games were held in London, where he would represent Great Britain in the Middleweight division, a selection completely unrelated to his father’s ties in boxing.

All three bouts were held on the same day with Douglas defeating René Doudelle of France and his compatriot Ruben Warnes by knockout. He went on to claim the Olympic Gold after a controversial victory over Australian Snowy Baker. It was claimed by Australian supporters of Snowy Baker that Douglas’ father was not only the referee but also the sole judge, although records state that Douglas Sr was simply there to present the medals.

During this period, Douglas also made an appearance for the England amateur football side, although the records were lost so the exact date of the appearance isn’t known.

The turning point of Douglas’ cricket career came in 1911 when he scored 72 and 22 not out and took 5/53 and 2/38 in the Gentlemen and Players’ match at Lord’s. Shortly after, he found himself in the MCC’s team picked for the Australia tour of 1911/12.

After Pelham Warner, the England Captain came down with an illness, the captaincy was entrusted to Douglas who saw the England side recover from losing the first Test at Sydney to win the series 4-1.

31st May 1914: Return of the MCC team from South Africa. J W H T Douglas coming ashore. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

31st May 1914: Return of the MCC team from South Africa. J W H T Douglas coming ashore. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Now Essex Captain, Douglas continued his great form for the county and also captained England’s touring side to South Africa in 1913-14, where he scored his first and only hundred in Test cricket. His form for Club and Country earned him a spot in Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year for 1915.

However, just as Douglas’ career appeared to be peaking, it was brought to an abrupt halt by the First World War when he got a commission in the Bedfordshire Regiment and reached the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

While his post-war performances both with bat and bowl and as Captain for England never reached the pre-war heights, he continued to be a formidable player for Essex.

He led the Essex side until 1928 when he eventually brought to an end a 27-year career in which he scored 24531 runs and took 1893 wickets.

Sadly as extraordinary as his life was, his death was equally as hard to fathom. On 19 December 1930, Douglas travelled with his father to Finland to purchase timber on a ship called The Oberon. After collecting the timber the vessel set sail for England where seven miles off the coast of Denmark, it collided with another ship named Arcturus and sank, killing both Douglas and his father.

Tragically, the captain of Arcturus was none other than Douglas’ brother and reports state that the two boats collided when Douglas and his brother tried to exchange Christmas greetings while passing. According to a survivor, Douglas died trying to save his father. He was 48.