- Born 1861 Dublin
- Died 18 April 1916 Gaynadh, Queensland
- Educated Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland
- Occupation Doctor
- Debut 21 August 1879 v MCC at Phoenix CC, Phoenix Park
- Cap Number 170
- Style Batting hand unknown, slow right arm.
- Teams Civil Service; Leinster; Maryborough
John Penny was a high quality slow bowler, who usually opened the attack and a more than useful tail end batsman, with a penchant for powerful hitting. He gained a high reputation in Irish cricket, as a major bowler for the Leinster Club, before deciding - for reasons which have not been discovered - to emigrate to Australia, where, besides his medical practice, he continued to play the game to good effect.
His career had begun for Civil Service for whom he qualified as his father, a civil servant, had been a prominent member. John played for the club from the age of 16 and in 1879, the year of his Irish debut, took 92 wicketa as well as scoring 366 runs. Against Lansdowne, he performed the club's first hat trick during a spell of 8-13 while he also took 7-42 against a Naas and Co Kildare XI. For good measure he made a fifty in this match.
During the 1880s he and Hugh Hemsworth, a fellow Irish International, made up a formidable bowling combination. For several years they each took almost one hundred wickets a season for the Observatory Lane side. For example in 1881 John had 95 wickets and Hugh 89, with few other bowlers, apart from pace man Tom Tobin, being called upon. John was also a useful tailend batsman. A big hitter, he could score very quickly against the best attacks which suggests that he was more than a mere slogger, but he was prone to throw his wicket away in times of crisis, when a more circumspect approach might have been the better course.
When full time medical duties claimed him, John did not abandon his cricket. Rather he adopted the then far from uncommon subterfuge of playing under an assumed name, in his case J Humphries. It is not known how much this deceived his waiting patients in Rathgar!
It was under this nom de guerre, that he appeared for Leinster v Phoenix in a three day match at Rathmines in September 1883. Though dogged by bad weather the game, played in aid of Baggot Street Hospital, was a most entertaining contest with the visitors winning by 66 runs, largely thanks to a brilliant 117 by the outstanding Army batsman Captain John Dunn. John made an early break through in the Phoenix first innings but thereafter Hemsworth and Tobin took the bowling honours. However in the Leinster second innings as they chased a total of 183 runs for victory, six men were out with only a paltry score on the board.
The Freeman's Journal reported that "Humphries now came in and play became very lively, big hitting being the order of the day." He was missed twice before eventually being caught in the deep by team-mate acting as substitute. Had it not been for the gale which howled straight down the ground, the ball would have cleared the boundary. However Freeman's took him to task, "Humphries' hitting was remarkably fine.... however it would have been more judicious had he gone in for less hitting and more play, and with his departure it was felt that the chance of Leinster winning was a very remote one indeed." Be that as it may his batting usually earned him around 500 runs a season during his years at Observatory Lane.
His Irish debut had come in the late summer of 1879 in a 12 a side match against MCC at Phoenix. MCC replaced I Zingari as the opposition, the wandering side having had some difficulty in putting a team together. This seems rather strange as most of the Marylebone players were no strangers to the garish colours of the Zingaros. Ireland had already beaten MCC at Lord's earlier in the season, but this was a different - and stronger - team, whereas Ireland were weak, especially in bowling. The match began a few hours late as MCC had been delayed by floods in Wales, presumably the mail train to Holyhead had been held up. When play did commence Ireland were outplayed, losing by an innings and 13 runs, even though the visitors only totalled 209.
John opened the attack in the MCC innings and did well up to a point claiming 3-79 in 46 four ball overs. His economy encouraged his captain to overbowl him as his team-mates struggled with a wet ball. His most important wicket was that of Alfred Lyttleton, the best amateur wicket keeper in England, besides being a very useful batsman. In 1884 during the Oval Test against Australia, Lyttleton handed his gloves to WG, and, still wearing his pads, sent down 12 overs of underarm lobs taking 4-19. He was later a Cabinet Minister! In the match at Phoenix John bowled him for 33.
Ireland did not have another home match until late in the summer of 1883, when a powerful Zingari side provided the opposition, winning by 8 wickets. Ireland batted first and did well to total 255 against two excellent bowlers in CT Studd, fast medium with a high action and AG Steel slow right arm, turning the ball both ways. Studd, shortly to abandon cricket and England for evangelism, had John in both innings. However in the first the Leinster man made a typically belligerent 24.
In the second he "failed to trouble the scorers." The two Englishmen were, of course, also top class batsmen, particularly Steel who was to finish his Test career with hundreds at both the SCG and Lord's to his credit. In this match he made 89 before John had him caught. Steel was a barrister who rarely practised, his abiding interest lay on the moors of Scotland. On one occasion he withdrew from an England side he was to have captained against Australia declaring, "I am not going to miss the opening of the grouse season for any ruddy cricket match on earth."
John played twice for Ireland the following season, his last representative appearances. In May the Philadelphians, on the first of their five visits to these Islands, began their tour in Ireland. They opened with a well contested draw against Dublin University in College Park, before - having found their land legs - they crossed the Liffey to defeat Ireland by 6 wickets at Phoenix. The visitors began with a moderate 219, Ireland's best bowler being barrister Jack Nunn who took 4-59. However he was well supported by John whose 37.1 four ball overs cost only 56 runs and included three wickets. His most important dismissal was that of JB Thayer who was to prove one of the major batting successes of the tour scoring over 800 runs at an average of around 30.
Thayer, a millionaire, was, twenty eight years later, to gain the melancholy distinction, of being the only first class cricketer to be lost in the Titanic. His son, JB junior, also a cricketer, survived the iceberg, but took his own life in 1945. John' other victims in the first innings were EW Clarke, a highly competent all rounder, and brilliant teenage wicket keeper WC Morgan. When Ireland batted they were no match in either innings for the slow left arm of WS Lowry, one of the best spinners to be produced on the far side of the pond, but, though he fell to him on both innings, John batted in typically robust fashion, hitting the ball down the ground with aplomb to record scores of 17 and 30, the latter his best for Ireland. He also made an impact when the Americans batted again. They needed a mere 46 to win but were soon 9-3, John having removed two of them. Then the visitors' captain Richard Newhall, a member of an outstanding cricketing family, hit him for 11 in an over and the tension snapped. Nevertheless John had cause to look back on the match with satisfaction.
His last appearance for Ireland came late in the season against I Zingari. Ireland batted first but were routed for 95 by Charles Cottrell, a pace bowler who had considerable success in the limited number of first class matches he played. He took 8-51, including John for a duck. When the visitors batted John had 2-44 including WH Walrond, a former Army officer, who played in odds matches for Ireland while stationed there. He was a capable batsman but was low in the order in this match; he was later to become Baron Waleran and a government minister. John came into his own when Ireland batted again. indulging in his trade mark mighty hitting he made 24, before being caught off Carlow born Henry Bruen, son of the Henry Bruen MP who had played for Ireland in 1858. Henry Bruen, the younger, had a fine reputation as a slow round armer, and would surely have been better employed on the Irish side. IZ had little difficulty in winning by 10 wickets, with Cottrell rounding off an excellent performance by shining with the bat.
In 1886 John emigrated to Australia and appears to have taken up a medical position in Maryborough, a coastal town, some distance north of Brisbane. It was an appropriate place for an Irish cricketer to settle as the Mary after whom the town was named was Lady Mary Lennox, daughter of Charles Lennox, Fourth Duke of Richmond, organiser of, and leading batsman in, the first cricket match known to have been played in Ireland. In the Australian season of 1886/87 two English teams toured the country.
This proved to be a financial disaster even when they combined for one Test. The Nottinghamshire professionals Arthur Shrewsbury and Alfred Shaw, neither strangers to Irish cricket, has already two previous ventures under their belts and it was they whom John encountered playing for XXII of Maryborough. The visitors were for too strong winning by an innings though they made only 166. John was wicketless but did catch Shrewsbury, probably the greatest professional batsman of his day, for 26 off the bowling of TP Skinner. When the hosts batted John found himself at no 4, which speaks volumes for the batting strength of the side. His scores of 0 and 13 were positively respectable compared to those of most of his team-mates. He also had the consolation of falling to a pair of outstanding bowlers, Lancashire's slow left armer Johnny Briggs getting him for his first innings duck and Surrey medium pacer George Lohmann, cutting him off as he began to roll out his big shots in the second.
He was married with two sons, one of whom was killed in France in the First World War. If he stayed in Maryborough, rather than making an early move to the - still - small outback settlement of Gaynadh, he must have been involved in the deadly events of 1905 when the former suffered Australia's only known outbreak of Pneumonic plague. If he was there he was lucky to survive as several medical personnel perished.
Edward Liddle, January 2010, updated August 2012