Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Magdalene undergraduate was the world's top batsman

It is not surprising that the record for the highest individual score in cricket does not get broken very often. In the first-class game, Brian Lara's unbeaten 501 for Warwickshire has stood since 1994. But it may be surprising to learn that the record was once held (unofficially, at least) by an undergraduate at Magdalene College Cambridge. 


Emmanuel and Caius decided to play a Long Vacation match at Fenners over the afternoons of 12 and 13 July 1881, with – it seems – the option of continuing for a third day if a result seemed likely. Because few students were in residence, eligibility rules had to be relaxed. Emmanuel could only muster nine of their own, so they invited W.N. Roe of Magdalene to help make up their numbers.
William Nichols Roe was the son of a Somerset clergyman who had died when "Bill" (as he was known in cricket circles) was a small boy. Educated at the Clergy Orphan School at Canterbury, he was probably not one of Magdalene's wealthy young men when he came up in Michaelmas 1879. His contemporary, E.R. Yerburgh, does not even mention him in his snobbish recollections of undergraduate life, published in the College Magazine in 2000-1 – even though Yerburgh captained the Magdalene cricket team. Etonian Martin Hawke, heir to a peerage, went straight into the University team in his freshman year, 1882, but Roe had to wait for his Blue until he graduated.
Cricket's avid statisticians had not yet drawn a firm line between First Class matches and the rest. In 1876, the famous and deeply unpleasant W.G Grace had notched up 400 runs playing for an eleven representing the South of England against 22 men of Grimsby – with the Doctor himself trumpeting his run-amassing prowess against a field so crowded with the other team. But the record was held by Edward Tylecote, who had scored 404 not out in a school match at Clifton College in 1868.
Caius were bowled out for 100 soon after tea on the first day, with all-rounder Roe taking five wickets. The Magdalene man then opened the Emmanuel batting. Maybe he was nervous: in his previous match, at a nearby village called Rickling Green, he had fallen to the Cambridgeshire peasants for a duck. But it soon became obvious that the Caius bowling was, as Wisden put it, "weak in the extreme". By close of play that first day, the Emmanuel XI were 157 for no wicket, and Bill Roe was heading for his century.
The next afternoon, cricket turned to slaughter. When he passed 200, the Magdalene substitute relaxed, perhaps half-offering his wicket as a consolation to the routed Caius men. But his team-mates urged him on: the opposition were such rubbish that Tylecote's record beckoned. Over the two days, Roe batted for five minutes short of five hours, amassing runs at a rate of eighty an hour. There were no boundaries at Fenners in those days, so every run was just that – achieved by sprinting between the stumps. Roe is estimated to have run eight miles up and down the wicket.
It is not entirely clear how the match concluded – technically, it was a draw since the neither team batted again, but some accounts say Caius could not face a third day and simply surrendered. Their fielding was no better than their bowling: Roe was dropped three times, and his tally, including one six, five fives and sixteen fours – remember, with no boundaries –points to a great deal of fumbling and inaccurate throwing.
Caius conceded when the Emmanuel XI total reached 708 for 4. Bill Roe had scored 415 not out, surpassing Tylecote's record by 11 runs. It made sense to establish a safe margin. In his hour of triumph, Roe had a dispute with the scorer, insisting that his tally was really 416.
In a tactful dismissal of the Caius attack, the Cambridge Independent Press commented that Roe might not fare so well against top class bowling. The prediction proved all too true. Roe was finally awarded his Blue in 1883, but found the Oxford attack as devilish as the bowlers of Rickling Green. In his only Varsity match, he failed to score.
In 1882, Roe of Magdalene took a decent Second in Mathematics (tenth Senior Optime, in the days when candidates were not only classed but ranked). In later life, he played for Somerset, and became a schoolmaster at two schools near London, handy for Lord's and the Oval where he was a regular until the summer before his death, in October 1937. His son and namesake served in the first world war as an officer in the Coldstream Guards, winning the Military Cross and bar.
Given the circumstances of the match, it would be straining credulity to place W.N. Roe of Magdalene in the same pantheon as later holders of the record, W.H. Ponsford, D.G. Bradman and Hanif Mohammad. Yet until 1895, when A.C. MacLaren of Lancashire hit 425 against Somerset (Roe did not play in that match), he was indeed cricket's highest scorer.
In 2016, a Mumbai schoolboy, Pranav Dhanawade, took the game into a new dimension, with the first-ever recorded innings above the thousand mark. His 1009 not out helped his team to beat a rival school by an innings and 1382 runs.
There is one question that has never been answered, probably because it has never been asked. Why was Bill Roe in residence during the Long Vacation? Perhaps he had come up for a few precious weeks to study.

Sources: I first encountered Roe's achievement through an unlikely source, the Otago Witness of 3 September 1881, thanks to the excellent New Zealand newspaper archive website, Further information comes through cricinfo:,
which links to Simon Wilde's 2007 account: