J.C. Carlile, in his record of the Great War, observed that “Canada came to Shorncliffe in force in February 1915, and very soon Folkestone was a suburb of Toronto.” During the First World War, some 40,000 Canadians of the 2nd Contingent were stationed in Shorncliffe camp in the town of Folkestone for training—and they brought baseball with them.
Folkestone, a town around 15 km west of Dover along the southern coast of the United Kingdom, holds the claim for having “the first baseball league in England” (a claim made in the Folkestone Herald in August 1918. While that claim may be disputed, we can claim that it was at least the first Canadian military league on the British Isles.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force came to Shorncliffe following the 1st Contingent’s miserable winter on Salisbury Plain, which was marked by suffering not due to enemy fire but appalling weather and disease. Moving the Canadians to Shorncliffe was ideal choice, as Folkestone featured milder winters and was on the railway network near the main port of embarkation for the trip over the English Channel to France. Shorncliffe camp had been recently vacated, rifle ranges and a musketry school were nearby as was the town with its comforts and amenities.
Baseball, the strange North American sport, provided a spectacle for a sports-starved public after the British government suspended professional sports during the War. And it provided Canadian soldiers with much-needed recreation as they waited to be deployed or re-deployed to the front lines.
The inaugural 1915 “Dibgate Baseball League” was won by the 6th Field Co. Divisional Engineers, composed of students and staff from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Matches were watched by thousands, gate money went to charity, and the local press ran weekly reports.
From these reports of the league we know the Fort Garry Horse pitcher, Jack Hinds, was semi-professional prior to enlisting and pitched for numerous Winnipeg teams into the 1930’s. And Ralph Baker, catcher–first baseman for the 27th Battalion, was an Allan Cup-winning ice hockey player for the Winnipeg Victorias.
Baseball fever soon gripped the country and other leagues emerged. In London, U.S. civilians formed the London Americans who played Canadian teams and later helped establish the Anglo–American Baseball League.
A Shorncliffe-based Canadian team played the London Americans at Lord’s Cricket Ground in September 1915 and were unofficially crowned British Champions with their victory.
Baseball continued in Folkestone throughout the War. In 1916, the 104th Battalion included black player Private Rankin Wheary—Folkestone’s baseball was integrated long before the major leagues.
Folkestone’s bond with the Canadians was forged anew on 25 May 1917, when the town suffered the first ever air raid by aeroplane. Of the 296 dead and wounded, 104 were Canadians. On Canada Day 1917, local school children laid flowers on Canadian graves at Shorncliffe military cemetery, and the tradition continues to this day.
By 1918, leagues across the country were controlled by the Canadian Military Athletics Association, and were effectively professional. A playoff system decided the champions of the British Isles.
In June 1918, a few months before the end of the War, Shorncliffe hosted over 250 games of baseball. The local Ameri-and-Cans League even caused national controversy scheduling play on Sunday—however, the outcry actually boosted attendance and interest. The Herald noted that local boys played and “studied baseball, and the Canadians at their practices taught them a good deal about the game.”
One player of note was Richard Odgers. He pitched the first game in 1915 for the 12th Battalion and in 1919 was on Team Canada’s roster at the Inter-Allied Games in Paris, participating at the birth and conclusion of this wartime baseball odyssey.
Interest in baseball dwindled once the Canadians left, but a new Folkestone Baseball Club is currently in its embryonic stages. Local sources and the online resources of the Library and Archives of Canada are being collated into the Folkestone Baseball Chronicle, which aims to tell not just the story of the game but of the men who played it in an English “suburb of Toronto.”
Their legacy is now being realised.
Andrew Taylor is a resident of Folkestone, United Kingdom and is the curator of the Folkestone Baseball Chronicle Facebook page. When I visited Folkestone in the spring, Andrew and his family took me on a whirlwind tour of the area and I was very grateful for their kindness and time. And of course I’d like to send my thanks to Andrew for this guest piece! Please “Like” and “Follow” his Facebook page.—Minor Leaguer