Hat trick ball

Help me trace Gunner Costello, the fast bowler who may have survived a Court-Martial

Artillery Row

An appeal for information

My mate Howard from Town Malling Cricket Club in Kent has found a ball in his aunt’s attic.

They were tidying some stuff, and came across an old and used red-leather number, inlaid with (if that’s the right term) an inscribed, silver-coloured metal disc. The inscription reads, in full (and all in caps):

Semi-Final
Garrison Cup Gibraltar

R.G.A. v. R.E.

Gr. Costello

Hat Trick

15-7-21

In the extremely unlikely event that there’s a single soul still reading this who doesn’t know, in cricket a ‘hat trick’ (or ‘hat-trick’, or ‘hattrick’) is the taking of three wickets in as many balls. This is a pretty rare occurrence, and so comes with some bragging rights. The etymology of the term – coined for this sport, in fact – seems to have been that the bowler could expect to receive a commemorative hat (cap?) from his club, or be allowed to pass the hat, for a collection. A happier time: these days it’s more assumed that you will buy your teammates beer! (This is why people bowl so few of them, of course.)

So: July 15th 1921 was a good day for Gunner(? presumably) Costello. That much is clear. What is unclear is why the ball is now in Howard’s family’s possession. His aunt and uncle had both been Majors in the British Army, though not in either the Royal Garrison Artillery or Royal Engineers, respectively. The uncle died some 20 years ago, sadly, and Howard’s aunt seems quite uninterested in the whole project, though she’s at pains to say that there’s been no skullduggery! Said uncle didn’t play cricket, apparently, and his widow’s guess is that her husband – a Bolton native – came across the ball in a pub in Lancashire (though history does not relate why that should follow, or indeed possession follow on from it).

Still, as Howard (also something of a bowler) points out, Gunner Costello’s achievement will reach its chronological ton on this day next year, and it’d be good to have restored the memorabilium by then to the nearest available or meaningful point of contact.

Unfortunately, rather a lot of other details remain elusive, meanwhile. At this distance (both temporal and geographical), even the most basic facts of Costello’s history are proving a tough nut – as it were – to crack. (I am expecting praise for my forbearance re. artillery puns, NB.) And though your present correspondent has also served, somewhat more recently, with the Artillery, I’m not a military historian, and my part here is being performed from about-to-be-locked-down-again(?) Sri Lanka, which, while cricket mad in general, is not the ideal starting point for such a niche quest.

Regarding the match, we do not even know which team were victors. For some, cricket is little but the stats and anecdotes (I know at least one dreadful fool who has no other mode of converse); but that’s not me, so maybe I’m just looking in the wrong directions. I asked at least one Wisden-fetishist to have a look at the 1922 volume (covering the previous year’s games) on my behalf, but perhaps not too surprisingly this match makes no appearance, even in those comprehensive pages. A series of articles on Royal Artillery cricket, printed in the Gunner magazine (2006-7) says nothing of Gibraltar, Costello, or a Garrison Cup.

Even the web – somewhat unusually, these days – has drawn a total blank. No references to the Garrison Cup at all, or any cricket in the territory that’s not essentially the national side or antecedents, let alone mention of this semi-final. Which may, of course, hat trick aside, have been a total snooze-fest.

As for Gunner Costello: Was he a wily leg-spinner? Did he bowl devastating pace (there’s not much seam left on that ball). Was he just lucky, or the batsmen rubbish? Was this the only time he played in his entire life? Or did he actually take all ten wickets, but only the hat trick seemed worthwhile memorialising? 

Since we don’t have a first name or initial, pinpointing him – without a photo of him marking out his run-up – is likely to prove tricky. There are dozens of Costellos among the searchable military records, many of them Gunners, and plenty in the R.G.A. But the vast majority are WWI enlistees, and there’s no compelling reason to assume our guy must have been in the army then. Alas, even the paid-for databases aren’t the best for interwar stuff, it seems. The search terms plainly don’t catch everything. And there are swathes of archive which have been burned, or which consist of photographs of spidery, rushed, official handwriting on cheap and ageing paper.

It crossed my mind that it’s not actually spelled out which team Costello played for: so imagine my delight (‘…’) when I discovered there’s a 1914 record for a James Costello who appears to have served in both the R.G.A. and Engineers, under the stated rank of ‘Gunner’. I scratched my chin about the chances of surviving the entire war – was Gib an easy posting? – and still being a Gunner (private rank, in the Artillery) come the 1920s. Perhaps he spent too much time playing cricket?

Then, as I was about to give up, I found another James Costello, of 4 Company Royal Garrison Artillery, Acting Bombardier in October 1915, being court-martialled for drunkenness (‘Sentence: Not guilty’) whilst on active service. ‘Duty location: Gibraltar.’ 

The trial appears to predate the ‘incident’ by two weeks, so I’m not 100% convinced by this edition of the record. And drunkenness is an odd thing to get as far as being court-martialled for, then found not guilty, I’d have thought. And again, this is six years before the cricket match. But maybe James really was drunk on the job, in wartime, and some kindly officer (or other standard gambit) was used to keep his record technically clean while he was nonetheless busted back down to Gunner, thus living out the rest of his career at the bottom of the pay scale, doing tedious base jobs. I fancy that guy as an angry fast bowler, don’t you?

For all we know for sure, though, in 1921, Gunner Costello (assuming ‘Gunner’ is even right) was discharged and living in Gibraltar under his own auspices, or a disguised ringer from another regiment, or simply a typo: the search results routinely turn up Costelloes and even Castells also, some of the names openly listed as uncertain.

Perhaps the ball was picked up in a jumble sale (or pub) by Howard’s uncle, as a fun paperweight.

For the time being, then, the mystery sits, stranded, on 99. But from today, we have one year to find its ‘rightful owner’. I suppose the ball could go to the Artillery museum or similar, or to the RACC; but this does seems like more of a personal item, and it’d be nice if we could trace some kind of family connection, for the handover.

So if any military archivists, Gibraltarians and/or enthusiastic cricket stattos find themselves at a loose end (I gather last week’s England–Windies was the most watched test in history), have any bright ideas, or indeed believe that they’re descended from a Gunner Costello who took a hat trick in Gibraltar in the Twenties, please do get in touch. 

Until then, the ball will have a modest place of honour at Town Malling clubhouse, The Old County Ground, West Malling. Visitors by appointment only, please. And bring your own tea. 

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