22/05/2024
Norwich, GB 17 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

EILEEN ASH, aged 110

ENGLAND’S OLDEST TEST CRICKETER

Born in Highbury, North London, her maiden name was Whelan. Her father James was a Civil Service accountant. Her mother was Charlotte George and she had two older brothers.

She survived the Spanish Flu pandemic. Her family commented that she was never ill, and this continued until she died.

She was given a cricket set by her uncle when she was just 5 and developed a passion for the game. She used to sleep with the bat in her bed.

Her father and both her brothers were also passionate cricketers, playing for a local club.

She went to Ursuline Convent School in Ilford. It only played hockey and Eileen was captain of the school team. But she was almost expelled for playing cricket when she should have been studying.

Ursuline Convent School (courtesy Ursuline Academy)

She was also an outstanding squash player.

Leaving school, Eileen joined the Civil Service as a telephonist. This gave her the opportunity to play cricket for the Civil Service Women.

She also played for Middlesex Women and was selected for the Southern Counties Women.

She was a right arm seamer.

Bowling (courtesy Gerontology)

In 1937, Eileen was selected for England. In her debut, against Australia, her bowling figures were 4 for 68, the best she ever managed in a Test.

The Second World War interrupted her career. She later said, “the war was a terrible waste of one’s life.”

She joined MI6 and worked in espionage throughout the war, continuing after 1945, ultimately for 11 years. She never told anybody what she did in the war, citing the Official Secrets Act. Her son suspected the silence was actually to hide what a mundane job she really did.

She married Wilfred Ash who had lived in the same street in Ilford as her family. They were to have one son, Christopher.

After the war she was selected again for England and was selected for the Ashes tour of Australia (and New Zealand) in 1948-1949.

There, she met Don Bradman and got him to sign a bat for her in Sydney. She kept this bat by her side for the rest of her life. In old age Eileen returned to old habits, sleeping with this bat in her bed, “in case of burglars.”

When she returned to England she retired from cricket as she was in her late thirties, having gained 7 caps. She took up golf instead, which she played regularly until she was 98.

When she finally left the Civil Service, she retired with her husband to Norfolk. Christopher and his family lived next door.

Aged 100, she bought herself a yellow mini, despite the fact she couldn’t drive. But she started taking lessons and featured in the TV programme ‘100-Year-Old Driving School’.

She also took up yoga aged 100 and had two sessions a week.

She was the first ever English women’s test cricketer to reach 100.

Asked for press interviews, Eileen always charged the interviewer one packet of biscuits.

Aged 101 she was given an I-pad for her birthday.

She finally passed her driving test at 105 and was regularly seen driving her distinctive mini around Norwich.

Aged 107 she went for a flight in a Tiger Moth.

She was extremely upset on her 107th birthday that her greetings from Queen Elizabeth 2nd had not been delivered personally.

She did not approve of Brexit but commented “The English always cope. We’ll win through.”

Just before the 2017 Women’s World Cup she was visited by Heather Knight (the England Captain) and Claire Connor (the ECB Managing Director of Women’s Cricket). They thought they would have a cup of tea and go through old scrapbooks with her. She insisted on a game of snooker.

They invited Eileen to open the Women’s World Cup at Lords by ringing the 5-minute bell. Coincidentally, it was the 80th anniversary of her England debut. She was awarded Honorary Life Membership of the MCC and her portrait hangs on the walls at Lords.

At the World Cup Final, Eileen said, “It was worth all those years of pioneering.”

She opened the Hewett School ‘Eileen Ash Sports Hall’ in 2018, by shooting hoops with teenagers.

Eileen Ash Sports Hall (courtesy EDP)

In 2019, she saw on TV that “the young man”, Prince Philip had ‘rolled’ his Land Rover. She decided to give up driving the very next day.

When Covid happened she immediately insisted on being vaccinated. She was the oldest person in Great Britain to receive the vaccine. Her son Chris said the family were not worried about her catching it – “To us, she’s probably the one person unlikely to get it. She’s never ill.”

Despite that, her health began to fail aged 109 and she moved into a care home in Castle Meadow, Norwich.

There she built up a very close friendship with her carer Chloe, who was 88 years her junior.

Asked for the secret to a long life, Eileen said “being happy and smiling a lot, red wine and keeping fit with yoga – and lots of sleep.”

When she died, she was the oldest person in Norfolk.

She was also the oldest ever test cricketer. She kept diaries throughout her life, covering her cricket career, which Chris has promised to donate to the ECB.

The ECB described her as “a wonderful woman who led an astonishing life.”

Her care home said, “She always made you laugh and gave you great advice.”

The England men’s cricket team started their Ashes series in Australia in December 2021 by wearing black arm bands to both commemorate and celebrate Eileen.

Just before her death, Eileen said, “I’ve been so lucky in my life and done some lovely things.”

RIP – Respected, Innings Pioneer

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