Helped on his way by Lord Sheffield
A E as he was known at home, was born in Burwash, a village in East Sussex on 26 June 1874, to John and Ellen Relf, the eldest of eleven children of which three would go on to play cricket for Sussex CCC.
A E was educated at Wellington College in Berkshire where his father John held the post of cricket coach. Although we can find little in the way of academic prowess Albert was destined for great success with the bat and the ball in the game he came to cherish, cricket.
On leaving school, A E made a name for himself playing in the Minor Counties League for Norfolk, but under the patronage of Lord Sheffield who arranged trial matches to find promising young players for the then struggling Sussex County Club of which he was President. Albert was spotted along with others such as Billy Newman, George Brann, Aubrey Smith and FM Lucas. These young players were given special coaching by Alfred Shaw and William Mycroft to become part of the Sussex squad.
A 21 Year career for Sussex
Albert joined the team in 1900 to start a career encompassing twenty-one years, punctuated by the First World War, in which he distinguished himself being awarded the Meritorious Service Medal.
While with Sussex, A E played in 448 matches and scored 18,133 runs. He took 1897 wickets at an average of 20.94 and to top that off, he was an outstanding slip fielder taking 409 catches. His career best with the bat was 189 not out, a true all-rounder. A E did the double (1,000 runs and 100 wickets in a season) eight times. Sussex’s Maurice Tate also did this eight times, but only four players (Rhodes, Hirst, Jupp and Astill) have done done so more often.
A E was joined at Sussex by his brother Robert in 1905, and Ernest in 1912. In 1914 he was one of the five Wisden Cricketers of the Year, and Wisden wrote “no one seeing him for the first time would suppose him capable of getting his hundreds in high-class company, he has a way of letting the ball hit the bat that is not impressive to the eye. Still, the fact remains, that season after season he makes as many runs as men who look twice as good as he does.”
His international career
Ten of A E’s 13 Test matches (1903-1914) were played on two tours of South Africa, with his other matches at Sydney, Melbourne and Lord’s.
At the end of one match in South Africa he bowled a ball down the leg side to enable South Africa to record their first victory over England. It is alleged that Warner (the captain) sighed “Oh Albert, how could you?” Nonetheless, in his few matches, A E’s figures are respectable: 416 runs at 23.11, 25 wickets at 24.96
On the home front Albert married his beloved Agnes Olivia with whom he had two daughters Gladys Olivia in 1901, and Winifred Agnes in 1904. Sadly, little Winifred died before her first birthday. This wasn’t the only sadness for the Relf family. His brother Ernest, while serving in the army in 1918, was sent back to England suffering from shell-shock, and abdominal pain. He was operated on for a suspected appendicitis in a Leicester hospital but the surgeon was unable to help him and he died shortly after.
After an outstanding cricket career, Albert took up the post his father had held at Wellington College and became a much-loved coach, but in 1937, ill health plagued not only Albert but also his beloved Agnes. Agnes survived and lived another 10 years, dying at the age of 71. However Albert, believed to be in a period of deep depression, took a gun down to the cricket ground at Wellington and by his own hand ended his life on 26 March 1937.
We have a number of items belonging to AE on display in the museum. For details see here