WITH a General Election approaching fast over the horizon, a timely new book goes back a century and a bit to when Worcester was a by-word for political corruption. 

The Faithful City was then on a “rock bottom” list of a dozen boroughs across the country which could be bought with bribes.

The fertilizer really hit the fan in 1906 when Conservative George Williamson triumphed by the slender margin of 129 votes in an 8,000 electorate over his Liberal opponent, but as historian Andrew Reekes points out in his new book Worcester Moments (West Midlands History £20) the rot had set in long before then. 

A legal challenge followed the Williamson win and the subsequent Royal Commission found that “sufficient evidence was given to convince us that both before and since 1892 (the previous election when dirty dealings were also alleged) corrupt practices at both Parliamentary and Municipal elections in Worcester have systematically prevailed. 

“There exists in the city a class of voters numbering approximately 500 and consisting mainly of the needy and loafing class, but including a considerable number of working men in regular employment, who are prepared to sell their votes for drink or money.” 

In 1892 the Liberals accused the Conservatives of 147 cases of bribery with money, 93 with drink and 28 through illegal employment, while there were 67 cases of  alleged “general treating”, the details of which were not gone into.

However the shenanigans of its voting past  - covered in the chapter “Worcester’s Electoral Notoriety”  - should not be allowed to overshadow the book’s championing of the city ever since it was born.

It’s a truism that a prophet is not appreciated in his own land and on that basis how often do you think the average Worcester citizen visits the majesty of the Cathedral, the splendour of the Guildhall, enjoys a quiet walk on a sunny day along the banks of the River Severn or sits in quiet contemplation in Fort Royal Park and listens to the far away echoes of that decisive Civil War battle long ago.

The answer is probably not very often, which is why the publication of this latest book by Andrew Reekes, a former King’s School scholar, is a notable reminder of what many of us are missing.

Worcester Moments has the sub title River, Religion and Royalty and covers 20 pivotal episodes in the life of the city and its people. Right from its small beginnings in Roman Times to the cataclysmic effect of the Basil D’Oliveira  affair in the 1960s, which it could be genuinely claimed, changed the face of international sport, certainly cricket, forever.

 As Reekes  says: “It might  justifiably be argued that Worcester has ‘punched above its weight’,  for its contribution to our island story  appears uncommonly significant for a city with a population of only 100,000 souls.” 

In particular the D’Oliveira episode brought the city and in particular its County Cricket Club ground in New Road – previously only known for the beauty of its setting and as the traditional opening fixture for overseas touring teams - to international attention. Because it was through

his headline performances for Worcestershire CCC that South African D’Oliveira, banned for playing for his home country because he was Cape Coloured (mixed race), came to be selected for his adopted country England. 

The swashbuckling D’Oliveira was already a hero among his kinfolk in apartheid South Africa (he hit 225 in one memorable 70 minute innings) when in 1960  legendary cricket writer John Arlott arranged for him to come to the UK to play in the Lancashire League.

Worcestershire spotted Dolly (as he became known), signed him and by 1966, Basil D’Oliveira was playing Test cricket for England, smashing fearsome West Indian fast bowler Wes Hall straight back over his head for six. 

But the crunch came when eventually the England selectors added D’Oliveira to the England party to visit South Africa in the winter of 1968/69. It appeared a direct challenge to the country’s segregationist system and Prime Minister Johannes Vorster promptly cancelled the tour. This led to South Africa’s sporting isolation for more than two decades, which brought the subsequent abolition of apartheid. And it all began on a cricket ground in Worcester.