Hugh Hornby obituary

Simon Inglis
·3 min read

Hugh Hornby, who has died aged 51 from pneumonia, was a crown green bowler, museum curator, historian, author and authority on mass participation football games.

Known in crown green bowling circles as “the Squire”, Hugh was born in the Lancashire village of St Michael’s-on-Wyre to William Hornby, a sales director, and Jennifer (nee Martindale), a secretary. His parents inherited 360 acres of land around the village, known as the Hornby estate, and Hugh combined a love of the land with a passion for ball games.

He first bowled aged 15, while attending Lancaster Royal grammar school, and after graduating in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford, in 1990, he studied horticulture at Myerscough College, near Preston. This prepared him for tending the walled garden at the family’s imposing if unmodernised home, built in 1789, and for his future role as greenkeeper at two local bowls clubs.

After volunteering at the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool, in 1999 he accepted a curatorial post at the new National Football Museum, based at Deepdale, the home of Preston North End football club, where he was a season ticket holder. In 2001 he wrote Eyewitness Football, a children’s guide to soccer, for Dorling Kindersley. He also contributed articles to Lancashire Life magazine and the Lancashire Evening Post.

After he left the museum in 2005, Hugh wrote Uppies and Downies (2008), a study of surviving traditional football games played in 15 locations from Cornwall to Shetland, and including the annual Shrove Tuesday matches played in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, and at Atherstone in Warwickshire. Not content with archival research, he competed in each of the games in the book, sleeping in his battered old Ford Focus when necessary. A high point was “hailing”, or scoring, at Jedburgh’s Ba’ game (involving crowds of people and a small leather ball) in 2010, just six weeks after shattering his elbow.

Thereafter he played in folk football games in France and Italy, where he gained wide respect as an authority on them. Hugh also travelled to football World Cups, European Championships, and to the US, where he embraced American football, and was a horse racing enthusiast, knowledge he applied in another field, as a bookmaker’s assistant at racecourses across the north-west.

When not chopping wood on the Hornby estate, Hugh could be found on winter evenings playing dominoes or darts in local leagues, while from April to September he bowled almost daily for five clubs. He also won 64 caps for the North Lancs and Fylde County Bowling Association, of which he was both chairman and league secretary. In 2005 he was ranked among the top 20 crown green bowlers in the UK.

Hugh’s continued interest in crown green bowling led to another book, Bowled Over (2015), which was a significant recasting of the history of bowls.

Tall, and with a distinct gait, quick wit and generosity, Hugh won hearts wherever he played or travelled.

He is survived by his sisters, Rebecca and Susan, and a nephew and niece.