Born in Sutton-in-Ashfield on 27 May 1852, William Barnes, always known as Billy, had his first professional engagement with the Garrison at Winchester in 1872; the following summer saw him with the Victoria Park Club, Leicester, and his third engagement, covering the two-year period 1874 and 1875 was at Trent Bridge with Nottingham Amateurs. This post at the County ground naturally brought him to the attention of the Nottinghamshire Committee.
His first trial for Nottinghamshire was on 29 July 1875, when Notts faced Gloucestershire. His debut was unusual in that he never appeared in Nottinghamshire Colts match prior to joining the First XI.
Barnes retained his position in the County team for the remaining matches of 1875 and continued as permanent member of the eleven for the next eighteen seasons, missing only two or three matches through injury, and most of 1881 through the strike of Nottinghamshire professionals.
In 1875 and 1876 Barnes played in the County side purely as a batsman but in subsequent seasons he developed into a most effective bowler and, since his batting continued to improve, he became the best all-rounder in the Nottinghamshire XI and for some seasons the best, W.G. Grace apart, in the country.
In the years between Richard Daft’s decline and the flowering of Arthur Shrewsbury, Barnes was the most effective batsman in the Nottinghamshire first team and headed the County averages in 1880 with 544 runs at an average of 34.00; in 1882 with 708 runs, averaging 32.18, in 1883 with 66 runs, average 33.30. His most prolific year for Nottinghamshire, however, came in 1887, when he hit 722 runs at an average of 38.00. Barnes had the misfortune in 1878 to record four successive noughts for the county – a pair v Derbyshire at Trent Bridge and a second pair v Yorkshire at Bramall Lane.
In 1876, Barnes had no cricketing engagement outside Nottinghamshire and the All England Eleven (AEE) but in 1877 and 1878 he was with Sefton Park at Liverpool and in 1879 began an engagement with MCC that terminated only on his death. After making his debut in the Players v Gentlemen series at Lord’s in 1879, Barnes appeared in the majority of these contests until 1892, when his last appearance occurred at the Scarborough match. In exceeding 1,000 runs in 1880, he became the first Nottinghamshire batsman to perform this feat in all First-Class matches.
The fact that Barnes was selected to play in 12 of the 13 Test matches played in England between 1880 and 1890 is further proof of his standing amongst his contemporaries. At Lord’s in 1886, together with Arthur Shrewsbury, he added 161 runs for England’s 4th wicket and took 3 Australian wickets for 25 as England’s opening bowler in Australia’s first innings.
Barnes played a more prominent part in Tests in Australia than in those in England. He made his first tour to Australia in 1882-83, but with little success. His second visit in 1884-85 was a complete contrast; in eleven-a-side matches he finished the tour at the head of both batting and bowling tables. At Adelaide in the first Test, Barnes batted nearly five hours to amass 134 runs, mostly on a tricky wicket and this score remained the highest on either side through the whole series. During the innings he added 175 with William Scotton for England’s 3rd wicket.
His last visit to Australia came in 1886-87. Appearing in both the Tests, he was only called upon to bowl in the first, when he took the wickets of the first five Australian batsmen in their second innings.
Billy Barnes also starred in the home Ashes series of 1888, a performance that was to recieve the belated (120+ years!) award of the Wisden Trophy for Best Performance in a Test in a Year - the 2023 citation saying: "Against the Aussies at The Oval, 'England squared the series, with Barnes scoring 62 and taking 5-32'."
Barnes’s last season in First-Class cricket was 1894. He was dropped from Nottinghamshire First XI mid-way though the summer shortly after appearing in his own benefit match, which took place at Trent Bridge in June when Gentlemen of England XI opposed the County side.
Nottinghamshire’s poor performances in 1895 led to some writers to state that Barnes should be recalled to the County team, but nothing more was seen of him. He had always been a man who found the discipline of county cricket irksome – the Nottinghamshire minute book records him being warned that if he arrived at another county match late and the worse for liquor he would be excluded from further Nottinghamshire matches – and no doubt the committee were mindful of this when they ignored the demand for his return.
From 1895 to 1898 he remained on MCC’s ground staff and umpired in a few First-Class matches each season. He also appeared for his local Nottinghamshire team Mansfield Woodhouse – in which village he was landlord of the Angel Inn, where he died after three weeks’ illness on 24 March 1899.
His brother, Thomas Barnes, appeared for Nottinghamshire in a few matches.
Nottinghamshire First-Class Number: 144
Billy Barnes's bat is on display in the Long Room: Bat No 80