‘a safe pair of hands’: meanings and origin

The British-English phrase a safe pair of hands denotes someone who is capable, reliable or trustworthy in the management of a situation.

This phrase occurs, for example, in the following from The real impact of Fincham’s fall, by Liz Thomas, published in The Stage (London, England) of Thursday 11th October 2007:

BBC2 controller Roly Keating has stepped up to oversee Auntie’s two terrestrial offerings. Keating is generally described as a safe pair of hands.

The phrase a safe pair of hands originated in cricket, with reference to skill and reliability in catching a ball. The earliest occurrences that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From The Cricket Field: Or, The History and the Science of the Game of Cricket (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1854), by the British clergyman and cricketer James Pycroft (1813-1895):

The Captain should keep an account of the best runners, throwers, clean pickers-up, and especially of men who can meet and anticipate the ball, and of those who deserve the praise given to Chatterton *—“the safest pair of hands in England.”

[* This apparently refers to George Chatterton (1821-1881), a British cricketer active from 1849 to 1861.]

2 & 3-: From The Sportsman (London, England):

2-: Of Thursday 29th August 1867:


On the 5th of August the Incogniti commenced their fifth annual cricket tour in the midland counties. […] On Wednesday, the 14th, the wanderers encountered Bloxwich, and though their first four wickets fell rapid victims to Somerville’s fatal “Yorkers,” “Deerfoot” and Marten got such a hold that when “all out” was the cry, 170 appeared on the telegraph. Thomson evidently meant to get the runs for Bloxwich off his own bat, but nineteen from the first two overs was too rapid a pace to last, and Brune’s shooter soon ended his career. “The very safe pair of hands” were really safe to-day, and made three fine catches. Incogs winners by 84 runs.

3-: Of Tuesday 4th August 1868:


This match was played at Harrow on Saturday, August 1, and won by the Incogs by eight wickets. Parr played a good hitting innings for the Blues. The Incogs discovered a new and brilliant specimen of that inestimable treasure, the bowler, in Sandars, who, with Law, made short work of the Harrow Blues in the second innings. The “very safe pair of hands” made a good catch.

4-: From Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London, England) of Saturday 12th September 1868:


Aug 31, Sept 1 and 2.—Bidding a fond adieu to their kind friends in Dublin, I Z. wended their way to the beautifully-situated ground at Drumcar, the seat of that excellent patron of sport, Col M‘Clintock. Their opponents were gallant men and true. There were the Filgates, many in number, mighty in muscle; there were the Thornhills, a name well known in cricketing story; and there also were the Coddingtons, the elder of whom for years past has been a stanch supporter of the game in Ireland. Owing to the exertions of Mr Wilkinson an excellent wicket was prepared. I Z. went in first and obtained 145, and the Seventeen would have had to follow their innings but for the failure of a usually safe pair of hands.

The phrase a safe pair of hands came to be also used of rugby players. The earliest occurrence that I have found is from the account of a match between the London Scottish and the Old Leysians, published in The Bedfordshire Times & Independent (Bedford, Bedfordshire, England) of Saturday 10th March 1894:

The Leysians have found an excellent centre three-quarter in F. L. Lloyd who is still at the School. His quick snap kicking is admirable, and he passes like a veteran. Their full back, Paul, is also a great acquisition on account of a very safe pair of hands and remarkable sang froid.

The phrase a safe pair of hands came to be also used of goalkeepers in soccer. The earliest occurrence that I have found is from the account of a match between Bexhill and Petworth, published in the Bexhill-on-Sea Observer and Visitors’ Register (Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, England) of Saturday 11th February 1899:

Elliott proved to have a good and safe pair of hands, as some of his saves were very clean and well judged.

The earliest occurrences that I have found of the phrase a safe pair of hands denoting someone who is capable, reliable or trustworthy in the management of a situation are as follows:

1 (?)-: From a poem about the Oxford crew taking part in the inter-university boat race, published in The Globe and Traveller (London, England) of Friday 24th March 1899—G. S. Maclagan was the coxswain:

These eight are the team, and young G. S. Maclagan
In a safe pair of hands holds the reins of the waggon.

2-: From the Western Mail (Cardiff, Glamorgan, Wales) of Tuesday 11th January 1921:


[…] Brig.-gen. Carter, of Southerndown, has been appointed to succeed Mr. Wyndham Jenkins as secretary of the Welsh Golfing Union, and members can rest assured that their affairs have fallen from a safe pair of hands to a new pair of equal security and efficiency.

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