1890 May 26, 2007

Lord's under threat

Martin Williamson on when Lord's was almost bought so that a railway line could be built on it

Tunnelling work at the Nursery End in 1896 © Cricinfo
Lord's is widely regarded as the embodiment of cricket. Its pavilion is one of the most recognisable icons of the game and many players consider it the height of their career to play there.

And yet in 1890 its future was in doubt as the Manchester and Sheffield Railway (MSR) sought to compulsorily purchase a chunk of it to enable them to run an open cutting through one end and to build a terminus next to the ground. Lord's today might be no more than a memory under railway lines and embankments.

The MSR had its eyes on the Nursery ground, acquired for £25,000 by MCC in 1887 to celebrate the club's centenary. Originally the three-and-a-half acre plot was occupied by Henderson's Nursery - hence the name that survives to this day - it was also known as Pine Apples as it produced some of the best pineapples in the land, as well as tulips. Prior to the acquisition, practice had taken place on the outfield of the main ground. The Nursery End was smaller than it is now. More than a third of it to the south was occupied by the Clergy Orphan School (click here for map).

In 1890 the MSR had a bill introduced in Parliament to acquire the land. The great and the good of St John's Wood wasted no time in marshalling a stubborn defence. The MCC membership contained many political and social heavyweights, and in December 1890 Perkins, the club's secretary, advised MSR's engineer that MCC "don't want to sell any part ... and will do their utmost to prevent the [MSR] taking a foot of their ground."

On the same day a public meeting was held in the new pavilion, opened seven months earlier, to oppose the move. Representatives of MSR attended and were left in no doubt that their plan would be fought all the way. Perkins told them MCC was "not a dividend paying concern and wanted no money, their only object being to enable the public to see the finest cricket for 6d each".

The following month, Perkins circulated a letter to the secretaries of cricket and other clubs in London in which he objected to the "wanton and unnecessary interference" with Lord's. This was followed by a letter in The Times on January 30, 1891 from railway company officials contradicting Perkins. The two sides were deadlocked. MCC wanted to keep Lord's intact, the MSR wanted to build a new railway terminus.

The signs of a breakthrough came in February 1891 when MCC wrote to the railway's owner advising that the club had been offered the chance to acquire the Clergy Orphan School. If, MCC proposed, the MSR bought the land for the club, then access to tunnel would be forthcoming. Sir Theodore Martin, representing the MSR, told the engineers that the terms were "very stiff ... but I fear they will stand to them". However, as a decision had already been made to locate the terminus near the Marylebone Road, the tunnel was all that was needed.

A cartoon showing WG Grace leading cricketers in opposition to the oncoming railway © Punch
That plan was soon complicated by news that the Clergy Orphan Corporation did not want to sell the site. The residents of St John's Wood were unimpressed and the Pall Mall Gazette reported that they felt they had been "left in the lurch by the cricketers" although it added "the working classes of Marylebone would welcome the idea of a great railway terminus in the district."

The MCC members were increasingly divided as the affair rumbled on through 1891 but by December it was being reported that "Royal Assent will not be given to [the Railway Bill] unless the clause for the protection of the MCC as agreed form part of the Bill." Relentless lobbying by MCC officials among sympathetic politicians had won the day. Eventually, Clause 3 of Section 52 of the Extension to London Line Act 1893 gave specific protection to MCC.

The deal done was that the children of the Clergy Orphan Corporation were found new homes in the country and the site of the orphanage was incorporated into Lord's. The railway company agreed that the tunnelling and covered way digging should only affect a portion of the practice ground and that, when the work was completed, this new portion of the ground should show no difference to the old.

The work started in August 1896 was eventually completed in April 1898. The tunnelling was disruptive but received "general commendation from the members of the MCC". In April, it was noted that "the work in connection with this cricket ground is now completed, the wall being built and the sodding laid down".

Marylebone Station was the last great London railway terminus to be built and it nearly became the first to close. Sir Edward Watkin, Bart, MP, the Victorian railway chairman, was an early exponent of the Channel Tunnel. A Manchester man, Watkin viewed Marylebone as merely the link between his railway lines and routes to the south coast and, via the tunnel, to the Continent of Europe.

Ironically he had a stroke in 1894 shortly after getting agreement on the main points of his extension to Marylebone. His successor, Lord Wharncliffe, brought the Marylebone extension to completion.

The Great Central Railway was not flushed with funds. It could not afford to employ an architect to design Marylebone Station and this work was left to a member of its engineering staff. This perhaps explains the rather quaint and homely design of the station buildings. The first train left the new terminus in March 1899, almost a decade after the issue had first arisen.

  • There was already a railway next to Lord's. On April 13, 1868 an underground station had opened on the Metropolitan Railway (now the Metropolitan Line) called St John's Wood Road, located next to the roundabout at the junction of St John's Wood Road and Park Road. In 1925 it was renamed St John's Wood, and on June 11, 1939 it again had a name change to Lord's. It survived only a few months more, being closed on November 19, 1939. Services were transferred to a new deeper Bakerloo Line, and the current St John's Wood station, which sits on that (although it is now on the Jubilee Line) opened on November 20, 1939.

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