Lions, camels and clowns at The Oval
The connection between cricket and the music hall, the staple entertainment of the masses in the 19th century and the first third of the 20th, was strong. Matches pitting teams of county players against comedy stars of the day were regularly played, and raised large sums for charity.
In 1873, The Oval hosted a game that raised the substantial amount of £70 for the Music-Hall Sick Fund. In the late 1890s, Dan Leno, one of the leading comedy names of the day, formed a group called the Dainties, drawing many of the stars to play in such fixtures.
In 1898, Leno's team attracted widespread publicity when they took on the employees of Dulwich's Grove Hotel, but not all of it was favourable, despite its popular appeal. "The fooling was, for the most part, poor," sniffed the Daily Mail, while admitting that it had seemed to please the spectators.
In the next two years matches took place across London, most impressively at Stamford Bridge, and two films were produced, ensuring the mayhem was made available to fledgling cinema audiences across the country.
In June 1901, another game at Stamford Bridge proved a considerable success, and on September 5 the enterprise was allowed to stage a match at The Oval against an Old England Team made up mainly of Surrey cricketers, captained by local MP Tom Dewar. The 18,000 crowd that headed to Kennington in late-summer sunshine for the end-of-season contest was more interested in the star-packed Music Hall Artists' Team.
There was more to the day than just cricket. Marching bands from the Irish Guards and the local police and jugglers kept spectators entertained until the match got underway at 11am, while clowns darted in and out of the stands and terraces throughout the game.
Leno, dressed as an undertaker, opened the innings with Bob Hunt, dressed as a pirate. It set the tone for the day. Leno sometimes hit the ball with his bat and caught it himself; at other times one of the fielders held it - it made little difference as he refused to budge and continued his innings. A few blows reached the boundary; others he kicked away as if it was a game of football. Eventually, realising neither umpire had any intention of giving Leno out, the Surrey players bodily lifted him up and dumped him over the boundary. It was pointless as he simply walked back to the middle.
As the game chugged on, artists circulated among the spectators, keeping them amused, while female performers sold scorecards. At lunch the bands and clowns returned, with the added attraction of a display by motorbikes, which were relatively new at the time. Before the restart, the fattest of the artists was rolled up and down the pitch.
Leno continued after lunch, his innings finally ending when he was chased off by a pantomime lion. No shy and retiring type, within minutes he was ambling round the outfield dressed as a schoolgirl and riding a camel. "Never has Leno, the greatest of modern comics, had to work so hard," reported the Sportsman. "Never has The Oval... witnessed such a scene... if the shades of past players could have risen they would have been paralysed."
Surrey professional Ernie Haynes, who took part in the game, wrote in his diary: "Our side had to wear tall hats... nobody knew what the scores were." The official card, when finally printed, showed Leno had made 999, while the modes of dismissal of his team-mates varied from "hit wicketkeeper" to "gone to football match". The real scores and the result were never known, but few cared. Accuracy was never an issue.
The day raised almost £610, the proceeds split between the Music-Hall Artists' Fund, the Licensed Victuallers' Schools, the New Belgrave Hospital, and the Cricketers Fund. So popular was it that the event was repeated in 1902 and 1903, with diminishing success.
In 1902, Leno, who was to die aged only 43 in 1904, was absent, but the crowd was not told, as organisers feared the news would hit ticket sales. Their move paid off as 24,000 crammed into The Oval. Another comic, Syd May, a renowned mimic, impersonated Leno throughout, using his costumes and make-up to complete the deception. Only after the game did the truth come out.
By 1903, Leno was known to be seriously ill, and the promoters made no attempt to hide his absence. The result was that only about 8000 turned up, and as hard as the artists tried to make up for Leno's absence, they were fighting a losing battle. It was symbolic when rain caused an early end to the game at 4pm.
There was no attempt to stage the match again. Without Leno, the appeal to sponsors and spectators was greatly diminished, and many of the big names who had clamoured to be included on the bill were less willing to be associated with a less attractive fixture.
Popular Culture in London 1890-1918 by Andrew Horrall (Manchester University Press 2001)
Captain of the Crowd by Tony Laughton (Boundary Books 2008)
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Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo