When the Almanack could not always be consulted, 1959

The early county champions

Rowland Bowen

Recent controversy has drawn attention to the doubts which have often been expressed down the years on the accepted list of County Champions in the early days of first-class cricket. At the request of the Editor of Wisden I have conducted extensive research into contemporary publications to see what light they cast on the early years. The four principal annuals consulted were Fred Lillywhite's Guide for seasons from 1854 up to and including 1865 (referred to as the Guide); John and James Lillywhite's Companion from season 1865 to 1884--it incorporated the Guide from season 1866 (referred to as the Companion); James Lillywhite's Annual from season 1871 till its cessation--it incorporated the Companion from season 1885 (referred to as the Annual); and, of course, Wisden from 1864. A very large number of other annuals--usually individual and often unofficial--and county cricket annuals have also been examined, as well as individual county cricket histories and other publications. They are mentioned by name where necessary.

    This examination has led to the following conclusions: (1)
  • there has been an uncritical acceptance and repetition of statements concerning earlier periods, or statistics about earlier cricket, which would horrify a professional historian;
  • (2)
  • the concepts of first-class cricket, and of a county cricket championship as we know them were things quite alien to the minds of cricket enthusiasts and writers of 80 and more years ago;
  • (3)
  • there is no evidence that the championship started in 1873;
  • (4)
  • there was no agreement amongst various contemporary publications as to how the championship was to be decided in the early years;
  • (5)
  • the hitherto accepted list of champions is certainly wrong for two of the years given, and in four further years there can be legitimate argument.

The proof of the first conclusion will become obvious during the course of this article.

As regards the second conclusion, there was generally no agreement whether Hampshire and Somerset were to be considered among the celebrated counties; averages often included all county matches even against such teams as Buckinghamshire. For example, W. G. Grace's published records for first-class matches include such games as M.C.C. v. Hertfordshire. Moreover, there seems to be a distinction between the county champions and the county championship. In other words, the county champions were the best county against all comers; the idea of restricting the choice of champions by reference only to games against other counties did not appear of exist, certainly in the minds of the editors of the Companion or Annual until some time in the late 70's or early 80's.

As regards the third conclusion, the Companion said of 1865, "if one county was better than any other, it was Nottinghamshire," and of 1866, "Middlesex occupy premier position," and of 1867, "Middlesex forfeited the premiership to Yorkshire;" no comment in 1868, but in 1869 Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire were champion counties; in 1870 Yorkshire now fairly champion county--supported by Wisden for that season; in 1871Companion and Wisden agreed that Nottinghamshire were champions, but conceded that Sussex were the champions of the south; the Annual said "Nottinghamshire will not be deprived of the championship;" in 1872 Companion and Annual agreed Nottinghamshire were champions. The only significant thing about 1873 was that for that season, rules governing qualification for counties were agreed--nothing else was decided--certainly not how the championship should be run. The fact that those rules were found necessary indicated clearly that the best county was already being designated champion county, and that it was not right that a county should be so designated when it engaged players who had appeared for some other county that season. There was no organised championship; in fact there was no championship in the strict sense until 1890, when the counties themselves agreed how the championship should be decided; or even until 1894, when M.C.C. were asked in future to designate the county champions.

As regards the fourth conclusion, it was stated (and has been repeated blindly since 1895 so far as I have been able to gather) that the county with the fewest losses were champions up to and including season 1886. This was not so; had it been the Annual would scarcely have said of season 1874 that "the most partial supporter would hardly venture to compare Derbyshire with Gloucestershire which latter county was stated unequivocally to have been champions." Moreover, Cricket for September 21, 1882, used the system not stated to have been adopted until 1887, viz.: one point for a win, half for a draw. Again, between 1873 and 1886 inclusive, the contemporary annuals disagreed with each other on four occasions and they disagreed with the modern list in two further years. Had the champions been designated in the manner stated there could have been no such disagreement. Moreover, in none of those six years was the disagreement affected by the question of whether the two doubtful counties, Hampshire and Somerset, were first-class.

As regards the fifth conclusion, I think it will be conceded that if contemporary publications all agreed that a certain county were champions for a certain year, and if by claiming the championship early histories of that county supported those contemporaries but not the modern list, then the modern list is wrong. Those conditions are fulfilled.

It is worthwhile examining the origins of the present list. It appeared first in Alfred Gibson's County Cricket Championship published in 1895--I have not been able to find an earlier list.

The list from 1873 to 1895 is exactly as now accepted. Gibson appears to have been a statistician who tried to read back into the minds of the writers of twenty years earlier his own ideas; hence the faults in the list. It was copied and brought up to date by the Rev. R. S. Holmes in a publication of the same name up to 1896. Wisden was the first annual to show the list, in 1901, but omitted 1873 and 1874. It was then copied into various county yearbooks, notably the one printed by Yorkshire, and into other annuals. It was reprinted by Wisden in 1907 and again in 1911, when 1873 and 1874 were added as in Gibson's list.

I now propose to examine the situation before 1873, year by year, and from 1873 in the years in which there is any argument. The contemporary annuals are not as helpful as they might be. Wisden did not always designate a champion, and did not publish a table until 1888; it published an order of merit for the two previous seasons, however. Earlier, the order in which the counties appeared in Wisden is evidence, for Surrey were always shown first, until 1877, and thereafter Middlesex, and the next county shown is usually found to have been considered champions. The Companion never published a table, but usually listed the counties in their order of merit. The order of merit in the Companion has to be deduced since Surrey were always conventionally shown first, and Middlesex second, until season 1870. The Annual first published a table for 1872 (though it included all games), omitted one for 1874, 1887 and 1888 and had a table in purely alphabetical order for 1877 and 1880; from 1873 to 1885 the order in which the counties appeared in the Annual was purely alphabetical. It will be seen that something can be disinterred!

Before 1864, the Guide does not claim any county as champions.

1864 Surrey had easily the best record, winning seven games and drawing one. They were conventionally placed first in Wisden, Guide and Companion, but there was still no claim made nor implication that they were champions by whatever names designated. This would imply that the concept of champions--or premiers, call it what you will--only came in during the next two or three years.
1865The Companion said if one county were better than any other it was Nottinghamshire. No other publication made this statement; nor do the various orders in which the counties are listed assist us. Nottinghamshire's record was, won five, lost two. The Companion listed second to Surrey (conventionally first in all three annuals) Middlesex--won three, drawn one, lost one; the Guide gave Kent as second--won two, drawn two, lost two. Perhaps Nottinghamshire were best--but not on a basis of least lost.
1866 The Companion said Middlesex occupied premier position. Their playing record was won seven, drawn one, lost one; and no one else came near them. Perhaps it is the statement in the following season that enables us to date the first champion county--though not, perhaps, the county championship--from 1866, for in
1867The Companion said "Middlesex forfeited the premiership to Yorkshire." Of this there can be no possible doubt, for Yorkshire won all their seven games, and no other county had even an unbeaten record.
1868No one was designated champions. Nottinghamshire were listed second by Wisden to the conventionally first Surrey. Nottinghamshire had the best record, won four, lost two, but the counties seem to have been even. Probably Nottinghamshire were champions, but I can find no statement or claim to this effect.
1869The Companion unequivocally said "Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire were champions"--and this was the first use of the term; hereafter it was always used (or implied in years of argument). There can be no doubt then about the propriety of dating back the list of county champions to this season.
1870The Companion said "Yorkshire are now fairly champion county." This was supported by the order of counties in Wisden, since Yorkshire appeared second to the conventionally first Surrey, by a statement in Wisden for that season and also by the History of Yorkshire County Cricket, the earliest claim in any individual county history.
1871The Companion said "Nottinghamshire were champions;" the Annual supported this at page 57: "Nottinghamshire will not be easily deprived of the championship." Wisden agreed about Nottinghamshire. Both the Companion and Wisden agreed Sussex were champions of the south. The playing records were Nottinghamshire won four, drawn one, lost one; Sussex won four. The orders in which the counties appeared supported the statement that Nottinghamshire were champions. It seems a little hard on Sussex, but the writers of those days were very chary of awarding the championship to counties which had played only a few matches. Anyway, no contemporary put Sussex first and that seems sufficient.
1872The Companion and Annual said Nottinghamshire were first; the orders in Wisden and Annual supported this, Surrey being conventionally first. Nottinghamshire's record was won two, drawn five; Lancashire, however, won all their four games; yet there was no suggestion at all that they were champions. Once more the contemporary judgment of which was the better team must be accepted; this judgment was not based solely on actual results of games, but made some attempt (one cannot help but feeling as one reads those old comments) to take into account how the games actually went, how strong were the opponents and so on. This was the year of the first table, in the Annual; it does not help us much since it listed all games played, not only county games. However, F. S. Ashley-Cooper, in his Nottinghamshire Cricket and Cricketers, made the claim for Nottinghamshire being champions in 1871 and 1872.
1873This, the first year now shown in the list of champions, is also the first year in which the statement in that list gives rise to argument. Wisden, commenting on the 1873 season, was quite definite that Nottinghamshire were champions. Ashley-Cooper did not make this claim. The Companion was unequivocal that Gloucestershire were champions. The Annual said at one point when dealing with Gloucestershire that Gloucestershire were champions, but when dealing with Nottinghamshire said that Nottinghamshire were co-equal. There was no claim to the sole championship in the History of Gloucestershire County Cricket Club. The playing records of the two counties were Gloucestershire won four, drawn two; Nottinghamshire won five, drawn one. On the face of it, the 1874 Wisden would appear to have been correct, but there was no unanimity at the time, and in view of all the statements made, it is probably right to accept what the present list (derived from Alfred Gibson) says, bracketing Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire as co-equal.
1874Here again there is grave dispute. The present list shows Derbyshire as champions. The Annual I have already quoted--it will bear repetition--"the most partial supporter would hardly venture to compare Derbyshire with Gloucestershire." Both Annual and Companion were in no doubt that Gloucestershire were champions, and Wisden listed them second to the conventionally placed Surrey (listed Derbyshire last!). The History of Gloucestershire County Cricket Club made the definite claim that Gloucestershire were champions in 1874; Derbyshire County Cricket, by Piper, published 1897, made no claim for Derbyshire to have been champions in 1874, though it said they were the only unbeaten county, but it is fair to say that the unofficial Derbyshire Cricket Guide for 1896 did make the claim (prompted no doubt by A. Gibson). On the other hand Feats and Facts of Derbyshire Cricket in the Derbyshire Cricket Annual for 1887 did not mention Derbyshire as champions in 1874--surely it would have if anyone in or out of the county had made the claim? In the face of contemporary unanimity on the subject, there can be no doubt that the present list is wrong, both in supposing that the champions were designated with reference to fewest matches lost, and in designating Derbyshire as champions. At the time, Gloucestershire were accepted as champions, and claimed to be champions; Derbyshire were not, and did not, and the modern list should therefore be corrected. As a matter of interest, Gloucestershire--playing Yorkshire, Surrey and Sussex--won four, drew one and lost one; Derbyshire--playing only Kent and Lancashire, both very weak teams at that time--won three and drew one.
1875There was no controversy about this season till recently. There need be none, particularly if it is remembered that least matches lost was not a rule, but a guide to deciding who were champions. All three annuals were quite positive that Nottinghamshire were champions, and Ashley-Cooper supported this. Sussex made no claim to be champions at the time, nor did they do so until 1958. They did not have an unbeaten record, as they lost to the very weak Hampshire team, in that season reckoned by all three contemporary annuals as among the counties, as they were indeed for the next three seasons. The records were Nottinghamshire won six, drawn three, lost one; Sussex won five, drawn one, lost two. Both Companion and Annual put Yorkshire (won six, drawn one, lost three) second to Nottinghamshire, as does the History of Yorkshire County Cricket--this seems a little unfair to Sussex, but it is clear that they were not even equal first. Both Lillywhites, as well as Wisden, were Sussex men: it is inconceivable that their annuals would have failed to make a claim for Sussex as champions if there had been any sort of justification for such a claim.
1876 and 1877Complete agreement with the present list that Gloucestershire were champions.
1878The present list shows Middlesex. Volume one of the History of Middlesex C.C.C. at page 154 did not claim Middlesex as champions, though they had an unbeaten record; it said that probably Nottinghamshire, and certainly Yorkshire were stronger. The records were Middlesex won three, drawn three; Nottinghamshire won seven, drawn four, lost three; Yorkshire won seven, drawn two, lost five. Middlesex drew both games with Nottinghamshire, and beat Yorkshire twice. Neither the History of Yorkshire County Cricket nor Nottinghamshire Cricket and Cricketers made any claim for Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire. The Companion twice said that "no one county were champions" and in a third place, that "Nottinghamshire held the leading place amongst counties." The Annual did not commit itself. Wisden did not help, since it now listed Middlesex first instead of Surrey, but it is clear that the convention changed this season, for from now on Middlesex were listed conventionally first with Surrey often second. The contemporary evidence seems plain, and the correct entry in the list should be undecided.
1879The present list shows Nottinghamshire and Lancashire bracketed. The Companion supported this, more or less, though it rather spoke with two voices. The Annual also supported this. Wisden listed Nottinghamshire second to the conventionally first Middlesex, with Lancashire eighth. Ashley-Cooper said that Nottinghamshire were agreed to have been the better team, and there were strong implications in Lancashire County Cricket, by F. Reynolds (published 1883), that 1881 was the first year in which Lancashire were champions (though this could just be taken as meaning sole champions). It should be added that Lancashire Cricket Records 1865-1908 gave Lancashire as champions in 1881, 1897 and 1904 and tied in 1889; it made no claim for 1879, nor 1882. The records were Lancashire won five, drawn four, lost one; Nottinghamshire won five, drawn six, lost one. In all the circumstances, it would seem better to accept the present list, since it is to a great extent supported by contemporary annuals--even if not by Wisden of that time.
1880 and 1881Complete agreement with the present list that Nottinghamshire in 1880 and Lancashire in 1881 were champions. A recent publication suggests Gloucestershire might be considered as joint champions in 1880. Contemporaries did not support this view. Gloucestershire won four, drew five and lost one against Nottinghamshire's won six, drawn three, lost one--it is clear why contemporaries admitted no argument about Nottinghamshire's supremacy.
1882The present list shows Nottinghamshire and Lancashire bracketed. The Companion at one point said Lancashire had a short-head over Nottinghamshire, at another point an opposite opinion, and at a third that the two counties divided the honours equally. The Annual said "Lancashire and Nottinghamshire were fairly equal;" it published a table showing these two teams first; the table included Hampshire and Somerset which the Annual called Minor Counties. This is important as Lancashire beat Somerset twice. Wisden said this was Somerset's d├ębut amongst the first-class counties; listed Middlesex and Surrey conventionally first and second, Lancashire third and Nottinghamshire fourth; and said: "In all matches Lancashire lost four games and Nottinghamshire two, therefore Nottinghamshire must be considered champions." It will be noticed that Lancashire Cricket Records, already quoted, made no claim for Lancashire to have been champions, while Ashley-Cooper said Nottinghamshire were surpassed by no other county (which is one way of admitting that they tied!). Cricket, however, in its issue for September 21, 1882, awarded one point for a win and a half for a draw, and put Lancashire first. The records were Lancashire won ten, drawn three, lost one against counties, plus won two v. Somerset; Nottinghamshire won eight, drew three, lost one. The matter has been discussed at length (as in the case of season 1879) only because the contemporary Wisden gave a different opinion from the present list, and because a Lancashire publication specifically excluded Lancashire from being champions in these two seasons. One finds oneself unable to agree with Wisden for 1883 and in view of the two Lillywhite statements, the present list should be accepted as correct.
1883The present list shows Nottinghamshire as champions. The Companion said "Nottinghamshire were fully entitled to the honours of county champions" but conceded that the difference between them and Yorkshire was minute. The Annual said Nottinghamshire were champions under the recognised system of awarding the championship. Cricket placed Nottinghamshire first. Wisden said that Yorkshire were first and had an undeniable claim, and put Yorkshire third and Nottinghamshire fourth to the conventionally first Middlesex and second Surrey. Ashley-Cooper said that Nottinghamshire were first. The History of Yorkshire County Cricket at page 60 gave Yorkshire first. The records were Nottinghamshire won four, drawn seven, lost one (they won one and drew the other game with Yorkshire); Yorkshire won nine, drew five, lost two, and drew two with Leicestershire, not reckoned to be first-class by any contemporary. In the circumstances one can agree with Wisden for 1884 that Yorkshire had a claim, but accept the other contemporary evidence that the claim was not conceded.
1884-1888There was complete agreement with the present list in contemporary annuals.
1889A very minor point. Wisden for 1890 bracketed the top three teams in the following order: Nottinghamshire, Lancashire, Surrey. In terms of their records, that was surely correct. Nottinghamshire won nine, drew three, lost two; Lancashire and Surrey won ten, drew one, lost three. From 1887 the custom of awarding one point for a win and a half for a draw had been adopted (as foreseen by Cricket five years before), so certainly a triple tie was correct; and equally certain, the Wisden order of placing the teams in 1890 was correct. Not until five years later do we find a list which puts them in the order now found, which is neither by merit nor alphabet--Surrey, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire. It is clear that this minor correction should be made in the current list, for the only reason for putting Surrey first among the three is that they were champions in the two previous seasons--even so, Nottinghamshire had a better record than Lancashire.

From 1890 there is no argument about who were first.

We can now sum up with a new list. The only point remaining to be decided is from what date should the list run? It has been clearly shown that one can logically and consistently run the list from 1869, and even from 1865, since that was the first time a county was stated to have been better than any other with gaps in 1868 and 1878. It has been clearly shown that 1873 is not a significant date, except for the one point of qualification. On the other hand, there is a legitimate doubt which counties were first-class, at least until 1886. Cambridge appear from 1863 to 1869. Hampshire were so reckoned in 1863-67 and 1870, but not in 1868 or 1869, nor 1871-73. Wisden included them from 1874 to 1878 and again from 1880 to 1885. The Guide included them in 1863 and 1864 (in 1854 it said that "Hampshire were once, but now no longer"). The Annual and the Companion generally exclude Hampshire except in 1865-67, 1870 and 1874-78. From 1881-85 Wisden included Somerset, whereas the others excluded them, save that the Annual showed Somerset in its table for 1882. Derbyshire were included from 1871-87 by Wisden and Annual and by the Companion from 1872. Lancashire did not appear until 1867 (though they played Middlesex twice in 1865), and Gloucestershire not until 1870. Surrey, Kent, Sussex, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire were celebrated counties from early days, while Middlesex, who were creeping along in 1857 were accepted as celebrated by 1864. The method of reckoning, one point for a win, was introduced in 1887. That would seem, then, to be another suitable date to commence the list. 1890 would be another suitable date; then the counties themselves decided the method of scoring in the championship. The choice is between 1865 and 1869 or between 1887 and 1890. I have selected 1865, merely for the sake of historical completeness.

Period 1865-86. The method of deciding who were county champions was generally by fewest losses. This led to anomalous results and was tempered in several years by a critical judgment of which was the strongest county. The counties most generally selected by contemporaries as champions were:--

1865 Nottinghamshire
1866 Middlesex
1867 Yorkshire
1868Undecided (probably Nottinghamshire)
1869 Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire
1870 Yorkshire
1871 Nottinghamshire
1872 Nottinghamshire
1873 Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire
1874 Gloucestershire
1875 Nottinghamshire
1876 Gloucestershire
1877 Gloucestershire
1878Undecided
1879 Nottinghamshire and Lancashire
1880 Nottinghamshire
1881 Lancashire
1882 Nottinghamshire and Lancashire
1883 Nottinghamshire
1884 Nottinghamshire
1885 Nottinghamshire
1886 Nottinghamshire

Period 1887-89. One point for a win, half for a draw.

1887 Surrey
1888 Surrey
1889 Nottinghamshire, Lancashire, Surrey

Period 1890 to date. As shown in Wisden in 1901, 1907 and ever since 1911.

May I conclude by saying that the only evidence that is acceptable from an historical point of view is contemporary evidence even if contemporaries seem, from our point of view, to have been wrong--for they were not wrong from their own point of view; a list of county champions can only name those who were at the time accepted as champions. Critics cannot, twenty, forty or eighty years later, air their views with the same authority.

I have only attempted to decide between the contemporary publications for 1873, 1879, 1882 and 1883 because there is sufficient weight of contemporary opinion and evidence to enable one to do so; and to award the honours equally to the two claimants for three of those years: because it is 75 years after the event I have not inclined to alter the result for 1883. I have had no such doubts for 1874 and 1878 where contemporaries were in complete agreement--nor, of course, for the years 1875 and 1880 which have been the subject of recent discussion, but which presented contemporaries with no problems.

Editor's Note: Without in any way disputing the conclusions reached by the author, I do not think we can alter the accepted list as regularly published in Wisden for over forty years, even where there are good grounds for disagreeing with it.

© John Wisden & Co