The Lord's testament
On the 250th anniversary of Thomas Lord's birth the founder of the world's most famous cricket ground remains elusive
The world's best-known cricket ground took its name from a Yorkshireman named Thomas Lord. His portrait hangs above the fi replace in MCC's committee room in the pavilion at Lord's, which is spelled with an apostrophe to emphasise that it really was his ground.
The portrait shows a prosperous man in his fifties, well-dressed and groomed, unsmiling. But concentrate on the eyes: at first they appear guarded but I believe I can detect a calculating look. This may be a clue to a character who, 250 years after his birth, remains elusive. The essential information is contained in the report of the first match at Lord's between Middlesex and Essex on May 31, 1789. This is included in Frederick Lillywhite's Cricket Scores and Biographies, volume one, published in 1862.
Lord opened the innings for Middlesex, scoring 1 and 36, in a game Essex lost by 96 runs. He was well built, 5ft 9in and 12 stone. "In the field, Lord generally stood at point, and his underarm bowling, for which he was noted, was slow." Here is the fi rst degree of uncertainty. A note at the bottom of the entry in the copy held at MCC's library at Lord's says: "In 1791, his bowling was extremely rapid." Maybe, but he did not take a wicket against Essex, bowling either way.
He learned his cricket at school in Diss in Norfolk and we learn that he started to play at the Artillery Ground in Moorfields, where he met Lord Winchelsea and Charles Lennox - later the Duke of Richmond. These grandees from the celebrated Hambledon Club in Hampshire were transferring their affection to cricket in London. They had started to play at the White Conduit Club, north of the Angel in Islington. Lord's job there was to bowl at gentlemen.
Lord must have been competent and obliging because their noble Lords guaranteed their patronage and support if he opened a ground at Marylebone, where there was still open country. Lord was already in the wine trade and here was a means of expanding his business. He built a stout fence round the ground, which allowed him to charge 6d admission and gave the gents the privacy that was denied them in Islington. The ground straddled what became Dorset Square, just west of Baker Street underground station. Lord's Ground there is the origin of the Marylebone Cricket Club.
We learn that he was a canny businessman. "Lord gave up the ground in consequence of a difference with his landlord about a trifl ing addition to the rent." Lord's Mark II was half a mile up the road but did not stay there long because the Regent's Canal was routed through the playing area. Lord's pocketed the compensation and moved a little further up the road to Lord's Mark III, a more capacious ground in St John's Wood. The fi rst match there was on May 7, 1814. The rest is history. And unless research into the Eyre estate, which leased the land to Lord, turns up some nice surprises little of the history belongs to the founder.
In Lillywhite Lord is a twodimensional figure. A couple of stories fl esh him out a little. He was a reputable figure who became a member of the St Marylebone Vestry in 1807 - helping to administer the Poor Laws. He attracted wealthy clients to his wine business. Apparently he was a handsome presence and charming personality - a good salesman, no doubt, but he also exhibited a mean and ruthless streak. To raise interest in cricket at Lord's Mark I he offered £20 to the fi rst batsman to hit a ball out of the ground. EH Budd, a famous power hitter, did so and, elated, promised to spend the money among his colleagues. "Sad to relate," says Sir Pelham Warner, "Thomas Lord seems not to have honoured his word."
In 1825 Lord "shocked the entire cricketing establishment," writes Warner, by threatening to sell the best part of his cricket ground to a housing developer. He announced that he had his landlord's permission to develop the land; were he to do so, only 150 yards would have been left for the playing area. Lord was paid off and MCC bailed out by a splendid fi gure called William Ward. Not only did Ward score 278 for MCC against Norfolk in 1820 - it remained the highest score at Lord's until 1925 - he was a director of the Bank of England, with strong ideas about economic policy, and MP for the City of London. Ward was also rich enough to write a cheque for £5,000 to Lord, to save Lord's. This allowed him to retire in comfort. He left his house in St John's Wood Road and moved to West Meon in Hampshire, where he died on January 13, 1832. Lord Harris and FS Ashley Cooper later wrote what Lord would have accepted as a suitable epitaph. "The fact must not be lost sight of that he came of good stock and that, by his own efforts, he not only gained the respect and friendship of many of the highest people in the land but also retrieved the family's fortunes." Up to a point, my Lord.
Lillywhite's brief biography gets the date of Lord's birth wrong. It says he was born in Thirsk on November 22, 1757. The correct date is November 23, 1755, but it is also mistaken about his origins. The story that appears in every account of Lord's life, and could have come only from his family, insists that they were Catholics and that Thomas's father, William Lord, had his property confi scated after the collapse of Bonny Prince Charlie's rebellion in 1745. One history suggests William was wealthy enough to fi nance a troop of 500 horses at his own expense. Afterwards "Lord's father had to work as a labourer in the very farm that had once belonged to him," says Lillywhite.
The story disguises truly humble beginnings. Stephen Green, in his history of Lord's, spoils it: "There is no evidence to support any involvement in the Jacobite cause," he writes. Cooper Harding, who runs the Thirsk Museum on the site of Lord's birth at 14-16 Kirkgate, has found William Lord's name on the poor rolls. He was helped with his rent in 1752, and in 1756 the custodians of the Poor Law agreed to pay William Lord's fare to London. A few months later they gave his wife 6s so that she and the children could join William in London. Rent arrears were paid off.
Harding says: "There is no evidence that Lord owned anything in this area." He does, however, think it is possible they supported the Stuart uprising. "I think they were a political hot potato, and their fares were paid to get rid of them," he says. Thomas Lord is celebrated through hundreds of years because he was an ambitious man who took risks and established a unique sporting arena. His other distinguishing feature was good luck, and that is almost as rich an inheritance as a cricket ground. On the bicentenary of his birth England won the Ashes. They won them again on the 250th anniversary in 2005. They had also won them on the 150th anniversary of his birth in 1905 - not only a monument but a mascot.
This article was first published in the March issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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