Behind the romantic façade
David Underdown dispenses with the rose-tinted spectacles often associated with the game in the 18th century and tours the grounds o f southern England courtesy of the diaries of John Baker, a regular spectator at Hambledon's matches in the 1700s...
John Nyren's stirring description of Hambledon's great matches on Broadhalfpenny Down around 1780 is part of cricket mythology. The 'fine, brawn-faced fellows of farmers' toasting the local heroes as they take on the might of All England; the flowing ale and the honest country banter; the cheering locals "baying away in pure Hampshire" whenever John Small or some other Hambledon man makes a good hit: these wonderful images fix 18th century cricket in our collective memory.
But Nyren was writing more than 50 years later, and while we may enjoy his rich nostalgia we might still like some actual contemporary descriptions of what it was like to be at an 18th-century match. Modern writers who have imagined the scene at Hambledon have also used John Mitford's recollections in his review of Nyren for the Gentleman's Magazine, which is even less of a first-hand description than Nyren's. Marvellous writing, but what was it really like?
Fortunately for us, one inveterate cricketwatcher of the Hambledon era kept a diary, which takes us closer to the play than either Nyren or Mitford. The diarist was John Baker, a lawyer living in retirement at Horsham after a spell in the West Indies. Baker records only one trip to Broadhalfpenny, but he attended several of Hambledon's away games, at Guildford, Sevenoaks and the Artillery Ground, which preceded Lord's as the major ground in London. In earlier days he had sometimes watched at Moulsey Hurst, near Hampton Court, with his friend David Garrick, the actor. Baker had a keen eye both for the cricket and the spectators.
Baker's visit to Broadhalfpenny was in early October, 1770; the season went on late in those days. He had been staying with his brother, a Chichester doctor, and on October 4 he and his young nephew bravely got up at five o'clock and rode the 20 miles or so to Broadhalfpenny. The visitors were a team from near Croydon, the Coulsdon club, and the scoring was low; this was just before the period when scores escalated and matches lasted for three or even four days. Hambledon were all out for 104 but Coulsdon could muster only 74; in their second innings Hambledon were 68 for 4 when darkness fell and they 'left off'. Baker and his companions rode over the downs to Petersfield under a bright moon, lined and slept there, returning to Broadhalfpenny the next morning.
Disaster! The Hambledon skipper, Richard Nyren John's father), was bowled by the first ball of the day and more wickets tumbled until the last pair, the bowlers Barber and Brett, managed to top three figures. Coulsdon went in needing 133 and at first looked like getting them, but then, "going over fast", Baker tells us, they collapsed and Hambledon won by 54 runs. After the match, Baker's party crossed the road to the pub, "The Hut", now the famous Bat and Ball, which was kept by Richard Nyren, and had dinner, setting off back to Chichester at about four o'clock.
We hear little about the spectators in this match but when Baker next saw Hambledon play, against Sir Horace Mann's team at Guildford in July 1772, he was more informative. A parson friend, John Woodward, woke Baker soon after six and after drinking chocolate they set off for the match.
Hambledon were already batting when they arrived. It was a cheerful scene. The 'Basin' on Merrow Down was ringed by a big crowd of spectators, most of them standing (contemporary paintings of matches show no sign of seating accommodation for the ordinary folk). The local publicans were doing good business in their booths, some of them rented by the local nobility and thus the equivalent of the present-day sponsors' tents or boxes. As in our own times, the occupants were often more interested in the food and drink than in the cricket.
Guildford had fixed up a small grandstand, "with benches above one another over his booth below", but it was already full. Baker was hungry, so he went foraging with an equally famished Oxford undergraduate, and they found "a small booth where we had a good cold dinner and good cider and ale", better and cheaper, as it turned out, than the one they had on the following day in the White Hart booth. Among the spectators, Baker observed a number of elegant ladies, as well as the Earl of Tankerville (a well known patron of cricket), Lords Dunkellin and Palmerston, and many of the local gentry. With the match unfinished, the White Hart was fully booked but Baker managed to find a room for the night a few doors away, and a bowl of punch with lobster and cheese seems to have consoled him.
Later in the decade Baker was twice in London for the annual five-a-side match with which Hambledon customarily opened their season. He managed to combine cricket-watching with his other passion, the law, attending trials at the Guildhall in the mornings before going up to the Artillery Ground in the afternoons. In the May 1775 match, he was caught in a riot, reminding us that even in the supposedly civilised 18th century, crowd violence was not unknown. Hambledon's opponents, Kent, were bowled out for 37, and the Hambledon star, John Small, (who was rightly included in John Woodcock's list of the 100 greatest players in the history of the game) then plodded his way to 42 in two and a half hours.
At this point the fielding side claimed that they were being obstructed by the overflow crowd (Baker says that he "never saw so many people together") and walked off. Hooligans who had climbed on the wall of the adjoining nonconformist burial ground, Bunhill Fields, then started pelting spectators with brickbats.
A newspaper reported that "several persons were terribly wounded". Baker was not one of them, as he had sensibly decided to leave, though there was such a crush at the exit that it took him three quarters of an hour to get out into Chiswell Street. After he left the ground, order was restored and play resumed, with Hambledon eventually gaining an exciting victory on the second day.
This was the match in which the absurdities of the old two-stump wicket at last became intolerable. The famous bowler 'Lumpy' Stevens, normally of Surrey but on this occasion a guest player for Kent, amazed everyone by getting through Small's virtually impregnable defence three times, only for the ball to pass harmlessly between the stumps. By the time Baker next watched Hambledon at the Artillery Ground, in 1777, the third stump had been added. Admission charges had also been tripled, from 2d to 6d, both to keep out the rowdy element and because the space for spectators had been reduced when new houses were built along the City Road side of the ground.
Besides these virtually professional matches, Baker also watched a good deal of local cricket in Sussex. His disgust at Hambledon's poor performance at Sevenoaks was typical of him. He was just as unforgiving of shoddy play in local games. "Poor doings on both sides", he grumbled when Horsham played Warnham in 1776. But Horsham had a strong team: in 1773 he watched them return from a victory over East Grinstead, "in procession a cheval". There was a good crowd too for Horsham versus Reigate, including one of the local noblemen, Lord Irwin, who "got out of his coach and stood with the crowd". No doubt Reigate's 'Shock' White was a big draw. A couple of years earlier he had gone in against Hambledon with a bat wider than the wicket, thus leading to a rapid change in the Laws.
Star batsmen out for nought, secondinnings collapses, slow scoring, crowd disorders, sponsors guzzling away with their backs to the game; some things never change. But just as there are today, spectators more than 200 years ago were willing to put up with the inconveniences because of their devotion to the game. We can be grateful to Baker for watching his cricket shrewdly and intelligently, and for taking us beyond Nyren's wonderfully evocative romanticism.
David Underdown is a former Professor of History at Yale University. His book, Start of Play: Cricket and Culture in 18th Century England, was published in 1994.