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When Dickens shouldered arms

How the first England team to tour Australia might not have, if it were not for a refusal by the great novelist

Ashley Mallett
Ashley Mallett
The pioneering 1868 Aboriginal side to England  •  The Cricketer International

The pioneering 1868 Aboriginal side to England  •  The Cricketer International

In the Australian summer of 1861-62, Charles Dickens dismissed a handsome offer of £7000 to embark on a reading tour Down Under; HH Stephenson's England cricket team toured Australia instead. Dickens was then offered £10,000 to visit Australia in the summer of 1862-63, and the offer was increased substantially over a number of weeks but the great novelist rejected them all. He was destined never to set foot in Australia.
The £7000 offer was made by Melbourne entrepreneurs Felix Spiers, who kept the Royal Hotel and Café de Paris in Bourke Street, and Christopher Pond, the host of the Piazza Hotel on the corner of Bourke and King Streets. The two men pooled resources to either get Dickens Down Under or bring out the first England cricket team. They enlisted the services of an agent, Richard Mallam, who sounded Dickens out, but though the writer had toyed with the idea of settling in Australia, he did not commit to the move because he could "only not do so until he should have finished Little Dorrit", as John Forster's biography had it.
A key member of the England team that visited was Charles Lawrence, an allrounder, who as a boy in 1840 walked the 22km from Merton in Surrey to Lord's to watch his heroes, among them Fuller Pilch, the All England champion bat. Round that time, Dickens was in Ballechelish, Scotland, polishing his newest epic, Barnaby Rudge.
The cricket connection was never far away with Dickens. In The Pickwick Papers he wrote with charm about a cricketing encounter between the fictional All Muggleton and Dingley Dell. Dickens makes light of the game but shows his eye for detail:
"[Each Fieldsman] fixed himself into proper attitude by placing one hand on each knee, and stooping very much as if he were 'making a back' for some beginner at leap-frog. All the regular players do this sort of thing - indeed it's generally supposed that it is quite impossible to look out properly in any other direction. 'Play', suddenly cried the bowler. The ball flew from his hand straight and swift towards the centre stump of the wicket. The wary Dumpkins was on the alert; it fell upon the tip of the bat and bounded far away over the heads of the scouts, who had just stooped low enough to let it fly over them."
Lawrence stayed in Australia to coach cricket, and he eventually found himself captain-coach of the Australian Aboriginal cricket team that toured England in 1868. On that tour the Aboriginal team played 47 two-day games, of which they won 14, lost 14, and had the better of the home sides in most of the drawn matches. The players were given pseudonyms or nicknames because their tribal names were either too hard to spell or pronounce, or both. Johnny Mullagh (Unaarrimin) was a specialist batsman and good medium-fast bowler, who played 45 matches on that tour, scoring 1698 runs at 23.65 and taking 245 wickets at 10 runs apiece. Lawrence, who in 1849 took all ten wickets against William Clarke's famous All England Xl in Edinburgh, hit 1156 runs at 20.16 and took 250 wickets at 12. But there was a huge difference in abilities among the players. For instance, one man, Sundown (Ballrinjarrimin), a specialist batsman, scored just one run on tour in three completed innings - though it was a personal best, because no one ever knew Sundown to have scored a single run in any match prior to the England tour, and he never played after 1868.
While Lawrence was in London with the Aboriginal team, he met Spiers and Pond, the men who had payrolled the England tour to Australia six years previously. Lawrence learnt that the two entrepreneurs did not collect the publicised £11,000 profit from the tour: as they ordered more wine to share with Lawrence in their Covent Garden restaurant, they confessed that their take was actually a cool £19,000, which left them flush with funds - more than enough to tempt Dickens for a reading tour with, the following year, 1862-63.
A great athlete, Dick-a-Dick would arm himself with a parrying shield and a leangle (killer boomerang), and for the price of one shilling would challenge all and sundry to throw a cricket ball at him from a distance of ten paces
When the big offer came, in the English summer of 1862, Dickens was said to have uttered: "A Man from Australia is in London, ready to pay £10,000 for eight months there. If…" It was an "if" that troubled him for some time, and led to agitating discussion. The civil war having closed the Americas, the increase made upon the last offer was tempting. He tried to familiarise himself with the fancy that he should thus get new material for observation, and he went so far as to plan An Uncommercial Traveller Upside Down.
In the end, though, he decided against it. "[T]hese renewed and larger offers tempt me. I can force myself to go aboard a ship, and I can force myself to do at that reading desk what I have a hundred times, but whether, with all this unsettled fluctuating distress in my mind, I could force an original book out of it is another question."
On the 1868 Aboriginal tour there was a man who had hand-eye co-ordination like no other, possibly to rank with the young Don Bradman, who famously taught himself to hit a golf ball with a stump as it rebounded off the family backyard tank-stand. Dickens would have loved Dick-a-Dick (Jumgumjenanuke), for he was the veritable Artful Dodger of the team. Dickens loved the game and had a cricket pitch in his expansive backyard at Gadshill. He may well also have seen the Aboriginal team pass his house in a coach as they travelled from Gravesend, taking the main road to Strood on their way to West Malling.
A great athlete, Dick-a-Dick would arm himself with a parrying shield and a leangle (killer boomerang), and for the price of one shilling would challenge all and sundry to throw a cricket ball at him from a distance of ten paces. If a challenger got a ball past Dick-a-Dick and struck him anywhere on his body, the ball thrower would be paid ten shillings. At The Oval in May 1868, seven men threw in unison at one point, but not one ball found its mark. The balls aimed at his head and chest he easily parried with his shield, and those thrown below the waist were deflected by skilful use of the leangle.
Before and after play and during intervals in every game, Dick-a-Dick was on the challenge. At Lord's in June 1868, he persuaded ten gentlemen to shed their top hats to throw at him at once, and evaded them all. Just once on the entire tour was this remarkable athlete caught off guard - in Derby, by a man named Samuel Richardson, in September of 1868.
Lawrence's tour was a great success, although one man, King Cole (Brippokei), died tragically after a short and sudden illness. King Cole had a cold but it wasn't considered sufficiently bad for him to miss the much-awaited game at Lord's, which ended on June 13. King Cole died of pneumonia ten days later, at Guy's Hospital in London. The Australian team management was fearful of more deaths on tour, so in September, one month ahead of the expected departure of the team for Australia, two players - Sundown and Jim Crow (Jallachmurrimin) - who had developed bad colds were sent home. In those days a heavy chest cold was something to fear, for if pneumonia developed, as indeed it had with King Cole, the condition invariably proved fatal.
In the wake of the Aboriginal team, the first "official" Australian team toured England in 1878, under the leadership of Dave Gregory. In the very first Test match, played in March 1877 at the MCG, Australia had beaten England by 45 runs, but the home side did not grant Gregory's men a Test in England in 1878. The first Test on English soil was in 1880, at The Oval, where England, led by Lord Harris and dominated by WG Grace's 152, beat Australia by five wickets. Then came the extraordinary Test of 1882, at The Oval. Australia won by seven runs, thanks to the brilliant bowling of Fred Spofforth, who took 7 for 46 and 7 for 44 to demolish the home side, following which the Sporting Times carried a mock obituary, stating that the body of English cricket would be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.
There is a link, if tenuous, between the 1868 Aboriginal team and the Ashes legend. Nine years after he destroyed the cream of English batting, Spofforth played as an import for Derby. Samuel Richardson, the man who got one past Dick-a-Dick's guard in 1868, was the secretary of the club then. Spofforth happened to catch Richardson with his hand in the till - to no great avail, as Richardson pocketed £1000 and fled to Spain, where he became the court tailor to King Alfonso and lived to the ripe old age of 93. I am not sure what the moral of this story is, but Dick-a-Dick's killer boomerang now stands behind glass in the Lord's Museum, less than three paces from the Ashes urn. There is a good deal of other 1868 team memorabilia as well, including two scorecards. The players wore coloured sashes to help identify them on the scorecard. Today players have numbers on their backs, but the Aboriginals' coloured clothing beat Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket in that area by 109 years.
The 1868 Australians were the trailblazers, the men who followed on from Stephenson's 1861-62 team, which toured Down Under because Charles Dickens dismissed the lure of a reading tour. The first Test was played less than nine years after the Aboriginal team toured England. If Dickens had not let a juicy offering fly past harmlessly, Test cricket would probably have taken longer to come to pass. In 2002, thanks to continued lobbying by Ian Chappell, the 1868 Aboriginal cricket team was inducted into Australian cricket's Hall of Fame.
In 2001 I took an Under-21 Aboriginal cricket team on a short tour of England. It was a part re-enactment of the 1868 tour, and we got to play at Lord's and see Dickens' fictional cricket match between Muggleton and Dingley Dell illustrated on the back of the £10 note then. We even had a ceremony at King Cole's graveside at Meath Gardens in London. During the ceremony, ochre was sprinkled on the grave - the mother (ochre representing the mother, the land) brought to the son. As coach of the team I was asked to read the words uttered by Lawrence when King Cole was buried all those years ago.
The racist White Australia policy weighed heavily against indigenous people Down Under, and it almost certainly prevented Aboriginal cricketers playing Test cricket. After the 1868 tour, Aboriginal cricket fell away. A few, such as Jack Marsh of New South Wales, who the England player and later administrator Pelham Warner said in 1903 was the best bowler in the world, was hounded out of cricket with the allegation that he chucked. So too Eddie Gilbert, the only bowler to have knocked the bat from Don Bradman's grasp, was said to have thrown. Jason Gillespie is the first acknowledged male Aboriginal Test cricketer, but how many others wore the baggy green before him - men who knew that if they revealed their true background they would never have played top cricket?
Charles Lawrence's journal (written in 1911)
Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He is the author of over 25 books, including Lords Dreaming, the story of the 1868 Aboriginal tour of England.