White Conduit Fields Ground

The White Conduit Fields Ground played a major part in cricket history, even though only staged one first class match and 13 other known important matches. Its significance arises from the fact that it was home to the team of the sporting aristos of the Star and Garter Club who were soon to move to the Dorset Square Lord’s Ground and form the MCC. It was the predecessor of Lord’s.

It is however, a ground about which very little has been written. So let’s start at the beginning.

The White Conduit itself was built in 1431 under royal license to supply the Monastery of Charterhouse with water. A source of water was found at Islington and a pipe (called a conduit) was constructed to bring fresh water to the Charterhouse (a Carthusian monastery), in Clerkenwell. Because the White Conduit was at a higher level than Charterhouse, the water traveled through the pipe by gravity. At a later time, the lead cistern holding the head of water at Islington was arched with brick and flint, with a loft above, and enclosed in a small white building. It was restored in 1641. By 1654, the supply of water was found to be so reduced that it was abandoned and water from the New River (in fact a canal) was used instead. The map below is from 1750, the bright red marker, centre right, is around the area of the conduit head, and later, White Conduit House.

From the late 17th century, the site was developed as pleasure gardens away from the city centre. In the eighteenth Century a large tea-room was build to take advantage of the crowds of Londoners who would journey there to take advantage of the fresh air and open landscape to the North.

Here are two illustrations which show how the facility developed. The years given are 1731, 1749 and 1831.

Note the small building with steeply sloping roof in each illustration (in dilapidated state in the 1831 illustration) – that is the conduit head.

This small plan of the House and gardens, taken from a 1805 map of Islington based in a survey of 1793, shows that there were formal gardens to the East of the House. Note the rounded end of the building by the letter H – no other building shows this feature, I suggest it is the rounded end of the tea rooms.

A Map of the area from 1750 shows a considerable strip of land, to the West of the House and running from South to North, which is labelled as White Conduit Fields

Cricket Archive lists some fourteen matches of importance at this ground, covering two periods. Firstly, nine matches in the period 1718-1732 and five in the period 1773-1786. These are as follows:

  1. 1 Sep 1718 London v Rochester Punch Club
  2. Jul 1719               London v Rochester Punch Club
  3. 19 Aug 1719        London v Kent
  4. 9 Jul 1720          London v Kent
  5. 18 Jul 1722          London v Dartford
  6. 10 Aug 1724       Dartford v Penshurst
  7. 5 Aug 1728        Middlesex v London
  8. 12 Aug 1730       London v Kent
  9. 7 Aug 1732        Middlesex v London
  10. 5 Aug 1773        London v England
  11. 22 May 1784       not known
  12. 27 May 1784       not known         
  13. 30 Jun 1785         White Conduit Club v Gentlemen of Kent
  14. 22 Jun 1786         White Conduit Club v Kent

There was however much dissatisfaction with the ground, and this precipitated a move to Dorset Square, in Marylebone, organised by one of the White Conduit Club players called Thomas Lord and the foundation of a new club – The Marylebone Cricket Club. The ground however continued to be used for matches of the Albion Cricket Club until around 1834.

While there are several illustrations of cricket at this ground, essentially there are two variations, each of which can no doubt be traced back to a common source. These two picture-types are illustrated below:

Firstly, there are ones with the White Conduit Buildings in the background:

This illustration is taken from a series of prints of activities at White Conduit Fields by Robert Dighton, and dated around 1784. The rounded building in the background is clearly the same one as that above dated 1831, in fact a tea room for the general public. I suggest that the 1831 picture above is from a North West viewpoint, whereas this one is nearer to due North, looking South. The Conduit Head is visible, to the right, in front of the terraced housing (Fenton Street). Behind the fence on the left are are the formal gardens and beyond it, the skyline of the City of London.

Secondly, there are pictures with a building with a roof turret in the background:

The building on the far side of the ground looks just a little like the one in the 1749 view of White Conduit House, at least as far as the roof turret is concerned, but the two wings are absent. I do not however believe that is what it is. The small hill in the background is reminiscent of one in the 1731 the view above, which the caption says, is a South view; incidentally, I believe a South view is a view looking from the South, not to it, so this illustration is looking North, the opposite way to the Dighton illustration. The hill in the background could well be Highgate.

More illustrations along these lines can be viewed here

Since these days, White Conduit Fields has disappeared under Islington development and White Conduit House has been demolished. Can we however, identify where the cricket field was?

Well, one thing we do know is where White Conduit House was. It was replaced by a tavern in the mid 19th Century which is still there, now known as the Little Georgia Restaurant, selling Georgian food (the country, not the period). It is at 14 Barnsbury Road on, the corner between Dewsby Road and Barnsbury Road; there is a frieze on both fronts inscribed with sunk lettering saying ‘WHITE CONDUIT HOUSE’. The location conforms closely with maps which show where the old White Conduit House was so we can rely on this identification.

Rather pleasingly, there is a community garden area east of the pub, called Culpeper Community Garden, where there used to be formal gardens, so a little of the old use is preserved. The cricket ground is not so easy to pin down. Many authorities assume that is was close to the House, maybe immediately west. However, four pieces of evidence I present below suggests otherwise. Firstly and most importantly, there is the map of Islington of 1805 referred to above and shown in more detail below:

Here we see an area, well to the north of the house marked as a cricket field. Nearby is Prospect Place and very close to the ground are Albion Cottages. Note these cottages are not shown on other versions of the map and the caption describing them is somewhat clumsily placed, so I think they are a later addition. Alongside them, there is clearly a path across the field.

What is surprising is the distance from White Conduit House – just short of half a mile. It is though within the boundaries of White Conduit Fields as shown on the 1750 map.

The second piece of evidence is the text below, extracted from Walks through Islington; comprising an historical and descriptive account of that … district, both in its ancient and present state … With numerous engravings, by J. & H. S. Storer. L.P., published in 1831.

This tells us quite a lot about the cricket ground. The uses of the names Albion and Prospect confirm that we are looking at the same field as is marked on the Islington Map, Importantly, the text also confirms that the players who went on to form the MCC actually played here.

Thirdly, Storer refers to a tavern called The Albion close to the ground and there is still a pub called the The Albion, dating back to the 18th Century, at the edge of where the cricket field would have been. Excellent pub as well, which features an impressively faithful Georgian restoration showcasing the place’s rickety floors, wood-paneled walls and log fires.

And fourthly, a report in The Times of 22 June 1785 referred to complaint made by players of the White Conduit Club that people were interrupting their games by using a footpath across the playing area. There is indeed such a path shown on the 1805 map.

So where does this place the ground in the modern world of Islington? The up-to-date map below gives the answer, as best as I able to calculate it. The green square is the Albion pub, The Blue square is where I believe the original ground was and the red square is where the original White Conduit House was and the Little Georgia restaurant is today. If this is correct, then there is a green space on the site of the ground, now known as Thornhill Road Gardens, a lovely area looked after by a community project established by the Friends of Thornhill Gardens in 2019.

But how does this fit with the illustrations of the cricket grounds shown above and the backgrounds? These are somewhat problematic but I would suggest the following:

  1. In the first picture, the building with the roof turret could be the tavern known then and now as The Albion. Unfortunately, the Albion pub today doesn’t have a roof turret, and the orientation isn’t quite right. Hey-ho, it is only an engraving, not a photograph, and the appearance may have changed over the intervening years. And its chimneys are in the right place.
  2. As for the second illustration, the one showing showing the White Conduit building close by, I can only suggest that artistic license was involved. A view from the ground, looking South, would have included a view of the house in the middle-distance, and indeed the London skyline beyond. I believe that the artist has moved them all closer together to make the picture more interesting. This is particularity likely as the painting is one of a series seeking to promote White Conduit House as a sporting venue.

The Albion Public House and Thornhill Road Gardens: remnants of the White Conduit Fields cricket ground perhaps?

More investigation is needed, especially in the area of land ownership, but if this location can be shown to be accurate, it would be very fitting if a plaque could be put in place to pay tribute to the importance of this place in the history of cricket.