This website is in the early stages of development – in broad terms, it will be a virtual museum of Eighteenth Century cricket
The English are very fond of a game they call cricket. For this purpose they go into a large open field, and knock a small ball about with a piece of wood. I will not attempt to describe this game to you, it is too complicated, but it requires agility and skill, and everyone plays it, the common people and also men of rank.Cesar de Saussure, A Foreign View of England in the Reigns of George I and George II. 1728
To the English sports enthusiast, it may well seem like a reasonable proposition to say that the ball sports we all love were the product of the nineteenth Century. The Football Association was formed in 1863; Web-Ellis’s supposed invention of Rugby took place in 1813; Lawn Tennis traces its invention to Birmingham in the 1860’s. Cricket’s great player from Ancient History, WG Grace, was born as late as 1848, the County Championship emerged around 1871 and the first test match took place in 1877. Even Lord’s Cricket Ground in St John’s Wood, the home of cricket from ages past, came into use in 1814.
What is not always appreciated, though, it that cricket has a much longer history, not merely as a schoolboy game or casual pursuit on the village green, but as an adult organised sport. Approaching 800 major matches have been identified as taking place in the Eighteenth Century and cricket was certainly around before then. The object of this website is to provide a small insight into the cricket that was being played in England in this period. It does not pretend to offer original research in any way, rather it draws in the wonderful work that has been done by Cricket historians and statisticians over the past hundred years and more. The emphasis will be on offering the newcomer to the subject a small view of how cricket was played in those days – the laws, the grounds, the players, the teams and – most elusive of all – what it may have been like to see or play a game in those days.
Firstly though, a brief overview. The historical origins of cricket lie in rural southern England, where it was widely played by both peasantry and aristocracy in the 17th and 18th century, with vibrant local traditions and rivalries. The game rose in popularity through the 18th century, becoming a spectator sport drawing large crowds.
Broadly speaking, cricket in the 18th century was more of a recreation, less codified and regulated, more diverse, and – according to later Victorian sensibilities – more unruly. Money was a big factor in cricket from the start. In rural areas, charging ‘gate money’ was difficult since cricket was mostly played on open common land. The main sources of income were derived from selling food and beverages, but betting on the outcome of the game, or on players’ individual exploits, was central to the charm of cricket for English landed elites. Gambling was also the cause of violence at cricket matches, both rural and urban.
Among the first to recognise the further commercial opportunities of cricket were pub landlords, men such as George Smith who charged admission to the Artillery Ground in Finsbury as early as the 1740s. This model would be copied by other cricket entrepreneurs like Thomas Lord, of the eponymous Lord’s ground in London, opened on its present site in 1814.
The balance of cricket between urban and rural would ebb and flow during the 18th century, and the development of clubs was part of this process. The London Cricket Club was founded in 1722, a club for ‘noblemen’ and ‘gentlemen’, based out of the Star and Garter Inn in the centre of London. Most of their games were played at the Artillery Ground in Finsbury. The club was multi-functional, but both socialising and gambling cultures were key to its success.
Disbanded during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), many patrons retreated to the countryside and gathered around the renowned Hambledon cricket club in Hampshire. This became perhaps the main centre of cricket from about 1765 for the next 30 years. By the early 1780s, leading figures from the old London club were looking to relocate back to the city, commissioning Thomas Lord to find a private venue. He opened Lord’s Old Ground in 1787 in Marylebone, where, in the same year, the London Cricket Club reinvented itself as Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). It would become the most famous, and undoubtedly the most powerful, cricket club in the world.
By the late 18th century, the ‘great aristocrats’ and ‘gentlemen’ were threatening the vitality of the rural game by poaching the best players for urban matches, particularly for their new Marylebone club. Although the peasant and lower middle class game continued to be popular, by about 1815 the centre of gravity shifted decisively towards London and the emerging industrial cities in the English Midlands and the North.