Saturday, 7 August 2010

Staffordshire M.P.s in the 18th century, part 1: Structures

Introduction

Elections
In the 18th century Parliament, there were just over 550 elected M.P.s: a surprisingly large number for a time when the population of the country was only a tenth of what it is today. Under an Act passed in 1716, a general election was held every seven years, and this was only changed to the current five years in 1911.

Constituencies
There were 45 M.P.s from Scotland and 24 from Wales (100 from Ireland would be added in 1800), and 2 each chosen by the graduates of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (an ancient right, not abolished till 1948); the rest being elected by English constituencies. Here, 2 M.P.s were elected by each county, regardless of size and population. This might sound strange and unfair, but the Americans still use a system derived from it, where every state elects just two senators.
The great majority of M.P.s, however, were elected by the towns. Ever since the early middle ages, certain towns had been granted the status of “Boroughs”, which meant they could choose their own mayors, collect their own local taxes, and also elect their own M.P.s to Parliament: Most boroughs elected two M.P.s. There were four boroughs in Staffordshire: Lichfield, Newcastle, Stafford and Tamworth; meaning that, with the addition of the two representing the county, 10 M.P.s were returned altogether.
The trouble with this system was that it had become hopelessly fossilised. For over 100 years the population grew and shifted, but no new boroughs were created, nor did any old ones lose their borough status. This meant that new cities like Birmingham or Manchester (or Stoke) remained legally villages, with no local government structure or representation in Parliament, whereas old decayed towns, like Old Sarum (a deserted hilltop outside Salisbury) or Dunwich (a port on the coast of Suffolk, which had now fallen into the sea) still elected their own M.P.s! These were the famous “rotten boroughs” - but nothing was done about them till the Reform Act of 1832! There were, however, no rotten boroughs in Staffordshire.


Who could vote
Basically, voting was by men who owned property. In the counties there was a uniform system: voting was restricted to those owning land or houses with a rateable value of £2 a year: these were nicknamed “the 40 shilling freeholders”. Even in the 18th century this was not a large sum of money, so in most counties there would be several thousand of these voters. In the boroughs, however, there was no uniform system at all, and every town might have its own rules for qualification. The most common were where the M.P.s were chosen by the town council, or where they were chosen by the Freemen of the town (this was the system in Newcastle and Stafford). In other places, the vote might go to all ratepayers, to the owners of certain houses, or even to anyone who happened to be in the town at the time of the election! There was no notion of “one man, one vote”: if you were fortunate enough to own property in several different towns, then you could vote in all of them! Furthermore, if a town returned 2 M.P.s, as most did, then each voter would in fact have two votes; though he wasn’t allowed to give both to the same candidate.
There was no secret ballot till 1872: voting was “open” and took place in public. If you wanted to cast a vote, you would have to go up onto a platform (called the “hustings” in the town square, where your name would be checked on the list of voters, and you would tell the returning officer (probably the mayor of sheriff) whom you wished to vote for. The candidates and their agents would be watching closely to make sure there was no cheating. There would probably be a large crowd in the square, provided with lavish amounts of free drink by the candidates, ready to cheer or boo as the mood took them, and often to riot and go on the rampage. Obviously such a system led to a great deal of bribery, corruption and intimidation, which everybody officially deplored but nobody did anything about!

What happened in an election
In actual fact, few elections ever got as far as an actual vote (called a “poll” - literally, a head-count of voters). Electioneering was a very expensive business, which the candidates usually had to pay for out of their own pockets. Usually, therefore, candidates who realised they had little chance of winning would drop out long before the poll, in order not to waste any more money (The idea that parties have to contest every seat, even those they are never likely to win, only dates from after the second world war). There would only be an actual poll where the contest was looking very close, or the candidates exceptionally determined, or simply very rich. In most 18th century elections, there would be a lot of excitement, and often very riotous campaigns, but usually by election day only two candidates would be left, and they would be proclaimed to have been returned without any need for an actual vote. In the general election of 1754, only about 50 constituencies got as far as a poll!
The people most likely to benefit from this system were the great landowners, and not surprisingly the great bulk of M.P.s and almost all cabinet ministers in the 18th century were drawn from these families. In some cases, a nobleman’s hold over a constituency was so tight that he could practically nominate the M.P.s, and it would be nicknamed a “pocket borough”. There were none of these in Staffordshire, but nevertheless, most of the local M.P.s were drawn from just four families and their dependents, as we shall see.
There is not a single case of an 18th century government losing an election! A government simply had more to offer than its opponents. M.P. did not receive a salary until the 20th century, but in the 18th century at least 150 M.P.s would receive government money in one way or another, and naturally they would be expected to support the government in return. Similarly, governments could reward their supporters in the constituencies with a great variety of jobs and favours. Once again, everyone denounced the corruption involved, but no serious attempts at reform were made. Governments fell, not because of defeat at the polls, but because of internal divisions, or in some cases because the king sacked the Prime Minister!

Political parties
Early in the century there were two parties, the Whigs and the Tories; though of course neither was as well-organised as parties today.
When in 1714 Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, died, the throne passed to a remote German cousin, George I, elector of Hanover. He was strongly supported by the Whigs, but many Tories thought the true heir was James Edward Stuart, son of the late King James II who had been deposed back in 1688. James’s supporters were known as the “Jacobites”. The trouble was that whereas George was a Protestant, James was a Catholic and was furthermore backed by the French; and in consequence many Tories could not bring themselves to support him. There were two major Jacobite rebellions, one in 1715-16 and another (led by James’s son Charles Edward Stuart; “Bonnie Prince Charlie”) in 1745-6. Because of these, the first two Hanoverian kings could not trust the Tories, and their governments were entirely Whig. After mid-century, these old political divisions declined, politics became very confused, and it was only from about 1780 that a new Whig party developed in opposition to the government of Lord North and later that of William Pitt the younger.
Staffordshire was a strongly Tory area, and many people in the county were Jacobite sympathisers.



Staffordshire Constituencies & Votes

The County of Staffordshire
2 M.P.s
About 5,000 voters (40 shilling Freeholders)
Polls in the period 1714-1800: 1715, 1747


Lichfield
2 M.P.s
About 700 voters (various qualifications)
Polls 1714-1800: 1715, 1722, 1727, 1747, 1754, 1761


Newcastle-under-Lyme
2 M.P.s
About 500 voters (Freemen)
Polls 1714-1800: 1715, 1734, 1768, 1790


Stafford
2 M.P.s
About 200-500 voters (Freemen, known as Burgesses)
Polls 1714-1800: 1722, 1734, 1754, 1768, 1780, 1790


Tamworth
2 M.P.s
About 250-500 voters (“Scot & Lot”: those who paid the local Poor Rate tax)
Polls 1714-1800: 1722, 1727, 1734, 1741, 1761, 1774




It can be seen that there was never an election when all the Staffordshire constituencies went to the poll!

(Next: the families who dominated Staffordshire politics)

Stafforshire M.P.s in the 18th century: part 2: Bagots and Chetwynds

Four families and their friends dominated Staffordshire politics in this period:

(1) The Bagots of Blithfield

The Bagots were an old Staffordshire family of landed gentry. They had been Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses and Royalists in the Civil War. In the 18th century they were strong Tories with Jacobite sympathies.


Sir Edward Bagot, 2nd Baronet,
M.P. Staffordshire, 1660-61

Sir Walter Bagot, (son), 1645-1704
M.P. Staffordshire 1679-90, 1693-95

Sir Edward Bagot, (son), 1673-1712
M.P. Staffordshire 1698-1708

Charles Bagot, (brother), 1681-1736
M.P. Staffordshire 1712-13

Sir Walter Wagstaffe Bagot, (son of Edward), 1702-1768
M.P. Newcastle 1722-27, Staffordshire 1727-54, Oxford University 1762-68

Sir William Bagot, (son), 1723-1798
M.P. Staffordshire 1754-80
Created Baron Bagot 1780

Sir Walter Wagstaffe Bagot was always an opponent of the Whig governments in the first half of the century. He retired from the Staffordshire seat in 1754 in favour of his son Sir William, but was persuaded to return to politics eight years later as representative of Oxford University, a very strong centre of Toryism. He told his constituents that his main desire was to support the Church of England, “which in our days has so many enemies to cope with”, but he seems never to have spoken in the Commons after his return, and is only known to have cast his vote twice.
By contrast, his son Sir William was a frequent speaker, always taking a very conservative line. He opposed giving any more civil rights to Nonconformists (Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers etc), and in 1777 spoke out strongly against a proposal to build a theatre in Birmingham, arguing that this was precisely the sort of development that had caused the decline and fall of ancient Rome! It seems he was not much respected: one newspaper of the time described him as being “Of very moderate abilities, and without any of those engaging qualities which attract men’s regard”. He did not contest the election of 1780, having been promised a peerage by the Prime Minister, Lord North, which he was given later that year.


(2) The Chetwynds

Walter Chetwynd, d. 1692 (childless)
M.P. Staffordshire 1690-93

John Chetwynd, d. 1702 (distant cousin, inherited)
M.P. Stafford 1689-95, 1701-2

Walter Chetwynd, d. 1735 (son)
M.P. Stafforshire 1702-10, Stafford 1712-22 & 1724-34
Created Viscount Chetwynd (Irish) 1717 (Irish noblemen counted as commoners, and were allowed to be elected M.P.s!)

John Chetwynd, d. 1767, 2nd Viscount (brother)
M.P. St. Mawes 1715-22, Stockbridge 1722-34, Stafford 1738-47

William Chetwynd, d. 1770, 3rd Viscount (brother)
M.P. Stafford 1715-22, Plymouth 1722-27, Stafford 1734-70

William Richard Chetwynd, 1731-65 (son of John)
M.P. Stafford 1754-65

John Chetwynd Talbot 1750-93 (son-in-law of John; inherited his estates)
M.P. Castle Rising 1777-82
Created Earl Talbot 1784

And also -

William Chetwynd of Rugeley, d. 1691 (distant cousin of the family)
M.P. Stafford 1661-79

Walter Chetwynd of Grendon, d. 1732 (great-nephew)
M.P. Lichfield 1715-22


Walter Chetwynd was unseated at Staffordshire after the 1710 election, following accusations of corruption, being replaced by Henry Vernon. He was then re-elected at bye-election in 1712, when Foley, the other M.P., went to the House of Lords. Walter was defeated at Stafford in 1722, as was his brother William, the town‘s other M.P. Walter stood at a bye-election in 1724 and was defeated by Francis Eld, but Eld was then expelled from Commons following proof that the Mayor had tampered with the voting list, and Walter Chetwynd was installed in his place.
John Chetwynd was a diplomat, serving on missions to Paris, The Hague and Turin under Queen Anne.
It is worth noting that Stockbridge & St Mawes, which John Chetwynd represented, were tiny constituencies (with only 36 voters in St Mawes and 100 in Stockbridge) where there were hardly ever any actual votes: in fact, classic “rotten boroughs”
After 1714, the Chetwynds were described as “Hanoverian Tories”: that is, they normally followed the Tory line, but suspicion of the Catholic “Pretender” James Edward Stuart and his French backers meant they accepted the German Protestant George I as King. They thus supported the Whig government, and were rewarded with salaried government positions, but were not liked or trusted by either side.
In 1720 there occurred the famous “South Sea Bubble”; the world’s first-ever stock exchange crash. Many prominent people stood accused of corruption. The new Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, who was not personally implicated in the scandal, exploited the opportunity to cement his position in power. In 1722 he purged the Chetwynds from the government. The four family M.P.s all lost their posts:-

Walter as Chief Ranger of St. James’s Park
John as a Commissioner of Trade & Plantations
William as a Junior Lord of the Admiralty
Walter of Grendon as Paymaster of Bounties & Pensions

(Most of these positions were called “sinecures” - jobs which paid a good salary but involved little or no actual work. Sinecures were used to reward people to whom the government didn’t wish to give any real power)

The family’s fortunes revived after Walpole’s fall from power in 1742. William Chetwynd was a supporter of his (short-lived) successor, Lord Wilmington, and was rewarded by being appointed as Master of the Mint, a position formerly held by Sir Isaac Newton, and worth the princely sum of £1,500 a year. (To put this into context; most families at the time had an annual income of £25 or less!) He held the post until his death in 1770.
William Chetwynd also once fought a duel with swords against Walpole’s brother Horatio in the Palace of Westminster itself, just outside the Commons chamber. William suffered a bad scratch on his face, leading to Horatio Walpole claiming victory - but Horatio was generally considered a complete buffoon and was widely ridiculed!

(Next: Two more local families, the Leveson-Gowers and Ansons)

Stafforshire M.P.s in the 18th century: part 3: Gowers and Ansons

(3) The Gowers of Trentham

John Leveson-Gower, 1674-1709
M.P. Newcastle 1692-1703
Created Baron Gower 1703

John Leveson-Gower, 2nd Baron Gower, 1694-1754 (son)
Created Earl Gower, 1746

William Leveson-Gower (brother) 1696-1756
M.P. Staffordshire 1720-56

Baptist Leveson-Gower (brother) 1703-82
M.P. Newcastle 1727-61

Granville Leveson-Gower, (son of John) 1721-1803
2nd Earl Gower
M.P. Bishop’s Castle 1744-47, Westminster 1747-54, Lichfield 1754
Created Marquess of Stafford, 1786

John Leveson-Gower, 1740-92 (brother)
M.P. Appleby 1784-90, Newcastle 1790-92

George Granville Leveson-Gower, (son of Granville)1758-1833
2nd Marquess of Stafford
M.P. Newcastle 1779-84, Staffordshire 1787-99
Created Duke of Sutherland, 1833

Granville Leveson-Gower (younger brother), 1773-1846
M.P. Lichfield 1795-99, Staffordshire 1799-1815
Created Viscount Granville, 1815

The Gowers are a classic example of a family rising in wealth and importance with every generation, by a mixture of profitable marriages with heiresses and wise investments. Politics also played an important part in their success.
The 2nd Baron Gower was a Tory and a Jacobite. In 1715 he was on the point of setting out to join James Edward Stuart’s rebellion when he heard that the English Jacobites had been defeated at Preston, so he prudently abandoned his plans and went home. This provoked later taunts of “Whose foot was in the stirrup?”. He was linked with Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, the immensely rich M.P. for Denbighshire and leading Jacobite, who was nicknamed “the Prince of Wales”. Gower and Wynn presided over the annual Lichfield races, a traditional gathering-place of midlands Jacobites.
After the fall of Walpole in 1742, the Tories hoped for places in a new government and a serious reform of the system; but were disappointed, for they got nothing, and many turned instead to more Jacobite plotting. A major conflict was now breaking out in Europe, which became known as the War of the Austrian Succession. Britain was not yet involved, but the French planned a pre-emptive strike, involving an invasion of the south coast of England, linked with a new Jacobite rising. A French spy in 1743 reported that Staffordshire was “unanimously attached to the legitimate king” (i.e. to the exiled James Edward Stuart, “the Old Pretender”), and named Gower, Bagot, Chetwynd and Wolesley as likely rebels, as well as various lords with estates in the county. It was noted how they gathered every year at Lichfield races.
In late 1743, the French built up a Channel fleet and an invasion force of 10,000 men. French agents were in communication with English Tories, as well as with Scottish clan chiefs. British spies only discovered the plot at last moment. On February 24th 1744, the French and British fleets faced each other off Dungeness, waiting for battle - but then the greatest storm for decades swept through the Channel, many French ships and stores were destroyed, and the invasion plans had to be abandoned. Formal war was now declared between Britain & France. The government made it clear that it knew of Tory plots; but for the sake of peace and quiet decided against holding treason trials, with the result that little hard detail has become known to historians.
The person most upset by this failure was James’s son, Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, who now resolved to go on his own. In summer 1745 Charles landed in Scotland, captured Edinburgh and headed south through Lancashire and into the Midlands. In December his little army of Highlanders reached Derby, but there they halted and turned back. Charles had promised the clan chiefs that reinforcements would come, but there was no sign of the French landing, and not one prominent local Jacobite had made a move: not Wynn, not Bagot, and especially not Gower! He had committed the ultimate treachery: he’d changed sides at the end of 1744 and joined the government! He raised a regiment to fight against the rebels, with himself as Colonel, and was rewarded with an Earldom 1746!
With the failure of Jacobitism, Tory fury turned particularly against Gower. The Staffordshire election of 1747 was extremely violent. William Leveson-Gower held his seat, but Sir Walter Bagot came top of the poll, and the other Gower candidate, Sir Richard Wrottesley, was defeated. Chetwynd’s house in Stafford (now the old Post Office) was ransacked by Jacobite sympathisers: 18 people charged with the offence, but rioters threatened to pull down the town gaol if any of their people were locked up! Gower found the voters of Lichfield “insolent to a degree you cannot conceive”, and appealed to the government to send in troops. Huge riotous demonstrations by Jacobite sympathisers marked the Lichfield races that year, with many wearing tartan to show sympathy with the Scots rebels: Gower’s son was beaten up and the Duke of Bedford was attacked with a horse-whip! Years later Dr Johnson, a Lichfield man, a Tory and a Jacobite, discussing his great dictionary, said that when he defined the word “renegade” as “one who deserts to the enemy”: “I added, “Sometimes we say a Gower”, but the printer struck it out!”

The 2nd Earl Gower was an immensely influential figure, holding a long series of high official positions: Lord Privy Seal, Lord President of the Council, Lord Chamberlain, Master of the Horse, Master of the Great Wardrobe: in fact, he was hardly ever out of office from 1749 to 1794 (though it is noticeable that all these were actually highly-placed sinecures, without any real policy-making role.) He didn’t always get own way in local politics, however. At the Lichfield election in 1761, Gower put forward a friend called Hugo Meynell, scion of a rather disreputable Derbyshire family: Meynell’s father, according to Horace Walpole, “had created a large fortune by play (cards), and no-one doubted that it was by unfair play”. Hugo Meynell himself was distinguished only by being esteemed the best foxhunter in the kingdom. Many people in Lichfield did not like Meynell and resented the dominance of the Gowers, and a local lawyer called John Levett was put up to oppose him. Meynell defeated Levett by two votes, but then the sheriff disqualified seven of Meynell’s voters and declared Levett elected! Meynell petitioned against this result, and the House of Commons voted to overrule the sheriff, expelled Levett and declared Meynell elected. Meynell withdrew from Lichfield at the 1768 election, but then represented Stafford 1774-80.
A more significant client of the Gowers to be elected to Parliament was Thomas Gilbert, M.P. for Newcastle 1763-68 and then for Lichfield 1768-94, when he retired at the age of 75. He was a lawyer who worked as Land Agent to the 2nd Earl - that is, he was the manager of his vast estates. Gilbert is worth mentioning because his brother was John Gilbert, who held same important position for the Duke of Bridgwater, the sponsor of Britain's first important canal up in Lancashire. Earl Gower married as his second wife Bridgwater’s sister Louisa, and the two great lords, together with Josiah Wedgwood, were the chief sponsors of Trent-Mersey canal, which John Gilbert worked with James Brindley in building. The Earl’s family eventually inherited the vast Bridgwater fortune when the Duke died unmarried, and so the Gowers took yet another step forward in their acquisition of enormous wealth.


(4) The Ansons of Shugborough

Thomas Anson, 1695-1773 (unmarried)
M.P. Lichfield 1747-70

George Anson, d. 1762 (brother, childless): the Admiral
M.P. Hedon 1744-47
Created Baron Anson, 1747
First Lord of the Admiralty, 1751-56 & 1757-62
(Hedon was a constituency in Yorkshire, very much under the controlling influence of the local Whig nobility)

George Adams/Anson, 1731-89 (sister‘s son: changed his name to Anson )
M.P. Saltash 1761-68, Lichfield 1770-89
(Saltash was another “rotten borough” with just 38 voters, rarely going to the poll!)

Thomas Anson, 1767-1818 (son)
M.P. Lichfield 1789-1806
Created Viscount Anson, 1806

The Ansons are said to be an old family of Staffordshire gentry, but the founder of the family base at Shugborough was William Anson, a rich and successful London lawyer, who built a large brick house there, on the confluence of the Sow and Trent, in the 1690s. When he died in 1720, Shugborough was inherited by his eldest son, Thomas; a cultivated man with a deep interest in architecture and music; but it was his second son, George, born in 1697, who was the real founder of the family’s fortunes. He became a great admiral, famous for his piratical voyage round the world in 1740-42, for his victory over the French in 1747, and for his vital work as First Lord of the Admiralty, in change of the navy, in the Seven Years’ War. After a brief spell as an M.P. he was given a peerage, and became an extremely rich man.
Admiral Anson was at sea when Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” the Jacobite claimant, staged his rising, and marched his little army of Highland clansmen through Manchester and Macclesfield and Leek and as far as Derby in December 1745, before turning back and suffering eventual defeat at Culloden. Thomas Anson remained at Shugborough during this crisis and sent his brother details of the revolt. He, like many other contemporaries, greatly overestimated the size of the rebel forces.
Admiral Anson was now a great man, and to befit his status he bought himself a suitably grand house, Moor Park in Hertfordshire (now a golf club, and seldom opened to the public). Anson is said to have spent £80,000 improving the estate: an immense sum. But in addition to this, much of Anson’s new wealth went to Shugborough, where his elder brother Thomas began to rebuild the house, bought 1,000 extra acres and shifted the village of his tenants across the Trent to Haywood, to leave space for a romantic parkland in the latest fashion. The Chinese pavilion, and a wooden pagoda that no longer survives, were designed for him by Piercy Brett, who had been with Admiral Anson on his great voyage, which had included a stay in Canton.
Both brothers were supporters the Whig government. Thomas Anson became M.P. for Lichfield in the general election of 1747, and continued to represent the town until his retirement in 1770, though really he took little interest in politics and is only known to have spoken once in the House of Commons; on a purely local issue concerning Lichfield cathedral.
Admiral Anson died childless, his wife having predeceased him in 1760, and so his wealth devolved on his brother Thomas, who used it for further elaborations at Shugborough. Amongst other things, he erected a replica of the Arch of Hadrian in Athens as a monument to his brother, containing effigies of the admiral and his wife. But Thomas never married, and when he died it all passed to the brothers’ nephew, the son of their sister Jeanette. This man, George Adams, changed his name to Anson, and inherited not only the property but also the parliamentary seat at Lichfield. Like his uncles, he too was a staunch Whig, though the party was now out of office: he opposed Lord North’s American policies in the 1770s, which the Gower family supported, and after 1783 opposed William Pitt‘s government; again differing from the Gowers.
By this time the Ansons were rich and powerful enough to share control of Lichfield politics with the Gowers; the two families taking one of the seats each and avoiding expensive contests with each other; despite the fact that they supported different political parties! This is illustrated by what happened in 1789. When George Adams/Anson died, his son Thomas, aged just 22, was away in Vienna. Agents for Pitt suggested to the Marquess of Stafford, the current head of the Gower family, that now might be a suitable time to bring in another government supporter for Lichfield; but Stafford rejected the idea, saying that young Thomas was “a man of good character and disposition”, ought to be allowed into Parliament for what was now effectively the family seat, and might be persuaded to support the government anyway. So Thomas Anson was elected an M.P. in his absence, and did not get home till next year! In fact Stafford’s hopes were dashed, because Thomas followed his family’s support for the Whigs, and when the party finally returned to power following Pitt’s death in 1806, he was rewarded with a peerage. The later Earls of Lichfield are descended from him.


A note on Tamworth
Tamworth didn’t fit into same picture as other Staffordshire constituencies; the traditional families not elected there as they were in the other county boroughs. But in the 18th century Tamworth did elect one M.P. of first-rate political importance, Edward Thurlow, one of greatest lawyers of his day. He represented Tamworth 1765-1778, and in this time served as Attorney-General before being raised to Lord Chancellor. He then held this position as a key member of cabinet, and very close to king, for 10 years before Pitt had had enough of his double-dealing and treachery, and sacked him. Then in 1796, Tamworth elected a new kind of M.P.; a cotton manufacturer from Bury named Robert Peel. He represented the town till 1820, and was father of Sir Robert Peel, twice Prime Minister, creator of the modern Conservative party, and reckoned by some historians to be greatest Prime Minister ever. Sir Robert Peel represented Tamworth from 1830 through to his death in 1851, and could claim to have immortalised the name of the town when he issued his famous “Tamworth Manifesto” in 1835.

(The final part of this essay will deal with Sheridan in Stafford)

Monday, 2 August 2010

Cricket: Fantasy Teams

A few years ago, a poll was held to pick what would have been the greatest cricket team of all time. As I recall, the people chosen were:-

Hobbs
Hutton
Bradman
Richards (Viv)
Grace (capt)
Sobers
Botham
Evans (wk)
Lindwall
Trueman
Bedi

Certainly a very strong team!
Christopher Martin-Jenkins recently produced a book, “The 100 Best Cricketers of All Time”: his top eleven names make interesting reading (in this order):-

Bradman
Grace
Sobers
Warne
Hobbs
Tendulkar
Barnes
Hammond
Richards
Gilchrist
Marshall

This is not quite a team, having too many batsmen and insufficient bowlers. (The next four names on his list were all bowlers: McGrath, Muralitharan, Imram Khan and Rhodes)

The “dream team” of the great cricket writer Sir Neville Cardus, from all the cricketers he had watched, was said to be:-

Hobbs
Trumper
Bradman
Macartney
Jackson (capt)
Faulkner
Miller
Rhodes
Oldfield (wk)
Larwood
Barnes

Cardus always preferred the elegant stroke-players and the “characters” to the grafters!

After Don Bradman’s retirement in 1948, journalists selected what they thought would have been his ideal Australian team from his era:-

Ponsford
Morris
Bradman (capt)
Macartney
McCabe
Gregory
Miller
Tallon (wk)
Lindwall
Grimmett
O’Reilly

And for an equivalent English team:-

Hobbs
Hutton
Hammond
Duleepsinhji
Compton
Jardine (capt)
Ames (wk)
Tate
Larwood
Verity
Wright

The Australian team looks stronger; the English team being somewhat short on bowlers.

More recently, when Ritchie Benaud retired as a TV commentator, he nominated the ideal Australian team of his time:-

Morris
Taylor
Chappell (Ian) (capt)
Chappell (Greg)
Harvey
Miller
Gilchrist (wk)
Warne
Lillee
McGrath
Alderman

and also the ideal England team:-

Hutton (capt)
Boycott
May
Compton
Dexter
Botham
Knott (wk)
Laker
Trueman
Statham
Bedser

It is noticeable that these two teams have much the same overall structure and balance. The Australians would be more difficult to bowl against, having more left-handers.

You can create fantasy teams of your own. For instance, here is a postwar team consisting entirely of Bs:-

Boycott
Boon
Bradman
Barrington
Border
Botham
Boucher (wk)
Benaud (capt)
Broad
Bedser
Bedi

The team could probably do with another fast bowler from somewhere; otherwise it looks very powerful

As far as real teams are concerned, rather than fantasy ones, the strongest team ever assembled in my time was, I think, the “Rest of the World” XI that played England in the summer of 1969 :-

Richards (Barry)
Barlow
Kanhai
Pollock (Graeme)
Lloyd
Sobers (capt)
Bland
Proctor
Engineer (wk)
Mackenzie
Intikhab

Although Mackenzie was a little past his best, and Bland was selected mostly for his exciting fielding, I’m confident these players could have held their own against any fantasy side.

The most thrilling Test Match side I remember was the West Indies team of 1963 - the first series I ever watched on television. Ten of the team played in all 5 tests, beating England 3-1, with one match drawn. Oddly enough, they never settled on who should open the batting with Conrad Hunte. This is the team from the Lord's Test, the drawn match, which was the most exciting one in the series:-

Hunte
McMorris
Kanhai
Butcher
Sobers
Solomon
Worrell (capt)
Murray (wk)
Hall
Griffith
Gibbs

It's a shame the West Indies can't manage to find such a team nowadays!