Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Romance of the Ashes

On a miserably cold and wet day at the Oval cricket ground in August 1882, the England team, set a mere 85 runs to beat the Australians, were skittled out by Frederick Spofforth, the original “demon bowler”, and lost the match. In this debacle the great W. G. Grace scored 32, but the other ten Englishmen managed just 41 between them. A few days later, the following mock obituary notice appeared in the “Sporting Times”:-
       “In affectionate memory of English Cricket, which died at the Oval on 29th August 1882, deeply lamented by a large circle of friends and acquaintances. R.I.P. (N.B. The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia)"
     (Like all good humorists, the author managed to combine two separate issues currently in the news; cremation of the dead being a controversial matter of doubtful legality, bitterly opposed by many in the Church)
      Thus began the most famous tradition in cricket: the contest between England and Australia for the “Ashes”. The 1882 match was not the first between the two countries, but it stirred the popular imagination as never before. But the “Ashes” did not yet actually exist. This is the romantic story of how they began.

The victorious Australians were still playing in England when an English team set sail for Australia on September 14th. It consisted of just twelve players; an absurdly small squad by today’s standards, which was reduced even further when their fast bowler, Fred Morley, broke a rib in an accident. Only three men from the Oval match were included; the most notable absentee being W. G. Grace. The captain was a tall, handsome young aristocrat: the Honourable Ivo Bligh, second son of the Earl of Darnley.

This is Bligh's team. Standing: Barnes, Morley, C.T.Studd, Vernon, Leslie. Seated: G.B.Studd, Tylecote, Bligh, Steel, Read. In front: Barlow, Bates. Of these, Barnes, Barlow, Bates and Morley were professional cricketers from working-class backgrounds; the rest were gentleman amateurs from the great public (independent) schools and universities. In no other sport at that time would amateurs and professionals have played together for their country.

Bligh was an odd choice in many ways. He was just 23 years old, and had never played international cricket (the term “Test Matches” did not come into use until many years later). At Eton and Cambridge University he had excelled at tennis and racquets as well as cricket, and had scored over a thousand runs for Kent in the 1880 season. But he would never have been rated as one of the best batsmen in England, and although clearly a fine athlete, his health was never good. Nor would he make any significant contribution with the bat on this tour: his attainment of immortality came from a different source.
     On the voyage out, which lasted two months, the team made the acquaintance of Sir William and Lady Janet Clarke. Sir William, a great philanthropist and past president of the Melbourne Cricket Club, was said to be the richest man in Australia. He invited them to spend Christmas at Rupertswood, his very grand country house outside Melbourne. This was to be a momentous event both in the life of Ivo Bligh and in the history of cricket, because the Clarke household included a young lady who acted as the children’s governess and music teacher as well as a friend of Lady Janet. She was Miss Florence Morphy, aged 22, an orphan; the seventh and youngest child of a police magistrate of Irish extraction. Bligh was immediately smitten with her.

Meanwhile there were matches to be played.  It was an unusually wet summer in Australia, with results being affected by rain on uncovered pitches; but large crowds attended, often running to 20,000 or more per day. The first match against William Murdoch’s Australian team took place at Melbourne at the end of December, and resulted in England losing by 9 wickets after succumbing to the off-spin of George Palmer and being forced to follow on. The second match, also at Melbourne, began on January 19th, and this time there was a comprehensive victory for England, by an innings and 27 runs. William Bates took 14 wickets in the match, including a hat-trick. It would be all to play for in the third match at Sydney a week later.

In his capacity as captain, Bligh was often called upon to make speeches. He generally spoke of his goal being “to beard the kangaroo in its den” and “to bring back the ashes”. He was of course referring to something which did not actually exist, and must initially have puzzled his audiences, but Murdoch’s Australian team understood the reference to the “Sporting Times” joke, and were able to reply in kind. Very soon, Australian papers were taking up the theme: who could claim possession of the ashes?

The Sydney match ran into four days. After the first innings it was evenly balanced, with England holding a lead of just 29 runs. On the third day a huge crowd turned up to watch Spofforth bowl out England. 7 for 44 to the dreaded demon bowler; England dismissed for a paltry 123: the match and the ashes were surely Australia’s. But no! Richard Barlow, bowling slow-medium left-arm, did even better than Spofforth: 7 for 40; Australia collapsing to 83 all out, with only two men reaching double figures: an easy win for England! Unlike the popular image of Victorian cricket, the match was an ill-tempered affair, with each side accusing the other of deliberately cutting up the pitch to aid the bowling of Spofforth and Barlow, and some of the players reportedly almost coming to blows at one point.

There followed a fourth match in mid-February against a “Combined XI”, when not even a century by Allan Steel (the only one of the series) could prevent an Australian victory. It has been disputed ever since whether this constituted a “proper test match”; but at the time no-one appeared to question that England had won the right to “take back the ashes”. Bligh had contributed very little as a player  (his highest score was only 19, and he did not bowl); the victories resulting from the bowling of the northern professionals; Bates of Yorkshire and Barlow of Lancashire. But as captain, Bligh was given the publicity and much of the credit.

He had other matters on his mind. On January 3rd he wrote to his parents requesting permission to marry Florence Morphy. Lady Janet Clarke had already warned him that Lord and Lady Darnley would not be happy about a son of theirs attaching himself to a penniless girl of no family; and she was of course quite right: parental consent was not given. This whole episode puts us firmly back into the Victorian period. Here we have a highly educated man, on the verge of his 24th birthday, in the process of achieving great international sporting fame and success, yet feeling he could not become engaged to be married without the approval of his parents - and the approval being denied, apparently for reasons of pure snobbery! Bligh pondered his next step.

But what of the Ashes themselves? Here, unfortunately, the evidence is confused and contradictory. At some stage, presumably at Rupertswood, Bligh was presented with a tiny urn; such as might have stood on a lady’s dressing table holding perfume; but now containing ashes. Ashes of what? It is usually believed to be the ashes from burning a bail, or a stump; but it is sometimes said to be the ashes of the leather casing of a cricket ball. And when exactly was it presented? After the third match the Melbourne magazine “Punch” published some execrable verses about the return of the “urn” to England. Does this mean that the urn had already been presented, and furthermore that this was common knowledge? Or was the magazine speaking purely metaphorically? Maybe more than one urn was presented? These puzzles are unlikely ever to be solved. Quite separately, a Queensland lady in February gave Bligh a small velvet bag to hold the urn. He sailed back to England in May 1883, taking the urn with him. It would stand on his mantelpiece for the rest of his life. What ranked highest in his mind, however, was winning his parents’ consent to his marriage.
     He went about the task with great determination, as befitted an international sporting captain. He told his father that, rather than give up Florence, he would settle permanently in Australia. After six weeks, Lord Darnley gave up the struggle, and wrote to Florence agreeing to the match, though with no great enthusiasm.

       Ivo Bligh returned to Australia to marry Florence Morphy in February 1884. The bride was given away by Sir William Clarke, and the wedding breakfast was held at Rupertswood. None of Bligh's family attended. The Melbourne “Punch” celebrated the event in yet more extremely bad poetry. After a honeymoon in New Zealand the happy couple returned to England.

Ill health meant that Bligh played little cricket after this, and he never represented England again. Indeed, for the rest of his life he comes across as a curiously diffident personality. It was almost as if he had exhausted his entire life’s supply of energy and initiative in winning the Ashes and gaining his father’s consent to his marriage. (Alternatively, like many sportsmen since, he simply did not know what to do with himself after retiring) He tried working as a stockbroker, but soon gave up. He moved to Melbourne for a couple of years, but that didn’t work out either. It was Florence who emerged as the stronger personality, and she must have found these years frustrating. They had three children, but money was short and there was little prospect of improvement.

Lord Darnley died in 1896, and Ivo Bligh’s elder brother, Edward, succeeded to the title. He was a highly eccentric personality, and had not managed to father a male heir when he died suddenly in 1900. So, unexpectedly, Ivo and Florence found themselves the 8th Earl and Countess of Darnley and owners of the family home of Cobham Hall in Kent. In many ways this was less good than it sounded. The great house was very expensive to run, a combination of death duties and collapsing agricultural prices meant that the estate was heavily encumbered with debt, and any wealth had to be shared with brother Edward’s widow.
    As a nobleman, Bligh had a part to play in the nation. The Darnley title was an Irish one, so he sat in the House of Lords as an Irish representative peer, and occasionally spoke in debates. He also served as a Deputy Lord-Lieutenant and a Justice of the Peace, but he still appeared a shy, diffident character. Florence, by contrast, relished her new status as a great lady. She became a close friend of Queen Mary, and she received the Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, when he came to England. In the First World War she opened Cobham Hall as a nursing home for wounded Australian servicemen, with herself acting as Matron, and was created a Dame of the British Empire (D.B.E.) for her war work. She had indeed come a very long way from her former life as an orphan music teacher in Melbourne!
     Financial worries continued, however. Much of the Darnley estates had to be sold, and in 1925 the family’s magnificent collection of paintings was auctioned off. This raised over £70,000, but since it included works by Titian, Poussin, Lely, Canaletto, Gainsborough and others, one can only guess at how many millions such a sale would fetch today! In 1923 Cobham Hall was rented out to an American, and the family moved to a smaller house in the grounds. Such a decline was not atypical of the old aristocracy at that time. (Cobham Hall is now a girls' school)

Ivo Bligh, 8th Earl of Darnley, died in 1927, aged only 68. The little urn with the Ashes was presented to the M.C.C., and it has remained at Lord’s ever since. Florence, now Dowager Countess of Darnley, managed to further confuse the story of the Ashes when she told Bill Woodfull, the captain of the 1930 Australian team in England, that Lady Janet Clarke had burnt a stump and presented it to Bligh in a little wooden urn - whereas the existing urn is made of terra-cotta. One imagines her as a formidable matriarch in her later years: her daughter once referred to her as "the old dragon"!
     She died in 1944: the last direct link with the story of the Ashes.

The words pasted on the little urn are taken from the inimitable verse of the Melbourne "Punch":-
"When Ivo goes back with the urn, the urn;
Studds, Steel, Read and Tylecote return, return;
The welkin will ring loud,
The great crowd will feel proud,
Seeing Barlow and Bates with the urn, the urn;
And the rest coming home with the urn".

(Sources: "Wisden Book of Test Cricket, 1876-77 to 1977-78":  "Wisden Book of Cricketers' Lives":   Illingworth and Gregory, "The Ashes":   Berry and Peploe, "Cricket's Burning Passion")

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