Chapter One……….The eighteenth century In the beginning

The first recorded cricket match in Durham was at Raby Castle in 1751. It was five years after the Duke of Cumberland and bayoneted Redcoats slogged through the county’s mud on their way to the Battle of Culloden. Defoe’s account of his travels through Great Britain had not long been published. Defoe found nothing remarkable in Darlington or Chester-le-Street except “dirt” but was impressed by Lumley Castle and acknowledged Lumley coal the best in the country. He thought Durham a “compact neatly contriv’d city” where clergy lived “in all the splendour and magnificence imaginable”. Durham cathedral and Saint Cuthbert’s remains were a shrine for pilgrims but the city was a vulnerable haven riding on a cut-throat sea. The poor lived in slums; the populace was prey to vagabonds, footpads and highwaymen. The Bishop of Durham bewailed “the scorn of religion”. His flock scratched a living on the land or burrowed beneath it for lead and coal; their leisure centred upon drinking and blood sports like cock-fighting.

In 1742 John Wesley came across a village “inhabited by colliers only, and as such had been always in the first rank for savage ignorance, and wickedness of every kind. Their grand assembly used to be on the Lord’s Day on which men, women and children met together to dance, fight, curse, and swear, and play chuck-ball, span farthing, or whatever came to hand.” Somehow, sometime the game of cricket took root in these parts.

The first known match was played in an area consistent with cricket’s rural origins. Stately surrounds, of course, but in a valley of meadow and pasture on the edge of what David Bellamy called England’s Last Wilderness; a rugged tract of moorland and haven for merlin and rare blue gentian.

We hear that last Week a Cricket Match was played twice over by eleven Gentlemen on each side for a considerable Wager; his Grace the Duke of Cleveland espousing one Party, and the Right Honourable the Earl of Northumberland the other. The first Time it was played at Stanwick, the Earl’s seat in Yorkshire, and the last at Raby Castle, the seat of the Honourable Henry Vane, in the County of Durham: at both which places the Earl of Northumberland’s Party beat that of his Grace a great Number of Notches. (Newcastle Journal, 10 August 1751)

One doubts if Duke or Earl took part. The Duke, 53, liked horse-racing and cock-fighting; the younger Earl was more famed as an archer who won the coveted Scorton Arrow in 1745. It is natural to assume their aim was simply to win the match and claim the wager. There may, however, have been deeper reasons; motives whereby the nobility publicly asserted political and social authority. “The strategies they employed were designed to portray themselves and their families – through sporting events, political occasions and great entertainments – as regional and national leaders who nevertheless shared the habits and assumptions of their country neighbours”.
Aristocratic patrons already staged matches in the south, a fact that suggests cricket was ‘imported’ into Durham. Northern nobility spent time in the south. London season over they returned to their estates where their real pleasures lay. Did one carry a trunk of equipment and news of ‘the noble game’? Henry Vane’s father was an intimate of Frederick, Prince of Wales and Surrey patron, whose death is attributed to complications caused by a blow from a cricket ball. Indeed the Prince could have been at the forefront of Henry’s mind for the Raby match followed hard upon the Prince’s funeral. Their relationship prompts thoughts that cricket came to Durham via this Royal connection.

A romantic notion. But unlikely. There was already cricket in Yorkshire. The River Tees that divides the two counties was no unbridgeable barrier. Durham men met Yorkshiremen at markets and fairs where knowledge of cricket could be handed on. Southern patrons assembled strong teams to win wagers by employing ‘crack’ cricketers on their estates and hiring useful local men. Their northern counterparts may have been no different. Stanwick was three miles south of the Tees, Raby four miles to the north. The venues are close enough for some who played at Raby to be Durham men.

The match wager was common practice. The first unified Laws of Cricket in 1744 included a section on betting. Gambling was virtually a national weakness of Georgians. Horse-racing provided rich opportunities. Newcastle Races were a great social event on the sporting calendar. Those in June 1751 were billed as “the greatest Meeting of the Nobility and Gentry at our races that has been known”. Northumberland, Cleveland and Henry Vane travelled from London to attend as usual. The Races and evening assemblies formed only a part of a social marathon. The Earl’s entourage moved from stately home to stately home, three days here, three days there, “at which all places they were magnificently entertained”. The cricket matches were no doubt part of the entertainment and further excuse to strike wagers after the wild gambling of Race Week.

The report contains few details but we can piece out the imperfections with the thoughts of John Nyren and James Pycroft, two indispensable historians of early cricket. Players wore wigs, white shirts, knee-length nankeen breeches and buckled shoes; umpires in frock-coat and beaver hat. The Earl’s Party won by “a great Number of Notches” so there were no handwritten scores. To keep score in those days they relied upon “a trusty yeoman to cut notches with his bread and bacon knife in an ashen stick.” Each wicket was twenty-two yards apart and consisted of two foot-high stumps, two feet apart and surmounted by a bail. Bats weighing as much as four pounds looked more like a club with a gradual curve at the toe. Balls weighed little less than those in use today. Bowling was under-arm; fast, straight and along the ground. Some wore two pairs of stockings, the second pair rolled down to the ankles to protect against painful raps from the ball. Many a shin was so bloodied and bruised in the first innings that a batsman required a runner in the second.

We do not know if today’s level pitch, guarded by lordly trees beneath a magnificent castle backdrop, was site of the match. Raby’s grounds at the time were undulating. So were cricket fields. However we do know that during Henry Vane’s residence Raby “presented a warmer picture of ancient hospitality than ever witnessed, or might perhaps ever see again”. Durham’s cricket was cradled in comfort.

No stakes are mentioned in the second known match at Gateshead at the extreme north of the county. It, too, was staged just days after Lord Ravensworth and others travelled north for Newcastle Races. Ravensworth Castle was three miles from the Redheugh district of Gateshead.

Last week the great Cricket Match that has been for some Time depending, between the Gentlemen of Gateshead and those of Newcastle was played on the Haughs nigh the Redheugh, and won with great ease by the former. (Newcastle Journal, 23 June 1753)

A third match is recorded on the Durham-Yorkshire border in 1773 :

On Thursday, August 19th, was determined at Piercebridge the great Cricket match for 25 guineas a side, the gentlemen of West Auckland against the gentlemen of Scruton in Yorkshire, the best of
three in-gates, which was won by the former, they getting the first two. The odds were greatly on the Yorkshire side before starting. West Auckland will play any town or parish within fifty miles round
for the same sum. (Whitehall Evening Post)

Stakes are small compared with £1,000 staked on southern matches. Northern parsimony was no bad thing, however, since cricket debts were often subject of a lawsuit. West Auckland’s win by the best of three in-gates [innings] is unusual. They may have been ignorant of betting rules that required matches to be two innings a side. In a fourth recorded match Durham Militia, mostly high-ranking officers from privileged backgrounds, played Nottingham Militia in 1798.

Four newspaper reports are flimsy evidence upon which to form conclusions. Wisest to admit there was little cricket in eighteenth century Durham. That would be too hasty and over-simplistic. Durham’s male population of 60,000 was scattered far beyond reach of the few newspapers available. The region is more notable for its oral tradition than literary. Absence of match reports does not mean absence of cricket. Not every birth was recorded as a baptism, nor every death as a burial. A match had to be newsworthy to rank alongside the rapes, robberies and murders that guttered down newspaper columns. Each report involves the gentry who are only a part of ‘history’, of course. The Piercebridge report appeared in a London newspaper read by fashionable society. It gives details of the wager but no scores. Society gambling made it newsworthy.

Answers to seemingly impenetrable questions are sometimes hidden in remote nooks of history. Two obscure references confirm that north-east communities played cricket among themselves. When the Tyne froze in 1766 “a sheep was roasted upon it and sold for 12 pence per pound to a numerous company, who afterwards played at Cricket”. In 1785 schoolmaster James Coates informed the vicar that “on Sunday a large company of cricket players assembled, some from Barningham, [near Barnard Castle] and concluded their sport” without seeking permission. West Auckland challenged teams within fifty miles. Any crow that leaves its Durham nest and flies fifty miles in a straight line must cross the county boundary. In effect West Auckland challenged any team in the county. Cricket, like Christianity, spread northward from its southern origins. It seems reasonable to conclude that by 1766 cricket was played throughout Durham.

The game developed markedly in the south during the latter half of the century. The first Laws of Cricket show it to be a lusty game wherein “either of ye strikers may hinder ye catch in his running.” The wicket became 22 inches high and six inches wide, then 24 inches by seven. The third stump was added around 1776. The width of a bat was set at four-and-a-quarter inches in 1771 after a Reigate player tried to use a bat as wide as the wicket. The Hambledon men constructed an iron frame of statutory width through which was passed any bat of suspect size to ensure it conformed to rule. History keeps secret when these changes were adopted in Durham.

Chapter 2

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