Nick’s Roughs Run the Coventry : the Spirit of Cricket in 1788

Having traced my cricketing lineage as far back as my Great-Grandfather, can I beat on any further back into the past?  The simple answer is no. (It could be objected, before proceeding, that I might as well simply trace the evolution of cricket in the Midlands without positing the putative presence of some ancestor, but I find that, as with most sports, having a dog in the race makes things a little more interesting.)

George Mustin’s Father John, as we have seen, was a stonemason who had moved to Hinckley (via a spell in Birmingham) from his birthplace, Temple Grafton in Warwickshire.  His own Father (Thomas), also a stonemason, had spent his whole life in Temple Grafton.

"A picture postcard England that never was" Temple Grafton c. 2005

“A picture postcard England that never was” Temple Grafton c. 2005

His Father before him, also Thomas, lived in the same location and, it seems safe to assume, was another stonemason.  By this circuitous route we have arrived at a Mustin who might conceivably have been  present (as a “Warwickshire” supporter) at two matches between Leicester and Coventry in 1788-89 that have gained a place in histories of the game, the first because of the violence that resulted from it, the second because it led to a clarification of the Law regarding “hit the ball twice” (as well as some more violence).

In those early days matches between sides from different provincial cities were infrequent, initiated by an exchange of challenges in the pages of local newspapers and, usually, followed by  an exchange of insults afterwards. Relations between Leicester and Nottingham were particularly poor ; a match at Loughborough in 1781 had ended in the following circumstances (according to the Leicester Journal) –

“At the conclusion of the first day’s play, the Leicester Club went in against 50 notches only [i.e. they only needed 50 runs to win].  The Nottingham Club then began to bowl what are called Sheffield Bowls [probably deliberate wide balls], which every lover of the game have complained of as unmanly in the extreme.”

Following an obscure dispute, in which the Leicester umpire gave the Leicester batsman in and the Nottingham umpire gave him out, Nottingham (their time-wasting tactics having been rumbled) refused to play on and the match was abandoned.  Another proposed match was aborted before it had started (the Leicester players having already travelled to Nottingham) following a dispute about eligibility.  At this point the Leicester Club gave up on Nottingham and issued the following broadside in the Leicester Journal:

“After the Gentlemen of the Nottingham Club had repeatedly refused playing according to agreement, they were informed that the Leicester Society would from that Time consider them as too much below par, ever to merit their future notice.  This sufficiently accounts for the Spirited Challenge as above and further induces us to coincide with the general opinion (even of their own town) that they are almost without exception, meprisable.”

The author of this piece is likely to have been one John Nedham, described by E. E. Snow as “a capable writerand [who] as a satirist had no equal in his day in Leicester.”  He also seems to have been the prime mover behind the Leicester club and their usual Captain.  The club met in the White-Heads Inn ; the bulk of their players  being drawn from the Parish of St. Nicholas, they had acquired the nickname “Nick’s Roughs” and their likeliest occupation at this time would have been framework-knitters.

After their experiences with Nottingham, Leicester seem to have stuck to playing more amicable matches against other sides from Leicestershire until 1787, when a match was arranged against Coventry at Hinckley.  Hopes were high, as Nedham (presumably) wrote in the Leicester Journal :

“This match being made for 100 Gns. and each party in full practise, great expectations of a high treat were formed by the lovers of this manly diversion.  The laurel was also contended for by two distinct counties and prior to the commencement of the play each party entertained the highest opinion of each other’s characters as players and gentlemen.”

Unusually, the game seems to have proceeded without any serious dispute, Leicester (13 & 132) beating the visitors (23 & 77) by 1.00 on the second day.  Unfortunately, it all seems to have, in modern parlance, “kicked off in the pub afterwards“, as some of the visiting support (apparently miners from Bedworth and Nuneaton) turned nasty :

“Great animosities, we are sorry to say, seem to have arisen between the parties.  The Leicester youths having left the field of honour and retreated to the Bull Inn to regale themselves after the fatigues of the day, to their utter astonishment a large body of colliers made their appearance in the Market Place, using every gesture that was hostile and alarming.  The inhabitants of Hinckley became exceedingly alarmed and were obliged to have recourse to blows for their own defence .  About 4 o’clock there seemed but one alternative; the Hinckley shopkeepers having shut their windows, a scene of bloodshed ensued, scarcely to be credited in a country so entirely distinguished for acts of humanity.

At length the colliers were worsted, and several left upon the field of action to all appearances in the most dangerous situations ; the remainder were driven to the boundaries of their county.  At present we have not heard of any lives being lost, though the weapons used in the contest were the most dangerous and alarming.”

Perhaps surprisingly, a return fixture was arranged for the next year, this time at Lutterworth, when Nedham was at the centre of another dispute.  It is difficult to disentangle truth from propaganda here, as the Leicester Journal and the Coventry Mercury gave conflicting accounts, but what seems to have happened is that, towards the end of the first day’s play, Clarke, a Leicester batsman, prevented a ball he had previously hit from hitting his stumps by playing it again.  The Coventry Umpire gave this out and the Leicester Umpire, perhaps puzzled, did not protest.  At this, Nedham abused his own Umpire so badly that he resigned and decamped to Leicester, taking his “notcher” with him.

The next morning, having arranged for what he hoped would be a more amenable Umpire to take the other’s place, Nedham reappeared at the crease with Clarke.  When the Coventry players refused to play on and Brown (the new Umpire) declined to play ball, Nedham (according to the Coventry Gazette) abused the pair of them, shouting

“Clarke, keep to your stumps; damn ye Brown, why do you not call play?”

Yet another match appeared to have reached stalemate and it was decided to refer the matter to “the first reputed Cricket Society in the Kingdom“.  Fully four weeks later, the Society having given their opinion, Clarke was allowed to resume his innings and Leicester won the match by 28 runs (according to the Leicester Journal anyway – according to Derek Birley, Coventry walked off when they realised they were going to lose and tried to sue to get their original stake money back).

Such was cricket, then, at the end of the eighteenth century.  Can we, I wonder, detect any sign of the Spirit of Cricket here, that Spirit which, advanced opinion holds, is a mere hypocritical sham foisted on to a rough rural pursuit by proponents of the post-Arnoldian public school ethos?   (Some might think, in any case, that, given some of the aforementioned shenanigans, a little more gentility would have not have hurt).

Well, although no-one involved in these contests was a Gentleman in the technical sense, the rhetorical ideal of “gentlemanly” and “manly” sporting behaviour, not to mention the mock-heroic tone, could have come straight from the pen of the Rev. Pycroft himself.   And, although perhaps I have been watching too much non-league football recently, if we broaden the scope of the Spirit to include the whole of English sport, there is something very – perhaps all too – familiar here about the fierce local patriotism, the clubbability, the booze and – above all – the ineradicable need to appeal to some ideal, however ill-defined and one-eyed (even cock-eyed) in its application, of sportsmanship, of what it means to be a sportsman.

But, as the more percipient participants must have known, this rough idyll was not to last.  It is impossible not to notice that all these matches began on Monday, the “Saint Monday” that craft-workers such as framework-knitters (and probably stonemasons too) took off work and reserved for recreation, and that they often extended into Saint Tuesday.  The first knitting machine in Leicester had been exhibited by “an ingenious mechanic from Scotland” in 1773, but had been seized by a mob of stockingers and smashed to pieces.  An attempt, in 1787, by a Mr. Whetstone, to introduce a mechanical worsted-spinner led to more serious disorder which resulted in the reading of the Riot Act and the death of the Mayor, but these were mere delaying tactics.  John Nedham himself died young, though not – as far as I know – by the bat or ball of an enraged opponent.

By 1846 the Spirit of Cricket had evolved sufficiently for the Leicester Journal (by then a Tory paper) to publish an anonymous poem (to be sung to the tune “Gipsy’s Tent“), whose last verse is as follows :

Should a neighbouring club wish with us to engage

In very best feeling we’ll take up their gauge,

For our brothers and friends we are certain they are,

While winning and losing’s the least of our care.

We’ll win if we can, but if that may not be,

We’ll play them again by the old oaken tree;

And when the game’s over how friendly are we,

The victor and vanquished in merry marquee.”

I’m sure the ghost of John Nedham would have sung lustily along, had he been able.

(Much of this has been borrowed from : A History of Leicestershire Cricket, by E. E. Snow ; A Social History of English Cricket, by Derek Birley ; The Men in White Coats, by Teresa McLean and The History of Leicester in the Eighteenth Century, by James Thompson.  Thanks also, as always, to my unknown family historian relative.)

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