Cambridgeshire Sides 1857- 71


The obvious question about Cambridgeshire’s time in first-class cricket is “why did it stop?”

I think the reasons are various and found by looking at both the events of that period and their historical context.

University, county and town

The main roots of cricket in Cambridgeshire were threefold. The first recorded reference to the game being played in the county, albeit informally, referred to Cambridge University students enjoying the game. What little evidence there is suggests that the game continued to be played within the university and it is easy to imagine interest in the game spreading from that example.

As the eighteenth century proceeded cricket appeared sporadically but increasingly around the county in its small towns and villages such as Wisbech, Chatteris, Newmarket, and Royston.

The third area of development was in the county town of Cambridge, where the game was firmly established by the beginning of the nineteenth century, and where it flourished the most.

Cambridgeshire has always had a relatively small population, largely in the south of the county. Due in part to enclosure and other changes in agriculture by the early 19th century, the south Cambridgeshire population had congregated in the county town where the university and its supportive trades provided employment. Cambridgeshire did not, however, experience much in the way of industrialisation, so although there was an urban environment in Cambridge, ripe for developing a strong interest in cricket, possibly after the manner of the game¡¯s growth in Sheffield, there was not the combination of population expansion and new middle-class wealth to make that happen, despite reasonably good road and rail (from 1845) connections..

Cambridge town and university

Instead Cambridge cricket seems to have developed alongside that of the university with some cross-influence both ways – some conflict and some co-operation. They shared the common ground of Parker’s Piece for two lengthy periods and formed four joint teams around 1840 as well as several university players turning out for the Cambridge Town and Cambridge Town and County Clubs. At the same time there was a constant undercurrent of town/gown separation, conflict and competition. The latter affected cricket most when the university moved to private grounds. Both moves in 1821 and 1848 appear to have resulted in the collapse of the current town club, due presumably to the competition for financial support. It would seem that on both occasions what middle-class wealth there was followed the university to their new grounds, leaving the town cricketers to pick up the pieces of what had in both cases been highly successful clubs.

These events can also be seen as examples of a tendency for the university to operate in separation from the town. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the university was developing into an important player in English cricket and society. Although it continued to support county cricket at times, from around 1850 it increasingly established itself as a completely different entity from both town and county, both of which subsequently, and for well over a hundred years, were doomed to operate in its shadow.

For a while, however, this separation meant that the town’s cricket culture was pre-modern in style, with the gambling, stake money, commercial trappings, professionals, and community identity which that entailed. A workforce made up of college servants and independent tradesmen, both with relatively flexible leisure time was ideal for the development of semi-professional cricket of this kind. In addition it was largely removed from the upsurge of muscular Christianity and the developing amateur-led model of cricket’s administration, which was emerging through the public schools into the universities.

F P Fenner

From the 1830s to the 50s Cambridge also had the county¡¯s nearest example of an inspirational leader in Francis Fenner. A player for Cambridge Castle, Town, and Town and County Clubs Fenner was an effective captain, a bullish club secretary and energetic campaigner for top-class cricket in the town and county. As a typical member of the Cambridge lower middle-class he was also a shrewd businessman and it is this quality that undermined his leadership at a crucial time for Cambridge and Cambridgeshire cricket. With the Town and County Club well established as a top provincial club Fenner, in the winter of 1847, developed and became manager of the University Club’s private ground. Contemporary reports make it quite clear that this move completely took the wind out of Cambridge cricket’s sails, as its financial support evaporated, and possibly prevented a natural progression from the Town and County to a fully fledged County Club.

The Cambridge professionals

The concentration of cricket in Cambridge and its separation from direct amateur influence help explain the development in the town of an unusually large number of top-class professional cricketers. After the collapse of the Cambridge Town and County Cricket Club in 1848 several semi- professionals moved away from the county to take up engagements with other clubs, including the two professional touring sides of that time, the All, and United All, England Elevens (AEE & UAEE). These cricket caravans shared the Cambridge players¡¯ approach to the game and helped to hone their skills so that come 1857 they were a county side in waiting.

Five of these players – Alfred Diver, Robert Carpenter, Thomas Hayward, George Tarrant and John Smith – went on to represent England on tours abroad and several others such as Fred Bell, Billy Buttress and Fred Reynolds held influential professional posts and played for the AEE and UAEE. As a result of this congregation of talent in Cambridge, the county sides were often highly dependent on the players of just this one town which had financial and probably political repercussions.


As the competition for financial support within Cambridge illustrates, there had always been a lack of wealthy nobility or gentry in Cambridgeshire to offer patronage to cricket. Although, during the 1850s, there was evidence of gentlemen cricketers beginning to organise themselves and from 1858-63 and 1866-69 that formalised into the Cambridge County Club, there was never big money behind this venture. It fell on a few individuals like Henry Perkins, a Cambridge blue and Norfolk circuit lawyer, and Henry Adeane, local MP, to bail the club out of debt, something they were not placed to do for long. Throughout the 1857-71 period cost was a restrictive factor ¨C limiting the number of professionals selected, limiting the number of matches played, and twice, in 1862 and 1868, causing the county club to fold. Other matches were funded by the Cambridge Town Club, the opposition, public subscription, and one-off benefactors.

Lack of county identity

The concentration of cricket in Cambridge and the identification of the county with gentlemen amateurs need to be seen in the context of Cambridgeshire being a somewhat divided county between the sparsely populated north fenland and the agricultural south around Cambridge as well as, in cricket terms, between the latter and the rest. There seems to have been little in the way of county identity. In the 1810s and -20s the Cambridge Cricket Club had played several teams from neighbouring counties but never with Chatteris, March or Wisbech who were playing in the north of the county. Although the Cambridge Town Club added “County” to its name in 1844, this seems largely to have been a ploy to attract more support and better opposition rather than a reflection of any united will to represent Cambridgeshire. When, in 1861, the Cambridge Town Club challenged, played and defeated Kent, the latter objected to playing a town club. It seems to me, however, that to the people of Cambridge the idea of a team of their town professionals taking on a county on the town’s Parker’s Piece was much more logical and exciting than a county side run by county gentlemen playing at Fenner’s.

Cambridgeshire by name

Although the County Club only survived a few years at a time, it was not solely responsible for teams that are now, though not always at the time, regarded as Cambridgeshire sides during this period. A look at the sides involved reveals a mixture of teams representing the county.

The first three matches in 1857/58, against Surrey, started out officially as a Cambridge University side bolstered with Cambridge professionals such as Diver, Bell and Charles Arnold. Although all three came to be known as Cambridgeshire matches their origin was clearly that of the first match, a natural arrangement at the time, given both the recent history of town/university collaboration and the latter’s employment at the University for the early part of each season.

Alongside the County Club’s promotions in 1861, one match against Kent, already referred to, was actually played by the Cambridge Town Club and another, against Yorkshire and Durham (Stockton-on-Tees), was probably promoted by John Jackson and Dr William Richardson, two northern England cricket enthusiasts and gamblers. Future matches with Yorkshire also appear to have been arranged independently of the County Club, two in 1864 being financed by public subscription in tribute to Hayward, Carpenter and Tarrant on their return from Australia and others possibly being arranged with Yorkshire professionals. Other clubs to finance matches with Cambridgeshire on their behalf were Surrey, Kent and the MCC.

The inevitable decline

Thus we have a picture of a highly talented county side that was poorly financed, lopsided towards the professionals of one town, poorly identified with and inconsistently administered. In addition, for much of this period the Cambridge professionals allied themselves with the northern counties professionals in the North-south split which dominated English cricket for a while. Reports of AGMs suggest this may have produced instability within the County club at least.

As the money ran out, the professionals became old or ill, and the ad hoc match arrangements became increasingly out of step with other better supported and run counties with influential amateurs to the fore, Cambridgeshire county cricket finally ran out of steam in 1871. The final match, versus Surrey, hardly got a mention in the Cambridge press. In the next few years several matches against touring England Elevens were held in an attempt to keep the spirit alive, but even these petered out, with Cambridgeshire having to wait till the 1890s for a new County Club, which competed at Minor Counties level. Over a period of just 25 years the county had gone from possessing one of England’s strongest provincial clubs, through a period of competing successfully as a county club, to being one of the game’s forgotten outposts as the frontiers changed and organised first-class county cricket became a reality in 1873.

It is important to remember that, although contemporary reports make it clear that Cambridgeshire were regarded as a top side, the matches they played between 1857 and 1871 were only called “first-class”, and in one case “Cambridgeshire”, in retrospect. It is evident that Cambridgeshire had a first-class side in terms of playing strength, but perhaps it never had a first-class circumstances in which to survive for long.