The First Cambridgeshire County Side
a simple question with a complicated answer

Inevitably in cricket histories there is a tendency to look for records – the highest, lowest, fastest etc and especially the first, so when I began researching the game in Cambridgeshire I found myself eager to establish the first players, team, and match in the county.

Evidence of such records are unfortunately elusive. The first known reference to cricket in Cambridgeshire, for example, is contained in a record of a feud between the master and fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge University in 1710 in which students were said to “wax impatient ….to make a match at Football or Cricket.”(1) Even this, however, only tells us that cricket was played in Cambridge by that date. It may have been played within and without the University for many years beforehand. Historical firsts are not that easy to pin down.

You might think it a little easier to establish the date of the first county side, but in the case of Cambridgeshire this is just as contentious if not more so.

The first reference I have found to a “Cambridgeshire” side is in a match recorded as Suffolk versus Cambridgeshire at Newmarket in 1791(2). To my knowledge, however, there is no reference to that effect in the Cambridge press. It seems most likely that this was a match between Newmarket and Cambridge given county titles in order to attract attention. In the following year a match between Cambridge and Newmarket in Cambridge was billed as a “return” match and, in the absence of a first match played in that year, it seems most likely that this was the return of the 1791 match, both being local town v town affairs.

Similarly a reference in 1813 to:

“The long-pending match between Kent and Cambridgesehire [at Ickleton Abbey, Cambridgeshire] — Miller plays for Kent and Mumford for Cambridgeshire”

reads to me more like a single wicket match, with only one name per side being mentioned in the advance notice. This time there is no known aftermatch report in either county.

Whilst these two examples could be contested on the grounds of inconsistent or mislaid recording, 4 matches played in 1832 and 1834 against MCC and Nottingham/Nottinghamshire respectively should not, to my mind, be so contentious. Firstly there are prior notices of the matches expressly referring to a “County of Cambridge” or “Cambridgeshire” side. Secondly these teams are definitely representative of more than just one town, each of the four Cambridgeshire sides containing players from Chatteris (Fryer, Glasscock, Hayward and, in 1832 only, Fenner), Madingley (Sir St Vincent Cotton) and Cambridge (Johnson, Boning, Stearn, Davies and, in 1834 only, Fenner). Thirdly, to emphasise that these were county sides, a third match against MCC in 1832 was contested without the Chatteris and Madingley contingent (Cotton appeared for MCC) and was clearly called a Cambridge Town match in the press, thus distinguishing it from the first two. Unfortunately for posterity “Scores and Biographies” chose to call all five of these sides Cambridge Town Club, when, as far as I can ascertain, there was no such formalised club in existance at that time. Despite being county sides, however, they came unstuck against Nottingham/ Nottinghamshire – under attack from the strike force of Redgate and Barker:

“Fort after fort succumbs to deadly aim.
All strategems are baffled, and at length
Surrenders Granta, destitute of strength.”(3)

Cambridgeshire representative cricket was thus left to flounder until the 1850’s, although some such as Rowland Bowen have claimed the Cambridge Town and County Club of the 1840’s to be a fully fledged County club. It certainly had ambition along those lines:

“”…we have no doubt that Cambridgeshire can take first-class honours in the noble game of cricket.”(1844)

Challenges to the likes of Surrey and Sussex and games against Norfolk (or Swaffham) and Suffolk (or Bury St Edmonds) seem to confirm this ambition, but a close look at contemporary newspapers shows that any such hopes were dashed both by an inability to secure key matches and by the club’s abrupt demise in 1848. This club was an extension of the previously existing Cambridge Town Club, the “County” part of the title probably intended to secure more support and better opposition.  I see this as a proto-county club at best.

Contrarily there has been little debate over the validity of the Cambridgeshire sides from 1857 to 1871. At first glance this appears to have been a lengthy period of activity for a successful county club with an impressive array of top class players such as Robert Carpenter, Tom Hayward, George Tarrant, William Buttress, John Smith, Alfred Diver, Frederick Bell and Fred Reynolds. Again, however, a close look at contemporary sources shows different. Far from being the progeny of a stable county club, the 40 or so sides from this period which are commonly held to be Cambridgeshire were in fact produced by a variety of agencies.

The first match of this sequence, for example, and possibly the first three(1857/58) judging from team composition, appears to have been contested by a Cambridge University side fortified with a few Cambridge pros, a joint University/Town team at most, but, especially since it was first advertised as a University side, more probably a “Cambridge University and Ground” side. The home side of this first match was not, to my knowledge, called “Cambridgeshire” in the local press.

A Cambridgeshire County Club was formed in 1858 but initially fielded geographically representative, but mainly amateur, sides and played only local, non-county or similarly amateur opposition. In this paractice it followed the lead of several one off county gentlemen sides formed throughout the 1850’s to play Cambridge University sides.

It was not until 1861 that the County Club fielded a representative county side in terms of available talent, winning and drawing against Surrey. Despite two relatively stable periods of County Club patronage from 1861-63 and 1866-68 the overall picture continued to fluctuate through to the final Cambridgeshire match of this era in 1871. During that time sides that are now recognised as “Cambridgeshire” appear to have been organised by a mixture of the County Club, the Cambridge Town Club, the Cambridge professionals, and a range of outside agencies including MCC, Kent CCC and Bradford.

So which was the first Cambridgeshire County side? You have a wide choice. You could simply take the first side known to have been given the title in the press – the team of 1891, but given the circumstances this seems disingenuous. If you want a more representative looking team you could go for the 1832 side against MCC. If you are not convinced by the contemporary reports you could choose the first candidate backed by a club, the Cambridge Town and County Club of the 1840’s. If you are concerned with first-class status, even if awarded after the event, then you could plump for the first of the 1857-71 run that took on Surrey in 1857. Failing all those, to be absolutely certain of official county status you could choose the first full county side put out by the County Club in 1861. Even then none of these take into account various amateur county sides of the 50s, mostly more geographically representative of the county than any other Cambridgeshire side of this period.

My personal choice is the side of 1832 since, while lacking any county club backing it is as representative of the county as most “Cambridgeshire” sides until the 1890’s and received the promotion and coverage of the press that I would expect for such matches. This is only my opinion, however, and I would be glad to receive any views in support or opposition.


1) See Sugg, W, “A Tradition Unshared” (Real Work Publishing 2002).

2) All references unless otherwise stated are from contemporary local newspapers: Cambridge Journal, Cambridge Chronical, Cambridge Independant Press (and its antecedents).

3) From Box, C, “The English Game of Cricket” (Cox, 1877).