Local historical and geographical context


This article is an attempt to set 18th and 19th century Cambridgeshire cricket in the wider historical context of Cambridgeshire as a whole. I shall begin at looking at the geographical history of the county before looking more closely at the county town of Cambridge.

The geography of Cambridgeshire is dominated by the division between southern uplands and northern fen. The uplands were traditionally more suited to arable farming with some grazing. Before the substantial drainage of the 17th century, the fens were more precarious. The silted fen on the northern tip of the county was better drained and more reliable for pastoral agriculture and a little cultivation of grains and pulses. The peat fens were more susceptible to waterlogging, relying on dry weather and tame seas to allow for summer grazing, except for the islands such as Ely, March and Chatteris, where agriculture was similar in small areas to that of the uplands. Other parts of the peat fen were irredeemable marshlands producing high yields of pickerals, perch, roach, barbots, and especially eels.

Accordingly population was most dense in the southern uplands with that of the peat fens restricted mainly to the islands and a few other villages such as Wisbech, Tydd St Giles and Leverington serving the silt fen.

Apparently, prior to drainage the silt fen villages had been relatively wealthy, providing homes for the lords of the manors. Although this changed the same villages remained dominant in the area, with Wisbech developing into the second largest town of the county,

In the south Cambridge was the first high ground reached by the Ouse and Cam and thus became a significant inland port, trading by river from Lynn and the fenland settlements in between and, once the roads were good enough, around the mid-17th century, with London.

These features are reflected in the development of the county’s cricket, with Wisbech and its surrounding villages in the north and Cambridge in the south being the main cricketing centres, and island towns such as March and Chatteris also featuring from early on in the game’s development within the county.

Wisbech played its cricket on two levels. The earliest records are of matches with towns some ten to twenty miles away such as March, Downham Market with later contests with Peterborough. By the 1810s, however, surrounding fenland villages in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Lincolnshire made up a network of clubs including Wisbech, Parson Drove, Sutton & Tydd and Leverington even if the “clodhoppers” insinuation against Emneth in 1816 suggests some reluctance on the part of Wisbech. This network was again reported widely in the 1840s when larger Lincolnshire towns like Boston and Spalding were also involved. As with the tendency of Cambridgeshire clubs to play local opponents regardless of county, the cross county fenland community seems to have had stronger links than Cambridgeshire.

The 18th century was a prosperous time for the agriculture of the southern uplands, with influential landowners established in places such as Wimpole, Madingley and Chippenham. Cambridge, Royston and Newmarket, however, were the first to play cricket, partly, perhaps, due to each having a large common area on which to play, and, in the case of Newmarket and Cambridge, to the particular contexts of horseracing and the university respectively. Patronage of cricket by Cambridgeshire landowners seems only ever to have been on a small, local scale such as the Tharpes at Chippenham and the Townleys at Fulbourn and, at least in terms of serving on club committees, Lord Hardwicke.

This may have been due to the dominance in the county of Cambridge as a successful inland port, market town and, most uniquely a university town. Thus it was an important centre and ideally placed to foster cricket without the need for intensive patronage, at least not before its county club days.

What did aid the spread of cricket, especially in the local networks that were common, was the improvement of roads. A coach ran from Cambridge to London from the mid-1650s and as more roads were maintained communications between towns and villages improved along with them.

Despite the county’s prosperity, however, it was seen as “the worst cultivated [county] in England” prior to enclosure. The open field system came almost right up to the town boundaries until the enclosure acts of 1801 and 1807. This soon led to increased building outside the town boundaries, particularly in Barnwell (St Andrew the Less) parish where land owned by (?) Panton was sold hurriedly following his death before the enclosure award had been settled. This expansion was a necessity as enclosure had led to an increase in population in a town centre already grossly overcrowded.

Otherwise land was not in great supply. For about 50 years up to 1830 Cambridge had been controlled by John Mortlock’s tories, becoming a pocket borough in which corruption ruled, including the sale of town property to Corporation members and friends at nominal prices. Thus, despite being dissatisfied with their private ground in Barnwell in the 20s, the University Cricket Club apparently found it impossible to find a suitable replacement.

One type of land not in short supply was common land, which the town notably hung on to. Only the Long Field behind King’s, Trinity and St John’s colleges was bought up to become what we now know as the Backs. Parker’s Piece was exchanged with Trinity College as part of that process and proceeded to acquire an important role in Cambridge life – for pasture, sport, elections, preaching and celebrations etc.

The university appears to have been fertile ground for cricket in the 18th century. Academically it was at a low ebb. Despite its long history, from long before its acknowledged formation in 1209, the reformation and dissolution of monasteries had made it harder for poor students to gain admission, Hugh Latimer claiming “There be none but great men’s sons in colleges. Whether or not this remained the case throughout the interim, it appears to have been true in the 18th century, when the university was often seen as a playground for the rich. Wordsworth wrote:

” We sauntered, played or rioted, we talked unprofitable talk at morning hours. To gallop through the country in blind zeal of senseless horsemanship, or on the breast of Cam sailed boisterously…….”

The number of degrees awarded declined annually until 1775 and sport was the main preoccupation of many – the Newmarket races, rowing, hunting, bathing, fishing, football, skating and cricket.

Thus cricket found a ready home in the University and survived well without need for outside contact, which helps to explain the dearth of reported university matches up to 1817.

By the 1850s Prince Albert was diligently expanding the academic curriculum as University Chancellor and the annual intake had risen from 150 to 450, with a consequent dilution of wealthy students’ influence. But even with these improvements Walter Besant was able to complain that many students were sons of the middle-classes with little knowledge of the world but, he added, “they played cricket with zeal”.

In addition to the university’s low standards, and probably to some extent due to them, the presence of the university had caused resentment in the town since its early days when rent fixing and bans on entertainment imposed by the university authorities had angered the townspeople.

This conflict continued to simmer as the university assumed responsibility for licensing alehouses, markets and fairs; controlling weights and measures; and dominating the exercise of law and order through its proctors.

In the context of cricket the university’s self-reliance in sport probably explains its separation from town cricket for so long. On the other hand its economic control may also explain the willingness of the likes of Fenner to ingratiate himself with the university as well as the significance of local cricketers gaining employment as professionals for the university and college clubs.

The conflict does help to explain the university’s urge to have a private ground. Lord Stamford, who first leased the cricket field that was to become Fenner’s, citing the need to avoid nuisances on Parker’s Piece, was also one of the student ringleaders in the Tom Thumb riots of the same year, 1846.

If an uneasy relationship with the university and a relative lack of industry help explain Cambridge professionals’ eagerness to seek employment elsewhere from the 40s onwards, this was probably reinforced by the unpleasantness of much of the town. Henry Walpole described it as “tumbling down about their [the colleges’] ears”. The town centre was horrendously overcrowded, leading to fire, cholera and typhoid, and poverty.

A report in 1849, at the exact time as Cambridge cricketers were making their exit, called the Barnwell parish “so wretched as to be a disgrace on civilisation; it is next to impossible for the inhabitants to be healthy, moral, decent or honest.” The local reputation of out-of-work cricketers as rogues in the early 1860s comes to mind here.

This situation was made even worse by depressions in reaction to the Napoleonic wars (1815-37), and in the immediate wake of the coming of the railway and the parallel decline of Cambridge as a thriving inland port and trading centre. No wonder Arnold, Buttress, Diver and the rest wanted out.

The 1850s saw improvement. The university expanded and improved its standards; its economic and political control was reduced; and public health and poverty were addressed with such innovations as freshwater wells and schools. But it is easy to see how the townspeople would value local heroes such as their cricketers and have an acute sense of local identity set against both the university and the rest of the county.

Cambridge lost the commercial empire that had been provided by the river, but the expansion of the university and the railways eventually led to a recovery. The town did develop some industry on a small scale, became a banking centre for the region and remained a successful market town. Nevertheless throughout the period of its cricket success Cambridge town was largely populated by an oppressed servant class. The performances of its town-boys-made-good on the town-owned Parker’s Piece were of considerable significance.

Overall, then, the general history of Cambridgeshire had led to;

a north/south separation between fen and upland, which was reflected in early localised cricket networks;

Cambridge and Wisbech being the major towns;

Prosperity in the 18th century;

Enclosure and drainage changing the landscape and more;

Lack of wealthy patronage;

Cambridge’s increased population and accompanying squalor;

Town/gown tension and inter-dependence;

And Cambridge (and Wisbech) having a certain isolationist feel about it.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that a county sensibility was hard to cultivate in its cricket and that the strongest identity was always in Cambridge, where the eventual recovery of the university reasserted its advantages as mirrored in the respective fortunes of university and town/county cricket as the 19th led into the 20th century.