What’s in a name – the town that took on a county


Cambridgeshire or Cambridge Town Club v Kent 1861


On Thursday, Friday and Saturday 6, 7 and 8 June 1861 a cricket match was played on Parker’s Piece Cambridge in weather that was, for the first two days at least, “intensely cold for the time of year”. Nothing desperately unusual there then. The visiting side, featuring Edgar Willsher, at the peak of his career in performance terms but probably by far the strongest player in the team, was Kent County Cricket Club. The home side, made up of ten Cambridge-based professionals and an amateur captain, was, according to Scores and Biographies, Wisden, and all subsequent records, Cambridgeshire. According, however, to reports in the Cambridge press of the time, and letters from officials of both clubs, the home side was Cambridge Town Club. The home side won, but the issue of who was actually playing was to be subject to considerable argument over the next three months, and is I believe, an issue of some significance in relation to its context of 1860s Cambridgeshire and English cricket.

Background of Cambridgeshire representative cricket up to 1861.

There had been occasional Cambridgeshire sides before, but the years 1857-71 saw a period in which Cambridgeshire is now generally regarded as having had a top-grade representative side, playing 39 inter-county matches that are now regarded as first-class.

By the late 1850s there had been increasing calls in the Cambridge press for top-class cricket to return to Cambridge. These were not calling for a county side, however, but for the return of cricket to the beloved Parker’s Piece and for the reformation of the successful Cambridge Town and County Club of the 1840’s, which despite its ambitious title had been essentially a town club. A new Town Club was duly formed in 1860. At around the same time a string of annual gentlemen-only county sides had developed into the County of Cambridge Club, a gentlemen’s club happy to play mostly local opposition with the occasional big match against another gentlemen-only county side, such as Essex. Gradually this branch of Cambridgeshire cricket also began to hanker after bigger matches , but after the model of such amateur-run county clubs as Surrey and Kent.

Cambridge Town Club – the new saviours

It was in this context of there being little in the way of a Cambridgeshire county cricket culture outside of the “gentlemen”, but a strong allegiance to Cambridge town cricket, that the match versus Kent took place. The new saviours of Cambridge cricket, the Cambridge Town Club, included in its ranks Robert Carpenter, Thomas Hayward, Alfred “Ducky” Diver and George Tarrant, each of whom toured abroad with England sides. Alongside them were such professional touring eleven stalwarts as Fred Bell, also known for coaching the Queen’s sons, Fred Reynolds later of Lancashire and Billy Buttress, “the father of break-bowling”. Unsurprisingly the new club was looking for fixtures to match this considerable talent before an eager public on Parker’s Piece at the same time as County Clubs such as Surrey and Kent were actively seeking county opposition.

The course of events

In February the Cambridge Chronicle announced that the Town Club had concluded a “home-and-home” match with the county of Kent: “keeping faith with the promise made at the formation of the club, that one great match should be arranged yearly”.

On 16 April a general meeting of the Cambridge Town Club confirmed the match dates as 6 June and 26 August, the latter being at Canterbury during its annual cricket week. It was also pointed out that final arrangements for the match had been difficult due to the logistics of getting the Cambridge players together from their various out-of-county engagements at a cost of around £60.

On 28 April the Bell’s Life match listings for the 1861 season included “Cambridge Town Club v County of Kent” for the 6th June, although all subsequent lisitings gave the match as “Kent v the County of Cambridge”.

The Cambridge press enthusiastically anticipated the home match:

County of Kent v Cambridge. – The first match between these celebrated clubs will be commenced on Parker’s Piece, on Thursday next. It is seldom the lovers of cricket have an opportunity of witnessing matches of this character……Upon this occasion the strength of both sides will appear, and a splendid contest, such as is seldom witnessed in our locality, may, we think, be reasonably anticipated.”

Against a backdrop of cold and rain, the match itself was relatively low-scoring, with Kent leading on the first innings by 153 runs to 130, Willsher top-scoring with 41 not out. Cambridge, however, mostly through the top order of Muncey, Tarrant, Carpenter and Tom Hayward, put the pressure on with a second innings total of 187 and, with time running out, Kent lost their last six wickets for 19 runs, to finish on 92. “The old ring around the broad piece” had seen Cambridge Town Club beat Kent by 72 runs. The match result was not, however, the end of the matter, because by then the arguments had begun.

The match reports in both the Cambridge press and Bell’s Life were clear about which sides were taking part. “We are the more indebted to the town club for risking so much for the gratification of the public” said the Cambridge Chronicle. The report submitted to Bell’s Life went further:

It is our duty at the outset to remark that this match seems to have been misunderstood, inasmuch as all notices of it have assumed it to be “Cambridgeshire”, instead of what it really is “The Cambridge Town Club”. There is a County Club which necessarily derives its professional strength from the capital, but this club is unmistakably “town”, and every player a bona fide Cambridge man.

A lengthy exchange of correspondence through Bell’s Life ensued with 24 year old Kent Club committee member William Western Knatchbull-Hugessen taking exception to the above report and pointing out:

The match has been published in your paper and many others, for many weeks past, as Kent v Cambridgeshire.

So far so true, but he then put the onus on Cambridge Town Club to have objected to the listings and rhetoric took over as he argued that the sheer talent of the Cambridge side was an accident and not enough to justify the assumption that Kent would willingly play a town team. Indeed, he could not see “why anyone might suppose that a top county club would be willing to play a town club”.

In defence, F P Fenner, the Town club secretary, submitted copies of two letters. The first, from Kent secretary William South Norton, asking to be informed whether or not any university students would be included in the Cambridge side as, if so, the Kent committee would prefer the team to be called “The County and University of Cambridge”. The second, sent on 24 April, contained Fenner’s response to this apparent assumption that the Cambridge County Club was involved:

Our club is strictly “the Cambridge Town Club” not “the County Club” as seems to have been supposed.

“We, therefore”, added Fenner, “could not have assumed the title suggested by Mr Hugessen.”, further pointing out that no objection had been raised by Kent between that last letter and the day of the match.

Knatchbull-Hugessen wrote again claiming that the reference in Fenner’s letter to the “Cambridge Town Club” had not been made until some months after negotiations had begun, during which time:

…we were led to suppose that Mr Fenner was acting for the County, and not for the Town Club alone.”

A second letter, from South Norton, also claimed that the Kent Club had been misled. Kent, he said, had always intended to play the Cambridge County Club, but, since they had not learned of the Town Club’s involvement until after arrangements for both matches and their venues had been agreed upon, he had thought it best to allow the match to be played. As his first correspondence to Fenner had clearly supposed the latter to be the secretary of the County Club (which he had previously been), South Norton regretted that Fenner had not immediately clarified his position of not being able to arrange an inter-county match.

The Kent committee would then have had time to arrange some other county match, that being a class of match which would be preferred by their subscribers.

He then added:

“As far as the actual strength, however, of the Eleven with whom Kent has to contend is concerned your readers will have seen that the distinction between the Cambridge Town and Cambridge County is little else than nominal.”

Correspondence was then suspended until it was noted that the return match was not included in the programme for the Canterbury Week and South Norton wrote again to Bell’s Life to explain. He included the following communication received from the Cambridge Town Club on 15 July:

At a meeting of the Cambridge Town Cricket Club on July 12, it was resolved that as it appears by the letters of Mr Hugessen and Mr Norton, which have been published in Bell’s Life, that the Kent Club repudiate the match with this club, the committee do not feel called upon to play the return match at Canterbury. The committee, therefore, resolve that the match be abandoned.

South North denied that the Kent club had repudiated the match and claimed that, on the contrary, they had accepted the match as a “concluded arrangement which could not be conveniently interfered with”. Accordingly they felt it a point of honour for Cambridge to play the return match, but the Town Club committee had refused to do so.

Fenner, an inveterate letter writer, duly replied and denied misleading Kent, pointing out that his letter declaring his representation of the Town Club was sent six weeks before the match took place, plenty of time for Kent to clarify their position. He added that South Norton had written to him during those six weeks to arrange details regarding umpires and scorers but had made no mention of Kent’s unwillingness to play a town club. Had he done so, claimed Fenner, the Town Club would “have agreed unhesitatingly to the withdrawal of the match and respected their [Kent’s] motives”. As it was, the Town Club had expected to be playing a friendly match with Kent only to be accused on the day of the match of deception by Knatchbull Huggesen. Fenner went on to accuse this “gentleman” of threatening to withdraw the Kent team after the match had begun if cards being distributed around the ground attributing the match to “Kent v Cambridge Town Club” were not altered. He also implied that there were several other occurrences during the match that appeared to be delaying tactics on the part of the Kent club.

That, at last, was the end of the public correspondence on the matter, but one further contribution to the argument had lasting significance, that of Arthur Haygarth in Frederick Lillywhites’s Cricket Scores and Biographies, Volume Seven, published in 1877. In notes to accompany the scorecard of this match Haygarth stated:

The winning side (through their Secretary, F. P. Fenner,) wished to be called the Cambridge Town Club, much to the offence “and very properly too of Kent. Though all the Cambridge men no doubt belonged to the Town Club, several of them came from various parts of the county, and a then great cricketing county like Kent did not wish to contend against a club.”

In fact only the captain, William Prest, was not resident, born or well established as a player in the town, and even he had played for the town as long ago as 1852.

As an example of Kent’s and Haygarth’s interpretation of events being handed down, the ACS included in their notes to this match that “F. P. Fenner requested that the Cambridge side should be called Cambridge Town Club”, but they still headed the match “Cambridgeshire v Kent”.

The facts?

From all of the above it is possible to extract some idea of the train of events.

William South Norton, secretary of Kent County Cricket Club wrote to Francis Fenner, clearly thinking he was the Cambridge County Club Secretary, expressing his wish to arrange a match between the counties of Kent and Cambridge.

Fenner replied as secretary of the Cambridge Cricket Club and did not clarify that this was a town club.

Since arrangements for the match were well advanced, when he eventually received clarification from Fenner, South Norton unilaterally decided that it should be played despite the mistake. Nevertheless he did not prevent the match being listed as against the County Club.

At the match Knatchbull-Hugessen, possibly in ignorance of South Norton’s decision, took exception to the home team being called the “Cambridge Town Club” and subsequently launched the public argument on the issue.

Thus contemporary evidence shows that, whilst there was clear disagreement between the two clubs, nonetheless, the match was played between Kent County Cricket Club and Cambridge Town Cricket Club. Cambridgeshire or the County of Cambridge Cricket Club were not involved.

Why so much misunderstanding

Thus we have a picture of conflict born out of misunderstandings, misleading team titles, unilateral decisions, insensitivity and arrogance, if not stubbornness and outright deception.

It is easy to see how Fenner’s previous role as secretary of the County Club could have misled Kent into assuming he still had it. It is also quite plausible that Fenner’s use of the title “Cambridge Cricket Club” could have been interpreted as meaning Cambridge Town or Cambridge County as both terms were confusingly in regular usage.

It would, however, look to have been relatively straightforward for Fenner to have avoided this confusion early on in the negotiations or, similarly, for South Norton, having already accepted the mistake as irremediable, to have both clarified the matter with his committee and overruled Knatchbull-Hugessen’s objections.

Two things seem likely to have prevented such damage limitation. Firstly, in order to satisfy local demand, Cambridge Town Club were determined to secure top-class opposition to play their best side. The latter would inevitably be of County playing standard due to the concentration of professional talent in Cambridge. Nevertheless this was a legitimate Town side and local pride in their small town’s fine crop of professional cricketers, capable of taking on the best, was perfectly understandable. Fenner, a long-standing Cambridge town player, cricket club administrator and businessman, was an experienced negotiator and may well have understood the confusion he was causing but he would also have believed in his club’s right to play top-class opposition.

Secondly Kent was an established County Club at a time when the idea of top-grade English cricket being organised on a county basis, with amateurs at the helm, was beginning to gain support. Kent clearly saw it as beneath their status to play a town club. One interpretation is that the “class of match” South Norton referred to meant social class as much as class of performance and Kent believed, accordingly, that they could impose their will upon a mere town club. Once embroiled in a public argument, they felt the need to defend their status.

Why has this match been attributed to Cambridgeshire ever since?

With good reason Arthur Haygarth’s work in Scores and Biographies has long been regarded as seminal and consequently his statements and interpretations of events have not always been challenged. In this case, writing at a time when an official county championship was in operation and a far stricter pecking order established, he adopted the title that Kent would have preferred for the match without considering the Town Club’s side of the story. It is not surprising that this has since gone unquestioned as both the Town Club and County Club were long gone even by the time Haygarth was writing. Perhaps Haygarth was considered a completely reliable authority. More plausibly, it would seem likely that no one since has given a thought as to why Cambridge Town Club should have been involved in a Kent versus Cambridgeshire match. The Town Club was short-lived, Fenner had moved to Cheltenham by 1862, and future matches against Kent were officially attributed to the County, so there was little incentive to question the matter.

What a correct attribution of this match helps us understand about Cambridgeshire cricket

The importance of understanding that this match was contested by Cambridge Town Club and not the County Club or any other body representing the county is, I think, twofold. Firstly the accepted title conceals, at the very least, the interesting fact that Cambridge Town Club were strong enough to defeat Kent. To Cambridge Town supporters, what Knatchbull-Hugessen called the accident of so many good cricketers coming from Cambridge was no accident but a hard won fact.

Secondly, as with the matches of 1857/58, the accepted title gives a false impression of how the match was arranged and adds to a misleading impression that there was a consistent Cambridgeshire cricket administration throughout the period 1857-71, when this was far from the case.

Cambridgeshire and Cambridge cricket had long been a complex of different clubs and vested interests. During the 1860s Cambridge University, Cambridge Town, amateurs, professionals and the Cambridgeshire County Club, as well as complete outsiders, all had their own interests which affected how matches were arranged, how sides were selected and, ultimately, how short-lived Cambridgeshire top-grade cricket was to be.

Thus the Town Club versus Kent match is a good illustration of the fragmented origins of the so-called first-class Cambridgeshire county sides. It also gives some hints as to the reasons behind both their fragmentation and ultimate demise.

In particular, the match highlights the lack of a powerful county identity within Cambridgeshire and the historical and contemporary dominance within the county’s cricket of the county town and its professionals. “Cambridge Town” in its many club and non-club forms was a far more publically established institution than the County Club and it would have felt perfectly natural, and reflective of the Cambridge-born talent, for the Town Club to take on County opposition.

The number of professionals in the Cambridge side points up a second factor behind Cambridgeshire’s difficulties – lack of money. Cambridgeshire was not well placed to financially support a county cricket club. Whilst other counties had wealthy patrons, large populations to pay at the gate and through membership, or industry to stimulate commercial interest, Cambridgeshire had none of these. The variety of ways in which county sides were got together, and matches organised, was to a large extent about who could afford to foot the bill.

A third factor was the lack of administrative support. Without wealthy patrons or a population large enough to produce the middle-class club membership and committees found elsewhere, Cambridgeshire was unable to maintain a consistent support structure. Neither the County nor Town Club were able to do so and although the professionals appear to have tried to use their own professional connections these were also inadequate for the purpose.

What a correct attribution of this match helps us understand about county cricket in the 1860s

Another factor illustrated by this match is the arbitrary nature of the county cricket structure. The shire was nor a particularly strong cultural force in England at the time, but there was a growth of amateur influence and ambition within English cricket that found a comfortable home in that, to some extent, nostalgic concept. Kent’s objection illustrated both its own established position and a growing lobby for a county based game. Cambridgeshire, with its relatively low representation of either traditional or industrial amateur wealth was clearly out of step with this lobby. This match shows how strong Cambridge town identity was, but also, perhaps, how class-conscious some county committees were.  With considerable support from “Bell’s Life” the amateurs were reclaiming control of the game.


In terms of bracketing together matches of similar talent, calling this a Cambridgeshire match is totally appropriate. The standard of player in the Cambridge side was the same as, if not higher than, that in all the other matches attributed to Cambridgeshire between 1857 and 1871. It is only when trying to gain an understanding of the match’s historical context that the title becomes problematic. Whether or not it is changed for statistical purposes, it does seem important, for a proper understanding of Cambridgeshire cricket during that period, for it to be widely known that on 6 June 1861 Cambridge Town Club played the County of Kent on Parker’s Piece, Cambridge and yes they beat them.