All self-respecting County supporters – when delivering the obligatory ‘facts of life’ briefing to their offspring – will have told them about the momentous meeting at the George Hotel in Northampton (where Lloyds Bank is now, in George Row) on July 31, 1878, which led to the formation of N.C.C.C. as we know and love it today.
But hold hard. The record books (and websites) show that ‘Northamptonshire’ were playing cricket matches long before that. How come?
The answer – and it’s a longish story – explains why the Northampton-themed victory song (the one about Big City Lights not bothering me) heard in the present-day Wantage Road dressing room strikes a decidedly tinny note with the historically-minded.
Two centuries ago, in 1820, a new cricket club started up in the county town. The annual subscription was one guinea and it stayed that way for the best part of 50 years. To modern eyes, the fixture list doesn’t look particularly ambitious; in July 1822 they managed to beat Hollowell, long before the advent of the steam rally, and other early opponents included Pitsford and Spratton. It should be noted that, even in those pre-railway days, Peterborough’s cricketers were prepared to travel much further for a game – to Boston, Spalding, Stamford and Wisbech.
But in the early-1830s the Northampton club entered the orbit of the remarkable George Payne – owner of the now-demolished Sulby Hall near the Northamptonshire/Leicestershire border, racehorse owner, huntsman and gambler on a truly massive scale. He was, according to a racing historian, ‘a true English gentleman, large-hearted and high-spirited’ but ended up – in the words of Northamptonshire chronicler Jim Coldham – as ‘a noble derelict.’ Maybe the death of his father in a duel, when George was just a boy, accounted for his ‘live for today’ philosophy.
But he loved his cricket – and Northampton C.C.’s visits to Sulby saw them receive ‘sumptuous entertainment (with) everything done to conduce to the good feeling and conviviality of all present,’ as the Northampton Mercury recorded. In September 1832, at a dinner he hosted for cricketers at The Swan Hotel in Market Harborough, he mooted an idea well ahead of its time, at least as far as Northamptonshire was concerned. Payne stated that, in conjunction with ‘Sir Robert Gunning and the Corporation’, they intended to ‘make a ground at Northampton and establish a county club in proper form by next season.’ Gunning was a man with plenty of local influence, briefly Tory MP for Northampton, so the plan wasn’t – on the face of it – a fanciful one.
And in the spring of 1834 it was reported that the club had ‘just completed the formation of a new and excellent cricket ground, nearly opposite the Race Stand, at a very considerable expense.’ Thus Northampton’s Racecourse was established as the premier cricketing venue in the town, notwithstanding the obvious difficulties of staging matches on a public open space. If they were considerable even then, the situation would become increasingly awkward over the next few decades.
It did, though, allow Payne to indulge in two of his favourite sporting pastimes on the same visit. The 1834 fixture between Northampton and Sulby was arranged for after the race meeting there, although the local press spotted a potential flaw in the arrangements: ‘The company at the races will, it is to be hoped, avoid riding over the cricket ground as much as possible, otherwise it may be so much damaged as to interfere very materially with the sport.’ Well, yes,
Contemporary accounts suggest the ‘sport’ was rarely allowed to interfere overmuch with the social niceties. In the 1830s and 1840s the club’s members laid on theatrical entertainments including, in October 1841, a performance of ‘a new drama called A Maiden’s Fame, with new scenes, and The Bleeding Nun…by the Desire and under the Patronage of the members of Northampton Cricket Club.’ The annual dinner was also growing into a major occasion with the Honourable Captain Spencer (soon to become the 4th Earl Spencer, and the club’s president) taking the chair.
They weren’t doing badly on the field, either. In 1846 Northampton boasted seven wins out of seven against opponents including Stamford, Market Harborough and Wellingborough, although supporters of the last-named were understandably delighted when their men prevailed home-and-away the following summer. But 1847 also brought an innings victory for Northampton over the ‘Bedford County Cricket Club’ who were skittled for just 37 and 52, and the sporting newspaper ‘Bell’s Life’ reckoned that ‘several new members have been added, both of town and county.’ And that might account for the strange and sudden transformation scene that played out shortly afterwards, with a bearing on the question posed right at the start.
In 1851 the Northampton Mercury flagged up the possibility of a match ‘between the Northamptonshire and Leicestershire clubs’ in May, claiming the evidence of early practice sessions suggested ‘the eleven they will in all probability turn out will not disgrace our county as cricketers.’ If the match was actually played, no record of it survives – but later in the summer ‘Northamptonshire’ tackled Towcester, while ‘Northampton’ played Rugby. It was, as one of Spike Milligan’s characters in The Goon Show used to say, all rather confusing really. We know that contests between the club’s ‘Town’ and ‘County’ members attracted big crowds (including, in 1849, ‘a fair sprinkling of the fairer sex’) but why the change of club name, adopted after 1851 in all of its official notifications regarding dinners, meetings and fixtures?
One possibility is the growing presence around this time of the ‘Northampton Tradesman’s’ club, formed in the 1830s and targeting – presumably – those not easily able to cough up a guinea for their annual sub. Tom Plumb senior (whose son, also Tom, would become one of the best wicketkeepers in England) was captain and Jacob Abraham, believed to be the first professional cricketer produced by the town, turned out for it occasionally, although Abraham (married four times) and Charlie Dean from Sussex were also leading lights of the Northampton/Northamptonshire club as the 1850s unfolded.
There were some notable individual performances in this era. In 1856 Tom Plumb junior hit an unbeaten 110 against Newport Pagnell on the Racecourse, possibly the first century made for a team calling itself Northamptonshire. In the same year he hit 74 out of 205 all out against Wellingborough before Abraham and Dean joined forces to blow away the opposition for a measly 15 and 26.
Off the field, there was also a tentative move to bring cricketers from across Northamptonshire closer together, at least socially. A Cricketers’ Ball was held at Northampton’s Corn Exchange early in 1857, and although the majority of its supporters came from the county town there were also leading lights listed from Daventry, Wellingborough, Thrapston, Stony Stratford, Little Harrowden, Bugbrooke, Kislingbury, Heyford, Flore, Finedon and Peterborough. ‘Northamptonshire’ and Peterborough met home-and-away in 1858, the former winning easily on the Racecourse – Plumb hitting 91 – before the return match had to be abandoned when the Northamptonians, on 48-3 chasing a victory target of 110, were obliged to catch the last train home. Shades of Durban’s Timeless Test in 1939, halted after ten days on account of the M.C.C. touring party’s travel arrangements.
But despite the club adopting the name it was emphatically not a county side which – by definition – ought to represent the entire cricketing strength within its boundaries. And at the dawn of a new decade cracks in the façade began to appear.
At the A.G.M. in 1860 it was noted that ‘the Northamptonshire (sic) club, notwithstanding the adverse influences of the weather and the rifle corps movement, means to hold its own.’ Volunteer rifle corps were being raised around the country following the Crimean War and public spaces like the Racecourse were much in demand for drilling and parades. And a ‘North Northamptonshire’ club was beginning to make its presence felt, playing matches against strong opponents including Huntingdon and Stamford with a home ground at Drayton Park near Lowick. In 1862 the ‘Mercury’ even lapsed into reverting to ‘Northampton’ for the old club’s matches, not least their ten-wicket defeat at the hands of Guilsborough.
The inevitable happened in August 1863. North Northamptonshire came to the Racecourse and, boosted by the brilliance of Henry Bull and the Reverend Hugh Hodgson Gillett, both relatively recent Oxford blues, they pummelled their hosts by 164 runs. It was a humiliating setback for the established club, and worse was to follow. A year later the Northampton-based organisation was horribly short of funds and said it would be ‘grateful for any donation that anyone may be inclined to forward.’ The new season (1864) would begin, the annual meeting heard, with ‘a friendly match between themselves.’ Meanwhile, Gillett – vicar of Finedon and, later, of Wadenhoe – was busy plundering 107 for North Northamptonshire against Bedfordshire, wrapping up victory with a six-wicket haul.
Even some of the older club’s more prestigious fixtures were faintly shambolic. When a side billed as ‘Oxford University’ came to the Racecourse it turned out to be a scratch assortment of just eight players; three Northampton members had to be enlisted to play for the Dark Blues who succumbed for 22 and 46, losing by an innings. Their cause wasn’t helped by gifting the home team 37 runs in byes. Presumably the wicketkeeper was one of the absentees.
Just when it looked as though things couldn’t get much worse, they did; not the last time Northamptonshire cricket would experience this grim phenomenon, of course. While the wider world was absorbing the news that the American Civil War had ended at Appomattox but President Abraham Lincoln had lost his life at Ford’s Theatre, a letter to the ‘Mercury’ in April 1865 – signed ‘H.M’ – outlined the scale of the local cricketing malaise. ‘I am grieved to think there will be no play this year, at least none, as I understand, on the part of Northamptonshire cricket club – the first, and, as it ought to be, the best club in the town,’ he grumbled. The Racecourse ground looked in an awful state, he added, while ‘the club itself…is at low water, without funds, without everything except a name.’ It might revive, he reckoned, ‘with a little exertion and influence in proper quarters’ but the loss of THE cricket club in a large town would be ‘a calamity.’
To rub salt into the wound, the touring All England Eleven agreed to play at Towcester in 1866 (after visiting Brackley the previous year), prompting the observation that ‘with so many good names in the county it is much to be regretted that there is no organised county club.’ Something had to be done, and in April of that year a meeting was called ‘to devise means for placing cricket in Northampton on an equality with other towns.’ Which might suggest that the Queen Victoria bun penny still hadn’t dropped; this wasn’t just about Northampton. Anyhow, in the finest traditions of the ancient place there was plenty of moaning – not least about the amount of money it was costing (estimated at £25) to get the Racecourse fit for cricket again after the interruption to normal service in 1865. It was agreed to reduce subscriptions to half their 1820 level in an effort to broaden the membership base, although at least one worthy believed that ‘county gentlemen’ were more likely to ‘ride eight or ten miles to enjoy a game’ if subs were higher – guaranteeing, presumably, the absence of riff-raff. A Mr Phillips agreed that county members should be encouraged ‘but he did not see much possibility of them coming.’
Thomas Shaw, describing himself as an original member of the club, highlighted what he saw as the biggest obstacle – the lack of a private ground. There was also an interesting contribution from a local schoolmaster who urged cricketers to ‘set their faces against snobbishness.’ His name was William Kingston of Abington House School and he joined the club’s committee. In years to come the family would do much to improve matters; his two youngest sons, Billy and Tim, were in the side for Northamptonshire’s inaugural first-class match in 1905. For now, though, Mr Kingston senior caused a few embarrassed glances by bowling the 5th Earl Spencer, President of the club and cabinet minister, for a duck at Althorp during the 1866 season.
Just over 150 years on, it’s faintly reassuring to see that this ludicrous state of affairs – a cricket club calling itself ‘Northamptonshire’ when it patently was not representative of the county outside Northampton – didn’t go unchallenged at the time. A punter rejoicing in the nom-de-plume ‘An Ancient Cricket Ball’ took up the cudgels in the newspaper correspondence columns in 1867: ‘That the present Northamptonshire club be considered a fair representation of the state of cricket in this county – containing, as one believes, not a single member outside the town- is a supposition too absurd to be entertained for a moment.’ Another correspondent, a couple of years later, referred disparagingly to ‘the Town or County club, whichever they call it.’
The club’s secretary, Henry Becke, and his colleagues seemed to set great store by securing fixtures in Northampton against the increasingly fragmented ‘wandering’ elevens – still good money-spinners especially, as in 1870 and 1873, when the greatest cricketer in the world, W.G. Grace, was prevailed upon to appear. These ‘great matches’ had been a feature of the Racecourse cricket scene since 1844, but the heyday of the professional troupes travelling the country, making use of the new railways, and putting on a show against 16, 18 or 22 locals, had passed. As Derek Birley pointed out in his superb social history of English cricket, the main focus of the growing enthusiasm for the game heading into the 1870s was county cricket and its infant Championship. For a ‘county’ club to have a fixture list featuring (as Northamptonshire’s did in 1875) just a couple of two-day matches, against M.C.C. and Uppingham Rovers, with the bulk of its games against the likes of Loughborough, Rugby, Market Harborough, Luton and Stony Stratford, wasn’t really on.
Even the old excuses about the ground were starting to wear thin. The Britons and Morning Star clubs in Northampton managed jointly – with, ironically, the help of the senior club’s president, Earl Spencer – to obtain the use of a field in St James’s End, raising funds with events including a ‘grand entertainment’ at the Town Hall and a match involving a team of ‘Clown Cricketers’ who combined batting and bowling with a touch of slapstick. Meanwhile, Tom Plumb hosted a strong Yorkshire United eleven at an admittedly short-lived new venue behind the Halfway House pub in Kingsthorpe. As new teams in the town grew in stature so the old guard became increasingly fractious and even a touch vindictive; at the A.G.M. in April 1875 (held in the Religious and Useful Knowledge Society’s lecture room in Gold Street) an individual was in effect ‘blackballed’ from the committee for his involvement with another cricket club. Subs weren’t being paid either.
Once again, the ‘Letters to the Editor’ pages sizzled with diatribes targeting the N.C.C.’s hapless officials. A frustrated gentleman writing as ‘Experto Crede’ (which loosely translates as ‘trust the expert’) let rip in the wake of that 1875 annual meeting: ‘A more selfish and un-English spirit could not pervade any body of men,’ he thundered, questioning (again) their right to use Northamptonshire in their club name. ‘Are we to acknowledge a club without discipline, management or funds, or should we support those clubs which show to this town’s folk the true spirit of cricket?’ Fred Tebbutt, the new secretary, mounted a spirited defence, but he was no fool and must have realised that change was needed.
When members met again in December 1877 there was ‘some little discussion (over) placing a few of the gentleman players of the county on the committee, so as to secure their interest in the club.’ To press the point further, Charles Curtis stood up and declared ‘the club is not acting up to its name. Northamptonshire Cricket Club would imply a county club but (this) is not conducted as such clubs usually are’, by which he meant selecting the best players from across the area for representative fixtures. He made a formal proposal to remove ‘shire’ from the name – a mere quarter-of-a-century too late. Tebbutt asked him to hold his fire on that, and undertook to make contact with some of the other clubs across Northamptonshire whose match scores and reports were filling column inches every week. He made good his promise by arranging, in May 1878, a match against ‘Eighteen of Northampton and District’ ahead of the eagerly-anticipated fixture with Leicestershire in June. But the first proper meeting with the Foxes turned into a disaster with Tebbutt and chums routed for 24 and 52, losing by 65 runs.
A couple of weeks later – stung, one imagines, by that humbling experience and conscious of the ‘Mercury’ reporter’s view that ‘the eleven representing the county might have been stronger’ – the gentlemen of north Northamptonshire met their southern counterparts on and off the field at Kettering, and resolved to act. By the end of July, Northamptonshire County Cricket Club had come into being with, crucially, representatives of all parts of the county on the first committee. As one of the pioneers put it, ‘Nobody should be allowed to escape.’ They were stuck with the Racecourse for the time being, but eight years later the ambition set out by George Payne back in 1832 was finally realised with the first ball bowled on a new County Ground.
So to answer the question – Northamptonshire isn’t (or, rather, wasn’t) Northamptonshire when a cricket club in Northampton appropriated the county’s name without attempting to include Kettering, or Wellingborough, or Daventry, or Towcester, or Oundle, or – in those days – Peterborough. It took the efforts and vision of individuals from all those places, and others, to make county cricket in our part of the world a reality. Because a Northampton-centric mindset had failed conspicuously to deliver.
‘No Finer Town You’ll Ever See’ says the victory song. Maybe – but which one?