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An early history of cricket in Oxford
By Mark Davies
BBC Oxford contributor

Cricketers Arms sign
The early Cowley Marsh cricket ground is commemorated in this pub sign

Oxfordshire may never have achieved the distinction of being a first-class cricketing county.

However, it can point to early examples of the sport as a competitive pastime.

Less praiseworthy is the contribution Oxford has made, via cricket, to the mindless excess of the secretive and elitist Bullingdon Club.

The national origins of cricket are obscure, but it is clear that it first developed as an organised sport at a small number of public schools.

Oxford was an inevitable destination for many boys from such schools, so it is unsurprising that the city provides some very early evidence of cricket as an adult pastime.

Samuel Johnson (of Dictionary fame) played in a match in 1729 and the New College scholar James Woodforde played in two matches on Port Meadow in 1760 between teams of former Winchester and Eton schoolboys.

'School professionals'

The first match against Cambridge was played in 1827. For many years after, the Oxford eleven was always composed of former public schoolboys.

James Pyecroft, a Trinity college don who is acknowledged as cricket's first real pundit, described them as 'school professionals', saying "few had much chance who were not from Eton, Harrow, or Winchester."

At this time there were only two suitable grounds. One was the Magdalen Ground on Cowley Common or Marsh, named after the Magdalen School choirboys who first played there.

It became the official University ground in 1851, and remained so until 1881, when the switch was made to the current ground at University Parks.

The other, still older, original pitch was on Bullingdon Green, where 'gentlemen of the Oxford Cricket Club' met at least as early as 1764.

Eventually, or perhaps even originally, the remote Bullingdon ground became less of a venue for cricket and more a justification for unsupervised social gatherings of the Bullingdon's elitist membership.

As Pyecroft put it: "Cricket there was secondary to the dinners, and the men were chiefly of an expensive class."

'Bullington Green' map 1797
Richard Davis' map of 1797 shows the broad expanse of 'Bullington Green'

Bullingdon Green was also sufficiently remote to provide the opportunity for equestrian pursuits too.

An illustration of a Bullingdon match in the 1840s shows many mounted horsemen on the perimeter of the crowd.

In the Jubilee Book of Cricket (1897), Thomas Case described the scene as "Undergraduates riding or driving out across the Cowley Common, undeterred by fences, and on their arrival at Bullingdon Green partly playing cricket in the middle, partly riding races round the match, and finally eating and drinking in a manner adapted to youth, health, and exercise."

This is corroborated by R.W. Browne writing in 1892, who said that "the Magdalen was the only real University Cricket Club, as the Bullingdon... was more of a fashionable lounge for those who could keep horses."

Malevolent activities

The Bullingdon Club features often in Oxford fiction.

An early serialised novel of Oxford graduate Vincent Eden (1839) featured the exclusive Brothers' Club, whose destructive and malevolent activities accord perfectly with those of the Bullingdon.

Like the Bullingdon, the self-deluded Brothers' Club justified its excesses on the basis that its "express aim and object, its sole and common bond of union, its very essence of fraternity, [was] the promotion of FUN!"

Another thinly disguised depiction of the Bullingdon comes in Evelyn Waugh's 1928 Decline and Fall.

There the Bollinger Club's membership comprised "epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates... all that was most sonorous of name and title."

In After Long Years, a short story by William Frederick Traill, the subterfuge is dropped, when two former students return to Oxford and recall the Bullingdon dinners of the 1850s, followed by "the reckless drive home in a drag through the pitch-dark night."

The fiction is solidly based on fact. In 1852, as part of a government review of the running of the University, Mr Jelf, a Christ Church proctor, stated: "The scenes which take place, and the songs which are sung at the dinners of the Bullingdon Club... are a curse and a disgrace to a place of Christian education."

Christ Church almost inevitably provided the bulk of the membership.

However, Traill also remembered to include the cricket, recalling "the Bullingdon cricket matches, and the heavy luncheons that made the eye deceptive so that it saw several cricket-balls bowled, but induced the batsman to hit all the wrong ones.

"Wickets always fell fast after a Bullingdon luncheon, however good the batsmen and however weak the bowling."

Drinking prowess

According to Serge Oblensky, a Russian royal, this tendency to gastronomic excess was fashioned into a tactic in the period 1912-1914.

In the annual match against the Athanaeum Club of Cambridge, their team comprised keen and able players, whereas "our principal Bullingdon activity was eating. Thus we reasoned that if we gave them a good lunch, and they drank a good deal, it might equalise matters."

More recently, the 7th Marquess of Bath, Alexander Thynne, confirmed an enduring reliance on the strategy.

He wrote in his 2005 autobiography of a Bullingdon match against the police in 1954: "The general purpose of the game was to supply alcohol in such abundant flow that we might expect to win from sheer drinking prowess, and not from cricketing skills."

Thynne defined the Club as "that long-established focal point for blue-blooded identity in Oxford", but by the end of the book he bemoaned the arrogance of its members, who assumed that "every social scenario which they choose to attend is perforce their scenario, where they write the rules of behaviour themselves."

He also complained that the election of new members was 'fiddled'.

"If clubs of this ilk have a tradition of being the nursery pens for the future cabinet ministers of our nation, then there might be room for some healthy concern on the issue."

Ahem! Would this be an appropriate juncture to mention that former Bullingdon Club members have included David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and George Osborne?

Or would that be 'just not cricket'?

Mark Davies is a local historian, writer, publisher, walks' guide and speaker on various aspects of non-University Oxford.




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