The Earl’s Game

Cricket in St. Osyth can certainly boast of noble origins. William Henry Nassau, 4th Earl of Rochford, was a figure of power and influence in mid 18th. century England. Born at St. Osyth Priory in 1717, he was a friend and confidant of both George II and George III, which must have helped him in obtaining a range of distinguished and colourful titles including Lord Lieutenant of Essex, Vice-Admiral of the Coasts of Essex and Lord of the Bedchamber. Rochford’s connections also helped him secure a succession of top diplomatic posts including spells as ambassador in both Spain and France. He then turned his attentions to politics where he became a Privy Councillor attaining the rank of Secretary of State. As a politician Rochford’s uncompromising attitude in the build up to the American War of Independence earned him somewhat harshly the tag of “the man who lost us America”.

 

Away from the intrigues of court and politics, Rochford devoted considerable time to his own estate at St. Osyth. He acquired a reputation as an innovator, encouraging use of the very latest agricultural practices on his farms. Another of his innovations was to promote cricket matches, which links him firmly to the game played in his own village in the summer of 1754.

When played at St. Osyth in this year cricket was still in its infancy as an organised sport. Its precise origins have defied even the most assiduous of historians, but until the 18th. century the game seems to have been confined largely to the Weald of Kent, where it was a pastime primarily enjoyed by local shepherds. All this was changing by the 1750s; cricket had been discovered by fashionable society and ambitious aristocrats like Rochford were vying with each other to promote matches on their country estates and establish their own teams.

Most distinguished of all patrons at this time was King George II’s eldest son and heir Frederick, Prince of Wales. Although not the greatest of players himself, the Prince promoted numerous matches particularly in Surrey, and not even his untimely death in 1751 which can be indirectly attributed to an injury sustained whilst playing cricket could stem the growing tide of enthusiasm for the game.

Cricket seems to have taken longer to gain a foothold in Essex than south of the Thames, but in the north of the county matches are recorded as being played at Manningtree in 1745 and Brightlingsea in 1748. These two towns also joined forces to stage further matches against Colchester teams in 1749 and 1751. Nevertheless the St. Osyth match is of chronological significance. Some of the landmark moments in the development of the game such as the golden age of the Hambledon club in Hampshire, usually considered the ‘cradle of the game’ and the formation of the Marylebone Cricket Club (M.C.C.) were still some years away when the following announcement was placed in the Ipswich Journal on 13th July 1754.

“ This is to give Notice, that on Monday, the 22nd of this instant July, at the sign of the Red Lyon in St. Osith in Essex, will be Eleven Hats, of seven Shillings and Sixpence each, play’d for at Cricket, by any Two and Twenty Men; each Man to Pay three Shillings Entrance; And the wickets to be pitch’d at Two o’clock in the Afternoon.”

There is so much about this match as with others of the period that we will never know, including of course who played in it and who won, but certain things can be pieced together.

It must have been promoted by the Earl of Rochford, whose enthusiasm for the game is well recorded and who owned almost all the land in the village. The reference to the Red Lion ( inns were a popular meeting place for matches at this time ) suggests it was played behind the pub on what became known later as Folly Farm meadows and is now occupied by Johnson Road and Norman Close.

Apart from the number of players and the start time which coincidentally is exactly as for present-day league cricket, the game would have looked vastly different from its modern counterpart. Bowling would have been exclusively underarm and directed at a wicket with only two stumps. The middle stump was not added until the 1770s. Bats were curved and of no fixed dimensions, and the batsmen would not have thought of wearing protective equipment. The scores would have been recorded simply by cutting notches in a piece of wood.

If this all sounds rather genteel, very few of these early matches were played purely for fun. The St. Osyth game was no exception, although the money at stake was modest in comparison with matches in London, where stakes of up to 200 guineas were not unknown. Betting was an integral part of the game, and with teams often put together on an ‘ad hoc’ basis as a result of responses to newspaper announcements, allegations of ‘match-fixing’ were quite commonplace !

It is intriguing to speculate what the locals would have made of this strange game. The vast majority of the population would have been farmworkers, earning little more than 6 or 7 shillings a week, with such social life as was possible based around the village pubs. A cricket match costing 3 shillings to take part, although cheap by London standards, would have been way beyond their means. This was very much a game for ‘gentlemen’, few of whom are likely to have lived in the village and since it took place on a working day there might not have been many locals with time to watch either !


William Henry, 4th Earl of Rochford, Courtier,
Diplomat, politician and cricket enthusiast.

Some more structured matches are known to have been played by the Earl of Rochford’s XI, although there is no record of them being played in St. Osyth. He certainly organised at least one on Great Bentley green, when his side took on a team raised by Richard Rigby MP of Mistley Hall. Rigby was another ambitious politician who took to cricket in a big way. He organised regular matches, establishing the ground still used by Mistley Cricket Club today.

The Earl of Rochford may well have found less time for cricket in later years. His ambassadorial duties in Madrid and Paris accounted for much of the 1760s, and then came his years of high political office, dominated by events which led to the American War of Independence. He died in retirement at the Priory in 1781 and is buried in the parish church.

Last Updated ( Friday, 20 November 2009 21:19 )