From Gentlemen to Players

Across Essex matches between village teams were becoming more commonplace by the end of the 18th. century, with venues such as Great Bentley green staging regular matches from the 1770s onwards. The prolonged Napoleonic Wars put some brake on this progress, especially on the coast where the threat of invasion was very real.

It is not until 1827 twelve years after Waterloo that we find our next definite reference to cricket in St. Osyth, and the very first to a team actually bearing the village name. Alan Reynolds, when compiling the centenary history of Clacton Cricket Club in 1982 came across the following series of matches, recorded in newspaper cuttings held in the Brand Essex Collection at Ilford.

" Cricket Match- On Friday last was played at St. Osyth, by gentlemen of Great Clackton and Great Bentley against eleven gentlemen of St. Osyth, Great Bentley and Brightlingsea, made up between Great Clackton and St. Osyth; which decided in favour of the former-

Great Clackton and Bentley, 1st innings 31
2nd ditto 41- 72

St. Osyth, Bentley and B'sea 1st innings 31
2nd ditto 36- 67

Majority of 5 in favour of the former."

At least two further matches followed, organised on more conventional lines:

" Cricket Match- On Monday the second instant, a match of cricket was played between eleven gentlemen of Great Clacton and eleven of St. Osyth, which was decided in favour of the former-

Great Clacton 1st innings 41
2nd ditto 37- 78

St. Osyth 1st innings 43
2nd ditto 32- 75

the return match to be played on Wednesday the 11th instant at St. Osyth."

The emphasis on money such a feature of matches in the previous century had gone by this stage, but these games were played at a time of agricultural depression with significant unrest among farmworkers in the Tendring Hundred, so the references to 'gentlemen' confirm these were still games reserved for the better-off members of village society.

The next sixty years are barren ones as far as records of cricket in St. Osyth are concerned, although they coincide with the time when the game itself evolved from a country pursuit to a sport of first national and then international significance. The village of St. Osyth also grew steadily during the prosperous early Victorian years, its population reaching 1,674 by the time of the 1871 census. Three years earlier in 1868, Kelly's Directory of Essex records an apparently thriving village possessing 21 farmers, 5 pubs and a total of 86 active businesses.

Given this growth it seems surprising there are no records at all of cricket at this time, but if none was played this may have been because neighbouring Great Bentley Cricket Club was well established and clearly flourishing. In 1871 it boasted no less than 56 members drawn from across the Tendring Hundred, including six who were recorded as residents of St. Osyth.

It is not until 1886 by which time the village population was actually in decline as a result of another prolonged downturn in agriculture, that we have record of a serious attempt to establish a St. Osyth Cricket Club. September's edition of the 'Saint Osyth Parish Magazine' reported as follows:

" A meeting was held in the Ship Inn ( now the Priory Restaurant ), on Thursday, the 1st of July, to form a Cricket Club, under the presidency of the Vicar. A club was started and is, we hear, steadily progressing. Mr. A. Baker was elected Captain, Mr. F. Norman, Treasurer, and Mr. F. Bacon, the Secretary. The great need is a field; it seems to be impossible to get one in St. Osyth for cricket, either for love or money. Meanwhile there is practice most evenings on the Bury."

This appears at last to be a genuine village cricket club, but the difficulty in finding a suitable field was to be a recurring source of frustration for years to come. The Bury, the natural focal point of the village was never big enough to stage a full scale match, and the apparent lack of alternatives must help explain why cricket developed so slowly in St. Osyth in contrast to Great Bentley, where the vast expanse of the green was always available.

The club seems to have enjoyed a spasmodic existence over the next quarter of a century. It was certainly functioning in 1900 when in keeping with the traditional image of village cricket the vicar of the parish, the Rev. G.A. Webster was among those who turned out. Less in tune with this image was a stormy match against Clacton, played on the old Recreation Ground in the town where the Westcliff Theatre and St. James's Church now stands. Replying to the Clacton total of 133, a formidable score in those days, St. Osyth were accused of time wasting in an effort to secure a draw. The match report in the Clacton Graphic tells us that:

" .... a few minutes before the stumps should have been drawn the Clacton men declared that they would rather let St. Osyth have a draw than play under such unsatisfactory conditions. Thus the game ended."

Evidence if needed that discord on the field long predates the advent of modern league cricket !

An early form of league cricket was in fact soon to be established in the area with the inauguration of the Tendring Hundred Cricket League in March 1904. Eight teams joined but St. Osyth was not among them. The club was in existence in 1911 when the Rev. Webster's successor the Rev. T.H. Curling presided over a meeting in May which anticipated " a successful season".

This must have been wishful thinking because less than two years later in March 1913 the St. Osyth correspondent of the Clacton Graphic can be found bemoaning the lack of a cricket club in the village. It was a theme this anonymous correspondent stuck to tenaciously in the months ahead. In May he wrote despairingly:

" That no one seems to grasp the idea that a town or village is proud of its cricket or football club. That apparently the sporting fraternity of the village prefers indoor games."

An Early 20th Century cricket team, in typical period dress, pictured
at Holland-on-Sea

His persistence finally paid off in July when the following meeting was reported in detail in the Graphic:


" An enthusiastic meeting was held at the Johnson Institute on Monday, when the question of a Cricket Club for St. Osyth was considered. The chair was taken by the vicar ( Rev. R.W. Croft ) and about 40 residents were present.

Mr. Vincent stated amid applause that Mrs. Cowley held a keen interest in a village club, and that he had an offer of a field till next March.

It was agreed to form a St. Osyth Cricket Club; and the following gentlemen were elected officers:- Dr. A.E. Cowley, President; Mr. Arthur Amos, Hon. Secretary; Mr. Arthur Norman, Hon. Treasurer, Mr. J. Mills, Captain. The committee was composed of the officers, with Messrs. A. Norman, Vincent, Doe, W. Almond and Young.

Mr. Vincent intimated that if a keen interest were taken in the club, a better field would be available next season.

It was decided Mr. Young be empowered to accept the offer of the field. The club could sub-let the field to a football club during the winter should one be formed. A reduced subscription was decided upon for the younger members.

On Tuesday the Committee visited the field. By the kindness of Mrs. Cowley they were allowed the use of the fire pump for watering the ground."

Mrs. Mabel Cowley who features prominently in this report owned the Priory, and lived in the village with her husband, a noted Oxford academic. She was unquestionably the dominant figure in village life at this time. The Johnson Institute ( now St. Osyth Social Club ) had been built at her instigation in 1911 as a memorial to her step-father, Sir John Johnson, and in due course she would provide the village with the recreation ground that still bears her name. This was not to happen for almost another decade, so our local history recorder Phyll Hendy suggests this particular ground may have been on the Hart field, opposite the pub in Mill Street. Certainly a Mr. Baker was involved in securing continued use of the ground for the following season, and someone of this name was licensee of the White Hart at the time.

The Clacton Graphic also highlighted that old-age pensioners wishing to join the new club could do so at a discounted rate of 6d. However first they had to prove their fitness to the committee, for which purpose; "...a four-mile cross-country race will be arranged shortly." Clearly the new club was taking itself very seriously !

The first match took place on 2nd. August, and was quite an occasion with opposition provided by the 4th. London Company of the Church Lads Brigade. The Church Lads staged an annual camp in the village at this time, and after defeating the locals by 10 runs they entertained everyone to a concert afterwards.

Further matches followed, with the Graphic reporting; " The St. Osyth club intend to play throughout September and are anxious to arrange with other clubs of the neighbourhood."

The same enthusiasm was evident from the start of that fateful year of 1914. Getting the hay cut on the ground did delay the start of home matches, but regular fixtures were well underway by the time the club played host to Kirby on Saturday 1st. August, then the start of a bank holiday weekend. It was a gloriously sunny day, with the visitors batting second winning a closely contested match by 11 runs ( this was a common form of result at this time, with the side batting second continuing their innings to a conclusion once the original target had been surpassed ).

During the interval, the Clacton Graphic records the club President Dr. Cowley entertaining both sides to tea. The paper's report of this tranquil scene makes poignant reading when contrasted with the terrible events unfolding on the continent over this same weekend, as one by one the major powers of Europe committed themselves to war. Just three days after the Kirby match, Great Britain declared war on Germany; the First World War was underway.

Surprisingly cricket didn't cease immediately. St. Osyth played on until 29th. August by which time the guns of the Western Front were in full cry. A victory over Great Bentley by 38 runs was perhaps a fitting finale, but when cricket did eventually return to St. Osyth eight years later it would be to a different ground and in many respects a different world.