Pat Rogers, University of South Florida
February 2024

It may appear surprising that London was relatively slow off the mark in warming to cricket. This was, after all, the most popular ball game in Britain by the nineteenth century, and it would not yield its primacy to association football until about a hundred years ago. As a venue for gambling, it could rival prizefighting, which meant that it came second only to horse racing. Yet its origins were those of “a rural, peasant sport” (David Underdown). During the late Middle Ages, the pastime had been imported, probably from Normandy, and remains “of uncertain, though bucolic, parentage” (Derek Birley). Over the following centuries, the game slowly evolved into something like its modern form. It was played mainly by the common people, and the gentry chose to ignore it for the most part, cracking down sporadically when an informal match took the participants away from church or service to their master. Records survive from all corners of the nation to show a widespread capacity to evade this gentle mode of policing.

What explains the belated entry of London as an important arena, since it would culminate in domination through the Marylebone Cricket Club of the administration of the game round the world for almost two centuries? To answer this, we must look at an issue never explored to the full satisfaction of historians: that is, the way that one small area of the country dominated the sport in its formative years, beginning in the later 1600s. This was the region of South-East England covered by the counties of Kent, Sussex, Surrey, and Hampshire. Each of them was then almost completely agricultural in character. Scattered settlements lay across the once heavily wooded district known as the Weald and the chalk uplands of the South Downs. There was nothing resembling a considerable town in the cricketing zone, even though Guildford had an MP and Chichester a cathedral as well. Also represented in parliament were places like Lewes and Midhurst, which had socially important race meetings and a limited amount of cricket.

As local teams started to take part in more organised and regular contests, money became an accompaniment to the action for the first time. This must have been both the cause and the effect of greater interest shown by the aristocracy and upper gentry. The earliest county families to exhibit a partiality for the game were the Sackvilles of Knole and the Lennoxes of Goodwood. Most influential in this regard was Charles Lennox, second Duke of Richmond (1701–50), who held a large swathe of high offices in London, but had his territorial base in west Sussex near Chichester. It was in this secluded part of the country that the Duke became the patron of a team in his bailiwick named Slindon, a village nestling below the Downs. It cannot have had more than a few hundred residents, who would have been swallowed up in the crowded streets of St. Giles’s parish in London. Yet in the early 1740s this rustic group produced eleven locals, to all the world like the rustic choirs in Thomas Hardy, who were able to take on the best teams in the metropolis and its environs.

Inevitably this could not last, and within a few years London had wrested the initiative. The growth of the game in the capital is usually connected with its patronage by the heir to the throne, Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707–1751). He certainly raised a team for well attended matches in and around London from 1735, and played himself on occasions—although the story that his premature death was hastened by a blow from a ball has never been confirmed.

As often, there are political connections, for another participant in these games was a key member of the Prince’s alternative court at Leicester House, that is Charles Sackville, Lord Middlesex, and later second Duke of Dorset (1711–1769). Allegedly his wife, mistress of the robes to the Princess, was actually a mistress, in another sense, of the Princess’s husband. Middlesex had strong metropolitan interests, as an MP, a promoter of the Haymarket opera, and a pillar of the Society of Dilettanti. Meanwhile the Duke of Richmond shifted some of his cricketing activities to the new venues that sprang up in London.

However, an equally important factor was the appearance of a commercial element in the sport. Here the lead was taken by an innovative entrepreneur, George Smith, landlord of the Pied Horse pub at 3 Chiswell Street in Finsbury. The address was sometimes given as “at the Artillery-ground,” since the street was fringed by a large open space owned since 1642 by the Honourable Artillery Company and used for events such as archery practice. Cricket was played there regularly by the early 1730s, and after Smith took over management a few years later it rapidly became the most prominent of all venues in London, a position it would hold until 1777. At that date, the City Corporation forbad any future matches there owing to violent disorders, some of them perhaps linked to issues over betting. It was a fairly rough area owing to the propinquity of Moorfields, a tract of land that had always been known for goings-on of a louche nature. But in its heyday the Artillery Ground witnessed some fierce contests between teams such as “the famous parish of Slendon in Sussex and XI picked gentlemen of London”—the Slindon men, needless to say, were not gentlemen but yeomen and artisans. A little later came Hambledon (a small place in Hampshire, that produced the greatest village team ever) against an eleven optimistically styled “England.” These occasions, in Underdown’s words, saw great crowds “paying their twopences to watch Lord John Sackville [son of Lord Middlesex] playing with and against the top professionals.”

This description points to several new features in the second half of the century. The aristocrats were still involved, and indeed made the Artillery Ground their regular base. Hambledon enjoyed more than two decades at the very top, and maintained some presence until its decline and fall in the new century. By that time the world of cricket looked very different, and it had shed its rural past, apart from a sentimental attachment to amateur games of varying quality on village greens. The professional players had started to appear, while gate money fuelled George Smith’s operation at the Pied Horse, where he marketed spin-off materials such as a limited edition of prints taken from a painting of a cricket match by Francis Hayman, displayed at Vauxhall Gardens.


"Cricket / To exercise their limbs and try their art..." Engraved by Benoist after one of a set ot twelve sporting paintings by Francis Hayman designed to decorate supper boxes at Vauxhall Gardens. The wicket keeper (catcher) has traditionally been identified as William Hogarth (Goldman, Sporting Life 73). Printed for Thomas Bowles in St. Pauls Churchyard and John Bowles at the Black Horse in Cornhill (1743). British Museum 1862,1011.615. © The Trustees of the British Museum. This image is provided under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence. In certain other jurisdictions it is considered to be in the public domain.


Once money entered the equation, things would never be the same. Several other grounds came to the fore, on the open land that still surrounded much of the city, for example Clapham Common and Kennington Common, south of the Thames. Many fixtures were held at Moulsey Hurst, just across the river from Hampton Court, where David Garrick once took a ferry from his house to watch the game. Thrice weekly matches took place near Lamb’s Conduit Fields, then on the edge of town with unbroken vistas out to Hampstead, now in the heart of Bloomsbury. The most significant new site lay further out in Islington, where a tavern called White Conduit House commemorated the head of a pipe channelling water towards the City. Here an adjoining site in White Conduit Fields was used from 1752 by a group who were named after the location, but who derived from the upper class patrons of the Star and Garter tavern in fashionable Pall Mall. In the acerbic description by Benny Green, “Some of the sporting frequenters of the Star and Garter, tired of conventional pastimes like bird-slaughtering and the endless persecution of foxes, took to driving out along the mud-spattered lanes of St. Marylebone to White Conduit Fields, a public space long since buried under the weight of change, its only headstone the lowering walls of King’s Cross Station.”

More and more of the control of the sport was falling into the hands of aristocrats such as George Finch, ninth Earl of Winchilsea (1752–1826), a veteran of the American War, whose team competed against the one led by another soldier, the fourth Duke of Richmond. The Earl was a regular player, but a poor batsman despite brandishing an over-weight bat. These men still had a solid base in rural England, but they centralised their cricketing activity around the White Conduit Club. At first the Club’s team consisted of friends of the two aristocrats, but they found it necessary in time to look beyond this narrow pool of talent to bring in the pros, as well as some of the Hambledon side. Sometimes they dragged young men from their agrarian roots to join a team in the big city for a modest sum. The great migration that had been going for centuries now included a small leavening of farm boys whose skill in wielding the willow brought them to London.

These were momentous developments. Members of the Club became the de facto arbiters of the sport. Laws of the game had been promulgated in 1744 by an unnamed, but no doubt socially influential, club connected with the Artillery Ground. These were not published until 1752 and may not have commanded general assent. It was the White Conduit members who produce a revised version in 1774, which was updated in 1784 by a committee of noblemen and gentlemen of “Kent, Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex, Middlesex, London.” The order of this list speaks volumes, with the counties providing the original seedbed of the modern game followed by the locality which was in the process of ousting them. An obvious need existed to update the rules of the game: it was not very long before this that a batter was allowed to bundle into a fielder to prevent him (or, occasionally, her) from taking a catch. In retrospect we can see that the oversight of this self-appointed tribunal was to presage a long oligarchical sway that survived into living memory. The fiefdom became the entire globe, but the seigneur always had his court in London.

Another action of the White Conduit Club would lead to an equally durable consequence. It was hard to keep out the rougher elements of society from the field at Islington, so that Winchilsea and Lennox decided that they needed to find a more private setting with easier access to the centre of the city. For this task they employed one of their professionals, by name Thomas Lord (1755–1832), a moderate player who has been immortalised on, so to speak, different grounds. It was Lord who discovered a suitable plot to lease, lying off what became the Marylebone Road. This would be the Club’s base from 1787 until 1811, when a rent increase forced it out prior to the construction of Dorset Square. Lord had known that the building leases would be offered for sale at a much steeper rate, and he had taken steps to search out two fields not very far away that could be leased much more cheaply. As a result, the team moved for a short spell to the north end of Lisson Grove, before it had to relocate for a second time, owing to the fact that the ground lay in the path of the new Regent’s Canal, opened in 1820. The Club found its permanent home a short distance away on St. John’s Wood Road, where it has remained ever since 1814 as Lord’s Cricket Ground. The less than august origin for a tract that was subsequently dubbed the headquarters of cricket was that of a duckpond on a sloping hill.

At the same juncture as its departure from Islington, the White Conduit Club changed its name to the Marylebone Cricket Club. Its members can scarcely have guessed its irresistible rise to global dominance for a period that lasted the better part of two hundred years. Lord managed affairs shrewdly—Benny Green describes him as “one of nature’s landlords, with the aspect of a games player and the soul of a manipulator,” who, “once Winchilsea and his friends gave him the opportunity flowered in the most spectacular way.” Lord certainly acquired a great deal of property in central London: most of this is now destroyed or put to other uses, but his initial venture survives in its pristine function, albeit on an unrecognisable scale of grandeur. The MCC exercised a huge influence on the evolution of the sport, with leading figures in the state queuing up to achieve the honour of membership (those not granted a special advance pass have to wait more than twenty-five years). It still has a much reduced role in the government of cricket, but functions mainly in its private capacity.

In its early years, the MCC produced a number of playing members who could be quite as disruptive as any spectators at White Conduit Fields. The most famous was Lord Frederick Beauclerk (1773–1850), a descendant of Charles II and Nell Gwyn. Emphatically a character who had more in common with the Restoration and Hanoverian aristocracy than with the Victorian peerage, Beauclerk was a protégé of Winchilsea and played in the first major match at the new Lord’s ground. Among the finest batsmen of his era, he is remembered more for his epic feats of gambling, hunting, and drinking.

Of course, most of the members pursued more sober lives. Derek Birley is undoubtedly right to insist that “It was not all a question of naïve rustics being deceived by city slickers and wicked aristocrats.” The exodus of cricket from the countryside meant the start of a diaspora that made the sport hugely popular throughout the world. Today Nepal, Vanuatu, Oman and Bermuda compete against other nations, basically playing to the rules laid down in 1774, while over a billion people follow the game in India. Without the migration to London, none of this would have happened.

A huge literature surrounds the development of the game. A particularly well written and insightful study by David Underdown, Start of Play: Cricket and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England (Penguin 2001) sets events on the field squarely in the social and economic context of the age. See especially the chapter on “Cricket in Metropolitan Culture,” pp. 74–96.  Derek Birley’s excellent work A Social History of English Cricket (London, 1999) has some illuminating passages in its first part, leading up to the move to the third Lord’s ground. An amusing and knowledgeable book by Benny Green, A History of Cricket (London, 1988) contains an opening section on the early days of the sport.