The day Alnwick took on '“ and beat '“ England's best at cricket
Hulne Park is set to the west of Alnwick, and it was there, in the middle of September 1863, that professional players making up the United All-England Cricket Eleven arrived to play the home town.
In the shadows of Hulne Priory, founded in the 13th century by the Carmelites at a location said to resemble Mount Carmel in Israel, they were humbled, and not for the first time that summer.
It was United England’s 19th match that summer against provincial opposition, and their tour had not gone well for them.
The team had lost 10, drawn eight and won only one of their matches. Remarkably, though, they had won by 70 runs at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London earlier in the year against their great professional rivals, All England.
Still, it was a boom time for towns and club cricketers alike. In some cases, it would be the only time, up to then or since, that these small grounds hosted the best players in Englandand club cricketers could say they played against William Clarke, John Wisden, William Lillywhite and the rest.
These players were in the business of drawing spectators. They had drawn great crowds for matches against Newcastle and Middlesbrough with Stockton, then in Yorkshire, and still did then, though most of them were over the age of 50.
This was at a time in cricket history when All England versus United All England was the outstanding first-class fixture of a season, eclipsing even gentlemen versus players.
They were the first teams, because of the growing railway system, to find it viable – and, indeed, extremely profitable – to tour the country.
This mid-19th century period saw the professional player stomp his way around and practise his trade in nearly all the towns and cities of northern England. At the same time, he came as close as he ever would to grasping control of cricket from the hands of the amateur gentleman.
Clarke, a bricklayer, had started it all in the 1840s by acquiring a field behind a Nottingham pub.
He duly gathered together the best players he could under the banner of All England and paid them to play.
Their first game was at Trent Bridge in Nottinghamshire. He kept the best players too, by paying them all a little bit more than a team from London’s Marylebone Cricket Club engaged in the same sort of adventure.
Two of those players were Wisden, a very good fast bowler, unusually as he was only 5ft 4in and of slight proportions, and James Dean.
By 1852, however, Clarke, it was felt, was making huge profit margins out of it all, through gate receipts.
He was a pioneer of the entry fee to matches, insuring himself with a rich local against bad weather and no play.
Not a lot of it those profits went the players’ way, prompting Wisden and Dean to lead a breakaway group of players to form a new team under the banner of United All England.
Only Wisden and John Grundy of the original United All England Eleven walked out at Hulne Park. There were 22 players in Alnwick’s side, and it was to be Wisden’s last match.
He went back to his cricketing and cigar business, which was soon dissolved, but already he had the first of his cricket almanacs planned in his mind. The first Wisden Almanac of Cricket came out in 1865, and it has been published each year since.
When W Dalton, captain of Alnwick, and his opposite number, CH Ellis, walked out for the toss, there is a strong possibility that early autumn rain had made a dunce of the uncovered pitch.
It was to be a low-scoring affair, dominated by slow bowlers and lasting two days out of the three set aside.
In their first innings, Alnwick scored 120 all out. Thomas Cargill Nesham, a doctor from Newcastle, top-scored with 21. He often played under the alias of A Paradox.
Griffiths and Atkinson did the damage with the ball for the professionals, taking 19 wickets between them, then, in what must have been a shock to the professionals, they were routed, conceding 26 on first innings scores.
Isaac Hodgson, a former United All England player from Bradford, was at once a hailed as a hero. He took nine wickets for Alnwick with slow left orthodox round arm.
On the second day of the match, Alnwick collapsed to 69 all out in their second innings. James Henry Robert Innes-Ker, then marquis of Bowmont, top-scored with 15. Some 14 years later, he succeeded as seventh duke of Roxburghe.
Griffiths had taken another 12 wickets, giving him 22 in the match with his slow left underarm bowling.
He also opened the batting for the professionals but did not prosper.
The professionals had been set 95 to win. It was Hodgson again to the fore.
Another seven wickets helped Alnwick win by 10 runs. John Lillywhite batted the whole innings and made nought not out. How good it must have been to see for the spectators.
In 1869, the United All England Eleven folded. The era of the professionals was over.
The year 1863 had seen the Yorkshire and Hampshire clubs gain county status. Quite quickly, spectators drifted towards the competitive first-class county matches.
The professionals were, once again, up for hire, now to counties with amateur captains and gentlemen boards.
And, no longer would men like draper William Dodd, tobacconist William Skelly or baker Thomas Dixon, all from Alnwick and club cricketers all their lives, get to play against so many of the nation’s best cricketers in one go.