Class, cricket and the French Revolution

Cricket in the 18th Century

In the 18th Century cricket symbolised social stability in Britain, with duke bowling at peasant. But could it have stopped the French Revolution, asks sport historian Prof Tony Collins.

On the afternoon of Tuesday 14 July 1789, the Earl of Winchelsea was clean bowled by William Bullen for a duck in Hampshire's second innings as they forlornly chased a Kent target of 88 runs at Hambledon cricket ground.

At the same time, some 300 miles away across the Channel, thousands of Parisians had surrounded a prison in the Rue Saint-Antoine. At around 5.30pm, roughly the same time as Hampshire's last wicket fell, they stormed the gates of the prison, known as the Bastille. The French Revolution had begun.

It was these two contrasting images that led the English historian GM Trevelyan to remark later that "if the French nobility had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt".

Of course, the causes of the French Revolution were far more complex than could be solved by a game of cricket. What's more, many French aristocrats did indeed enjoy close relationships with the peasantry - after all, noblesse oblige is a French term.

But the fact that a peer of the realm, such as Winchelsea, could play in the same match as a man of such modest means as Bullen seemed to reflect the social harmony that British society prided itself on.

It is an image of the game that retains its power even today. Cricket has come to symbolise a supposedly unified and harmonious British nation. As a popular song of the Georgian era put it: "Cricket is the game for the low and the great".

This relationship between "patricians and plebeians" had been at the heart of cricket since it emerged as an organised sport in the early 1700s. In the 1720s the Duke of Richmond employed on his estate at Goodwood the cricketer Thomas Waymark as a groom, possibly the game's first professional player.

In 1731 Richmond's XI played an XI of Mr Chambers in Surrey for a stake of 200 guineas. For major matches, stakes could be as high as 1000 guineas, with crowds to match.

Other prominent Georgian cricketing aristocrats were the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who was often pictured with a cricket bat, Lord Mountfort, Lord Temple and the Duke of Bedford, all of whom organised their own teams.

Image caption Some cricket attire could look impractical by modern standards

Prince Frederick, the son of George II, played for Surrey and London, led his own "All England XI" and died prematurely in 1751 after being hit in the head while fielding in a match.

But despite the sporting mixture of patrons and plebeians during matches, no social mixing took place outside of the match. Indeed, strict codes of deference were imposed on the pitch.

In one game, George Lamborn, a shepherd who invented off-break bowling, repeatedly beat the Duke of Dorset who was batting. One unplayable ball missed leg stump by whisker and Lamborn exclaimed in a broad Hampshire burr: "It was tedious near you, sir!"

There was nervous laughter all round, not because Lamborn had made Dorset look foolish, but because he had addressed him incorrectly as "sir" rather than "your Grace".

The popularity of cricket with the aristocracy was spurred by the popularity of gambling. In the 1700s the British aristocracy was the richest in the world, awash with money from land, trade and overseas investments, such as slavery.

Conspicuous consumption and disposal of wealth was closely related to social status.

Indeed, the first written rules of cricket were drawn up to ensure that gambling was honestly contested. The MCC's first laws of the game in 1788 included guidance on gambling.

Image caption Cricket changed in the early 1800s

Echoing some of today's sporting scandals, it was common for players to bet on matches in which they played. They would even "hedge off" their bets during a game if their side looked like losing.

Ironically, the Golden Age of Georgian cricket was ended by some of the same forces that led to the French Revolution. The mid-1790s saw a series of bad harvests. Food riots broke out in south-east England, precisely the area where cricket was at its strongest.

The early impact of the industrial revolution on rural life saw the withering of much aristocratic patronage of cricket. Suspicion and distrust between the classes supplanted older attitudes.

By the early 1800s, traditional village cricket and its distinctive social mixing was all but dead.

But in the industrialising north, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire were becoming centres of the game. Here cricket was based on professionalism and commercial entertainment and was largely free of aristocratic influence.

In 1822, Sheffield played Nottingham in front of a huge crowd: ''Sheffield seemed almost to pour out the principal part of its population, the roads being literally covered all the morning with crowds hasting to the scene of the expected enjoyments," reported the Sheffield Independent.

This was a different tradition to that of the south, one where competition, professionalism and local pride were to the fore.

And it would be these two traditions - of a rural southern idyll where patricians and plebeians would meet at cricket on the village green, and that of an urban industrial north where paid players would be judged solely on their cricket ability - that would not only shape cricket for the next two centuries but would also reflect the divisions in British society itself.