Oxfordshire may never have achieved the distinction of being a first-class cricketing county, but it can claim both to have nurtured some very early examples of cricket as a competitive sport for adults and to have produced the game’s first true historian.
This was James Pyecroft (?-1895) of Trinity College, who represented Oxford in one of the earliest matches against Cambridge in 1836, and whose extensive recollections of 1832-36, published as Oxford Memories in 1886, include the only account of this formative period of the game’s national development.
As a more recent pundit, the late, great, John Arlott, commented: “Had Pyecroft not written there would be a complete gap in our knowledge of the game.”
Rather less praiseworthy is the contribution Oxford has made, via cricket, to the history of mindless excess, in the form of the secretive and elitist Bullingdon Club.
Ostensibly one of the two original university cricket teams, it would seem rapidly to have become a society which used cricket merely as a respectable front for the mischievous, destructive, or self-indulgent tendencies of its members.
The origins of cricket are obscure, but it is clear is that it first developed as an organised sport at a small number of public schools.
Oxford, of course, was an inevitable destination for many boys from such schools, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the city provides some very early evidence of cricket as an adult pastime.
What is more surprising is that the first such allusion came from Dr Johnson (of dictionary fame), remembering his Pembroke College days of 1729. Johnson was not in fact a product of a public school, but the New College scholar James Woodforde was, and played two matches on Port Meadow in 1760, at least one of which was between teams of former Winchester and Eton schoolboys.
Even in the 1830s, James Pyecroft was referring to such boys as ‘school professionals’, as when it came to selecting the university cricket XI “few had much chance who were not from Eton, Harrow, or Winchester.”
The earliest suggestion of consistent fixtures came in 1762, when a letter in the weekly paper Jackson’s Oxford Journal (the forerunner of The Oxford Times) noted that the Oxford Cricket Club was then playing matches on “Port Meadow and its environs”. Yet there is an earlier reference still in Jackson’s Oxford Journal.
In 1753, a match at Bicester was advertised in the newspaper, between the Hundreds of Wooton and of Ploughly and Bullingdon, for a stake of 20 guineas.
In terms of inter-county competition, it is the Reading Mercury newspaper which provides the earliest evidence, however, a match between Oxfordshire and Berkshire having been scheduled at Henley in 1779.
The earliest records of cricket as a formal sport at Oxford University date from 1827, when the first match against Cambridge was played. At this time there were only two suitable grounds.
One was the Magdalen Ground on Cowley Common or Marsh, named after the Magdalen School choirboys who first played there. The other, older, location was on Bullingdon Green.
The Magdalen ground was shared with the villagers of Cowley. The Oxford historian Herbert Hurst recalled that prior to 1850 this was a triangular piece of common ground, still used for bull-baiting, badger-baiting, and pigeon-shooting, though “the great amusement there in summer was cricket, with the old bent bat of club-like character, planned for lobs and hard hitting, in the hand of the villager, and the improved implement wielded by the noblemen of Christ Church”.
It was confirmed as the official University ground in 1851, when enclosure of Cowley Common provided an opportunity to purchase the site, and remained so until 1881, when the switch was made to University Parks.
The pitch at Bullingdon, meanwhile, can claim a greater antiquity. As early as 1764 “gentlemen of the Oxford Cricket Club” were requested to assemble at Bullingdon Green, and James Pyecroft, writing in 1886, noted that the Bullingdon Club was “as old as this century”.
Eventually, or perhaps even originally, the remote Bullingdon ground became less of a venue for cricket and more a justification for social gatherings of the elitist membership which the ‘Buller’ attracted. As Pyecroft put it: “Cricket there was secondary to the dinners, and the men were chiefly of an expensive class.”
Bullingdon Green had space for the game, but it was also sufficiently remote to provide the opportunity for equestrian pursuits too. An illustration of a match at Bullingdon in the 1840s includes a large marquee and many mounted horsemen on the perimeter of the crowd. In the Jubilee Book of Cricket (1897), Thomas Case described the scene: “Undergraduates riding or driving out across the Cowley Common, undeterred by fences, and on their arrival at Bullingdon Green partly playing cricket in the middle, partly riding races round the match, and finally eating and drinking in a manner adapted to youth, health, and exercise”.
This is corroborated by R W Browne, writing in 1892, who said that: “the Magdalen was the only real University Cricket Club, as the Bullingdon . . . was more of a fashionable lounge for those who could keep horses”.
Despite cricket and boating being the primary sports of the university in by the middle of the 19th century, cricket rates hardly a mention in the plots of Oxford novels, yet rowing of some description is hardly ever omitted. If the Bullingdon Club features at all it is in its social – more accurately ‘antisocial’ – guise.
An early serialised novel of an Oxford graduate, Vincent Eden (1839), for instance, featured the exclusive Brothers’ Club, whose destructive and malevolent activities accord perfectly with what is known of the Bullingdon.
And like the Bullingdon, the self-deluded Brothers’ Club justified its excesses on the basis that its “express aim and object, its sole and common bond of union, its very essence of fraternity, [was] the promotion of FUN!”.
Another thinly disguised depiction of the Bullingdon comes in Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 Decline and Fall, where the Bollinger Club’s membership comprised “epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates . . . all that was most sonorous of name and title”.
In After Long Years, a short story by William Frederick Traill, the subterfuge is dropped, when two former students return to Oxford and recall the Bullingdon dinners of the 1850s, followed by “the reckless drive home in a drag through the pitch-dark night”.
The fiction is solidly based on fact. In 1852, as part of a government review of the running of the University, Mr Jelf, a Christ Church proctor, stated: “The scenes which take place, and the songs which are sung at the dinners of the Bullingdon Club . . . are a curse and a disgrace to a place of Christian education.”
Christ Church, almost inevitably, provided the bulk of the membership.
Traill also included the cricket, remembering that: “the Bullingdon cricket matches, and the heavy luncheons that made the eye deceptive so that it saw several cricket-balls bowled, but induced the batsman to hit all the wrong ones. Wickets always fell fast after a Bullingdon luncheon, however good the batsmen and however weak the bowling”.
Serge Oblensky, a Russian royal, corroborated the deployment of this desperate tactic in the period 1912-1914.
In the annual match against the Athanaeum Club of Cambridge, their team comprised keen and able players, whereas “our principal Bullingdon activity was eating. Thus we reasoned that if we gave them a good lunch, and they drank a good deal, it might equalise matters.”
Still more recently, the 7th Marquess of Bath, Alexander Thynne, (of Longleat Safari Park fame) confirmed an enduring reliance on the strategy. Of a Bullingdon match against the police in 1954, he wrote (in his 2005 autobiography): “The general purpose of the game was to supply alcohol in such abundant flow that we might expect to win from sheer drinking prowess, and not from cricketing skills.”
Thynne defined the club as “that long-established focal point for blue-blooded identity in Oxford”, but by the end of the book, he bemoaned the arrogance of its members, who assumed that “every social scenario which they choose to attend is perforce their scenario, where they write the rules of behaviour themselves”.
He also detected that the election of new members was ‘fiddled’, leading to the comment: “If clubs of this ilk have a tradition of being the nursery pens for the future cabinet ministers of our nation, then there might be room for some healthy concern on the issue.”
Given recent political revelations, would this be an appropriate juncture to mention that former Bullingdon Club members have included David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and George Osborne? Or would this be ‘just not cricket’?!
Mark Davies is a freelance writer, publisher, walking-guide, and speaker specialising in the history of non-University Oxford.