“The pious keeping" - Winchester College and Broadhalfpenny Down
Adam Jay & Guy Ladenburg
2022 marks the 250th Anniversary of the match that has a good claim to be the first recorded first-class game of cricket. The match was played at Broadhalfpenny Down in Hambledon in June 1772, between a Hambledon XI (as we claim in Hambledon) or a Hampshire XI (preferred by Wisden) and an England XI.
In 1925, Winchester College acquired Broadhalfpenny Down, ‘the cradle of cricket’, a purchase which combined its concern for the legacy and future of the ground with its knack for shrewd purchases of agricultural land in Hampshire. Enthusiasts don’t have long to wait, then, until the next anniversary.
There is absolutely no reason to believe that the game of cricket was invented in Hambledon or Hampshire, and cricketing historians claim to have unearthed the roots of the game in Kent, France, Flanders, Iceland, Punjab and the Middle East. Closer to home, the Royal Household budget of 1300 made provision for Prince Edward’s cricket costs, and in 1647 Winchester boys reported to have staged a game on St. Catherine’s Hill. In 1656 Thomas Ken, later the Bishop of Bath and Wells and one of the fathers of modern English hymnody, was sanctioned as a Winchester boy for ‘attempting to wield a cricket bat’, an indiscretion still common on Broadhalfpenny Down.
Even if the claim to be the cradle of cricket is not without controversy, there is no doubt that it was at Hambledon that the game took a large stride in its evolution from rural curiosity to national obsession, and that Hambledon in effect governed the sport until the founding of the MCC in 1787.
Cricket had been played on Broadhalfpenny Down since at least 1753. In 1769-70, the Hambledon Cricket Club was all but dissolved after a string of disappointing results, but recovered to become the foremost cricket club in England, beating an England XI on 29 occasions between 1772 and 1781, a feat perhaps more impressive than it sounds following England’s recent Ashes tour of Australia.
Much of the history and character of the club and its players were preserved in “The Cricketers of My Time”, reminiscences of John Nyren, the son of Richard Nyren, landlord of The Bat and Ball pub and de facto Hambledon clubhouse. John Arlott described the book, not published until 1832, as “the finest study of cricket and cricketers ever written."
The misty-eyed purist may be disappointed to note a mercenary strain in the game even then. The Club was a private club for noblemen and the gentry, who often acted as patrons to professional players. The matches were played for decent stakes, and crowds as large as twenty thousand would turn up from all over the South of England to enjoy a combination of the pleasures of spectacle, casino, pub, point-to-point and county show, washed down with Richard Nyren’s beer - “Ale that would flare like turpentine, genuine Boniface, that would put the souls of three butchers into one weaver.”
The first match satisfying the later definition of a first-class match - a two-innings match played over three days – took place on Broadhalfpenny Down between 23rd and 25th June 1772, with £550 at stake. The Hambledon side, including the great Richard Nyren and Old John Small, won by 53 runs, notwithstanding the first recorded appearance at Hambledon of the great Lumpy Stevens playing for England. It was in the same fixture three years later at the Artillery Ground in Finsbury Square that Lumpy bowled three deliveries through Small’s wicket without dislodging his bail, leading to the introduction of the third stump.
Following the establishment of the MCC, the isolated spot on the South Downs lost its lustre. Hambledon acquired a ground at Windmill Down, closer to the village, and the land returned to agriculture, through the Enclosure Act of 1857 and various changes of farmers’ hands. In 1908, a granite memorial was unveiled at a memorial match involving C B Fry, from the nearby naval training school TS Mercury, where he had recently taken charge. This was the first match at Broadhalfpenny Down for 116 years.
That Winchester College now owns Broadhalfpenny Down, and that the cradle of cricket has been preserved, is largely thanks to Harry Waltham, master at Winchester for 30 years, housemaster of Chernocke House, president of Hampshire Cricket Club and the MCC, Chairman of test selectors in 1954, and author of “A History of Cricket” (1926) and the MCC Cricket Coaching Book (1952).
He persuaded Winchester College to buy Broadhalfpenny Down in 1925, in order to ‘protect and preserve it’. The acquisition made sense, given that the College had owned the adjoining Park Farm since 1861. Waltham wrote that Broadhalfpenny Down “is back in turf again, safe and secure, we may hope for all time, in the pious keeping of Winchester College” although he also noted that “time has not dealt kindly with The Bat and Ball.”
Where time has dealt unkindly with the pub, its fortunes have fared better under George Gale and now Fullers. Since 1961 the ground itself has been leased to the Broadhalfpenny Brigands, who play a busy fixture list including the Old Woks, this year on Sunday 5th June. The Broadhalfpenny Down Preservation Trust was established in 2010 to protect and preserve the ground, and also offer opportunities to the wider community, including matches for youth, disability and visually impaired teams.
The anniversary of the 1772 match is being celebrated all year in Hambledon and at Broadhalfpenny Down, starting with a match on what happily (climate change considerations aside) turned out to be the warmest New Year’s Day on record.
Scorecard from the 1925 game that celebrated Winchester College's acquisition, and saviour of, Broadhalfpenny Down for the future benefit of all cricket lovers
A game played in 1929, four years after Winchester College had been asked to acquire Broadhalfpenny Down and had made improvements to the wicket.