This Sporting Life: a new instalment of Mathew Clayton’s monthly column exploring the daily life of a Sussex village in the middle of the 18th century, as recorded in the diary of Thomas Turner. With original illustrations by the author and artist Peter Chrisp.
‘The English are very fond of a game they call cricket. For this purpose they go into a large open field, and knock a small ball about with a piece of wood. I will not attempt to describe this game to you, it is too complicated; but it requires agility and skill, and everyone plays it, the common people and also men of rank’ — The Swiss travel writer César-François de Saussure in 1728.
A few years ago at our village fete there was a tug-of-war contest between a team of commuters and team of local farm workers. Much to everyone’s astonishment the commuters won. This was less to do with the commuters’ brawn and more to do with the enthusiastic embrace the farm workers had given the beer tent. It was gently exposing a fault line in the village but it was also quite funny – I admired the originality of the idea. At least I thought it was original, until I read this extract Turner’s diary in which we see a similar contest taking place between the tradesmen (aka the commuters) and the farmers way back in 1756. It wasn’t a tug-of-war but a game of cricket.
Thursday 23 September 1756
‘This day there was a cricket match played on the common, viz., between the tradesman and farmers of our parish which was won with great ease by the later.’
Cricket runs throughout the diary. The origins of the game are hidden in the mists of time but it was being played in a recognisable form at least as far back as the early 17thcentury — although then the bat was curved, the wicket had only two stumps and batsmen were allowed to hit the ball twice. In 1624, just a few miles down the road in Horsted Keynes, a fielder – Jasper Vinall – died after being hit on the head by the batsman Edward Tye (presumably he was having a second shot). The term ‘bat’ is derived from ‘batt’, a word used to describe the cudgels that smugglers working the south east coast would carry.
In the 18thcentury cricket’s popularity blossomed, particularly in Sussex and Kent. Many of the local clubs still around today started back then. But playing the game, especially for Turner, was often an informal affair involving people from within the village.
Tuesday 18 July 1758
‘In the afternoon John Watford a-cutting my grapevine. After tea I came home, Mr Fra. Elles played at cricket against Tho Durrant and myself for one pound of gingerbread; he beat us 7 runs at one innings. This is the 19thday on which it has rained successively.’
Tuesday 15 July 1760
‘…after dinner I and Mr Thornton set out for Lewes (I wanting to see Mr. Friend to know the price of wool) but went by Alfriston, there being a game of cricket to be played there between Sam Jenner of the same place and Storry Adams of Arlington, for two guineas each; when Adams went in first and was bowled out first ball, then Jenner went in and was bowled out first ball. Then Adams went in a second time and was bowled out in two balls. And Jenner went in his second time and the first ball he had struck and got one run, which decided the game, and I believe in less than ten minutes.’
Thursday 13 May 1762
‘This day was played at the common belonging to this parish a match of cricket between 11 boys of this parish and 11 boys of Laughton Parish, which was won by our youth with great ease.’
Monday 16 August 1762
‘My brother called on me in his road to Dicker where he was going to see a cricket match played between the parishes of Ringmer, Ripe, Chalvington, Arlington, Hertmonceux, Wartling and Hailsham. At home all day. In the even my brother called on me in his return home and informed me the parish of Wadhurst was beat 10 runs.’
Wednesday 6 July 1763
‘…In the even went up to the common when Richd. Fuller and a played a game of cricket with James Fuller and Sam French for half a crown’s worth of punch, and to our disappointment we were beat. We went down to Jones’s in the even and spent the money in company with Joseph Fuller, Samuel Jenner, and Tho. Durrant. Came home about 11.20 very sober.’
Betting, whether it was for half a crown’s worth of punch or something greater, was an integral part of the sports in the 18th century. The inhabitants of East Hoathley would happily bet on pretty much anything; the length of a path, how long a horse would take to make a journey, the timing of a marriage and even whether Jermiah French could retell word for word the sermon he heard that Sunday. I think we can safely assume that there was betting involved in the following stone lifting contest…
Monday 30 April 1759
‘…Mr Breedon and I walked into a neighbouring field to see a person pick up 100 stones laid one yard distance from each other, which he performed in less than 46 minutes, but he should have done it in 45. The distance is some 5 ¾ miles.’
Money also changed hands at the regular cockfights that took place at the local pub Jones’s.
Wednesday 2 May 1764
‘This day was fought a main of cocks at our public house between the gentlemen of East Grinstead and the gentlemen of East Hoathley for half a guinea a battle and twi guineas the odd battle which was won by the gentlemen of East Grinstead , they winning 4 battles out of sin the maon. I saw three battles fought, but as I laid no bets, I could neither win nor lose, though I believe there was great deal of money sported on both sides.’
Besides cricket the most popular sporting activity which Turner watched, and sometimes participated in, was running.
Monday 22 August 1757
‘About 11 o’clock I went to Framfield where I dined with my mother on some cold beef and French beans…from my mother’s I set off to Piltdown where I saw Charles Diggens and Jn. Fowle run 20 rods for 1 guinea each. Which was won by Diggens with ease. I got never a bet, but very drunk. I lay at my uncle Hill’s all night.’
Friday 2 July 1762
‘In the even Mr Buller and I ran a race of 20 rods for a bottle of cider, and I had the good fortune to beat him; and him, myself, Joseph Fuller Jr went to Jones’s in the even where I spent 4d and came home sober.’
And each summer Turner attended the horse racing that took place over three days on the Downs outside Lewes.
Thursday 23 August 1764
‘Mr Banister died with me on some hashed venison and after dinner we set out together for Lewes Races where His Majesty’s purse of £100 was run for on Lewes Downs, when Sir John Moore’s grey horse Cyclops and Mr. Bowles’s horse Cyrus started for it, which was won by Cyclops…I don’t know I ever remember the King’s Plate being run in less time, they performing it in 8 minutes and 15 seconds. Came home about 9.30, but happy should I be could I say sober. Oh, my unhappy – nay I may say unfortunate – disposition, that I am so irresolute and cannot refrain from what my soul detests.’
My favourite sporting entry in the diary is, however, a game of cricket.
Monday 19 May 1760
‘This day was played in the park a cricket match between an eleven whose names were John in this parish and an eleven of any other name, which I suppose was won by the latter with ease.’