Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989
'And next the river flows past Moulsey Hurst;
And though no thicket cumbers now the ground,
Yet forest trees are scattered still, where erst
Nought but the gloomy glade and Druid's grove were found'.
|John Stapleton (1878)|
Molesey Hurst was originally a common meadow belonging to the Manor of Molesey Matham, of the type known as 'Lammas land'; that is, whilst hay was made there during the spring and summer, it was thrown open to all who had common rights to graze their cattle from Lammas Day (1 August) until Candlemas Day (2 February). From ancient maps it is to be seen that the Hurst lay entirely in the parish of West Molesey, stretching from the parish boundary at Hurst Lane to where Cherry Orchard Road is now, and on both sides of Hurst Road.
The earliest known mention of the Hurst is in 1249, when certain lands in West Molesey were transferred, including 'one meadow which lies by Herstegg'.
From the beginning of the eighteenth century the Hurst became the scene for many sporting encounters — cricket, archery, prize-fights, cock-fights, golf and horse-racing. Joseph Palmer, who lived in a house now demolished in New Road, and whose pen we have already quoted, wrote of 'that verdant level Moulsey Hurst; famous for all sports and lately for archery; the whistling arrows having the boldest range quiver in safety where they alight; and allowed too by cricketers from its elasticity, the best cricket ground in England'.
A game somewhat like cricket was played as early as the thirteenth century; mention is made of the boys of Guildford indulging in the sport in the time of the first Elizabeth. The game was born on the village greens and rustic commons.
At the end of the seventeenth century, however, a fundamental change took place. Cricket, once ignored by the aristocracy, was adopted by them as a leisure pursuit, and an outlet for their gambling habits. In the early days cricket matches were to be played for high stakes. Molesey Hurst offered excellent ground for these new supporters. It was within easy reach of the metropolis, central for the cricketing counties, and only a short distance from Hampton Court Palace, where lived Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, a great patron of the sport, and the man who perhaps more than any other helped to grave the name Molesey deep on the cricketing map.
The earliest definite mention of cricket being played here that the author can trace is contained in an announcement which appeared in the Saint James's Evening Post on Tuesday 13 July 1731, that a match was arranged for the next day on 'Moulsey Hurst', between the men of Hampton and those of Brentford. It was further reported that 'above £500 is already laid on their heads, neither party having yet been beat'.
The September of that year saw several thousand people 'of both sexes' assembled on the Hurst to witness a side from the county of Surrey prove their superiority over the representatives of Kingston.
An exciting match took place in July 1733, in which Surrey just managed to beat Middlesex by three 'notches'. The Prince of Wales and 'several persons of distinction' were present, and 'his Royal Highness was pleased to order a guinea to be given to each man, for their great dexterity'. After this game was over a further match was arranged between the Prince and a Mr Stede, the Prince to choose an eleven from the men who had played that day, to match eleven that Mr Stede would pick from the county of Kent. A silver cup worth £30 was to be presented to the winners. This is the first recorded instance of a game played for such a cup. The match was played on the Hurst the following week, was won by the Prince's men, 'though not with so much ease as was expected, the odds being against Mr Stede's men at the beginning'.
During the next few years there are numerous mentions of matches being played here, often between teams picked by Royalty and gentry or representing various counties. At that time Molesey Hurst shared with Holt Pound at Farnham the distinction of being the chief grounds in Surrey.
In the eighteenth century cricket was not always played eleven-a-side, in fact there are several records of games on the Hurst with varying numbers of players from five-a-side to twenty-two. In June 1772, for instance, an eleven from Hampshire played twenty-two from other counties. This match started on a Monday and was played until Wednesday evening when, notwithstanding the great odds ranged against them, Hampshire were the winners.
In 1795 an eleven of Surrey played three three-day matches against thirteen of England. The first of these contests, played on 6, 7 and 8 July, was won by Surrey by 76 runs; the second and third, played consecutively 10 to 15 August, were both won by England, by 38 and 27 runs respectively. In the first innings of the latter match the Hon J. Tufton, one of the England side, is given out as 'l.b.w.', the first recorded appearance of that offence in the score books, although the rule was added during the revision of twenty-one years before, when it was found to be necessary because some batsmen were 'so shabby as to put their legs in the way and take advantage of the bowlers'.
On 3 August 1775 the Hurst was the scene of a extraordinary match — six married women against six spinsters which was won by the maidens, although it is recorded that one of the matrons knocked up seventeen runs. Many people were present to watch and the betting was said to be lively.
Chambers' Journal recounts an interesting story of cricket on the Hurst: 'Little did the City apothecary dream, when he offered to drive Lord Bute to the cricket match on Moulsey Hurst, that he was giving his country neighbour a lift in a double sense. Frederick, Prince of Wales, was a spectator at the match, and to amuse him while the players were waiting for the rain to give over, a rubber of whist was proposed. Noblemen being scarce, there was difficulty in making up the set, until someone remembered having seen Lord Bute on the ground. He was found and asked to join the royal party; and having played his cards so well, when the game was over the Prince invited him to Kew. There acquaintance soon ripened into friendship, and erelong the Scottish earl was all in all at Leicester House; adviser-in-chief to host and hostess, and director of the education of their son, the heir to the throne. With George III's accession came the rapid advancement; from Privy Councillor to Secretary of State, from Secretary of State to Premier; honours the best abused minister of his time might never have held but for taking a hand at whist on a rainy morning'.
Around 1755 a team calling themselves 'Moulsey' played several games, although it is doubtful if this was a properly organised club. The first attempt to form a regular club in Molesey seems to have been about 1787, when the famous Moulsey Hurst Cricket Club was inaugurated by a number of the most prominent cricketers of the day.
Among the club's members were some of the greatest exponents of the game including the Earl of Winchilsea, (who made some of the best scores for several seasons, and who at one time lived in Hurst House, a large mansion which formerly stood in New Road); Sir Peter Burrell, another good player; Lord Strathavon; the Hon Col Lennox, later duke of Richmond, who was a fine wicket-keeper, and who is noted as having fought a duel with the Duke of York; W. Bedster and Edward 'Lumpy' Stevens, who were both employed by Lord Tankerville at Mount Felix, Walton-on-Thames; and William 'Silver Billy' Beldham, perhaps the greatest batsman of the eighteenth century. 'Lumpy' Stevens received his nickname because he was 'a short man, round-shouldered and stout'. At one of the dinners of the Hambledon club, it was said, 'he did eat a whole apple pie'. John Nyron, the biographer of the Hambledon men, has this to say of him: 'he had no trick about him, but was as plain as a pikestaff in all his dealings', he died at the age of 84 and is buried in Walton churchyard. 'Silver Billy', so called because of his mop of straw-coloured hair, was a giant among cricketers, although not in size; Nyron says of him: 'William Beldham was a close set man, standing about five feet eight inches and a half. He had light-coloured hair, a fair complexion, and handsome as well as intelligent features. No one within my recollection could stop a ball better, or make more brilliant hits all over the ground. Wherever the ball was bowled there she was hit away, and in the most severe, venomous style. Besides this he was so remarkably safe a player; he was safer than the bank, for no mortal ever thought of doubting Beldham's stability. He would get in at the balls, and hit them away in a gallant style, but when he would cut them at the point of the bat he was in his glory; and upon my life, their speed was as the speed of thought'. 'Silver Bill' once hit a ball at a match on Molesey Hurst in 1787 for which ten runs were scored. Like most of the great cricketers of the eighteenth century he lived to an old age and died in 1862 aged 97. He had had two wives and thirty-nine children.
Several other clubs also used the ground as their headquarters. In 1769 the Knightsbridge Cricket Club, an exclusive club, 'only meant for Gentlemen Cricket players', advertised their 'Annual meeting at Moulsey Hurst being fixed for Saturday next, July 1st'.
In 1828 the Royal Clarence Cricket Club was formed under the patronage of the Duke of Clarence, who lived in Bushey Park. A contemporary report says: Moulsey Hurst is chosen as the headquarters of the club, and men are now actively engaged in levelling and laying down a suitable area of turf. The club will play every week during the season. Marquees will be pitched on the Hurst and lunches will be furnished'. Four years later 'The Royal Clarence Cricket Club has now to boast of between one and two hundred members, the major part of whom are entitled to be ranked as superior and scientific players of the game of cricket'. In spite of this proud boast, however, the club appears to have died out a few seasons later.
After the decline of the Royal Clarence Club little or no cricket was played on the Hurst until 1890, when the Hurst Park Racing Club was formed, and opened a cricket field in the centre of the racecourse. The pitch was enclosed and a change was made for admission. Some first-class matches were played there; even the touring Australian test team visited the ground, and were beaten by the club by 34 runs. However, the general attendance seems never to have been very high and the club folded up after a few years.
In 1758 the Hurst was the scene of yet another first, the first record of a game of golf to be played on English soil. Golf had, of course, been known in Scotland for centuries. The match was organised by David Garrick, who was entertaining a party of Scotsmen at Hampton, which included Rev Dr Carlyle, the minister of Iveresk, who wrote in his diary: 'Garrick had told us to bring clubs and balls, that we might play at golf on Moulsey Hurst. Garrick met us on the way, so impatient he seemed to be for his company. Immediately after we arrived, we crossed the river to the Golfing ground, which was very good'.
After the game the players sat on Garrick's lawn, where they were painted by Zoffany. The picture, which now hangs in Lambton Castle, shows clearly Molesey Hurst, the river, Tagg's Island, and the first Hampton Court bridge.
ISBN 0 86023 414 2
Thameside Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.
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