England’s 500th Test match on foreign soil, which concluded in Port Elizabeth on Monday, prompted a lot of people to reminisce about tours past, but few could hope to match the tale of England’s voyage to their first ever away Test, played in Melbourne in March 1877. It is a tale of death, drama, donkeys and cross-dressing, and was thankfully diarised in sometimes excruciating detail by an unnamed player in a series of letters to the Sporting Life.
In all 255 days passed between the players setting sail from Southampton and their return to London’s Charing Cross station. The correspondent details every day of the outbound trip. Along the way they stopped at Gibraltar, Malta (“the beggars and guides are a perfect nuisance, pestering you the whole time”), Port Said and Suez at either end of the Suez Canal (“Suez is a wretched town. No pleasure can be got by a visit to the place, which is a tumble-down, narrow-streeted, stinking hole”), Yemen and Galle, before the players switched boats for the leg to King George’s Sound.
Before they reached Malta one of their shipmates died. “About half‑past ten a death occurred on board, and at two the funeral took place. A very impressive ceremony – the ship stopping, and the knell tolling as the body was committed to the deep,” wrote the player. At Suez several players engaged in a donkey race, during which Allen Hill, the bowler who was to take the first ever Test wicket, fell off his ride and injured an elbow – the line of totally unnecessary injuries sustained by touring England cricketers engaged in completely unnecessary pursuits having started long before Rory Burns did his ankle playing football.
At King George’s Sound they changed to yet another boat, for the trip to Glenelg in South Australia, where they were loaded on to a horse-drawn cart and taken the final six miles to Adelaide, where they played and won their first match. The tour was off to a fine start, but it headed downhill fast.
There were nine matches in Australia and eight in New Zealand in the run‑up to the first Test, against teams that ranged in size from 13 men to 22. Results were mixed and finances poor. Gate receipts were the team’s only source of remuneration but in many places locals were not keen on contributing if they could avoid it. In Christchurch, for example, the local paper complained about “the numbers of people who visited the ground without having the generosity to contribute to the very heavy expenses of the Eleven”. Meanwhile England lost against Victoria and twice against New South Wales. “The Englishmen have made no show, indeed the match is considered quite a fiasco,” read one report, while a rumour swept Sydney that they had lost on purpose.
And there was the travel, which continued to be long and arduous. Particularly memorable was the journey from Greymouth on the west coast of New Zealand’s south island to Christchurch in the east, which started in two stagecoaches. They were due to spend the night in Otira, high in the Southern alps, but they were still not there at 11pm when, in heavy rain, they were forced to cross a river that had burst its banks. All safely reached an island in the middle of the stream, which was where their lights blew out. The first coach reached the far side of the river, but the second got stuck.
“All had to jump for their lives into the stream, which was now up to their waists,” the player wrote. “By great exertion the coach was got out, but only just in time, as soon huge stones, trees and logs began to be carried down the swollen river.”
The soggy players dragged their sodden luggage the remaining half-mile to their hotel, where they discovered there were only three beds for their party of 17. Happily the couple who owned the hotel were able to lend them some clothes while their own dried out, though less happily that did involve some players being forced to put on dresses.
In Christchurch they played an 18-man team representing Canterbury. Before the match Ted Pooley, England’s outstanding wicketkeeper – who had not played in the tour because of a knee injury and who was to participate in the match only as an umpire – got talking with Ralph Donkin, an assistant railway engineer, who like the England team was staying at Warner’s Hotel. They struck a bet, at odds of 6-1, that Pooley could predict the score of any Canterbury cricketer. “It afterwards turned out that this was a catch bet [in other words, one that Pooley couldn’t lose], Pooley boasting that he ‘had’ Donkin by placing a ducks egg next to each man,” the Timaru Herald reported.
After four batsmen were out without scoring in Canterbury’s the first innings, Pooley offered to waive any winnings from the second if Donkin paid out immediately, demanding a sum of £36. Donkin refused, and that night the two men got into a fight. A bloodied Donkin, whose room was next to Pooley’s, decided it would be safer to stay at a different hotel, and in his absence his room was broken into: “Every particle of Mr Donkin’s wearing apparel torn to shreds, and some important plans partially destroyed.”
A witness saw Pooley and Alfred Bramhall, described in the media as England’s ticket-taker, in the corridor “not a yard from the door of Donkin’s room”. Both men were arrested and though released on bail had to stay in New Zealand until April, missing the remainder of the tour. Pooley was eventually fined £5 for assault and he and Bramhall acquitted of wilful, unlawful and malicious damage, the defence being that either man could easily have been confused with other members of the touring party.
Then came the first Test, in which England were beaten almost single-handedly by Charles Bannerman, who scored 165 before a delivery from George Ulyett hit his right hand, splitting a finger open and forcing him to retire. In the Sporting Life he was said to have “played the best cricket possible to conceive … his hitting was terrific, and his defence perfect, and I think he is about the best professional batsman I ever saw”. The result was widely celebrated – “Such an event would not have been dreamed of as coming within the limits of possibility 10 or 15 years ago, and is a crushing reply to those unpatriotic theorists who would have us believe that the Australian race is deteriorating from the imperial type,” wrote the Age.
Though England won the second and final Test, also at Melbourne, by four wickets, the team’s reputation had been irrevocably damaged. “Since the result, the fashionable query has been, ‘What about the English cricketers now?’” wrote ‘Grubber’ in the Brisbane newspaper The Week. “Previously, during the progress of [their other defeats], the popular reply was ‘bets’, or ‘sold the match, of course’, but these won’t go down any longer.”
A couple of weeks after the second Test the team were on a boat once more. This time they sailed as far as Brindisi, on the heel of Italy’s boot, and then travelled by coach and train to Calais. This journey alone took 45 days and was, according to Ulyett, “not nearly so enjoyable as the outward one”. Ulyett was known as Happy Jack, but by the time he returned home he was anything but. A few days later he was interviewed by his local paper, Sheffield’s Daily Telegraph. “He ascribes many of their defeats to the immense toil they underwent in getting from place to place,” they reported. “The trip was not a success in any respect. George has about had his fill of Australia; at any rate he would not like to go again under similar circumstances.”
England’s next Test in Australia was played in January 1879; Ulyett opened the batting.
Still want more?
• Simon Burnton marks England’s 500th overseas Test with a look at some of the more memorable ones.
• Jonathan Howcroft on the Big Bash League and why putting on a show matters.
• Ollie Pope’s stunning innings in Port Elizabeth suggests a bright future, writes Chris Stocks.
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