This Sunday marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the first cricket match played at Lord’s brand new cricket ground in St. John’s Wood. However, this was not the first cricket ground established by Thomas Lord, or even the second. It was, in fact, the third venue on which Lord established a cricket ground which would bear his name. In Thomas Lord’s case, the third time was certainly the charm, since this third cricket ground is still in use, still bears Lord’s name and is considered, quite literally, "The Home of Cricket."
When Thomas Lord took his grass to St. John’s Wood …
Thomas Lord was a Yorkshireman of Scottish decent who went to London as a young man, more than likely as an apprentice to a wine merchant. By the 1780s, he had become a prosperous wine merchant himself and a man of means with a fondness for cricket. He was considered to be quite a good bowler by the other members of his team, the White Conduit Club in Islington. The club played on a ground laid out next to the White Conduit House tavern, but the area was not enclosed and thus members of the public, particularly those of the rowdier elements, often ensconced themselves on the sidelines, watching the play and regularly shouting rude remarks to the players. The gentlemen of the White Conduit Club grew increasingly disgusted with these unruly interruptions to their games and came to the conclusion that they needed a private venue from which the rabble would be excluded.
In 1787, the Earl of Winchelsea and Lord Charles Lennox, both avid cricketers and members of the White Conduit Club, discussed with Thomas Lord the idea of creating a private cricket ground for the club. If Lord was willing to take on the responsibility of acquiring the land and laying out the new ground, the two aristocrats promised to cover any losses he might suffer. Lord, with an eye to increasing his business, was eager to develop a closer association with the aristocratic members of the club. In addition, he had already noted the volume of alcoholic beverages which were sold at the White Conduit House during the convivial gatherings after each cricket match. As the operator of a private club, he would have the sole concession on refreshments and thus reap all those profits for himself. Even more to his liking was the opportunity to set up such a club with the financial backing of two wealthy men who would guarantee him against any losses. Lord accepted Winchelsea’s and Lennox’s proposal with alacrity.
Thomas Lord took a lease with the Portman Square Estate for some land in the Dorset Fields area of Marylebone in North London, and set to work preparing the new cricket ground. The first match was played on Monday, 21 May 1787, according to the announcement: "… between eleven Noblemen of the White Conduit Club and eleven Gentlemen of the County of Middlesex with two men given, for 500 guineas a side. The wickets to be pitched at ten o’clock, and the match to be played out." The results of this match are unknown, since many of the early cricket records were destroyed by a fire in the Lord’s archives in 1825. Initially this new ground was called "The New Ground," but it was not long before it became known as Lord’s Cricket Ground. Since it was then located in Marylebone, the White Conduit Club decided to change their name to the Marylebone Cricket Club. It is quite fitting that the area of the first Lord’s Cricket Ground is now known as Dorset Square, named after the Duke of Dorset, himself an avid cricketer, who gave Lord very favorable terms on his lease of the property.
Thomas Lord made a great success of his first cricket ground, which drew up to 5,000 spectators a day, at a cost of sixpence a head. A batten fence was erected around the grounds so that no one who did not pay could see the match. He flew a flag on match days to alert passers-by that the Marylebone Cricket Club was playing a match. He set up tents from which he made a tidy profit on the sale of refreshments at each match. His ongoing association with the aristocracy helped to steadily increase his wine sales, as he sold to more and more noble houses, and eventually, even to the King himself. The cricket ground was sometimes let for the use of other teams and it is known that Lord Byron played for Harrow there on 2 August 1805, in the first ever recorded Eton vs. Harrow match. Though it seems Byron was one of the group at Harrow who initiated the challenge, Eton won. The annual Eton vs. Harrow match is the only annual school match which is still played at Lord’s in the twenty-first century. Lord also hired out his grounds on the days there was no match for events like foot races, pigeon shooting, military parades and even the odd balloon ascent.
In 1808, the lease on Lord’s Cricket Ground in Dorset Fields was nearing its end and the Duke of Dorset, a dedicated cricket enthusiast, has passed away in 1799. Lord learned that the new ground landlord, Edward Berkeley Portman, no fan of cricket, intended to significantly increase the rent when the lease came up for renewal the following year. Ever the shrewd business man, Lord decided he was in need of a larger area and would be able to negotiate much better terms elsewhere. He chose a new area, about a half mile north, which was just being developed, St. John’s Wood. He rented the conjoined areas known as Brick Field and Great Field from the Eyre estate, which came to be known as the North Bank. In 1809, Lord had all his carefully cultivated turf cut, rolled and transported to the new home of Lord’s Cricket Ground, where he supervised its installation. However, the Marylebone Cricket Club had elected to stay on at the Dorset Square grounds, so it was the St. John’s Wood Cricket Club which first played at Lord’s new ground. In 1811, the Marylebone Cricket Club lost the Dorset Square grounds and for the next two years were only able to play away fixtures as they had no grounds of their own. In 1813, the Marylebone Cricket Club were able to return to Lord’s new cricket ground, but after playing only three home fixtures, the ground had to be closed.
Late in 1813, Thomas Lord learned that the cut for the new Regent’s Canal would come right across the northern section of his property, slicing deep into his carefully maintained cricket field. He did have the consolation that, since his land had been requisitioned by Parliament, the canal promoters would be paying him £4,000 in compensation. He was able to convince the Eyre family to lease him another parcel in St. John’s Wood. Though he would be moving less than half the distance north than he had on his previous move to St John’s Wood, the process would be much more complex. This third ground would be more than double the acreage he had at the previous location, but it would be laid out on a substantial tract of farmland which included a large pond. The farmland had to be leveled and the pond drained and filled before the much-vaunted Lord’s cricket turf could once more be cut, rolled and transported to its new, and final location. And, once again, Lord supervised its installation on the new cricket field. It was crucial to good play that the grass be "kept down" in the parlance of the time. Since the lawn mower was not invented until 1830, Lord had a much less mechanical method of keeping his cricket pitch grass down. Each Saturday, four or five hundred sheep were driven onto the cricket ground to graze, before being driven on to the Smithfield Market each Monday. Which is quite in keeping with the history of cricket, which was believed to have originated in England in Anglo-Saxon times, played over fields where sheep had recently grazed.
That the Marylebone Cricket Club and Lord’s both survived the disruptions of this last move is in large part due to the perseverance and organizational skills of Thomas Lord himself, but also to the dedication and commitment of two of the club’s most prominent members, Benjamin Aislabie, a fellow wine merchant, and the famous "sporting squire," George Osbaldeston. They all worked tirelessly to ensure a smooth transition to the new ground. At this new ground, Lord was able to offer "good stabling" for those who rode or drove to a match, but dogs were still prohibited from entering the grounds, as they had been at his other premises. Lord also kept the entrance fee to the same sixpence per person he had charged at his previous grounds, but he had more seating available at this third venue. As before, he built another high fence around the perimeter, but at this new venue, he also built a tavern and a pavilion where he could make a large quantity of refreshments available to those who attended cricket matches or other events on his more extensive grounds.
The very first cricket match played on Lord’s new cricket ground took place on Wednesday, 22 June 1814. The Marylebone Cricket Club played against Hertfordshire, a team from the country, whom they soundly defeated. Players for Marylebone were some of the best cricketers of the age, including Squire Osbaldeston, the Reverend Lord Frederick Beauclerk, E.H. Budd, Benjamin Aislabie, and William Ward, a Director of the Bank of England. The roster for Hertfordshire team is now known.
During the Regency, the Dorset Square cricket grounds were known as Lord’s Old Ground, the second was known as Lord’s Middle Ground, and the final site remained known as Lord’s Cricket Ground. Though Lord’s Old Ground has been completely built over, there is a plaque on a hut in the Dorset Square garden that commemorates its earlier use. There is little evidence left of Lord’s Middle Ground, but Lord’s Cricket Ground still stands today and is considered the world headquarters of cricket. The ESPN CricInfo site has a period map which clearly shows the locations of all three of Lord’s cricket grounds. Lord had removed from his first cricket ground before the Regency began and he was in his second year at his second ground when the Prince of Wales became Regent. Thomas Lord finished the Regency at his third and final cricket ground in St. John’s Wood.
And so, Dear Regency Authors, now you know to which of Lord’s Cricket Grounds your characters will need to go if they wish to take in, or perhaps play in, a cricket match, depending upon the year in which your story is set. Many noblemen and gentlemen played cricket, right along side laborers and others who had a talent for the game. Though the majority of spectators at cricket matches in the late eighteenth century were men, it does seem that certainly by the turn of the nineteenth century, ladies did attend matches, usually with an escort. But Lord’s was not restricted only to cricket matches. As he had at his first ground, Thomas Lord let both his second and third grounds for the use of many different events on the days that no cricket matches were scheduled. Therefore, perhaps the characters in one of your novels might go to Lord’s to see a military parade or a balloon ascent. Just remember, they will not be able to go to Lord’s on a Saturday, since the sheep will be there, "mowing" the lawn.