Essex v Kent in 1776: Two dead and not a ball bowled

Sadly there's been no cricket this summer. Picture: Bill Smith

Sadly there's been no cricket this summer. Picture: Bill Smith

In a cricket season that’s been cancelled, Professor Ged Martin looks at an infamous County match that probably never happened.

Readers of the London Chronicle on 29 October 1776 would have been shocked by a report from Gravesend. Newspapers hadn’t yet developed sensational headlines, so the paragraph was buried away. But the “terrible affair at Tilbury Fort” was a big story.

That very day, a cricket match between Essex and Kent had been abandoned in mayhem without a ball being bowled.

Trouble had begun when Kent tried to field a player who “should not have been there”.

The Essex team objected and “a very bloody battle ensued”.

When the Kentish men realised they were “likely to be worsted”, things got out of hand.

Tilbury Fort was garrisoned by just a sergeant and four “invalids”. They weren’t soldiers on the sick list, but old warriors too creaky for active service who were still useful for guard duty.

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The name was borrowed from France, where the mighty Louis XIV had built an elegant Parisian retirement home for old soldiers called Les Invalides.

A Kent player ran into the guard-house, grabbed a gun and “fired and killed one of the opposite party”. Both sides now tried to seize any weapon they could find.

One old soldier was run through with a bayonet. Bravely trying to restore order, the sergeant was shot dead.

Eventually the Essex players fled over the fort’s drawbridge, and the Kent team “made off in their boats”. Readers were assured that they would be hunted down.

The clash became a hoary legend in the history of Essex cricket. But, in the 1960s, historian Leslie Thompson took a doubting look at the evidence.

Officially, the Essex County Cricket Club was founded a whole century later, in 1876. But in the eighteenth century, local teams often adopted county names.

For instance, Hornchurch was a cricket stronghold from the 1780s. The village was a manufacturing centre, making farm equipment like ploughs.

Its muscular foundrymen were fine cricketers. Hornchurch against Ingatestone was a game between two villages.

Hornchurch against Dartford became an inter-county clash.

Famously, in 1791, Hornchurch beat the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s.

In a return match on the cricket pitch at Langtons – now Havering’s Register Office – the home team was renamed “Essex”.

A row over an ineligible player was understandable.

When two unequal teams met, the weaker side was often allowed to include a professional, like the bowler Thomas Lord, an ambitious businessman who operated MCC’s cricket ground – Lord’s.

But this required agreement, because there was heavy betting on cricket matches. It would have been unfair to the punters for the Kent side to smuggle in a top-class player – just not cricket!

But – as Leslie Thompson argued – the rest of the story seems, frankly, dodgy.

Near Cambridge, joke cricket matches were sometimes played on ice when the Fens froze in midwinter.

But, then as now, the regular season ended around the end of September. You couldn’t trust the weather after that.

The match wasn’t announced in advance – odd, if the teams wanted to encourage wagers.

There’s no evidence of a cricket ground at Tilbury Fort. Indeed, the surrounding area was still squelchy marshland, one huge sticky wicket.

Although newspapers from Chelmsford to Chester copied the report, there was no follow-up story. A gang of masked thugs might have got away with two murders, but surely somebody could have named a cricket team?

In 1776, we were at war with our rebel colonies, who’d just cheekily renamed themselves the United States of America. The Army would have wanted their guns back. In short, the report was a spoof.

The legend sharpened rivalry between the two counties.

At Brentwood in 1934, Kent hammered weak Essex bowling to reach 803 for 4 – still one of the highest recorded first class scores. It’s enough to make any red-blooded Essex supporter grab a musket.

But the tale of two killed at Tilbury in 1776? Fake news!