Essex needed a century to win at cricket

1951: Fred Trueman bowls for Yorkshire against Essex at Brentwood. Picture: PA

1951: Fred Trueman bowls for Yorkshire against Essex at Brentwood. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

County cricket in this part of the world had a sticky start, as Prof Ged Martin explains

Essex County Cricket Club was founded in 1876, but Essex only won their first Championship in 1979.

The problem during that first century was not Essex cricket, but Essex geography.

In the days before sponsorship and football pools, county clubs relied on two types of income.

Hundreds of people paid a few pounds annually in membership fees.

Thousands paid a few shillings each to watch matches.

The problem was that, in 1901, half the 1.1 million people of Essex lived in just five districts in the south-west of the county – East and West Ham, Barking, Leyton and Walthamstow.

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Cricket was a popular spectator sport. Those Essex Londoners would pay to watch but they were mainly working-class people who didn’t have the spare cash to join the club.

The people who could afford membership lived in the countryside, but weren’t excited by a club playing in the suburbs.

Where could Essex play cricket and draw crowds? Chelmsford was a small town, barely 15,000 people in 1901.

Remote Colchester had 35,000 people, but cricket was weak in north Essex. Southend was packed with trippers in the summer – but not all holiday-makers were Essex supporters.

After 10 years playing at Brentwood (population just 5,000!), in 1886 Essex settled at Leyton.

In 1894, a short link railway, the Tottenham and Forest Gate extension, opened a new and convenient Leyton station. From the Liverpool Street line, it was an easy stroll from Forest Gate to Wanstead Park, and then two stops to the ground.

Next year, Essex joined the County Championship.

Leyton attracted the suburban crowds, but the location was still inconvenient for most people living deep in the country.

Operating permanently on the verge of financial disaster, Essex tried taking cricket to a wider public. By the early 1930s, there were festival weeks at Brentwood, Clacton, Colchester and Southend.

In 1933, Essex abandoned Leyton altogether, adding a festival at Ilford to cater for the suburbs.

In effect, Essex had no home ground. This caused problems. It was difficult to organise batting and fielding practice, or to liaise with groundsmen. The club was always on the road. There was even a mobile scoreboard, a converted furniture van. Toilet facilities were awful. (What became of all those buckets?)

In 1950, Romford was added to the list. The Gallows Corner ground had good road access through the A12 and A127, but not much of a car park.

Small boys could get in free by squeezing through the fence. (I refuse to reveal how I know this.)

The ground was small for first-class cricket. Just one touring team played at Romford – a Commonwealth XI in 1953. The famous West Indian spin bowler Alf Valentine could only coax match figures of 2 for 54 out of the Gidea Park clay. Fellow West Indian Clyde Walcott scored a century, but Essex won by 108 runs.

Romford Cricket Week ended in 1968. Essex decided to centralise. Chelmsford was now a large town, with good road and rail links.

Limited over cricket offered new opportunities: Essex were always an entertaining team.

In 1979, Essex won the Championship. In 1981 they headed the Sunday League. A new era had begun. Essex cricket had finally overcome Essex geography.