Managing editor Matt Thacker makes his selection from the Autumn 2022 issue. We publish one article from each edition on the website, but you can see the rest if you subscribe or buy a single issue or four-issue bundle. Matt has chosen Jon Hotten’s look at the Ashes origin story.
I’ve played cricket with Jon Hotten for ten years now. And our team, the Authors XI, has benefited from the generosity of Rathbones Investment sponsorship for the last five. So imagine the serendipity of a managing director at Rathbones being the great grandson (and namesake) of the man who first brought the Ashes home, Ivo Darnley. Obviously, as soon as I found out, I wanted to get Jon and Ivo together in a room to talk cricket…
Matt Thacker, Autumn 2022
Runs in the family
Jon Hotten digs into the Ashes origin story
When Ivo goes back with the urn, the urn,
Studds, Steel, Read and Tylecoat return, return,
The welkin will ring loud,
The great crowd will feel proud,
Seeing Barlow and Bates with the urn, the urn,
And the rest coming home with the urn.
I am sitting in a room, actually a rather nice office in London, with a man who may be the owner, or at least the custodian, of the most famous artefact in cricket, perhaps the most famous in all of sport – the tiny terracotta urn that has become the physical representation of the Ashes. “Well,” says Ivo Darnley, who is both the namesake and the great grandson of the Ivo mentioned in the verse above, “I’m not sure… I think we may need a lawyer in the room. Lord’s wrote to me recently… well in 2019, to say the archivist was changing. They definitely keep me informed and in touch. I believe officially the Ashes have been ‘lent in perpetuity’…”
The Darnley family is one of those that goes back. Ivo is the twelfth Earl. The first was John Bligh, who assumed the title in 1725. And before John, there was a Lord Darnley, Henry Stuart, who married Mary, Queen of Scots and fathered James VI of Scotland before his demise a couple of years later, strangled and blown up in a murky and conspiratorial plot for which some blamed Mary and her next husband, the Earl of Bothwell.
For many of those centuries, the Darnleys have been cricketers. The fourth Earl, John Darnley, appeared for Kent and MCC 27 times between 1789 and 1796. His brother, Lieutenant General Edward Bligh, was even more prolific, described by Arthur Haygarth as “one of the best gentleman bats of his day.” The fifth Earl died young of lockjaw after cutting a toe in a wood chopping accident, but the sixth, John Bligh, played for the Gentlemen of Kent against the Gentlemen of England in 1848, and two of his eight children would go on to leave their mark on the game. Edward, the seventh Earl and first son (“enormous and terrifying and died young,”), played first-class cricket for Kent and “spent money like water”. Second son Ivo Bligh, born in 1859, would become the best and most famous of them all, the first England captain to win the Ashes.
“We’ve got his letters,” says Ivo. “He went to a prep school called Cheam, where he had a miserable time in his first term. Then they discovered he could play cricket and he seems to have had a really happy time. As a boy he was meant to be easy-going and quite charming. He went to Eton. He was captain there, and he was captain of Cambridge.”
His game was shaped by George ‘Farmer’ Bennett, the Kent professional employed by the sixth Earl to coach his children at the family seat, Cobham Hall. Ivo had all-round talent, winning a place in the Cheam school team with his bowling although he later injured a shoulder in a tug-of-war match on the journey to Australia, forcing him to concentrate on his batting and fielding (“a capital long-field and point” said Wisden). It was at Cheam that he first met the Studd brothers, CT and GB, who would become immortalised in the same team and the same verse as Ivo.
Standing six feet three – perhaps only Grace of his contemporaries loomed larger – Ivo’s elegant driving saw him make hundreds for both Cambridge and Kent against Surrey, and it was his poor health rather than lack of ability that seems to have halted him. “There can be little doubt that, had he remained in full vigour, he would have developed into a really great batsman, for he was only twenty-one when his breakdown occurred,” reports the Almanack.
Bligh’s schoolmate CT Studd was at the wicket with Ted Peate in the seminal Test match at The Oval in August of 1882. England needed just ten to win, and if they had got them, who knows where we would be today. Studd, at the end of a golden summer with the bat, had for some reason come in at No.9. He had not faced a ball when William Barnes was dismissed, and then looked on in horror as last man Peate swiped a two through square leg before trying again and being comprehensively bowled. “I couldn’t trust Mr Studd,” he said, somewhat enigmatically. A week later came the Sporting Times obituary, and the birth of the Ashes.
What follows is part folklore, part love story, all sporting serendipity. The hubristic newspaper joke about the Ashes caught on to the extent that when Ivo brought together his party to tour Australia in the English winter that followed, he told them that he would “return with the Ashes”. He would have to do it without Grace, Hornby, Ulyett and Littleton, none of whom toured.
“I think he couldn’t afford to take Grace on the trip,” says Ivo Darnley. “Grace wanted to go first class and take his wife, and Ivo couldn’t afford it.” Whatever the reason, sans the Champion and England’s other stars, Bligh’s men stood up, winning two of the three Test matches to fulfil the promise he had made before the team sailed out.
In Australia, Ivo Bligh also fell in love. Four of the tour’s nine matches were played in Melbourne, and most of the tour’s socialising took place at Rupertswood, the country estate on the outskirts of the city where the team stayed before its games at the MCG. Rupertswood was owned by Sir William Clarke, president of the Melbourne Cricket Club, and it was here that Bligh met Florence Morphy, who was employed as a governess and music teacher to the Clarke family. It’s easy to imagine those languorous, light-hearted summer days in Rupertswood’s landscaped gardens and shaded rooms, the relationship between Ivo and Florence flourishing over drinks and dinners and slow-moving outdoor games.
Early in the tour, Bligh’s XI played a friendly game against the Clarke family’s staff and guests at Rupertswood. There is a story that after the match Lady Clarke and Florence Morphy presented Bligh with an ‘urn’ for the Ashes, and then another more substantial report of a presentation at Rupertswood after the series was completed in March, 1883. What we know for sure is that the terracotta urn that Bligh brought home to England had the verse above this story pasted onto it, along with a label that says simply ‘The Ashes’. That verse first appeared in Melbourne Punch magazine on 1 February 1883. Then there is the report in the Hobart Mercury of 4 June 1908, decades later but still cited, that described, “a tiny silver urn, containing what they termed the ashes of Australian cricket.”
Were there two urns? Was the joke made once and then perpetuated? Or was the terracotta perfume container that Bligh brought home to England the first and only urn?
“It might have come from Lady Clarke, off her dressing table,” says Ivo. “That’s the family folklore. We have no idea…” What they know is that Ivo stayed on for another five weeks at Rupertswood, wooing Florence. He came home to England without her, “and I believe the urn comes back in his suitcase,” says Ivo. “They treated it as a love token, from a pretty girl to him. He came back to the UK alone, because he had to ask his father’s permission [to marry]. And his father took a very long time. And then Ivo went back and got married just outside Rupertswood.”
Ivo’s elder, terrifying brother Edward died in 1900, and the earldom passed to Ivo, along with Cobham Hall. The family’s dwindling fortunes and Edward’s profligate spending left Ivo and Florence with an almost empty house in which to live.
“The sixth Earl had spent no money modernising whatsoever,” Ivo explains. “Then came economic problems with agriculture at the end of the 19th century. Grain was beginning to be imported from North America and agriculture went into a slump. Ivo’s elder brother inherited and had a child. She inherited pictures, tapestries and other contents, which is why Ivo came back to a somewhat unmodernised house. He then started selling. The fourth Earl, who died in 1831, had lived during the French Revolution, and was fortunate to have cash, with which he brought pictures out of France. Some fantastic paintings – Titians, Rubens, Veronese, Snyder. There are Titians in the National Gallery that were ours. Tintoretto’s ‘The Origin of the Milky Way’ as well. The family actually sold Titian’s ‘The Rape of Europa’, a magnificent picture, in 1896.”
Elected to the Lords in 1905, Ivo settled into the familiar life of his ancestors. Those matches in Australia would be the sum of his international career. “It was a while until the Darnley urn became the urn,” says Ivo. “Family lore said that he had wanted that. He was a charming, gentle man, something of a hypochondriac because he hardly played again. He took up golf and became captain of St George’s. He built himself a golf course. In the 1920s, he and Florence built a house called Puckle Hill, and I think he died there.”
On Bligh’s death in 1927, Florence loaned the Darnley urn to MCC. There was one more mystery that went with it, that of its contents. “People say it was knocked over and therefore we don’t know what the contents is…” says Ivo. “I don’t know if there even is a contents. There are some references to it as a bail, some as a ball, some as a veil.”
Florence lived until 1941, “and she told my grandmother that it’s a veil rather than a bail, and granny was absolutely determined, but I’m not sure that’s right either. My granny was the third wife, she married in 1940 and [Florence] died in 1941, so they didn’t know each other that long. My grandmother always maintained that Florence had said it was a veil. But Florence was a very old lady at that point.”
If Ivo Darnley is the owner of “what started life as a worthless little terracotta urn, not much better than an egg-cup,” then he is an extremely relaxed one.
“Have you ever touched the urn?” I ask.
“No, I have not.”
“Do you want to?”
“I’m intrigued to. But we’re in the year 2022, and they’ve been looked after by Lord’s for almost a hundred years. When Australia was doing well in the Noughties, the MCC took the Ashes to Australia [in 2006–07]. Mum and Dad travelled with them. I was shaving and I heard my father on the radio. He had been rung up in the middle of the night by the Australian Prime Minister, to say that the Australians had won it so many times and could the Ashes travel… Mum and Dad went to Rupertswood too, so that was sort of full circle.”
“But…” I say, feeling my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity slipping away. “We could jump in a cab right now. It’s 20 minutes to Lord’s. We’ll walk in and tell them that Ivo’s great grandson is here, and we want to touch the urn.”
“Hmmm…” Ivo says, a tone I take as an extremely polite demurral. “I’ve lived with it all my life… I think it’s in the right place.”