I'm neither a cricketer not a cricket fan and I've never given much of a thought to Harringay's former cricket ground in the north eastern corner of Finsbury Park, save to look nostalgically across it from time-to-time and to wonder why it's run separately to the rest of the park.
Then the other day, researching a completely different topic, I came across a hint of something a little interesting about the cricket ground. It quickly became obvious to me that the story of the pitch was about so much more than cricket or Harringay. In it, we can detect clues to some of the key themes of London's Victorian and Edwardian history.
So, after digging around a bit, I can now share some insights into Harringay's early cricketing chapters and the episodes and characters related to it.
Figs. 1 & 2: In the background, behind the row of trees are the houses running along Green Lanes, to the south of Hermitage Road. To the right of those houses is Northumberland House. On the extreme right is the cricket pavilion, which is still standing today. Belwo is the same view today from Google Street View.
Much has been written about the long struggle to get Finsbury Park established. But but little has been written about the cricket field (and what has been published is somewhat inaccurate).
I've been able to tease out the story behind the origins of the field. That the cricket pitches existed at all was in a large part due to the petitioning of one passionate cricketer, Fredrick George Harding.
Fig.3: Frederick Harding, c1900
Harding was a bank accountant and a keen cricketer. Living in Barnsbury, he was a member of the Islington Albion Cricket Club, at the time, one of the oldest cricket clubs in the country. By the middle of the nineteenth century the club members were growing tired of being moved from ground to ground as they were forced out by developers. By the 1860's, they had found a home in Park Road, Holloway. But, the developers were threatening agian and Harding wanted to find a more permanent base.
So, in the early 1860s, he approached his local vestry (a unit of local government). He got the support of vestry board member J. Savage to petition the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) to include in the plans for Finsbury Park, space to be set aside for a cricket ground for the Islington Albion Cricket Club.
Fig. 4: Holborn Journal, 20th January 1866
Speaking to a sports journalist in 1900, Harding told the story of what transpired following Savage's petition.1
We did not after all attain the object at which we were aiming, but the Construction Committee of the Park were satisfied by our arguments that a cricket ground was required, and they decided to purchase additional ground to be used as a public cricket ground. This is now the Finsbury Park Cricket Ground.
Recalling what had happened almost forty years after the event, it appears that Harding had got the details slightly muddled. The plan of the park drawn up by park designer Fredrick Manable in 1857, suggests that the land eventually given over for cricket ground had been included within the boundaries that had already been mapped.
Fig. 5: Excerpt from the 1857 plan for Finsbury Park of Superintending Architect, Frederick Manable, showing the land used for cricket ground in the north east of the park 2
As the park was laid out, the Hornsey Wood Reservoir was dug on the site of the recently demolished Hornsey Wood House, long a popular venue for Londoner to escape the city grime. The spoils from the excavations for this excavation were transported by a temporary tramway (see Fig 5) to the land set aside for the cricket ground, where they were dumped until they were removed from the site completely.
The park opened to the public in August 1869.
Newspaper reports suggest a tentative start to cricket in the park. I can only find mention of the field being used for practice for the first season in 1870.
Fig. 6: Extract from Islington Gazette, 1st April 1870
The following year, however, the cricket field seems to have been put to regular use.
Fig. 7: Morning Advertiser, Tuesday 16th May 1871
In 1872 the pavilion whic still stands today was erected3 and all was set for cricket!
Fig 8: The 1872 pavilion on the Harringay/Finsbury Park cricket field
Early on the Cricket Field developed a rhythm of regular use by both local clubs and others from around the city. Local clubs using the facilities included,
Non-local matches included, rather surprisingly, in July 1871, one between Atlanta and Brooklyn. (I assume that the teams were either composed of ex-pats or they were US clubs touring the UK).
After just ten summers of the oh-so-English sound of leather and willow, the cricket field entered a rather troubled decade, In 1881, the MBW seems to have taken it into its head to stop play altogether.
Fig. 9: Islington Gazette, 29th June 1881
Whilst cricket does seem to have restarted after a short gap, the MBW seem to have taken it into their head to get maximum use of the field. From 1883, they allowed the cricket field to be used for music entertainment. Despite fears voiced by the Working Men's Lord's Day of Rest Association, the National Sunday League was allowed to make use of the pitches to set out deckchairs and entertain crowds with bands.
It's of little surprise to learn that this didn't go down well with the area's cricketers. One Endymionite expressed his disgust the following winter in a letter to The Referee newspaper.
Fig. 10: The Referee, 3rd February 1884
By the end of the decade, cricket fans weren't the only ones railing against the practices of the unelected MBW. The Board was the target of many accusations of cronyism and corruption. Punch magazine irreverently dubbed the Board The Metropolitan Board of Perks. The phrase captured the public's feeling about the body and the nickname caught on among Londoners, remaining in common usage for some years. Following an investigation that uncovered widespread corruption, the MBW was abolished in 1888 and their duties were taken on by the newly formed directly elected London County Council.
The new body apparently took a different approach to the Cricket Fields. in 1889, they decided to lease the pitches to a commercial operator, something, I believe, that has continued ever since. The first lessee was professional cricket-ground operator, William Masterman.
Fig. 11: The Sportsman, 7th February 1889. This is the first reference I have found to the Cricket Field as the Harringay Cricket Ground
Born in Bedale Yorkshire in 1838, Masterman was a comb-maker's son who had come down to London to seek his fortune. By the early 1860's he was a shop assistant in the Oxford Street in drapers Peter Robinson (subsequently bought by John Lewis).
Fig. 12: Peter Robinson, 103- 108 Oxford Street, on the north side of the street, just to the east of Oxford Circus (then called Regent Circus), c1890.4
Not only was Masterman working in a store that was to become part of the the John Lewis empire, he was actually working alongside fellow drapers' assistant, a 24-year-old by the name of John Lewis who went on to found the department store much loved by today's middle classes.5
Fig. 13: Excerpt from the 1861 census for 103-108 Oxford Street. Masterman is second to bottom, John Lewis is sixth. Both were draper's assistants
Twenty years later, aged 43, Masterman was married with two young children, living in Holloway. He was described in the census of that year as a milliner. (Rather strangely, ten years later and still living in Holloway, he was described in the census as a farmer!)
Masterman appears to have started his cricket pitch leasing business at some point in the 1880s. He may have left the world of drapery and millinery to run it, or, he may have run it alongside his job. We might assume that he came to his sporting business through a personal interest in cricket. He was certainly in tune with the times: the period from the 1890s up until the First World War has been called the 'Golden Age of English cricket'. The game was immensely popular in Britain, with an ever-increasing number of clubs associated with neighbourhoods, trades, churches and many other groups. The demand for pitches was really taking off just at the time that Masterman leased the Finsbury Park/Harringay fields.
Reading between the lines, I assume that Harringay wasn't his first cricket ground. He apparently started off with a cricket ground in Holloway which became known as Masterman's Fields. By 1890, the Harringay Cricket Ground was also taking his name, being referred to in the sporting press as Masterman's Ground, Harringay.
Some years later, he added a third ground to his portfolio when he took on the St Ann's, South Tottenham ground. Before 1892, there had been a cricket ground on part of what became St Ann's Hospital. But, it's not clear where the ground was located after the hospital was built. There are two possibilities in my mind. The first is in Chestnuts Park; the second is the Grove Road cricket ground of which I'm only aware thanks to photos in the Edwardian Parr family album I bought a few years ago. Grove Road is a short road off St Ann's Road and the late nineteenth / early twentieth century maps show some areas that could have been used for cricket.
Fig. 14: Page from the album of the Parr family of Seymour Road. Could this have been Masterman's St Ann's cricket ground?
Wherever it may have been, the St Ann's ground was to get Masterman into hot water. In 1898, he was taken to court in a well-publicised case, facing charges of selling alcohol and tobacco at the St Ann's cricket ground without a licence. The venture ended in a £120 fine.
By 1901, Masterman was 63 years old and according to the census, living alone as a lodger in the house of Emily Burridge at 82 Umfreville Road. He was described as 'living on his own means'. So we might assume he had some sort of pension.
Our cricket ground proprietor died in June 1906, still living in Umfreville Road, leaving his estate to his widow.
The Grand Old Man of Cricket
One of the players who availed himself of Masterman's pitches was cricket club great, Charles Absolon, a prodigious club player, celebrated for playing into his eighties.
Born in 1817, meat salesman Absolon was a passionate cricket player. Wisden's said of him, 'probably no cricketer ever played in so many matches'.
A 1902 article in the Tatler magazine hailed him as the 'Grand Old Man' of cricket and the 'oldest living cricketer'. Absolon was apparently on the cricket pitch on the day of Queen Victoria's coronation and was on good terms with cricketing great W.G. Grace, playing with and against him on several occasions.
Fig. 15: Charles Absolon. The date of the photo is given as 1st ;January 1870 (though I suspect it may be later).
Absolon moved to Harringay for his retirement in the 1890s and took lodgings at 43 Hermitage Road. He played his last matches here on Masterman's Fields towards the end of the deacde.
He died in 1908, aged 90. I'll leave the rest to his obituaries.
Fig. 16: One of many obituaries for Charles Absolon, Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 6th January 1908
Wisden's the cricketer's bible published the following obituary
MR. Charles Absolon, the veteran cricketer, died at his residence, Hermitage Road, Finsbury Park, on Saturday, January 4th, 1908, having suffered a stroke of paralysis just a week before. Born on May 30th, 1817, Mr. Absolon was in his 91st year. He had, of course, long ago retired from the active pursuit of cricket, but he continued playing until he had reached a great age. His interest in the game remained unabated to the end, and even as recently as last June he was present at the Middlesex and Surrey match at Lord"s. In his day Mr. Absolon was the most prominent figure in local cricket in and around London. An under-hand bowler of the type of the famous William Clarke, he was in such request that he has often been known to take part in two matches in the same day, his assistance, while he was at his best, generally meaning victory for the clubs he represented. The full statistics of his career as a bowler, if they had been preserved, would form very interesting reading. At one time his doings used to be published every year in the sporting papers. He took wickets literally by the hundred, some of his records in the seventies being marvellously good. He was much more than an ordinary lob bowler, having a good variety of pace and commanding, when he needed it, a comparatively fast ball. He never aimed at a big break, being content to make the ball do just enough to beat the bat. It is impossible to say how he would have got on in first-class crickets, but the batsmen who met him in club matches had every reason to dread him, his skill in finding out their weak points being so great. A kindly and genial man, Mr. Absolon made hosts of friends in the cricket field. Probably no cricketer ever played in so many matches.
1. Excerpt taken from the Cricket journal, 26 April 1900
2. Metropolitan Archives, MBW/2537/10-11
3. Islington Gazette, 23 July 1872
4. Oxford Circus was constructed as one of several circuses in Nash's grand design. It was originally called Regent Circus North, with Piccadilly Circus as Regent Circus South. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the name of the northern circus seems to have begun changing to Oxford Circus, although both names seem to have been used alongside one another for some time. The 1893 Ordnance Survey map still showed it as Regent Circus. So it appears that this remained the offical name. However, an an advert in the Globe newspaper in the same year gave an address as 'Regent Circus, Oxford Circus'.The opening of the first Oxford Circus tube station in 1900 seemed to end the confusion and the use of Regent Circus quickly disappeared. Learn more about Regent Circus and see another early photo of the Peter Robinson store - at Regent Circus / Oxford Circus.
5. John Lewis was at Peter Robisnson's initially as a drapery assistant. He then worked his way up to being the youngest silk buyer in London. In 1864 he was offered a partnership in the business, but declined; instead, in 1864, after saving hard and being helped financially by his sisters, Lewis took the decision to go into business himself, and took the lease on a small silk mercer's shop at 132 Oxford Street, in the same block as the where the store is located today. Below is the earliest advert I can find Lewis to have placed along with a photo of the young John Lewis.
Fig. 17 - Daily Telegraph & Courier (London) - 23rd June 1869
Fig. 18 - John Lewis c1870
Fascinating tale of interwoven lives, Hugh. John Lewis and his beginning in retail is a great yarn. I suppose put simply there were fewer people in those days and thus fewer entrepreneurs so their lives were more entwined than would be the case today.
Who could imagine that a patch of grass had so much history attached to it, Hugh!
Very interesting, ta.
A Great Article. I am very surprised by the fact that all those assistants "lived in" at the Oxford Circus store in 1861
I was surprised too, Gerry. I imagine it made the jobs more appealing for those who'd just arrived in London with nowhere to live.
It was normal practice at that time for shop assistants to be accommodated on the premises of large stores, rather like live-in servants which is what of course they were.
Thanks for a very interesting article.
Regarding the Brooklyn v Atlanta match, I recall reading somewhere that cricket was popular in the USA up to the time of the civil war, at which point the manpower required for pitch preparation made it less popular compared to the much simpler requirements of baseball. It is certainly true that the first ever recorded international cricket match was between the USA and Canada. Anyway, it might mean that the teams could well have been US tourists.
When I first moved to Harringay in 1968 the cricket pitch was still in enthusiastic use, especially the nets where early evening practice seemed to take place every evening and every group of residents seemed to be using the facilities - at some late time (70's?) Haringey, the borough, seemed to take exception to organised sport and the use of the ground for cricket stopped. Subsequently it seems to be reserved for the exclusive use of Baseball and American Softball - very few people seem to use the facility at all. What is the story behind this I wonder? Does anyone know? Was it Haringey dislike of competitive activity or my faulty memory?
I know that it’s leased to the Mets. This research made me wonder if it’s been leased ever since Masterman took it on in 1889.
Great story Hugh and thank you. However I feel slightly ashamed since I never discovered any of it when Finsbury Park was on my patch as the Harringay reporter for the Hornsey Journal!
Well, Lords was owned by a Mr Lord so it was common practice.
To be fair to you, historical research is a lot easier these days.
That is true but it is such a super yarn I feel somehow sad I never found it. And there is definitely a whiff of something unsavoury in the acquisition of the right to let the ground!
I seem to remember an Arsenal v. 'Spurs cricket match was played on this ground just before the 1972-3 season (?) which I think Arsenal won.