Although they didn’t know it, the Yorkshire County Cricket Club XI that won the county championship in August 1893 ended a long period of under-achievement, and set the club on the road to a period of sporting success that lasted until the late 1960s. This did not just happen, but resulted from the development of strongly competitive local cricket with roots back to the early 19th century and, crucially, resolution of disputes between representatives of different parts of Yorkshire, which had dogged the county for years.
To study these developments, we need to take a wide, three-Ridings perspective. Most considerations of Yorkshire cricket inevitably focus on the West Riding, the most populous area, where the majority of the county club’s games have been played, and the bulk of the players have been drawn. However, stepping back and considering how the game developed differently in the individual Ridings sheds light on the growth of Yorkshire cricket as a whole, and helps explain why it took until the 1890s for a more representative – and more successful – county club to take shape.
The development of Yorkshire’s cricketing power can be traced to the early 19th century and the growth of the game in Sheffield. Later, inspiration was provided by the professional touring sides that visited all parts of Yorkshire from the late 1840s. A further surge of interest in cricket in the 1860s and 1870s, generated in part by the highly publicised performances of W.G.Grace, and the gradual shift away from the domination of the game by the ball, led to significant investment in cricket clubs in Yorkshire.
Greater expectations of what was required for a high performing club – a well-tended ground, a strong fixture list and skilled paid assistance – allied to an increasingly competitive spirit in the game, expanded the opportunities to make a living from cricket. This, in turn, provided many men with the incentives to refine their skills, and the existence of a strong professional cadre helped raise standards further. In general, the cost of running a club exceeded the funds available from a club’s players and immediate supporters. Clubs sought to generate more income through galas and sports festivals, or by attracting wealthier patrons. This raised the profile of a cricket club in the community, but also increased the need to protect its reputation by eradicating the more turbulent behaviour which had characterised the game since its earliest days, often associated with disputed umpiring decisions and betting.
The need to generate more interest in the game at a time when other leisure activities were finding audiences in the 1870s encouraged more competitive forms of cricket in Yorkshire – in particular, cups and leagues. This helped kill off the ‘exhibition cricket’ – single-wicket matches or unequal games against the professional touring sides – which was increasingly found wanting by the paying public. While not necessarily welcomed by traditionalists, the leagues that emerged in the early 1890s, provided structures in which higher quality cricket was played, timekeeping improved, poor umpiring reduced and behaviour controlled.
But why did it take until the 1890s for Yorkshire cricket to shake off its problems and exploit the vast cricketing resources available? The reason has its roots in how cricket developed in the different Ridings of Yorkshire, which, in part, was influenced by the very different trajectories of social and economic development around the county.
The industrialisation of the West Riding brought thousands of people into large towns and cities where they lived, worked, and played together. These conditions provided intensely fertile ground in which much cricket could be played in increasingly competitive style. However, Sheffield’s dominance – evident from the 1820s – created tensions with other major towns, which had their own cricket traditions, and the facilities and finances to host important games successfully. The strong local pride of towns like Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield and Dewsbury, reflected in civic architecture and public parks, also showed itself in pride in hosting significant cricket matches from the 1840s onwards. Financial necessity also meant such clubs wanted to host major, profit-making county games and not be saddled with loss-making contests against lesser sides, which for a time was all the Sheffield-based Yorkshire County Cricket Club committee would offer. Thus, civic pride and financial necessity encouraged towns in the West Riding to resist efforts by Sheffield to monopolise county cricket, and to press for change.
At the same time, the economic modernisation of the West Riding, in which a strongly competitive cricketing scene developed, was almost entirely lacking in most of the North and East Ridings. Yet the north of the county also had its own strong tradition of cricket going back to the early 19th century, based around York and a small number of prosperous towns. At times, places like Thirsk, Boroughbridge, Knaresborough and Bedale (and Ripon just over the riding boundary) had some of the strongest teams in the county. Dissatisfaction here – and to a lesser extent, in the East Riding, where development was restricted by a small, dispersed rural population – at the exclusion of their cricketers from the county team and the lack of county matches, encouraged resistance to the pretensions of a county club that was always likely to downplay their interests. Backed by aristocrats, in particular, Lord Londesborough, there developed at times a loose ‘alliance’ of opposition to the county club. This was seen in a failed attempt to form an alternative county club in 1863; was revived in the form of the Yorkshire United club, which spluttered ineffectively during the mid-1870s; and found further voice in the 1880s, with the pressure for committee places and fixtures. None was effective, but all indicated dissatisfaction which worked against a united and representative county club.
Ultimately, however, the efforts of those advocating change were undermined by a lack of quality when alternative county sides took to the field, and by disagreements between representatives when they pressed for change. Intermittent on-field success of the Yorkshire XI, also meant that the county committee was never under consistent pressure to reform. The demonstrably poorer standards of grounds away from Sheffield, at least until the early 1880s in the case of Bradford, and the early 1890s, for Leeds, meant defenders of the status quo could always argue that using other venues would embarrass the county club.
In the end, though, woeful performances on the field in the early 1890s meant existing arrangements could no longer be defended as likely to lead to a successful county club any time soon. While protecting its predominance and financial position, the cricket authorities in Sheffield agreed to reforms which made the club more representative of the county as a whole. This helped channel more effectively the county’s cricketing energies and led to Yorkshire being the most powerful force in English cricket for several decades.
Article © Jeremy Lonsdale
Jeremy Lonsdale is the author of ‘A Game Taken Seriously: The Foundations of Yorkshire’s Cricketing Power’ (Association of Cricket Statisticians), 2017 pp336, 43 photographs). Photographs courtesy of Mick Pope.