Myth-conceptions: The origins of the Ashes

A lot of what passes for cricket history is often the uncritical passing on of unverified gossip without meticulous examination of original documents and items. Only recently for example have Ivo Bligh’s personal papers and letters been examined which cast significant light on the uncritical speculations of earlier writers who sometimes passed on gossip as fact. 

1. That the famous Ashes Obituary Notice in the Sporting times was written by Shirley Brooks.

The Notice was written by his son, Reginald Shirley Brooks who was a strong advocate of cremation – a politically controversial idea at the time.

2. That Bligh first met Florence Morphy on the SS Peshawur on the trip to Australia from England.

While a romantic notion, Ms Morphy’s name does not appear on the first class- or second class passenger lists of the SS Peshawur, nor is she one of the signatories to the letter of thanks to the Captain of the Peshawur after the collision off Ceylon (signed by the first class passengers including the Clarkes and their extended family).The best evidence is that Bligh first met Ms Morphy on his first visit to Rupertswood on Wednesday 15 November 1882, the day after the English party had arrived in Melbourne.

3. That Bligh’s tour to Australia was organised to recover the Ashes.

Bligh had confirmed his tour over nine moths earlier in January 1882 in conjunction with the Melbourne Cricket Club because Bligh (the then undergraduate Cambridge Captain) and a few other Cambridge undergraduates though, in Ivo’s words “it might be fun”. Cambridge University were then one of the most powerful teams in England; they thrashed the 1878 Australian team by an innings and had twice defeated the 1882 Australians prior to the Oval Test. The tour party had been selected by July, the only minor sticking point being whether the professionals would travel first class. (They did!) The totally unexpected Australian victory at the Oval only occurred 2 weeks before Bligh’s party of eight “Young Gentlemen”, supported by four professionals, set sail from Gravesend on 14 September 1882.

4. That there was more than one urn.

Tales are repeated of several urns- in wood; in silver, in gold; in pottery etc. All that can be said is ultimately Bligh only had one urn in his home (the ”Darnley Urn”) and no other from the 1882-1883 tour has ever come to light.

5. That the Urn was first presented after the English victory in the third Test.

There is strong oral tradition and oral evidence that an urn was presented by Lady Clarke after the Christmas Eve game at Rupertswood well before the First Test and that it contained ashes of some sort. Whether this was “The Darnley Urn” presented after the conclusion of the Third Test on 30 January 1883 to which Bligh subsequently refers, is not known for certain but presumed. The verse which is pasted to the Darnley Urn must have been pasted on later; it first appeared in Melbourne Punch on 1stFebruary 1883 by which time England were in Brisbane.

6. That Ivo Bligh recovered the ashes of English cricket.

A more complicated issue. English tradition has it that Ivo Bligh recovered the ashes after the third Test but he was subsequently to lose the fourth Test leaving the series tied 2-2. These positions can only be reconciled if the ashes – (a joke at the time in any event) were only to be played for in the three games v Murdoch’s team, not the subsequent game v “Combined Australia”. This interpretation gains some support from Wisdenwhich records the first three matches as “Ivo Bligh’s XI v Murdoch’s XI” but the fourth as “Ivo Bligh’s XI v Australia”.

7. That Anne Fletcher asked Blamire Young to design the bag for the Ashes.

Incorrect. Blamire Young was to become a famous watercolourist and designer but in 1883 was still completing his studies in England and did not arrive in Australia nor meet Anne Fletcher till 1885.

8. That the velvet bag was originally intended to contain the ashes loose (absent the urn).

Possible but unlikely. Not only is the bag unsuitable for holding loose ashes but the coincidence of colour and size suggests Anne Fletcher knew the size and colour of the urn before she made the bag.

9. That the bag was presented at a dinner following the end of the third Test in Sydney.

Extremely unlikely. The result of the 3rdTest remained in doubt til the final day. The boat to Queensland sailed at 7pm on the evening of the final day of the Test on Wednesday 30 January. The earliest Bligh could have been presented with the Ashes urn is after the end of the match that afternoon.  It is much more likely that the bag was made by Anne Fletcher during the next fortnight and given to Ivo Bligh on his return from Queensland two weeks later, at some time between disembarking in Sydney at 8am on the morning of Wednesday 14 February and the morning of Friday 16 February when Ivo Bligh writes his letter of thanks to Anne Fletcher from the Australia Club for receipt of the bag to which the “ashes shall be consigned forthwith”, implying he was then already in possession of the urn.

10. That Ivo Bligh succeeded his father as Lord Darnley.

Incorrect. Bligh had an elder brother Edward, Lord Clifton who inherited the title in 1896 on the death of their father. It was on Clifton’s death in 1900 that Ivo Bligh became the 8thLord Darnley.

11. That the ashes from the Urn were spilled when the Urn dropped from Bligh’s mantelpiece at Cobham Hall.

Possibly correct. When the M.C.C. X-rayed the urn prior to recent conservation work  they found that the base of the urn had previously been fractured and rejoined to the urn with a large screw, suggesting that the urn had been seriously broken, possibly by falling off Bligh’s study mantelpiece where it was displayed. Further, whatever was in the urn would have had to be removed- if only for a short time- to insert the screw.

12. That Bligh bequeathed the Urn in his will to the Marylebone Cricket Club.

Incorrect. While this story is repeated by many writers, an examination of the will reveals no mention of the urn and the gift to the MCC in 1929 following his death in April 1927 appears to be the initiative of the Dowager Countess Darnley (nee Florence Morphy) in 1928 possibly in accordance with his wishes.

13. That all Tests post 1882-83  between Australia and England were played for The Ashes.

Only partially true and then in retrospect. Not only had some Australia –England matches been played prior to the 1882-83 series but it would appear that none of the subsequent series in the next twenty years  post 1882-83 were at the timeplayed “for The Ashes” . The term appears first to be popularised by Clarence Moody in 1894 and then taken up by Pelham Warner after the successful M.C.C. tour of 1903-04. The term first appears in Wisden in 1905.

14. That the Darnley Urn is a trophy played for in England-Australia Tests.

The “Darnley Urn” has never been played for as a trophy. It was a personal gift to Ivo Bligh. Indeed its very existence was hardly known to the general public prior to it being given to the Marylebone Cricket Club following his death in 1927.

The first Ashes Trophy Urn in Waterford crystal was commissioned by the M.C.C.  in 1998 and first presented to Mark Taylor as winner of the 1998-1999 series.

(All these assertions can be found in the books of many eminent cricket writers).