Cricket: A very Flemish game

If you are a cricket fan you will know that the ICC Champions Trophy started yesterday. This guest post by Dr Jaap Harskamp (formerly Curator of Dutch & Flemish collections at the British Library) gives some interesting background to the history of the game and connections with Flanders and the Flemish.

During the medieval period Flanders dominated the European textile industry, but had to import wool from England since its own production was insufficient in quantity. In return, England imported Flemish cloth. To remind the nation of the importance of the trade, Edward III ordered that the Speaker of the House of Lords should sit on a woolsack. Large numbers of Flemish immigrants crossed the Channel and settled in England. Weavers Lane in Southwark, is a reminder that Flemish craftsmen once occupied the area. Immigrants also established the so-called New Draperies, first into Norwich and then to villages in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex during the 1570s, producing fabrics that were lighter and cheaper than the traditional woollens.

Cricket originated in the sheep-rearing country of the South East, where the short grass of its fields made it possible to bowl a ball of wool at a target. That target was usually the wicket-gate of the sheep pasture, which was defended with a bat in the form of a shepherd’s crooked staff. The word wicket – in the original sense of a small door or grille – was derived from Anglo-Norman French and Old Northern French ‘wiket’. The word was also in use in Middle Dutch.

In 1533, an anonymous poem was published entitled ‘The Image of Ipocrasye’. Erroneously attributed to John Skelton, it was a diatribe against parts of the Church and a condemnation of the large number of Flemish weavers that had entered the country. In what appears to be a call for immigrants to be driven out of the south and east England, the poet wrote: ‘O lorde of Ipocrites / Nowe shut vpp your wickettes / And clape to your clickettes! /A! Farewell, kings of crekettes!’ Immigration and xenophobia, then and now, seem to be inseparable. In a 1597 court proceeding over a school’s ownership of a plot of land in Guildford, 59-year-old John Denwick – most likely of Flemish descent – stated that when young at ‘the Free schoole of Guldeford … hee and several of his fellows did runne and play there at Creckett and other plaies’. These early references to cricket add weight to claims that Flemish newcomers introduced the game. The phrase met de krik ketsen literally meant ‘to chase with a curved stick’. This was shortened to ‘krikets’, which finally became the ‘un-English’ word cricket.

The Young Cricketer by Francis Cotes via Wikimedia Commons

Until the 17th century cricket developed primarily as a boys’ game. A first known reference to the game being played as an adult sport dates from 1611, when two men in Sussex were prosecuted for playing cricket on Sunday instead of going to church. After the English Civil War the new Puritan government clamped down on unlawful assemblies and sports and passed laws demanding a strict observance of the Sabbath. The popularity of cricket waned during the Commonwealth but certainly thrived again after the Restoration. By the end of the 17th century it had become a significant betting sport (the 1664 Gaming Act proved futile to keep gambling in check) and in the 18th century the game continued to develop: score cards began to be kept from 1772 onwards, the Laws of Cricket were updated in 1774 to include current features such as the third stump and the LBW rule, and the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), the governing body of the game, was founded in 1787.

In 1795, Flemish-born immigrant Nicolas Wanostrocht established the Alfred House Academy, a boarding school, at no. 30/32 Peckham Road, Camberwell. The school encouraged the teaching of French rather than the Classics. Discipline was more relaxed than in other schools, and participation in sport and leisure encouraged. A noted pupil of the school was the poet Thomas Hood. Wanostrocht wrote a number of textbooks on French language and grammar, mostly for the use of youngsters. His most successful book (it went through several editions) Recueil choisi de traits historiques et de contes moraux: avec la signification des mots en anglois au bas de chaque page was published in 1786 by John Boosey (the Boosey family of publishers was of Franco-Flemish origin).

Title page and facing page of library copy of Wanostrocht’s Recueil choisi (7240.d.77)

After Nicolas’s death the school was continued by his nephew Vincent Wanostrocht and later by Vincent’s young son Nicholas, who was a talented cricketer using the name Nicholas Felix to conceal his sporting activities from the parents of his pupils. Felix became one of Kent’s legendary cricket players, known as a first class left-handed batsman and a bowler of slow ‘lobs’. Between 1831 and 1852 he made 55 appearances for his county. In June 1846 a testimonial match was played at Lord’s in his honour. The large crowd included the Prince-Consort.

The skill of Felix’s batting was matched by his ability as an artist. In more than 200 works in pencil, pastel or watercolour he depicted fellow players. These are fine examples of cricketing art in the age preceding photography. In 1845 he published his manual Felix on the Bat: being a Scientific Inquiry into the Use of the Cricket Bat; Together with the History and Use of the Catapulta, illustrated by his friend George Frederic Watts, the great Victorian historical and portrait painter. This is the only colour plate book prior to 1850 devoted to cricket. Of note is the frontispiece, a visual pun on the title featuring the author flying over a landscape on the back of a bat with its wings spread. Felix’s ‘Catapulta’ was the first ever bowling machine used in the game and he was responsible for a number of other cricketing innovations: to protect batsmen against the dangers of ‘unregulated’ bowling actions and uneven pitches, he designed gloves and leg-guards; he also produced a cap that was more convenient than the conventional top hat. The cricketing world owes a debt of gratitude to the Flemish.

For many years of my working life I lived in the borough of Newham, East London. The local Newham Cricket Club played their competitive games at Flanders Field, Napier Road, in East Ham. The area was once home to Graham Gooch, arguably the most productive English batsman of his generation. If the name of the location is a tribute to the Flemish, it would be a fitting one.

Guest author: Dr Jaap Harskamp

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