Bizarre but true 19th century cricket match

Christ Church cricket match
J. H. Buckingham (St Albans Museums)
Victoria Playing Field, St Albans

In the charming book entitled J H Buckingham – A Window On Victorian St Albans, written by Felicity Hebditch with a biography of the rather rascally artist by the late David J Dean, there is one watercolour that is perhaps slightly more curious than all the rest.

‘The Celebrated One Arm and One Leg Cricket Match’

It is “The Celebrated One Arm and One Leg Cricket Match” on page 26. Hebditch describes the illustration as follows:

One of Buckingham’s gossipy pictures with comments like ‘Three sisters ready to make match to play a game with any young cricketer’: no doubt contemporary St Albans people would have known who they were! Likewise the man marked ‘Fine calves, little brains’!

The sketch is dated “about 1858”, just two years after the end of the Crimea War. There would have been many disabled soldiers and sailors – amputation being the popular ‘cure’ for infected limbs but would St Albans have had sufficient disabled old soldiers to make a match and would they have wanted to play?

This puzzle, which I have researched on and off over the past couple of years, has been solved by Jon Mein. He has found reports in the Luton Times and the Herts Advertiser, which indicate that Buckingham didn’t dream up this bizarre event, it actually took place, not in 1858 but in 1868 and it was a money-making enterprise staged by James Gentle, a well-known publican, caterer and popular cricketer who played for the St Albans club and other Hertfordshire sides.

Under the headline “Cricket Extraordinary, Great Sensation Match, One Arm v One Leg, Army and Navy Pensioners” it was announced that:

Mr James Gentle begs to inform the inhabitants of St Albans and neighbourhood that he has made arrangements with the above celebrated Elevens to play one of their novel matches at St Albans on Monday and Tuesday August 31st and September 1st, 1868.

The announcement published on 29 August went on to state that Mr Gentle, having been at considerable expense, earnestly requested that those intending to witness the match should purchase tickets as early as possible. A single ticket was 6d. The location was at what is now Victoria Playing Fields on Verulam Road, showing Christ Church (now offices) in the background.

Whilst the match would be a novel event in St Albans, the first one arm v one leg match dates back to 1796 and the matches were almost certainly held to raise funds for the wounded participants.

Jump forward to 1848 and we have a report of 2,400 people turning out to watch eleven one armed men v eleven with one leg at the Priory Ground in Lewisham. Again, the players were Greenwich Pensioners, navy men who had been injured in service and now lived at the Royal Hospital. This account comes from an article by the sports writer Jon Hotten. He in turn was quoting a report in an Australian paper published six months after the match took place, stating: “Novelty was the ruling passion… nine tenths went merely for the say of the thing”.

Pensioners of Greenwich vs pensioners of St Albans

The tradition of playing such matches must have continued because it was Greenwich pensioners who were enticed to come and play in St Albans by the enterprising Mr Gentle and no doubt many who crowded into the Verulam cricket ground came just for the novelty of the thing too. The one-armed were of course the general favourites,” stated the Herts Advertiser, in a post-match report.

“It was apparent from the beginning that they would not at the close be second best. And so it turned out, for on Tuesday afternoon, when the scores were balanced, the one-armed were declared to be victors by 103 runs (326 against 223).

We can see from Buckingham’s sketch that there was a good turnout and so Mr Gentle probably more than covered his costs. The Herts Advertiser complimented Mr Gentle stating: “Excellent refreshments at moderate prices were purveyed on the ground by Mr Jas. Gentle whose conduct throughout gave general satisfaction and met his best reward in a grand success. Mr Gentle begs us to thank the public for the liberal manner in which they patronised him on this occasion.”

The Luton Times reported some dissension: “It is said by some of the spectators that the game was not played, and that it was quite disgusting – they would not go half-a-dozen yards to see anything of this kind” but the paper also acknowledged that the arrangements of Mr James Gentle on this occasion were excellent. “The day being so fine the novelty of the players brought together a
large number of people, which no doubt well repaid Mr Gentle for his speculation”.

This article was first published in the Society’s Newsletter in November 2015 (pp. 20-22).

With thanks to St Albans Museums for allowing us to include the Buckingham sketch with this article. See also Jon Mein’s article about the life and times of James Gentle.

J H Buckingham – A Window On Victorian St Albans by Felicity Hebditch with a biography by David J Dean, published by St Albans Museums (1988)
Paul Collins, ‘Mismatch of the Day’, Cabinet Magazine (Spring 2003)
Luton Times: 29 August 1868 p2; 5 September 1868.
Herts Advertiser: 8 August 1868 p5; 29 August 1868 p1 and p5; 5 September 1868 p5.
John Hotten, ‘When a team of one-legged men faced a team of one-armed men at cricket’ for The Old Batsman, part of the Guardian’s Sport Network, 28 November, 2011 –