A trawl through back copies of the Leamington Courier in search of archive material relating to Leamington Cricket Club turned up an intriguing announcement by Mr W A Bezant in the editions of June 1890, – the forthcoming “Engagement, for one day only, of The Original English Lady Cricketers”, when two complete teams, Reds v. Blues would commence play at two o’clock. According to the Courier, no fewer than two thousand people paid their 1s admission “ to avail themselves of the opportunity of observing how females, trained for the purpose, could comport themselves in the cricket field and play the distinctly masculine game of cricket.” The reporter continues kindly that although the women are at a disadvantage because they are women, nonetheless, this group has “gained considerable proficiency in the game, and in their hands, it assumes a more serious aspect than has generally been associated with feminine cricket.”
A French-American, a Monsieur Michel, conceived the idea of women players as a form of entertainment rather than serious sport (n.b. He was not a cricketer). It was generally thought unlikely that young women of that time could bring to the game the intense enthusiasm and competitive spirit of their male counterparts, no matter what their level might be. The two teams on tour, backed by a small syndicate of speculators, auditioned, were chosen and then trained for several months by professionals before playing their first match for a private audience in London on Whit Monday 1890. They appeared subsequently in Cheltenham, Cambridge, Maidenhead and other venues in London. Class of course had to come into it: the Courier report highlighted the fact that two players were daughters of physicians, two were dentist’s daughters, two were daughters of an architect, – and all were from the West End. They were chaperoned by a Matron, and were to play a season of matches in the provinces, and a number of private matches for the gentry.
The match report praised one player for managing to hit a few fours and threes (she went on to score 56 before being caught), but in the opinion of the journalist, although the wicket-keeping was tolerable, play was slow, tedious even, at times. The fielding was poor, “owing to the slow locomotion of the fielders.” He found it amusing to watch the two white-mackintosh-wearing male umpires dodging the balls thrown in by the fielders, and the girls’ attempts at running. Hardly surprising that they struggled, given their kit: very full-sleeved jerseys under sailor tops, a protective steel and leather breastplate, high white cricket boots, and white flannel mid-calf length skirts which were weighted with shot to prevent them blowing indecorously in the wind.
Nonetheless, The Originals were a highly successful team until their manager ( a man!) absconded with the profits and they were forced to disband. J Lillywhite’s Cricketers’ Annual 1890 recommends ladies to try the game: “as an exercise, cricket is probably not so severe as lawn tennis and it is certainly not so dangerous as hunting or skating”.
Ladies’ cricket was not new: 22 ‘maids’ of Hambledon in Surrey were recorded playing a match in July 1745, dressed in white and wearing blue or red ribbons in their hair. According to reports, they batted, bowled, ran and took catches as well as most men could do. To bring the story up to date, Leamington has its own cricket heroine, in Janet Tedstone. A pupil of Telford School, and Leamington College for Girls, Janet played for West Midlands, Yorkshire, and England between 1979 and 1992. She played in twelve tests, and with Suzie Kitson, set a world record in 1992 for a ninth wicket partnership of 99. Janet was born at a time when women cricketers were somewhat thin on the ground and in the Midlands at least, girls’ and ladies’ teams were rare. At Junior school there was no problem.
Janet represented her school to great effect: turning up to play another junior school team, she once related the effect she had on the opposition: They could hardly believe their luck. A girl in the team! What a joke! However, Janet out-bowled and out-batted all the boys, and her team carried off the trophy. Although games were hard to come by once she was a teenager, Janet went on to represent England in 12 Tests, achieving batting and bowling averages many male players (including her two brothers!) would be proud of.
And on a personal note, girls were taught cricket at my first teaching post, Penrhos College, Colwyn Bay in the mid-1960s, and played, albeit with field placings given out on cards at the beginning of the lesson by the gym mistress, who remained stolidly at square leg throughout, occasionally calling “over” as she thought fit. I also had a Leamington colleague who was coached at a Shropshire Girls’ School by the great Percy Fender.
Margaret Rushton, 2014
For more on cricket in Leamington see –