Just how old is the MCC? asks Simon Pinder

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The Melbourne Cricket Club has admitted its foundation date is still a work in progress in an article in its official members magazine, The Yorker.

After Pavilion’s 2015-2016 edition highlighted research that showed the MCC foundation date is not set in stone, the venerable cricket club dug deeper into its history and has since acknowledged more evidence is needed before it can confirm when it was founded.

Last summer’s Pavilion showcased the peer review research of Gerald O’Collins and co-author, David Webb, that displayed how the MCC’s foundation date was far more likely to be 1841 and that the MCC’s case for a 1838 foundation date relied on ambiguous and post dated historical references.

O’Collins and Webb’s article first appeared in the December 2014 Victorian Historical Journal and cited contemporary newspaper reports and a diarised account of a keen cricketer to indicate that the MCC was founded in 1841.

The MCC has so far relied on documents they believe indicate a cricket club appeared, and was therefore founded, in November, 1838.

The authors of the Yorker edition number 58 article, Stephen Flemming and James Brear, conceded that a specific foundation date for the club is yet to be confirmed.

With the lack of definitive evidence that has so far failed to provide a concrete MCC foundation date O’Collins and Webb’s research may yet prove to be the most authoritative.

The following article by Gerald O’Collins, SJ, AC fully backgrounds the ongoing saga of the MCC foundation date.

‘Founding the Melbourne Cricket Club’ by Gerald O’Collins, SJ, AC

IF you head upstairs at one of the great sporting venues in the world, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, you find outside the committee room of the Melbourne Cricket Club an honour board listing Frederick Powlett as president in 1841 and his successors. The board explains that, even though the MCC was established in 1838, for the first three years there is ‘no record’ of the president(s).

But could it be that this three year absence points to the MCC not being founded before 1841?

The ‘online history’ of the MCC, based on Alfred Bachelder’s Pavilions in the Park: A History of the Melbourne Cricket Club and Its Ground claims otherwise. The claim in this publication is that a match of 17 November 1838 ‘was the first game played by the Melbourne Cricket Club’ that had been founded two days earlier .

What would constitute the foundation of a club like the MCC? At a minimum we would expect one or more meetings to approve the aims and rules of the club, elect officials, and begin the work of admitting new members and organizing activities.

Most people would agree that clubs do not drop miraculously out of the sky. They enjoy a prequel in the activities of those who eventually join together in formally organizing those clubs. Thus a widespread interest in horse racing and the prior existence of the Victoria Turf Club and the Victoria Jockey Club led to the Victorian Racing Club being established in 1864. Racing activities prior to that date prepared the way for its coming into existence but did not constitute its formal foundation. Origins need to be carefully distinguished from the formal foundation of a club.

What then is the evidence for cricket being played and the MCC being founded during the earliest years of the Port Phillip District, even before it became the State of Victoria?

Here the richest source of information is undoubtedly the personal journal kept by a visitor from London, Robert Wrede, which Peter Nicholls privately published in 2012, A Wonderful Change: The Story of Robert Wrede, Including His Journal 1837–1841. During a second visit to Melbourne (November 1838–January 1839) Wrede records joining ‘a party of Gents’ for a game of cricket on 14 November 1838. Three days later he played for ‘the Civilians’ against ‘the Military’ in the match referred to above, being the only player to record that game and his part in it. The Port Phillip Gazette also reported this game.

Neither Wrede nor the journal mention the existence of a ‘Melbourne Cricket Club,’ let alone that it had just been established and was playing it first match. Without appropriate evidence, it is simply gratuitous to claim that the match between ‘the Civilians’ and ‘the Military’ was played by members of a newly founded MCC.

If he had been playing for or against the MCC or for one group within the MCC, Wrede’s silence cannot be accounted for. He was obviously a keen cricketer, and during his stay in Melbourne recorded 10 matches, and named the various teams. But, right from his first reference to a cricket match that took place on 14 November 1838 until his departure, he never wrote anything about a ‘Melbourne Cricket Club.’

His journal for 1 December, 1838 noted playing and top scoring when ‘the country’ played and lost to ‘the towns people.’ On 22 December 1838 ‘a grand cricket match’ took place between ‘the married and the single.’ ‘All the ladies in the town attended,’ and ‘the singles were the victors.’ Before he left Melbourne, Wrede recorded on 5 January 1839 a game ‘between the Gentlemen and Shop Keepers of Melbourne,’ and a week later ‘a cricket match against the Tradesmen of Melbourne’: ‘we beat them by an innings.’ Wrede did not explain who ‘we’ were, but presumably it was the team of ‘Gentlemen’ for which he had played just a week earlier. He certainly did not report that this was a team drawn from members of a Melbourne Cricket Club.

Bachelder believes that ‘a first MCC’ was created two days prior to the match played on 17 November 1838. This proto-MCC is supposed to have gone on to compete regularly. For instance, the match in which Wrede played on 12 January 1839 becomes the MCC’s ‘second recorded match.’ Yet neither Wrede nor the local press talk of an MCC team taking the field that day against the ‘Tradesmen’ of Melbourne.

In trying to establish his case for the MCC being founded in late 1838, Bachelder cites some late sources: firstly, a 1869 copy made by Robert Russell (a government surveyor) of a receipt for cricket equipment bought on 15 November 1838 for Powlett and his associates, and secondly, a copy also made by Russell in 1869 of a prospectus for founding a cricket club in Melbourne—allegedly the MCC and with the prospectus allegedly going back to 1838.

As regards the first point the original of this receipt cannot be located. In any case, buying equipment, while certainly signalling an intention to play cricket, equally certainly does not amount to founding a new club. As regards the second point even if the prospectus were to go back to 1838, it does not establish the foundation of a club but only an interest in joining others in doing so. The copy which Russell produced in 1869 begins, ‘It is proposed to form a club,’ and lists five gentlemen who had already subscribed to the prospectus. The proposal does not record any meeting that founded the MCC.

Significantly, the only ‘evidence’ for the 1838 dating of the receipt and the prospectus comes from Russell over thirty years later. We are left with two nagging questions. First, why was it that a prospectus, which, to achieve its effect, should have been widely distributed, was not documented by anyone else than Russell? Second, could it be that in his older years Russell wanted to enhance his personal story by adjusting history? Notoriously, he did just that by suggesting that he was responsible for creating the Melbourne Grid and that Russell Street in Melbourne was named after him. In fact, the surveyor general Robert Hoddle laid out the Grid, and Russell Street was named after the Secretary of the State for the Colonies (1839–41), Lord John Russell.

Bachelder relies on a letter Robert Russell wrote home on 17 November 1838, in which he enthusiastically reported his imminent membership in the Melbourne Club (not to be confused with the MCC), the social benefits it would bring him, and how he was ‘flattered in having been requested to join.’ That same day he played in the match between ‘the Civilians’ and ‘the Military,’ and we know from The Port Phillip Gazette that he batted very successfully. But his letter says nothing about a newly founded MCC or about Russell being one of its founding members.

Clear evidence for the foundation of the MCC finally comes in September 1841. The Port Phillip Gazette published a letter signed by ‘A Batsman.’ He was probably George Cavanagh, the owner of the paper. After noting the public’s ‘considerable interest in cricket,’ he wrote: ‘I would suggest to the gentlemen of the town the propriety of forming a club, who should establish regular days for play, and who make the laws of the Mary-Le-Bone Club their guide, and adhere to them strictly at practice, as well as when playing matches.’

Notice that the letter calls for the formation of a club. It does not ask that an already existing organization with its rules and officials be revived, improved, and supported. It proposes the foundation of a new club, clearly implying that such a club was not yet in existence.

The proposal was taken up. On 2 November 1841 The Port Phillip Herald reported that ‘yesterday afternoon a meeting of gentlemen interested in this manly game was held at the Exchange Rooms, for the purpose of forming a cricket club.’ The article then gave details about the election of a president (Frederick Powlett, the first police magistrate in Melbourne and an acclaimed cricketer) and other office bearers, who ‘should draw up laws for the future government of the club’ and submit them for approval at a general meeting to be held a week later. On 16 November 1841 The Port Phillip Herald reported that ‘a meeting of the committee of management of the Melbourne Cricket Club was held at Davis’ Rooms on Saturday evening when the rules for the guidance of the club were agreed to.’

Faced with this evidence from 1841 and the prior silence, Bachelder admits that ‘no records have survived from the initial years of the MCC.’ Specifically, there is no mention of ‘office-holders or a committee.’ He explains away this silence on the grounds that, in the early years of Melbourne, cricket clubs ceased to exist during the winter months and re-formed in the summer.

Two observations should be made to this ‘explanation’. First, while much informality obviously characterized the cricket games played during Melbourne’s earliest years, nevertheless, the press supplied the names of various clubs that organized these games: for instance, the Melbourne Club, the Pickwick Cricket Club, and the Melbourne Union Cricket Club. But it did not mention the MCC, presumably because it was not yet in existence.

Second, the two reports provided by The Port Phillip Herald in late 1841 do not say or even imply that an existing club had been going into hibernation every winter but should now be organized on a permanent footing. That journal describes the formation of a new club, which had not existed before.

An article published in the summer 2015/16 issue of the MCC’s library magazine, The Yorker, recognizes the uncertain authority of the receipt and prospectus provided by Russell, and abandons the specific claim for a November 1838 foundation. Nevertheless, it doggedly insists that ‘the MCC was undoubtedly established during the summer of 1838/39.’

It bases this claim largely on a brief advertisement placed in The Port Phillip Gazette for 2 February 1839 and announcing a meeting for members of the ‘Melbourne Cricket Club’ the following Saturday at ‘the Lamb Inn.’ However, since the Lamb Inn was then the headquarters of the Melbourne Club, did this advertisement announce a meeting for those members of the Melbourne Club who played cricket and not to a meeting of a quite distinct and recently established Melbourne Cricket Club?

The notice about the meeting is cryptic and does not answer the question.

Beyond question, the MCC is one of the most truly great sporting clubs in the world. Its splendid story promises an equally splendid future.

But should the board outside its committee room be altered to indicate that it was founded in 1841 and not, as currently claimed, in 1838?