Plaque on Betty’s Café Tea Rooms corner of Davygate and St Helen’s Square YO1 8QP
The first cricket matches were played in Yorkshire in the 1750s. A century later, the sport had developed with the establishment of a team in Sheffield which claimed to represent the county. There was confusion about the status of “amateur” – unpaid, upper-class and aristocratic – and professional players – generally working class who were paid a fee for each game. The Yorkshire Gentlemen’s Cricket Club was established in York to preserve the true essence of the traditional game which it continues to do today at its ground in Escrick.
Founded at a meeting held at Harker’s Hotel, York on 30 September 1863, the Yorkshire Gentlemen’s Cricket Club (YGCC) was set up as a rival to a club which had been established in Sheffield earlier the same year. The first reference to cricket in Yorkshire was in 1751 when local games were played in Sheffield and a match took place at Stanwick, near Richmond, in August between the Duke of Cleveland’s XI and the Earl of Northumberland’s XI. Although a club was formed in York in 1784, it was the city of Sheffield that took the lead in the development of the game in the county.
Trials of matches with the new practice of “round-arm” bowling took place in 1827 at the Darnall New Ground in Sheffield. This proved to be popular and more teams began to appear in the county. Cricket in Sheffield was well organised and, on 7 March 1861, a Match Fund Committee was set up to run Yorkshire county matches. This led to the formation of the Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC) on 8 January 1863.
There was a class divide in English cricket with a distinction between amateurs and professionals. In cricket the term “amateur” came to have a special meaning. Amateurs (“gentlemen”) belonged to the upper and middle classes; professionals (“players”) generally came from the working class. A mix of the two classes played in county teams. At some grounds, amateurs had their own dressing room and even their own entrance to the field and it became standard practice for the captain of a county team to be an amateur. The majority of Sheffield players were freelance professionals being paid a standard fee for each game and, to begin with, the Yorkshire team comprised mainly Sheffield players. Amateurs wanted their own club and the YGCC came into being. Other gentlemen’s clubs were formed throughout England.
Club established in York
The YGCC had evolved from the Langton Wold Cricket Club which became the Vale of Derwent Club whose headquarters were at Castle Howard. Earl Fitzwilliam became the first president and the Earl of Londesborough vice-president. Some 200 members were enrolled and a large field at the back of Bootham Asylum in York was rented for £50 a year and a pavilion and perimeter wall were erected. YGCC matches were played on the cricket ground until 1931 when the club moved to Escrick. York Cricket Club then used the ground until 1966 at which time the owners, York Hospital, took over the site for development.
In its first season in 1864, the YGCC played, amongst others, the Gentlemen of Nottinghamshire, the Gentlemen of Lancashire and I Zingari, a team which was founded on 4 July 1845 by three Old Harrovians to preserve amateur cricket and one of the oldest clubs still in existence. The YGCC fixture list soon developed to around 40 fixtures each season, the majority played in York with opposition being provided by clubs from the county, visiting clubs such as Free Foresters, Harrow Wanderers, Uppingham Rovers, Durham University, Military XIs and gentlemen’s clubs from neighbouring counties. Away games were also played at St Peter’s School and Ampleforth College.
One of the most interesting early fixtures took place at the York ground on 13 and 14 July, 1868 when the Yorkshire Gentlemen played the touring Aboriginal Black Australian team. Admission was 1 shilling and 5 shillings for coaches which were positioned in line with the pavilion. Unfortunately, the Australians proved to be no match for the Gentlemen; the correspondent for the Yorkshire Gazette described the visitors’ fielding and bowling as ‘mediocre’ and their batting as ‘devoid of science … the game was therefore a very hollow affair from first to last.’ However, at the close of each day’s play, the crowd was thrilled by a display of boomerang and spear throwing which was praised by the Yorkshire Gazette: ‘they hurl to a considerable distance with remarkable precision. In these exercises they are singularly expert.’
Yorkshire county cricket
There was some opposition in the rest of the county to the Sheffield-based YCCC and, in addition to the Gentlemen’s Club, there were various other attempts to establish an alternative Yorkshire team. However, by 1873 the status of the Sheffield team had become widely accepted. During the 1860s and 1870s, the fortunes of the county side fluctuated; there were internal disputes and the Yorkshire players were said to spend too much time in the ale house. After yet another disappointing season in 1882, Martin Hawke, 7th Baron Hawke (1860-1938), a YGCC member, became the first amateur player to be captain. It would take him a decade to bring order to the undisciplined side and, in 1893, Yorkshire won their first official County Championship. Hawke remained captain for 28 seasons until 1910 during which time Yorkshire won the County Championship eight times. He had established Yorkshire as one of the best teams in county cricket. During Hawke’s captaincy, the club had also widened its base in Sheffield to become more representative of the county as a whole and had moved to its current location of Headingley Cricket Ground in Leeds.
From 1883 to 1959, Yorkshire always had an amateur captain. At the YCCC AGM in 1925, Lord Hawke caused controversy by saying: ‘Pray God no professional shall ever captain England. I love and admire them all, but we have always had an amateur skipper and when the day comes when we shall have no more amateurs captaining England it will be a thousand pities.’ There continued to be close ties between the Yorkshire Gentlemen and the County Club for many years. A number of YGCC members played for Yorkshire and also captained the county, namely Sir Archibald White (captain 1911-4), Major Arthur Lupton (1925-7) and Sir William Worsley (1928-9). This tradition extended beyond the Second World War with Norman Yardley (1948-55) and W.H.H. “Billy” Sutcliffe (1956-7).
Move to Escrick
In 1932 Lord Wenlock, himself a member of the committee, invited the club to move to his estate in Escrick, six miles south of York, which has remained the home of the club ever since. Here cricket is played in an idyllic setting on lawns overlooked by the splendid main house which today is the centrepiece of Queen Margaret’s School, a boarding school for girls. Matches are still played here today although, sadly, the original 1930s’ thatched pavilion has been lost to fire and was replaced with a more modern structure in 1968.
The club has also played further afield. In the early 1900s, tours to southern England were a regular feature of the fixture list and, in the 1930s, the club visited Gibraltar – a member of the club was the governor at the time. Tours to Holland followed in the post-war period and, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the club visited Berlin to play against the Berlin Military Garrison prior to and following the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
In 2013 the club celebrated 150 years since its foundation. Tragically some of the club’s archives were lost in the pavilion fire but there were sufficient records for the production of a commemorative history of the club. Now the key documents have been digitised and members can access these on the YGCC website. Today, the club continues to support a healthy fixture card containing approximately 35 all-day matches, with two-day games against Free Foresters and Radley Rangers. The continuation of the traditional game of cricket remains at the core of the club’s values; the timing of the declaration is all important and limited-overs games are forbidden. Sportsmanship amongst the players and the enjoyment of the spectators are key to the experience of watching the game of cricket in an unrivalled setting. In addition to matches played at the beautiful ground at Escrick, the 2018 season includes away fixtures at Windsor Castle where the YGCC played the Royal Household on 12 May and, on 4 July, the club will be facing Langdale’s Lovelies at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire.
J.M. Kilburn, A History of Yorkshire Cricket (London, 1970)
Dick Brewster, Richard Head, Roger Hinchcliffe, David O’Kelly, Malcolm Watson, White Rose Gentlemen, The History of The Yorkshire Gentlemen’s Cricket Club 1863-2013 (Escrick, 2013)
For further information on the Yorkshire Gentlemen’s Cricket Club including a schedule of current fixtures, visit www.yorkshiregentlemenscricketclub.co.uk. Experienced cricketers wishing to join the players will be invited to play for one or more matches to assess their performance. There is also a “social” category of membership. Women as well as men are eligible for membership.
Thank you to Roger Hinchcliffe and Jeremy Phillips for their help in researching this article.
© Richard Wilcock