Cricket at Lord’s during Benjamin Aislabie’s tenure @Getty Images
Cricket at Lord’s during Benjamin Aislabie’s tenure @ Getty Images

Benjamin Aislabie, born January 14, 1774, was a serious contender for the title of the worst First-Class cricketer in history. Outside cricket, however, he had an interesting life. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a man whose cricket career was curiously undeserving in length.

Who is the worst batsman you know? Chris Martin averaged 2.36 in Test cricket and 3.71 at First-Class level, but he was a bowler, a spearhead at Test level and did a decent job of it. No, he can be forgiven. For the same reason one may forgive Mpumelelo Mbangwa for a Test average of 2.

By the same logic, a batting average of 3.15 should be forgiven as well, especially if the person in question had played his cricket two centuries before Martin. It is difficult to compare the two eras so wide apart, but we can do some simple arithmetic: multiply 3.15 by 1.5 and you get 4.73; double it and you get 6.30; and so on. It sounds hopeless, though, but as we have seen, even Test cricket has seen worse batting averages.

However, there is a catch: 224 runs at 3.15 were all Benjamin Aislabie did in his First-Class career. To make it clearer, he neither bowled nor kept wickets, which made him pretty much the most useless First-Class cricketer in history (or, if we are polite, a serious contender for the honour).

And yet, Benjamin Aislabie played 56 First-Class matches. Twenty of these matches were for MCC and a further 14 for ‘England’, Kent, Hampshire, Surrey, and Sussex put together.

How did he earn a career this long? Was he an excellent fielder like that unlikely cult hero, Jim Foat of Gloucestershire? Foat, a specialist batsman, played a surprising 91 First-Class matches despite averaging under 19.

No. Aislabie was a bogus cricketer in every sense of the word. Martin Williamson described him in ESPNCricinfo: “His lack of skill was further hampered by his girth, and towards the end of his career he was so fat that he had a permanent runner who also used to field for him.”

In A Social History of English Cricket, Derek Birley wrote in the same lines when he described newly acquired MCC members of the early 19th century: “Some lacked both lineage and athleticism, mostly Benjamin Aislabie, a rich wine merchant, who was so fat he could hardly walk.”

EW Swanton did the same in Wisden when he described Aislabie as a man “who doted on the game though much too fat to be any good at it.”

FW Hart, a 19th-century historian, noted in History of Lee and its neighbourhood that “although a very corpulent man, being upwards of twenty stone weight, he [Aislabie] was a famous fox-hunter and cricket player.” Hart surely described him as a cricketer and a famous fox-hunter, and not a famous cricketer.

To provide perspective, twenty stones amount to 127 kg, the same as Dwayne Leverock’s mass. Of course, the measurement is vague, since there is no mention of his height, but it probably gives an idea.

How bad was Aislabie? India had Vizzy, who used Machiavellian schemes to get himself appointed captain of India on the 1936 tour of England. Vizzy was a pathetic cricketer: he neither bowled nor kept wickets, and had a Test average of 8.25.

Compared to Aislabie, however, Vizzy’s First-Class average of 18.60 seems almost Bradmanesque, even if one takes away some of Vizzy’s average (he often bribed opposition bowlers).

Aislabie never crossed 15 in First-Class cricket. Even if we include all recorded matches, his average rises to 3.90. There are 9 wickets too, one-third of which came in a single innings for MCC against Sussex in 1817.

Amidst all this, he holds one world record, that of being the third-oldest to play First-Class cricket. He was 67 years 169 days old when he took field at Lord’s for MCC against Cambridge, in 1841. Only Raja Maharaj Singh and CK Nayudu have played First-Class cricket at older ages, which meant that Aislabie was also the oldest to play First-Class cricket outside India.

And yet, his ridiculous cricket career was only one of the singular aspects of Aislabie’s life. Let us look back.

Note: This would ideally have been an arduous task, but for some excellent research by the blog Running Past.

The life

Benjamin Aislabie was born in Newington Green, London. He was the youngest of six children (and three sons) of Rawson, a soap and wine merchant, and Frances Reason Aislabie. In his later years Rawson got married again, to Hannah Lilly.

Benjamin was baptised at St Botolph in February 1774. For over a century it was believed that he went to Eton. However, one RA Austen-Leigh wrote the following letter to the Editor of The Times on June 27, 1841: “Eton has usually been given the credit, in view perhaps of the facts that (1) he gave a handsome Indian tent to Upper Club, and (2) that it is recorded that he played at Lord’s for the Old Etonians in August, 1819. But against that evidence must be the facts that (1) his name has so far been discovered in no Eton school list, and (2) that he played at Lord’s for the Old Wykehamists against the Old Etonians in July, 1817.”

Austen-Leigh had done his research. Indeed, Aislabie played for against the Old Etonians in the two matches in the months mentioned. Both matches hold special places in his career. In the first, not a First-Class match, Aislabie scored 25 out of 85 in the second innings. In the second he got 10 and a career-best 15*, two of his five double-digit First-Class scores.

A response from Philip Aislabie Landon, a descendant, came on July 2. He quoted Philip Norman from Annals of the West Kent Cricket Club: “He was a loyal old Etonian, fond of taking down elevens to play the boys. On his account, no doubt, a print from his portrait (now at Lord’s) was for years handed down to each captain of the Eton XI, the names of successive elevens being written on the back.”

But enough of letters to newspapers: let us get back to Aislabie, who leased the iconic Lee Place in 1809 and lived there till 1823. In fact, he was the last resident of the place, which was sold and split soon after his lease expired.

Note: For the uninitiated, Lee (or Lee Green) is a south-east London district. Lee holds a significant place in cricket history: it was the birthplace of Reggie Schwarz, the man who learned the googly from Bernard Bosanquet and ‘exported’ it to South Africa.

Aislabie married Anne Hodgson, and the couple had five daughters (four of whom were named Frances, Louisa, Harriet, and Caroline) and a son, William John.

Of the family, Hart wrote: “Mrs Aislabie was a charming and most accomplished lady, who, in this rural home trained up a nice family of one son and five daughters, in the virtues of a well-bred country family, with domestic affection and Christian humility. The young ladies were educated by an accomplished governess, and were intelligent, pleasant, and agreeable; indeed, the family were the admiration of the neighbourhood. They also kept a well ordered establishment of servants.”

Hart mentions that the family shifted to Sevenoaks after 1823. He later moved near Regent Place (an 1839 hearing in the Central Criminal Court lists a testimony, where Aislabie mentions “I reside near the Regent’s-park”). His obituary in The Sporting Magazine also mentioned that he died at Park Place, Regent’s Park.

Professions

Aislabie became a wine merchant of some repute. The Minories in London, where he was a partner, were supplier for Horatio Nelson, no less. Hart mentions that Minories had “a letter of Lord Nelson’s own handwriting, thanking them for their attention to his requirements.” Hart’s book came out in 1882, 77 years after Nelson’s death.

Aislabie also finds a mention in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Eric Midwinter describes him as a “wine merchant and cricket administrator” and “a wealthy West India merchant with a well established wine business in the Minories in London.”

He was evidently a significant name in the wine fraternity of the era. Unfortunately, his interests spread beyond cricket and wine.

There is a profile of Benjamin Aislabie in Legacies of British Slave-ownership. The source notes a claim note (Dominica 243, Cane Field) with a demand from Sir George Henry Rose and Benjamin Aislabie, owners of Cane Field, for 111 slaves.

The net claim was for £2,342 14s, in other words, £21 per person.

Yes, Aislabie was a slaver. Cane Field was one of his two estates, the other being Morne Daniel. We do not know whether Morne Daniel had slaves as well, though we can make a fair guess.

Obviously, Benjamin Aislabie was not a signatory when forty residents signed the anti-slavery Lee Petition of 1814.

Some redemption

But then, there was another side of Aislabie as well. Hart wrote that Aislabie “took a lively interest in distributing the charities that severe winter to the poor; he also placed to the use of the parish the buildings in the front yard of his mansion, for the storage of coals and potatoes, which were given to the poor during the thirteen weeks’ frost; bread was very dear at this time, and Lee had no poor-house. Mr Aislabie also much improved the mansion and grounds, and employed many labourers during the severe weather.”

Aislabie was also overseer “with the elder Mr Sidery” at the opening of the second St Margaret’s Church in 1814. Later, in 1822 (a year before his lease at Lee Place expired), the churchwardens and overseers decided to walk the parish grounds. Aislabie walked and rode the fourteen miles “with ease”. While this was unremarkable for most, remember that we are discussing a man who always needed a runner to bat and a substitute fielder.

Administrator

Despite being a serious contender for the worst First-Class cricketer in history, Aislabie had a career as a cricket administrator.

As mentioned before, Aislabie was as good (or bad) as a non-cricketer. However, few have loved the sport as much. There are multiple mentions of this. The Sporting Magazine wrote: “His whole soul seemed part and parcel of the noble game in which he delighted, and he was ever ready to promote his interest, not only on behalf of the Club to which he was attached, but throughout the kingdom, by encouraging the tyros and freely opening his purse to those who had distinguished themselves in days gone by, but had fallen into the ‘sere and yellow leaf’.”

Aislabie was the first Secretary of MCC. He served as MCC Secretary from 1822 to 1842, and was President in 1823. This also explains why 35 of his 56 matches were at three Lord’s grounds.

One must remember that he had to coexist with Lord Frederick Beauclerk (MCC President in 1826) in MCC. Beauclerk was one of the greatest cricketers of the era, but was an autocratic administrator, an unabashed match-fixer, and a cheat. Even The Times did not run his obituary when he died, and a convict apparently refused to share a train compartment with him.

Thus, though Williamson’s words “under his [Aislabie’s] tenure the club lurched from crisis to crisis, and while not dishonest, he was certainly a dreadful financial controller” probably hold true, it must also be admitted that financial control was not easy with Beauclerk around.

Perhaps Aislabie could have done a better job with someone else around (or perhaps not). But the fact remains that he left MCC £141 in debt.

It was certainly not for lack of trying. Richard Tomlinson wrote in Amazing Grace: The Man Who was W.G.: “In the 1820s and 1830s MCC’s honorary secretary Benjamin Aislabie — an enormously obese wine merchant — toddled around the ground on match days, troubling members for their subscriptions.”

There is, however, no doubt regarding his fondness and loyalty towards MCC and Lord’s, and cricket in general. Swanton wrote that “Aislabie cast on the scene a benevolence which held the club together, a necessary antidote no doubt to Beauclerk.”

Aislabie had another curious entry on his curriculum vitae. In the days when snuff used to be in vogue, Lord’s boasted of a snuffbox (mother-of-pearl and silver-guilt) for MCC members: Aislabie was appointed Custodian of the Snuffbox.

No, he did not take control of proceedings with an iron fist. However, his jovial nature often lit up proceedings when things looked gloomy. He also wrote poems, mostly obnoxious ones, about his colleagues. Here is one on Roger Kynaston, his successor as MCC Secretary:

Molly Brown & Kitty Green Jane & Kitty Norton
Cannot get a wink of sleep for thinking of Kynaston
They won’t have Lloyd, they won’t have Ward nor any such Codgers
Not one of them is satisfied unless she has her Roger.

Two slices of history

In between all this he became a part of history in 1811, when he organised one of the sides that participated in the first cricket match at Lord’s Middle Ground (the other side was put together by Squire Osbaldeston). It was undoubtedly the highest point of Aislabie’s unremarkable cricket career.

Note: This is the oldest match at the ground for which records exist (not necessarily the oldest match at the ground). The pavilion of Lord’s was destroyed by fire in 1825, taking invaluable documents with it.

Aislabie was also a patron of Epsom Club, Surrey (but then, so was Beauclerk). In 1815 Frederick Woodbridge scored the first hundred on records at Lord’s, for Epsom against Middlesex (Felix Ladbroke scored another later in the innings). Batting at No. 11 was our hero, Aislabie.

Final days

Benjamin Aislabie passed away on June 2, 1842 due to an abscess of the throat. He was buried in Marylebone Church.

The Sporting Magazine eulogised: “His death is a calamity to the Club, and the Cricketers at large will feel a deprivation of one of their most valuable Patrons and associates. He had a numerous list of friends, who will ever cherish the recollection of many joyous hours in his society.”

He left behind an annuity of £100 per annum for Anne “on his one quarter share of the Cane Field and Morne Daniel estates in Dominica”. As for the estates, they went to William.

Legacy

In Lee, they have a road after Benjamin Aislabie. Unfortunately, they have spelled it wrong (Aislibie) — but having a misspelled road named after you is probably better than not having one.

There used to be also a bust of Aislabie at Lord’s (there is a portrait as well). The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser described it thus: “His bust, of which Mr. Ward said that ‘it had better be taken at once, or the old ’un would bust first,’ is still to be seen in the pavilion at Lord’s.”

However, he would have been prouder of his other legacy. Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days, set in 1830s, features “Mr. Aiselbie” among “several of the Lord’s men”. As is evident, the spelling is, yet again, wrong.

Old Mr Aiselbie batted watched cricket “in benevolent enjoyment”; he came to bat “for the last wicket”; and he “made one of the best speeches that were ever heard”.