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Ivo Bligh: the hero of cricket’s immortal love story

Ivo Bligh © Getty Images
Ivo Bligh © Getty Images

Ivo Bligh, born March 13, 1859, was the captain of England who travelled to Australia in 1882-83, in the first quest for the Ashes, and returned with success on many fronts. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the eighth Earl of Darnley whose tale is one of adventure, passion and romance the greatest love story in the history of the game.

 

A tale of passion

 

Ivo Bligh. The Honourable Ivo Bligh. The eight Earl of Darnley. The protagonist of cricket’s most celebrated love story.

His deeds with the willow remained rather limited, with the leather non-existent. His days in the cricket field ended when he was just 24. His 84 First-Class matches brought him just two centuries, and his highest score in the four Test matches he played was 19. He never bowled.

Soon, even though he remained young by chronological calculations, his constitution could no longer withstand the exertions required by the friendliest format of the game.

But, it was he who undertook cricket’s most celebrated quest. It was he who brought back cricket’s most cherished trophy. It was he whose name is bound to the oldest cricketing rivalry, through strings of cricket and passion.

Because, as in so many tales of adventure across high seas, Bligh’s journey ventured into the domains of the heart. He led his men to triumph, but he himself succumbed, helplessly pierced by the arrows of Cupid.

The history of the Ashes started as a concept in a comic obituary, written by Reginald Brooks in Sporting Times after Fred Spofforth had spit venom with his deliveries and bundled England out to win the 1882 Oval Test match by seven runs. However, it became a tangible memento, the holy grail of cricketing contests, in the luxurious rooms of a Rupertswood mansion, where Bligh courted Florence Rose Morphy, the future Countess of Darnley.

And even when the quest for Ashes ended, his own mission continued, for the fair hand of his lady love, ending in a tale of epic romance.

The Darnley estate

 

Born in Bruton Street, London, in March 1859, Ivo was the second son of John Bligh, the 6th Earl of Darnley. His ancestral home was the Cobham Hall in Kent, the classy but reticent mansion, with a line of trees running a thousand yards up to the Hall. The park was private, and John Blight had given the keys to Charles Dickens. The legendary author liked to walk about in the premises during his last few days. It was here that Dickens took his final stroll before he passed away. On the death of the novelist, a Swiss Chalet presented to him was passed on to John Bligh. When Bligh led his side to Australia in 1882-83, one of the first things he did was to meet the two sons of Dickens.

The Hall contained some rare treasures, a red granite sarcophagus in the shape of a bath — brought back from Italy in spite of its massive weight. There were several paintings by Rubens and Titian. And one enormous Van Dyke in the Gilt Hall, which later ended up in Lord Mountbatten’s dining room at Boradlands. On the walls there were Gainsboroughs and Reynolds, and the furniture was partly Chippendale and partly from the Dresden collections.

The Fourth Earl of Darnley was the first in the family to indulge in cricket. One of the pioneers of yacht racing, he took his own cutter to Cowes and other regattas. And he led Kent against Earl of Winchilsea’s Hampshire side in one of the earliest recorded matches at Lord’s. His brother, the Honourable Edward Blight, used to display his hands with pride, claiming that every finger had not been broken at cricket.

Ivo’s father John Bligh, the sixth Earl of Darnley, was brought up in strict discipline and was a devoted reader of the Bible. He was also the President of the Kent County Cricket Club, and sometimes held the post for Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) as well.

Cricket was a refuge

 

Bligh spent his boyhood days as a shy, quiet boy at Cheam, an elite preparatory school supposed to be a platform for progressing to Eton. He was unusually tall for his age, and not very happy at school. He found it difficult to be accepted by his mates, and was seldom allowed to take part in cricket matches. However, when the school trials took place, the lad did make an impression.

In this welcome success, he was indebted largely to George ‘Farmer’ Bennett. This professional cricketer had gone on the first cricket tour ever made to Australia, under captain Heathfield Stephenson, and was an excellent round-arm bowler. At Cobham Hall, he worked as a bricklayer, and provided young Bligh with plenty of practice with tossed up deliveries.

This bore fruit, and Bligh found respite from the bullying and teasing through the companionship and thrills offered by cricket. At Cheam, on the cricket fields, he met and befriended several of the famous Studd brothers. Curiously, for someone who did not deliver one ball in First-Class cricket, he made his way to the school team as a bowler.

Eton and Cambridge

 

Bligh moved on to Eton according to his father’s wishes, although he himself wished to be privately educated at home. His tutor at Eton was Mr Joynes, whose eyes were always closely on young Bligh, the focus maintained by regular gifts of venison from the Darnley estate.

His cricket underwent significant development at Eton, the highpoint being an innings of 73 against Winchester in 1876. With his full height of 6 feet 3 inches, he used his reach to good effect. Bligh was already making a reputation as a fluent driver of the ball.

Moving to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1877, Bligh was awarded his Blue for racquets, tennis and cricket. In 1878, he was a middle-order batsman for the Cambridge side that was one of their strongest in history. With the Lyttletons and AG Steel, the side took on the visiting Australians and defeated them by an innings and 72 runs. Bligh did not really score much in the season’s matches for Cambridge, but was considered good enough to play for Kent.

In 1879, he went in first for his University and carried his bat to score 113 against Surrey at The Oval. And a year later, he hit 105 against the same opponents for Kent. This brought him in contention for the Oval Test of 1880, but he lost out to Fred Grace. This brother of WG Grace bagged a pair, caught a steepling hit from George Bonnor, and unfortunately passed away a mere fortnight later.

The Kent side was led by Lord Harris, and in the absence of His Lordship, Bligh often took over the mantle of leadership.

The goals of the quest

 

A fortnight after the England side had been defeated at The Oval in 1882, and the mock obituary had given birth to the yarn of the Ashes, Ivo Bligh took a team of Englishmen to Australia. It was touted as St Ivo’s quest to bring back the Ashes.

The captain himself was looking forward to the venture. “Several of the Cambridge team were leaving the University, (Allan) Steel, the Studds (Charles and George) and Alfred Lyttleton among them,” he observed later. “As we knew that Lord Harris enjoyed his visit to Australia two years before, we thought it would be very good fun.” At the same time, the idea of a quest for Ashes was rapidly catching on.

As Murdoch’s men also sailed back to take on the Englishmen, another important figure of the tale waited in the Antipodean land.

She had reddish-auburn hair and thin lips, both inherited from her Irish father. She was blessed with social graces bequeathed by her Kentish mother. She had peach like skin, her eyes were said to be like a tiger’s — so golden-brown were they, and supposedly turned black when she was annoyed. Her arched eyebrows projected her as steadfast rather than demure. Her face was classical, perfect in its beauty, almost like that of a Greek goddess.

Florence Rose Bligh. Photo Courtesy - Wikipedia
Florence Rose Bligh. Photo Courtesy – Wikipedia

Florence Morphy was the seventh and youngest child of a gold commissioner and police magistrate in Beechworth. The father died in 1961, and mother Morphy, living on government pension, moved her family to the Hawthorne suburb of Melbourne.

The leading family in the colony of Victoria at that time were the Clarkes. William Clarke was the president of the Melbourne Cricket Club, the Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge in Victoria, the most successful man in Australia, and was soon to be knighted. In 1881, the Clarkes engaged Florence Morphy as governess and piano teacher for their daughters. She moved in to live with the family in their Rupertswood mansion at Sunbury.

It is often stated that it was on the Peshawar that Bligh came across Morphy for the first time. However, when we look at the list of 90 first-class passengers — as quoted by Ronald Willis in Cricket’s Biggest Mystery — we don’t find the name of Florence Rose Morphy. It does however mention William Clarke and his wife Janet, along with two other Clarkes. Hence, it seems that as the England team sailed for Australia, it was the Clarkes that Ivo Bligh met and befriended. It seems that actually Miss Morphy was back in Rupertswood, and the young captain would have to wait for a few days before meeting her.

The perils of the long voyage

 

While the companionship of the Clarkes was indeed to prove auspicious for Bligh, there were some events during the trip that were quite the opposite. Bligh was not well and could not field in the traditional match at Ceylon. A passenger from Peshawar named Charles James substituted for him.

Besides, the entire team almost drowned in the Indian Ocean. The Peshawar, steaming at 12 knots, collided with the Glenroy. Two men of the ship carrying the England players were seriously injured. From the touring side, the left-arm bowler Fred Morley was in pain, and it was discovered much later that he had broken a rib. He died in 1884 from what is supposed to be the resulting injuries.

Bligh’s diary, scrupulously maintained through the tour, contains a three-page, 19-stanza poem on the accident. It was quite a decent effort and the last two stanzas show him as a wordsmith, if not of talent, at least of industry and sincerity.

“So we retire a sobered throng

And thankful lips that night

Poured forth to our Creator great

Their prayer for that great might

 

 

That saved us and our dear ones

From the cold ocean wave

Which but for this almighty power

To us had proved a grave.”

Bligh also had another stroke of misfortune when he hurt his hand during a tug of war match carried out on board. This led him to miss the first few matches on the tour, and weakened his batting in the subsequent games.

The other insight we get about Bligh from the voyage is his ability to unify the side. Professionals and amateurs had their meals together and were generally seen together and happy. It has been argued that had Bligh not given up cricket after the tour and had remained the captain of England, the amateur-professional divide could have broken down way before than it eventually did.

The meeting of the hearts

Bligh proved a perfect ambassador for England. His self-confidence, bred in Eton and Cambridge, struggled against his natural diffidence but won through in the end. He was also helped to some extent by the fact that neither James Lilywhite nor WG Grace, the England captains before him, had been great speakers. The young leader made an excellent impression when he said on arrival that they had come to beard the lion in his den. This won him many a laugh, and shouts of ‘Kangaroo’.

It was on the second evening in Melbourne, on November 15, 1882, that Ivo Bligh went to Sunbury for the first time and came across Florence Morphy.

Perhaps they were introduced by Janet Clarke, perhaps there is some substance in the romantic whispers that Florence had bound up the wound that Bligh had picked up while fielding the ball in one of the matches. The undoubted truth is that Bligh made it a point to travel to Rupertswood after every match day and stayed there during the weekends. He also sought out the company of Florence as much as it was possible without stepping on the Victorian sensibilities.

Bligh attended the balls arranged in Rupertswood, stayed there along with the amateurs of his team during the matches in Melbourne, and perhaps, after the defeat in the first Test, sought solace in her companionship. As Scyld Berry later wrote, “Wally Hammond, after losing the first Test at Brisbane in 1946-47, climbed into a car and drove to Sydney without a word to his passengers, who included Len Hutton. When Hutton lost the first Test of 1954-55 in Brisbane, he climbed into a car and drove to Sydney without a word to his passengers. Some captains like MJK Smith in 1964-65 or Nasser Hussain in 2002-03, have had their families with them to help them find solace. Bachelors have often grinned, and drunk, then drunk some more, and thereby borne the stress.”

In contrast, Bligh found balm for his hurt sporting pride in Rupertswood, among the Clarkes, and alongside Florence. His injuries, which prevented him from batting in tour matches, did not really hold him back from dancing. And yet, according to Berry, “Plenty of England captains have fallen for Australian women. He was probably the only one who did the honourable thing and married one of the many ‘charmers bright and fair’ with whom he ‘danced the whole night through’. No wonder Bligh did not score many runs in Australia. His eye was not on the right kind of ball.”

A caricature of Ivo Bligh by Leslie Ward in Vanity Fair, 1904. Photo Courtesy - Wikipedia
A caricature of Ivo Bligh by Leslie Ward in Vanity Fair, 1904. Photo Courtesy – Wikipedia

The Ashes regained

 

Yes, he did not score too many.

England lost the first Test, coming up against the might of big hitting George Bonnor with the bat and the guile of Joey Palmer with the ball. The skipper could manage only a duck and three.

 

But, they came back to win the next two Tests. In the second Bligh got yet another blob, but Billy Bates picked up 14 wickets to ensure that the series was squared.

The final game was marred by some controversy with the bowlers being accused of roughing up the wicket in their follow through. But, in the close thriller, Dick Barlow bowled Australia out for 83 in the final innings, ensuring a 69-run win. Admirably, the England captain broke into the double figures in both innings, with scores of 13 and 17 not out.

 

There was an additional fourth Test played in the series, at Sydney, and Australia won this match by four wickets. After the controversies of the third Test, this match was subjected to an experimental rule of each innings played on a fresh wicket. This game has strangely gone down as an official Test but counts neither as a part of the series nor the Ashes. This gives rise to some controversy regarding whether or not Ivo Bligh did indeed win back the Ashes.

According to English historians, they did.

 

In spite of his rather ordinary batting performances, Bligh did many things right in the matches. In particular, his introduction of Charles Leslie into the attack at Melbourne was an inspired decision. A top order batsman, Leslie hardly ever bowled even at Oxford, but here he very nearly responded with a hat-trick. A haul of Murdoch, Tom Horan and Alec Bannerman was impressive, that too for just 31 runs.

And during the heated controversy generated by Fred Spofforth and Richard Barlow in the third and Ashes deciding Test, Bligh kept matters under control. In the end, England emerged victorious and gave a wonderful account of themselves on and off the field. The captain took three crucial catches as well in the deciding Test, one of them magnificently held. When he walked from the ground after the win, his hand was almost shaken off by enthusiastic well-wishers.

The Melbourne Punch celebrated England’s win with the now famous lines:

 

When Ivo goes back with the urn, the urn;

Studds, Steel, Read and Tylecote return, return;

The welkin will ring loud,

The great crowd will feel proud,

Seeing Barlow and Bates with the urn, the urn;

And the rest coming home with the urn.

The Bulletin in Sydney concurred with:

It’s all over, Bligh has gone

With his ashes, we’re forlorn.

Familiar with us is the sup

Of the hyssop – bitter cup.

And the Punch in London responded:

Hooray! English cricket is still ‘all alive oh!’

We thank you for proving that same, Captain Ivo!

Legend has it that a bail used in the third Test was burnt, and the Ashes presented to the captain in a terracotta urn by some ladies of Melbourne. However, available evidence says that it is more probable later that the presentation was made much earlier, after a session of paddock cricket at Rupertswood which involved several amateurs of the England team.

In 1998, the 82-year old daughter-in-law of Bligh claimed that the contents of the urn were not the Ashes of a bail, but the remains of her mother-in-law’s veil.

It may well be the case. Would it not have been far more romantic for the Victorian ladies in question to present the youthful English gentleman in love with a covenant binding him with his beloved? Would they really have rather chosen some prosaic memento of some trivial cricket match? Would it not have been far more satisfying for them to use the guise of a silly sporting trophy to present an irresistible symbol of union for two resonating young hearts?

Whatever it was, this is the urn that rested in the Darnley family before being presented to Lord’s by the widowed countess in 1927.

The other quest

The Ashes might have been recovered and given tangible form, but cricket was not the only thought occupying the captain’s mind. On the eve of the first Test, Bligh had sought the advice of Lady Janet Clarke about his increasingly consuming feelings for Florence. And the response from the lady had not been too favourable, even admonitory.

Irrespective of the advice, Bligh, according to all available evidence, went ahead and proposed to Florence on the New Year’s Eve of 1883. That was when the Test match was still in progress.

And on the third day of the New Year, he sent off a letter to his parents: “I met this young lady both staying at the Clarke’s she being one of Lady Clarke’s greatest friends… I am perfectly and firmly convinced that she is the woman who would make my life a happy one.” With ardent words, the Honorary Ivo Bligh sought the permission of his parents to marry his lady love. Someone who described every match to his father in minute detail, wrote over 80 lines in the letter and the first Test merited just a small postscript, “Just been defeated by the Australian XI. All the worst of luck. They had dry wicket Staurday — rain came Sunday, Monday morning and evening.”

The response was delayed, and Bligh sent several letters underlining his anxiety about the decision of his parents. It might be that the first response was negative. It can also be that there was no answer at all. Whatever be it, Bligh did not proceed to New Zealand and America for sight-seeing and cricket as originally planned. He boarded the SS Rosetta and embarked on his second quest, down to Cobham Hall, to persuade his parents to grant him permission.

The March 1883 the Cricket – Weekly Record of the Game was busy penning, “At the present time it would be difficult to name an English sportsman of any kind more deservedly popular than the Hon Ivo Francis Walter Bligh.”

However, the man in question was rushing home, and engaging in the greatest debate of his life with his parents. Eventually, after six weeks of lengthy discussions between father, mother and son, a letter was sent to Florence Morphy in Rupertswood from the Sixth Earl of Darnley. In a tone that was surprisingly bland, John Bligh gave his acquiescence.

Bligh rushed back to Australia, in the homestretch of his second quest. The Clarkes arranged everything perfectly at Rupertswood. George Vernon, the double international, was the best man as the two got married at St Mary’s Church in Sunbury. However, the great sportsman’s nerve left him when he saw 200 guests brought by a special train from Melbourne. All Vernon could offer as his best man’s speech was a toast to the health of Bligh’s cricket mates.

The quest was over. The love story ended with the bride going off with the dashing English sportsman to their honeymoon in New Zealand.

The not too romantic epilogue

However, as ever so often happens, the real life postscript of the match ostensibly made in heavens did not quite live up to its billing.

Bligh was plagued with weakness, ill-health and chronic anxiety about is health bordering on mania. He never played cricket again. Being the second son, he had to find work to support himself. A job was found for him at the Stock Exchange in London. It did not pay well, Bligh was depressed and Florence miscarried.

They went back to Australia in 1885, and tried to make a fortune in the land. A son was born to them, but Bligh’s continuing health problems prompted them to return to England.

They settled in Brighton where a second son was born. Bligh’s only happy job was as Honorary Secretary and Honorary Treasurer of the County Cricket Council, but the body was short lived. His other post as the President of the Kent County Cricket Club was honorary, and did not pay. By the age of 35, Bligh could not withstand the exertions of even friendly cricket matches.

In 1896, the sixth Earl of Darnley passed away. Ivo’s elder brother Edward, Lord Clifton, succeeded him. Wild and paranoid, Edward Bligh had played six First-Class matches for Kent as a fast round-arm bowler. His stay at Cobham Hall was short and ended tragically. In 1900, Lord Clifton became severely ill with many complications that included bronchitis, and passed away on October 31.

Thus, Ivo Bligh became the eight Earl of Darnley. After 16 years of struggle, Florence Bligh nee Morphy became the countess of Darnley.

There remained financial problems, and Bligh was forced to sell of a lot of the family heirloom. On coming into title, he mentioned to a local paper “I am a poor man.”

With time, Florence overshadowed her husband in the social scene. She dabbled in writing, corresponding with a huge number of people around the world, and tried her hand with reasonable success an amateur painter.

With her work in the Royal Literary Fund, she became friendly with Rudyard Kipling. Later, through her charity work, she became close to Queen Mary, the consort of King George V. Queen Mary would visit Cobham Hall regularly, often prompting the family to hide some treasured pieces of furniture – she had an alarming habit of acquiring them as gifts.

During the First World War, Florence and Ivo opened Cobham Hall as a military hospital. Florence worked as the Matron, and some 2000 Australian soldiers were provided shelter and treatment. In 1917, the Australian Prime Minister WM Hughes stayed in the Hall for Christmas. It was Florence’s persuasions that made the Prime Minister agree to support an attempt at flying from England to Australia. Soon after that, Captain Ross Smith and Lieutenant Keith Smith flew from southern England all the way to Adelaide on a Vickers Vimy long range bomber.

In 1919, the War efforts were recognised and Florence Bligh, Countess of Darnley, was made a Dame of the British Empire.

Bligh served on the Kent County Council for two decades, and chaired the Parliamentary and Public Health Committee. In 1905, he was elected a representative peer for Ireland and from time to time spoke in the Upper Chamber. His only sporting activity was restricted to golf. He became the first President of the Mid-Kent Golf Club and arranged Alfred Lyttleton to open it.

The terracotta urn remained on the mantelpiece of his library, always cherished but not always carefully handled. There were rumours that it had fallen down often and the original contents had spilled out, hurriedly replaced by ash from the fireplace.

Ivo Bligh died in his sleep in April 1927 at the age of 68. On his death, the urn containing the Ashes was handed over to the MCC by Florence. It was kept in a glass case in the Long Room at Lord’s before taking its place in the Lord’s museum when it was established.

Countess of Darnley passed away in Bellehatch Park, Henley-on-Thames, in August 1944.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Write at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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