On April 11, 1913, the picturesque Nevill Ground of Tunbridge Wells was subjected to arson by militant suffragettes. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the fire that destroyed the pavilion and resulted in significant financial loss.
In 1895, the Tunbridge Wells Cricket Football and Athletic Club pooled their resources with the Bluemantle Cricket Club and purchased The Nevill Ground on a 99-year lease from the Marquis of Abergavenny.
Originally part of the Eridge Park Estate, the scenic arena was named after William Nevill, the first Marquis of Abergavenny. The reigning Marquis also opened the ground officially in 1896.
With rhododendron bushes running around the pitch, it was a unique setting for cricket. Another rather remarkable feature was that during the turn of the last century, the county boundary between Kent and East Sussex ran through the pitch. EW Swanton described it as “no mean contender for the most delectable English cricket ground.”
The pavilion was designed by architect CH Strange, and was built at a cost of £1,200.
However, it was destroyed on April 11, 1913.
Early that morning, militant suffragettes started their work of destruction, setting fire to the Grandstand. The fire started in the dressing rooms, spreading quickly along the large number of stacked up practice nets.
The arsonists left behind some suffragette literature and a photograph of Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, the political activist, as an indication that it was a protest against her imprisonment in the Holloway Jail. The dissent was also probably flamed due to the policy of no-admittance to women, which was still in vogue at Kent. It may have been provoked by a comment by an unknown Kent official: “It is not true that women are banned from the pavilion. Who do you think makes the teas?”
The raging fire was noticed by a passing lamplighter. The fire brigade arrived soon enough, but they could not save the pavilion. The building was damaged extensively, the losses amounting to more than a thousand pounds. The fire also destroyed photographs of the first Canterbury Cricket Week and the Bluemantle Cricket Club archives.
In an angry reaction, cricket-loving Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle raised his voice in a meeting of The National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage, dubbing the arsonists “female hooligans” and comparing the attack to “blowing up a blind man and his dog.”
Repair work was carried out fast enough and cricket resumed soon. Three months down the line Kent played Worcestershire in a dull draw; and then Colin Bythe and Frank Woolley skittled out a Yorkshire side containing Wilfred Rhodes and George Hirst for just 100.
There was, in fact, more significant damage to the ground during the First World War, when the pitch was used as grazing fields for the cavalry horses of the British Army. The subsequent recovery to ideal playing conditions took significantly longer.
Seventy years after the suffragette incident, Kapil Dev scored his famous 175 not out against Zimbabwe in 1983 on this very ground, lighting it up in a different brand of fire.
Nevill Ground remains the only cricket venue to have been attacked by suffragettes. The soul of the militant women, however, must now rest in peace – given that the same ground hosted the match between Australia and West Indies during the Women’s World Cup of 1993.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer 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)