John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich © Getty Images
John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich © Getty Images

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, is typically credited with — albeit eponymously — having one of the most popular foods named after him. The Earl, born November 13, 1718, also had a role to play in the realm of cricket, as Abhishek Mukherjee narrates.

Emperor Claudius had brought an elephant to Colchester in 43 AD. The animal landed in Sandwich (in Kent), making it the first place in England to witness the arrival of a captive elephant in England (Stone Age mammoth skeletons were subsequently found). Indeed, Sandwich is of some historic significance.

But let us move beyond pachyderms. According to Eilert Ekwall’s The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names, the word ‘sandwich’ literally means “market town on sandy soil”. The place was one of the Cinque (five) Ports in the Kent-Sussex area, the other four being New Romney, Hastings, Hythe, and Dover.

We will now move a millennium-and-a-half after Claudius, to one Edward Montagu. Despite being a follower of Oliver Cromwell, Montagu had faith in the Stuarts. In fact, he was one of the earliest to contact Charles II, and served him as Admiral after the Restoration in 1660.

King Charles rewarded him with several titles: Edward Montagu became Baron Montagu of St Neots, Viscount Hinchingbrooke, a Knight of the Garter, Master of the Great Wardrobe, Admiral of the Narrow Seas (English Channel), and Lieutenant Admiral to Lord High Admiral of England. He was also named 1st Earl of Sandwich.

Edward’s son and grandson, both called Edward, succeeded him as Earl. The 3rd Earl’s son, also called Edward, passed away at thirty, in 1722, leaving behind Edward, his son of 4. The 3rd Earl was still alive at that point. When he passed away, John succeeded him as the 4th Earl, at only 11.

Sandwich (let us call him that from here) became famous for his speeches in The Parliament. At 27 he acted as British Ambassador to the Dutch Republic and attained fame after intercepting secret correspondence and outmanoeuvring the French.

He was later appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, Secretary of State for the Northern Department, and Postmaster General.

Unfortunately, his political career was not the cleanest: Sandwich is typically dismissed as corrupt and incompetent (in addition to being a womaniser of the highest order).

Sandwich married Dorothy, daughter of 1st Viscount Fane; their son John later succeeded him as 5th Earl. Not a very committed man, Sandwich had at least two mistresses (there were almost certainly more), Fanny Murray and Martha Ray.

Martha deserves special mention. She was associated with Sandwich since she was 17 and mothered five known children of his. Among them was philanthropist-writer-jurist Basil Montagu. Martha was murdered when she was 37 by a young admirer, leaving John shattered. So sensationalised was Martha’s murder and the trial that followed that it inspired Sir Herbert Croft to pen down Love and Madness, a novel based on the incident.

The 4th Earl of Sandwich passed away — ironically — from an ailment in his digestive system.

Meat and bread

Before delving into this, let me clarify that Sandwich did not invent the sandwich. The credit for that should (probably) go to Hillel the Elder, a Rabbi who lived in both the 1st century BC and AD. Hillel’s ‘recipe’ for a korech involved placing Paschal lamb and maror (a type of bitter herbs) inside two pieces of matzo (a form of unleavened flatbread).

However, historians generally agree on Lord Sandwich’s eponymous contribution to the culinary world — though nobody is sure exactly how the name was derived upon. He probably had no idea that the food would be named after him.

In the contemporary Tour to London (written in 1765) Pierre-Jean Grosley was the first to mention ‘sandwich’ as a common noun: “A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt in play that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London: it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.”

Grosley did not find support from Nicholas Rodger, on the grounds of lack of sufficient evidence. An eminent historian of British Royal Navy, Rodger wrote The Insatiable Earl — A Life of Lord Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.

Rodger’s explanation defends Sandwich: “He invented it to sustain himself at his desk, which seems plausible since we have ample evidence of the long hours he worked from an early start, in an age when dinner was the only substantial meal of the day, and the fashionable hour to dine was four o’clock.”

Whatever be the reason behind his habit, it is generally accepted that those two slices of closely-held bread with fillings were named after the 4th Earl of Sandwich.

Grosley’s account was predated by one of the biggest (in more ways than one) names in English history: on November 24, 1762, Edward Gibbons wrote in his journal: “I dined at the Cocoa Tree … That respectable body affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty of the first men in the kingdom … supping at little tables … upon a bit of cold meat, or a Sandwich.”

Do note the capital S.

The other legacy

Captain James Cook had found a patron in Sandwich. It was Sandwich who helped fund Cook’s second and third expeditions. Cook expressed his gratitude by naming several places he came across after the First Lord of Admiralty: Sandwich Islands, Hawaii; South Sandwich Islands, South Atlantic Ocean; and the two Montague Islands, off Australian coast and off Gulf of Alaska.

No, the name Sandwich is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon.

The cricket connection

Like any self-respecting Englishman of the era (or any human being of any era), Sandwich was enthusiastic about cricket. His love for cricket probably started at Eton, where he was friends with George Montagu-Dunk.

Thomas Gray, eminent poet and scholar, wrote of his Eton days to his friend Richard West: “There is my Lords Sandwich and Halifax — they are statesmen — do you not remember them dirty boys playing at cricket?”

Sandwich later found company in his friends John Russell (4th Duke of Bedford) and Montagu-Dunk (by then 2nd Earl of Halifax). Sandwich was patron of the Huntingdonshire County in cricket, though his cricket skills are not very evident. Halifax and he formed the Northamptonshire & Huntingdonshire side. This combined side played in 1741 against Bedfordshire, at Woburn Park and Cow Meadow.

The first of the two matches was the earliest recorded cricket match at Bedfordshire, played on August 15. The second, on August 18, was played for 20 guineas — though the outcome is not very clear.

10 years later, Sandwich organised a best-of-three contest between Old Etonians and All England (not to be confused with William Clarke’s All England XI) at Newmarket. Sandwich himself led the Etonians, while the opposition was led by the Earl of March. While the prize money was £1,500, there were bets amounting to approximately £20,000.

So much for the gentleman’s game.

More significantly, however, Sandwich played in these matches. A newspaper report ran: “The Earl of Sandwich and the Earl of March both play themselves. The Duke of Kingston and Lord Hawke play in the Eton side for the Earl of Sandwich; the two bowlers on that side are Captain Draper and Mr Silk … They will be dressed in silk jackets, trousers, velvet caps, etc.”

So much for white flannels, too.

The first match was drawn. The Old Etonians won the second, while All England had their revenge in the third.

Sandwich also finds mention in James Pycroft’s The Cricket-Field: “In one of the caricatures of 1770, in Mr. Wright’s collection, Lord Sandwich is represented with a bat in his hand, in allusion to his fondness for cricket; but it is a curved piece of wood, more like a modern golf.”

Similarly, Karl Shaw in Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: “Among the prominent cricketing aristocrats were the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who was often pictured with a cricket bat…”

A catalogue published by the British Museum also agrees to this: “Lord Sandwich was reputed to be one of the most abandoned and vicious men of his time; his favourite amusements were horse-racing and cricket; he was frequently represented with a cricket bat.”

The most famous mention of Sandwich, however, appeared in Cricket: An Heroic Poem by James Love (written under the pseudonym James Dance).

“Hail Cricket! glorious, manly, British game!
First of all Sports! be first alike in Fame!
To my fir’d Soul thy busy Transports bring,
That I may feel thy Raptures, while I sing!
And thou, kind Patron of the mirthful Fray,
Sandwich, thy Country’s Friend, accept the Lay!
Tho’ mean my verse, my Subject yet approve,
And look propitious on the Game you love!”

It ran in the family

John William Montagu, the 7th Earl, was born 19 years after the death of the 4th Earl. He was good enough to play for Cambridge University. Two of his matches, against Cambridge Town Club in 1831 and 1832, got First-Class status.

In the first, he opened batting in each innings and scored 2 and 9. It was not as bad as it sounds, given that the undergraduates were bowled out for 86 and 78. In the next year he batted at 10 and scored 7 before — it is not clear why — Edward Seale was appointed a full substitute for him.

The 7th Earl played a few matches for Huntingdonshire, even against I Zingari. And for St Ives he played against Clarke’s All-England XI. More significantly, he served as MCC President in 1866-67 and remained on the General Committee for some time thereafter.

In one of his speeches, Baron Alderson mentioned how impressed he was with the 7th Earl “mixing with his tenantry and his humbler neighbours in one of the manly sports of England [cricket, obviously].”

His sons, Victor and Oliver, both played cricket. Victor even played twice for MCC, albeit without achieving anything.

While the family has little known direct involvement with cricket anymore, the food that bears the name keeps making appearances during lunch and tea in dressing-rooms. It is also sold at ridiculous rates in the stalls…