Ashes 1884-85: It was always only about the money

Englishman George Ulyett escaped the propeller of the boat and the jaws of a shark after he fell tumbled out of the boat into the river. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Australians wanted 50 per cent of the gate fee. The English thought it was preposterous. The first ever Test match to be played at Adelaide was almost called off. Arunabha Sengupta relates one of the darkest tales in Ashes history.
Of love, sharks and other ‘Demons’
Looking back, it is incredible that at first the Australians had been besotted by the charms of Cupid.
Fred ‘the Demon’ Spofforth decided to stay back in Derbyshire after the 1884 tour, passionately courting Phillis Marsh Cadman. And during the return journey, aboard SS Mirzapore, captain Billy Murdoch met Jemima Watson, daughter of the Scottish-born gold mining magnate John Boyd Watson, one of Australia’s richest men. It was all smitten looks and whispered nothings as steamship romance blossomed.
The England team had set out on board the SS Orient three weeks before the Australians. It was a side of professionals, but very near a full strength all England side. At least nine of the players could have been selected for a representative team. Arthur Shrewsbury, William Scotton, Alfred Shaw, Bobby Peel, George Ulyett, Johnny Briggs, Maurice Read, James Lillywhite — the names were redoubtable. It was a formidable team.
There were minor hiccups. During the tour, while on the Clarence River, Ullyett fell out of the boat. In great distress, the party saw him splashing about desperately in the shark-infested waters. He just about managed to avoid the propeller and then glimpsed the snout of a shark nearby. A member of the England side aimed a spear in case the creature made for him and the Yorkshire professional himself drew his knife. But, the weapons were not required as he was hauled onto the boat, shaken but safe. 
It emerged that Ulyett had been in the process of persuading a local doctor to cough up money on impossible wagers when the annoyed medical man had pushed him away. The push had led to the adventure with the shark. When the furious cricketer, having had his nerves restored and clothes dried, turned on the doctor, he was promised £100 in apology. All Ulyett ever received was a possum rug.
However, neither love nor sharks turned out to be the biggest problem during the 1884-85 tour. It all boiled down to bickering about money. Shaw later described the tour as ‘a chapter in Anglo-Australian cricket that is not pleasant to recall.’
Bad blood brews
John Creswell, the South Australian businessman and secretary of South Australian Cricket Association, had lobbied intensely for a Test match at Adelaide. The moment the Englishmen dropped anchor, he made them sign a binding contract.
However, there were sparks of trouble right from other quarters.
“From the moment Murdoch’s team landed … it became evident they were animated by a feeling of bitter hostility (towards the England side)” wrote Charles Pardon in Wisden.
It started with the members of Murdoch’s team refusing to play for Victoria or New South Wales against the visitors. They claimed to be tired after their long sea journey. Yet, while the English professionals got ready for their matches, the supposedly ‘unfit and weary’ players announced a rival match in Sydney.
The relationship between the sides worsened as the tour went on. Murdoch and his men, considering themselves a travelling side rather than the hosts, demanded half the gate money, as they earned in England. The authorities were speechless.
Shaw and Shrewsbury both felt Murdoch’s demand for half the gate was preposterous. They later wrote, “[The demand] coming from a team supposed to be composed of amateurs and playing at home, staggered us. We replied that 30 per cent was the utmost we could afford to give. We held it was absurd, not to say ungenerous, to expect the same sum for playing at home as would be paid to a team who had travelled thousands of miles in pursuit of their profession.”
The major pique of the English professionals was that at home they played Australia for £10 per man per match. The offer of 30 per cent was refused by the Australians. Shaw even made a personal offer of £20 per man, but that was also rejected with brazen contempt.
Lilywhite, the England manager, wrote that even 30 per cent was far too much when taking into consideration the pay the Englishmen received while playing against the Australians in the big money making matches.
The haggling continued with no end in sight. George Alexander, the Australian manager, declared that for the Adelaide Test he would accept 40 per cent and give the remaining 10 per cent to charity. Shaw rejected this outright. The Sydney Mail went vocal with ‘great indignation’ at the ‘grasping policy’ of the Australian cricketers.
Finally Creswell took a desperate step. Fearing that his dream Adelaide Test would fall prey to all the wrangling, he offered each team a flat fee of £450 and a third of any profits. This broke the stalemate. The Englishmen gingerly accepted because, “Had we not done so, there would have been no match.”
However, to ensure that they did not have to suffer due to Creswell’s brokering, South African Cricket Association set a price of four shillings per seat in the stands and two shillings in the outer.
The disinterested Australians
Meanwhile, the Australians did not really seem interested in the game. Only George Giffen, wanting to make this historic event in his home city a success, practiced diligently with Percy McDonnell and George Blackham. But, none of the others made an effort. Least of all the captain. Four days before the match, he married Jemima and was still sauntering in his pink misted world.
Spofforth had arrived from England but had withdrawn due to an ankle injury. He had other reasons for not playing as well. His brother in law, Charles Farquhar Clive, had passed away a month back and Spofforth was on his way to Cassilis to comfort his widowed sister Anna. However, before leaving, he voiced that he regretted the position taken by his comrades in terms of gate money.
To popularise the match, the South Australian government declared the opening day of the Test a public holiday. Yet, to the disappointment of Creswell, the high ticket prices kept the crowd away. Only about 7,000 people showed up for the opening day.
Troubles continued, much of them around petty issues. Murdoch objected to Lillywhite standing as England’s umpire. It was too late to get into another deadlock and the England side agreed to Tom Cole and Isaac Fisher, two unknown men, to officiate. Both were incompetent and severe appeals or disagreement by the batsmen influenced, and often reversed, their decisions.
At the same time, gamesmanship was already becoming an advanced art. According to The Advertiser, “The English have the irritating habit of appealing in chorus at every possible opportunity, presumably with the motive of discommoding the batsmen.”

The match
The game proceeded with elevens that were far from fully fit. The Australians, out of practice and rusty, struggled to field a team. An accident to Alec Bannerman on the second day of the match ensured that the Australians batted a man short in the second innings. Murdoch was in no match condition. Billy Midwinter had been advised not to play because of severe congestion to his lungs. And George Giffen, for all his enthusiasm about the first Test at Adelaide, played through a bad attack of rheumatism. For England, Johnny Briggs was not really in the pink of health.
The first day started with glorious weather, fantastic wicket and small crowd. McDonnell and Blackham, the ones who had trained with Giffen before the match, scored 124 and 66 respectively. The rest of the Australian batting managed 44 and there were nine extras. The first day ended with the Australian innings of 243, Yorkshire off-spinner Billy Bates capturing five wickets.
The next morning, Creswell halved the ticket prices and the crowd increased in numbers to 10,000. They were treated to some notorious stonewalling by William Scotton, who batted through the day to score 71.
George Ulyett, having recovered from the shark scare, hit hard for 68 — in the process splitting Bannerman’s finger. A furious dust storm stopped play for a short while in the afternoon, but the wicket remained in excellent condition. By nightfall, England were 233 for two and holding a distinct edge.
There was heavy rain and hail on the Sunday and accordingly when England resumed their innings, conditions had become difficult. Billy Barnes, 86 overnight, duly completed his century and Scotton departed after five and three-quarter hours of strokeless vigil for 82. The rest of the batting fell away and England lost the last seven wickets for 63. However, the lead of 126 was substantial enough.
Australia started the second innings with the heroes of the first, but Blackam was soon bowled by a fast yorker from Bobby Peel. The Yorkshire left-arm spinner followed it up by rattling the stumps of the sketchy Murdoch for seven.
Now Giffen, the other man who had practiced, and McDonnell proceeded to add runs at great pace. And at this juncture tragedy occurred just with Australia just one run from wiping the deficit.
A leg-before appeal against Giffen was turned down, and with the ball going towards the leg side, McDonnell ran down for the leg-bye. Only Giffen would not move. The opening batsman was stranded in mid-pitch, run out for 83. He had looked poised to become the first man to score two hundreds in a Test match. “I wish I were anywhere but in the middle of the ground,” recalled the dejected Giffen, widely considered to be responsible for the dismissal. Australia ended the day at 152 for four.
The rain that night proved decisive. The ball bounced uncertainly and the rest of the batting could muster just 39 more. Bannerman’s finger was still severely damaged and he could not bat.
As England set out to chase 66, the wicket improved rapidly. After the loss of two early wickets, Arthur Shrewsbury and Billy Barnes hit the required with ease. 
What followed
The result of the match was a minor matter. This Test was destined to kick off the dark age in Ashes history.
Creswell discovered that the gate receipts had amounted to just £792, leaving the South Australian Cricket Association several hundred pounds in arrears.
But further problems were afoot.
The Victoria Cricket Association (VCA) was not prepared to allow the Australian team to dictate terms for the second Test at Melbourne. Neither were the English professionals willing to play along with Murdoch’s men. Lillywhite once again offered Alexander 30 per cent of the gate money. Alexander steadfastly refused.
Tom Horan, who was hosting the England team in Melbourne, appealed to Murdoch’s men. His words were earnest: “Make what you can in the old country but in Australia act a little generously towards our visitors.” They fell on deaf ears.
Lillywhite’s renewed offer of £20 per man he was snubbed again. Murdoch’s men, peeved that VCA and the public were siding with the Englishmen, demanded 40 per cent of the gate. When VCA refused, the Australian Eleven boycotted the match. An enraged Horan declared, “It would be a good thing for Australian cricket if they never played here again.”
The VCA banned Harry Boyle, George Bonnor, Joey Palmer, Tup Scott, William Cooper, McDonnell, and Blackham from playing any match under their jurisdiction. Horan himself led a hastily assembled side in the second Test.
Brief scores:
Australia 243 (Percy McDonnell 124, Jack Blackham 66; Billy Bates 5 for 31) and 191 (Percy McDonnell 83, George Giffen 47; Bobby Peel 5 for 51) lost to England 369 (William Scotton 82, George Ulyett 68, Billy Barnes 134; Joey Palmer 5 for 81) and 67 for 2 by 8 wickets.
(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