Photo from:    How we Recovered The Ashes    by PF Warner.
Photo from How we Recovered The Ashes by PF Warner.

October 29, 1903. Plum Warner s England team would go on to win The Ashes 3-2 and triumph in 6 of the 9 First-Class tour games, drawing the other three. However, on this day, on board the Orontes, they were overcome by an eleven of lady passengers in a game of deck cricket. Arunabha Sengupta recounts the great match that was contested with a bishop performing the role of an umpire.

Ashes regained

Plum Warner s team to Australia in 1903-04, the first to travel under the banner of MCC, was not expected to win. The Australians had beaten the Englishmen in the three previous series. They had won in the Blighty in 1899 and 1902, and had trounced Archie MacLaren s men 4-1 when England had visited in 1901-02.

In MacLaren s absence, and after Stanley Jackson s refusal, Warner had been handed the reins of a team loaded with professionals, reputedly strong in bowling but rather suspect in the batting department. Not many great things were expected of them. The Australians, on the other hand, were loaded with great names, including Victor Trumper, Clem Hill, Reggie Duff, Monty Noble, Syd Gregory and the young tearaway called Tibby Cotter. Even the great Hugh Trumble came out of retirement to lend a hand.

Yet, the tour ended in spectacular success for the England side.

Powered by the brilliance of Wilfred Rhodes and mystery of Bernard Bosanquet with the ball, the dream debut of Reggie Foster, and the all-round excellence of Len Braund, and to a lesser extent George Hirst, the visitors recovered The Ashes with a 3-2 victory.

The result was not as close as the scoreline suggests. The series was decided in the fourth Test at SCG when Bosanquet spun his googlies viciously to dismiss the Australians for 171, making it 3-1 for England. It was rain at MCG that caught the English batsmen on a sticky in the fifth Test and made the series result more palatable for the Australians.

Besides, the tourists had a whale of a time in the First-Class matches, winning 6 and drawing 3. It was one of the more successful voyages. The team was a happy lot under Warner, with the amateurs and professionals even staying in the same hotels.

Yet, it is seldom recounted that the incredibly successful side had lost to rank outsiders at the very start of the tour. In fact, they had been humiliated before their ship had even anchored. The great match alluded to here is, furthermore, a splendid testimony of the well-known adage that the female of the species is deadlier than the male.

The voyage out

The voyage on board the SS Orontes was hugely eventful.

Warner, recently engaged to Ms Agnes Blyth, came aboard with his fianc e at Tilbury. Most of the cricketers boarded the 10,000-ton vessel along with the skipper, but Johnny Tyldesley, Ted Arnold, Bosanquet, Hirst, Rhodes, Tom Hayward and Dick Lilley avoided the Bay and joined the party at Marseilles.

Among the many that saw them off at Tilbury was Viscount Alverstone, Lord Chief Justice of England, President of MCC. A more colourful personality amidst the crowd was the famous Albert Craig, the cricket rhymester, who sent them off with the lines:

We ll stand by Warner as we ought,

The honour was by him unsought,

We ve faith in him and nothing shall remove it.

We English love fair play,

At least, that s what we say,

If tis so, by our actions let us prove it.

The most auspicious co-passenger of the English team was Lady Darnley, former Florence Murphy, the greatest and most successful quest of Hon. Ivo Bligh during his quest to recover The Ashes in 1882-83. Not only was Lady Darnley eternally intertwined with the history of Ashes, she had been on board the very ship that had carried Drewy Stoddart s victorious team to Australia in 1894-95.

On leaving Marseilles a sports committee was formed. Mr JH Want, former Attorney General in the New South Wales Ministry, was chosen chairman. Foster was made the secretary. The other members of the committee were Warner himself; HE Murray Anderson, the secretary of the Somerset Cricket Club, travelling to Colombo; and James Welldon, the canon of Westminster, the former Bishop of Calcutta.

This last named Bishop became such an integral part of the England side during the voyage that Warner bestowedon him the title team chaplain .

A former footballer who played in the 1876 FA Cup Final for the Old Etonians, the Bishop could be quite a handful to get along with. While engaged as the Headmaster of Harrow in the 1880s, he had been hated by quite a few of the masters and almost all the boys as an autocratic administrator. The result had been the unflattering nickname Porky .

He had later served as an honorary chaplain to Queen Victoria. And later, as Bishop of Calcutta, he had excluded Scottish chaplains and troops from the use of garrison churches in India because they had not received episcopal consecration an action for which he was much criticised. At the time of the voyage he had resigned from his position as Bishop of Calcutta, partly due to ill-health and partly because of disagreement with the Viceroy, Lord Curzon.

He remained a difficult man to deal with all his life. The Bishop of Durham described him as a man who could neither speak with effect nor be silent with dignity . When he criticised a Labour MP for vulgar profanity, EM Forster wrote a scathing satirical poem about the incident that included the lines:

It is different for me. I have earned the right,

Through position and birth to be impolite.

I have always been used to the best of things,

I was nourished at Eton and crowned at King’s,

Because I’m a scholar, a don, and a dean,

It’s all in good taste when I’m vulgar or mean.

I can bully or patronize, just which I please;

I am different to them. . . . But those Labour M.P.’s,

How dare they be rude? They ought to have waited

Until they were properly educated.

Yet, such was the effect of sailing with the English cricketers that during the course of the voyage the Bishop became the most amiable and tolerant of men. He became close enough to the team, not only to be ordained team chaplain by the captain, but also to write the introduction to Warner s tour book, How we Recovered The Ashes.

In his introduction, the Bishop romanticises about cricket, glorifies the cricketers, and remembers the trip with fondness. He also writes indulgently about the wrong lady who was always wanting to sleep in some cabin other than her own. It was something remarkable for one known to blow his top at profanities. Cricket does make one mellow.

When Warner asked Welldon if it was Christian to pray for victory over Australia, the Bishop replied: Anything that tends to the prestige of England is worth praying for.

The English Professional Cricketers on board the Orontes: Photo from:    How we Recovered The Ashes    by PF Warner.
The English Professional Cricketers on board the Orontes: Photo from: How we Recovered The Ashes by PF Warner.

The great match

The sports committee drafted a number of entertaining pastimes for the passengers. Bull and quoits was a popular game to relieve the tedium of a long voyage. Besides, every afternoon after tea deck cricket was played for an hour or two quite an ordeal with the temperature 90 degrees in the shade. Bridge was also a popular diversion.

A fancy dress ball was arranged, and Warner won the first prize for his get up of The Rajah of Bhong with Foster s Gondolier running him close. Tyldesley emerged victorious in quite a few other events as Strudwick pipped the rest in the obstacle race.

A cable reached the team at Port Said, with the Colombo Club requesting a match when the ship docked in Ceylon. But with Braund having strained his side, and Dick Lilley and Herbert Strudwick both suffering from sore hands, the invitation was declined. But, the cricketers did play a couple of matches on board.

A team of second class passengers challenged them to a game. A limit of 20 runs per batsman was agreed, and rules were drafted to deem any delivery that struck the low roof a no-ball. Hayward, Hirst, Rhodes, Albert Relf, Arthur Fielder and Lilley all reached the 20-run limit, and then Fielder and Rhodes bowled the challengers out for 31. The cricketers emerged victorious by 134 runs.

On the way, they passed the Omrah and a sign was raised by the passing ship which read: Success to Warner.

On October 29, in the very early hours, Fremantle was reached. Commandeer Ruthven, the Captain of the ship, had predicted the time of arrival perfectly. The MCC team was greeted on board by the dignitaries of the Western Australia Cricket Association. The members of the team went up to Perth, some 12 miles from the port, returning in time to sail by mid-day.

That very afternoon, as they made for Largs Bay, the English cricketers met their nemesis. They were challenged to a match by the ladies of the ship.

The rules remained the same any ball striking the roof would be called, and there would be a limit of 20 runs per player. Bishop Welldon and Lilley acted as umpires. The only allowance made for the ladies was that the English cricketers were asked to bat and bowl left-handed right-handed in the case of the genuine left-hander. Thus Rhodes had to bat left-handed and bowl right-arm and the same went for Hirst.

Warner bats on the deck. Notice the low roof. Photo from:    How we Recovered The Ashes    by PF Warner.
Warner bats on the deck. Notice the low roof. Photo from: How we Recovered The Ashes by PF Warner.

According to Warner, the decisions at one end, at least, were given with a precision which left nothing to be desired. But Bishop Welldon complains that the side that would naturally be called the fairer had a marked disregard for the umpire s decisions. As things were, it was impossible to help feeling the acute pain at the spectacle of the Captain of the English Eleven leading back to the wickets a young lady his fianc e too who had been given out lbw after a flagrant breach of the rules of cricket in stopping a straight ball with her dress.

The flowing Edwardian dress did help, in batting and fielding. As did the inability of the Yorkshire duo to settle into their lengths with the right arm. Rhodes, in particular, gave away plenty of wides and no-balls, hitting the roof repeatedly, which contributed significantly to the score of the ladies. In such a close game, such profligacy is indeed criminal. Whether Rhodes had been distracted or erred due to infatuation caused by a fair woman s smile flashed at him as he ran in will remain a mystery. The various biographies of the bowler do not consider the match worthy of mention. But Warner does accuse him of a terrible spell.

The ladies hence triumphed by the wafer thin margin of 3 runs. Warner s men had been bested, something that would happen very seldom in the course of the tour.

To celebrate the victory, Lady Darnley hosted a tea-party for both the teams in her saloon. Captain Ruthven proposed success to the cricketers, adding that this was the seventh time he had taken an English Eleven to and from Australia (the Bishop writes sixth time in his introduction, while Warner writes seventh in his tour book).

The best of the speeches were given by Lady Darnley and Warner himself. An old classical scholar, also in the party, was heard remarking that he should have thought either of their speeches quite perfect if he had not listened to the other.

Brief scores:

The Lady Passengers of The Orontes beat Plum Warner s England side by 3 runs. Wilfred Rhodes bowled a lot of no-balls and wides. Further details not available.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here)