Ivo Bligh © Getty Images
Ivo Bligh © Getty Images

October, 1882. The Hon. Ivo Bligh set out with his England team to Australia with his much-publicised desire to bring back the Ashes. On board their ship, the English cricketers ran into numerous problems of non-cricketing nature. In fact, the incidents before the first match of the tour that got under way on November 12, 1882 were of no less significance than the matches themselves. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the collisions of fate and vessels, matches of Tug-of-War and union of hearts — and the curious cases of the extra Test and the mysterious urn.

A few months earlier, in August 1882, Fred Spofforth, who picked up 14 for 90, had triggered the collapse at The Oval. The Englishmen, including the hulking form of WG Grace had been skittled out while chasing a paltry target of 85 and Australia had won the Test by seven runs. In Sporting Times the mock obituary of English cricket had appeared with the immortal note: “The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.” And the legend of Ashes had been born.

The next skipper of England, the Hon. Ivo Bligh, pledged to regain ‘those Ashes’ when he toured Australia. The two nations have been fighting it out for the mythical remains ever since.

Collisions of Fate

In October 1882-83, Bligh set out with his team of Englishmen to Australia in a bid to restore the English honour. It was the first quest to reclaim the Ashes. And from the very beginning the journey was fraught with perils seldom associated with cricket.

As the team boarded the SS Peshawar, there was seasickness, there was tragedy and then there were ardent, lovelorn looks and whispered sweet nothings.

Ted Peate, the man whose dismissal had ended the Oval Test giving birth to the Ashes, fell victim to the rolling seas and the swaying ship, suffering from one of the worst bouts of sea-sickness. He later light-heartedly remarked that during his affliction he could ‘never manage more than five meals a day.’

And the captain was distracted. Strolling on the deck, the 23-year-old Bligh, the future Lord Darnley, came across the family of Sir William Clarke, a Victorian grandee. Soon, he was hopelessly in love with their governess Florence Murphy. The traditional ocean-liner romance would culminate in their marriage in 1884. And it would lend an enigmatic twist to the legend of the urn.

Within the team, the word ‘Ashes’ was a constant source of amusement. The merry men otherwise kept themselves occupied in various pursuits. In an apparently harmless game of Tug of War, Bligh, perhaps distracted by the rosy thoughts of love’s young dream, severely injured his right hand. It would force him to miss the first six matches of the tour.

Unfortunately, it was not the worst tragedy to occur on the voyage. A few furlongs away from the coast of Colombo, the Peshawar collided violently with the barque Glenroy. One of the crew, a lascar, had one of his legs fractured in two places.

It was believed that nothing more serious than a few cuts and bruises affected the cricketers. However, it later became known that the Nottinghamshire left arm pacer Fred Morley suffered broken ribs, and damaged his internal organs severely. Wisden tells us that he missed eight matches on the tour because of his injuries. The damages were actually far more fateful than that. He bowled little on the tour, and died two years later from what is conjectured to be complications arising from his injuries.

The Urn — for cricket or love?

On arrival, however, Bligh’s men were lavished with almost regal treatment in Adelaide. The captain led his team around the country, playing odds matches, publicly proclaiming his aim to ‘recover the Ashes’.

They 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, perhaps still suffering from languor, could manage a duck and three.

But, England 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*.

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 which counts neither as a part of the series or nor the Ashes.

Thus England won back the Ashes, and Bligh’s desire was fulfilled. Legend has it that a bail from the final Test was burnt and presented in a small terracotta urn to the captain by a group of Melbourne women. The urn now rests in the Lord’s museum.

Bligh and the heroes of the triumph are commemorated in an inscription on the side of the urn that runs:

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.

However, 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. The urn was handed over to Bligh in Rupertswood, a mansion and country estate located in Sunbury in the outskirts of Melbourne. The house was completed in 1876 for the wealthy landowner and pastoralist Sir William Clarke. Yes, it was with the Clarke family that the beautiful Florence Murphy was engaged as a music teacher and governess. The love-struck Bligh was spending his time in Rupertswood when the urn was presented to him.

Considering that the third Test had been played in Sydney and so had the fourth additional Test, the veil of young Florence was much more at hand than the bails from the Test matches. And 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?

Whether the urn had any role to play or not, Florence and Ivo got married a year later. In 1900, Bligh became Lord Darnley after inheriting the earldom after the death of his elder brother. In 1905, he was elected an Irish Representative Peer.

After the death of Lord Darnley in 1927, Florence Bligh nee Murphy, Countess of Darnley, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, presented the urn to MCC.