Origins of the Ashes: The First English Cricket Team to visit Australia

The team board the Great Britain in Liverpool 1861
Given our recent performance in the Ashes I was inspired to find out where it all began with the  first England cricket team to  tour Australia in 1861–62. This was the first-ever tour of Australia by any overseas team and the second tour abroad by an English team, following the one to North America in 1859.

The idea for the tour came from the English proprietors of a Melbourne company called Spiers and Pond, which ran the CafĂ© de Paris in the city. Spiers was Felix William Spiers and Pond was Christopher Pond. Their representative in England, a Mr Mallam, had tried to interest Charles Dickens in a lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand but without success. Instead, having noted the success of the 1859 English Cricket teams tour of America and the growing popularity of cricket in Australia, Spiers and Pond decided to attract a team of leading English cricketers. Mr Mallam therefore journeyed to Birmingham in September 1861 to watch the North v. South game at Aston Park. During the game, Mallam met the cricketers at the nearby Hen and Chicken Hotel to make the business proposal and twelve players agreed to tour Australia next winter on terms of £150 per man plus expenses.

The team was captained by HH Stephenson (from Surrey) who was joined by William Caffyn, William Mortlock, George Griffith, William Mudie, Tom Sewell junior (all from Surrey); Roger Iddison, Ned Stephenson (both from Yorkshire); Tom Hearne, Charles Lawrence (both from Middlesex); George Wells (from Sussex); and George Bennett (from Kent). Stephenson and Caffyn had also toured America in 1859.


The team sailed to Australia in the SS Great Britain - Isambard Kingdom Brunel's famous advanced steam passenger ship which put out from Liverpool on 21 October 1861, carrying the English cricket team  along with a crew of 143, 544 passengers, a cow, 36 sheep, 140 pigs, 96 goats and a total of 1114 chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. The treacherous journey from Liverpool to Melbourne via the Cape of Good Hope (her ninth) occupied 64 days, during which the best day's run was 354 miles and the worst 108. With favourable winds the ship travelled under sail alone, the screw propeller being withdrawn from the water (her propeller could be hauled up onto deck by means of chains in order to reduce drag when the vessel was operating under sail power alone). Three passengers died en route - quite normal for this type of journey.

As a team, they played 12 matches that were not first-class, winning 6 and losing 2 with 4 drawn. All but one of these games were against odds of at least 18 to 11. The exception was a one-day single innings match.
In January 1862, they played a match on the Sydney Domain; the Secretary for Lands, John Robertson controversially allowed the promoters to charge admission to the public while arranging a free stand for parliamentarians.

The team divided for a match in March 1862 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground that has been called The World v Surrey XI and is rated first-class. The six Surrey players were joined by five locals, who reportedly had Surrey affiliations, to form the Surrey XI; the World XI was formed of the six non-Surrey tourists and another five locals. The World XI won by 6 wickets thanks to an outstanding all-round performance by George Bennett who scored 72 and then took 7-30 and 7-85. This game drew a good attendance of about 8,000. One of the World XI locals was John Conway of Victoria who later managed the first Australian team to tour England. The team arrived safely back in England on 12 May 1862.

The tour was certainly successful and left an important long-term legacy in that it inspired later English teams to visit Australia and vice versa . Its success was certainly crucial in establishing a played-biennially test cricket series between England and Australia, though the Ashes legend started later, after the ninth Test played in 1882, there would certainly have been no Ashes if this pioneering and courageous group of men had not braved the most dangerous journey in the world (short of trying to find the North West Passage -but fortunately the Inuit don't play cricket) in 1861.

Further Reading:
H S Altham, A History of Cricket, Volume 1 (to 1914) (George Allen & Unwin, 1926)
Derek Birley, A Social History of English Cricket (Aurum, 1999)
Rowland Bowen, Cricket: A History of its Growth and Development (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1970)