Retro Sport: The story of old Tom's bat - part one

Torbay Weekly

This year sees the 250th anniversary of first-class cricket, and to celebrate it, I will tell the story of an absolutely remarkable cricket bat.

It will take two weeks to recount but has an ending worth waiting for!

In the 1770s, the little village of Hambledon in Hampshire boasted the finest cricket team in England.

Its dominance was undisputed, and the first first-class match, 250 years ago, was played on its ground at Broad-halfpenny Down.

By the beginning of the 1780s, however, a team of wealthy aristocrats formed a club, in Islington, London, called the White Conduit Club.

Under the patronage of the Earl of Winchelsea, it began to attract London’s sporting gentry, and soon challenged other clubs in the south east of England.

In June, 1786, the Earl invited the Kent County team to Islington, and, just to make sure of victory, padded his team with six hired professionals.

Among these was a young 24 year old called Tom Walker, playing in his first 'grand' match.

As it turned out, young Walker from Hambledon Cricket Club, batting at number eight, contributed just enough runs, in each innings, to clinch a narrow five-run victory.

It had been such a close game that, afterwards, the Earl challenged the patron of the Kent team, Sir Horace Mann, to a return match.

Perhaps a few drinks tempted him to spice up the challenge by adding a wager of 1,000 guineas!

Sir Horace accepted on condition that the match was played in Canterbury, in August, when a huge crowd could be expected.

As the big day approached, the Earl got down to protecting his bet, and, again, signed up six professionals, including Tom Walker, for 25 guineas each.

At lunchtime, on August 6, 1786, Tom saddled his horse at his farmhouse in Thursley, Surrey, and went back indoors to get a bat.

He selected a 'skyscraper' bat which had been made by his friend, and fellow professional, William Yalden, thrust it into a pocket in the saddle, and set off for Canterbury.

He must have been quite a sight!

In the literature of the period, Tom is described as 'an unadulterated rustic', having a 'scrag of mutton' frame, skin 'like an old oak', 'thighs no thicker than his ankles', and looking 20 years older than his age!

After a two-day ride, Tom arrived at Bishopsbourne Paddock, near the cathedral in Canterbury, where a huge crowd had gathered to watch this return challenge.

This time, Tom opened the batting, and completely dominated the match, scoring 95* and 102, almost becoming the first man ever to score two centuries in a match!

The Earl had won his bet, worth £100,000 today, and was absolutely delighted!

After the match, he asked Tom for his record-breaking bat, and took it back to London to display in the club’s pavilion for all the members to admire.

The following year, the White Conduit Club became the Marylebone Cricket Club, and Tom’s bat was moved to the first Lord’s ground at Dorset Square.

In 1813, it was moved again, to the second Lord’s ground, and then, finally, four years later, to the current Lord’s ground at St John’s Wood.

Skyscraper bats were becoming quite dated now, and, no doubt, the MCC members read of Tom’s deeds with great interest.

Then, one morning in 1825, the cricket world woke to the news that the Lord’s wooden pavilion had been totally destroyed by fire.

All the club’s records were lost, and just three feet of its brick foundations remained.

Later that day, the members, searching through the ashes, found an up-turned cast iron settle, and underneath it, protected from the flames, was old Tom’s skyscraper bat - it was the only survivor!

A new pavilion was built, and, for a few years, Tom’s bat was its main exhibit.

The years passed by, and, in 1889, the current pavilion was built, and became the sixth home for a bat which was now over 100 years old.

It was never displayed in the new pavilion, and, despite the faded ink inscription 'Walker 95/86', some ignorant soul stuck a small label to it saying '1780-1835 Unspliced'.

Twenty-five years later, with the bat condemned to laying unrecognised in the vaults, bombs began to explode in St John’s Wood, and the First World War put Tom’s bat in danger once again.... continued next week.