A Love Story
Imagine a cast with the main players being a poor, common young lady from Beechworth in Country Victoria, the richest and largest landowner in the colony of Victoria at the time, and his influential wife, mixed with the captain of the English cricket team sent to Australia to revenge the defeat of the English Cricket team from the previous Australia vs England series and what do you have?
The remarkable true story behind the Ashes urn, and its companion, the lesser known Ashes Bail Letter Opener, powerful symbols of the longest running team sport in the world, and above all, a love story.
The creation and the journey of the Ashes urn to Lords where it is now admired by tens and thousands of visitors is little understood.
The following is an attempt to summarize the real journey of the Urn and why it now resides at Lords to be “that” symbol of rivalry between England and Australia, a symbol that becomes more important and more emotional to both nations as this sporting duel continues into the future.
Beechworth to Cobham Hall; the remarkable “true” love story that gave birth to the Cricket Ashes
Florence Morphy was born at Beechworth in August 1860. Florence was the youngest of seven children, the daughter of a gold commissioner and Police Magistrate posted to Beechworth.
However her father died in July 1861, leaving Florence and her mother and siblings to move to Melbourne where they survived on a meagre government pension.
At the age of 21, Florence was appointed as the Governess/piano teacher of the Clarke family, the most powerful family in the colony of Victoria.
At her death, her journey from humble beginnings in Beechworth had taken her to high society in Melbourne, with a fairy tale wedding at “Rupertswood” to the all conquering English cricket captain, who then returned to the family home, Cobham Hall, and became confidant to Queen Mary as Countess of Darnley.
Sir William Clarke is described by his Great Grandson, Michael Clarke in his book, “Clarke of Rupertswood” as follows:
“Sir William Clarke was the Colony of Victoria’s most prominent citizen, ably assisted by his second wife, Janet.
He inherited a huge fortune from his colourful father, Big Clarke, and he thoroughly enjoyed spending his enormous tax-free income.
He maintained his own private army, a champion battery of Horse Artillery. He built two splendid mansions, Rupertswood and Clividen (Now the site of the Hilton Hotel and opposite the MCG in Melbourne) and provided himself with a private railway station at Sunbury.”
Another Great Grandson, this time of the Hon. Ivo Bligh, Rupert Peploe, in his book, “Crickets Burning Passion” writes:
“When English cricket 'died' at the oval on 29th August 1882, the mock obituary notice published in the Sporting Times added that “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”. Less than three weeks later the Hon. Ivo Bligh set sail for Australia on board the SS Peshawur with but a single objective - to recover those ashes and to restore pride to English cricket. By the time the Test series began on 30th December 1882, Bligh had set his heart on another prize as well - the hand of Florence Morphy, a young woman in the employ of Lady Janet Clarke, wife of Sir William and chatelaine of Rupertswood, a grand mansion near Melbourne.”
All had their role to play in the formation of what we now know as the Ashes and the little urn residing proudly at Lords. But it was the love between Florence and Ivo that is ultimately responsible for it surviving those early years to become what it has now become.
Ivo travelled out to Australia with his team on the RMS Peshawur, arriving in Adelaide on Nov. 10th 1882.
Ivo first met the love of his life at ‘Rupertswood”, Sunbury, on Bligh’s second evening in Melbourne, Wednesday 15th November 1882.
Contrary to popular belief, Florence did not travel out with the Clarkes and Ivo Bligh and his fellow cricket team members. While this romantic notion has inspired countless stories of a ship board romance, her name does not appear on any passenger manifests.
Sir William was the President of the Melbourne Cricket Club, and sponsor of the English teams tour to Australia.
Sir William and Lady Janet were generous hosts to the touring English side and Ivo in particular became a regular house guest at “Rupertswood” during the 1882/83 tour.
The Birth of the Ashes Urn
Michael Clarke writes further in his book, Clarke of Rupertswood:
“The cricket ashes came into being at Rupertswood on 24 December 1882, Christmas Eve. Janet Clarke burned a bail, placed the embers in a pottery urn and presented them to Ivo Bligh."
A large house party had filled Rupertswood to the last bed, with the eight English amateur cricketers as the guests of honour. After a convivial lunch Sir William proposed a social cricket match as appropriate exercise for the gentlemen present. Wickets were pitched on the small ground laid out on the slope between the house and railway line, an Australian team was selected from the house party and sundry gardeners and grooms were recruited to do the more strenuous fielding in the warm sunshine.
Four years later, old Pat Lyons, the black-bearded Irishman who chopped the kindling wood, clearly remembered the match. He told me:
The gentlemen did the bowling and the batting and them English cricketers could surely hit the ball. We lads were kept on the run, fetching back the fours and sixes. It was just a light hearted game, nobody keeping the scores, but they reckoned that the Englishmen won. Afterwards I heard tell your grand-mother burned one of the bails to make some ashes to give to the English captain.
This gesture arose from a conversation during the match. One of the spectators asked what prize the teams were playing for and Janet jokingly replied that a trophy was needed. When the Englishmen were credited with a victory, she decided that they could take home the Ashes which they had lost at the Oval, if they won the coming series of three test matches.
Janet handed Ivo Bligh a small pottery urn containing the ashes of the bail, remarking that England and Australia now had a trophy to play for. Bligh replied that his team would ensure that the urn and its contents would be borne off to England after the coming test matches.
The urn became Ivo’s most treasure possession and sat on the mantelpiece in his study. It was his most treasured possession because it represented his love for the poor Florence Morphy whom later became his wife and the Countess of Darnley. Florence, whom he had just met some weeks earlier, was also instrumental in assisting Lady Janet in “creating” the ashes that memorable Christmas Eve.
The love story
The little urn survives to this day because of the symbol it represented; the love between the poor lower class Australian Florence and the dashing upper class English Captain.
Without this love, the urn would not be the symbol it is today. Indeed it was the Ladies behind the Cricket powers that created the most poignant symbol in the gentleman’s game of cricket.
As Michael Clarke explains it in his book “Clarke of Rupertswood”:
"The two would have seen much of each other when the English cricketers stayed at Rupertswood in 1882-1883. They had reached a secret understanding before they left for England. Florence was an attractive and graceful young lady, but his family position made the marriage a difficult one. He was the second son, born 1859, of the sixth Earl of Darnley, born 1827. His eldest brother, born in 1851, was still single and seemed unlikely to marry, so that Ivo was his heir to the earldom and the magnificent mansion and estate of Cobham Hall in Kent. "
Normally a younger son had some freedom of choice in marriage, but in this case it seemed likely that Ivo would succeed to the title, which complicated matters. He returned to Cobham Hall to seek his parents’ consent to his weeding to an obscure colonial music governess.
At this stage Sir William and Lady Clarke entered the scene with all guns firing. Janet launched Florence into society at the large ball given by Will at the Melbourne Town Hall on 15th November 1883. Her protégés appearance drew favourable comment. "The young lady wore a simple dress with a crimson aigrette of feathers in her hair and was much noticed”. Sir William informed Lord Darnley that he would personally sponsor Florence and give her away, ensuring that she would be married in fitting style.
Ivo cabled that he would be arriving back in Melbourne at the end of January 1884. The wedding took place in Sunbury on 9 February. The bride arrived on the arm of Sir William Clarke and the eight bridesmaids included Lily Snodgrass and Blanche and Mary Clarke. They were dressed in Cambridge blue in honour of the bridegroom. The groomsmen included Lord William Neville, Mr. George Vernon, the English Cricketer, and Masters Clive and Russel Clarke (my father aged eight). The choir was led by Lady Clarke.
In due course the bride became not only a countess, but also a Dame of the British Empire. Lady Darnely remained eternally grateful to the Clarke family for sponsoring the highly successful marriage. I remember her as a very handsome lady. She died in 1944.
The urn lives on as a symbol of that love. That is the point that is missed about the story of the Ashes and the Urn. In the end it was a simple love story.
The Ashes Bail letter opener; the companion to the Ashes Urn
The Ashes Bail letter opener is understood to be the companion to the second bail that was burnt and placed in the Urn after the final and deciding match at the Sydney Cricket Ground January 26th 1883.
To quote Rupert Peploe once again from his book, Cricket's Burning Passion:
"The original ashes had been burned on Christmas Eve, after the social match in the paddock involving the eight English amateurs. The contents may then have been updated, in that one of the bails used in the Third Test at Sydney may have been burned to ashes. A supporting piece of evidence for this is that another bail from the Third Test was turned into the handle of a paper-knife which the Clarke family used at Rupertswood. It is reasonable to suppose that one of the England amateurs took a pair of bails from the stumps after the Third Test as a memento. The bails may then have been to the Clarkes before the end of the tour, one of them going into the paper-knife, the other into the urn."
The urn may have been updated too. If it had originally been wooden, it was now replaced by the present terracotta urn. MCC’s assistant librarian Glenys Williams is convinced that the urn - the present one - came from one of the dressing tables used by the ladies at Rupertswood. There it would have been used for holding perfumes or make up or the like.
England has the Urn in its physical presence.
Australia has its companion in its physical presence.
The two bails are resting in the two opposing teams' homelands. Both icons should be enjoyed by the greater public.