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Cricket on Kennington Common provided an alternative spectacle to public executions. The common was in effect the south London equivalent of Tyburn and there are records of executions all through the time of cricket's tenure. The gallows was where St. Mark's Church now stands, not far from Oval tube station.
In 1600, the common was bounded on the south west by Vauxhall Creek. It extended over marshy land to the south west of the Roman road called Stane Street, now Kennington Park Road. There is a 1660 record of a common keeper being paid for grazing and, in 1661, the notorious[why?] Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were laid out nearby (note the The Oval still has its Vauxhall End). The first recorded execution took place in 1678.
It is likely that cricket was played there by the late 17th century but there are no definite records.
Cricketers on Kennington Common used the Horns tavern as a base. This was first recorded in 1725, a year after the first known cricket match on the common. Other sports including quoits and bowls were played there.
In addition to watching sports and executions, people gathered on the common to listen to public speakers. In 1739, the Methodists John Wesley and George Whitefield preached to an estimated 30,000.
The earliest recorded use of the common for cricket was the London v Dartford match on 18 June 1724. This has been classified a first-class match given that it featured the two leading clubs of the time.
In 1729, the 7 August edition of the London Evening Post reported: "On Tuesday was played a great cricket match on Kennington Common between the Londoners and the Dartford men for a considerable sum of money, wager and bets, and the latter beat the former very much".
There was a very close contest on the common in August 1730 when London defeated Surrey by 1 run. The report said that it "was thought to be one of the completest matches that ever was played".
The London v Sevenoaks game on 12 July 1731 is the first known to have been played in an enclosed ground. The report said "the ground will be roped round and all persons are desired to keep without side of the same".
The Surrey v London game on 28 September 1731 was promoted as "likely to be the best performance of this kind that has been seen for some time". The ground was again enclosed: "for the convenience of the gamesters, the ground is to be staked and roped out". It seems therefore that enclosure quickly became common practice in 1731. In addition, the advertisement refers to "the whole county of Surrey as London's opponents". The Prince of Wales was expected to attend and this is his first recorded involvement in cricket.
Newspaper reports of the time were more concerned with odds than results and players were hardly ever mentioned by name. There was an exception on 7 August 1735 when the General Evening Post announced a single wicket match on the common the following Monday involving seven players of the London Club. The game would be three against four with Mr Wakeland, Mr Dunn and Mr Pool against Mr Marshall, Mr Ellis and two others. Ellis is known to have been London's best bowler while Dunn was a noted batsman.
In June 1736, a report of a single wicket match names Mr Wakeland, the distiller, and Mr George Oldner playing together against two famous Richmond players who are "esteemed the best two in England" (one of them may have been William Sawyer). Unfortunately the esteemed pair were not named, though one of them suffered serious facial injuries in this game when the ball came off his bat and hit his nose. The report rails against "human brutes who insisted he should play on despite his injuries". This is a reflection of gambling's stranglehold on the sport at the time.
When Surrey played Kent on 20 September 1736, three soldiers apprehended a deserter but the crowd turned on them, rescued the deserter and "after a severe discipline let them go about their business"! Meanwhile, Surrey won the match by 2 wickets and, unusually for the time, the team scores are known: Kent 41 & 53; Surrey 71 & 24-8.
From this time on, the London club increasingly used the Artillery Ground for its home matches and that also became the main venue for the highly popular single wicket contests of the 1740s. The common became one of several home venues used by Surrey: for example, Moulsey Hurst, Laleham Burway and others. Very few major matches were played on the common thereafter. Executions did continue and it is possible that this association eventually drove the cricketing patrons away, especially given their subsequent withdrawal from the Artillery Ground because of its reputation for uncontrolled gambling.
There was one particularly violent execution on 30 July 1746 when nine men of the Manchester Regiment who had joined the Jacobite Rising were hanged, drawn and quartered. There are no reports of cricket on the common that year but a match did take place at the Artillery Ground on the same day.
In all, 22 first-class matches were played on the common until the last in May 1785 which was, curiously, not a Surrey game but Middlesex v Essex. Numerous minor matches were also recorded there.
Later history of the common
The common continued to stage executions until 1800 while fairs, orators and other popular events continued into the 19th century.
Most famously, the Chartists gathered on the common for the biggest of their "monster rallies" on 10 April 1848. It was soon after this demonstration that the common was enclosed and, sponsored by the royals, Kennington Park was opened in 1854 on part of the site between Kennington Park Road and St Agnes Place. As London expanded, the common has largely disappeared under buildings.
Cricket still has a strong presence in Kennington. One of its major venues is The Oval, which was opened by the new Surrey County Cricket Club in 1845 on a part of the old common that had become a market garden.
- G B Buckley, Fresh Light on 18th Century Cricket, Cotterell, 1935
- H T Waghorn, The Dawn of Cricket, Electric Press, 1906
- UK local online
- From Lads to Lord's – Kennington Common
- Dallimore, Arnold. George Whitefield - The life and times of the great evangelist of the 18th century revival. Banner of Truth Trust, 1979, p. 289
- Classification of cricket matches from 1697 to 1825
- H T Waghorn, Cricket Scores, Notes, etc. (1730-1773), Blackwood, 1899