Mayhem, murder and myth: cricket at Tilbury in 1776

Posted in Local History at 12:54 am by henrysgauntlet

This is one of the great ‘stories’ about cricket in Essex in the eighteenth-century.  It comes from the Gravesend correspondent of the London Chronicle and is dated 29th October, 1776.

“A terrible affair happened this day at Tilbury Fort.  A great match of cricket being to be played between Kent and Essex, the parties assembled on both sides.  When they were met, a man appearing among the former, who should not have been there, the Essex men refused playing, on which a very bloody battle ensued, and the Kentish men being likely to be worsted, one of them ran into the guard-house, and getting a gun from one of the invalids, fired and killed one of the opposite party.  On seeing this they all began running to the guard-house, and there being but four soldiers there, they took away the guns and fell to it, doing a great deal of mischief.  An old invalid was run through the body with a bayonet: and a serjeant who commands at the fort, in the absence of the officer, endeavouring with his four men to quell them, was shot dead.  At last the Essex men took to flight, and running over the drawbridge, made their escape.  The Kentish men then made off in their boats, but search is making after them.” 

It is a fascinating story, one that was repeated again and again in nineteenth-century anthologies.  The trouble with it is that no other report ever appeared in any other newspaper of 1776:  no one was named as one of the two victims murdered on this occasion and absolutely no one was caught or prosecuted.  No advertisement for the match between Kent and Essex had appeared, indeed there was no place in ‘Tilbury’ where the match could have been played since, apart from the fort, the ferryhouse and a milking shed about a mile away, there were no buildings or settlements there.  The ground around the fort was, moreover, too sodden for any match to take place there, let alone one at the end of the month of October.  Engaging though this story is, that is what it was – a ‘story’. 

Eighteenth-century people, just like their twenty-first century counterparts, enjoyed ‘spoof’ accounts of improbable events.  This one had all the elements – mayhem and murder – to keep it alive for over one hundred years.  Its author would have been proud of that at least.

Author  –  Christopher Thompson