The Sydney cricket riot, 1879
There is nothing quite like a game of cricket. Probably my favourite sporting contest is the Ashes, test matches between representative teams representing England (with the odd South African thrown in) and Australia. The cricket is tense and hard-fought and the atmosphere in the crowd febrile, especially as the heady mix of English sunshine (weak) and the amber nectar on sale (even weaker) takes its toll. Having watched many a test match I have never seen a riot but then I wasn’t at the Sydney’s Association Ground at Moore Park in February 1879.
Lord Harris brought a team of cricketers to tour the Antipodes and, as was the custom at the time, picked up a local umpire, this time George Coulthard, who came from Melbourne. Now one thing I have learned from my sojourns down under is that if there is one thing a Sydneyite abhors more than a Pom it is someone from their neighbouring state, Victoria. Coulthard was on a hiding to nothing, a situation not helped by giving Harris not out controversially on the first day (February 7th) – “a mistake”, according to the Sydney Morning Herald – and then on the second giving crowd favourite, Billy Murdoch, run out, a decision which many in the crowd disagreed with.
Money was habitually wagered at games and there were rumours that Coulthard had staked a considerable sum on an English victory whilst many of the locals who had their money on a home win took a dim view of their hero’s early return to the pavilion. The Australian captain insisted that Coulthard be replaced and in the hiatus in play, some spectators climbed the perimeter fencing and invaded the pitch, making a bee line for Coulthard. Harris ran back on to the pitch to protect the umpire and was struck with a stick for his pains. One of the English players, Hornby, a boxer as well as a cricketer, frogmarched the assailant back to the pavilion.
The rest of the English team showed the stiff upper lip we come to associate with the Brits at the time by staying on the pitch, surrounded by “a howling mob”, in Harris’ words, of a thousand or so. Pleasantries were exchanged by both sides including from the English the standard term of abuse for Aussies about “them being nothing but sons of convicts”. Among the pitch invaders was Banjo Paterson who later found fame by composing Waltzing Matilda. Order was eventually restored and it required the intercession of the other umpire, Edmund Barton, later to become Australia’s first prime minister, before play resumed. The English won the game on the following day.
The local press initially condemned the disturbance – the Sydney Morning Herald calling it “a blot upon the colony for some years to come” and the South Australian Register “a disgrace to the people”. Wisden called the incident “a deplorably disgraceful affair” and described the spectators as a “rough and excited mob”. But the mood changed when Harris published a letter in the Daily Telegraph in which he accused members of the NSW cricket association of being instrumental in causing the disturbances. Responding in kind the association accused Harris of being economical with the truth.
In the aftermath, two men were charged with disorder and several members, including a well-known bookmaker, were expelled from the association and banned from the ground. What would have been the fourth test between the two countries was cancelled and when an Australian team toured England the following year hardly anyone would play them. When a test, the first to be staged in England, was held at the Oval three who had represented England at Sydney, Hornby, Emmett and Ulyett, refused to play.
Who said cricket was boring?