The Spirit of the Game, as set out in the preamble to the Laws, rightly places an emphasis on the players themselves, however, it is perhaps the grounds, with all their attendant peculiarities, that may be considered to be at the heart of cricket. Players come and go, but the grounds upon which they perform remain. It is the ground aspect that forms the second part of this narrative and, as we shall, from at least 1837 see the ground has been a clearly identifiable entity within the parish and always a meadow.
Early grounds are mentioned in (1) as being –
(i) Between what is now Station Avenue and Jersey Gardens (this was a pasture named “Castle Field) now largely residential.
(ii) in Nevendon Road, (probably “Home Mead” or “Seven Acres”) pastures that are now occupied by Chaplin Lodge, the Fire Station and a recreation area.
(iii) Franklin’s Meadow off Southend Road, (“Fifteen Acres”).
This latter location is somewhat puzzling since that particular field seems to have been cultivated as arable land, certainly in 1858 (3). However, this is not to say that it did not revert to pasture during the agricultural depression that occurred in the latter part of the 19th century.
The first regular ground is stated a being “at the back of the Castle Hotel” (1). This Georgian Inn, a grade 2 listed building and shown on the Chapman & Andre’ map of 1777, has now been demolished and replaced by Aldi Supermarket (such is progress). The Tithe Award Map of 1837 (4) identifies the land that was literally “at the back” of the Castle as being comprised of two sections, “Castle Inn & Yard and “Hoppet”, totalling 4 roods 16 poles in area, i.e. just over one acre, including that occupied by the Inn itself and its extensive out-buildings (stables etc.). The remaining area would have been much too small for a cricket field being constrained by the River Crouch and since 1887, by the railway. However, bordering this land and leading down to the river and fronting a considerable length of the High Street was a meadow of some 7 acres also known appropriately as “Castle Field” sometimes called “Margaret Croft” (3), (4).
On the south-eastern side of that particular length of the High Street there were very few properties (none at all up to at least 1858) and therefore interference to the general integrity of the field itself by any projecting yards or gardens would have minimal. The phrase “Backing the Castle Hotel” would have been just as appropriate when describing this location, (though admittedly “alongside the Castle Hotel” would have been more accurate). It also suggests that there was no intervening railway – a significant and most identifiable feature of the east corner of what was “Castle Field/ Margaret Croft” and was first opened for goods traffic in 1887 and subsequently to passenger traffic in 1889. The construction of this would have caused severe disruption, probably preventing the playing of cricket on that particular field and may have been the reason for a relocation of this first “regular ground”.
It is not clear whether the other grounds mentioned above were a consequence of this relocation or whether they in fact pre-dated it. Throughout the years 1888 to 1899 when the activities of the Club were extensively reported in the parish magazines(9) there is no record or comment relating to any change in location of the ground – a significant event that would surely have been worthy of some mention. In fact there was only one reference to “the ground” and that was a pre-season announcement in May 1894 to the effect that “our usual ground will not be available until the hay has been carried …..”, i.e. no mention of a change of venue, just availability. As will be seen below, the current ground was in existence n 1903 (at least) and if some or all of these other locations post-date the first regular ground they would have to have been used in the intervening three seasons (i.e. 1900 – 1902). However, the club accounts of that time do not contain any expenditure items that would indicate a move of the playing locality and surely some associated activity would have incurred significant expenses that would have to have been met from the club funds. Regularly recorded expenses are for the maintenance and upkeep of the ground (rolling and cutting etc.), together with the rent (£2 10s 0d in 1898, £3 15s 0d in 1907, £5 0s 0d in 1908). Therefore it is concluded that these other grounds pre-date the first regular ground “at the back of the Castle Hotel”. One certain consequence of the relocation was the ultimate establishment of the current ground, less than a few hundred yards away, just along the Runwell Road.
It is also implied that cricket it was being played in Wickford prior to the coming of the railway. Allowing a couple of years for the construction work this would be before 1885. Even earlier would be more likely since it is doubtful whether effort would continue to be expended in attempting to maintain a cricket field once it was known that the railway was being planned to traverse part of the land. The Act of Parliament authorising the Shenfield to Southend extension of the L.N.E.R. was put before the House in 1882. If cricket was played at that time as the above suggests, then perhaps it was on more of an ad-hoc basis and not in the name of an organised and structured club as we know it. In fact there are reports of cricket matches between Wickford and Billericay being played in 1885 and before that in 1860 between Wickford and Stanford-le-Hope.
Over the years remaining parts of Castle Field/Margaret Croft have been completely developed – the frontage along the now High Street for numerous shops, (Suttons, Westway Travel, Mackays, Tandoori Restaurant and Estate Agents, etc), and a large public car park to the rear. Before that development took place part of it had been the location of the Congregational Church, railway signalmen’s cottages and, at the rear, a reservoir for water to replenish the tanks of the railway steam locomotives.
This and the previously mentioned fields were part of Stilemans, one of the two ancient manors in the parish of Wickford (or Wincfort/Wicfort as it was referred to then and in Roman times). The manor of Stilemans is mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1085 with it being gifted by William the Conqueror to Bishop Odo. Detailed ownership is only traceable back to 1650 when it was in the possession of a Robert Chester (5). By inheritance and marriage it then passed in turn to the families of John Moor, Chester Moor Jnr., John Hall (nephew of Chester Moor Snr.) and by the mid-18th century, Chester Moor Hall.
The area eventually became known as Stilemans Farm of which the present cricket ground was a part, being a field at the rear of the farm house that was situated in the Runwell Road (6). The Tithe Award Map of 1839 identifies William Cockerton as the then owner of the farm with a Samuel Brunwin as the tenant. William had inherited the farm in 1815 from his father, also William Cockerton. The field itself was called “Home Mead” and described as being a meadow. William Cockerton the younger died in December 1857 and the farm was purchased by Samuel Brunwin at an auction in 1858 that was held at London, in Garraway’s Coffee House, Cornhill (3). The field was now identified as “Dove House Mead” with it continuing to be cultivated as grass.
George Brunwin, son of the above Samuel Brunwin, became the last owner of the now 240 acre farm. He died in March 1903 and the executors, acting under the directions contained in his will, undertook the sale of his estate. The farm was partitioned into fourteen various sized lots to be sold by auction. It would appear that the partitioning into the various lots took into account existing field boundaries and road frontage to maximise the potential for residential development. The auction took place on the afternoon of Tuesday June 19th 1906, and was held in the open, opposite the Castle Hotel. This would have been on the site of the original cattle market, (not the later one in Market Road, now the site of the Library and Community Centre). A preserved sales catalogue of the day (7) contains against each lot some handwritten notes that describe the basic location, details the bid-by-bid progression to the final sale price, and in some cases also giving a name to indicate the eventual purchaser. The field, designated as still being pasture, formed part of lot no.3 are further annotations – “Runwell Road”, “Cricket Field” and “Darby’s”. (C.S. Darby had some agricultural engineering premises that fronted the Runwell Road and backed onto the ground). Also of note was lot number 5, comprising 2.7 acres along Swan Lane and backing onto the western side of the field. The annotations indicate that this was sold to “Patmore” for the sum of £570.
It is known that Dick Patmore was the owner of a cottage that occupied part of this lot number 5 and who also became the owner of what we know as being the cricket ground. We presume that this “Patmore” was in fact Dick Patmore and to become the “owner of the cricket ground” he must have subsequently negotiated with the Ramuz Land Company for the purchase of the mentioned “Cricket Field” as a separated part of lot number 3. The present boundary of the ground at the southwest corner suggests that a further small area of about three quarters of an acre, probably that part forming the farm stock yard, may have also been included in the purchase at that time. Perhaps Dick Patmore had made a prior arrangement with the Ramuz Land Company that he would purchase these areas from them. More importantly, the above mentioned annotation referring to a cricket field indicates that it was in existence not only at the time of the auction in 1906 but was almost certainly there in 1903. This is a consequence of the fact that on the death of George Brunwin in 1903 his estate would have been in probate and any significant development or charges to the land would not have been possible (apart from the possible continuation of crop cultivation and harvesting) The statement in the Club’s centenary book (1) that the Club moved to this ground in 1908 raises the question as to who was playing at the ground from 1903 – 1907? The obvious answer is the Club itself and 1908 is in error. 1908 is believed to be when R.W. Patmore actually purchased the ground (from the Ramuz Land Company) and the year 1887 is all embracing, not only to the founding of the Club but also to the establishment of the present cricket ground itself.
This aside, the information above does show that the field which now forms the cricket ground has been essentially meadow or grass for at least 175 years. Before that is definitely speculation – were some of the periodic and regularly spaced parallel undulations in the outfield remnants of the mediaeval ridge and furrow system of cultivation? Is the pronounced “hump” along the northern boundary the remnants of a ploughing headland? Parch marks that appear during extremely dry conditions show a rectilinear pattern of post holes at the western side of the square indicating the presence of some old building – perhaps a barn. Also towards the bottom of the ground, just outside the playing boundary, there is a distinctive circular parch mark indicating brickwork some twelve feet in diameter – too large for a well but possibly the site of a small dovecot as the naming of the field in the 1858 auction suggests may have existed at one time. Just beyond this the installation of the new practice nets exposed the corner brickwork foundations of an old building – was this the site of the original manor house that was taken down in about 1730? (5) This is stated to have been a half mile from the Parish Church (St. Catherine’s) to the north of the river. This would certainly have placed it within the cricket ground.
The rather odd shape of the field is readily identifiable on large scale maps and three of the centuries old field boundaries have remained in position. The construction in the late 1970’s of a bypass and roundabout at its junction with the Runwell Road necessitated (compulsory purchase) the one change that has occurred to those original field boundaries. It is the surrounds that have really changed. The adjacent northern (“The Mead”) eastern (“Runwell Mead”) and south-eastern (“Orchard Field”) pastures have been developed and now contain residential properties with gardens that back onto the ground. The re-aligned southern boundary is largely bordered by the Runwell Road (the A132) and contains the main entrance to the ground for convenient car parking around half of the playing boundary on match days. A second entrance from Swan Lane gives a more direct access to the pavilion and small car parking area with the approach road running along what would have been the rear of the old farm stables, now the site of an electrical sub-station.
In 1953 Basildon Council tried to annex the ground for a community centre – who knows where the Club would have relocated, indeed would it have survived? However this was successfully contested with a legal bill amounting to £264 and the Club continued its occupancy.
A significant change has been the disappearance of the tall elm trees that at one time totally enclosed the ground. An article in the Essex Countryside magazine of 1973 (8) referred to some of these as being the “giants of Wickford”. Unfortunately the spread of the Dutch elm fungus meant that eventually these were cut down in the 1970s, (just one stump remains by the score box located in the northwest corner). Despite this and the Broadway/High Street shops and businesses being less than a hundred yards away, the ground still remains somewhat secluded. To some it still has the nature of the village green, with a well-known slope and non-standard east-west alignment of the square. This latter point can lead to some interesting conditions of play on sunny autumnal evenings – but the slow “lobber” is now a thing of the past and has virtually disappeared from most bowling attacks. He does however, with skipper’s prerogative, make an occasional appearance during the more leisurely proceedings of a Sunday 2nd X1 match.
(1) Crook, Lester. “The First Hundred Years: Wickford Cricket Club 1887 -1987”. Crook Academic Publishing
(2) See “The Founders”. http://www.wickfordhistory.org.uk/page/some_early_history_relating_to_wickford_cricket_club
(3) “Sale of the estate of William Cockerton, 1858” Essex Record Office, Accession Nos A1034 and D/DTo T45
(4) “Tithe Award Map of 1837, Parish of Wickford”, Essex Record Office, Accession No.D/G 3956
(5) Dormer-Pierce, Rev. F. “Notes on the History of Wickford Essex”, pp. 20-21.
(6) Hall, Peter. “Wickford”. The Archive Photograph Series, (Photograph p.57)
(7) “Sale of the estate of George Alfred Brunwin, 1906”, Essex Record Office, Accession No. B2446
(8) Corney, Joan. “Vanished giants of Wickford”, Essex Country Life, June 1973
(9) “Wickford Parish Magazine, 1888 – 1898” (in private hands).