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The Ashes

ImageOn 2nd September 1882 the story of The Ashes began after England had a disaster at cricket. But the very next day a baby was born in Stamford Hill who would one day fight for those Ashes ...

Making a big discovery
Just after England won The Ashes in 2005, TimeLine history detectives teamed up with David Blundell and the Stoke Newington Cricket Club for a special cricket investigation - and that is how the cricket-crazy sleuths discovered that their own local history and heritage in Hackney had a direct link with the history of The Ashes..

Over 120 years earlier, loads of English people thought it would be brilliant for the Australian cricket team to travel all the way over to England to play cricket (so long as they lost all the matches, of course!)  The Australian cricket team had come to England before, and never been cheeky enough to win, but in 1882 things were going to be very different.  In England's final innings at The Oval all ten wickets tumbled in just two hours: even England's all-time cricketing hero W.G. Grace could not stop the disaster.  Suddenly Australia were the champions, and England were the losers.

English sports fans could not face the shock and the shame.  On 2nd September 1882 The Sporting Times pronounced Englsh cricket dead:

In Affectionate Remembrance of English cricket, which died at the Oval
on 29th AUGUST, 1882, deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing
friends and acquaintance
N.B. — The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.

The start of a very long story
ImageAnd that was the beginning of the story of The Ashes.  But what The Sporting Times did not know was that over in Stamford Hill one of England's all-time sports superstars was just about to make his very first appearance.  On the other side of London from The Oval, Julia Douglas was ready to have a baby in her little house in Stamford Terrace (nowadays we call it Belfast Road) - just next to Stoke Newington Railway Station. On the day after people all over the country had read that sad story in The Sporting Times, there was a good news story in that little house in Stamford Hill.  A tiny baby with a very big name had been born : and one day John William Henry Tyler Douglas was going to become front page news.

As Johnny grew up, the competition for The Ashes between Australia and England was repeated many times, with loads of stories of triumph and disaster.  Meanwhile,  Johnny became an amazing sportsman:  he was brilliant at boxing and cracking at cricket, and he won loads of titles and medals for both.  When London held the Olympic Games for the first time in 1908, Johnny even won a gold medal for boxing.   So the English boxing fans had a great year in 1908, but try as they might, the cricketers just could not seem to win those Ashes.  Australia won them in 1908, and again in 1909.  So England were determined to win them back the next time - and who better to pick for the Test team than Johnny Douglas, the captain of the Essex cricket team and the proud owner of an Olympic gold medal? 

A very long journey - and then disaster strikes
Nowadays, it is not such a big deal to fly from London to Australia.  But in 1911 you had to sail all the way around the world - and it took a very long time.  Plum Warner, the English captain, was proud as punch as he led the Enland cricket team into St. Pancras railway station to start their huge journey to Australia.  Hundreds of people squeezed into the station, waving and cheering their heroes, chanting "Bring Back the Ashes, Bring Back the Ashes!".  They might have set off in September, but it was November before they reached Australia.  And, as soon as they did, disaster struck.

ImageIn the very first match of the tour, Plum Warner, the captain, and the most experienced English player, suddenly got very ill.  Just before he was taken to hospital, Plum had to decide who should be  the team captain  whilst he was away - and the person he picked for the job was Hackney hero J.W.H.T. Douglas.  But Plum never did get well enough to play again during the tour, and so Johnny was captain for the whole of that Test series.

For weeks Plum had to stay in hospital, desperate for news of how his team was getting on.  In those years before TV or the internet had been invented, poor old Plum must have thought he would never be able to follow the matches.  His Australian hosts were very confident that they would be winning The Ashes again, but luckily they also made sure to look after Plum, telephoning the hospital every half hour with updates of the matches.  It must have been torture for Plum to hear just before Christmas that Australia had won the first Test match, and things were looking bad for England.

Nail-biting stuff
But there was no way that Johnny and the team were going to give up, and by February they
had won two Test matches - 2-1 to England.  Just one more victory would mean they won the whole Series - so it was time for the English fans to cross their fingers.

In the fourth Test, England scored a record-breaking 589 runs (although Johnny himself did not get one single run).  Everyone was on the edge of their seats as Australia battled through their second innings: they were miles behind and they just had to make sure they did not lose their wickets. It was just like England in the first Test of 2009! 

And that was when Johnny Douglas performed his miracle: in no time at all he had taken five Australian wickets and the match was over.   Suddenly, England's dreams had come true, and Johnny's team really was going to be bringing The Ashes back home!

Now it was England's turn to celebrate, and Australia were the ones who were shocked by losing The Ashes.  While the victorious team was treated to a banquet - including "Turtle Soup au Douglas" - the Australians licked their wounds.  One man grumbled that losing The Ashes was as surprising as it would be if Sydney Harbour ran dry during the night.  But there was still a long time before they would be welcomed home with open arms - and another Test match to win before they completed their 4-1 victory, and English cricket fans could take a rest from the nail-biting experience that watching The Ashes can be.

Seventy-five years is a very long wait
When Johnny Douglas led his team to that Ashes victory, it was just before the time of World War One, and George V had just been crowned King in Britain.   The Ashes stopped during World War One, starting up again in 1920.  For years George went on being King and The Ashes went on being played.  The very last time that the Australians came to England while George was king was in 1934: the good news that year was that England won at Lords, but the bad news was that Australia won the Series and the Ashes.   

For the next seventy-five years there were plenty of changes for England - another world war, two new kings and one new queen - but year after year there was one thing that did not change about cricket.  Try as they might England could not repeat their victory of 1934 and beat Australia at Lords cricket ground.  But finally, on 20th July 2009, nearly a hundred years after Johnny Douglas had won The Ashes, super-hero Andrew Flintoff bowled like a whirlwind, captain Andrew Strauss led the team and at last, after seventy-five long years England beat Australia at the Lords cricket ground.

If you would like to read David Blundell's memory of another great Ashes moment of triumph and disaster, please click here.  And if you would like to find out about an art partnership in Belfast Road, very close to where Johnny Douglas was born, have a look at: www.campbellworks.org.

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