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Sydney Riot of 1879

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The Sydney Riot of 1879 was one of the earliest riots at an international cricket match. It occurred at the Association Ground, Moore Park, in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia (now known as the Sydney Cricket Ground) during a game between a touring English team captained by Lord Harris and a team from the New South Wales Cricket Association led by Dave Gregory. The riot was sparked by a controversial umpiring decision, when star Australian batsman Billy Murdoch was given out by George Coulthard. The dismissal caused an uproar among the crowd, many of whom surged onto the pitch, where some players were assaulted. It was alleged that gamblers in the New South Wales pavilion encouraged Gregory to make a stand so as to disrupt the game.

In the immediate aftermath of the riot the England team cancelled the remaining games which were scheduled to be played in Sydney. The incident also caused much press comment in England and Sydney. A letter by Lord Harris about the incident was later published in English newspapers, and caused fresh outrage in New South Wales when it was reprinted by the colonial press. The response by the New South Wales Cricket Association further damaged relations. The riot led to a breakdown of goodwill that threatened the future of England-Australia cricket tours. However, friction between the cricketing authorities finally eased when Lord Harris agreed to lead an England representative side at the Oval in London more than one year later.


England cricket tours to Australia had started in 1861, and while successful, were still in their infancy in 1879. The teams were sometimes strong, sometimes not so, because, whilst the promoters sought out the best cricketers, they still had to agree terms with them. Not only that, many could not afford the time for the 48-day or so long boat trip to Australia, the tour itself, and the 48-day trip back.

Other than a minor tour by an Australian Aboriginal team in 1868, Dave Gregory led the first major Australian tour to England in 1878. This tour was generally rated as a success, with the Australians famously beating a very strong side put out by the Marylebone Cricket Club, which included the legendary W. G. Grace. Keen to make the most of this success, the Melbourne Cricket Club invited Lord Harris, a leading amateur cricketer of the time, to take a team to Australia. Originally the team was only to contain amateurs, but in the event two professional Yorkshire bowlers, George Ulyett and Tom Emmett, joined the tour team. However, despite the titles, the main distinction between amateurs and professionals was social status: although amateurs did not get paid for playing, they did receive generous "expenses".

Soon after Dave Gregory's 1878 Australian team was back in Australia, Lord Harris's English team arrived. Australia won the first match, played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, by 10 wickets. NSW's "Demon bowler" Fred Spofforth took 13 wickets in the match, as well as the first ever Test hat-trick, since subsequently this game was recognised as the third Test match. The next tour match was against New South Wales and started on January 24 at the Association Ground in Sydney. New South Wales won by 5 wickets despite the absence of Spofforth who withdrew from the home side after spraining his wrist the night before the start of the match.

The game

George Coulthard, whose decision to give out Billy Murdoch led to the riot.
Edmund Barton, who later became the first Australian Prime Minister, umpired the game and helped to defuse the riot.
George Ulyett, the Yorkshire professional scored 55 and took 5 for 57 in the game.

A second game between the English XI (captained by Lord Harris) and the New South Wales XI (captained by Dave Gregory]) commenced on Friday 7 February at the Association Ground. It was usual for each side to select one of the two umpires for a match. The English side selected as its umpire George Coulthard, a 22-year-old Victorian, who had been employed by the tourists on a recommendation from the Melbourne Cricket Club. (He had accompanied them from Melbourne following the Test.) New South Wales selected as their umpire Edmund Barton (who later became the first Prime Minister of Australia). As both Gregory and Spofforth were playing for New South Wales this time, bookmakers were offering attractive odds against an English win, and New South Wales were heavily backed.

Lord Harris won the coin toss and chose to bat. A N Hornby and Lucas started the England innings at about 12.10pm in front of approximately 4,000 spectators. They put on 125 together, before Spofforth bowled Lucas for 51 and Hornby soon after for 67. Ulyett got 55 and Harris 41. However, Spofforth so cut up the wicket with his feet that it became very difficult to play, with Edwin Evans pitching nearly every ball into the marks. Eventually England were all out for 267. Evans took 5 for 62; Spofforth took 5 for 93. At close on the first day, NSW were 53 for 2.

The match continued at noon the next day, Saturday 8 February. Ten thousand were in attendance, and New South Wales did well, getting to 130 for 3 at lunch. However, wickets tumbled thereafter, and New South Wales were all out for 177, with star batsman Billy Murdoch having batted through the innings for 82 not out, making him the hero of the innings for Australia. The professional Tom Emmett was top performer for the Englishmen with 8 for 47. New South Wales had to bat again, 90 runs behind, and they started their second innings around 4 o'clock. Then, when the New South Wales second innings score was 19, Murdoch was adjudged run out by George Coulthard.

The riot

Many in the crowd disagreed with the decision and took exception to it being made by an umpire paid for by the Englishmen. That Coulthard was a Victorian no doubt added to the emotions, and there were unfounded rumours that Coulthard had placed a large bet on an English victory. The crowd would have already been suspicious of Coulthard's competence, as it had been questioned in the press; the Sydney Morning Herald, in reference to Coulthard's refusal of an appeal for a catch that would have dismissed Lord Harris on that Friday had written "The decision was admittedly a mistake". The pavilion is at an angle to the crease, so the members there could not have known how accurate the decision was. Nevertheless, directly after the decision was made against Murdoch, an uproar started in the pavilion. No batsman came out to replace Murdoch, so Harris walked towards the pavilion and met the NSW captain, Gregory, at the pavilion gate, at which point Gregory asked Harris to change his umpire. Harris refused as the English team considered the decision a good one.

It was while Harris was remonstrating with Gregory that " larrikins" in the crowd surged onto the pitch. A young Banjo Paterson, who later went on to write the patriotic Australian song Waltzing Matilda, was in the crowd. In total up to 2,000 swarmed onto the pitch and started to attack Coulthard. Lord Harris, who had gone back onto the field to support Coulthard, was struck by a whip or stick, but he was not hurt. A N Hornby, a keen amateur boxer, who had been offered the English captaincy before stepping aside in Harris's favour, grabbed the man who struck Harris and "conveyed his prisoner to the pavilion in triumph". Hornby was also attacked and almost lost the shirt off his back. Emmett and Ulyett each took a stump and escorted Harris off, assisted by some members. The other umpire, Edmund Barton, helped to defuse the situation, a feat which benefited his publicity campaign when he stood for the New South Wales Legislative Assembly later that year

Independent witnesses said Coulthard's decision was close but fair.

When the ground was finally cleared Gregory insisted, according to Harris, that Coulthard be replaced. When Harris would not agree, Gregory said, "Then the game is at an end". Barton was asked by Harris whether he could claim the match. Barton replied "I will give it to you in two minutes if the batsmen don't return". Harris then asked Barton to speak with Gregory and ascertain what Gregory would do. When Barton came out he announced that Alick Bannerman and Nat Thomson would resume the NSW innings. They reached the stumps, but before they could receive a ball, the crowd invaded the pitch for a third time, and remained there until stumps. According to the Sydney Mail approximately 90 minutes' play had been lost. The game resumed on the next scheduled day, Monday February 10, but rain had fallen and New South Wales made only 49 in their second innings, with Emmett and Ulyett taking the wickets. The match was completed with the English Eleven winning by an innings and 41 runs.

Reaction to the riot

There were allegations that the riot was started by bookmakers, or at least encouraged by the widespread betting that was known to be occurring at the match. That was certainly Lord Harris's view, and also the view of some of his team. Vernon Royle, a member of Lord Harris's team, wrote in his diary that "It was a most disgraceful affair and took its origin from some of the 'better' class in the Pavilion".

The Australian press and cricket officials immediately condemned the riot, and cricket took over the front pages of the NSW press, even though that same weekend bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang had raided Jerilderie. The Sydney Morning Herald called the riot “a national humiliation”, a disgrace that "would remain a blot upon the colony for some years to come". However, they also suggested that some of the blame should be appropriated to one of the English professionals, who "made use of a grossly insulting remark to the crowd about their being nothing but 'sons of convicts'".

Lord Harris's letter

The New South Wales Cricket Association appealed to Lord Harris, and in reply he said he did not place any blame on the Association, or on the cricketers of Sydney, but it was an occurrence it was impossible he could forget. On 11 February 1879, one day after the conclusion of the match and three days after the riot, Harris wrote a letter to one of his friends about the disturbance. It was clear that he intended that the letter would be printed in the press, and, indeed, the letter appeared in full in The Daily Telegraph, a London newspaper on 1 April, and in other London newspapers, where it caused a furore. Wisden's Cricketers Almanack considered the incident of such significance that it found space for the whole correspondence too. The letter, which gives a detailed contemporary account of what Lord Harris thought about the riot, read as follows:

I am not certain whether you will be astonished or not at what I have to tell you, but I know you will be distressed that your friends, a party of gentlemen travelling through these Colonies for the purpose of playing a few friendly games of cricket, should have been insulted and subjected to indignities it distresses us to look back upon. We began the return match with the NSW Eleven on Friday, February 7, scored 267, and got our opponents out for 177 by 3.30 on the Saturday afternoon. Murdoch, who had carried his bat out in the first, and A. Bannerman went to the wickets to commence the second innings. At 19 on the telegraph the former was run out. Before he got back to the pavilion I heard shouts of "not out", "go back", etc., arise from that quarter, and saw the occupants of it rise almost en masse. I at once saw what was the matter, and instead of waiting for D. Gregory (the captain) to come out to me, perhaps unwisely walked to the pavilion to meet him at the gate. He, I found, in the name of the NSW Eleven, objected to Coulthard, the umpire.

I must here diverge to explain certain facts connected with the Colonies which are not known or understood at home. Contrary to our custom, it is here the exception to employ professional umpires. This I was not told until after the disturbance. As you know, we brought no umpire, and on arrival at Adelaide I asked the representatives of the Melbourne CC if they could recommend anyone to us whom we could take about with us throughout our tour. They mentioned this man Coulthard, a professional on their ground, whom they had constantly tried and found competent, and added that if we on trial also considered him competent, the MCC would be very glad to give him leave of absence so long as we wanted his services. I considered him on trial a good and trustworthy umpire, and arranged with the MCC that he should accompany us to NSW. Had we known on our arrival that a feeling existed in these Colonies against the employment of professional umpires, it is possible we might have acted differently; but, understand, at the same time, that I have seen no reason as yet to change my opinion of Coulthard's qualities, or to regret his engagement, in which opinion I am joined by the whole team.

To resume my account of the disturbance on the ground on the Saturday. I asked Gregory on what grounds the objection was raised, and he said at first general incompetence, but afterwards admitted that the objection was raised on account of the decision in Murdoch's case. I implored Gregory, as a friend, and for the sake of the NSW Cricket Association, which I warned him would be the sufferer by it, not to raise the objection, but he refused to take my view of the case. Looking back in the midst of this conversation, I found the ground had been rushed by the mob, and our team was being surrounded. I at once returned to the wickets, and in defending Coulthard from being attacked was struck by some 'larrikin' with a stick. Hornby immediately seized this fellow, and in taking him to the pavilion was struck in the face by a would-be deliverer of the 'larrikin', and had his shirt nearly torn off his back. He, however, conveyed his prisoner to the pavilion in triumph.

For some thirty minutes or so I was surrounded by a howling mob, resisting the entreaties of partisans and friends to return to the pavilion until the field was cleared, on the grounds that if our side left the field the other eleven could claim the match. I don't suppose that they would have done so, but I determined to obey the laws of cricket, and may add that for one hour and a half I never left the ground, surrounded during the whole time, with two short intervals, by some hundreds of people. At about five o'clock the crowd was cleared off somehow. I then took the opinion of the Eleven as to changing the umpire, and it was decided nem. con. that there were no grounds for the objection, and that we should decline to change him. I informed Gregory of the decision, whereupon he said, 'Then the game is at end'. On Coulthard appearing from the pavilion groans arose from the crowd, and at the same moment it began to break the ring again. The two batsmen who had been standing at the wickets returned to the pavilion, re-called, I afterwards found, by Gregory, but at the time I thought possibly because of the threatened irruption of the crowd. I turned to Mr Barton, the NSW Eleven umpire, and asked if I could not claim the match according to the laws of cricket. His answer was, 'I shall give it you in two minutes' time if the batsmen do not return'. I said to him, 'I won't claim it yet. I'll give the other side every chance of reconsidering a decision arrived at, I believe, unadvisedly, and in a moment of passion. Please ask Gregory what he means to do.' On returning Mr Barton informed me that Gregory would send two men to the wickets - a curiously sudden change of mind I think you will allow. However, before the batsmen could appear the crowd had covered the ground for the second time. After some twenty minutes it was cleared for the second time also. A. Bannerman and Thompson then took their places at the wickets, but before a ball could be bowled the crowd broke in for the third and last time. I remained on the ground until the time for drawing the stumps, surrounded as before. Beyond slyly kicking me once or twice the mob behaved very well, their one cry being, 'Change your umpire'. And now for the cause of this disturbance, not unexpected, I may say, by us, for we have heard accounts of former matches played by English teams.

It was started and fomented by professional betting men in the pavilion, members of the association. The disgraceful part of the business is that other members of the association - one a member of the legislative assembly - aided and abetted the bookmakers in raising the cry. I blame the NSW Eleven for not objecting to Coulthard before the match began, if they had reason to suppose him incompetent to fulfil his duties. I blame the members of the association (many, of course, must be excepted) for their discourtesy and uncricket like behaviour to their guests; and I blame the committee and others of the association for ever permitting betting, but this last does not, of course, apply to our match only. I am bound to say they did all in their power to quell the disturbance. I don't think anything would have happened if A. Bannerman had been run out instead of Murdoch, but the latter, besides being a great favourite, deservedly I think, was the popular idol of the moment through having carried his bat out in the first innings.

As a contrast to the reception the Australian Eleven met with after beating the MCC at Lord's, I may say that when we won the match on Monday, hardly a cheer was given us by the ring. The occupants of the pavilion acknowledged our victory. They are capital winners out here, but I am afraid I can't apply the same adjective to them as losers. To conclude, I cannot describe to you the horror we felt that such an insult should have been passed on us, and that the game we love so well, and wish to see honoured, supported, and played in an honest and manly way everywhere, should receive such desecration. I can use no milder word. The game was finished on Monday without interruption. Coulthard had made two mistakes in our first innings, one favouring us, the other the opposite. Murdoch's decision was considered by cover-point and point to be a good one, and I repeat that the NSW Eleven had no grounds whatever for raising an objection. We never expect to see such a scene of disorder again - we can never forget this one.

I remain, Yours sincerely

February 11 - HARRIS

Reply by the New South Wales Cricket Association

The New South Wales Cricket Association were outraged by Lord Harris's letter and got their honorary secretary, a Mr JM Gibson, to write to the Daily Telegraph in reply:

Richard Driver, President of the New South Wales Cricket Association

A few days ago a letter from Lord Harris, published in your issue of April 1, appeared in the Colonial Press. That letter dilated upon a lamentable disturbance which occurred at Moore Park, near this city, during a match played between his lordship's eleven and an eleven of New South Wales, on February 7, 8, and 10 last. Upon the appearance of the letter in our newspapers a feeling of indignation was generally expressed, and within a few hours a requisition influentially signed was presented, calling on me to convene a special general meeting of the New South Wales Cricket Association for the purpose of considering the letter and comments made upon it in some of the London papers. A meeting was accordingly convened, and took place this evening. The President, Mr Richard Driver, MP, occupied the chair, in the presence of an unusually large attendance of members. The letter referred to having been read, and the President, Sir George Innes, MLC, Mr M. H. Stephen, QC, Mr G. H. Reid, and Mr Richard Teece having addressed the meeting, it was unanimously resolved that I should ask you to publish the following statement, in correction of the account transmitted by Lord Harris, which, principally upon the following grounds, is universally regarded here as both inaccurate and ungenerous.

When Lord Harris prepared his letter of February 11, he was fully aware of the following facts:

  1. That on the previous day a deputation from the association, consisting of our president, some of the vice-presidents, officers, and members waited upon him, and expressed profound sorrow and regret for the conduct of the unruly portion of the crowd, and Lord Harris was pleased to assure the deputation that he did not hold the association in any way responsible for what had occurred.
  2. That immediately after the disorder on the cricket ground the public and the press were loud in their indignation at the occurrence, and assured our visitors of their utmost sympathy; and the team received similar marks of good feeling from all quarters.
  3. That betting on cricket matches is strictly prohibited by the trustees of the ground, so far as it can be so prohibited, and large placards to that effect have always been kept posted throughout the pavilion and its inclosures.

Lord Harris, by what we feel to be a most ungenerous suppression of these facts and others, has led the British public to suppose that in New South Wales, to quote his own words, 'a party of gentlemen travelling through these colonies for the purpose of playing a few friendly games of cricket should have been insulted and subjected to indignities', whilst the press and inhabitants of Sydney neither showed surprise, indignation, nor regret. We cannot allow a libel upon the people of New South Wales so utterly unfounded as this to pass without challenge. The country upon which such a reproach could be fastened would be unworthy of a place among civilised communities, and in the imputation is especially odious to Australians, who claim to have maintained the manly, generous, and hospitable characteristics of the British race.

Having shown that for what actually occurred the fullest acknowledgments were made, it is now right to point out that the misconduct of those who took possession of the wickets has been exaggerated. So popular amongst our people is the game of cricket that multitudes of all ages and classes flock to a great match. They watch these contests with an interest as intense as any felt in England over a great political question. Lord Harris is, we believe, the first English cricketer who failed to observe that they applaud good cricket on either side, and, so far from our crowds being the bad losers he represents, the English Elevens who have visited New South Wales were never made more of than when they defeated the local team. Previous decisions of the professional brought from Melbourne to act as umpire for the English Eleven had created real, though suppressed dissatisfaction, and one, giving Lord Harris a second 'life', was openly admitted by his lordship to be a mistake; and when Mr Murdoch, the hero of the hour, who had carried his bat through in the first innings, was at the crisis of the game given ' run out' by what a large proportion of the spectators, both in the pavilion and round the inclosure, as well as the batsman himself, whether rightly or wrongly, took to be a most unfair decision, the excitement and indignation of a section of the spectators, led by the juvenile element, unhappily broke through restraint. Only once before in New South Wales was a cricket ground rushed, and then, as in the present instance, the crowd was seized with a conviction of foul play. But the present demonstration was entirely against the umpire, whom Lord Harris still considers competent, whilst admitting 'he had made two mistakes in our innings'. It certainly was not against our gallant visitors. The only cry was 'Change your umpire!' and the mob voluntarily left the ground more than once in the hope that that would be done. The betting men to whom Lord Harris alludes, and of whom only one or two were present, were not members of this association at all, and it is completely unjust to assign the demonstration to any such agency. Bad as it was, it sprang from no mercenary motive.

Sydney, June 4th.

Spofforth's view

Fred Spofforth, Australia's Demon bowler, did comment on it years later in an 1891 cricket magazine interview, but with a different slant on the cause. His view was that the English team were unfortunate victims of intercolonial rivalry:

Then the crowd could stand it no longer and rushed on to the field, refusing to budge until the umpire was removed. I have no wish to dwell on this painful occurrence, but I should like to point out that the feeling aroused was almost entirely due to the spirit of the rivalry between the Colonies … The umpire was Victorian, and the party spirit in the crowd was too strong, 'Let an Englishman stand umpire,' they cried; 'we don't mind any of them. We won't have a Victorian.' There was not the slightest animosity against Lord Harris or any of his team; the whole disturbance was based on the fact that the offender was a Victorian. But Lord Harris stood by his umpire; and as a result, the match had to be abandoned till the following day.

Aftermath of the riot

Immediately after the game, Lord Harris took his side away from Sydney, cancelling the planned return match against a representative Australian side that would have become the fourth-ever Test match. However, there was a farewell dinner during which Lord Harris made a placating speech. The New South Wales Cricket Association pressed charges against two men who were charged with "having participated in the disorder". Richard Driver who appeared for the prosecution told the court that "the inmates of the Pavilion who had initiated the disturbance, including a well-known bookmaker of Victoria who was at the time ejected, had had their fees of membership returned to them, and they would never again be admitted to the ground". The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the two men "expressed regret for what had occurred, and pleaded guilty" and "the Bench fined them 40 shillings, and to pay 21 shillings professional costs of the court".

Impact on later tours

An Australian side captained by Billy Murdoch toured England in 1880; it was guaranteed to get a frosty welcome, and it found it difficult to find good opponents, with most county sides turning them down, although Yorkshire played two unofficial matches against them. There was a lot of bad will, which was exacerbated by them coming to England at short notice, and to some extent, unexpectedly. In his autobiography Lord Harris wrote, "They asked no-one's goodwill in the matter, and it was felt this was a discourteous way of bursting in on our arrangements; and the result was they played scarcely any counties and were not generally recognised. We felt we had to make a protest against too frequent visits". An attempt to arrange a game against an English XI for the Cricketers' Fund was turned down, and WG Grace's attempt to arrange a game with them at Lord's was rebuffed by the Marylebone Cricket Club.

Despite it being Murdoch's wicket that started the riot, the English public were more sympathetic towards him than Gregory, and although the Australians played against weak opposition, including many XVIIIs, they attracted big crowds. Eventually Lord Harris was asked by the secretary of Surrey, C. W. Alcock to put together a representative side to play the Australians. Although Lord Harris was generous in agreeing to lead the side, three cricketers who played in the infamous Sydney game, A N Hornby, Emmett and Ulyett, refused to play. But Harris assembled a strong team, which included the three Grace brothers. Australia, who had not faced strong opposition and were without star bowler Fred Spofforth went down by five wickets. 45,000 watched the match. This game, now recognised as the Fourth Test is more important than its result, as the custom of cricket tours between England and Australia was cemented.

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