The phrase “it’s just not cricket” applies to anything that’s just not fair—such as excluding women from a good number of entertaining sports. However, cricket was one sport where ladies did play. The print of a match held in 1779 and organized by Elizabeth Smith-Stanley, eldest daughter of the 6th Duke of Hamilton, and wife of the Earl of Derby, got me started down this rabbit path.
As noted by Naomi Clifford on her website, “Women’s cricket was not unknown, the first recorded match being between Bramley and Hambleton in Surrey,” in 1775. Held at Moulsey Hurst, near West Molesey, Surrey, “there was a match between teams of six married and unmarried women, with the singletons winning. Betting was ‘great’.” (The betting note comes from The Recreative Review, or Eccentricities of Literature and Life (1822). Vol 3. London: J. Wallis. Quoting Dodsley, 1774.) She also mentions a women’s match that took place in 1811 at Ball’s Bond, near Newington Green between teams from Hampshire and Surrey
As noted in Pierce Egan’s Book of Sports, and Mirror of Life Embracing the Turf, And Mirror of Life (1836), Ann Baker was ‘the best runner and bowler’ on the Surrey side. However, Hampshire won, after which the players went to the Angel, Islington for a what was accounted to be “slap-up entertainment.”
Back to the Countess of Derby and her match. According to The Pebble in My Shoe: An Anthology of Women’s Cricket, by Roy Case, the other women in the painting include “two teams drawn entirely from upper-class society”. Miss Elizabeth Ann Burrell was said to have ‘got in more notches (meaning a run) in the first and second inning than any other Lady’ which seems to have earned her the admiration of the 8th Duke of Hamilton who married her “before the next cricket season began” according to Case.
In Women’s Sports: A History, Allen Guttman notes that women’s cricket matches were not always genteel—a match held in July, 1747 was interrupted by “crowd trouble”. Heavy betting might be involved—wasn’t it always for any game—and prizes for the winning team could range from pairs of lace gloves to money to barrels of ale.
A print at the British Museum by Thomas Rowlandson shows “rural sports” of a women’s match with skirts hiked up and flying and the crowd cheering:
“’On Wednesday October 3rd 1811 A Singular Cricket Match took place at Balls Pond Newington. The Players on both sides were 22 Women 11 Hampshire against 11 Surrey. The Match was made between Two Amateur Noblemen of the respective Counties for 500 Guineas a side. The Performers in the Contest were of all Ages and Sizes.’”
“The scene shows batswomen running hard, while one of the field leaps to attempt a high catch; the wicket-keeper crouches behind the wicket, hands on knees. The players have petticoats kilted above the knee, bare heads, necks, and arms; they wear flat slippers. All the fielders look or run towards the ball; one has fallen with great display of leg; another, running headlong, trips over a dog. Eleven are playing, including those batting.”
It does make sense that girls would grow up knowing how to play cricket. After all, if you need 11 players to make a full team, you’d want to draft every player around, regardless of age and sex (and yes, it is recorded that some women played into their 60s). Even for a less official team, the girls might well need to be drafted to play so there’d be enough for a batter and a bowler, and don’t forget the wicketkeeper, the slip, and all the fielding positions.
Back to the countess—she was a bit of a rebel for her era. By 1778, rumors were already going around of her affair with “the most notorious rake of the day” (to quote Alan Crosby’s book Stanley, Edward Smith, twelfth earl of Derby). That man was John Sackville, the Duke of Dorset, and the story went that he would disguise himself as a gardener at Knowsley Hall and climb into the window to visit the countess. That story is generally discounted, but what is true is that Elizabeth separated from her husband, and that was one scandal too many. She had to move abroad, and didn’t return until her husband kicked up a worse scandal by taking up with an actress.
Cricket remained cricket, however, and official women’s clubs would sprint up in later Victorian years.