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The women who invented The Ashes Urn

Sepia portrait of a woman in Victorian clothes
30 November 2019

by Gideon Haigh

The story of The Ashes Urn has been told countless times. Today the Urn is among the world’s most celebrated sporting trophies, but it didn’t start out that way.

It seems that men have always hogged the glory where The Ashes are concerned. There are the captains in that Oval Test match that England lost in 1882 – England’s AN Hornby and Australia’s Billy Murdoch – and Murdoch’s match winner, Fred Spofforth. There’s Reginald Shirley Brooks, the whimsical English wastrel who placed the spoof obituary in the Sporting Times – ‘in affectionate remembrance of English cricket’ whose ashes were bound for Australia. There’s the Hon. Ivo Bligh, who made the recovery of said Ashes the purpose of his team’s mission to the colonies in 1882–83.

But if you think Ellyse Perry leads female contributions to Australian cricket, then you’d be wrong.

Although their brush with the game was comparatively brief, no women have had a greater impact on it than Janet Lady Clarke and Florence Morphy.

You might know the nub of the story already – how the amateur members of Bligh’s team were guests of the Clarkes (land baron Sir William and philanthropist Lady Janet) at their Sunbury property, Rupertswood, at Christmas 1882; how they played a muck-up match against locals and won a joke trophy; how Bligh fell in love with Lady Janet’s companion Florence (and later married her); how on Bligh’s death (he had by then become Lord Darnley), Florence presented that joke trophy to the Marylebone Cricket Club, whose Lords' citadel it never leaves. But this misses a lot, and really rather too much.

In addition to being the wealthiest man in the colony, Sir William Clarke was first president of the Victorian Football Association, and was also president of the Melbourne Cricket Club. He was instrumental in bringing Bligh’s team to Australia.

Janet Snodgrass, from Victoria’s Goulburn Valley, had come to Rupertswood in her teens as governess to the children of Sir William and his first wife Mary. Janet became Sir William’s second wife, despite the 20 years between them. Building a reputation as perhaps the colony’s busiest philanthropist, Janet Lady Clarke liberally endowed hospitals, charities, societies, salons, schools and colleges, including one at the University of Melbourne that still bears her name. The current principal of Janet Clarke Hall, Damian Powell, has called her ‘one of the most successful women in Australia’s history’.

Janet Lady Clarke in turn employed Florence, nine years her junior and from a Beechworth family stricken by poverty on the death of her magistrate father. One imagines the two of them, in anticipation of the Rupertswood social cricket game, preparing a 10.5cm terracotta urn previously used perhaps for perfume, chortling over their inspiration.

To know Florence, it seems, was to love her. On 3 January 1883, Bligh wrote swooningly home seeking permission to marry her, being convinced that ‘a more truly lovable character I have never met in man or woman’, and that Lady Janet was ‘one of the kindest and truest-hearted women that ever stepped this earth.’

Bligh’s luck turned, with his team winning the next two Tests and the series. Six weeks of petitioning at the family’s ancestral seat, Cobham Hall in Kent, was sufficient to change his father’s mind on Florence. The Clarkes facilitated the marriage at St Mary’s Church in Sunbury, where bridesmaids carried flower baskets in the yellow and cerise of Bligh’s cricket team. Later, Florence planted a eucalyptus at Cobham Hall.

Long before its incorporation into cricket legend, The Ashes was a memento of personal affection, and was symbolic of the heavy overlap of the imperial and colonial cultures. When she returned to Victoria as Lady Darnley, Florence told Melbourne Punch that she was ‘going to the cricket match in a delightful state of uncertainty as to which side I should like to win – for I am both English and Australian.’

On that 1903 trip, she found her old friend Lady Janet still going strong. Since Sir William’s death, Janet had become the foundation president of Victoria’s National Council of Women, and the moving force of the Australian National Women’s League – large voluntary organisations that emerged in response to women’s suffrage.

Janet Lady Clarke was, as historian Annette Lewis puts it, ‘a professional woman in an age when genuine professional women rarely existed’. Interestingly, when Janet died in 1909, none of her admiring obituarists mentioned her involvement in the christening of The Ashes Urn at all; such was her fame for philanthropy.

At the time, the Urn reposed on the Darnley mantelpiece at Cobham Hall, where it may well have been glimpsed by wounded Anzacs passing through when the estate was a military hospital during World War I. Bill Woodfull’s 1930 Australian cricket team were the first to get a proper look, at a dinner hosted by Florence: The Ashes stood in front of her place at the banquet table.

This was a star-studded event, attended by dignitaries such as Stanley Melbourne Bruce, former governor Lord Stradbroke, and Nellie Melba, whose namesake dessert was also on the menu. Twenty-one-year-old Donald Bradman sat between Billy Bishop VC, Britain’s most successful fighter ace of World War I, and Mary Lindsay, who was Janet Lady Clarke’s daughter. Suitably inspired, the Don made 254 and 334 in the next two Tests.

So taken were the Australians with the Urn, that when they won the series, Victorian team manager Bill Kelly spoke bullishly of repatriating it to Australia. Little did he know that you have to ask Marylebone very nicely, as the State Library has done.

The inclusion of the Urn in Velvet, Iron, Ashes in State Library Victoria’s new Victoria Gallery is a revelation in appreciation of this remarkable jest of 1882 that goes on churning out punchline after punchline, 137 years later.

About the author

Gideon Haigh is an independent journalist and author. He was born in London, went to school in Geelong, and now lives in Melbourne. In Haigh’s words, he writes about cricket ‘a bit’ – particularly for The Australian and The Times. This article is an abridged version of a speech given at an event announcing the inclusion of The Ashes Urn in the Velvet, Iron, Ashes exhibition.

About the image

Janet Lady Clarke, c 1880. On loan from the Clarke family.

About Velvet, Iron, Ashes

Velvet, Iron, Ashes is the inaugural exhibition in the new Victoria Gallery endowed by the John and Myriam Wylie Foundation. Showcasing treasures from the Library’s collection and from other major institutions and private collections, this captivating exhibition lays out a trail of surprising connections between people, events and icons from Victoria's history.

Visit Velvet, Iron, Ashes to find out how bushranger Ned Kelly is connected to cricket’s celebrated Ashes Urn, how fairy floss is connected to Victoria’s Latrobe Valley electricity industry, and why the granddaughter of one of our prime ministers once wore a glittering velvet cloak symbolising the Murray–Darling irrigation scheme.