Henry Wise, Royal Gardener to Queen Anne and King George I, and garden designer to many of the great families of the time, was born in Oxfordshire in 1653. When he retired from London in 1709, he had become a very wealthy man. He settled in Warwick, buying himself a house and garden in the grounds of the old priory, and several parcels of land between Warwick and the village of Leamington Priors.
One hundred and twenty years later, In the 1830s and 1840s, Henry Wise’s descendants owned much of the land between their residence, the Manor House in Leamington Priors and the boundary with Warwick to the west. A map of 1843 shows a housing development planned for much of that land. To the immediate benefit of cricket, and the later benefit of many other sports, this development did not happen.
1848 was a pivotal year in Leamington. After an outbreak of cholera, there was an upsurge of interest in sport and outdoor recreation, beyond archery and hunting. During the summer, the local newspaper the Royal Leamington Spa Courier and Warwickshire Standard, recorded a weekly groundswell of opinion in support of firmly establishing a cricket club in the town. A significant step was the invitation to William Clark of Trent Bridge and his All-England X1 to play at Leamington. Clarke accepted, and a ground was prepared on “Wise” land, – the area now occupied by Victoria Park, Victoria Street and Victoria Road. On 21 September 1848, the All-England X1 took on 22 Leamington & District players, who included R S Wise, one of the younger members of the Wise family.
‘The Little Wonder’ and ‘The Lion of the North': John Wisden and George Parr
On the All England side, there were two rising stars, John Wisden from Brighton, and George Parr, from a Nottinghamshire cricketing family. In spite of a very late start, followed by a thunderstorm preventing play on the third day, (so saving the home side from ignominious defeat), Parr and Wisden must have liked what they saw. They made plans to lease the eight-acre field that autumn, levelled it, and turned it into a high quality cricket ground, which opened to the public in the Spring of 1849 as ‘The Parr and Wisden Ground’.
The Courier on 16 December 1848 described George Parr as “a cricketing celebrity who has been for some days in the town endeavouring to make arrangements for the purchase of a piece of ground to be converted into a first rate subscription cricket ground.” The newspaper cites “the excellent level field in which the grand match between All-England and Leamington was recently played.” The field was the property of Matthew Wise, then head of the Wise family and one of Leamington’s leading citizens, whom many were confident would become a patron of the game.
There were great plans for the new ground. Leamington had become easily accessible by train, and there were many excellent hotels nearby. It was hoped that it might become the premier cricket venue outside London. It certainly got off to a good start. The great I Zingari side were visitors in the first season in 1849, and for two years, the North versus South Elevens played one of their two annual fixtures at Leamington. As the Parr and Wisden Ground became the focal point for local cricket, Parr and Wisden established their own team, recruiting players from the many disparate Leamington teams.
The availability of the field on the Wise estate and the encouragement of a member of the cricketing establishment enabled the Parr and Wisden partnership to flourish. Curiously, as a result of his involvement with the Leamington ground, John Wisden from Brighton and a Sussex player, was then deemed to play for the North. Happily for his new side, in the first North v. South match of 1850, played at Lord’s, Wisden performed the yet unequalled feat of dismissing all 10 South batsmen ‘clean bowled’.
Although in 1852, Wisden and fellow player James Dean led a rebellion against the dictatorial regime of William Clark to form the breakaway United England X1, and within the next two years George Parr was running the All-England X1, the two men continued as joint proprietors of the Leamington ground until 1863, and were thus at the centre of the development of professional cricket in England.
John Wisden had long been aware of the fate of many sportsmen at the end of their playing days, and with an eye to the future, he set up a second business venture, selling sports goods in Leamington. For the benefit of other players, he and Parr also established a cricketers’ benevolent fund, sponsored by an annual fixture between the two England XIs. The two were instrumental in the successful, first ever cricket tour abroad, to Canada and the United States, in the autumn of 1859. In retirement from cricket and away from the Midlands, Wisden later concentrated on a business career that was to include publishing the famous yellow-backed Almanac.
Cricket was not the only sport to benefit from the ‘Wise Legacy’. From the earliest days of their tenancy, Parr and Wisden were eager to generate revenue from the ground. During their first winter they offered the use of the field for the exercise of hunters, (hunting was then a major pastime for some Leamingtonians) – a useful facility for the members of the Tennis Club just across the river in Bedford Street. In 1851, 1852, and 1853, the Parr and Wisden Ground staged the Grand National Archery Meeting. Archery has remained popular in Leamington ever since. In 1872, the first game of Lawn Tennis was played not far away in the grounds of Matthew Wise’s old home, the Manor House Hotel.
The original cricket ground covered eight acres. Eventually, with the advent of a second railway line, Adelaide Road and Avenue Road, part of the ground was developed for housing, but enough open land remained and in 1897 was renamed Victoria Park in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The area maintains strong sporting links: there is still a cricket pitch in the park. Tennis is played there. National race-walking championships and cycling time-trials are held regularly on the perimeter track, and just outside the park on land between the Parr and Wisden cricket ground and the river is a first class lawn bowls green, often the venue of the Women’s World Bowls Championship. At the other side of the bowling green, the river is home to a flourishing canoe club.
‘The Wise Legacy’ is hard to beat.
Thank you very much Henry and Matthew Wise!
Postscript – A Special Interest Plaque has been placed on the Cricketers Arms in Archery Road in memory of John Wisden.
Stephen Baldwin, 2012
Images: RS Baldwin 2012