A story hidden among the Ashes

Rupertswood Cricket Club president Peter Kavanagh (right) and members of the club outside Rupertswood Mansion. (Damjan Janevski)

Oliver Lees

With the English cricket team back down under for the 72nd edition of The Ashes series, the cricketing world is settling back into a summer of familiar rivalry between two of the heavyweights of the game. But often missing from the retelling of one of cricket’s oldest yarns, is the central role of Sunbury at the beginning of it all.

Unlike the AFL Grand Final, NBA Championship or even the Cricket World Cup, the winner of the Ashes won’t receive a large golden cup with the team name inscribed on the front.

Instead what Australia and England are vying for is the Ashes urn, a diminutive 10.5 centimetre tall vessel that is believed to hold the cremated remains of a cricket bail.

Most cricket fans will know the skeleton of this story, but the role of Sunbury in it all has fallen by the wayside.

On August 29, 1882, Australia defeated England in a test match at The Oval in London. As a sport of proud English origin, the loss was a tough pill to swallow for the British public.

Three days later, a satirical obituary appeared in The Sporting Times newspaper, which read: “In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket which died at The Oval… The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia“.

As documented in Sunbury historian Joy Munns’ book ‘Beyond Reasonable Doubt, The Birthplace of The Ashes’, the idea to create a symbol of the death of English cricket was picked up by Melbourne women Lady Janet Clarke and Florence Morphy.

On Christmas Eve 1882, the English cricket team, led by captain Ivo Bligh, played a match with guests on a paddock next to Lady’s Clarke’s home, Rupertswood Mansion.

Clarke and Morphy presented Bligh with the urn at the mansion that day, establishing a tradition that has persisted for 139 years, and now draws millions of viewers worldwide.

As the president of the Sunbury Historical & Heritage Society (SHHS), Peter Free has been part of a campaign to see his town celebrated for its connection to cricket folklore.

“I think it has been a well forgotten secret for a long time,” Free said.

“The original Ashes ground is up near the [Rupertswood] mansion, it was supposedly the original piece of ground that the game was played on.

“All we’ve got to commemorate it is the wickets outside the post office and some statues on Evan Street, but we haven’t got the story,” Free said.

Long time Sunbury resident Graham Williams said he believes the town is missing a golden opportunity to put Sunbury on the map.

“Other towns, like Beechworth with its old gaol, have really embraced what they were famous for,” Williams said.

“But we don’t seem to have quite grasped that marketing opportunity to bring into the town.”

In 2019, SHHS received the support of Hume council to develop an Ashes museum at the Old Sunbury Courthouse.

Hume councillor Jack Medcraft was among those who threw their support behind the proposal.

Cr Medcraft said even Australian cricket legend Merv Hughes had agreed in principle to serve as the museum’s ambassador.

“We had dinner at the Rupo mansion with Allan Border, Jeff Thompson and the captain of England at the time. None of them even knew that they were in the building where the Ashes was presented to Ivo Bligh,” he said.

“Allan Border told me he thought we had the most under-resourced asset in the cricketing world. He said if we set it up properly, people would come like it’s the Mecca of cricket.”

But Mr Free said without a strong enough working group, the idea was unable to get off the ground.

“The person driving the whole thing ended up not being very well and nobody was prepared to take it on,” he said.

“The Melbourne Cricket Club wanted to help out, but Cricket Victoria and Cricket Australia weren’t interested because they’re looking at developing young juniors in cricket.

“If we had an oval attached [to the museum], we would have been alright.”

Rupertswood Cricket Club president Peter Kavanagh said his club would love to better celebrate its connection with the Ashes, but faces a similar issue of a lack of resources to get the job done.

“We want the history to be up there at the club all the time, but we just don’t have the room to do it all,” Kavanagh said.

“We have car loads of people coming all the time. I get phone calls from tourists saying they’ve got a bus sorted and everything.

“Unfortunately, there’s nothing much for them to see.”

Due to the Rupertswood Mansion being owned by Salesian College, the club is limited in its ability to entertain visitors.

Kavanagh said he’s hopeful that the announcement of $5 million dollars to upgrade facilities at Salesian College, including the club’s home ground, will bring greater opportunity to advertise it as the birthplace of the Ashes.

Doing what he can with limited resources, Kavanagh has been working to set up a custodian of the Ashes membership for the community.

Members will receive merchandise, drink vouchers and access to regular events.

For Kavanagh and the club, it’s not quite the dream scenario of world-class facilities, but it’s a step in the right direction.

“Obviously we’d love to do something when the Ashes is on, but there’s a lot that goes into that,” he said.

“All we can do at the moment is take small steps and promote the club with what we have.”