When Colonel William Paterson established a settlement on the banks of the River Tamar in 1806 that would become Launceston, the newcomers brought with them a number of things.
First and most obvious, was a number of convicts.
Van Diemen’s Land was, after all, to be a penal settlement, created to take care of the excess flow of felons being shipped into Sydney and also as a possible location to house the worst of those being transported.
That was the political reason for the establishment of settlements in both the North and South. However, in addition to the convicts, the newcomers also brought some of their traditions, particularly in relation to sport. Horse racing was a real passion, and cricket, too, was another sport in which the members of the military and the free settlers became involved.
In Launceston the two quickly became associated.
As early as 1827 there is a letter in the local paper complaining about the selling of illicit grog at the racecourse. It is not known exactly where that early venue was, but the racing soon moved to a relatively flat area to the southeast of the main town, and it was here that the sport became linked with cricket.
The Cornwall Racing Club made the first serious attempt to establish horse racing in Launceston when it was formed in 1830 on the track that is still known as Racecourse Crescent in the suburb of Newstead.
The exact date of the creation of the new racecourse is not known, but it had taken place prior to March 1831 when a letter described a meeting as ‘a motley scene’ when viewed from the hill above. This would be Windmill Hill which overlooks the area. A plan from 1858 shows the finish line was near where Cimitiere Street intersects with Racecourse Crescent and there was a grandstand where Lyttleton Street now meets Racecourse Crescent.
The racecourse was to have major consequences for the game of cricket because an area in the centre of the track was flat enough to encourage the playing of cricket. The course was not the long-term solution for horse racing in Launceston.
Following some short-lived attempts to establish tracks at Newnham and Invermay it eventually found a home at Mowbray where the first Launceston Cup was run in 1865.
As with horse racing there is no identifiable date for the beginning of cricket. The first mention of the game occurs in the Launceston Advertiser on Wednesday, November 23,1831, in which J. Corbett, an ironmonger, is offering equipment for sale.
The selling of cricket gear suggests the game was being played on a regular basis.
In fact the first mention of a match occurs in the Launceston Advertiser just over a month later, on December 28, although no location for the game is given. “We were amazed on Monday, by witnessing, a cricket match, played by 22 young men, mostly native youths, for a mere nominal stake of 11 shillings a side.
“There were one or two very fair players, but for the most part it was anything but cricket. We like to observe a holiday passed in this way. How decidedly better is such a healthful amusement than a drinking bout. Why not establish a cricket club?” The spread of the game was noted on December 5, 1832, in the introduced at Norfolk Plains on the 26th in a match between 11 emigrants and 11 native born Tasmanians.
Sadly, no account of the match was printed.
Norfolk Plains was the area around Longford and the game soon began to take hold in other country towns such as Perth, Evandale, Westbury and Campbell Town. In Launceston cricket was becoming organised.
On Thursday, August 22, 1833, there was a notice of meeting for the members of the Cornwall Cricket Club “to enter into arrangements for the ensuing season”. This suggests an organisation already in existence.
One of Cornwall’s arrangements was a match against the military played in April 1834 in an area of the barracks and in which the civilians emerged victorious.
There was also mention of a return match to be played, but no result was published.
The following season provides the first mention of the Launceston Cricket Club when secretary CJ Bayley issued a challenge to the Macquarie Cricket Club for an amount of two guineas a bat. During this period amounts of money were often wagered on the outcome of matches. The game did take place, but the result was not published.
The Launceston club was becoming increasingly active with two matches against Campbell Town.
These were played on James Youl’s Symmons Plains property near Perth.
It was used for the first cricket match in the area for which a full scorecard was published. One of the Launceston players was William Henty, a talented underarm bowler who later took part in Tasmania’s initial first-class game in 1851. Launceston won the return match by an innings and once again, the full scores were produced. Perhaps this coverage showed an increased interest in the game.
By January 1839 an area inside the racecourse had become the town’s major cricket ground, and while the horses moved away in time, cricket has remained in possession of the area ever since. Not all cricket played at the time revolved around clubs. The earliest recorded match on the ground took place on January, 24, 1839, between 11 married and 11 single gentlemen.
The players were taken from members of the Launceston, Longford and South Esk clubs and the bachelors emerged victorious. It was not a pleasant experience for everyone as a Mr C. Swisted was fined £10 and costs for selling on the racecourse, presumably without the proper license.
Later in the season there was a return match which ended in a draw when poor light stopped play.
While reports of matches and activities are few and far between cricket was certainly becoming an accepted part of Launceston society.
On Wednesday, November 25, 1840, it was stated that “the Tamar Cricket Club pitched its stumps upon the racecourse as usual on Monday”. There are also numerous advertisements in the papers offering bats and balls for sale. By 1840 the game was well established and its centre was the ground on the racecourse.
This does not mean that it was accessible to all. At the time, and for some years afterwards, cricket was the domain of the privileged.
Landowners, administrators, professional classes and officers in the military were those who had the time and the social standing to indulge in their passion for the game. Ordinary labourers simply did not have the time, and no convict would have even been considered no matter how talented.
Launceston in the 1840s was a tough town. It possessed wide streets in its small central area, enabling three carts to pass abreast or to avoid mud puddles in the wet. Most buildings were constructed of timber and the town’s main substantial structures were its churches.
There was widespread unemployment due to the glut of free convict labour that continued to pour in from England. In an effort to counter this a Chamber of Commerce was formed in 1849 and the Anti-Transportation League headed by Rev. John West was lobbying to end the shipping of convicts to the island. This campaign was ultimately successful in 1853 when transportation came to an end. Bushrangers were another fact of life. While the citizens of Launceston were relatively safe from such outrages rural areas and isolated homesteads were often held up.
Launceston was also not the healthiest of places during this period. There was no effective drainage system and the provision of a town water supply was also some years in the future.
As a result outbreaks of disease, especially cholera, were common. One of these, in January 1841, involved a direct reference to cricket as the Launceston Courier reported. “Both children and adults, have recently met with their deaths by imprudently drinking cold water, when in a state of perspiration.
“Although the danger of this foolish practice has been constantly represented, still there are hundreds who are constantly indulging in it. We observed on the cricket ground, that the players took no precaution whatever, although many instances have been recorded of the death of persons from drinking cold water during the heat of this accelerating game.”
Of course it was more a case of what bacteria were actually in the water than its temperature that was the real problem, but that knowledge was some way in the future. Basic drainage works were undertaken in 1858 and Launceston was not given a water supply for some years, but by then the cricket ground on the racecourse had hosted the first intercolonial match; a contest between the Gentlemen of Port Phillip and the Gentlemen of Van Dieman’s Land.