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Very little can be chronicled as to the antiquity of cricket in Somerset. It is true that in the annals of the well-known Landsdowne Club we read matches were played between the Western Counties and the M.C.C., but there was no organised attempt to form a county club until after the match played at Sidmouth between the Gentlemen of Devonshire and the Gentlemen of Somersetshire in August 1875. (Prince K. S. Ranjitsinhji, The Jubilee Book of Cricket [London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1897], p. 416.)Fig. 2: The Hestercombe Cricket Club, a formidable force, c.1896.
Taken as a whole the clubs show that the enthusiasm in cricket in Somerset is not by any means abated from that attained last year, and it even points to a still upward movement. In nearly every case is the prospect encouraging, but Wiveliscombe in particular, who were beyond doubt one of the strongest clubs in the county last season, will have to fight hard to maintain that supremacy, or even to keep on level terms with some neighbouring combinations . . . (‘Sporting Intelligence: The Coming Cricket Season and the Somerset Clubs’, Somerset County Gazette, 21 April 1894, p. 2)
The Hestercombe club will probably be a little stronger than last year. A list from 14 to 20 matches will be played, and it is hoped to have a successful season. (‘Sporting Intelligence: The Prospects of the Coming Cricket Season’, Somerset County Gazette, 4 May 1895, p.7) . . . the president of the club (Hon. E. W. B. Portman) has kindly had the ground in the park levelled and improved at a great expense. The ground next season will be one of the best country cricket grounds in the county, the position being quite unique and the view perfect. (‘Hestercombe: The Cricket Club’, Somerset County Gazette, 7 December 1895, p. 8)
Mr Holman in his letter says: -- . . . The team, it is probable, will be much the same as last season, but all with a determination to have a still more successful season to record. There will be a good list of matches played, and we hope won. (‘Prospects for the Coming Cricket Season’, Somerset County Gazette, 4 April 1896, p. 2)Fig. 5: Interior of ‘Hestercombe Hall’, with its circular hearth, c.1920. The 1896 season was to be ‘no walk in the park’ and a demanding regime of thrice weekly practices was instituted, beginning promptly at 6:00 pm on Easter Monday (6 April), the traditional date for the commencement of the season. Monday was thereafter reserved for net practice; Tuesdays and Thursdays for field training. The Club’s ‘determination’ was further galvanized through the provision of material incentives -- ‘It is proposed to again offer a bat and ball for the best batting and bowling averages respectively, and the captain offers a bat, as in former seasons, for the best all-round improvement of any member’. Equipment was of the highest quality ‘as the club was becoming such an important one’ and smart custom-made woollen caps with piping and the H.C. monogram embroidered prominently on the front were soon in evidence. The Club secretary, R. Holman, stressed in no uncertain terms that members must take ‘proper and sufficient care of them’. The list of village clubs with which the Hestercombe Cricket Club could now arrange fixtures was longer than ever as ‘there is hardly a rural district where a club has not been formed’. In 1897, for example, matches were arranged with North Curry, Taunton Wesleyans, St. Andrew’s Taunton, Staplegrove and Corfe, to name but a few. The Pleass family of Cheddon Fitzpaine continued to play a prominent role in the Club’s fortunes, fielding up to four players at a time for several matches. There was George (batsman), John Samuel (batsman), Donald (bowler & batsman), and William (bowler & batsman). George and John Samuel Pleass were the sons of John Pleass, the builder responsible for the Volis additions of 1895, and were aged 24 and 19 years of age respectively. Donald and William Pleass were 25 and 21 in 1897, the sons of William Pleass, a deceased carpenter and joiner and, it would also seem, a close relation of John Pleass. Donald was a printer and William a solicitor’s clerk. Donald ‘bowled well’ against the Taunton Wesleyans on the 17th of July, but the Hestercombe side still fell by a disappointing 49 runs. Redemption was achieved in the return match a week later, albeit by the slim margin of only 8 runs. Donald Pleass was once again singled out in the local press coverage, on this occasion for making ‘useful scores’. In an even more monumental clash with Corfe on the 14th of August, the Hestercombe Cricket Club triumphed by a decisive 61 runs. Once again, the Pleass boys came to the fore: ‘W. (William) Pleass was the top scorer with a well-played 39, and J. Giles, J, Crispin and G. and D. Pleass made useful scores. D. and W. Pleass shared the bowling honours.’ The Humphris family, with a long tradition of working first with horses, and later with motorcars on the Estate, also played a part in the 1897 season, enabling the Hestercombe Cricket Club to fill two positions. Northleach, Gloucestershire-born William John Humphris, aged 20, would one day become the Portman's chauffeur, but was currently employed as a groom. His nephew, 14-year-old Fred Humphris [Fig. 7], only son of Hestercombe stud groom, Edward Humphris (1856-1924), was already helping his father with the horses.
Fig. 7: Fred Humphris who became Mrs. Portman’s chauffeur, c.1905. At 5:53 eight wickets were down for 41, and the bowling was deadly. The excitement was intense, each side making an effort to secure the victory. The visitors lost no time in encasing and proceeding to the wickets, some returning in a short time, but all going and returning at the trot. The home team did not keep them waiting and the fun was fast and furious. (‘North Curry v. Cheddon’, Somerset County Gazette, 12 June 1897, p. 2)One of the most ‘pleasant, interesting and exciting’ matches to be played in 1897 was described at some length in the Somerset County Gazette on the 12th of June. The opposition was North Curry, the date Whit-Monday (7 June), and the situation ‘a hard and fiery wicket’ opposite the North Curry Assembly-rooms. The captivating contest commenced at 11:30 and did not conclude until late when ‘the winning stroke was made for the visitors (Hestercombe) when down went the ninth wicket and the church clock immediately struck six’. In the interim the bowling of the brothers Hussey (R. and P.) was deemed exceptional, Robert Roger Mead of Maidenbrook Farm produced fielding ‘worthy of mention’, J. W. Standfast and George Pleass batted with sterling results -- producing no less than 38 runs between them -- and R. R. Holman and H. S. Salter bowled brilliantly, the former going 4 for 12 and the latter 5 for 22. Yet, as the opposing teams sat down to lunch at 1:30 the outcome of the match still hung in the balance. Following the resumption of play, however, it appeared that the tide had turned in favour of the home side -- the midday feast had apparently ‘accounted for the downfall of the remainder of the Cheddon wickets, or else the sun was overpowering’. Sensing the opposition’s post pudding sluggishness, North Curry quickly moved in front, although their total only reached 44 with only one double-figure innings. Fortunately, after tea was served new resolve appeared in the metal of the visiting side which made 46 in 45 minutes to win an ‘intensely exciting game which was full of many incidents’. A spent Hestercombe Eleven then proceeded to the pub for a post mortem victorious by one wicket and three runs. Fig. 8: The Hestercombe Cricket Club, c. 1907. Fig. 9: Mrs. Portman on the Victorian Terrace (centre) with the Hon. Osbert Eustace Vesey, William D. Miller (moustached) and two unidentified ladies. By 1907 the Pleass, Hussey, and the Humphris dynasties had yielded to fresh talent. Among those who were new to the Hestercombe Cricket Club roster that year were Charles Henry Butters, Head Keeper, who is shown in the team photo of that year in dark clothes and W. C. Burn, Foreman of the Walled Gardens, who resplendent in keeper’s attire (gloves, leg guards), is striking a particularly jaunty pose in the back row, extreme left [Fig. 8]. The Hon E. W. B. Portman is seated middle with a flower in his buttonhole and Mr. William Duppa Millar, moustache carefully coiffed as always, is on his right. Claude Bradbury, then valet to E. W. B, later butler to Mrs. Portman 1911-51, is not shown but was the team captain that year. Walter Charles Burn worked under Mr. A. Hubbard as the Foreman of the Hestercombe Walled Gardens 1903-07, having previously worked at Gaunts House, Dorset; Buckminster Park, Lincolnshire; and Rhode Hill, Lyme Regis. Burn, who lived in the Bothy initially, took up residence at No. 1 Park Gate subsequent to his marriage in 1905. Mr. Hubbard considered him an ‘honest, sober, and industrious man’ who was ‘well up in all branches appertaining to a well kept garden & a good manager of men’. Twenty-nine year old Charles Henry Butters was a native of Great Barton, Suffolk. In 1907 he lived in Combe Cottage, now Combe House, with his first wife, Cissy, and their two young daughters, Kathleen (b. 1902) and Violet (b. 1904). William Duppa Millar was now thirty-eight years of age and still a bachelor. His birthplace was Hereford City, Hereford, and he lived with his sister, Agatha, in Cheddon House, Cheddon Fitzpaine, along with two servants, a cook and a house and parlour maid. Miller became close to the Portman family, as evidenced by his appearance in many family photographs of the period [Figs. 9 & 10]. He seemingly commanded almost as much respect from the Estate staff as the Portmans did. In an interview, conducted shortly before her death in 2005, Mary Butters (b.1910), Charles Butters’ third daughter, clearly remembered having to curtsey to Miller in her youth. Fig. 10: Punting on the Pear Pond 1904 -- Mrs. Portman, William Duppa Miller (centre) & the Hon. Thomas Eustace Vesey. During the final season before E. W. B. Portman’s untimely death on the 27th of April 1911, the Hestercombe Cricket Club fielded a team that included many familiar names (e.g., Claude Bradbury, W. D. Miller, R. Holman, W. Humphris) as well as several new ones, most notably that of the Hon. Osbert Eustace Vesey (1884-1957) [Figs. 9 & 11], the second of Teddy Portman’s three stepsons with Constance Mary Lawley. Osbert would go on to forge a successful career as a much-decorated professional soldier, eventually attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was educated first at Eaton College, Windsor, then at Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and fought in both the First & Second World Wars. Although he joined his father’s old regiment, the 9th Queen's Royal Lancers, in the former, he spent World War I with the Royal East Kent Yeomanry and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in Egypt, France and Flanders. Osbert was mentioned in dispatches three times and decorated with the Legion of Honour. Other distinctions followed, continuing almost up until his death in 1957: -- Commander, Order of the British Empire (1919), Gentlemen-at-Ams (1922), Companion, Order of St. Michael and St. George (1950), Commander, Royal Victorian Order (1953), and Knight Commander, Royal Victorian Order (1956). Osbert’s younger brother, Thomas (1885-1946) [Fig. 11], who also distinguished himself whilst serving in the British army, was a keen cricketer as well. His diary for 1902, written when he was 17 years old and attending Eton, contains numerous references to enjoying the sport at both home and school. Of the former, he wrote:
We all played silly cricket on the lawn except osbert who had gone. (6 Jan 1902) played Cricket after Lunch & took Mother & Bath for a drive in Tomasina cart to Kingston . had a cricket practise in the evening (2 April 1902) played cricket on the lawn. the Waltons came to tea & we played Silly cricket after with them & Chloe & Mrs Potter (the Portman’s cook). went Shooting with mother, got nothing (21 April 1902)Fig. 11: E. W. B (‘Teddy’) Portman seated with two of his three stepsons, Thomas Vesey (left) and Osbert Vesey (right), 1904. Mrs. Portman is shown standing. Thomas later became a Captain in the Irish Guards (1913), rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Wounded twice in World War I, he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) in recognition of acts of bravery in the face of the enemy. Without the direct and active support of Teddy Portman, the Hestercombe Cricket Club appears to have been left largely to its own devices. Following his death, and well into the 1930s, the Club played under its original designation of the ‘Cheddon Fitzpaine Cricket Club’, albeit with the continuing support of some Estate staff. In the 1920s these included Claude Bradbury (butler) and Wilfrid Aish (blacksmith). Hestercombe Park continued to serve as the venue for many fixtures, but the great era of Portman sponsorship had ended. The Second World War interrupted play once more, although according to respected local historian, Audrey Mead, the Hestercombe pitch was used again for a few years in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Following the death of Mrs. Portman in 1951 it fell into disrepair and was eventually abandoned. It now lies quiet, forgotten, and at one with the adjoining fields.