I'm a firm believer that if you go out for a long enough walk you will always see something interesting. I managed this yesterday in Leyton while walking down Crawley Road, I think for the first time, where I spotted this blue plaque on the side of a building.
Blimey, I thought, Essex County Cricket Club used to be based here... in somewhere that's no longer Essex.
Leyton Cricket Ground is a picturesque spot, or at least it is for Leyton where the scenic bar is not high. Most of the surrounding area is a mesh of Victorian terraces but a large green sporting space has been retained facing the High Road, opening up a brief sylvan vista as you pass by. Across the outfield is an elaborate and enticing cricket pavilion with a first floor verandah and three half-timbered gables topped with a domed cupola. It is precisely the kind of building in which one could laze away a summer's afternoon watching not very much happening not very often whilst within easy walking distance of a bar. And if you wander in from Crawley Road you can see it up close.
Essex County Cricket Club was established in 1876, initially playing in Brentwood, but attendances proved disappointing so ten years later they switched to a new home in Leyton. Essex's first first-class cricket match took place here in May 1894 (a loss to Leicestershire by 68 runs), and the following summer they joined the County Championship. Leyton's finest cricketing summer was in 1897 when Essex were runners-up to Surrey. In 1933 they sold the lease and started playing elsewhere, returning to Leyton between 1957 and 1977 for a week each summer. Chelmsford's County Ground has been the established home ground ever since.
A remarkable fact is that Essex CCC have played more first class cricket matches in Leyton than anywhere else.
» County Ground (Leyton) 407
» County Ground (Chelmsford) 391
» Southchurch Park (Southend) 130
» Castle Park (Colchester) 123
» Valentines Park (Ilford) 116
» Chalkwell Park (Westcliff-on-Sea) 69
» Vista Road Recreation Ground (Clacton) 60
» Old County Ground (Brentwood) 58
» Gidea Park Sports Ground (Romford) 34
» Garrison A Cricket Ground (Colchester) 25
» Garon Park (Southend) 7
» Hoffmann's Sports and Social (Chelmsford) 3
» Harlow Sportcentre (Harlow) 2
Chelmsford is due to take the crown within a couple of years, but as things stand at the end of the 2021 season Leyton remains triumphant. Throw in all the matches played in Ilford and Romford and it turns out that 39% of Essex's first class matches have been played in what's now Greater London, and if you strip out all the Southends a minority have been played within what's currently administratively called Essex.
Retrospectively it looks weird but it made perfect sense at the time. For the first 89 years of the club's existence Greater London hadn't been created and Essex stretched all the way to the River Lea. What's more, and it's easy to forget this, the majority of Essex's population used to be in the Metropolitan boroughs that were taken away in 1965.
In 1921 the dark green area on this map had a population of 925,000 and the rest of Essex only 545,000. The split between urban and rural was already stark. This also helps to explain why Essex holding its first cricket matches in Brentwood didn't pull the crowds whereas Leyton was a lot easier to fill, despite being less than a mile from the county boundary. The pre-eminent district at the time was West Ham (i.e. half of current Newham) whose population was an astonishing 20% of the entire county of Essex. The balance has shifted somewhat in the intervening hundred years, with 'proper' Essex now in the majority, so playing in Chelmsford makes a lot more sense.
Which got me wondering about London's other first class cricket grounds.
• Middlesex CCC was founded in 1864 in the county of Middlesex. They've hosted well over 90% of their first class matches at Lord's, even though it's been in the County of London since 1889.
• Kent CCC have been playing first class cricket since 1842. They've played at several grounds, almost all beyond the Greater London boundary, but since 1965 have played a handful of matches in Blackheath and Beckenham.
• Surrey CCC was established in 1845 when the county stretched all the way to Southwark. They're very much an Oval-based team with over 2000 matches in Kennington, about 100 in Guildford and fewer than 20 elsewhere.
So that's one county which no longer exists but still plays within it, one county that comfortably ignores London and another that hardly ever plays in the county it's named after. Throw in Essex, whose most-played venue is no longer in the county, and Leyton Cricket Ground no longer looks like quite such an outlier. As with so much of cricket, it's all about a boundary.