Henfield cricket club, founded in 1771, is not only one of the oldest clubs in the world; it is one of the more important in terms of the development of the game. At various times, the club has been one of the most powerful around, and has also had its very survival in question. This short history is intended to give a brief overview of the club’s history, its place in Sussex cricket, and the most recent developments as we seek to thrive as a modern, 21st century club.
Although the club’s inception is taken as being 1771, it is clear that the real story begins much earlier than that, in the late 17th or early 18th century. Although there are numerous clubs who might claim a more ancient provenance, Henfield considers its inception to be taken upon its foundation as a club playing regular cricket, not according to the first recorded date of the game being played in the village which was in any case at least half a century earlier. There is no doubt that Henfield, mainly due to the most prized asset of its ground, the Common, played a prominent part in the rise and development of cricket in Sussex. The ground’s importance is shown through the likelihood that Henfield Common was, with the possible exception of Broadwater Green, the most important cricket ground in Sussex for nearly 100 years until the 19th century. Lewes, Arundel, the Western Gentlemen and Horsham and District – the other major cricketing centres of the county – as well as most of the villages around, played or provided the opposition during this period. The central Sussex location in those days of relative difficulty in travelling appears to have been at least part of the story, leading teams to use the Common as their ground of choice. However it should not be assumed that it was merely a convenient patch of ground; Henfield Common was a genuine cricketing arena from the very earliest times. As such, the Common is likely to be the second or third oldest ground still in use anywhere in the world – no-one knows for sure.
In those early days, the lack of contemporary media means that is impossible to state with any certainty when cricket at Henfield began. We do have evidence from contemporary papers and diaries that allow us to pinpoint certain early dates however. One of the most important of these is Marchants Diary, which offers the following references:
1719: June 4th – “A cricket match in the Sandfields with Henfield”
1721: May 18th – “Will and Terry went to a cricket match in Henfield”
1721: May 25th – A return match: “At cricket match between Hurst and Henfield in Danny Sandfield. Hurst won”
1722: May 14th – Henfield Boys v Hurstpierpoint at Hurst
1722: June 1st – Return Match at Henfield
Marchants Diary ceases until 1727, but there is no reason to believe that the cricket did not continue, as it again mentions the game when it resumes.
The Sackville Papers of 1745 are the next major instance, when it says: “Martin of Henfield played for Sussex against Surrey at Berry Hill”
By 1764, Henfield Common is referenced in the Sussex Weekly Advertiser as the location for what is generally accepted as being Arundel’s first match, against East Sussex.
By 1771, mentions of Henfield are becoming ever more frequent, with games against 22 of Lewes (which Henfield won!), against Broadwater, and against Colston (Coulsdon) home and away, which is the first recorded instance of Henfield playing outside of Sussex.
At about this time, Sussex was fortunate in having a local newspaper. Up until then, instances of cricket matches had mainly been recorded by diarists, but now village happenings were being described in detail, including cricket matches. When a village played more or less regularly, the games were described as being between clubs, even though there had been no recorded meeting to create a club, nor a formal constitution and set of officers. It is for this reason that we can be confident in dating the foundation of Henfield Cricket Club as being 1771 at least.
By now, Henfield were a side of considerable strength and status. They were playing the very best teams in both Sussex and Surrey, as numerous extracts from the Lewes Journal testify. Indeed, Henfield played a crucial role in the creation of Sussex County Cricket Club itself, and held a seat on the county’s committee up until comparatively recently.
In 1837, Henfield club was re-organised. The loose-knit affair of the early days was replaced by an organisation that was for the purpose of men of the village, rather than being primarily as a convenient place for cricket to be played.
Fortunately, there was an abundance of talent available. Three of the young men destined to form the backbone of the club for many years are still listed amongst the all-time leading players of the club nearly two centuries later. Harry (who played 1837-1859) and Alfred (1837-1869) Smith, and H E Songhurst (1834-1853) were amongst those who enabled Henfield to become one of the strongest sides in the county.
On May 5th 1837, these and others met to re-organise the Henfield Club into the Henfield Cricket Club, properly constituted and with a set of local rules. A copy of these “Rules, Articles and Regulations” may still be seen in Henfield’s pavilion.
Over the next half century, Henfield enjoyed a position of prominence amongst Sussex cricket clubs, with no less than 29 players appearing for both Henfield and Sussex, including the likes of John Wisden of Almanack fame and one England Test cricketer in the shape of Henry Charlwood. Many of these names also appear in the all time club records, and Richard Fillery (who was to die sadly young at 39) and Henry Charlwood still hold the record 3rd wicket partnership for the club nearly 150 years later! A glance through the list of Henfield players who have played for Sussex shows how strong the club was, particularly around 1850. Indeed, Henfield produced several Sussex captains, Richard Fillery was a Sussex stalwart, whilst Henry Charlwood is, to date, the only Test cricketer that Henfield have produced, playing two games against Australia in 1877.
Such was Henfield’s strength around this time, that the side rarely took the field with fewer than four county players, often had seven or eight and even nine or ten at times. In 1848 they played two matches against Hampshire, home and away, putting out perhaps the finest team in Henfield’s long history. The side was comprised of ten players who played regularly for both Henfield and Sussex; just one, the wicket-keeper Songhurst, had not played for the county (he was perhaps unfortunate. The England wicketkeeper, Tom Box, also kept for Sussex). Henfield even offered as makeweight to Hampshire one of the best bowlers in England at the time, Edmund Hinkly of Kent.
In 1877, perhaps one of the most notable items in terms of the club’s long history appeared in the committee’s report to the Annual General Meeting held at the George Hotel in Henfield High Street on April 26th that year. It read “… your committee have had permission to enclose a piece of ground on the Common for the sole use of Henfield cricket club by paying a nominal rent. ” At a time when many of the old grounds of England began to disappear, Henfield Common had secured its long-term future.
Henfield’s record through this period, which can be seen elsewhere on the website, shows how strong the club had become. However, the long period of success was coming to an end, and with the decline and retirement of the great players the club changed its constitution to reflect a much more local approach, both to selection and to opponents. There are a number of reasons for this; not least that the claims of county cricket had become much more pressing, and thus fewer of the best young players were available to the clubs. There was a tendency therefore for the club sides to be made up of older county players, with a few village players selected to make up the numbers when necessary. Naturally, this importing of outside talent did little to either encourage or develop the village’s own young players, and many drifted away to other sports or other clubs.
Whatever the overriding reason, as a result of this change in approach, the standard inevitably dropped in the immediate term. The big Sussex clubs in Brighton, Horsham and Lewes, against whom the club had been at least equal and often more, disappeared from the fixture list and the club’s fortunes took a turn for the worse.
In around 1911, the popularity of cricket in Henfield, already in decline, plummeted, with not a single recorded match taking place in the four years up to the outbreak of World War I. It was a distinct possibility that this ancient club might disappear entirely. That it didn’t is largely due to a cricket loving vicar, the Rev. R J Lea, who arrived in 1913. Although the First World War was to intervene, his drive and enthusiasm brought the club to its feet. Even during the war years, he worked hard to ensure the circumstances whereby cricket would return once peace came.
The Way Back
Cricket began again after the break for war in 1920. Many of the names still seen in the all-time Leading Players statistics appear around this time – and indeed were instrumental in the resurrection of the club itself. Nelson Thorns made his first appearance for the club in 1920, and the following year JV Musson, and J Vinall also made their debuts.
The club’s growing strength was reflected in the decision to build a pavilion. The old tradition of having tents raised (often through persuading those who supplied the refreshment that it was in their interests to provide them!), was dropped as the number of overall fixtures increased but the number of all-day and two-day games diminished. It was neither cost-effective nor practical to put up tents for every match, nor could they be left for the duration of the season. A more permanent home was needed, and by chance, a local master-builder, a Mr Baigent happened to overhear a conversation in the White Hart amongst players dissatisfied with the current arrangement. A seed was planted, and eventually, Mr Baigent offered to supply the wherewithal, if the members and his men would do the work in their own time. On April 20th 1926, the Parish council recorded this minute: “Moved by Chairman, Dr Lewis, seconded by Rev R. J. Lea, and carried, the report of the Commons committee that it be adopted, viz., the request of the Henfield cricket club to erect a pavilion on Henfield Common at the annual rent of 2s 6d.” This pavilion, further extended over the subsequent years, still stands.
The following year saw the first appearance of Percy Groves. He was to play for the club for fifty years, becoming the leading wicket-taker of all time, as well as one of the highest run-scorers.
Although the Henfield teams of the inter-war years lost more games than they won, the club was now back on a sound footing, and with the outbreak of war in 1939, it was in a position to carry on playing, albeit at a greatly reduced level. Many Commonwealth soldiers stationed nearby played during those years, and even, on one occasion, a Land Girl was pressed into service!
Post war Strength
Sadly, J Vinall never returned from the war, though many of the pre-war side were still available in 1946, and the playing strength was further improved by the arrival of such high quality players as Hugh Rapley and Frank Mayston – one of the most important people ever to play for the club and who would go on to hold just about every office there is at Henfield Cricket Club, including captain, secretary and President. This was the second golden age of Henfield cricket club, as the club once more became one of the strongest in the whole county. The village cricket of the late nineteenth century had transmuted into the much stronger club cricket in a pattern reflected across the country. Players of exceptional quality such as Mayston, Tony Ralls, Hugh Rapley, Trevor Adcock, Percy Groves, J D H Whittome, Geoff Castle, Jerry Hodgson and an outstanding wicket-keeper in the shape of Tony Robertson all played regularly for the club, whilst at the same time many of the younger players such as Conway Thorns, Eric Wells and Keith Waldron were also coming through. Once again, Henfield would take on the very best sides around.
The immediate post-war years also saw another change. Sunday cricket had been virtually unknown in Sussex, but now developed rapidly. Membership grew dramatically, and in 1947 the decision was taken to begin a 2nd XI, to play an initial nine games the following year. 2nd XI matches had taken place before, in the inter war years, but now the development proved to be permanent.
1949 was to be a pivotal year as Tony Ralls became the first player to record 1,000 runs in a season. Also that year, a player many feel to have been the greatest of the modern era joined the club. Trevor Adcock would go on to become a leading light in both batting and bowling over the next twenty years despite only playing on a Sunday (Sunday cricket was stronger than Saturday at the time) – many contemporaries felt that Adcock was desperately unlucky not to play county cricket. Again in 1949, Percy Groves took an astonishing 170 wickets, still a record. It is perhaps indicative of the standard of pitches in those days that Hugh Rapley also took 153 the same season; nevertheless it remains an extraordinary achievement – and incidentally one that puts the batting feats of the likes of Adcock into stark relief. In fact, Groves would take more than 100 wickets in a season for seven consecutive years, something no other player has come near matching. Certainly, in the modern era, no-one has figures anything like them, though 1,000 runs in a season has now been reached many times. Indeed, it is now nearly 20 years since Tim Parsons became the last bowler to take 100 wickets in a season, and of the two main batting and bowling achievements across a season, there is little doubt that claiming 100 victims is now the greater.
This second golden age continued for a good twenty years into the post-war era. Frank Mayston became captain in 1951 and held the position for 14 seasons. Many of the club’s present senior officers made their appearances during this time; the aforementioned Conway Thorns in 1954, Keith Waldron in 1957 and David Silverson, who would go on to become the club’s record run scorer with more than 20,000 runs as well as the small matter of more than 1,200 wickets, in 1960.
Perhaps a culmination of the combination of good young players and the established strength came in 1963, when Henfield entered the 1963 Horsham Six-a-side competition. This involved most of the strongest clubs in the county, and it was Henfield who caused something of a sensation by winning the competition.
Nevertheless, by the mid-1960’s the club was no longer quite the force it had been (though still a good club side), as many of the greats declined and some of the newer breed moved away – Henfield never saw the best of the likes of Conway Thorns for example, although he did much later move back to the area and is the current club Chairman. In many of the annual reports of the time (which we hope to place on this website in the future) one can read successive complaints about the fall off in both numbers and quality of the sides, as well as difficulty in raising 2nd XI teams on occasion.
Nevertheless, there remained many outstanding players, and there were new ones arriving too, such as the brilliant Ken Sadler who joined the club in 1969. Sadler would set an incredible record of scoring 1,000 runs every season for ten years, between 1971 and 1980. On the bowling front, a young spinner by the name of Tim Parsons broke through into the first team. Parsons would become the one person to threaten Percy Groves’ all-time wicket-taking record.
Not all of the most important people in the club’s development were necessarily on the playing side. Dr HF Squire, Tom Bing, Len McKinnon and Tony Adfield (who did play) are just a few of those who put in endless hours over these years, and allowed the club to flourish around them. As in any amateur club, these people are priceless to its continuation and development, and this was no less true in this post-war era.
The modern era
In common with cricket around the country, the old pattern of a fixture list consisting purely of friendly matches was coming under pressure. By the mid-seventies, league cricket was becoming common, and Sussex was no different. Traditional fixture lists were showing some sign of decline, and in order to preserve the integrity of the level of opposition to which the club had become used, the decision was taken to enter the Sussex Invitation League upon its creation in 1977. The league itself began in 1979, and has expanded ever since.
Any fears about the fate of friendly cricket proved to be unfounded, as league and friendly cricket fed off each other to provide an overall strengthening of the fixture list. The traditional and the new gave impetus to each other, and to this day both are integral parts of the season, with no one more important than the other.
Despite the advent of such innovations as league cricket, the tradition that was Henfield cricket club remained. Famous old names continued to play for the club down the generations. Current player Kevin Thorns is the sixth generation of the same family to play for Henfield, J Thorns having begun playing for the club in 1838. Other notable names are the Vinalls, Maystons and Parsons’. The continuity that had been so important down the years continued to play a key part in the club’s development.
Nevertheless, the club would always attract brand new names that would make a sizeable impact. Nick Blake would score more than 12,000 runs to go with his impressive wicket-keeping (by far the greatest statistical contribution by a wicketkeeper-batsman) whilst Martin Payne would begin to close in on Silverson’s batting record.
The fluctuations in fortune continued too. In 2001 the Sussex Invitation League was expanded and the long established top division split in two. Henfield finished in the lower half to play the following year in Division Two. Worse was to come, as in 2002 the 1st XI contrived to get itself relegated and, for the first time since the league’s inception, to play in the third rung of the Invitation League. Sure enough, they bounced back – in 2003 the club won the Division Three championship, and in 2005 Division Two, but it did serve as a reminder that all clubs go through peaks and troughs.
2003 saw the club make another landmark decision. At the time bowlers were proving to be in short supply – especially the kind of bowler who could bowl a side out on Henfield’s increasingly batting-friendly surface. Although controversial, an overseas player was engaged for the first time that year. Chris Garcia, from Melbourne, a left arm swing bowler had an immediate impact, taking 93 wickets that first season. It says much for the environment of the club and the village itself that he chose to return for the 2004 and 2005 season. It also said much for Chris that the club were delighted to have him back.
That same year, 2003, Henfield took a leap into the modern era when it made the first tentative steps towards developing its own website. After discussion, Henfield took up the ECB’s offer to make use of their Play Cricket hosted site. For the first time, players could see their statistics in “real time” as the season unfolded. Two years later, the club announced an ambitious plan to build its own, much larger website, to try to collate the huge amount of archive material that it possessed. A domain was registered, and Ken Scott set about designing the framework for what would follow. Club members undertook to go back over the archives and bring them up to date, allowing a full and accurate list of the club’s leading players throughout its long history to be created, as well as checking and corroborating club records. There can be few cricket clubs in the country with such a resource at their disposal.
By 2005, another development had taken place when the club engaged a full sponsor of the men’s teams for the first time. The White Hart public house, located in the High Street and so instrumental in the seeding and creation of the pavilion nearly 80 years earlier, agreed to become the club’s principal sponsor.
The club have always been innovators. In 2004, the former 1st XI captain Graham Fuller proposed that in the light of the success of the Twenty20 concept, Henfield should invite clubs from the surrounding area to participate in a new, midweek competition utilising the shorter format. The Henfield Cup was born, with four sides competing that first year. In the years since it has doubled in size, and is proving popular amongst players and spectators both at Henfield and at the other competing clubs.
Improvements have continued to be made to both ground and pavilion, and the popularity of Henfield as a venue amongst visiting players is a testament to those within the club who work tirelessly to ensure it remains an attractive place at which to play. One of the most notable themes running through any history of the club is that large crowds, sometimes in the thousands, were attracted to matches. In general terms, this may perhaps be felt to belong to a bygone era, but many a new member of the club is astonished, in this day and age, to see dozens of spectators’ cars parked beyond the boundary edge on match days.
As things stand, the club appears to be in rude health. The colts section is proving immensely successful, membership is rising, and the club appears able to attract players of good calibre. Under the tutelage of Ken Scott, the club obtained its Clubmark accreditation (of which more can be read elsewhere on the site) allowing a continuation and improvement of an already successful Colts scheme. Furthermore, the club was awarded the status of Focus Club in 2008. At the time of writing, at least four of the current 1st XI came from this source in years past, and its importance cannot be overstated. The 1st XI gained promotion back to Division One of the Invitation League, with the 2nd XI also playing in their top division. In 2006, the club made the first tentative steps to set up a Womens Cricket section and the following year they played their first game. Further changes also followed in 2007; the Sussex County League proposed an expansion, inviting clubs from the East Sussex League and the Invitation League to form East and West 3rd Divisions, with the potential for promotion through the divisions. Henfield were one of the clubs invited, and the membership unanimously accepted that invitation at an EGM.
With such developments, and with an increasing general membership, a thriving Colts section and a confident outlook, the club took the bold step of launching a 3rd XI for the first time ever, also in 2007, initially to play on Sundays – the first all new eleven for 85 years. As an illustration of the health of the cricket club, it could hardly be bettered.
We shall celebrate our 250th anniversary in 2021 – and indeed the 300th anniversary of cricket in the village that same year! Our history has become an integral part of the club, but throughout that long period, the membership has been careful to ensure that future prospects are bright. The current mood within the club is one of buoyant optimism. When this history is updated by a future member, may the same be said then.