The spacious ground was crowded – 9 June 1926

An illustration in black with hot pink and light pink detailing of a street, featuring a cyclist, a small vehicle, pedestrians, a church and various shop frontsThis story is one of the runners-up stories in the 20sStreets competition. The competition invited entrants to research and share stories of the 1920s, searching for the most fascinating local history stories covered by the 1921 Census of England and Wales. There were six winning stories and twelve runners-up entries.

Surviving the 1926 General Strike in a mining community

By Keith Gregson, runner-up (one of ten) in the Individual category

Photograph of a massive crowd at the Ashbrooke Sports Ground in Sunderland, facing the other way

Photograph of the crowd at Ashbrooke Sports Ground in Sunderland – photograph from the Ashbrooke Archives

On 09 June 1926 an estimated 25,000 people gathered at the Ashbrooke Sports Ground in Sunderland to watch a cricket match. Over 20,000 tickets had gone to the general public, 2,000 to Sunderland Cricket Club and Durham County members, officials and guests and a further 3,000 spectators had entered the ground before the gates were locked. As noted by a reporter for the Newcastle Chronicle ‘the spacious ground’ (home to Sunderland Cricket Club) ‘was crowded’ and many of those locked out went to the top of nearby Tunstall Hill and watched the game through binoculars. It was a glorious summer’s day and the first day of a two day game between minor county Durham and the touring Australian side. An added attraction was that the game took place a few days before the first Ashes test of the season between England and Australia.

The reasons behind this massive gathering (massive in cricketing terms at least) are interesting and not entirely related to the sport of cricket. The match was taking place at a time of massive industrial and social unrest. The historically renowned General Strike had come to an end a mere four weeks before the game. However the miners of North East England had stayed out and remained on strike until November. On the very day of the match, the local press noted that no progress had been made in settling ‘the mining dispute’. There was much sympathy in the region for the miners’ cause and as an act of support, tickets were provided for striking miners and the unemployed for 1/- (5p or an equivalent modern £5). This is a fraction in modern terms of the cost of a ticket for a football match. The railway companies also chipped in by offering free transport to all living within 80 miles of Sunderland.

Another major reason for the huge crowd was the positive historical links between Australian cricket and the town of Sunderland. In fact the Australian management had insisted on a game at Ashbrooke. Back in 1878 the first cricketing tourists from Australia had played against a Sunderland side at Sunderland’s old ground on Chester Road and had repeated the act two years later. They then faced Durham County twice at Ashbrooke – in 1912 and 1921. The surprise here is that Durham was not one of the major cricketing counties. As late as 1926 the county had to wait more than 60 years before being afforded First Class status and experiencing regular fixtures with the likes of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Surrey and Middlesex. So what was so attractive about a county which was not ‘first class’ and, in sporting terms, interesting and interested enough to attract a crowd 10,000 greater than that turned out for the first day of the first test?

The answer is basically two-fold – money and hospitality. On each of the previous visits, the share of gate money given to the tourists had been greater than that given by most if not all the major counties. In 1926, the takings were a record for Durham and income for the whole match was only matched by takings for the MCC v Australia game. The final total for all the gate money across the two days came to almost £2,000 – a modern day equivalent would be £150,000. With no television and, as yet, no live radio broadcasts of cricket, attendance was one of the only ways of getting a true cricketing experience and with the nearest First Class cricket requiring a journey to Yorkshire a rare chance to see ‘the best’.

The Australians also insisted upon a match at Ashbrooke because they enjoyed coming to Sunderland. For the folks of North East England it was a special occasion and treated as such.There was a large crowd to greet the team at Sunderland station and a special exhibition of Australian culture was mounted at the town’s Museum and Library. Much of this interaction may be put down to ancestral links which the north eastern counties of Northumberland and Durham shared with the antipodes. During the mid-nineteenth century, many miners had left these counties to search for gold in Australia. Some returned; others stayed. As a result there were strong links between north east England and Australia – and especially with the south east of that country where many communities bore the names of communities in north east England. Tommy Andrews, who was to play for Australia at Ashbrooke, had a County Durham born mother and at the end of the tour, the Australian manager singled out Sunderland as a major highlight. For him the visit to the town had been ‘a marvelous experience’ and, as it had been his first trip, ‘a genuine surprise’. It was clear that here was a minor county that was ‘on the map’.

The game itself (as might be expected) was dominated by the visitors who won with an innings to spare. Wherever the match had been played it would have been used as both a batting and bowling warm-up for the upcoming test. Four greats of Australian cricket were involved – Macartney, Bardsley, Mailey and Grimmett and Tommy Andrews enjoyed his visit to his ancestral home by scoring 122 runs in Australia’s only innings. However there was a ray of sunshine for the locals when Big Jack Carr hit two sixes and a four off Clarrie Grimmett – a player still regarded as one of the greatest spin bowlers of all time.

This is a tale worth the telling and much of the story is possible thanks to the survival of the magnificent Ashbrooke archives. Dating back to 1834, they cover the history of Sunderland Cricket Club, Rugby Club, Hockey Club, Tennis Club, Bowling Club, Squash Club and the more recent Sunderland Strollers Running Club. Known today as Ashbrooke Sports Club, this club is one of the rare Victorian multi-sport clubs to still be in existence – and, without doubt, 09 June 1926 was its finest day.