Another in my occasional series where I try to choose the outstanding sportspeople and teams from a bygone era. I move on now to the 18th century which saw the real start of organised sport in the more modern era. Much of the organised sport took place in Great Britain and this means that many of my choices are also British.
Greatest sportsman of the 18th century
One of the first sports to develop organised contests in this time was boxing and my first two nominations are the outstanding boxers of the century.
James Figg – Recognised as the first world heavyweight boxing champion under old prize-fighting rules. Was world bare-knuckle champion from 1719 to 1734 only losing one fight out of more than 270. Became a teacher of boxing after his fighting career finished and is considered by some as the father of modern boxing.
Jack Broughton – the first man to codify a set of rules for boxing. He was also an outstanding fighter in the 1730s who it is said never lost a fight (although records from the time are sketchy). One of the inaugural members of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Another sport to become organised in the 18th century was cricket and these are some of the great names from that sport.
Richard Newland In the 1740s, Richard Newland was arguably “the most famous player in England”. He was a batting all-rounder and the earliest known left-handed player in cricket history who played for Slindon Cricket Club and Susse. He also represented various All-England teams and made 26 known appearances from 1741 to 1751. He was an outstanding competitor in single-wicket competitions.
Billy Beldham is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest batsmen of the sport’s underarm era. He was selected by John Woodcock of The Times as one of his 100 Greatest Cricketers of All Time. Beldham’s known first-class batting career from 1787 to 1821 realised 7,045 runs in 348 innings over 189 matches. Possibly his best single performance was playing for Surrey against England at Lords in 1794 when he scored 72 and 104, took at least two wickets and held three catches in a 197-run victory. Beldham did much to lay the foundations of what can now be recognised as modern batting technique.
John Small who played from c. 1756 to 1798, one of the longest careers on record. Small is generally regarded as the greatest batsman of the 18th century and was the first to master the use of the modern straight bat which was introduced in the 1760s. He scored the earliest known century in first-class cricket and was acclaimed as the greatest player of the famous Hambledon Club. In 1997, he was named by The Times as one of its 100 Greatest Cricketers of All Time.
David Harris played from 1782 to 1798 and made 79 known first-class appearances. He was known for his fast and accurate bowling with the cricket historian of the time John Nyren calling him the “very best bowler” of his era. He took ten wickets in a match three times and eight in one innings in a match for Hampshire.
Clerge (Real Tennis) the greatest player of real tennis in the mid 18th century, with the height of his career being about 1753 in France. He is credited with being the first world champion of any sport, holding the real tennis title from 1740 until 1765.
My choice for the greatest British sportsman comes down to James Figg and John Small who seem to have the most general acclamation and I have chosen James Figg because of his amazing record over such a long time in a more competitive sport. I also choose figg as the greatest world sportsman as even though Clerge was recognised as world champion his sport wasn’t widely competed in.
The greatest teams of the century are mainly the cricket teams of the time as other team sports weren’t as properly organised. Two outstanding teams were:
Slindon Cricket Club – a village from Sussex who were regarded as the best team in England in the mid-18th century. The star players were Richard Newland and his brothers. At their peak the team went on a run of 43 games with only one defeat.
Hambledon – by the late 1770s the most famous cricket club in England with many of the great names of the time playing for them. There was a great deal of overlap with the Hampshire county team with players appearing for both.
If I treat horses as part of a team involving their owners, trainers and jockeys my choice of the greatest teams of the century include:
Flying Childers foaled in 1714 and regarded as the first great racehorse by many. He was unbeaten in his six races and the times he recorded were unmatched until the great Eclipse and according to one quote was “the fleetest horse that ever ran at Newmarket or, as generally believed, that was ever bred in the world”.
Eclipse was an outstanding, undefeated 18th-century British racehorse who won 18 races in 1769 and 1770, including 11 King’s Plates. After retiring from racing he became a very successful sire. His achievements are still known today as many races and awards have been named after him. His dominance is remembered by the famous saying “Eclipse first and the rest nowhere”.
Highflyer was unbeaten in fourteen races including the 1400 Guineas Stakes in 1778 and Great Subscription Purse in 1779.
The most celebrated cricket team of the century was Hambledon so I would have them as my top cricket team but Eclipse is still regarded as one of the all-time great horses in a hugely competitive field. Taking Eclipse as part of a team with his trainer Sullivan and jockey John Oakley makes him my choice.