It was delicious to be out on deck after all this time. The rolling waves were finally abating, the skies were clearing and I was feeling refreshed. For so long we had been confined to the suite of cabins my employers were allocated for the duration of the voyage. Since our departure from Southampton sea-sickness had wracked the SS Peshawar, the vessel taking us home to Australia. My own stomach had roiled as a result, but many were far worse off – bedridden even. So, really, I had little to complain about as I went about my duties These mainly consisted of keeping the children entertained in such circumstances. Naturally exuberant, there was little space for their usual carefree shenanigans. They had displayed great self control during trying times in a constricted space. How those cramped poor souls below decks had survived the effects of the ferocious spring storms, for eight long days and nights, was beyond me.
That day was the first occasion we, as a party, could safely walk the decks to take the sea air. Sir William and Lady Janet had dressed in their best to promenade and I had difficulty keeping the little ones in check as all they wanted to do was scamper about. The sun was showing its face for the first time on the voyage and I took the liberty of wearing a veil to protect my complexion, as was the fashion back then, even if the tropics were still a way off. The adults in our group were all feeling quite languorous, the after effect of many sleepless nights. Then, all of a sudden my employer became quite animated and started gesticulating to a lone man staring out to sea, shouting to him and calling him over. As the stranger turned to investigate who was causing the commotion I lifted my veil, placing it atop my hat so I could better discern the cause of Sir William’s out of character performance.
I wonder who it will be? Which Australian will bowl that first bouncer of the summer’s test series against India? As our team attempts to recover from the awful event that has shattered the early days of the season and tries to gear up to face the visitors, our national sport is in dire need of a happier story. Thanks to a recent discovery under the roof of a girl’s school in Kent, England, here’s one that will put a smile back on the face of any cricket tragic/romantic at heart.
Over all our years together he would tell me many, many times it was that lifting of the veil. It did him in. He told me he was smitten from that moment on, remaining so for the rest of his years on our good earth. Something tells me it will not be too long before I join him; not long before I share that space alongside him in our Kentish churchyard.
It transpired that the gentleman in question did indeed know Sir William and he hurried over to shake his hand. He cut a very fine figure indeed. He possessed a most handsome moustache, pleasantly dark features, wonderfully twinkling eyes and was kitted in the most fashionable manly attire for travel on the high seas. I was most taken with him. He greeted us colonials with a deep bow, then tipped his hat to Lady Janet as he was introduced to her, followed by shaking hands with each of the children – making them feel very important indeed. When my employer came to me this elegant chap took my hand and raised it almost to his lips – as if I too were a person of some note, not merely a lowly governess. Sir William and our new acquaintance, we were informed, had moved in the same circles in London society during our long stay there. I knew Sir William Clarke was a devotee of the game of cricket as he had built an impressive ground back at Rupertswood, the family residence at Sunbury, on Melbourne’s outskirts. So it was no complete surprise to me that the young gentleman, who I took to be around my own age, was introduced by the older man, in a voice of some gravitas, as the captain of the English touring party. His team were en route to play some games against our antipodean cricketers. He was Ivo Bligh. I only partially listened to the discussion the two had about recent events in the sport as I was pre-occupied with the little ones, but there seemed to be much jocularity to do with Grace’s team being beaten. Mr Bligh told us all that it was his solemn duty to go to our shores and bring back some ashes that Grace managed to lose. What I did discern, though, was that each time I looked towards the two men, Mr Bligh’s eyes seemed to be on me. I also realised that his distraction from his conversation, by me, was not going unnoticed by Lady Janet. With her perceptiveness a propitious seed was sown.
In a dusty attic in the roof space of a girl’s school in deepest Kent some renovating workmen discovered a trunk full of attire from a bygone era. The only item that was not clothing was a thin manilla folder containing a dozen or so sheets of lined foolscap paper, covered in a shaky, spidery scrawl. They passed it on to one of the masters at the school, who duly took it to the local historical society to see if it was of any relevance for their records. On examination it turned out to be first draft of some memoirs. After close reading it was realised that, yes, what was so painfully scrawled was of import, but not so much to local history. As will be discerned from the following extracts, it was of considerable significance for the sport we love.
As the weather continued to improve our party encountered Mr Bligh and his fellow cricketers many times, not only on the promenading decks, but in the ship’s staterooms as well. Although I never spoke a word to him during these encounters, I felt his eyes return to me over and over again. At one stage, as an entertainment, the ship’s officers challenged the sportsmen on board to a tug-of-war. When Mr Bligh took his turn he seemed to injure his wrist during the exertions. It was a few evenings later that the Clarkes were due to sit at the captain’s table for dinner. To my delight, Lady Janet informed me I would be accompanying them on this special occasion; that a suitable young lady from below decks had been hired to put the children to bed for the night. In my careful preparations for the dinner I had the feeling that, for me, this night would be auspicious, maybe even a turning point. I had little inkling, though, just how momentous it would prove to be. To his dying day my dear Ivo claimed he took no part in the arrangements at that high table, but on being seated I discovered my place-card was sited along side his. My suspicions fell on Lady Janet, but when I politely queried her on a later occasion, she feigned no knowledge.
From the commencement of the meal Mr Bligh was most attentive, seemingly wanting to know all about my life at Rupertswood, my employer’s country estate. I noticed that the poor man’s wrist was tightly bound and asked if it was healing. As I did so, I unthinkingly laid my hand on his arm. Mr Bligh then reached for my hand and raised it, this time fully to his lips, proceeding to kiss it most fervently. He didn’t seem to care who was watching. I duly noted that Lady Janet again had not missed the unexpected display of affection from a gentleman barely of my acquaintance
It was at that instance I knew. This fine vision of British manhood would become important in my life. As the night wore on we talked and talked, almost oblivious to those around us. Mr Bligh seemed to consume a goodly amount of wine to the degree that, by the time dessert was served, he seemed to be somewhat agitated. He finally leaned in closer to my side and whispered in my ear, ‘I simply must see you again at he earliest convenient opportunity.’
Doing so was not easy – he had his duties and I had mine. But in Lady Janet I soon found I had a discreet ally. The morning after our meal, at high table, she took me aside and indeed asked if there were ‘feelings’ developing between myself and Mr Bligh. I replied in the affirmative. She told me she thought that news was wonderful, continuing by asking if she could be of assistance in ‘helping the relationship along’, as she put it. I confided to her my admirer’s final request to which the good Lady replied that I was to leave it to her – she would see to a suitable arrangement. After that it became quite easy to organise our assignations. Lady Janet became an effective conduit between myself and the man who was quickly winning my heart. There could be no suspicion attached to her passing on notes between myself and Mr Bligh as this was done entirely in Sir William’s presence. If he was privy to what was occurring I had no way of knowing.
By this means we communicated throughout the remainder of the voyage and we gained enough time together for a true fondness to develop between us, albeit it with precious little privacy. Still, by the time we rounded the Cape of Good Hope and set forth into the Indian Ocean we had shared embraces, kisses and confessed our fealty to each other. I also knew by then he was a man of some means – was regarded as a future leader of men, off the sporting field as well as on it. By then he had truly become my very dear Ivo.
The SS Peshawar’s journey to Australia was not without incident. Off the coast of Ceylon the boat collided with the barque Glenroy. English paceman Morley was so injured he took very little part in the games on colonial soil and died soon after his return to his home country.
The English Touring Team
As our battered craft docked at Port Adelaide Ivo and I knew the time was not far off before we would be forced to be parted. He had ceremonies to attend in the South Australian capital, as well as some matches to play against the locals. Our party, meanwhile, would carry on to Port Phillip. By now Lady Janet was very much out in the open as my co-conspirator in managing time with Ivo. Prior to disembarkation she saw to it that our suite of cabins were empty well before time so my beau and I could say our farewells unseen. It was there that I felt for the first time the ardour of Ivo’s longing for me. Although I was determined to remain chaste till my wedding day – be that with he or some other suitor – his physicality had a powerful effect on me. I found myself swooning on more than one occasion.
Wonderfully, the first two test matches between the MCC and the combined antipodean team were to be contested in Melbourne. My good lady saw to it that Ivo was a constant presence around Rupertswood, when his schedule permitted. By then, as a result of our times spent in each other’s close company, he knew all there was to know about me, down to my inner most thoughts. He was privy to the fact that my father, John Morphy, had migrated to Victoria and in 1836 met and married my mother, Elizabeth Styles. He knew my childhood was spent in nearby Beechworth. I came into the world in 1860, soon making the discovery I already had six siblings preceding me. But I was very fortunate in being quick with my letters and adept at the keyboard. He knew that, with the latter, I had achieved some modest local fame, to the degree that the Clarke’s took me on as their children’s governess and music teacher.
By our time in Sunbury it was no secret that Ivo and I were unofficially betrothed. His form in the first two tests was wretched. But this did not seem to worry him. As he told me, he was there to captain. This he carried out very professionally, but the word was out – rumours appeared in the press insinuating his mind was far more on me than hitting a leather ball with a bat. That Christmas, prior to those matches getting under way, was the most thrilling of my life till that date. For days on end my Mr Bligh did not have to rush away and we started making plans to spend the remainder of our years together.
England lost the first official test at the MCG with Bligh scoring a duck and six. In the second confrontation the MCC prevailed, but Ivo again didn’t trouble the scorers. Then the English team moved to Sydney where two further encounters against the Australians were played. The first had its fair share of controversy, but the visitors were victorious. A final match was hastily cobbled together and was of an experimental nature. It wasn’t considered official, thus the Bligh’s cohort had achieved their aim – that of capturing the ashes to take back to the mother country. Revenge had been exacted. Of course, at this stage the games between Australia and England were not played for anything tangible – only bragging rights. The famous urn did not exist – but all that was about to change, with Florence Morphy and Lady Janet Clarke soon seeing to that. And the story has an unexpected twist that has only just come to light. For this we return to those thin pages scrawled by a woman who knows her time is short.
Saying farewell to Ivo, if only for a brief time, I found heartbreaking. He had to proceed to Sydney where there was the deciding clash to lead his team in – and that then turned into another match as well. It all caused me much anguish and distress. Would he come back to me as promised? Would he meet someone up there he found more to his liking than I? I didn’t know my Mr Bligh well enough to know that, when he gave his word, nothing would sway him from keeping it. After Sydney was done with he returned immediately, as vowed.
As departure neared, on his stay-overs at Rupertswood he had by now taken to sharing my bed, although we made some attempt to be discreet. But really he seemed not to care who knew we were breaking convention and who didn’t. Of course Lady Janet was privy to this development and gave me some advice to prevent insemination, but Ivo was, till the end, considerate of my desire to remain intact till our wedding night. I found other means to service his needs. And he mine. We had planned our nuptials to occur the following summer, with Ivo returning home at some stage in the autumn. The treasured man wanted to remain with me as long as possible.
Lady Janet Clarke
Before the team left our shores, Lord and Lady Clarke decided to invite them all for one last gathering at Rupertswood. This occurred over the Easter period. A very fine meal was laid on and some humorous speeches made. This evening, though, has gone down in the annals of cricketing history far more because of a small token presented to Bligh and his departing team.
A few days before the announcement of the English visitors’ final festivities at the Clarke’s stately abode, Janet came to me with a devious plan. Yes, she was now Janet to me. I was forbidden to prefix ‘Lady’ to her name, in any situation, for she stated she now regarded me no longer as an employee but one of her closest friends. I was both touched and astounded. I also knew she was delighted with the role she played in creating our love story – that between Ivo and this daughter of a soon to be federated Australia.
In her hand she carried a small urn and was soon drawing my attention to it. When I inquired what she intended to do with it, a wide smile engulfed her face. She told me, in hushed tones, of her plan. It involved burning some cricket bails and placing the ash in the tiny container. They would represent those ashes the men were always finding humour in. They would now take on form. ‘But,’ Janet continued, ‘as I will be presenting this to Mr Bligh, I think it is only appropriate that we burn something more intimate as well. Something to wrap the bails in – something he can only associate with you, his darling love. Something that signifies the union that is about to occur between an English gentleman and a beautiful colonial rose. Do you think that would be a good idea? Only you and he would know that the urn contains the other item. I will not let that cat out of the bag – ever. Now, do you have a notion of what we could use?’
I did indeed. It didn’t take me long to produce an item for Janet. Of course, what else could it be apart from that very veil I lifted from my face on that fateful sea voyage? The act I was engaged in when he first espied me – and I him.
On February 9th, 1884 Florence Morphy and Ivo Bligh wedded at Rupertswood. On the death of his elder brother, in 1900, Ivo Bligh became Lord Darnley and he and Florence took up permanent residence in Cobham Hall. The little urn, which the lord of the manor considered a personal gift, knowing full well what else it contained apart from the ashes of a bail, became a fixture on a mantelpiece in the family seat’s library. Ivo passed away in 1925. Two years later Florence, Lady Darnley, presented the urn to the MCC at a function attended by a young tyro from Australia, Don Bradman. Florence later joined her husband, by being buried in a plot beside him, in 1944.
It was not until 1998 that the elderly daughter-in-law let slip in an interview to a magazine what else was burnt, along with some bails. What else was also placed in a minuscule urn, on that occasion, over a hundred years previous.
So, as our national team prepares to take the field in Adelaide for what will not doubt be an emotional return to combative cricket at the highest level, we can reflect on this happy story and the fact we are not too distant from another Ashes campaign. The tiny piece of pottery is now worth a small fortune and is far too fragile to travel from its home – but the story of its gestation is indeed a remarkable one. It was borne of love, the type of love that in recent times a nation has bestowed on Phil Hughes. May the battle begin.