The Ashes Urn is presented to MCC

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The Ashes Urn is 10.5 centimetres tall and weighs 124.8 grams.

Nobody can be sure where it originally came from, or what is really inside it. But we can be certain what it represents.

The idea of the Ashes originated with England’s first defeat by Australia on English soil, at the Oval in 1882. England were set just 85 to win, but the bowling of ‘The Demon’ Fred Spofforth saw them dismissed for just 77. The defeat was seen as such a national calamity that three days later a mock obituary appeared in the Sporting Times, declaring the death of English cricket and that the body would be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia. The obituary was a joke, but also a reference to the ongoing debate about the legalisation of cremation in Britain. With England due to play a three match return series in Australia the following winter (1882-83), both captains got into the spirit of the joke; England captain the Hon. Ivo Bligh declaring he would fight to reclaim the Ashes (meaning the honour of English cricket); Australia’s Billy Murdoch declared that he would fight to defend them.

Bligh’s team were scheduled to play three Test matches, but before the series commenced Bligh and the amateurs of his team visited the home of Sir William Clarke, President of Melbourne Cricket Club, at Rupertswood near Sunbury in Victoria. There, on Christmas Eve, they played a scratch game against a team of estate workers, which they won. Sir William’s wife, Lady Janet Clarke, then decided, in the spirit of the joke, that Bligh had regained the honour of English cricket with this victory and should be rewarded with the Ashes. A bail used in the match was burned, placed in a small terracotta urn and presented to Bligh. ‘The Ashes’ were born.

It is unclear where the Urn came from. It may have been an antique-style perfume bottle or cosmetic jar of some kind that Lady Janet picked up from her dressing table on the spur of the moment. The gift would gain greater poignancy for Bligh, as the visit to Rupertswood was also the occasion when he met the Clarke family’s governess, Florence Rose Morphy, who would later become his wife. The urn would remain in their possession as a cherished reminder of their romance until after Ivo’s death in 1927, when Florence presented it to MCC. At its heart therefore, the story of the Ashes urn is a love story; a story that should unite two nations, not divide them.

Bligh’s team went on to win the three-match series 2-1. It is possible that ashes might have been added to the urn at this point, or it may have been re-presented to Ivo with the ashes of a bail used in the third Test inside. It was certainly following the third Test that Mrs Anne Fletcher presented Bligh with a red velvet bag to hold the Ashes and a poem from Melbourne Punch was affixed to the urn. As if to confuse the issue even further, a fourth match was arranged, which Australia won. So had Bligh’s team really regained ‘the Ashes’ after all?

For 20 years after the 1882-83 series the term ‘the Ashes’ was largely forgotten, only being revived by Sir Pelham Warner’s account of his 1903-04 victory. Notably, Lady Darnley had been a passenger on the same ship that carried Warner’s team to Australia. Even after the idea of ‘the Ashes’ came back into fashion, the existence of the Urn was largely unknown by the general public until it was first put on display in 1926, shortly before its donation to MCC.

MCC continues to consider the Ashes Urn as the personal memento it was to Lord and Lady Darnley. It has become the strongest symbol of Anglo-Australian cricketing rivalry, but it is not and never has been a trophy.