John Hughes

Hertford's famous nineteenth century cricketer

By Brian Box

John Hughes c. 1876
John Hughes c 1900, aged 75
John Hughes' grave in All Saints churchyard

John Hughes, born in 1825, was the greatest by far of Hertford cricketers of the nineteenth century. During his career with the club, which ran from 1842 to 1894, he played in 212 matches. In days when wickets were rough to say the least, his tally of 4104 runs at an average of 14.05 was more than respectable. It was however as a bowler that he made the greatest contributions. His tally of over a thousand wickets would not be surpassed until 1937, by Sid Brown. He was also the first Hertford batsman to reach 2,000 runs, which he did in 1865, and to emphasise his all-round abilities he passed the 500-wicket mark the following year. Absence of detailed press reports indicates that these figures are understated. Also, in his early years, bowlers did not get credit when batsmen were caught or stumped.

John’s father, John Hughes senior, born in 1797, established a clay pipe factory in 1826 next to a pair of cottages built on what is now known as The Folly in 1802. By 1837 one of these had become an inn called The Jolly Bargeman. By 1846 Hughes had acquired the tenancy of the inn and successive members of his family ran both the pipe factory and the inn, which in 1843 was bought by Hawkes the Bishop’s Stortford brewers. In 1890 Hawkes were absorbed into Benskins of Watford and shortly after ‘The Barge’ was rebuilt in its present form. The clay pipe factory became a farriers and is now the site of the Barge’s restaurant. In the 1861 census Elizabeth, John senior’s widow, is running the inn and apparently the pipe-making business as well, though John junior is also registered as a pipe maker. John and his wife Ellen are running the pub and the pipe-making business in 1871. They have a son, also called John, born in 1870. Sadly, he died in 1887. In 1879 John and Ellen moved to the Old Coffee Shop, a pub, in Maidenhead St. By 1891 they had retired to 12 Chambers St.

Ellen also came from a cricketing family, the Fishers. She was the second child of James Fisher who had been born in Broxbourne in 1794 and married Elizabeth, a Hertford girl. Two of Ellen’s younger brothers, William and Albert, played cricket for Hertford. Ellen was baptised at All Saints on 25th November 1827. The family were then living at Mill Bridge and her father’s occupation was given as a plumber/glazier. In 1841 they were living in Back Street. By the time of the 1851 census she had become a servant at Green Hall, Bramfield – the home of George Brassey JP. The rest of the family had moved to Cowbridge. In 1861 she was still in service but now at Oak Hill Road, Hampstead. Elizabeth Mayo was the head of the household. On 12th August 1867, then 40, she married John Hughes at St George the Martyr in Southwark. Both parties gave their address as White Street, Borough. Albert and Annie (Ann) Fisher were the witnesses. Her father’s occupation was now given as a publican. The 1841 census gives the Hughes’ family as also living in Back Street so they had known each other for a long time. The marriage took place on a Monday; Hughes had been playing for Hertford against the South of England the previous Thursday to Saturday. He was back playing for Hertford on the 22nd. Ellen died on 4th December 1903 in her 77th year.

John Hughes made his debut for Hertford in 1842 in two games against the Break O’Day club. This team comprised players who, because of work commitments, could only play at 4am in the morning. John’s best figures were recorded against Hatfield in 1865 when in the first innings he took nine wickets, following this with seven in the second. The number of runs conceded is not known. He recorded another nine, against Essendon, in 1872 and took seven or more on 18 occasions. Bowling records for the club are kept from 1860 and he was leading wicket taker every year until 1869. Including these years with those when averages are calculated, he came top on 13 occasions. Between 1863 and 1883 he formed a formidable bowling partnership with Albert Fisher, who became his brother-in-law. They took ten wickets in an innings between them on no fewer than 25 occasions; in four games they did this twice in a match. In 11 seasons Hughes headed the batting averages; three of these were before 1860. In five seasons he topped both lists. He played for Hertfordshire from its formation in 1876 to 1882. He was thus 51 years old when his county career started. During his county career he took 274 wickets for 3052 runs, an average of 11.14. He was also a regular in ‘unofficial’ Hertfordshire matches arranged prior to 1876. Robert Fitzgerald, the secretary of MCC, ran some of these at Chorleywood from 1869 onwards.

In the first official County match, played against Bedfordshire at Luton, Hughes opened the batting and the bowling. He scored 42 runs and took 6-23 and 5-40 as Hertfordshire won by an innings and 80 runs. The game was nearly abandoned over an lbw decision given in favour of the Herts bowler Westell, by his uncle. In the first county season Hughes took 52 wickets for 564 off 383 overs. His figures in the second season were similar, 53 for 561 off 440, but he was even better in 1878 taking 69 for 705 off 559 overs, and heading the averages. Thereafter age gradually caught up with him. In his book, Cricket in Hertfordshire, R.G. Simons selects a county eleven for each period he covers. For the period 1876-1894 ‘the spearhead of the attack must be old John Hughes with his devastating twisters’. In the County records, Hughes still heads tables for the Best Career Bowling Average and Best Bowling Average in a Season.

As was common at the time, talented players like Hughes were hired to play for many clubs in the area and he often played for Bishop’s Stortford and St Albans. For Hatfield he was paid £1 for a game in 1855. Many good cricketers were thus employed though not against their own clubs – Hughes was never paid to play against Hertford.

An indication of his esteem is found in an Essendon scorebook. Essendon were a strong side and their best player was C.E. Wodehouse, who also played for Hertford between 1878 and 1890. He did not play against Hertford but Hertford picked Chesher. The scorebook entry ran ‘Chesher ought not to have been allowed to play, the Essendon having pledged themselves not to bring Mr. Wodehouse unless Chesher or Hughes were going to play’.

The following notes are largely based on an interview with John Hughes printed in Cricket, a Weekly Record of the Game, dated 25th April 1901.

He was recognised as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, slow bowler of his time. He did not have the chance of playing against famous batsmen until late in life but once he made his mark he could have played in all the big matches had he been disposed to do so. He took all ten wickets of a strong England team at Harlow and in a match for Lord Braybrooke he dismissed C.K. Francis, J. Round and Fuller Maitland – three of the best bats at the time – with successive balls. He was 55 when he last played against W.G. Grace but had vivid recollections of the first time he met the Doctor.

Being told he was to go up against W.G. in a match for a Hertfordshire XI against I Zingari [1] at Chorleywood in 1872 he spent a restless couple of weeks before the great day arrived. W.G. was pointed out to him and came in to open the innings. Hughes was surprised and delighted when his first ball passed the bat and hit the stumps. W.G. exacted some revenge in the second innings with a score of 75 – after being dropped first ball off Hughes, according to R.G. Simons [2] . In the first innings Hughes took 7-16 in 14 overs.

One of his earliest recollections of the game was when in his late teens he was residing in Bedford. He went to the local ground where a professional called Hibbert offered to teach him the rudiments of the game. During his time at Bedford he played several games for Bedfordshire. He moved back to Hertford, probably in 1846, when records show him playing seven games for the clubs (Balls Park primarily). He came to the notice of the Hon. Robert Grimston who had a theory that every village club had at least one good player in it. ‘Through his kindness I was asked to bowl to the Militia officers and Old Haileyburians. Tom Lockyer was then the professional at Haileybury, and he gave me lots of wrinkles. I was then a medium fast bowler.’

Asked how he became a slow bowler, Hughes replied, ‘It was rather a curious way that I learned to bowl slow. I lived close to the river, and went one day to look at some workmen who were building a new bridge. They were digging, and presently brought up a stone of almost the exact shape of a cricket ball. I took it in my hand, and while tossing it to and fro, found that I was making it twist in the air. It struck me that if I could do that it would fly off at an angle if it touched the ground.’ He tried and found it worked and so practised it all winter. His team mates knew about it but not the opponents. ‘It was rare fun to me to see them going to pat the ground when a ball came back, and grumbling like anything at the wicket.’ His secret came out when he played for St Albans against an All England eleven. ‘I had got rid of Jupp, Tom Humphrey, Pooley and Mr. I.D. Walker in five balls – three of them bowled and one caught – the mischief was out.’ There were other bowlers in the country making the same discovery but Hughes had not met them.

He was asked to go to Harrow by the Rt. Hon. Robert Grimston but his pipe business was good and it suited him to play locally. Asked how often he played, he answered,  ‘Well, for thirty-five years I never sat down in the summer, so to speak, for I frequently had six matches a week, and had to walk a long way to some of them. If a match was far off, it would take me seventeen or eighteen hours from the time that started until I reached home again.’

On first class cricket – ‘Last year [1900] I went to the Oval to see Surrey and Yorkshire, and I wondered how spectators could stand the sort of cricket that was played. I waited all day for a cut and did not see one, although the bowlers continually sent in balls to the off. I’d sooner see a club match than this kind of cricket, but perhaps I am not educated up to it yet.’

On the Hertford Club – ‘We had several good bowlers, and in a club which has good bowlers you may be sure that there are good batsmen. We had one advantage over many neighbouring clubs: we could always be sure of an eleven without having to depend on gentlemen who might disappoint you at the last moment. It used to take a wonderful good club to give us a beating.’

When he finished playing regularly for Hertford he played for Hertford Amateurs, having surrendered his professional status, and Hertford Victoria. He captained the latter club when he was in his mid to late sixties. After his playing days were over, he continued to support Hertford cricket, tending the ground at Balls Park and coaching the young until he died in 1907. He is buried in All Saints churchyard with his wife and son. members of Hertford CC have tried unsuccessfully to mark his grave with a plaque. His death, on 29th January, and funeral were well reported in the local press and included many of the anecdotes mentioned above. An anonymous appreciation of him stressed his personality. ‘He was unfailing in the conduct of Nature’s gentleman. He encouraged the beginner, made excuses for him, strengthened his determination to do better, was never the cause of strife, worked whole-heartedly for his side – a splendid example in the cricket field.’

[1]   The opponents were given as I Zingari in the interview with Hughes but as MCC according to R.G. Simons and the Mercury . Hughes played against I Zingari at Gorhambury in 1868 taking 15 wickets, seven in the first innings and eight in the second.

[2]   The Mercury report states that Grace gave two chances in his innings but no other information.

The above notes have been extracted from Brian Box’s History of Hertford Cricket Club – ‘From Hartham to Lord’s’

For more information see:

Hertford Cricket Club

Brian would be delighted to hear from anyone with further information about John Hughes, or any player from the early days of the club.

This page was added on 12/10/2011.

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  • Hello John,
    I think it’s probably unlikely that we will be able to identify the other player but if you send a copy to for the attention of Llinos Thomas, we can try.
    You could also indicate whether you give permission for it to be published on this site.

    By Geoffrey Cordingley (14/11/2023)
  • Hi, Enjoyed your article, and it also identified my cdv Elsden Hertford photo of John Hughes. My photo is the same except at a different angle, and most importantly, another cricket player is also in the picture. I was wondering if you would be able to identify him if I send you a photocopy? Thanks, John

    By John T. McLean (13/11/2023)