On The Level

Published: 2019
Pages: 107
Author: Goulstone, John
Publisher: Sussex Cricket Museum
Rating: 4 stars

John Goulstone is a remarkable man. He began his researches into cricket’s ancient history back in the 1950s. In the following decade he started contributing articles to the legendary Cricket Quarterly, and his contributions are a significant factor in Rowland Bowen’s journal enjoying the lofty reputation it does.

In the 1970s, Bowen having closed CQ, Goulstone started to publish the results of his research himself. His books, in truth generally more in the nature of booklets/pamphlets, are extremely collectable and difficult and expensive to acquire. Cricket was not the only string to Goulstone’s bow however, and in 1977 he launched his own quarterly journal, Sports Quarterly. That one lasted five years and then became the twice yearly Sports History journal. As the titles suggest a number of sports were featured.

Occasionally Goulstone has featured on a larger stage. Unsurprisingly he was acknowledged as one of three men* who provided significant assistance to Bowen in his acclaimed book Cricket: A History of its Growth and Development Throughout the World. In 2001 Roger Heavens published Goulstone’s Hambledon: The Men and the Myths, an authoritative treatise on its subject.

The best known aspect of Goulstone’s work is his involvement in John Major’s 2008 published More Than a Game: The Story of Cricket’s Early Years. In his introduction Major was at pains to stress the importance to his book of the painstaking research of Goulstone and Roger Packham.

The last Goulstone publication that I was aware of prior to On The Level appeared in 2017 and bears the title Some Cricket Matches Re-examined. Typical of Goulstone’s output this was an unpretentious self-published limited edition of fifteen signed and numbered copies each consisting of 22 pages of A4. The era covered was, as it often is, the eighteenth century.

Which brings me on to On The Level a book which is, in terms of subject matter, entirely in character. The production standards however are rather different from the majority of Goulstone’s pieces of research. This one is a product of the Sussex Cricket Museum, and is well up to their normal high standards. It is a signed and numbered limited edition that appears in two variants. There are fifty hardbacks (with dust jackets), and seventy five books with card covers.

So what is the book about? The setting is Regency England and a central role is played by the then Prince of Wales, who subsequently became King George IV. There is no role in On The Level for anyone named Edmund Blackadder, nor indeed for any butler, but the Prince is indeed the character played by Hugh Laurie in Blackadder the Third.

Fans of the iconic Richard Curtis/Ben Elton scripts will, and I am not sure if this is a good or bad thing, inevitably find their view of On The Level made slightly more colourful as a result of that familiarity, but Goulstone’s story of the Prince and those with whom he associated is an entertaining one even without that angle added.

One thing that was not apparent from Blackadder the Third was the Prince’s fondness for cricket, but there are a number of sources that confirm he was involved in games played at White Conduit Fields near Islington in his youth, and that his enthusiasm for the game continued when he started to spend a good deal of his time in Brighton. After a brief biographical sketch of the Prince by way of an introduction Goulstone then takes a year by year look at the period between 1788 and 1792, during which a number of important matches were played in the Sussex town.

For each year Goulstone begins with, in chronological order, a summary of all the contemporary references to cricket that are available. He then goes on to deal with some biographical details, some lengthier than others, of the individuals involved.

Some of the men featured played in the matches, but most of the more interesting characters were not cricketers. There is a particularly enlightening piece about Maria Fitzherbert and the somewhat strange circumstances in which she came to marry the Prince. Many of the other men and women featured are of noble blood, or seemingly so. Lady Letitia Lade to give but one example seems to have had some distinctly unladylike traits despite the title accorded to her. To single out two more of the Dramatis Personae of On The Level the Countess of Clermont and her husband were described by a contemporary observer as being indiscreet, unguarded and ardent devotees of pleasure.

In 1793 France declared war on England and that, whilst not being the end of the Prince’s contact with Brighton, was the death knell of the town’s involvement in ‘big cricket’ for a generation. There is a brief postscript at the end of the book dealing with that followed by the reproduction of three scorecards from those rarest of all cricket books, Britcher’s Scores.

In many ways On The Level is a history book set in a cricketing context rather than a cricket book as such, so it certainly won’t be of interest to all those who read our reviews. That being said if the subject matter does appeal this one is well worth investing in, as indeed is anything with Goulstone’s name on it. For my part I shall certainly be redoubling my efforts to track down a booklet he has written on the subject of smock racing, something which as far as I am aware has absolutely nothing to do with cricket, but is certainly the sort of sporting endeavour I would like to learn more about.

*The others were RL Arrowsmith and CLR James

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