Brian Viner: Lord Darnley unveils real contents of his family urn which keeps us up at nights

The Last Word

Share
Related Topics

If you have to be in frosty Herefordshire rather than steamy Brisbane on the eve of the Ashes, you might as well be holed up in the cosy study of Adam Ivo Stuart Bligh, the 11th Earl of Darnley and grandson of one Ivo Bligh who later became the eighth earl.

But more importantly than becoming eighth earl, he was captain of the England cricket team in 1882 and made the throwaway remark that yielded the sporting institution currently responsible for giving us sleepless nights.

Earlier that year, as all cricket enthusiasts know, a mock obituary had appeared in the Sporting Times, following Australia's inaugural Test match victory in England. "In affectionate remembrance of English Cricket," it read, "which died at the Oval on 29th August 1882. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. RIP. NB The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia."

This, Lord Darnley told me on Wednesday, was a reference not just to a humbling sporting defeat for England but also to the debate raging in Victorian society about cremating human remains. "Hindus were burnt, but civilised Europeans weren't allowed to be," he said, noble tongue in cheek.

Anyway, when the good ship Peshawar arrived in Australia, carrying the England team, Bligh cheerfully quoted the Sporting Times, joking that he had come "to regain the ashes". A fellow passenger on the long voyage had been Sir William Clarke, a wealthy Australian who'd been in England collecting his knighthood from The Queen. Having become friendly with Bligh, Clarke invited the England team to Rupertswood, his estate near Melbourne, to play a friendly prior to the Test matches. And it was at Rupertswood where Lady Clarke – who had been the family nanny before the unfortunate demise in a carriage accident of Sir William's first wife – and her close friend Florence Morphy, the Clarkes' music teacher, playfully handed Bligh a small urn. Here, they told him, were the ashes he'd come for. It is that same urn, symbolically if not actually, that Ricky Ponting now so dearly wants back.

What, though, had been burnt to fill the urn with ashes? In a way it doesn't matter two hoots, or even one hoot, and yet it has been the subject of thousands of speculative column inches down the years, with most people believing the story that it was a bail. Well, probably the only person still living who got the answer from a first-hand source is Lord Darnley's mother, now 94 and still in good health. And the explanation for her excellent source is also the explanation for Lord Darnley's very existence.

Bligh took a considerable fancy to the sparky young music teacher who'd handed over the urn. And she in turn rather liked the look of this tall, dashing Englishman. He returned to England a few months later not just with the Ashes, by now deserving of a capital A, safely in his luggage, but also to ask his parents to approve his proposed marriage to Florence. They refused. So he returned to Australia the following year and married her anyway.

Florence was the present Lord Darnley's grandmother, and she later told his mother, her daughter-in-law, that it had been a veil, easily enough mistaken for the word "bail", that she and her friend Lady Clarke burnt that day. As for the venerable urn itself, Lord Darnley thinks it was a scent bottle, probably taken from Janet Clarke's dressing table. All of which sounds to me like a much likelier story than the many variations that have circulated through the decades, and in Lord Darnley's study on a cold Herefordshire morning it carried proper authoritative weight.

"Grandfather stayed in Australia for a few years after getting married," he added. "My father was born there in 1886. But shortly after that he came back to England, and the Ashes sat on his desk until he died in 1927. Two years later, Grandmother gave them to Lord's, basically for safe keeping." I asked whether the urn still technically belongs to the family, or is it now the MCC's? A kindly, softly spoken man, Lord Darnley gave a gentle chuckle. "I don't know. Put it this way, the secretary of MCC got in touch a few years ago, and said, 'I hope you don't mind, but we're sending them to Australia. I guarantee we'll bring them back'."

That was in 2006-07. They were flown over by Virgin, and Sir Richard Branson unhelpfully suggested, after the Australians had won the series so convincingly, that they should stay there. This time the actual urn remains at Lord's. Let's hope that its spiritual manifestation comes back too.

Voice of racing presents unique case for Beeb's honours list

The mighty amateur golfer Bobby Jones once said that if he were to take everything out of his life except his experiences in St Andrews, he would still have had a rich, full life. Similarly, if one were to take away from Sir Peter O'Sullevan his entire broadcasting career, and all his years of journalism, he would still have contributed uniquely to the world of horse racing.

The charitable trust that bears his name had, by Thursday morning, and in just 11 years, handed no less than £2.6m to equine and other animal welfare charities. By late on Thursday afternoon, following a fund-raising lunch at the Dorchester, that enormous figure had been boosted by several hundred thousand pounds more. I hardly need add that the great man, ramrod straight at 92, spoke with his customary fluency and elegance. When the BBC hands out its lifetime sporting achievement award next month, nobody would begrudge the organisation giving it to one of its own.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Deputy Editor's Letter:

Independent Voices, Indy Voices Rhodri Jones
A couple stand in front of a beautiful cloudy scene  

In sickness and in health: It’s been stormy but there are blessings in the clouds

Rebecca Armstrong
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?