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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

**** Calling All NQT's ****

£90 - £115 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Are you a Newly Qualified Teac...

Cover Supervising Roles Longridge

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Preston: A mainstream secondary school i...

Cover Supervisor Preston

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Cover Supervisor Jobs in Presto...

Modern Foreign Languages Teacher

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: We URGENTLY require qualified an...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The view from Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh  

Scottish independence: Why I can't wait to leave London and live in a free, independent Scotland

Yannis Baboulias
 

Scottish independence: Learn from Quebec's mistakes and beware last-minute promises. Vote Yes.

Sol Zanetti
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week