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

SAP Assessor

£26000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: SAP Assessor Job T...

Power & Gas Business Analyst / Subject Matter Expert - Contract

£600 - £800 per day: Harrington Starr: Power & Gas Business Analyst/Subject Ma...

Year 6 Teacher needed for 1 Term- Worthing!

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Year 6 larger then life teach...

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: SEN Jobs Available Devon

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: eurogloom, Ed in Red and Cameron's Wilsonian U-turn on control orders

John Rentoul
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering