A brief history of The Cokenach Estate and its cricket team.
Located on an old plague village, one of the lost communities of Hertfordshire, the original “Cockenhatch” house was built by Sir Robert Chester after acquiring the estate from Royston Priory around 1540 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and in recompense for the service of his father, Edward Chester, at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485). Since then, the estate and its various sporting teams have often employed their motto “Vincit qui patitur” (He conquers who endures).
The Chesters owned Cokenach well into the 18th century only ending their association with the estate after Robert Chester III (born 1672) became burdened with debt following the total rebuilding of the house around 1716 and after his son, Sir Peter Chester (1720-1799), was appointed 5th and last Governor of British West Florida which then also embraced large parts of Alabama and Mississippi. As a gentleman, Sir Peter played cricket, and during his governorship cricket remained as popular a game as baseball in America, only falling out of favour around the time of the American Civil War.
Admiral Sir John Jennings (1664-1743), owner of the Newsells estate then purchased Cokenach. An Admiralty Sea Lord who had commanded both the old HMS Victory and HMS Kent under Admiral Rooke at Cadiz and Vigo in 1702, he played a part in the destruction of the Franco-Spanish fleet and capture of Gibraltar. MP for Queenborough, Portsmouth and Rochester he was also Admiralty Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean.
Around 1750 the estate came into the possession of Sir John Chapman (1710-1781), son of, Sir William Chapman, Lord Mayor of London. He had made his fortune as a merchant trader and had been a director of the infamous South Sea Company. MP for Taunton, he served two terms as High Sheriff of Hertfordshire and was at the house when William Pitt was obliged to send two troops of Horse Guards to Royston after the house was attacked by a mob opposed to the Militia Act (1757) which brought conscription by ballot.
Around 1784 Cokenach passed to Mary Clinton, daughter in law of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Through her the estate then passed to General Sir William Clinton, elder brother of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton (1771-1829), who had commanded the 3rd division of infantry at the Battle of Waterloo. His father was General Sir Henry Clinton (1738–1795) the British Commander-in-Chief in North America during the American Revolutionary War and his grandfather was Admiral of the Fleet, George Clinton (1686–1761) who was also governor of Newfoundland in 1731 and of New York from 1743 to 1753. Sir William Clinton was also responsible for creating the modern layout of Cokenach and for a while the estate was known as Earlsbury Park, until Alexander Crossman purchased it in 1896/7 and reinstated the name Cokenach.
The Crossmans were wealthy brewers originally from Berwick-upon-Tweed and it was they who first established regular cricket fixtures on the estate. Early players for the team included the Jackmans who lived at Abbotsbury and the Rumbells, one of Crossmans many horsekeepers. Farm Bailiffs, John Loder, who had previously acted for Mrs. Clinton and his successor Josiah Harritt, may also have played. Their direct descendants, the Flacks and Whitbys played in more modern times as did farm manager Fraser Field and in the last few years Richard Field continued the family tradition by playing cricket for Cokenach. On the death of Alexander Crossman, the Newsells part of the estates were sold off by his son and heir, Douglas Crossman. Master of the Cambridgeshire Hounds (1906-21), Douglas Crossman was a keen cricketer and rugby player who also loved racing and although never quite as successful as his new neighbours, the De Traffords of Newsells, he did register his own racing colours (light blue jacket, two plum stars and green sleeves) and had some modest success with his stables, including a single day when his horses Frankchase won the Culford Stakes at Newmarket, High Peak won the Hambleton Handicap at Thirsk and Grayswood won the Abbey Hunters Chase at Wenlock. These days the silks are no longer raced although the colour scheme lives on in the kit of the cricket club.
Like many other ‘estate’ owners Crossman was also a cricket fanatic. A member of MCC, he had represented Staffordshire against the Minor Counties and in 1919 he decided his estate needed its own ground so he commissioned the services of the Lords ground staff to recreate a square, of exactly the same dimensions as that of the Marylebone ground, and just as at Lords, it was to have ten playing strips. Upon completion invitation matches were played against other estate sides and ‘Gentlemens XIs’, including the Duke of Norfolk’s XI. Games were held against Newsells as well as Barkway, Reed, Royston, Barley and local RAF bases as well as against Crossman’s Brewery Team that would arrive with huge quantities of beer along with a bottle or two from an old Jura whisky distillery which was also once owned by Alexander Crossman and hence became the teams malt of choice. Matches were played most Saturdays in the summer, but never on Sundays and Crossman employed a full time groundsman purely for cricket. For a long time, new employees were only given jobs on the estate if they could play cricket. Chris Byatt, who worked on the estate, later recalled that in the late 30’s and through the war years, Douglas Crossman hired the services of a professional cricketer, Cliff Smith of Middlesex, to coach the staff. Training would take place two evenings per week and if you valued your job you did not miss it. There was no question of a match fee as you were there by invitation, so everything was supplied. The team was then captained by the estate’s Land Agent, Farnell Watson and the Estate Manager’s 10 year old son Fraser Field was the scorer. Throughout the 1930’s the Ground was a regular venue for the Hertfordshire XI for county matches.
During the war years, the three local cricket teams agreed to amalgamate into a single club which would play at Cokenach. The cricket ground at Newsells Park was then turned over to the cultivation of vegetables as part of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign and the Barkway pitch was used only for association football.
Despite his great wealth, Douglas Crossman suffered a number of family tragedies. Eleanor Crossman, his first wife, died in a hunting accident when she fell from her horse in October 1910 and his first son, Richard “Dick” Crossman MC, an acting Captain in the Royal Scots Regiment, fell in action at Cambrai only 14 days before the Armistice of 1918. Wisden noted his passing “In the Eton XI, he was second in batting with an average of 29, scoring 89 against Harrow at Lord’s”. He is buried at Morchies Australian Cemetery, Pas de Calais.
Following the death of Eleanor, Douglas Crossman married Kathleen Smith (1887-1969), youngest daughter of Arnold Smith, vicar of St Peters’ Church, Boxworth and notable as one of the eleven players who played in the very first match played by an England football team, a “friendly match” against Scotland at The West of Scotland Cricket Ground in Glasgow. (The result was nil all).
Douglas Crossman’s second son, Geoffrey or “Tommy” Crossman, as he was known, also regularly played for Hertfordshire in Minor counties cricket matches and was a popular figure with all who knew him. A captain in the Royal Armoured Corps, with the 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, he was serving as British Air Liaison Officer, attached to 340 Bombardment Group of the US Air Force when he was shot down over Ferrara in Italy on the 3rd July 1944. Mentioned in Joseph Heller’s novel, “Catch-22”, the loss of a second son proved one tragedy too many for Douglas Crossman and he died quite suddenly, on March 25th 1945, “of a broken heart”.
After the death of Douglas Crossman, Cokenach was sold to Olaf Kier a Danish civil engineer and co-founder of Kier Construction, the highly successful company responsible, amongst many other things, for the Trans Iranian Railway, the Penguin Pool and Gorillas House at London Zoo and the Mulberry Harbour Units which played a significant role in the D-Day invasions in 1941. Like Crossman, Kier suffered the tragic loss of a child when his son Hans Harold Kier was killed in yet another riding accident on the Cokenach estate in October 1947. He cared little for cricket, and unsuccessfully tried to remove the club so lovingly nurtured by Douglas Crossman. The club however struggled on for a few years with an irregular fixture card played out each summer until in 1954 Cokenach Cricket Club members took over the responsibility for the ground and pavilion themselves. Now independent of the estate, but still playing on the old square, next to the moat, a regular fixture list of matches was arranged that carries on to this day.
Olaf Kier died in a car accident in May 1986 and the estate passed to Thomas Keir. Following the end of his marriage, he sold the vast majority of the estate to Troels Holch Povlsen, another wealthy Dane. Once farmers in the Jutland area of Denmark, the Holch Povlsens made their vast fortune, not through agriculture but with the “Bestseller” clothing chain of shops. An entirely family-owned business with brands such as Jack & Jones, Name It, Mamalicious, and Vero Moda, Bestseller sell products to over 46 markets in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Canada, through more than 2,800 of their own stores and 12,000 external multi-brand stores. In 2014, with a turnover of £1.9billion, the Holch Povlsen fashion house employs between 12,000 and 41,000 people directly and indirectly.
As with Olaf Keir, the cricket club was seen as something of an irritation to its new Danish owners who were keen to move the ground away from the house. Despite the wartime pledge from Crossman, that a joint cricket team made up of the combined teams of Barkway, Newsells and Cokenach could play in perpetuity on the estate as Cokenach Cricket Club, once again, there was danger that the club could fold. Eventually the Holch Povlsens came to realise how important the club was to the local community and agreed a lease on a new site, far away from the house and close to the Barley Road. Niels Holch Povlsen, who took over the running of the estate, commented: “We’ve owned the estate for the past five years, so we’re still getting to know the area. But we understand that cricket is very important. We have a good relationship with the cricket club and want to give something back to them and the community. Danes are not known for their cricket, but I have been trying to get into it more. I like watching and they have been trying to get me to play too - although I think that might take a while! The current field is in the middle of some important parkland, and we want to re-establish what it was like back in the 18th century. We want to let it grow and expand its wildlife. That’s something that we feel is also very important. It’s a big development, but our investment is not about the cost it’s about what it gives to the community.” So in the end, led by Nick Eve, and with some welcome financial help from the estate and many grants from other generous individuals, the English Cricket Board and Sport England, a fabulous new pavilion and ground was built for the cricket club with a square laid down by contractors who had previously carried out similar work at Trent Bridge. Cokenach Cricket Club now has a hugely active youth set up and runs girls and boys teams at junior level. David Catley, who has played for Cokenach almost since the Crossman days, oversees several ECB accredited coaches who also play for the club.
A gala event was held in 2011 with Nick Eve, the mastermind behind the whole process, able to welcome ex England captain Nasser Hussein and Chair of England selectors Geoff Miller to open the new clubhouse. On a glorious summers afternoon the Cokenach team won an exhibition fixture against Buntingford Cricket Club and club chairman Adrian Cossor noted: “Ninety years is a long time, and although the old ground has served us well, it is the right time to move on.” Club Vice-Captain Rob Stone also welcomed the move. “This is certainly what we need, and it will help increase all aspects of the club.”
In recent times, Cokenach CC has toured successfully in the West Indies, Kenya and Sri Lanka and the junior teams have swept all before them in the Cambs Leagues. The 1st XI now plays in the Cambridgeshire Junior League. The future looks bright for Cokenach for the next few years and leading up to the clubs centenary in 2019.