Greenwich Pensioners’ One-legged v One-armed Cricket Matches
Wed 16 Sep 20
When did they start?
The earliest one we have on record so far is from 1766, played on Blackheath, won by the ‘one-armed’ Pensioners.
Who organised the match?
The reference to the 1766 match is from a book called The Recreative Review published in 1822. It is in a chapter called Wagers, so it is likely that it was primarily a betting opportunity. Wagers, betting, and gambling of all kinds became hugely popular amongst the gentry from the mid-18th century onwards.
And the next one?
The next one on record was in 1796 at ‘Aram’s New Ground’ in Walworth, near the (still surviving) Beehive Public House. This one was definitely set up as a wager, with 1000 guineas at stake. The Beehive Club, which included several members of the aristocracy, later formed the nucleus of Surrey County Cricket Club at their new base nearby, called the Oval.
How many ‘one-arm’ v ‘one-leg’ matches have there been?
Quite a few. The Sporting Magazine of August 1811 describes a ‘return match’ at Walworth, also for 1000 guineas. Then from 1841 through to 1868 (the year before the closure of Greenwich Hospital) there are descriptions of five more matches. One of these descriptions refers to ‘the annual match between the one arm one leg Greenwich Pensioners’ so there may be many more to track down. They were clearly great money-spinners, from gambling profits and gate-money. The 1796 match had to be stopped before the end of the first day because a crowd of would-be spectators tried to break in, causing the collapse of a building.
What? The matches lasted more than a day?
Most of them seem to have been two-day matches. Some of them were quite a long way from home – Tunbridge Wells, St Albans, even one in Bradford.
Did the Pensioners themselves see much of the profits?
One of the newspaper articles refers to them getting ten shillings each. Not bad when compared with the one shilling a week Greenwich Hospital pocket (‘baccy’) money. They also got generous refreshments, both liquid and solid, at lunch, and a slap-up dinner in the evenings. Further research is needed to find out if the Hospital itself was allocated a share of the takings.
Were both sides always Greenwich Pensioners?
No. At least one match was against the Chelsea Pensioners, possibly each team a mix of ‘one-armed’ and ‘one-legged’. In another match, in Peckham Rye, described by Dickens in his magazine All the Year Round the two teams were mostly just locals.
So… entertainment in dubious taste or serious sporting fixture?
It is difficult to tell what was in the minds of the promoters of these matches, the spectators, and the Pensioners involved. We are looking at a period when there were thousands of amputee ex-servicemen, so they must have been a very familiar sight (rather than unusual objects of curiosity). Proceedings were often far from serious, but the Pensioners not wholly figures of fun. Reports refer to spectators enjoying ‘fun raging fast and furious but still respect and esteem mingled withal towards the good, sprightly looking veterans’.
And the final score sheet?
‘One-armed: 3, ‘One-legged’: 2, 1 Draw, and the Greenwich Pensioners beat the Chelsea Pensioners in the match between the two institutions that we know about.
Image credit: A Greenwich Pensioner with a wooden leg, standing in a landscape, the domes of Greenwich Hospital behind. Coloured aquatint, 1813. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)