Rochdale and the original Cricket Ball

Rochdale is certainly the town where the Co-operative Movement began. It was also controversially at one time seen as having the widest bridge in the United Kingdom and it certainly was the birthplace of some of our great entertainers such as Gracie Fields and Norman Evans. But the town also finds its place in the history of cricket as the place where the cricket ball, as we know it now, was invented.

Hamlet Nicholson was born on Blackwater Street in 1810. A cobbler by trade he began his professional life at eight years of age as an apprentice to his father Wilson Nicholson, who had escaped forced military duty by running away from his home town of Sunderland and eventually ending up in Rochdale where he married Sarah Law from Healey Stones in 1797.

Their son Hamlet was one of eight children born next door to the George and Dragon Hotel on Blackwater Street and baptised at Rochdale Parish Church.  Following his apprenticeship, Hamlet worked as a cobbler on Drake Street and became known for his repair work with ‘gutta percha’ rubber which had uses in electrical insulation as well as, interestingly, the core of golf balls. At that time trade was not great in Rochdale and for a short period Hamlet Nicholson moved to London to seek his fortune, returning soon without it but with an idea which would revolutionise sport.

On a domestic note, Hamlet married Ann who was four days his junior having known her from childhood, brought up as they were near to each other on Blackwater Street. The pair eventually had a family of five : Ellen, who died in infancy, Maria, Edwin, Henry and Alice, and two grand-daughters, Alice and Annie.

Cricket as a game was thought to have originated in south-east England and became popular as early as the 18th century. Before Nicholson’s invention, the centre of the cricket ball was solid but Nicholson changed that by using pieces of cork (hence it was often known as the ‘corky ball) bound tight with worsted thread and hammered into shape in order to harden it. After that, a leatherised rubber cover was fitted. Hamlet Nicholson had been determined to improve on existing designs and in his autobiography of 1892 he wrote how he had promised his wife he would never rest until he had completed his study of the compound cricket ball and so persevered with the idea until he perfected the ball design with outer sections made by cutting four pieces of hard leather shapes like a quartered orange peel and binding them all together with a seam of six rows of glued stitching. He was assisted in the development and manufacture of the ball by his two sons Edwin and Harry who were also cobblers, the process being similar to that of shoemaking. The cork inner and the rubber/leather outer gave the ball a great deal of spring, the raised seam an added attribute whereby the bowler could vary the bounce on the turf and the swerve through the air.

Nicholson patented the cricket ball in 1860 following which it was popular enough to sell throughout the cricketing world but not without Nicholson publicising the characteristics of the ball widely. For example, he placed an advertisement in the Rochdale Observer on 18th May 1861 claiming that his ball was cheap, durable, a true sphere and never varied in weight as it didn’t absorb moisture as other balls tended to do. It was easy to handle for the bowler and was less likely to do damage to cricket bats.

Hamlet presented the ball at the 1862 Paris Exhibition where he won a prize for his innovative design. So successful was Nicholson in selling the cricket ball around the world that he was able to afford to build five houses on a plot of land on which he used to play as a boy at the boundary of Broadfield Park. The family lived in one of the houses and there, in Kilnerdeyne Terrace, his wife Ann died in 1890.  Hamlet himself was to live for a further nine years dying at the age of 89. His gravestone can still be seen in the cemetery at St Chad’s where he lies with other members of his family. The tombstone stands 10 yards away from that of Tim Bobbin.

Hamlet Nicholson wrote that ‘I have cause to be thankful that the idea of the compound cricket ball became so implanted in my mind that I was enabled to bring it to a practical issue, and that no one has been able to make one to compete with it, for it is to these circumstances that I owe the secure competency for my declining years.’

Cricket has much to be thankful to Rochdale for and to Hamlet Nicholson as the essential make-up of the ball, developed by this cobbler from the town, is still in worldwide use today.

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