Dark Doings

Before the modernization of the old Mound Stand at Lord’s you could still pop into a tiny sweet shop under the seating, beside the print shop.

During a busy Test Match thousands would walk by without noticing it, doing that lunch time circuit in the hope of seeing a famous face or bumping into an old friend.

Even those who did venture in for an afternoon sugar boost may not have looked above the door to notice its name, ‘Dark’s’.

‘A bar of fruit and nut please.’

First they moved the print shop (twice) and finally Dark’s went.

Once, Third Man thinks you could have bought some batting gloves or a bat or a score book in Dark’s.  Eventually it was just sweets and now it’s where Security is based and the Green Team directed.

James Dark - good hitter and fieldsman, capable umpire - cricketing entreprenneur

In fact once, the whole ground was known as ‘Dark’s’.

James Dark had been a ten year old at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar when he was engaged by MCC to ‘field out to members at practice’.  He was therefore one of the original ground-boys. 

This would have been at Thomas Lord’s original ground occupying a field where Dorset Square is now.  Dark would have followed the Club when Lord, knowing that the landlord wanted the field back for development, rented Brick Field and Great Field at North Bank from the Eyre family’s St John’s Wood Estate.

When Parliament allowed the Regent’s Canal to be cut through the centre of this second ground, Lord was granted another plot by the Eyres and trundled the turf across the road to its present site in time for the opening of the 1814 season.

Although a commercial success in the next ten years, Lord decided he could make more by developing the ground for housing.  At this point the cricketing enthusiast William Ward stepped in.

‘Thinkin’ of buildin’ here, Lord?  How say you sell your interest to me for …’

‘It’d haf to be a decent figure, Mr Ward.’

‘Five thousand do ye?’

‘Done!’

‘Give me pen and ink, Lord, and I’ll write you out a cheque this moment.’

And so ended Lord’s interest and involvement in the ground that now rather unfairly bears his name.

Dark had grown into a decent player, a good hitter and fieldsman and a ‘most capable umpire’.  But he didn’t play as often ‘as his skill enabled him to’.  He was already wheeling and dealing in this area, perhaps using his tips from the net practices to get himself started.

In 1835 Dark caught wind that Ward might be ready to sell his interest in the ground he bought the lease.

‘£2000 upfront, Mr. Ward, and I’ll pays you four-twenny-five each year ‘til the lease runs out in ‘94.’

‘From this Michaelmas Day 1835?  Let it be so, Jim.’

Dark immediately began investing heavily in the enterprise.  He clearly had a plan to increase the membership and the use of the ground, and had the resources to carry it through.  In 1838 he spent £4,000 on a tennis-court which seems to have pulled in more than 150 new members, many from ‘the first nobles in the land’ or Trollope’s 10,000.  

Dark's in the 1890s looking across (from where the Warner Stand is today) towards the Mound created from the soil from the foundations of the new Pavilion, with Dark's Tennis Court also in view.

For the comfort of these new and existing members he provided ‘100 warm and 100 cold baths per diem’, with dressing rooms.

He introduced turnstiles and also brought in one of the new mowing machines to replace the use of sheep to keep the grass in order.  This particular innovation did not go down well with the more conservative members.  Mr. Robert Grimson, leading the opposition, employed some navies working on the canal to destroy the mower.

‘Here’s a sovereign for you to go and smash up that infernal machine with your pickaxes.’

Dark, known as ‘Boss’, bided his time, filled in two ponds that formed part of the ground, brought back the mowing machine, subsidized the Gentleman v Players matches which the MCC would no longer fund and, among many other attractions aimed at the punters,  provided a shop selling equipment and sweets.

He died in 1871 in his home in St John’s Wood Road having transformed the ground that was known throughout London and beyond simply as ‘Dark’s’.

This is why Third Man, on a ground full of history, particularly misses that small sweetshop which to him offered the strongest sense of place of all.

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