There is something very 2020 about three men standing around outside a bank wearing masks. It's a wet day in October in Hemel Hempstead, the mizzle heavy enough to drench us all. One of the men is Nigel King, a dealer in rare books; the second is Robert Winder, author of The Little Wonder (a history of this Almanack); the third is me. We're not about to rob the place, but we are here to enrich ourselves in other ways.
From the vault where it lives, stuffed inside a couple of supermarket carrier bags, appears something that King bought at an auction in Amersham in March 2016, and that has come to dominate his life. He pulls it from the bags, and lays it on the table in the bank. It is an old book, bound in red leather, and its 250 or so pages - gilt-edged and luminously beautiful - are not printed, but handwritten. Seemingly unconcerned by its fragile loveliness or the yellowing sticky tape around its spine, King flips it open, riffles through the pages, and begins. "See here," he says, jabbing a finger under a line of tiny cursive script. "Wisden… first mention."
Nigel King is a maverick figure, used to living on his wits. At auction, he buys on a mix of knowledge and intuition. Viewing opportunities for the diary were limited but, in the minutes available, he noticed in the neat handwriting John Wisden's name as one of those present at a shoot. King is not a follower of cricket, but Wisden, and the appearance of scorecards and match reports, persuaded him to bid. He won't say what he paid - "hundreds rather than thousands" - though he knew he had done well when Rupert Powell, a rare-books expert for Antiques Roadshow, approached him as he left, dismayed he had arrived too late to view it himself.
In the weeks that followed, King examined the diary more closely. It appeared to be "three or four manuscripts in one". There were day-to-day entries running from January to September 1863; a record of the Victorian sporting season that began with shooting, and included rowing, horse racing and lots of cricket; a series of other reports and records; and several missing pages, largely at the back, that seemed to have been cut with scissors or a scalpel. The first half of the diary contained a series of miniature, sometimes exquisite, pen and wash illustrations reminiscent of William Blake. As well as plenty of time, the author had talent. But who was he?
Francis Emilius Carey Elwes was not, as his initials might suggest, a future England captain, even if he was born, in August 1828, into circumstances that ensured good prospects. The Elweses, one of England's oldest families, were a grand collection of landowners, soldiers and politicians (and later actors, artists and musicians). His father, Robert, cut a dashing figure in the best social circles, and bred two Derby winners, Mameluke in 1827 and Cossack in 1847.
Francis's own talents do not appear to have found expression beyond his diary, which is a window into a vanished life: moneyed and time-rich, with long days filled by pleasure. "Walked around a bit," reads one entry, "then went to Lord's." Were the diary no more than a sharply observed amble through the mid-19th century, it would still be a valuable document. But when King read more closely, another story emerged.
John Wisden appeared in the diary not just once, but frequently - sometimes several times on a page. Wasn't it curious that the lofty, aristocratic Elwes was friendly with a man like Wisden, the son of a builder? How might their paths have crossed, and why would Elwes invite him shooting at Egton, the vast estate near Whitby owned by his half-brother, or go to dinner with him in London?
King had never seen the first Almanack, so he went to the library at Lord's. He was surprised to find that the book John Wisden billed as The Cricketer's Almanack for the Year 1864 contained no match reports, just a range of scorecards and ephemera such as the phases of the moon, a list of canals, the rules of quoits and the dates of the Crusades. The emphasis was as much on almanack as cricket. It was a flimsier and less detailed production than the diary Elwes had created in 1863, which contained lengthy match reports, as well as more informative scorecards. Then, on page 108 of the Almanack, King noticed a section headed "University Rowing Matches". It was almost identical to a list that appeared in the diary. Elwes, who had rowed for Magdalene College, Cambridge, seems to have based his information on the Rowing Almanack and Oarsman's Companion, founded in 1861. The matter is not entirely straightforward, but in recording the times for the races of 1861, 1862 and 1863, Elwes has departed from the Rowing Almanack. What makes this intriguing is that the times given in the first Wisden match Elwes verbatim.
For King, this is a smoking gun: Wisden had sight of Elwes's diary. King combed it for connections, spending almost 18 months transcribing every page. He found more threads to pull on, such as Elwes's deep love of horse racing - and the first Almanack's list of Classic winners. The diary offers plenty on the relationship between Elwes and Wisden, which might have stretched back to Wisden's time coaching at Harrow, where generations of Elweses were educated.
There can be no doubt cricket meant a great deal to Francis, a member at Lord's and The Oval, and the connection came with benefit to both parties. When Wisden enjoyed his ten days' shooting at Egton, he brought his friend and fellow star George Parr. Elwes writes later of "going to Wisden's", of the "grog and sandwiches" they consumed. King speculates that one of Elwes's engaging line drawings might even be Wisden - a figure at dinner who wears a familiar hat, puffing on a pipe. Did their relationship extend to the creation of the first Almanack, an entrepreneurial endeavour that exploited new printing technology and the emergence of professional cricket?
Wisden had both the reputation and the means to sell and distribute the book through his sporting goods shop in Haymarket. His former business partner Fred Lillywhite had been producing guides and annuals for a decade or so. Perhaps Elwes, with his love of the diary form, and an eye on the main chance, nudged the old cricketer into action? "It's possible," says Robert Winder, who had not encountered Francis Elwes in his research for The Little Wonder. "There's no doubt that there is a connection between them, and that Wisden saw the diary. Beyond that, I suspect we'll never know, but I don't think it matters."
A note at the front of the 1864 Almanack reads: "Should the present work meet with but moderate success, it is intended next year to present our readers with a variety of other matches…" Moderate success has certainly been his. Elwes and his diary had a more melancholy fate. As 1863 wears on, the illustrations disappear, the writing loses its snap, and completion becomes a chore, then a trial. The handwriting deteriorates, and crossings-out - almost entirely absent early on - grow frequent. Elwes, who may have been a syphilitic, is never in good health in the diary, and his downward slide ends four years later, at the age of 39. He dies in Sussex, at Ticehurst House Hospital, a sprawling Victorian asylum for wealthy patients (and now part of The Priory chain).
Nigel King's dogged pursuit of Elwes and Wisden probably ends here, too. For a while he was obsessed, sitting in the road outside Lord's during the 2019 World Cup with home-made placards about "Wisden's Secret", and creating a website that seemed to be searching for conclusive proof of a crime - plagiarism, presumably - that quite possibly never existed. But he has given Francis Elwes and his diary a place in Wisden history, a despatch from the past that refracts new light on old, beautiful, pages.
Jon Hotten is the author of several books, including Bat, Ball and Field, forthcoming from HarperCollins.