The Duke Cricket Ball & Penshurst
Early Cricket History
The Weald of Kent and Sussex is one of the earliest areas in England where cricket was adopted as a popular sport and Duke & Son, the cricket ball making family, is an important element of the game’s history with a strong link to Penshurst.
The first manufactured cricket balls are believed to have been made as a cottage industry by generations of the Duke family opposite Redleaf in Penshurst between 1760 and 1841.
The Leigh Connection but ‘of Penshurst’
Leigh church contains the following history in its guide:
‘Against the wooden fence at the west end of the old churchyard are the graves of three generations of the Duke family. They had a national reputation for the manufacture of cricket balls. The manufacture started in the wooden boarded house opposite Redleaf, a house which lies in the parish boundary between Leigh and Penshurst but just inside Leigh. However, the business was always described as ‘of Penshurst’ which they no doubt considered to be a much better address and even on two of the headstones they are described as ‘of Penshurst.’
Timothy Duke played for Leigh, Kent and England in the late eighteenth century. ‘In those days, the leather Duke ball was bowled underarm to hit a wicket two feet apart and one foot high’.
The Success of the Duke Ball
The success of the Duke made balls was the winding of thread around the octagonal piece of cork that formed the core of the ball. When the base was perfectly round with cork and thread, the leather cover was added. Early on it was discovered that cork made an excellent core for cricket balls probably because it gave the correct amount of bounce and firmness yet did not damage the timber bats. Duke & Son gained the Royal patent for their cricket balls in 1775. From then on the days of players making their own cricket balls ceased.
Duke & Son made the first ever six seam cricket ball, presented to the Prince of Wales and used during the 1780 English cricket season. In 1851, the Duke triple sewn ball won a prize medal at the Great Exhibition.
Recent History of the Duke Cricket Ball
In more recent history, the Duke has been owned and manufactured by a number of different companies. Its most expensive balls are still used by England in test matches and by the eighteen first class counties.
In 1920, Duke & Son merged with John Wisden and Co (JW & Co), the manufacturer of cricket bats and publisher of the Wisden Almanack.
In 1961, Wisden (JW & Co) amalgamated their Duke brand and Wisden with Gray Nicholls (from Robertsbridge in Sussex, famous still for their cricket bats), Surridge and Ives, in a joint venture company, Tonbridge Sports Industries. The Duke business was sold to British Cricket Balls Ltd in 1987 who still produce the Duke balls. The company is now based in Walthamstow, East London with 95% of the balls still hand stitched, these days in a factory in Pakistan and returned to London for shaping, polishing, treating, stamping and quality checking.