One of Norfolk’s most colourful sporting heroes was Fuller Pilch, the great-uncle of R.G Pilch who founded the sports shop in Norwich of the same name, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Norfolk Record Office has the baptism record of Fuller Pilch, born in Horningtoft on 17 March 1804.
Pilch earnt his living as a tailor – his father was a cobbler – but, following in the footsteps of his two older brothers, Nathaniel and William, he quickly became a professional cricketer. His first appearance at Lord’s was a three-day match in July 1820, playing for Norfolk. He later played for Kent from 1836 to 1854.
At over six feet, Fuller Pilch was a very tall man and also liked to wear a top hat while batting, giving the impression of a tall, slim and graceful performer. His batting was stylish, characterised by forward play, and he developed a particular style of stroke called ‘Pilch’s poke’. This was a long forward lunge, taking the ball early before it had time to ‘shoot or rise or do mischief by catches’, according to Arthur Haygarth, writing in 1862 in his Scores and Biographies.
By 1827, Pilch was in great demand when he played in the England games against Sussex. His greatest personal triumph came in 1833, when he easily beat the renowned northern player, Thomas Marsden, at Norwich and Sheffield in single wicket games played for the championship of England.
The earliest known reference to cricket at the Norfolk Record Office dates from May 1666, in the Bradfer-Lawrence collection. In a letter to Lady Paston, Sir Robert Paston mentions a variety of domestic matters, ranging from the cost of Dutch tiles to new chemical processes for their servant to carry out, but also that their son ‘has been playing cricket on Richmond Green’.
This would have been a rather different game from that played by Fuller Pilch. The sport’s earliest definitive mention is in a court case in Guildford in 1598, at which time it seems only to have been played by children. Just 20 years later, however, adults had started playing it in parish or village ‘friendly’ matches in the south of England. By the end of the seventeenth century, it had become an organised activity and was played for high stakes. The first professional cricketers appeared in the years following the Restoration of 1660.
During the eighteenth century, the game underwent major development and became the national sport of England, with betting forming a major part in its growth. Large crowds attended the matches on the Artillery Ground in Finsbury to watch a single wicket form of the sport. Even then, bowling was vastly different from how it is now, as bowlers only rolled or skimmed the ball towards the batsman. Bowling evolved in 1760 to a pitch, and this in turn caused a revolution in bat design from a hockey stick shape to the modern straight bat.
By the time Fuller Pilch was on the scene, underarm bowling was replaced by roundarm bowling. When the new style was publicly tested at Lord’s in 1827, Fuller was the highest scorer, with 38 runs.