When the cricket ground at the Botanical Gardens was required for the Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857 little did anyone realise that the two fields leased to Manchester Cricket Club for £37.6s.6d a year would become one of the finest and most famous cricket grounds in the world. The two conditions of the move were that a suitable ground be found and compensation be paid by the owners, the de Trafford family, for the disturbance and upheaval.
A small local cricket club had played on these open fields and the land was also used as a racecourse, the Stretford Steeplechase being run on New Year’s Day each year. The land was bordered by the Manchester South Junction Altrincham Railway on one side and the Manchester Gun Club on the other. The links between Manchester C.C. and the de Traffords were very strong, with two members of the family serving as President of the Club and Charles de Trafford playing one match for the county before going on to captain Leicestershire
The Manchester club placed five-line advertisements in both the Manchester Guardian and Manchester Courier to announce the opening of their new ground on Saturday 9 May 1857, and the Guardian and Bell’s Life both reported on the opening fixture between Manchester v Liverpool on 10 June as well:
"OPENING OF THE MANCHESTER NEW CRICKET GROUND:-
The ground which, for many years, was occupied by the Manchester Cricket Club, is now covered by the Art Treasures Palace. The new ground is situated to the west of the Exhibition buildings, and consists of about eight acres of good, level, sandy land. The pavilion is erected on the north side; and while it is a great ornament to the ground, it is well adapted for the purposes for which it will be used. It consists of a centre compartment (intended for a dining hall) and two wings, a turret surmounting the centre. The dining hall is 36 feet long by 22 feet wide." There was a residence for the professional bowler, Thomas Hunt, and also the caterer for the club, a Mr Johnson.
The importance of the ground was recognised when in 1860 George Parr's team, returning from a tour of America, and including all the best professionals of the day were asked to play a match at Old Trafford. The match was styled between the England Eleven v Another England Eleven and is now recognised as the first match of first-class status to be played on the ground. There was only a frail wire fence round the ground, most people saw the play without paying, and within a fortnight a member of the club, Mr E. Whittaker, decided to fence in the ground properly so that it was totally enclosed.
With an excellent ground and a wealth of amateur talent it was no surprise when moves were made in 1864 for the formation of a county cricket club. The decisive step was taken on 12th January 1864 at a meeting at the Queen's Hotel. The Blackburn Standard of 20 January 1854, reported:-
"PROPOSED COUNTY CRICKET CLUB:-
Last Tuesday afternoon a meeting convened by circular and advertisement was held in Manchester to consider the propriety of forming a County Cricket Club, with a view of spreading a thorough knowledge and appreciation of the game throughout Lancashire. lt was stated that matches would be held alternately in Manchester, Preston, Blackburn, and other places and it was hoped by this means to introduce other good cricket into every part of Lancashire. The recommended annual subscription is one guinea, the expenses would be trifling, and it was thought desirable that whatever surplus remained should be funded so that at some future day they might be enabled to secure a playing ground that would do them credit, and answer all the requirements of the County."
The idea of playing matches in different parts of the county was adopted, but Sam Swire who was to become the first Secretary, did not approve of this action, and he did not join the Committee. His idea was to make Old Trafford the central ground for all matches and that Manchester should be the headquarters, as the Oval was for Surrey.
In 1865 Lancashire played their first county match at Old Trafford, their opponents on July 20,21,22 being Middlesex, who also had been recently formed. Lancashire won the match by 62 runs and the Middlesex underarm bowler Vyell Walker took all ten Lancashire second innings wickets.
In 1867 the first Roses Match was staged, the inaugural match being at Whalley, and this and the match at Old Trafford began a series of matches which would rank alongside Test matches for importance with the Manchester public.
The ground manager at Old Trafford, Fred Reynolds was given the unusual privilege of shooting rights at the ground. He used to shoot snipe and pigeons, which brought him into conflict with the Committee when he invited friends, who were non-members of the club, to join him in a shoot!
Old Trafford was in the country then, the ground was reached by a narrow footpath across the meadows from Old Trafford railway station. Those who arrived by road used carriages, buggies, farm-carts, horses, or just their own feet-according to financial status. On one occasion during a club match a covey of partridges landed on the playing area and the players managed to 'bag' a few.
County matches on the ground were only played when Lancashire had gained permission from the Manchester Club, and although cricket was growing in popularity Old Trafford had difficulty in attracting great crowds to the ground for county matches, sometimes the crowd being as low as 200-300 spectators. Although it was acknowledged to be one of the finest grounds in the country it was very inaccessible. Broughton, in north Manchester, had no such problems and were attracting large crowds for the All England matches that were staged there.
One of the problems of the era was the class distinctions in the cricket club and the way the professionals were treated-they were basically 'paid bowlers' and were liable to be reminded of their status. There was a spacious dressing room for the amateurs but the professionals changed on the popular side of the ground in a small room lacking any sort of amenity. When one thinks of Hornby and Barlow stepping out of the pavilion to open the batting for Lancashire it is a mistaken picture for they would emerge from different dressing rooms on opposite sides of the grounds!
For county matches a tent was put up to accommodate lady subscribers who were few in number-but boundless in enthusiasm. Games normally started at 12 noon, but usually it was much later that a start was made, and time for lunch was dictated by the kitchen, for a bell would be rung to summon the players from the field.