The first official test match in cricket was held in 1877 between Australia and England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The match was won by the home side. By 1882, both sides had played eight test matches.
The Australian side toured England for the 1882-83 series. In a one-off match played at The Oval, the English side lost a low scoring thriller, falling seven runs short of chasing 85 runs in the second innings. This was the first time that the English side lost at their home.
The dismay of the loss was evident in the minds of the English fans. A few days later, Reginald Shirley Brooks published a mock obituary notice in The Sporting Times. It read:
“In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket which died at the Oval on 29th August, 1882, Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. R.I.P. N.B.—The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”
This was the first time that the phrase “the ashes” was officially used in context of cricket.
In 1882-83 series, Ivo Bligh became the captain of the English side. He vowed that he will “bring back the ashes” from Australia. England did win the series 2-1. Another one-off match was played in Sydney, which was won by Australia. However, this was not considered a part of the official series.
Starting from here, there are many chronological disparities. After the English side won the three-match series, a group of Victorian ladies presented Ivo Bligh an urn. The lady who gave the urn to Bligh was Florence Murphy. It is said that she burned one of the bails used in the last test match and filled it’s ashes inside the urn. It is said that the urn, which was a made of terracotta was actually a perfume bottle. Moreover, there are disputes over the original urn’s color as well. While some believe it was red, some others belive it was silver. There are also conflicting reports on the contents of the urn. While the bails theory is most accepted, some other researchers believe the ashes were of a cricket ball, a stump or the veil of Florence Murphy.
According to another school of thought, the presentation of the urn took place as a result of a poem published in Melbourne Punch. The fourth stanza of the poem read “When Ivo comes back with the urn.” This was published in 1883. It is believed that Sir William Clarke entertained the English side in Victoria one evening. It was during this time that the urn was presented to Bligh by Florence Murphy in a velvet bag. This velvet bag had a yellow Victor’s Olive Crown embroidered on it and was made by Mrs Anne Fletcher. She was the wife of the then manager of the New South Wales Cricket team.
The account of the urn and it’s presentation was not well known to the masses. Bligh eventually married Murphy and went on the become the Earl of Darnley. The urn remained at their residence in Cobham Hall. 1927, Murphy gave the urn to the Marleybone Cricket Club (MCC).
It was after the urn’s possession by the MCC, that people began to perceive the urn as a symbol of the rivalry between Australian and English cricket. The urn’s display at the Long Pavilion of Lord’s and at the National Sporting Trophies exhibition in London played a significant role in the urn’s symbolism.
From its presentation in 1882-83, till 1903, the idea of “The Ashes” as a phrase for describing the rivalry was not known. The legend gained momentum in 1903, when Plum Warner’s English side toured Australia to win the series. Warner authored a book titled “How we recovered The Ashes.” The title of the book cemented the name of the rivalry. Australia’s 1905 tour of England thus became the first series which was popularized as “The Ashes.” The series was won by England.
The original urn has only thrice been to Australia. What has been exchanged between the captains of winning sides are replicas of the urn. The original urn is preserved at the Lord’s museum owing to its fragility.
Beginning in 1998-99 series, the winning side is awarded with a crystal glass trophy that is a large sized replica of the urn. This trophy was manufactured by Waterford Crystal. As of 2022, Australia has been the more successful side, winning 34 series against England’s 32.