BY Vince Cooper

Was there anything C. B. Fry couldn’t do?

The man writer Geoffrey Green described as; “A mortal who came from Olympus”, played football for Southampton, Corinthian, Portsmouth and England, cricket for Hampshire, Sussex, W. G. Grace’s London County and England, Rugby Union for Oxford University, Blackheath and the Barbarians and set a new World long-jump record. He played with Grace and Ernest ‘Nudger’ Needham and against William ‘Fatty’ Foulke and Victor Trumper.

He was also proficient at Shot Putt, the Hammer Throw and Ice Skating as well as being a more than useful golfer (even though he once said he hated the game)

And it wasn’t only in the sports field where C.B. reached the top. He ran as a Liberal candidate for a seat in the House of Commons three times, losing all three (perhaps his only failure), wrote a huge number of books  – including a novel – and numerous articles as well as editing his own magazine, worked as a broadcaster for the B.B.C. and was offered the chance to become King of Albania.

He served for 42 years as director of the training ship Mercury where he spent his time teaching young future seamen and was given the honorary role of ‘captain’ in the Royal Naval Reserve and also served as India’s substitute delegate at the League of Nations between the wars.

But it wasn’t all straight forward. Fry suffered from mental problems throughout his life after initially having a breakdown while at Oxford caused by money troubles and then having others later in life, many reputedly brought about by his wife of 48 years. His daughter-in-law once said; “I should think anyone would have a mental breakdown married to her” while after she died son Stephen said; “My mother ruined my father’s life”.

This truly was a life that had all the elements of a blockbuster movie with the only question being; would anyone believe it?

Born into a once-wealthy but now decidedly middle-class family in Sussex in 1872 and raised there and in Kent and Surrey, Charles Burgess Fry was soon showing his prowess both on and off the sporting field initially as first a weekly, then a full-time boarder at Hornbrook House School in West Chislehurst and it was from here that he earned a scholarship to the famous Repton School in Derbyshire.

Repton was used to represent the archetypal public school in the iconic film ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ made in 1939. Among its other famous pupils were Olympic champion Harold Abrahams, tennis star Bunny Austin, writer Roal Dahl, writer Christopher Isherwood and broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson along with three test captains and over 150 first-class cricketers.

The Repton cricket team with Fry second from the left in the back row

Fry spent six years at Repton and excelled in Cricket and Football (becoming captain of the 1st team in both), and Athletics as well as Latin, Greek and Classics, also spending a Christmas in Paris where he learned to ice-skate. Upon leaving the school went to Wadham College Oxford to study Classics.

The Oxford University football team with Fry far left of the middle row

He did well at University both in terms of study and, of course, in sport (he won blues at Cricket, Athletics and Football, captaining the University at all three and would have achieved one in Rugby but for injury), but was bedevilled by financial problems.

He arrived at Oxford with just £3 in his pocket, no regular allowance from his family and the £80 granted for his scholarship and had to live on this, and the generosity of others until turning his hand to writing with his articles regularly appearing in Wisden, and to private tutoring.

Fry later claimed, rather than spending too much time on his sporting exploits, it was financial woes that cost him the chance of achieving even more in terms of his education.

In his book ‘Life Worth Living’ Fry writes: “My vacations, instead of being available for reading (and it is during vacations that one can really read), were occupied in tutorships and in modest efforts at saleable literature in order to meet my University expenses”.

Although he clearly excelled at all sports it seemed at first that athletics was to be the one he stood out in. The 100 yards, long jump and high jump were his three best events and after breaking the British long jump record with a leap of 23 feet 5 inches in 1892 he then equalled the world record held by American Charles Reber when reaching 23 feet 6 1/2 inches in March 1893, a mark that stood for 18 months.

Whilst still at Repton, Fry had played football for Casuals and after going to Oxford he appeared regularly for the famous Corinthians team, undoubtedly the leading amateur team of the day. In the late 1890s he signed for Southampton, finally making his first appearance for the club in a 3-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur in a Southern League match on Boxing Day 1900 before a crowd of 14,000. His play was described by the Sporting Life as; ‘Of a very high order’.

Having played, whilst still at Oxford an England representative team against the touring Canadian-Americans at Kennington Oval in 1891, Fry won his only cap for his country ten years later in a 3-0 win over Ireland at The Dell. He would undoubtedly have been picked more often for his country at football were it not for his commitment to cricket.

Fry of Sussex

A regular for the University during his time there, Fry first appeared for Sussex in 1894 and made his test debut two years later on when Lord Hawke’s team toured South Africa, scoring 43 in his first innings.

The South African tour was disrupted by the Jameson Raid which would lead, eventually, to the second Boer War and the tourists were sent to various parts of the country to avoid the conflicts. The cricketers remained undaunted however and played, and won, three test matches. Fry was unable to play in the final test after falling from a horse and breaking his leg. It could have been much worse with C. B. later writing; “this was the nearest shave [with death] I ever had in my life”.

After returning home Fry was soon back playing cricket and it was in 1898 that he really established himself in the game, finishing second in the batting averages and appearing for the Gentlemen against the Players whilst three years later he achieved the unsurpassed feat of scoring six consecutive centuries.

Fry’s first test, middle row on the left two away from W. G. Grace

In 1899 he was chosen for W.G. Grace’s team, London County, against the Australians and made 80. This led to him being chosen for the first test at Trent Bridge where he opened the batting with captain W,G., then 49 years-old and making what would prove to be his final appearance for England. He scored 50 in the first innings and shared a stand of 75 with the skipper.

Immediately co-opted onto the selection committee, Fry unwittingly brought about the end of Grace’s test career.

Arriving late for his first selectors meeting he was asked if Archie MacLaren should be chosen for the second test. After saying that yes, he should, he was shocked when Grace, chairman of the committee said; “That settles it” and announced that MacLaren would be taking his own place.

Fry remembered Grace as a more genteel man than the commonly held perception of a bearded behemoth and a ‘ hearty fellow always good for slapping on the back’.

C. B. takes guard

Fry himself would go on to make 26 appearances for his country scoring two centuries, part of a total of 94 he made in first-class matches. 

With other commitments now including his work, cricket and still regular starts for the Corinthians, Fry’s games for the Saints were limited  but whenever his did make an appearance he came in for widespread praise.

Working life had started in 1896 when he took up a teaching post at Charterhouse School, spending two years there before and eventually taking on the role of Captain Superintendent of the training ship ‘Mercury’ preparing boys for service in the Royal Navy. He would hold this position for over 50 years until retiring in 1950.

Manager of the ship was Beatrice, daughter of Charles Hoare the founder, to whom he was already married. Ten years his senior, she became very much the dominant partner in the relationship.

Beatrice, whom he referred to as ‘The Madame’ ran the training ship with a rod of iron, regularly having the pupils flogged and many, including the family members already mentioned, claimed she played a major role in Fry’s mental fragility. 

Although it lasted until Beatrice’s death in 1946 and they had three children, the marriage was said to be mostly unhappy.

Fry got himself a motor car in the days when these were still a rarity and announced that he would drive it around the country during the county championship season, no doubt hoping to be away from his wife. Sadly he was thwarted in his intentions when she insisted on travelling with him!

In fact, Fry writes in ‘Life Worth Living’ that; “My Madame came with me to every cricket match I played in”.

Back to football and, although he was part of two Southern League winning teams during his time at The Dell, Fry’s finest hour with Southampton was undoubtedly 1901-02 and in particular the FA Cup.

In the 1st Round of the competition Southampton were drawn to face holders Tottenham Hotspur. After a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane the teams met again at The Dell and again couldn’t be separated. Saints were twice behind but fought back to force extra time and with no further score a second replay was called for.

One incident in the match perhaps typifies Fry’s approach to football and, in many ways to all aspects of his sporting life. Spurs forward Sandy Brown, scorer of three goals in the previous year’s final, was penalised for a ‘vigorous foul’ on C. B. whose response, according to reports was to; ‘Smile serenely as is his won’t and meander away’.

Fry’s ‘Corinthian’ approach to football can be summed up in his feelings about penalties. He called them: “A standing insult to sportsmen who have to play under a rule which assumes that player intend to trip, hack and push opponents and to behave like cads”.

The sides met again at a snowy Elm Park, Reading with the referee explaining to the teams before kick-off that there would be a result on the day and that, if drawn after 90 minutes, an extra half-hour would be played and if still drawn another half-hour and so on.

Saints again fell behind when Sandy Brown scored but responded with goals from Harry Wood and then ‘Jigger’ Brown with just a couple of minutes remaining to send the holders out.

After taking three matches to get through the 1st Round, Saints then found things a little easier, seeing off league champions Liverpool who they beat 4-1, Bury (‘on a sea of slush’ wrote Fry) and then Nottingham Forest in a White Hart Lane semi where they came from a goal behind to win 3-1 to reach their first final.

The final was against the previous year’s beaten finalists Sheffield United and took place at Crystal Palace on 19 April 1902 and pitted Fry against footballing legends William ‘Fatty’ Foulke and Ernest ‘Nudger’ Needham among others.

Saints went one-down in the final but a late equaliser from Harry Wood which was disputed (particularly vehemently by Foulke who was said to rampage naked through the dressing room searching for the referee after the final whistle) earned them a replay.

Fry claims that it was only the ‘miraculous goalkeeping’ of Foulke that kept The Blades on level terms. He wrote of the big man; “He was the burliest, the heaviest, and the most rubber-like goalkeeper known to history. Some of his saves were incredible”.

With an Ashes tour from Australia taking place in the summer Fry’s mind might have been turning to cricket and he was due to be playing for London County at the time of the replay but was persuaded to turn out for Saints. There was to be no happy ending though as his team fell behind again, equalised again and were eventually beaten by a late Billy Barnes winner.

Less than 48 hours later Fry was in cricket action for London County, scoring 78 runs against Surrey.

After that season, Fry’s footballing career was almost over. Sporadic appearances for Southampton (where he was deployed in more forward positions) and Corinthians were fitted around work, which along with his job on the ‘Mercury’.

He was also fully employed as a journalist including working as Athletic Editor of ‘The Captain’ a highly successful boy’s magazine which led to the launch of C,B. Fry’s Magazine (it was published from 1904 to 1913), and writing for a huge number of publications including the Athletic News, the Daily Express, the Daily Chronicle, Lloyd’s News, Strand Magazine and many others.

And at the same time his cricket career continued. Indeed in 1912, at the age of 40, he was chosen as captain for the joint visits of both Australia and South Africa with the three teams taking part in an unprecedented triangular tournament.

An England team with Jack Hobbs now leading the batting line-up won all three of their matches against South Africa but the first two against Australia were ruined by rain. The final test of the summer was between England and the Australians at The Oval. Fry hit 79, the highest score of the match, in his team’s second innings and they bowled the visitors out for 65 after setting them 310 to win, thereby taking the title.

Fry’s age plus the impending hostilities of the 1st World War saw the end of his test career although there was almost one last hurrah.

When the Australians toured in 1921, the England selectors asked C.B. then 49, if he would retake the captaincy. He refused at first but after getting runs against the tourists playing for Hampshire, relented only for an injured finger to force him to withdraw from the team.

The writer J. A. H. Catton, also know as ‘Tityrus’ was a great fan of Fry’s sporting prowess, of his writing and also with how the man handled his standing.

‘His success in many spheres might have spoiled him”, wrote Catton in his book ‘Wickets And Goals’, “but Fry’s mental balance saved him from the ineffable conceit attributed to him.

“I have admiration for Fry because he is a scholar and a sportsman, because he has devoted his life to a training ship, and because he has a grip on national affairs.

“Never has he allowed success on any field of sport to divert his attention from more serious pursuits”.

Catton also wrote that when an eminent Australian writer was discussing Fry’s many feats he enquired: “Does he ever sleep?”.

When, in 1920, C. B’s great friend and Sussex teammate Ranjitsinhji was chosen to be one of India’s three representatives in the newly formed ‘League of Nations’ (forerunner to the United Nations) he took Fry along to the first meeting in Geneva as his assistant and an ‘acting Substitute Delegate’, and this rekindled an interest in politics first formed while at Oxford.

It was also during this trip that the possibility of becoming a King loomed into Fry’s life.

While talking with Ranjit one morning in Geneva the question was posed to him; “would you like to become King of Albania?”

The previous King, a German, had left for his homeland at the outbreak of the Great War and never returned and the Albanians had decided that, in order to improve their international standing, they wanted; “an English country gentleman with ten thousand pounds a year”.

One of the Albanian delegation at the League of Nations (they were not members but sent a deputation anyway) was a Christian Bishop and a meeting was arranged between the pair. Ranjit, who had arranged the meeting told Fry that he needed to; ‘look English, look like a country gentleman and, if possible, look like one likely to possess £10,000 a year’.

The meeting went well but Ranjit, perhaps realising that he might lose a great friend, ally and assistant, dissuaded Fry from pursuing the matter, thereby negating the problem of from where he might find £10,000 a year!

Instead Fry went to India to help Ranjit with his political and state business, including overseeing the 1922 visit of the Prince of Wales, although the work with the League of Nations had reignited political ambitions which had lain dormant since his time at Oxford.

He tried to enter parliament three times as a Liberal Democrat, standing in the 1922 General Election in Brighton, the 1923 General Election in Banbury and the 1924 By-Election in Oxford but lost all three.

Towards the end of the 1920s his mental health deteriorated. A trip to India in 1928 left him convinced that a spell had been cast on him and, although he continued to be a highly-read and popular author, further ideas of a career in public life became less likely.

He became more eccentric, in his choice of clothing and in other ways, but never lost his skill as a writer.

Chapter 18 of ‘Life Worth Living’ which was first published in 1939, appeared in early editions of the book but when a reprint was published in 1947 the chapter had been removed. The title was ‘Adolf Hitler’.

In 1934 the head of the German Chancellor’s Youth Movement, Herr Baldur von Schirach was trying to create a partnership with the appropriate movement in England, the Boy Scouts. The object was to build regular exchanges between the two.

The idea received little encouragement in England so Fry was called upon to see if he could help and was asked to travel to Germany. He agreed, with the proviso that he would want to meet with Herr Hitler. This was agreed to and arrangements were soon made.

C.B. travelled first to Berlin where he met with Herr von Schirach and then on to Munich where he met briefly with the Fuehrer. Fry admits in the book that he was impressed with what the Germany ‘of the early Nazi regime’ was like. 

He then returned to Berlin and met with Rudolph Hess, then Hitler’s first lieutenant. Fry suggested that Hess visit England as his guest in an attempt to improve relations between the two countries as he felt that this could happen if both sides got to know each other better.

Before leaving Germany, Fry was granted a further meeting with Hitler in Berlin. The German chancellor discussed his hopes for the Youth Movement and went on to outline the need for his country to rebuild a strong army as, bordered by five others, they were always under threat of invasion.

Fry would certainly appear to have been impressed by Hitler but these impressions, as he stated in his book, were in 1934. How could he, or anyone, know what was to come?

He produced a paper outlining the ways he felt the two movements might work together (including the Germans taking up cricket!) but, when he was invited back to Berlin two years later, was unable to go because of other commitments.

After focusing on his work on the training ship through the 2nd World War Fry finally retired from his position in 1950.

‘This Is Your Life’ with Eamon Andrews

Beatrice had passed away in 1946 and Fry continued to write, mostly focusing on cricket, and was also the fifth-ever recipient on the ‘Red Book’ on This Is Your Life in 1955 when contemporaries including Sir Jack Hobbs paid tribute.

In his 1984 book ‘Arlott On Cricket’, John Arlott wrote of Fry; “He could be autocratic, angry and self-willed; he was also magnanimous, extravagant, generous, elegant, brilliant – and fun”.

Neville Cardus, perhaps the finest of cricket observers, wrote on the occasion of his 80th birthday:  “Nobody has surpassed him as a master of sports in many and diverse ways, and he has been as brilliant and prolific off the stage of athletic performance as on it – scholar, journalist, student of politics and educator of youth”.

Charles Burgess Fry passed away in 1956 at the age of 84 and in his obituary Cardus describes him as: “Among the most fully-developed and representative Englishmen of his generation’. I think it is fair just this once to amend the great writer’s words and say ‘of his or any other generation’.

They really don’t make them like C.B. Fry any more.