Britain’s Greatest Sportsmen – Part 2: C.B. Fry


Sportsman, academic, diplomat, politician. These are all job description which apply to one C.B. Fry. Having begun our look at Britain’s greatest all-round sportsmen with Max Woosnam, next up is Charles Burgess Fry, better known simply as ‘C.B. Fry’. In terms of sports, Fry excelled in many, but none more so than cricket. As well as being one of the countries finest cricketers, Fry was also gifted in athletics, most notably the long jump, where he set the British record and equaled the world-record once. He was also proficient in the shot put, hammer throwing, javelin, ice skating, golf, high jump, hurdles, rugby union, swimming, boxing, tennis, acrobatics, and of course, football, where he played in an FA Cup Final with Southampton and represented England at international level.

Born in Croydon on April 27th 1872, his father worked as a civil servant. Both his mother and his father descended from very wealthy upper class backgrounds, but by the time of Charles’ birth, their financial status had diminished considerably. Young Fry was sent to Repton School, where he won a scholarship, and began excelling academically, especially in the Classics. He won prizes at school for his work on Latin Verse, Greek Verse, Latin Prose and French, as well as finishing as runner-up in German. Whilst Fry was clearly a talented academic, he experienced great difficulty in mathematics. He was thus given special dispensation by the headmaster to study Thucydides rather than mathematics.

It was also at this age that Fry first began to exhibit his sporting prowess. Repton had an emphasis on football at this time, and it was football where Fry first excelled. He soon became the captain of the school’s football and cricket teams, as well as winning regional prizes for his accomplishments in athletics. At the age of just 16, Fry had already made his F.A. Cup debut, whilst playing for Casuals F.C. From Repton, Fry headed to Wadham College, Oxford, where he also won a scholarship. He won university blue in football, cricket and athletics, only missing out on rugby union due to an injury.

It was whilst at Oxford that Fry set the British record and matched the world record in the long jump. Already renowned within the university as an exceptional track and field athlete, it was in 1893, when he recorded a jump of 7.17 metres, matching the then world record, that Fry’s reputation spread more widely. In later life, Fry would claim that he set the record following a heavy lunch and half a cigar, which he returned to finish following the jump. The validity of Fry’s claims are doubtful, but it is certainly true that Fry’s ability was almost entirely natural. He had done very little training and received almost no expert advice in the field, yet he was arguably the finest long jumper in the world.

A year later, London’s 93,000 capacity White City stadium was set to host it’s first ever international athletics event.  Fry was of course considered one of Britain’s leading track and field athletes, and he did not disappoint, winning both the 100 yard sprint and the long jump. When the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens arrived, it was a huge blow to the British team that Fry declined their invitation to compete, as he was making his England Test Match debut, with England’s 1895/96 tour of South Africa. Without him, Team GB won only 7 medals at the Olympics, of which 2 were gold. With him, England won all three of their Test Matches against South Africa.

Fry’s time at Oxford was not merely a tale of academic success, sporting achievements and world renown though. It was whilst at university that Fry began to develop a series of mental illnesses. He had his first mental breakdown in his final year at Oxford. In the lead up to his end of term exams, the timing could not have been worse. Fry had lived lavishly whilst at university, and was facing mounting debts. He had worked as a writer and tutor, but as time went on, the debts grew to a disturbing level. This, twinned with his mothers poor health, caused great stress to Fry who was still, after all, just a young man. By the time of his final exams, Fry was in no state to sit them. He had barely read over the last few months, and the result was Fry leaving Oxford with a Fourth. It was of great sadness, not just to Fry, but also those who knew him. One of the countries great academics, who was regarded as one of the universities brightest minds, left with little to show for it.

Whilst mental collapse had crushed Fry’s academic achievements, they could do little to thwart his growing reputation within the world of sport. Still faced with mounting debts, cricket seemed like the most lucrative path for Fry, who had begun playing for Sussex in 1894. Whilst Fry’s sporting abilities spread far, cricket was probably the correct choice for a man who was widely regarded as one of England’s finest cricketers for much of his career. Over his entire cricket career he spent 14 years with Sussex and 12 years playing for Hampshire. Having made his England debut in 1896 against South Africa, his last test match came in 1912, against the Australians.

In cricket, as in life, Fry was something of all-rounder. As a batsman, Fry scored 30,886 first-class runs, with an average of 50.22, one of the highest of his day. Upon retirement, Fry had the second highest batting average of any cricketer with over 10,000 runs. He scored 177 and 229 in back-to-back matches against Yorkshire in 1904, who were – at that time – regarded as the best county at bowling in the land. In 1901, he scored six consecutive centuries, no player, before or since, has matched that. For England, he twice scored centuries, the first of which was when he scored an incredible 144 against Australia in 1905. He led England’s batting averages for six years, and captained England in six Test Matches. He twice took 10 wickets as a bowler and later went into cricket journalism, both written and spoken. He is widely regarded as one of England’s greatest ever cricketers.

Throughout this time, Fry continued to play football at the highest level, although his cricketing commitments severely restricted his game time. Having made his F.A. Cup debut at the remarkable age of 16 with Casuals F.C., he joined Corinthians in 1891. Fry enjoyed playing as an amateur immensely, but as his stock rose within the world of football, he felt he had little choice other than to make the step up to the professional game, in order to enhance his chances of earning international honours. He signed for Southampton in 1900, although he remained on the books at Corinthians for a further three years after that.

He made his Southampton debut against Tottenham Hotspur on Boxing Day 1900 and helped them win the Southern League title that season. An Olympic-standard sprinter, Fry played as a full-back and his blistering pace was a common feature of his game. Whilst Fry was technically very good, he sometimes struggled with the physicality of the game at that time, and spent much of his career trying to refine his heading technique, which he saw as the weakest aspect of his game. After just 3 months at Southampton he had justified his move though, receiving his first England cap in March 1901 in a game against Ireland. He played in every game of Southampton’s 1901/02 FA Cup run, including both legs of the final, which eventually saw Southampton defeated 2-1 in the second leg to Sheffield United.

In 2 years he made only 25 first team appearances for Southampton, being thrown into the first team whenever he made himself available. Eight of those 25 came in the FA Cup run of 1901/02, and eventually the club grew frustrated with Fry’s lack of availability, and he was released. He joined local rivals Portsmouth in 1902, but his time at Pompey was brought to an abrupt end by injury. He played just two games for the club before the injury convinced him that football was no longer worth the risk and he retired in 1903, having made 74 appearances for Corinthians, 25 for Southampton, 2 for Portsmouth and one for England. Had Fry been able to concentrate more of his time to football, most who saw him play were convinced he could have been a star of any team and would have won a far greater number of caps.

Throughout his time in sports, Fry’s love of academia, writing and politics never faded. He traveled to Geneva, working as an assistant to Ranjitsinhji, as part of India’s three representatives at the league of nations. He stood, unsuccessfully, as a Liberal candidate for the Brighton constituency, once joking, “I take a great interest in heaps of things I know nothing about… politics for one.” He had a total of 9 books published, as well as countless articles for various newspapers and publishers. They say there is no genius without a touch of madness though, and the madness descended with more than a touch upon C.B. Fry during the 1920’s.

As well as his breakdowns, paranoia became a serious issue. During a 1928 trip to India he became convinced that an Indian had cast a spell on him. From the late 1920’s onwards, Fry began dressing in unconventional and bizarre clothing, and whilst his mental faculties did recover sufficiently for Fry to have a revived career as a writer, particularly on cricket, he was only ever a moment away from madness. Walking along the beach in Brighton one day, Fry inexplicably removed all his clothing, proceeding to stroll along the coastline entirely naked.

Fry began to develop an unfortunate admiration for Adolf Hitler at this time. He visited Germany on many occasions, once visiting Hitler himself in the mid 1930’s, with the pair greeting each other with Nazi salutes. Fry was keen to forge alliances between the Boy Scouts in Britain and the Hitler Youth in Germany, and also tried to convince those in power in Germany to take cricket more seriously and play the sport at test level. Both efforts fell on deaf ears, but Fry maintained an admiration for Hitler and Germany which he outlined clearly in his autobiography, which was still included in the 1941 wartime publication of the book, but had been removed by the time a 1947 release was made.

Ultimately, Charles Burgess Fry is one of the most astounding, exceptional and tragic characters in British history. He is, without doubt, as John Arlott described him, “probably the most variously gifted Englishman of any age,” yet there is still sadness surrounding him. Of course, his mental illnesses caused him great trouble, particularly in later life. Some believe Fry was a victim of his own incredible versatility. Had he been as gifted as he was in only one field – whether that be the Classics, politics, football or cricket – as he was in so many, he would have been able to focus his talents and realise his true potential.

Academics have argued that it is a shame Fry became “distracted” by the “lure” of sports such as cricket and football, which perhaps damaged his growth, output and abilities as a writer and thinker. Had Fry not fallen into mental breakdown in the lead up to his final exams, it remains a possibility that his life wouldn’t have had such a focus upon sports. Cricket is arguably the only field where Fry captured his true potential, and he is quite rightly regarded as a legend of the sport.

So extraordinary was his life and talents that if you were an author or filmmaker you would think twice before creating such a character. His multitude of talents is unthinkable, unimaginable and were he not real, you would have difficulty buying into the premise that such a man ever existed. He is a polymath virtually without peer. Fry died in September 1956 in Hampstead, London. His ashes were buried in the graveyard of Repton Parish Church, inscribed upon his grave are the words, “Cricketer, Scholar, Athlete, Author – The Ultimate All-Rounder.”

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