Britain’s Greatest Sportsmen – Part 3: Cuthbert Ottaway


The third instalment of our look at Britain’s four greatest all-round sportsmen sees us turn our attention to one Cuthbert John Ottaway. Whilst the tale of C.B. Fry was tinged with tragedy, as Fry failed to reach the heights he should have in a number of his pursuits, before eventually falling into madness and having a growing admiration of Adolf Hitler, Ottaway’s story is a genuine tragedy, and the least well-told. He represented Oxford University at five different sports – football, cricket, racquets, athletics and real tennis – making him the first and still the only person to ever represent their university in five sports. He was the first ever captain of the England football team, in the world’s first officially recognised international football match. He also played in three consecutive FA Cup finals, winning one, and was widely regarded as one of the finest cricketers of his generation, twice scoring first-class centuries despite being a largely defensive player.

Ottaway was born on the 19th of July 1850 in Dover. His father, James Ottaway, worked as a surgeon and also served as the Mayor of Dover. His family were wealthy and comfortable, and Ottaway was sent to Eton for his education. Like Fry, Ottaway succeeded in both his sporting and academic interests, and also like Fry who succeeded him, Ottaway’s academic interests centred upon the Classics. He was a King’s Scholar at Eton, immediately recognised for his academic promise, but his sporting abilities soon came to the floor. A talented footballer and cricketer, Ottaway hit a century – 108 in total – in the annual cricket match played between Eton and Harrow at Lords. From Eton, Ottaway headed to Brasenose College, Oxford, to read Classics.

At Oxford, Ottaway played five different sports to ‘blue’ level, the only man to have ever done so. At a time when almost all sports were an amateur affair, Ottaway did not see his sporting pursuits as any replacement for his non-sporting work prospects. He soon switched from the Classics to training as a barrister. In 1973, at the age of 23, Ottaway was called to the bar. A year earlier, he had become the first captain of the England football team. It was actually the sixth game played between a group of English and Scottish players, but as the previous five had only consisted of Scottish players playing in the English leagues, and more specifically London, they were never recognised as official international matches.

It was this only this tie which became known, and officially recognised by FIFA, as the first ever international football match. The date was November 30th 1872, when the England team, led by Ottaway, headed to Partick to face Scotland at the West of Scotland Cricket Club. It is said that Charles Alcock was originally set to captain the team, but after he was injured whilst playing for the Old Harrovians, the armband was handed to Ottaway. Alcock himself was a fine multi-sportsman, playing a key role in creating international football and cricket, as well as the FA Cup. How exactly Ottaway replaced Alcock is up for debate, with some reports suggesting that the decision was left to Alcock to decide his replacement and others stating that it was a unanimous decision made by the England squad.

Either way, it was Ottaway who led the team out in front of a 4,000 crowd on a cold Saturday afternoon in Scotland. England were the stronger side, seeing the lions share of the ball, but struggling to break down a resilient Scottish defence. Eventually the tie ended with a 0-0 draw being the outcome. Two more games were to follow, a return leg played at Lords featured two very young sides, with an overall average age of just 22.8, and there were goals in this tie, as England ran out 4-2 victors, although Ottaway missed the game. The third game was played back at Partick, and Ottaway returned as captain once more, although the Scots exacted revenge on home soil, winning the game 2-1.

This was a time when football was a very different game. The style of play was firmly bedded within the era known as ‘rampant individualism’. Noted for his grace and elegance on the ball and burning pace, unsurprising given that he was a highly competitive sprinter, Ottaway was known as one of the finest dribblers of his day. Respected by the England team but not loved, some took a dislike to his seeming snobbishness. At club level, Ottaway played for Old Etonians, Oxford University, Crystal Palace and Marlow. He played in three consecutive FA Cup finals, the first two with Oxford and the last with Eton. The second final he played in was his only victory in the competition, as Oxford beat the Royal Engineers 2-0 in 1874, in front of a 2,000 crowd at the Kennington Oval, with Ottaway captaining his team to cup glory.

The following year Ottaway reached his third and last FA Cup final, this time with the Old Etonians, and he faced the Royal Engineers once more. Ottaway’s side found themselves one up in a game they were dominating, when Ottaway was hacked down by Richard Ruck and suffered a painful ankle injury in the 37th minute. The Old Etonians had the wind on their side on a day which featured “howling gales” for 80 of the 90 minutes in which the game was played. But down to 10 men and up against a strong Engineers team, they did well to hang on to a 1-1 draw. In the replay, Ottaway was still injured, and the Engineers won the game 2-0. There is no further record of Ottaway playing football again, it is believed the injury ended his career and the 1875 cup final was his last game, aged 25.

His cricket career went on past the injury though. Ottaway had been highly regarded within the sport ever since his century at Lords whilst playing for Eton against Harrow, and in 1870 he played in his first Gentlemen vs Players and his first Varsity Match, widely regarded as the highest honours for a cricketer in the days preceding Test matches. His first Varsity Match for Oxford was the famous game that has become known as ‘Cobden’s Match’, in which Oxford lost from a position where it appeared impossible for them do so. Ottaway scored 69 to help Oxford to a position where they needed just 4 runs from 3 wickets to win the game, but Frank Cobden, the Cambridge bowler, took a hat-trick of wickets with his last three balls to win the game for Cambridge.

A right-handed batsmen, Ottaway played for the likes of Kent and Middlesex, as well as representing his country, his university and the south of England. He toured the United States and Canada with the England cricket team in 1872, and was considered to have one of the finest batting techniques in the country at that time. He hit a total of 1,691 career runs, with a batting average of 27.27. In 1876, Ottaway had the fourth highest first-class batting average in England. Despite being a defensive player, he managed two first-class centuries, both coming at the tail end of his career.

It was whilst on his tour of the United States and Canada that Ottaway met his wife-to-be. The then 13-year-old Mario Stinson was a young lady who hailed from Hamilton, Ontario. Ottaway and Stinson married in August 1877. He played his last football match in the 1875 FA Cup Final and his last cricket match in the 1876 Gentlemen against Players match. He continued to work as a barrister until his death on the 2nd of April 1878. Ottaway was just 27 years old when he lost his life, leaving his teenage wife widowed and pregnant. The exact cause of Ottaway’s death is unknown. It is known that he spent the night of his death out dancing, and is thought to have caught a chill. His family had a history of diabetes, increasing the chances of respiratory diseases, and it has also been suggested that Ottaway had been living with tuberculosis for some time before his eventual death in the Spring of 1878.

His wife, Marion, was 18-years-old and 5 and a half months pregnant when Cuthbert lost his life. She remained strong, and went on to live a remarkable life as a philanthropist and war worker. She had lost her father to tuberculosis at the age of 6 and perhaps her husband at the age of 18, and spent much of her life devoted to fighting the infectious disease. Once WWI broke out, Stinson turned her attentions to the war effort, even transforming her home into a hospital for returning soldiers and becoming heavily involved in the Canadian Red Cross Society. She is remembered as one of the great female figures in Canadian history, and her son – but not Ottaway’s – Harry Crerar, went on to become Canada’s leading field commander in WWII.

The true tragedy of Cuthbert Ottaway, perhaps, is not his untimely death at the age of 27, or the fact that he never got to meet his child, but rather the manner in which history has forgotten him. He was widely known in his era as an exceptional sportsmen, but whilst the legacy of the likes of C.B. Fry and Max Woosnam remains strong, Ottaway has been almost forgotten about. His grave, at Paddington Old Cemetery, was practically in ruins before, in 2013, it was finally restored by the F.A. His name though is still only known by a few, and this is a great shame for the man who was England’s first football captain, an exceptional cricketer, the finest amateur racquet player in the country and perhaps the most diverse university sportsman in history.

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