Through a glass darkly – 49

The great all-rounder

C.B. [Charles Burgess] Fry was the great all-rounder. He was an outstanding cricketer for Oxford University, Sussex, and England; who regularly topped the batting averages of his time, and who captained the England team without losing a single test. In addition, at football he was an FA Cup finalist and an England international; at rugby he played wing three-quarter for Oxford University, Blackheath, and the Barbarians; and he was, for a short time, holder of the world record for the long jump. After the First War he was closely involved with the League of Nations, and was a credible candidate to become King of Albania. His social circle included, at various times, Hilaire Belloc, P.G. Wodehouse, and F.E. Smith; and he worked in close contact with Winston Churchill and Louis Mountbatten. He might well have been a character in the eponymous Fry’s Magazine, a successful boys’ magazine of which CB was the founding editor.

C.B. Fry

On the debit side he contracted a loveless marriage to a sadistic and  tyrannical woman. He suffered recurrent bouts of mental illness. He stood unsuccessfully three times in the 1920s for Parliament as a Liberal candidate, in Brighton, and in Banbury, and in Oxford. In the mid-1930s he developed an admiration for German efficiency and punctuality, and was impressed by Hitler and by Baldur von Shirach, the head of the Nazi youth movement. It was unfortunate that this view of Hitler was set down in print in his autobiography, Life Worth Living. Which was published in 1939.

Repton and Oxford

C.B. Fry was born in 1872, somewhat improbably in Croydon. He came from a family of Sussex landowners, but bis father, Lewis Fry, worked for the Metropolitan Police. In 1885 Fry entered Repton, the Christian public school in Derbyshire. [Repton once produced a number of well-known cricketers; and two Archbishops of Canterbury, William Temple and Geoffrey Fisher, were successive headmasters there between 1910 and 1932.] At Repton Fry gained academic success, specialising almost exclusively in Latin and Greek. And he soon made his mark on the football pitch, as an athlete, and above all as a cricketer.

Fry’s longstanding weakness in maths ruled out his hopes of joining the Indian Civil Service. So, at the end of 1890 he tried for an Oxford scholarship, and was invited by Wadham College to become their Senior Scholar. Rivals whom he defeated included F.E. Smith, subsequently Lord Birkenhead, later described as having the best mind of his generation.

At Oxford Fry flourished. In his first term he won a footballing Blue and also played for England against Canada. In his second term he won a Blue for athletics, breaking both the Varsity and British records in the long jump. In the summer of 1892 Fry gained a third Blue, for cricket, taking his place in the Oxford XI which beat the supposedly stronger Cambridge side in a high-scoring game. Away from the sports fields Fry heard Gladstone deliver the first Romanes lecture at the Sheldonian; and spoke frequently at the Wadham Debating Society.

Fry at Oxford

In his second year it was in athletics that Fry made his biggest mark. In March 1893, in front of a substantial crowd at Iffley Road, Fry jumped 23 feet 6.5 inches, equalling the world record. The event was much embellished by later writers. John Arlott states that CB broke the record after a substantial lunch, having poured himself a whisky and starting to enjoy an after-lunch cigar. In the event CB had equalled, not broken, the world record; and it only stood for another eleven months. But he was a top class athlete in the prime of his life. By the end of his second year, CB had appeared in county cricket, scored a first class hundred, secured two triple Blues, won an England cap at football, and equalled a world athletics record. He also secured a First [class degree] in Classical Mods. He was just twenty one years of age.

In the years that followed Fry dominated the university sporting life. He was captain of the Varsity Soccer team, President of Varsity Athletics , and captain of Varsity Cricket. He also took up rugby and led Wadham to considerable success in inter-college matches. In 1894 he scored an undefeated century in the Varsity match at Lords. In view of his all round achievements, Wadham was now often referred to as ‘Fry’s College’, and, as the saying went, it consisted of ‘Fry and small fry’.

These achievements came at a cost. While at Oxford Fry received little or no money from his parents, but his extravagant lifestyle led him deeply into debt. Which may explain why Fry, whose good looks attracted much comment – “the handsomest man of his day, a Greek god, so beautiful in face and body that he might have been wrought by the chisel of Praxiteles”, according to F.E. Smith’s biography, accepted an offer to do some nude modelling. Occasioned more by financial need than personal vanity. 

CB’s final terms also were dogged by an unreciprocated crush on a fellow undergraduate, and by the first onset of mental illness. He was in no fit state to sit his final exams. So, after four years at Oxford, CB, Wadham’s senior scholar, ended with a Fourth in Greats and mountainous debts. 

An unexpected marriage

After Oxford CB was invited by Lord Hawke to join his 1895-96 cricketing tour of South Africa. Returning to England, he missed the 1896 Olympic Games because, according to his autobiography, “no-one told me they were on”. And his cricket career stalled as, playing as an amateur, he simply could not afford to play enough cricket to earn a place in the England side. His availability was further limited when he took up an appointment as Assistant Master at Charterhouse. The job was poorly paid and prevented him from playing in many first class matches. Which remained the case until, unexpectedly, in May 1897 CB married Beatrice Holme Sumner at St Pancras’ parish church.

It was an improbable marriage. Beatie was born in 1862 to a landed gentry family fallen on hard times. In her youth she had been a celebrated horsewoman and an acknowledged beauty. But she was a headstrong, wild child. seduced at an early age by Charles Hoare, a fellow huntsman and [very] wealthy banker. Beatie was a teenager and Hoare much older with five children. No-one knows for sure why Fry, one of the most eligible men in England should want to marry a woman with two illegitimate children, a woman whose misdemeanours had been reported in detail in several national newspapers;  she was, according to her biographer,  “thirty six, greying … with cropped hair and mannish clothes.” Iain Wilton, author of the fullest biography of Fry, thinks that he was in love. Others have suggested that Beatie may have been a replacement for the mother to whom he had been so attached. Less conjecturally, it is clear that Fry benefitted financially; Hoare had set Beatie up as Manager of the Mercury, a naval training establishment for boys aged twelve to fifteen. The school was based on a 400 ton barque moored on the river Hamble.  After their marriage Charles Hoare seems to have settled money on both of them. Eight months later a baby [another Charles] was born. But the family later confirmed that he looked more like the long-term lover than the new husband.

TS Mercury

Cricket for Sussex and England

Released from financial worries, CB flourished as a batsman. For a decade from 1898, in what some call the golden age of English cricket, he was clearly one of the best batsmen in England. In first class cricket, playing for Sussex, for the Gentlemen, and for England, he scored some 30,000 runs, averaging 50, in an era of natural wickets, mainly against bowlers of great speed or of varied and subtle spin and accuracy. From Yorkshire bowling alone he scored nearly 2,500 runs in all his matches against the county during its most powerful days, averaging over 70. In 1903 he made 234 against Yorkshire at Bradford. Next summer he made 177 against Yorkshire at Sheffield, and 229 at Brighton, in successive innings. In 1901 Fry scored six centuries in six consecutive innings, an achievement equalled only by Bradman, but across an Australian season. Fry’s six hundreds came one on top of the other within little more than a fortnight. 

Some critics thought Fry was a bit stiff, a bit wooden as a batsman. He certainly scored many of his runs on the leg side, with pulls and on-drives in an age when players were expected to drive on the off, between cover point and mid off. He was often batting in partnership with Ranjitsinjhi, the incomparable Ranji, who would have made most batsmen look plebeian. Commentators invariably remarked on the contrast between Fry and Ranji. Fry batted like a nineteenth century rationalist, exhibiting a moral grandeur, practising patience and abstinence. Ranji at the other end played like an oriental magician.

Fry’s on-drive

The criticism is made that Fry was not successful as an England batsman, compared with his performances in county cricket. That he was [like Graeme Hick decades later] ‘a flat-track bully’. Across 26 tests between 1899, when he opened the batting with W.G. Grace and 1912, when he captained England in the ill-fated triangular tournament, he averaged 32.18. Among contemporary England batsmen that puts him below [Sir] Stanley Jackson [test average 48.79] and Ranji [test average of 44.95] but very similar to Archie MacLaren [test average 33.87], and significantly higher than Plum Warner [test average 23.92]

The Great War and After

In the autumn of 1914 The Globe announced that C.B. Fry was one of many sportsmen volunteering for active service. In reality he did no such thing. While his two younger brothers, and many Reptonian contemporaries were all killed in the war, Fry accepted promotion to Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, and remained at the Mercury. After the war Fry was recruited by his old friend and batting partner Ranji, who had acceded to the throne of Nawanagar in 1907, to work with him at the newly created League of Nations. In the company of Ranji [and at Ranji’s expense] Fry made several visits to India. One visit coincided with a visit by the Prince of Wales, and enabled Fry to develop his friendship with the Prince’s young naval officer ADC, Louis Mountbatten. Whose relationship with the Mercury that lasted for over fifty years.

His work with the League of Nations, standing for parliament, and helping Ranji in India kept Fry busy in the 1920a. And away from Beatie and the Mercury. But towards the end of the decade he disappeared from public view, and saw very little of his family and his friends. Fry clearly suffered an extended bout of mental illness [there had been an earlier breakdown at Oxford], leading into several years of depression. His condition may have been accentuated by an unhappy marriage and an intimidating wife. It may have been the consequence of a highly-strung temperament, a condition that affected a number of top-class cricketers. Fry’s garb became increasingly unconventional, sometimes dressing as an Indian rajah; and he was said to have been seen trotting around the streets of Brighton stark naked. A nurse was employed to look after him [[paid for by Ranji], and electric shock treatment, in itself  traumatic, was prescribed.

Journalist and commentator

Fry’s illness began to recede in the 1930s. And it was cricket that brought him back into public life after six yeas of seclusion. In 1934, with the Australians in England for the first time since the bodyline tour, Fry became a highly paid cricket commentator for the Evening Standard. For the rest of the decade Fry was a conspicuous figure around test cricket, invariably dressed in his own version of a Norfolk jacket with extra-large pockets, a broad-brimmed hat, and a broad ribbon that carried his monocle. He was the only sports-writer to have his own limousine, formerly owned by the Prince of Wales, and his own butler-chauffeur, Wignall, another larger-than-life character, who dispensed small sandwiches and champagne from a large picnic hamper..

In early 1934 the German Nazi party sought to bring British and German youth movements together, and decided that Fry might be a suitable go-between. In consequence he made two or three visits to Germany, and was much impressed by Hitler’s skill as a public speaker. Fry had a meeting with Rudolf Hess -“I thought well of him”; and tried to persuade von Ribbentrop that Anglo-German relations would be improved if the Nazis took up  cricket. There is no doubt that Fry admired the Hitler Youth Movement. Ribbentrop organised a meeting between Hitler and Fry at the Reich Chancellery, and they enjoyed an animated, wide-ranging conversation.

In 1936-37 Fry made his first ever visit to Australia, accompanying the English touring party; his first overseas cricket tour since visiting South Africa as a promising all-rounder in 1895-96. His dress on the ship out was characteristically eccentric; one day dressed as if for a Polar expedition; another day in solar topee and short leather trousers looking “as if he was about to trace the source of the Amazon”. He held forth on a wide varietv of subjects from a deck-chair on the promenade deck and was partial to demonstrating the latest dance steps. One of  Fry’s few blind-spots was music, which put him at odds with the fellow columnist and music writer Neville Cardus. One day after a long harangue from Fry over lunch, Cardus commented that “for years they had known about C.B. Fry and now they knew all about Fry BC”. It was the end of an old friendship.

After Australia and New Zealand, Fry returned home via Hollywood, where his host was his old friend, Aubrey ‘Round-the-Corner’ Smith, another Corinthian footballer and Sussex and England cricketer. Smith was a leading light in the Hollywood Cricket Club, where fellow members included Ronald Colman, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, and David Niven. Fry’s own hopes of a profitable Hollywood career came to nothing. But he much enjoyed the glamorous company of Merle Oberon and Vivien Leigh and Marlene Dietrich and, above all, the red-haired Mary Astor.

In 1939 Fry published his long-awaited autobiography, Life worth Living. It was largely dictated in dressing gown and bedroom slippers to Denzil Batchelor, a younger writer and wine connoisseur, now acting as CB’s secretary. The combination of famous characters and an exotic life-story, ensured that the book received instant critical acclaim. But sharp-eyed critics detected a number of inaccuracies and wondered why the book exaggerated some of Fry’s footballing and cricketing and athletics achievements. The chapter on Hitler and favourable comments on Nazi Germany read badly in 1939; and the family thought that this aspect of the book scuppered any chance of Fry receiving a knighthood or similar honour. 

Declining years

Life on the training ship Mercury continued much as before. Charles Hoare had died in 1907, but a grim-faced Beatie continued to run the ship with a rod of iron. CB was an occasional, benevolent presence. Beatie’s fear of failure, and her intense desire to prove herself in a man’s world, drove her to act like a tyrant. Arthur Ward, a former petty officer, a powerful man, was selected by Beatie to beat the boys into submission. The punishment  regime would have excited the attention of any historical abuse commission. Young boys were marched to the gymnasium and strapped to a naval gun before being publicly caned. Often “for being a General Nuisance”. Other punishments included ‘going truck till midnight”’, which involved spending the day without food or drink at the top of the signal mast; or being deliberately  mis-matched with bigger, more powerful boys in the boxing ring. Ronald Morris, who joined the Mercury in the year Beatie died, wrote a chilling but not unsympathetic account of life on the ship, in his book The Indomitable Beatie.

After Beatie’s death in 1946 [her memorial service was attended by a clutch of senior naval officers including Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Somerville] all the family felt a strong sense of relief. Fry struggled briefly to keep the Mercury together, but retired in 1950 to a London flat within easy reach of Lord’s cricket ground. He enjoyed returning to Oxford for lunches and dinners, and any opportunity to indulge his passion for ballroom dancing. As his health deteriorated, he enjoyed translating segments of the English hymnal into Greek and Latin verse. In December 1955 he was ambushed by Eamonn Andrews for the new television programme This is Your Life. [Did I perhaps see that programme on a friend’s tv ?] He died in hospital in September 1956 aged 84.

This is Your Life


Fry received little recognition from cricket’s ruling authorities during his lifetime. He never became President of the MCC. He received less attention than [Sir] Pelham Warner, though Fry was a better batsman and a more influential journalist. But after his death the tributes flowed thick and fast. One obituary said “Undoubtedly the greatest all-rounder of sport of all time – outstanding at cricket, rugby, soccer and athletics …”. Neville Cardus agreed: “He belonged to an age not obsessed by specialism … he was one of the last of the English tradition of the amateur;”. The News Chronicle obituary in said: “CB is gone to Olympus … He was the Englishman of tradition. The Englishman we would all like to be.”

His memorial service at St Martin’s in the Fields was attended by many admirers drawn from the diverse area of CB’s interests and achievements. They included five former England cricket captains, two former Olympic champions, and representatives of the worlds of politics and journalism and literature. The address was given by Harry Altham, a fellow Old Reptonian and  Oxford man. The concluding prayers were said by Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Was it the life that his early days had promised ? Was it the ‘life worth living’, that his autobiography proclaimed ?  Doubts have certainly been expressed. There are people who ask why Fry’s autobiography exaggerated all his sporting achievements. Who say that Fry as a batsman falls short of the very highest class. There are people who are convinced that Fry’s marriage to Beatie was a loveless sham, a mercenary transaction. Who say that the training ship Mercury was an unsuitable backwater for a man of Fry’s gifts. There is no doubt that CB could be self-important and pompous. And long-winded. But there is evidence too that he was a warm-hearted and generous man. The range of his accomplishments and the diversity of his talents are still unsurpassed. He was a multi-talented sportsman and a prolific writer, whose life gave pleasure to a great many people.

May 2020

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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