Charles Burgess Fry, known as C. B. Fry (25 April 1872 – 7 September 1956), was an English polymath and highly colourful character from a more gentile age.
An outstanding sportsman, politician, diplomat, academic, teacher, writer, editor and publisher, Fry is best remembered for his career as a cricketer.
John Arlott described him thus:
“Charles Fry could be autocratic, angry and self-willed: he was also magnanimous, extravagant, generous, elegant, brilliant – and fun … he was probably the most variously gifted Englishman of any age.”
Why is a football magazine publishing an article on a cricketer, you may justifiably ask?
Well, Fry’s achievements on the sporting field included representing England at both cricket and football, an FA Cup Final appearance for Southampton F.C. and equalling the then-world record for the long jump. He was also a decent shot-putter, hammer-thrower, and an ice skater.
He suffered from mental health problems during his life, but even well into old age he claimed that he was still able to perform his party piece – his amazing acrobatic trick of doing a backwards standing jump onto a mantelpiece. He would face the fire, crouch down, take a leap upwards, turn in the air, and bow to the gallery with his feet planted firmly on the ledge. Persuasion (and perhaps a little alcohol) would occasionally get him to perform this star turn at country house soirees, much to the delight of the guests.
Born in Croydon to a civil servant father, the Fry’s were middle rather than upper class. Both his father’s and mother’s families had once been wealthy, but the Fry’s found themselves in slightly straightened circumstances when Charles was born.
He won a scholarship to Repton School where he was educated, winning the school prizes for Latin Verse, Greek Verse, Latin Prose and French. Letting someone else get some academic glory, he only came second in German.
Repton School was unusual in having a stronger tradition in football than rugby union, and Fry played for the under-16 Repton football side in his first term, at the age of thirteen. He went on to captain both the school’s cricket and football teams, and also won prizes for athletics. At sixteen he played for amateur side Casuals F.C. in the 1888 F.A. Cup.
He then won another scholarship, going up to Wadham College, Oxford, where he won his university Blue in Association football, cricket and athletics, but narrowly failed to win one in rugby union, due to an injury.
Fry was a defender, blessed with exceptional pace.
After learning his football craft at Repton, and playing for the Casuals, he joined another famous amateur club – the Corinthians. He made a total of 74 appearances for them between 1891 and 1903 scoring four goals.
Although extremely proud of his amateur status, he decided that turning professional would aid his chances of representing his country at international level. He chose Southampton F.C., who were the best team in the Southern League at the time, and also because The Dell was conveniently close to his home.
He made his debut for Southampton on 26 December 1900, against Spurs, and went on to help them win the Southern League title that season.
Coming from the more gentlemanly amateur game, Fry’s style of play was probably a bit too refined for the highly physical professional game, and he never relished the aerial challenges and shoulder barges that were part and parcel of the game in those days. However, he worked on his heading ability and finally achieved his aim of winning an international cap to go with his Oxford Blues when, along with the Southampton goalkeeper Jack Robinson, he was picked to play as a full-back for England in the match against Ireland on 9 March 1901. The match was played in Southampton, so he didn’t have far to travel. This proved to be Fry’s one and only England appearance, thus granting him entry into the ‘One-Cap Wonders’ footballer’s club.
The 1901–02 season saw Southampton reach the FA Cup Final, where they played against Sheffield United.
The Spartacus Educational Football Encyclopaedia entry for C.B Fry describes the game:
“Sheffield United took an early lead but Southampton scored a controversial equalizer and the game was drawn 1-1.
“Fry wrote in the Southern Echo:
“The outstanding feature of the match was the grand goalkeeping of Foulke. He made a number of good saves, and on two or three occasions cleared the ball from what appeared impossible positions. Once, near the end, from a corner, he affected an absolute miracle with four or five men right on to him.”
“William [‘Fatty’] Foulke was furious that the equalizing goal had been given after the game he went searching for the referee. The linesman, J. T. Howcroft, described how Frederick Wall, secretary of the Football Association, tried to placate the goalkeeper: “Foulke was exasperated by the goal and claimed it [should never have been given, all the time remonstrating] in his birthday suit outside the dressing room, and I saw F. J. Wall, secretary of the FA, pleading with him to rejoin his colleagues. But Bill was out for blood, and I shouted to Mr. Kirkham to lock his cubicle door. He didn’t need telling twice. But what a sight! The thing I’ll never forget is Foulke, so tremendous in size, striding along the corridor, without a stitch of clothing.”
“Walter Bennett was injured and could not take part in the replay. He was replaced by William Barnes on the wing. The game was only two minutes old when a massive clearing kick by Foulke reached George Hedley and Sheffield United took an early lead. Led by the outstanding Ernest Needham, Sheffield dominated play but Albert Brown managed to score an equalizer. Southampton began to apply pressure but according to the Athletic News, “Foulke was invincible”. With ten minutes to go, Needham took a shot that the Southampton goalkeeper, John Robinson, could only block, and Barnes was able to hit the ball into the unguarded net. Sheffield won 2-1 and Fry was on the losing side.”
Although he had his moments of excellence during that season’s cup run, his positional play was brought into question. Despite that, Fry played in all eight of the FA Cup games for Southampton that season, but in only nine Southern League matches.
He played twice at centre-forward the following season, but without success, leading to Southampton releasing him due to his lack of availability because of his other commitments.
Fry made 25 first-team appearances for Southampton in all, before joining Southampton’s south coast rivals Portsmouth. He made his debut for them on the 21st of January 1903, going on to make a total of three appearances for Portsmouth as an amateur before being forced to retire from football because of injury.
The Post-Football Years
Fry made his actual living from cricket journalism, writing in The Captain magazine for boys, the Daily Express, the Evening Standard and others.
From 1904 to 1914, publishing house Newnes brought out C.B.Fry’s Magazine, wherein he wrote about everything that interested him, and Fry also wrote a novel and his autobiography.
He made a bizarre marriage, probably for money, to a terrifying woman called Beatrice, who was some 10 years older than him and who’d had a lover called Charles Hoare since the age of 15.
From 1908, Fry and his wife ran the boys’ naval training ship Mercury, moored on the River Hamble in Hampshire, which provided some extra income. Beatrice Fry’s regime was austere, to put it mildly, and she made Fry and the boys under her care’s lives a misery. This may have contributed to a resurgence of his mental problems, which first became apparent whilst he was at university.
The King of Albania
In 1920, Fry’s friend and former Sussex cricket team mate Ranjitsinhji was offered the chance to become one of India’s three representatives at the newly created League of Nations in Geneva. He took Fry with him as his assistant, and it was whilst working for Ranjitsinhji in Geneva that Fry claimed to have been offered the throne of Albania. Attempts were being made to stabilise the country, as the former Prince of Albania had fled due to serious unrest in the region following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914 and the situation in the Balkans remained volatile.
This story may be apocryphal, and symptomatic of Fry’s increasingly bizarre and delusional behaviour, but the story has become part of the Fry myth, irrespective of whether it’s true or not.
The dark cloud of mental illness, which had first hung over Fry at University, reappeared. He suffered from paranoid delusions, and developed an irrational fear of Indians, despite having a lifelong friendship with the aforementioned Ranjitsinhji.
He had another major breakdown, suffered paranoid episodes, dressed eccentrically and was once found running naked on Brighton beach.
Later on, Fry returned to England and stood for Parliament for the Brighton constituency as a Liberal. He had always been interested in politics, but admitted: “I take a great interest in heaps of things that I know nothing about … politics for one.”
He stood for Parliament three times, but was unsuccessful. This was despite the fact that Fry’s presence brought glamour and excitement to the election proceedings, one campaign being lent extra colour by a personal appearance from the opera singer and close personal friend of the Frys, Dame Clara Butt. He won 22,059 votes – 4,785 fewer than the victorious Conservative candidate. He later stood for election in Banbury in 1923, losing by just 219 votes; and in the Oxford by-election of 1924, where he was defeated by 1,842 votes.
Fry blotted his copybook by flirting with Fascism in the 1930s, something that was certainly at odds with his earlier Liberal political leanings. He bizarrely tried to persuade Hitler’s foreign affairs advisor Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbontrop that Germany could produce ‘a blond [WG] Grace’ should the Third Reich take up playing cricket, and he met Adolf Hitler in 1934, inviting members of Hitler Youth to visit the Mercury naval training ship. He expressed support for the Nazi Party until shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, whereupon he renounced his beliefs.
Whilst I do not excuse or make apologies for his distasteful political beliefs, they should be put in context. Fry may or may not have been in his right mind, and he could potentially have been recruited by the British government to spy on the Third Reich because of his establishment connections. Besides, many eminent, intelligent and aristocratic Englishmen and women got taken in by and caught up in Hitler and Nazism’s dark mystique without going on to become active Fascists or collaborators.
The Twilight Years
Richard Cavendish, writing in his article for History Today, “The Death of C.B. Fry”, describes his twilight years thus:
“In his last years he enjoyed watching cricket and pontificating about it at Lord’s. He remained magnificently handsome and the author R.S. Whittington, who saw him in the Long Room at Lord’s in 1953, described ‘his head, fit for an emperor, his prominent Roman nose, powerful rounded jaw, strongly marked eyebrows, dark, kindly, but imperious eyes and silken white hair’, which made him the most striking and dominating figure in the room.
“Far into his old age Fry loved dancing, wrote poetry in Latin and Greek, and contributed to The Cricketer magazine and cricket-related books. On his eightieth birthday, The Times hoped that in twenty years time it would be congratulating him on yet another hundred, but he was suffering from diabetes and neuritis, and he died of kidney failure at the Middlesex Hospital in London, aged eighty-four.
“The funeral at Golders Green crematorium on September 11th, 1956, was conducted by another former England cricket captain, David Sheppard, and the memorial service at St Martin-in-the-Fields a week later was attended by Douglas Jardine, Sir Pelham Warner and three other ex-England cricket captains and Sir Stanley Rous for the Football Association. The final prayers were said by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, a former headmaster of Repton, and Fry’s ashes were buried in the parish churchyard at Repton.
“People said that Fry was too gifted for his own good, that he had too many talents and that if he had devoted himself to fewer pursuits he would have been more successful, in politics or law or literature or the theatre. To which the cricket writer Neville Cardus responded: ‘I think there are politicians and actors and KCs and authors enough. There has been only one C.B. Fry.’”