The Death of C.B. Fry

Richard Cavendish examines the career of all-round sportsman Charles Burgess Fry who died September 7th, 1956.

Charles Burgess Fry was the greatest all-round sportsman of his time, and perhaps of any time. A top performer at cricket, athletics and two kinds of football, he also shone as an angler, golfer, skater and skier, rower and tennis player. Contrary to the stereotype, he was highly intelligent and a gifted writer, and as if that was not enough, he was exceptionally good-looking. His unyielding confidence in his own rightness did not always commend itself to other people, especially those in authority, but the cricket commentator John Arlott thought him ‘the most variously gifted Englishman of any age’.

From school at Repton, Fry took a scholarship to Oxford, where he won blues for cricket, association football and athletics, and would have had a rugby blue as well except for an injury. In 1893 he equalled the world record for the long jump after a good lunch and a cigar (or so he liked to say in later life) and in the same year he took a first-class degree in classics. From 1894 to 1908 he played cricket as an opening batsman for Sussex and on tour in South Africa in 1895-96, when he was twenty-three, he played the first of twenty-six test matches for England.

Meanwhile Fry played rugby for Blackheath and the Barbarians, and as an association footballer played full-back for the Corinthians and Southampton, and later Portsmouth. He won two international football caps in 1901 and played for Southampton in the FA cup final of 1902. He finished his county cricket career with Hampshire and captained England in 1912. His test career ended against India in 1922, when he was fifty, and his final first-class batting average was 50.22 with 94 centuries.

Fry was an amateur and made his living from cricket journalism, in The Captain magazine for boys, the Daily Express, the Evening Standard and elsewhere. From 1904 to 1914 Newnes published C.B.Fry’s Magazine, in which he wrote about everything from Esperanto to men’s fashions, safety razors, phrenology and map reading. He was a pioneer in encouraging women’s cricket and his books included a novel and his auto­biography.

From 1908 Fry and his wife ran the boys’ naval training ship Mercury , on the River Hamble in Hampshire, which provided some extra in­come. Beatrice Fry’s regime was austere, put­ting it mildly. In the 1920s her husband was apparently offered the throne of Albania, but preferred to stand three times unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Liberal.

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.’