June 2004

Charles Fry - Up with the Gods

By his early 20s he was known as Almighty and held the world long jump record but, as Iain Wilton tells, his distinguished life was not all roses

By his early 20s he was known as Almighty and held the world long jump record but, as Iain Wilton tells, his distinguished life was not all roses

Charles Burgess Fry: by his early 20s he had already been acclaimed as `Lord Oxford', `Charles III' and, simply, `Almighty' © Getty Images
The period before the First World War was not only a Golden Age for cricket; it was a great period for cricketers' nicknames. The cast list included `The Croucher' (Gilbert Jessop), `The Shrimp' (Henry Leveson-Gower) and `Round-the-Corner' (Aubrey - later Sir Aubrey - Smith). Yet all were trumped by Charles Burgess Fry. By his early 20s the future England captain had already been acclaimed as `Lord Oxford', `Charles III' and, simply, `Almighty'.

Such acclaim was merited by his achievements. As an undergraduate he had played football for England, equalled the world long jump record and captained Oxford to victory in the Varsity match - scoring a decisive, and undefeated, century in the process. Indeed, he earned a triple Blue in each of his four years at university and only injury prevented him from winning another when he turned his talents to rugby.

But Fry was far from being a mere sportsman. He was blessed with great looks, likened to a `Greek god' and regarded by contemporaries as `the handsomest man in England'. He also excelled as an academic - arriving at Oxford with a top scholarship and, in his second year, earning a first in Classics. His all-round achievements were such that, although Wadham College included two future Cabinet Ministers (FE Smith and John Simon), it consisted - so the saying went - of "Fry and small fry".

He abandoned competitive athletics on leaving Oxford - although he retained the extraordinary ability to spring backwards on to a mantelpiece into his 70s - but he continued to enhance his sporting credentials. As a footballer he earned a second cap for England in 1901 and, playing for Southampton, he reached the FA Cup final a year later.

But cricket was his forte. By forsaking contemporary conventions, which favoured front-foot and off-side play, Fry started to score with a fluency that had eluded him at Oxford.

In 1901 he hit six successive first-class centuries © The Cricketer
He became renowned, though, not for the elegance of his batting but for the sheer scale of his run-scoring. In 1899 it secured him selection for his first home Test; in 1901 he hit six successive first-class centuries, a feat equalled only by Don Bradman and Mike Procter. His prolific partnerships with KS Ranjitsinhji assumed legendary proportions - the two friends' contrasting styles delighting Sussex's supporters and symbolising, to some observers, a combination of Western rationalism and Eastern artistry. No wonder that Fry's reputation, particularly among the young, reached new heights. As Baily's Magazine stated, in June 1902, "If we were to put the question to any schoolboy `Who is the greatest all-round athlete of today?' we should expect to hear the word `Fry' as sufficient answer." Another publication, Leisure Hour, shortlisted Fry for the title of "greatest living Englishman".

But beneath the surface all was not well. At Oxford Fry had endured his first breakdown; in 1898 he had embarked on a marriage which was to prove long-lasting but, ultimately, soul-destroying; and his highly strung temperament led him into a series of controversies which gradually eroded his popular appeal and, more significantly, ensured that mental illness would again take him into its grasp.

Although he would never surpass his previous accomplishments, or regain his former popularity, some of Fry's achievements in the immediate pre-war period were still astonishing. As a batsman he enjoyed an annus mirabilis in 1911 at the age of 39; as captain he led England to victory in the Triangular Tournament of 1912; and, despite moving to Hampshire in the autumn of his career, his batting average for the county is still unsurpassed.

Off the field his interests were equally remarkable, not least in their range. For instance, he founded and edited Fry's Magazine; his intervention saved the Mercury naval training school (in Hamble) from closure; and he even played a pioneering role in the scouting movement.

He became renowned, though, not for the elegance of his batting but for the sheer scale of his run-scoring © Getty Images
As the years passed, however, Fry's life ceased to be characterised by unqualified success. In the 1920s, for example, he failed in each of his three attempts to enter Parliament - at a time when the political careers of his contemporaries (such as John Simon) were going from strength to strength. More famously he became a candidate for the Albanian throne but was soon ruled out of contention. No longer attracting people's attention through his sporting prowess, Fry's dress sense and conduct became increasingly eccentric until, in the late 1920s, he suffered a renewed, acute and prolonged period of mental illness.

It was not until 1934 that he re-emerged into public life. Remarkably, after six years of seclusion, he was soon invited, on the basis of his Mercury and scouting connections, to travel to Nazi Germany to discuss youth issues with, among others, Adolf Hitler. Less than three years later, in early 1937, his treatment had proceeded well enough for him to travel further afield, to Hollywood, where, in the company of Aubrey Smith (now a major film star), he contemplated a career on the silver screen.

His memories of Hitler and Hollywood were published in his autobiography Life Worth Living; regrettably the book was equally positive about them both. His comments on Germany, based on his experiences in 1934, displayed the naiveté that characterised his entire political career, rather than any empathy with Nazism. But the publication of any positive remarks about Hitler in the very different environment of 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, was bound to deal their author a heavy blow - and Fry's reputation has struggled to recover since.

Although the damage was self-inflicted, it is a particular shame that Fry's writing should have dented his overall reputation, for the range of his sporting talents was rivalled only by his journalistic versatility. Few writers have mastered as many styles as Fry, from the analytical brilliance of Batsmanship (in 1912) to his short and snappy (and phenomenally successful) "CB Fry Says" column in the Evening Standard from the mid-1930s.

Indeed, the immensely enjoyable and readable Life Worth Living - which so damaged his personal reputation - enhanced, in equal measure, his literary standing. But it is in the sporting arena that Fry will be remembered as, if not `Almighty', surely the greatest allrounder of them all.

This article was first published in the June issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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