“What happened to all the Polymaths?’ Those men who excelled in many disciplines, multi-talented individuals. In modern times, this way of thinking is discouraged. People are not educated to be a jack of all trades. They work to be a businessman, or an engineer, or a musician. It is rare to find a man who is a painter and an inventor, and who is also interested in human anatomy. Sound familiar? That’s Leonardo da Vinci. And then you could look at another man, who is a politician, a writer and a scientist; Benjamin Franklin. One should not deprive one’s self of something fulfilling, just because they happen to enjoy something else fulfilling. There is no reason not to do both.
In that spirit we decided to have a look at an Englishman who excelled in the field of sport and away from the pitch also. Introducing Charles Burgess Fry, ‘The Ultimate All Rounder’. Famed Test Match Special commentator John Arlott said of him ‘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.” Fry was an great Victorian English polymath; an outstanding sportsman, politician, diplomat, academic, teacher, writer, editor and publisher, who is best remembered for his career as a cricketer.
C. B. Fry was born in 1872 in Croydon; the son of a civil servant. After winning a scholarship, Fry was educated at Repton School and then at Wadham College, Oxford. His greatest strength accademicaly was in the Classics. At Repton he won the school prizes for Latin Verse, Greek Verse, Latin Prose and, surprisingly, French, and was runner-up in German.
Having won a scholarship to study at Wadham College, Oxford, he won his university Blue in Association football, cricket and athletics, but narrowly failed to win a Blue in rugby union, because of an injury. In his final term at Oxford Fry suffered his first bout of mental illness, suffering a mental breakdown. Something that would affect him for the rest of his life. He reached breaking point in 1928 during a visit to India, becoming convinced that an Indian had cast a spell on him. For the rest of his life, he dressed in bizarrely unconventional clothes.
During his time at Oxford Fry had accumulated disturbingly large debts. In an attempt to alleviate his financial difficulties, Fry capitalised on his reputation to make some much-needed money. As well as writing articles (including one for Wisden), he did some private tutoring but although such activities reduced his debts they did not clear them and, further increased the intense pressure on his time. Fry’s continuing indebtedness providing the most obvious explanation for his acceptance of an offer to do some nude modelling. Although he was able to sit his final exams, he was hardly in any fit state to do so, having hardly read a line for weeks. The result was Fry scraping a Fourth, bringing one of Oxford’s most spectacular and successful careers to an inglorious end. In the summer of 1895, therefore, only months after being the toast of Oxford, Fry found himself saddled with mounting debts and no way with which to repay them. In the short term, cricket came to his rescue. He was offered and accepted – the chance to tour South Africa as a member of Lord Hawke’s 1895–96 England touring party.
As a highly effective right-handed batsman who batted at, or near the top of the order, Fry scored 30,886 first-class runs at an average of 50.22, a particularly high figure for an era when scores were generally lower than today. At the end of his cricketing career in 1921–22, he had the second highest average of any retired player with over 10,000 runs: only his Sussex and England colleague Ranjitsinhji had retired with a better career average. He headed the batting averages for six English seasons.
In athletics, Fry won Blues in all four years at Oxford 1892–95, representing the University against Cambridge in the long jump in 1892, 1893, 1894 and 1895; the high jump in 1892 and the 100 yards in 1893 and 1894. In 1892 Fry broke the British long jump record with a jump of 7.14 m and a year later on 4 March 1893 equalled the world long jump record of 7.176 m (tied with the American Charles Reber).
Fry was also a talented footballer, a fast full back while still at school he also played for the famous amateur club the Casuals, for whom he found himself turning out in an FA Cup tie at the tender age of sixteen. In 1891, he joined another famous amateur club, the Corinthians, going on to make a total of 74 appearances for them between 1891 and 1903 scoring four goals. Although extremely proud of his amateur status, he decided that entering the professional game would enhance his chance of international honours. He chose Southampton F.C. He made his debut for Southampton on 26 December 1900,against Tottenham Hotspur and went on to help them win the Southern League title during that 1900–01 season. He was then picked to play as a full-back for England in the match against Ireland on 9 March 1901.
On top of all that on the sporting field Fry also played rugby union for The Barbarians, was an accomplished ice-skater, hammer thrower and shot putter. He wasn’t bad at golf either.
If being an amazing multi-talented sportsman wasn’t enough Fry excelled in other areas. He spent two years as a teacher at Chaterhouse and later became a trainer for the Royal Navy, eventually reaching the rank of Captain in the Royal Naval Reserve. He stood for parliament as a Liberal candidate three times, though was never successful. In 1920 when his friend and former Sussex team mate Ranjitsinhji was offered and accepted 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. Whilst working for Ranjitsinhji at the League of Nations, in Geneva, that Fry was offered the throne of Albania.
Fry had a successful career as a journalist and a broadcaster. He wrote for the Evening Standard and The Strand Magazine and published a number of books and his own magazine. He became a cricket commentator in 1936 with the BBC and was described as “one of the most eloquent cricket commentators of all time.” Fry admits in his autobiography that he even toyed with trying to become a Hollywood film star.
He died in 1956 and so ended the life of one remarkable man. His grave in Hampstead is engraved with the dedication “1872 C B Fry 1956. Cricketer, Scholar, Athlete, Author – The Ultimate All Rounder’.