Captain Charles Burgess Fry (1872-1956) is the most remarkable sportsman I have ever heard of. In his 84-year life he-
- Captained England's Test Match Cricket team
- Played in the English national football team
- Played in the FA Cup Final
- Held the world Long Jump record
- Was a noted huntsman, athlete, and fisherman.
He was also a formidable scholar, who had a first class honours in Classical Moderation from Oxford, wrote several academically rigorous books, including a definitive guide to the League of Nations and, inevitably, a study of batting technique. Study has never paid well; in those days, neither did sport. Luckily he was at times able to support himself as a nude model, journalist, speech-writer, naval trainer, and also enjoyed the financial generosity of his wife's lover and an Indian prince.
He was schooled at Repton, were his love of sport first became apparent. He was in their First XI for 3 years, and captained them on several occasions. At Oxford, his cricketing career continued, and he was captain of their First XI- but also of their Football First XI, and president of the athletics club. He was a noted sprinter and long-jumper; in 1892 he gained the world long jump record of 23 feet 5 inches. His efforts on the Rugby pitch were never rewarded.
His athletic skills were also in demand at parties where a favourite trick of his was to leap backwards from the floor to stand on a mantelpiece.
Cricket remained his main sporting interest. He played for Sussex, Hampshire and Surrey- his average in first class matches for these teams was 50.22 runs. In 1901, as well as playing for the English Association Football team against Ireland, Fry scored six centuries for Sussex in six successive innings, within three weeks. He eventually scored a total of 13 centuries in that year. His batting average for Sussex during the twelve years he played for them was 58.9, the highest in the club's history.
His football skills were also to the fore in 1902, when he played in the F.A. Cup Final for Southampton, the losing side.
One of the few failings in his life was his marriage to Beatrice Sumner, who continually cheated on him, even having children by another man. Although they worked together on a novel, she seems to have been a completely unpleasant figure. Fry's son said at his death, "My mother ruined my father's life".
His test career began in 1899, with W.G. Grace, and ran for 43 matches until 1912. His batting style was deceptively flexible. He always appeared to strike the ball in the same, fixed way, which often mislead the fielders. In one 1903 test match against Australia, it seemed that he was only capable of making runs in front of the wicket. The Aussies positioned their fielders accordingly- yet Fry went on to score 114 runs from his signature stroke.
In politics, he stood as a Liberal Party candidate for Brighton (losing by only 213 votes), was a deputy to the Indian delegation to the early assemblies of the League of Nations, and was invited to be the King of Albania. One of his lasting cricketing partnerships at both Sussex and for England was with Prince Ranjitsinjhi, who went on to represent India at the League of Nations. Fry was invited to join the delegation as a speech-writer. Albania's Royal Family, the Wieds, had returned to their family home in Germany, leaving the throne vacant. The Albanian delegation at the League began searching for a replacement in the corridors of Geneva. Fry's name was put forward by Ranjitsinjhi, and Fry accepted; writing later, "I accepted on the nail. I was willing to be king of any willing nation". It never came to pass, perhaps because the Albanians were looking for a man of independent means.
He played no direct part in the First World War, but ran a naval college on the Mercury at Hamble for 40 years. Hitler was impressed by his efforts, and asked him for advice on how to establish his Youth Movement. Several of the Hitler Youth stayed on the Mercury. In 1934, Fry tried to encourage the Nazis to take up cricket, seeing it as primarily a Nordic pastime. He was impressed by the Germans, and looked forward to their production of a "blond W.G. Grace". The Nazis did not encourage the take up of cricket in Germany; but Fry came away from their discussions having swallowed some of Hitler's ideas about Jews and Bolsheviks.
He was a good friend of Hilaire Belloc, and met Hitler, Winston Churchill, Cecil Rhodes, and William Gladstone.
He died in 1956, having endured a nervous breakdown, and several bouts of paranoia and mental illness. Perhaps he felt that his early promise outside sport was unfulfilled, or was driven to distraction by his domineering wife. He developed a fear of Indian people, which tragically included his old friend Ranji. His autobiography "Life Worth Living" is riddled with half-truths and exaggerations- and here, surely is someone with very little need to exaggerate. Tributes from the cricketing world were fulsome- but he never reached the honours list, either for his sporting exploits, or for his forty years in command of the Mercury.
Fry's remarkable legacy also includes an accomplished progeny. Comedian, actor and writer Stephen Fry, and Charles Fry, international cricketer and head of the MCC from 2003-4, are both his grandsons.