Here I am at the grave where the ashes of Charles “Almighty” Fry are interred. I’m not a sporty person but I’d read about this hyperactive high achiever and drove to Repton, a small town in Derbyshire, to find him.
A hundred years ago he was the greatest all-round sportsman of his time. If he was around now he’d probably be squashed under a ten-ton weight of media attention, millions of pounds and sponsorship deals.
The grave was found quickly along the back wall of the beautiful St Wystans’s church which adjoins the posh Repton School For Rich Folk. It was at this school Charles demonstrated not only a terrific mind but the ability to become one of the greatest all-round athletes ever. From Repton he took up a scholarship to Oxford where he gained a first-class degree in Classics. Aged 21 he equalled the world record for the long jump after a good meal and a cigar. Aged 22 he started playing cricket for Sussex and from aged 23 he played the first of twenty-six test matches for England. Simultaneously he played rugby for Blackheath and football for three UK football teams (playing in the FA cup final of 1902.)
Do you know any other sportsmen so gifted? And he even had a party piece - jumping backwards onto a mantelpiece from a standing position on the floor - not off the mantelpiece but onto it. Blimey.
His finest achievements were on the cricket field. He played 26 games for England. Over the years he played for Sussex, London County and Hampshire and scored almost 31,000 runs.
His brain barely rested; while pursuing these sports he wrote in “CB Fry’s Magazine” for a decade, covering topics from men’s fashion to safety razors to phrenology (studying the shape of the skull) to map reading. There was also a novel and an autobiography (he was even on This Is your Life.)
Despite his talents he was always short of money and didn’t take part in the 1896 Olympics due to being skint (folk reckoned he’d have won the 100 metres spring and the long jump.) He was often so short of money he resorting to nude modelling. He couldn’t carry the weight of his genius and had the first of many nervous breakdown while still at Oxford University. As with some gifted people he wasn’t emotionally intelligent. He seemed to be more like a machine.
From age 36 he and his wife ran the boys naval training ship Mercury on the River Hamble in Hampshire (she was cruel and he feared her all his life.) Aged 48 he was offered the throne of Albania (they were looking for an English gentleman with an income of £10,000 a year to become their king) but he preferred politics and stood three times unsuccessfully for Parliament.
Aged 50 he retired from cricket and moved into cricket journalism working for The Captain magazine for boys and the Daily Express newspaper. He was suffered from diabetes and neuritis and died of kidney failure at the Middlesex Hospital in London aged 84.
I’d parked outside the church and returned to the car for a coffee and a bit of walnut cake. Repton is one of those slightly-quaint attractive towns where schoolchildren can be seen up and down the streets. Repton School dominates and its one of those old posh schools you put your child down for minutes after its appearance in the Labour Ward. If you want to send your spawn to its hallowed corridors and hallways it costs £33,000/year to board or a paltry £29,000 for day attenders. For 400 years only human beings with a dangling sausage attended - no girls – but they attend now and no doubt bear names like Cassandra, Penelope and Cordelia (can’t imagine there’s a Brenda Belcher or Morag Smelly in attendance.)
As I sat in the car a gaggle of boys in cricket whites crossed the road and disappeared through the main school entrance. Mmmmm….thought I’d go and have a walk around and I strode purposefully passed the security office. Up and down pathways beautiful buildings shovelled themselves competitively into the eyes: chapel, priory, orchard, various school buildings - all moated by mature trees and well-manicured sports grounds. It was like a film set - it was a film set - it was “Brookfield School” twice in the 1939 and 1984 films Goodbye, Mr Chips.
An alleyway suddenly opened out and a few hefty saloons had dropped anchored in the car park, disgorging parents who had come to watch their young whack balls. Thankfully I was dressed as a vicar and the volley of “hellos” and instant smiles was uplifting.