Fry’s life began in 1872 – and he timed his arrival to perfection. It was a year which contained many defining moments in the lives of the individuals, events and institutions which were to shape both his character and his career.
The future FA Cup finalist was born barely a month after Wanderers became the first Cup-holders by beating the Royal Engineers at The Oval.
A few weeks after the birth of its future captain, Sussex County Cricket Club opened its new ground at Hove, which was to be the setting for many of his most remarkable cricketing feats. A month later, it was the venue for the first match between Sussex and Gloucestershire, whose side included W.G. Grace – with whom, before the end of the century, Fry was to open the England batting.
Similarly, as Fry also represented his country at football, it was appropriate that he should be born in the year when England and Scotland played the first international match in soccer history.
As he represented Oxford University at rugby – in addition to captaining its football, athletics and cricket teams – it was extraordinary that 1872 should also have seen Oxford and Cambridge competing in a Varsity rugby match for the first time.
As a one-time master at Charterhouse, it was fitting that he was born just as the school was moving from London to Godalming, so that it could have more space for playing fields and devote extra attention to sport.
As the future husband of someone involved in a major Victorian sex scandal, it was a coincidence that Fry should be born in the year that the man responsible for the scandal made his only appearance, for Kent, in county cricket.
Finally, 1872 was also the year in which Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji was born. By the end of the nineteenth century, Fry and Ranjitsinhji were not only the greatest of friends but batsmen who were forming the most contrasting, attractive and successful partnership that cricket has ever seen. It was a friendship and partnership which endured well beyond their cricketing careers, encompassing politics, diplomacy and even kingship. Not only did Ranjitsinhji became the ruler of an Indian state, but Fry might have become a European king.
Although the timing of Fry’s birth was wholly appropriate, its location was not. Croydon may have been one of the first places to have had its own cricket team, as early as 1707, but it was only a temporary home for the Fry family, which had deep Sussex roots. According to Fry’s autobiography, Life Worth Living, his Sussex ancestry could be traced back to the Norman conquest, when his ancestors fought on both sides at the Battle of Hastings. On the one hand, members of the ‘Le Fre’ family apparently came over to England with William the Conqueror; on the other, in Fry’s words, ‘one of our forefathers was the Saxon soldier who helped his Queen to find the body of King Harold.’
After their arrival, the Le Fre family moved only a short distance from Hastings, settling in and around Mayfield and Rotherfield (barely fifteen miles from Battle) in east Sussex. By inter-marrying with a long-established local family, the Burgesses, the Frys gradually became major land-owners and prominent members of the gentry. The long-standing association between two families was clearly a source of pride well into the nineteenth century, as both Charles Fry and his brother, plus some of their relations, had ‘Burgess’ as their middle name.
By the sixteenth century, the Fry family was sufficiently wealthy to be paying for the construction of private pews in St Denys’s Church in Rotherfield. It was an early way for people to demonstrate their wealth and social status and created an asset that was either bequeathed or sold, according to the fortunes of the family concerned. Similarly, in St Dunstan’s Church at Mayfield, the Frys paid for the construction of monuments to various family members. In 1780, for example, the death of C.B. Fry’s great-great-great-grandmother, Hannah Fry, was marked by the erection of a monument bearing an inscription which concluded, rather grimly:
Those who the longest lease enjoyed
Have told us with a sigh
That to be born seems little more
Than to begin to die.
Hannah’s sister, Mary, married into another deep-rooted local family, the Bridgers, who farmed near Mayfield, in Hadlow Down. It was an area in which Puritanism took hold and residents included those with fairly conventional Biblical names, like Aaron and Isaac, and others which had a more transient popularity, like Obedience, Repentence and Feargod. (After the Civil War, a jury at Rye – twenty miles away – was composed of, amongst others, Kill-sin Pimple, Sleep-not Billing, More-fruit Fowler and Be-faithful Joiner.) As late as the mid-nineteenth century, at least one member of the Bridger family – and one of Fry’s distant relations – did his utmost to ensure that local children continued to bear the most unusual of names.
The man concerned was undeniably eccentric, once carrying a large cannon ball from Eastbourne to Hadlow Down. (His reasons – if any – for doing so have, unfortunately, failed to survive.) His eccentricity also manifested itself in a lengthy pigtail: he was, accordingly, known as ‘Pigtail’ Bridger. His offspring, alas, had no choice about the names they were given – such as Jupiter Ammon, Venus Pandora and Octavia Echo. On one occasion, however, the vicar decided that ‘Pigtail’ wanted to go too far. He had brought his latest son to be christened and, on being asked what name he had chosen for the boy, replied, simply, ‘Beelzebub’. The clergyman objected, but Bridger was adamant: ‘Sir, the name is in the Bible, and you are therefore bound to use it.’ Sensibly, the vicar suggested an adjournment. In due course, Bridger returned and announced that he had selected a less controversial name. The boy was duly christened Augustus Caesar.
Unlike the Bridgers, the fortunes of the Fry family were not solely dependent on farming. From the 1600s until the start of the Industrial Revolution, Sussex was one of Britain’s most important industrial areas, and, according to Life Worth Living, although ‘the conjoined families of Fry and Burges did not include any of the big iron-masters, but sundry of their members were interested in the mills’.
As C.B. was proud to point out, some members of his family were also involved in another, less respectable local industry, which helped to replace the wealth which was lost when iron production moved steadily to the north.
In the late seventeenth century, the Government’s policy of restricting wool exports to certain designated ports had led to a growth in smuggling and, by 1720, Sussex had its first major gang of smugglers, based in Mayfield. Led by Gabriel Tomkins, the members of the ‘Mayfield Gang’ loaded wool on to waiting French vessels and maximized their returns by illegally importing goods such as tea, spirits and silk, which attracted high rates of duty. It became an extremely profitable two-way trade, but one which also involved significant risk-taking by both the smugglers and the Excise-men who were supposed to stop them. Tomkins himself provided a vivid demonstration of both the risks and the rewards of smuggling: in the 1720s, when he was believed to be worth