Francis Phillips Fenner

 

This is only a part of an incomplete overview of Frank Fenner’s life and career.  When I found this recently I was surprised how detailed it is. I cannot promise to finish it in a similar fashion, but we shall see.

The name Fenner does not ring many bells in relation to cricket.  There has never been to my knowledge a test cricketer called Fenner.  In English first-class county cricket the name has appeared in just 16 matches, all for Kent.  Add an apostrophe and one letter, however, and suddenly the name takes on a new relevance — Fenner’s — the home of Cambridge University cricket since 1848, breeding ground for many a county and test player, not to mention England captains, and host to opponents ranging from a Cambridge Parish Constables XI to  Australia.  Its playing surface has often been well compared to Surrey’s Oval.  Certainly many first-class counties have enjoyed warming up their batsmen and the scoreboard in start-of-season matches held there.

An apostrophe implies ownership, so who was this Fenner emulating Thomas Lord by lending his name to a famous cricket ground?  It would be wrong of me to suggest that Francis Phillips (Frank) Fenner is completely unknown, but along with the teams of pre-minor counties Cambridgeshire cricket he has been relegated to the footnotes of cricket history.  This profile will attempt to expand this particular footnote. Since I first wrote this profile a descendant of Frank – Nigel Fenner – has written “Cambridge Sport: In Fenner’s Hands”, a fascinating guide to nineteenth century sport at Cambridge University, set against Frank Fenner’s life and exploits, which gives much more information on Fenner than I can.

Early days

Frank Fenner was born in Cambridge on 1st March 1811.   His father Joseph, born in Mayfield, Sussex, was a tailor.  His mother Elizabeth, born in Hemingford, a few miles north west of Cambridge, in Huntingdonshire, was Joseph’s second wife.  Sarah, mother of Joseph’s first three children, George James and Miles, had died and Joseph and Elizabeth married on 1st September 1805. Of their three children Frank was the third and only son.  His childhood is a mystery.   He must have acquired his eloquence in letter writing and the various skills incumbent upon a secretary from somewhere, but any formal education is a mystery.

 

What is certain is that he had developed a keen interest in and considerable skill at cricket by the age of sixteen.  In 1827 cricket in Cambridge, and indeed Cambridgeshire, was in a state of transition.  For the first twenty years of the 1800s Cambridge Cricket Club had dominated both its own county and its neighbours.  1821, however, was its last year of glory and by 1827 it was gone.  One result of its success had been an increase, towards the end of its tenure, in the number of other Cambridge clubs.   Apart from the University Club most of these were based at local pubs such as the Union, the Fountain and the Castle.  Gradually they stepped into the “Old Club‘s” footsteps, taking on its former opponents such as Saffron Walden, Newmarket, and Biggleswade before treading new ground by advancing north to play March and Chatteris.  The Castle and Fountain clubs appear to have started out as junior clubs and it was for the Fountain that the young Fenner made his cricketing debut, at least in the papers, against the most recent and much toted pub club the Hoop, fresh from unexpectedly defeating March.   The new club won by four wickets but the Fountain played well making 141 and 96.  Impressively Frank hit 34 and 15.  He was not the only Fenner to do well in this match as his stepbrother James made 37 and 27 and, given their proximity in the batting order, the two probably accrued two substantial partnerships.   Cricket must have seemed easy to the lad but this was the Fountain’s last ever match and Francis had to look elsewhere to follow his passion.

There is no record of Frank playing again in 1827 but by the next season he was possibly playing for the Hoop against Biggleswade, assuming that it was he, and not James, as the scorecard simply said “Fenner”.  Whilst making no runs on this occasion this Fenner took at least five wickets in the first innings and five in the second.  Perhaps his later all round abilities were already evident.  Fenner is only recorded as playing two more matches that season, one for the Hoop and one for a “Town” team.  At the end of the season, however, Frank and fellow player Hall sent a single wicket challenge to the London paper Bell’s Life calling themselves “Two members of the Cambridge Young Castle Cricket Club”.  This may mean that the Fenner  playing for the Hoop and Town sides was actually James or that the young Frank was  already gaining a reputation and was enthusiastically included in whichever teams could get him.

The only pub club recorded as playing in 1829 was the Castle and included Fenner (again without initials).  James definitely played in one match for the Married of Cambridge against the Single so it seems more likely that it was the younger Frank in the Junior Castle Club side.  At this point Frank disappears from Cambridge cricket, an odd time to do so given that six of the biggest matches  in Cambridge’s history took place over the next three seasons.  In 1830 the Hoop Club unsuccessfully took on Swaffham of Norfolk and the Union Club twice played Islington Albion, losing at home and winning away.  The following season the Union repeated its fixtures with Islington, again winning one and losing one. In 1832 Frank did play for two Cambridgeshire county sides but curiously not for the Town side in its match against the same opposition, the MCC.  So where was he?

The missing years

It appears that Frank was in Chatteris, 20 miles north of Cambridge in the part of Cambridgeshire called the Isle of Ely.  The most convincing evidence for this is that in 1830 he appears to have played for Chatteris Cricket Club, at that time a successful club briefly challenging Cambridge for dominance in the county.  On 3rd August Chatteris played away at March with Fenner batting third, scoring 11 runs and taking three wickets, two catches and a stumping.  Chatteris played at least one further match that season, the return with March, Winning by 8 wickets. On 14th September two years later, according to Bell’s Life:

“the long talked-of match between Messrs Sheppard and West and Messrs Glasscock and Fenner, four Chatteris players, came off in the Park at Chatteris.”

If nothing else this was a tremendous coup for the apparently ambitious Chatteris Club, adding Fenner to Dan Hayward from Mitcham in Surrey and Glasscock from King’s Lynn to recently imported players.The second piece of evidence of Frank’s whereabouts, albeit circumstantial, is that in around 1836 he married  Mary Williams Smith who was from that town.  Thirdly the order of names given in the team list for the county sides of 1832 places Frank with the Chatteris contingent rather than the Cambridge players.  The two gentlemen, Sir St Vincent Cotton and Thomas Fryer Esq. head the list followed by Boning, Davies, Stearn and Johnson of Cambridge, who are in turn followed by Hayward and Glasscock of Chatteris and then Frank. The two given men make up the list.  It is also noticeable that Frank appeared in the two county sides that played MCC that year but not in the Cambridge Town side that did the same.   What else Frank was doing in Chatteris over these three years is as yet unknown.

Apart from stirring the mystery surrounding Frank’s whereabouts the 1832 Cambridgeshire versus MCC matches have plenty significance of their own.  Before this date the only references to “Cambridgeshire” teams were very vague and quite probably not representative or official  county sides.[1] The 1832 sides that faced the MCC, in contrast, were heralded in the local newspapers in a manner that was clear about their status as county sides and received  coverage that was as good as it got in the Cambridge papers of the time.  The first of the matches was played at Lord’s and the second at Chatteris, implying that they were at least in part arranged by the Chatteris Club – Thomas Fryer was thanked “for his liberality in making the match“ at Chatteris.[2]  In the first match Frank scored only 6 in his one innings.  Fuller Pilch (50 and 41 not out), who was possibly coaching the Cambridge Town team around this time, and Dan Hayward of Chatteris (24 and 22) scored the bulk of the runs.  The two given men, Pilch and Caldecourt (a professional with Cambridge University that season), took at least twelve wickets between them.  The result was a win for Cambridgeshire by six wickets.  The return at Chatteris produced an even more decisive victory for Cambridgeshire, by an innings and six runs, Pilch and Caldecourt again playing a major part.  Frank made just 2 runs this time.  In the follow up match the Cambridge Town batsmen did somewhat better than  the county players had done against the bowling of Lillywhite and Bayley, but Frank was not in the team and so did not get a third chance.

The town team years

Since 1830 Cambridge’s representative matches had been mainly played by a Cambridge Town team, a strong combination of players drawn from the pub clubs but not backed up by a club administration of its own.    There seems to have been no “Cambridge Town Club” at this time.  Frank was back in Cambridge by the beginning of the 1833 season, playing for the Town team against the University, playing single wicket matches and probably playing for the Castle Club, which was by now the only pub club left.   In a single wicket match on Parker’s Piece  he played alongside Thomas Stearn against John Boning and David Bush Edwards.  Slightly his elders, these three were stalwarts of the pub club scene, Boning and Edwards even having played  for the Cambridge CC in its dying days.  Such were the cricketers Frank had played amongst since his debut — modest but enthusiastic players keeping up the tradition of the game in the town and paving the way for the later glories in which Fenner and Boning would be involved.

In the traditional season-opening fixture between town and gown in 1834, Frank  took eight wickets in the first match and another eight in the second with his fast round-arm deliveries which were famed for their accuracy.  In July he faced rather sterner opposition in the first of two county side matches against Nottingham/ Nottinghamshire.  Whilst the matches against MCC two years earlier had been important matches in the development of Cambridgeshire cricket, Nottinghamshire was an altogether more difficult proposition, especially in the bowling of Redgate and Barker.  Frank took at least two wickets in Nottinghamshire’s first innings, helping to keep the visitors to 136 runs.  Opening the batting to begin the reply he was out bowled by Redgate for just one run and the whole side was blown away for 23.  Although records do not show whether Frank took any wickets, between them the Cambridgeshire bowlers restricted their opponents to 112 second time around.  The home side made a better fist of things in their second innings but were again bowled out by Redgate and Barker, this time for 73.  Frank scored,16.   The return match was even more traumatic as Redgate and Barker again did the damage, this time for 29 runs before Nottingham  put on a useful total of 228.  Although Cambridgeshire again improved in the second innings the difference was too great and  the team could only manage 85 runs, Fenner, scoring 13.  Frank broke his bat and Cambridgeshire’s Fuller retired from the match with a damaged thumb.

 Lo! By the banners of the crowded tent

 Brave men have gathered, on ambitious bent;

Strives burly Barker, pitted face to face

With sturdy Redgate of terrific pace;

On, on they press, for the conquest or the fame,

Fort after fort succumbs to deadly aim,

All stratagems are baffled, and at length

Surrenders Granta, destitute of strength.”[3]

Nevertheless Cambridgeshire’s bowling and fielding were both commended in the Nottingham press, Frank bowled Redgate first ball, and playing in this company can have done him no harm at all.

Gradually Frank was beginning to play both with and against a higher standard of cricketer.  Being in Cambridge was a distinct advantage to him in this regard as the University Club was beginning to employ professional cricketers to act as bowlers and coaches to its players.  Since the town and university shared the cricketing area on Parker’s Piece Cambridge town cricketers would frequently come into contact  with such renowned players as William Caldecourt and Samuel Redgate.  In 1835 Frank teamed up with student Thomas Sanders and Fuller Pilch to play at single wicket against Charles Parnther, also a student, William Caldecourt and Samuel Redgate.   “This was truly the finest display of cricketing skill ever witnessed on Parker’s Piece, claimed Bell’s Life, commenting specifically on the “formidable bowling of Fenner” and his admirable batting.  I know little about Sanders but Parnther and Redgate were top-class bowlers and Caldecourt and Pilch equally good batsmen and all four had played, or would do so, in Gentlemen v Players matches, the “great“ matches of their time.  Caldecourt and Redgate won the match for their side but Frank was establishing himself in good company.   Later in the season he appears rather oddly to have made an appearance for St John’s Wood alongside Redgate  against MCC, scoring no runs but taking at least one wicket.  He also attracted attention by challenging “any cricketer,  within fifty miles of Cambridge, [to] a single wicket match, home and home……for a moderate stake.” In one way, however, his fame was becoming a liability.  His bowling was barred from a fixture between the Castle Club and Saffron Walden, which was a shame for  the Castle because Walden won both home and away.   In a second single wicket match Frank showed he was still willing to play in less glamorous surroundings, accompanying two gentlemen, Messrs Brown and Charlton, and losing against four of the Chesterton Club from just outside Cambridge – Boutell, Haggis, Rowley and Eaden.

 

Mixing business with pleasure 

1836 was a significant year for Frank.  At the start of the season he placed an advertisement for his tobacconist shop in a local newspaper.  The shop’s position was well chosen in the centre of the town.  The  tone  of  the advertisement implies that he had only recently set up in business , but was taking it seriously right from the off :

 

F. P. FENNER,

TOBACCONIST,  &c.,

SIDNEY STREET,Cambridge,

GRATEFUL     for    the    support     he    has     re-

ceived   from  his  friends  of   the   University   and

Town since commencing business as above, begs to

assure  them,  his  constant  aim  will  be  to  merit a

continuance of their favors.   Meersham, China, and

other pipes; fancy Snuff Boxes, &c.

F. P. F. has just  received  a  quantity  of  well-sea-

soned  Cricket-Bats,  Stumps,  &c.; to the former of

which,  being  selected  by  himself, he  respectfully

solicit’s  the  attention  of the University Clubs, and

Cricketers   in   general.  Country   Clubs   supplied.

‘ , ’  Instruction given to Amateurs.

 

It is certainly instructive.  It shows Frank’s eloquence, his business acumen and his ability to network, all qualities that would come to his aid as a cricket administrator.  Other terms that come to mind are confidence, opportunism and pragmatism, also useful administrative qualities but equally as applicable  to  the  game  of  cricket  itself.  In the context of  a town divided, often angrily, between University and Town such opportunism is particularly noticeable.  He would show later in his career his apparent ease at serving both masters.

 

Towards the end of the same season Frank had a second opportunity to display his eloquence as well as his zealous love for the game of cricket, even though as yet he had no official position as a spokesman for  Cambridge cricket.  In a letter to the Cambridge Chronicle on the “wantonness with which people of all classes ride over the levelled square of our cricket ground” he follows a severe criticism of such behaviour with both a celebration of Parker’s Piece and cricket:

 

“We have a ground the most advantageously situated, and I think the best public cricket ground, in England; as such we ought to consider it inestimable, and use every effort to preserve and improve it; for it is the encouragement of this truly English game that produces that happy concord of social enjoyment, amid the thrilling excitement of which the pleasing rationality of true friendship bids defiance to the corroding effect of a too-often-indulged care…[and] strengthen[s] the links of society and increase[s] its happiness.”

 

On the field of play Frank again played at opposite ends of the cricket ladder, representing North v South, an all professional rival to the Gentlemen v Players matches, at Lord’s as well as the Cambridge town team,, the Castle Club and Cambridge University 2nd Eleven.  His best recorded performance came in the latter match as he took ten wickets and scored 59 second innings runs against the 1st eleven in his role as a University Club professional.  A the beginning of the next season he scored  a first innings 40 in the University Club practice match and 37 and 21 in the  Town v Gown match.

Cambridge Town Club

Following the  Town/Gown match of 1837 season Cambridge cricket took one step closer to success with the formation of the Cambridge Town Club.  The town team had been pretty successful, winning 10 out of 12 matches over 7 years, but all but 1 of these had been against the University.   The expressed aims now were to increase the number of matches “on a more extended principle” against a higher standard of opponent with a view to “playing more interesting matches.”  This was some ambition when one considered that the University of that season included C G Taylor and R J P Broughton dangerous with the bat and J H Kirwan especially so with the ball.  At this stage there was no mention of the Club’s officers but at some point over the next 7 years Frank would take on the role of secretary, for which he must have seemed eminently suitable.  For now was he expected to be the town’s top bowler and a major batsman alongside, Boning, Edwards and Israel Haggis. Although the 1837 launch proved to be a false dawn the new club did establish itself in 1838, Frank’s Castle Club having been persuaded to fold in order that the new club access to all of the town’s cricketers.

 

As the Town Club was entering the fray another important Cambridge club, the Castle, was bowing out after seventeen years.  Having lost an away match against March by 7 wickets the Castle went out with a bang by scoring 206 in the return and bowling out the north Cambridgeshire club  for just 18 in the second innings.  Frank played a major part in the victory by scoring 66 runs and taking  8 wickets, a fitting to a relationship that had lasted 10 years.  His batting in this match was both  aggressive, “rendering [Glasscock] incapable of running for some time”, and described as “in beautiful style.”

 

One result of the Town Club’s formation appears to have been the expansion  of  newspaper reports to match.  Thus we start to get a much better impression of Frank’s playing style.  In the Town/Gown match of 1838, for instance, one of his “very best rippers” was responsible for Taylor’s wicket.  Later reports would show him capable of bowling “twisters”,  straight on the leg side, “completely at the place”, rapidly and unflaggingly.   His batting would be described as “scientific”, especially fine on the leg side, fond of cutting, “easy”, ”beautiful”, “graceful”, and spirited, although retrospective appraisals tend to suggest he was steady to slow in compiling runs as well as being extremely hard to dismiss.  The 1838 report also described Frank’s cricket as very much improved “of late years”.  Taken together with references in the mid-40’s to his playing resembling his best years it seems likely that these are the years referred to, although ironically statistically his best performances would come in that mid-40’s period.

 

Another significant feature of this particular match report in the Cambridge Chronicle was the championing of Frank for the North v South Coronation match due to be played  that season:

 

“…we do positively assert that the North will not have so effective a force as they might choose [if they do not select him].  Why should Lillywhite and Wenman be given to the North when that party can boast of such players as Fenner who is overlooked, and whom many would be willing to back against either of the given men[?]”

As it turned out he was selected for the South, helping them to an 8 wicket victory!

 

Frank’s most notable performances of the season came in less grand matches, however. As well as making 27 in the first innings and taking 8 wickets against the university he scored 48 and took 7 wickets for the Married of Cambridge v Single and easily defeated Alfred Adams of Saffron Walden at single wicket.  Adams would subsequently hold the record for largest individual innings, 279 for Saffron Walden against Bishop’s Stortford in 1837 but in this contest he was restricted  by Frank to 0 and 0 in the first match and 6 and 10 in the second.  Frank on the other hand made 19 and 30 in the first match  and 76 in the second.  This last score took him 2½ hours.  Each player was allowed one fielder.

Frank’s play continued to prosper as he made his best score to date, 80 against the University, in 1841 and came eighth in Bell’s Life’s national batting averages in the same year, scoring 222 runs at an average of 14.8.  The local press called him “the Pride of Cambridge” and a more unusual tribute was paid him the following year when a hoax report of a Town v Gown match was sent to Bell’s Life, giving Frank an even higher top score of 87 not out.  Frank’s response was to write to the paper exposing the “ridiculous hoax for which the author ought to be ducked.”  His actual abilities were recognised nationally with selection for Players versus Gentlemen, Fast bowlers versus Slow, and All England versus Kent.

The new Cambridge Town Club continued until 1843, under Frank’s secretaryship and (at least from 1841) his captaincy, but it was never felt to be well enough supported and its expansion into the Cambridge Town and County Club in 1844 was widely seen as an attempt to garner both more support county wide and a higher level of opposition.

to be continued…

Conclusion

In Francis Phillips Fenner I think we have an archetype of a certain kind of Victorian — a go-getter, an achiever, an entrepreneur.  In cricket terms he was an all-rounder.  From batting and bowling to selling tobacco and  being a churchwarden he could do it all, or at least had a go.  He no doubt had his weaknesses too.  I suspect he was something of  a controller, wanting to be in charge of whatever he was involved in.  Perhaps that was why his business partnership with Bowles(4) lasted only two years and why he was particularly attracted to the post of Hon Secretary.  Overall, though, his record in the range of endeavours he took on was impressive.  I certainly think he is worth remembering beyond his legacy of the cricket ground if only because he was less of a pawn in other people’s games  than that achievement alone suggests.  I would rather he was remembered as a major cricketer of his time, a conscientious and ambitious club secretary, a stubborn defender of cricket, a successful small businessman and upstanding member of the community – and the founder of Fenner’s cricket ground.

 

 

[1] See Sugg W, “Fenner’s Men” for a discussion of the validity of the1832 county sides and Sugg W, “The First Cambridgeshire County Side – A Simple Question With a Complicated Answer” in “The Cricket Society Journal” for a wider discussion of Cambridgeshire representative sides.

[2] There was no Cambridgeshire County Club in existence at this time to my knowledge.

[3] Box, C

[4] In 1861,  Henry Staples Foster, a former Cambridge Mayor as well as fellow member of the the Cambridge Town and County side, appears to have been behind a project to provide Roman style baths in Cambridge, with Frank penciled in as the prospective manager.  Frank had left for Cheltenham by the time the Baths were built and the project  folded in 1863 not having been a success and amid some controversy over the project’s finances.