By Nigel Fenner, Cambridge Sports Tours, pp 312, £27
This account of Frank Fenner and his legacy in Cambridge is a most unusual book. Unlike the conventional biography, it is structured as a walking tour around Cambridge, reflecting the fact that the author, a Cambridge blue (for football, not cricket) and descendant of Fenner, now runs a company that specialises in walking tours of the great university city.
So we begin not with the birth of Fenner but with a view of Cambridge from Castle Hill, a vantage point both literal and metaphorical from which to consider the history of the city of which Fenner was a part. The narrative then moves on around the various colleges – Magdalene, Jesus, Trinity – exploring through a wealth of anecdotes the rich and fascinating history of Cambridge, the university and its colleges, with an emphasis on sport but with the wider world by no means ignored. Other stops include the University church, where Fenner was Senior Church Warden (an example is given of a warm letter written by Fenner to an outgoing vicar), and the market, where Fenner kept a tobacconist’s shop (with an amusing anecdote about an early anti-smoking rally in the 1850s). Along the way we learn for example what it was that motivated the town authorities (Cambridge did not become a city until 1951) to clean up the river Cam (a clue: it was not primarily for the benefit of public health); or how the representatives of the ‘town’ managed to defeat a ‘gown’ army led by a student who was a leading pugilist (clue: not exactly cricket). Running through the book like golden thread is the character of Frank Fenner.
The virtual tour ends, fittingly enough, with stops at Parker’s Piece and Fenner’s, where there is greater focus on the sporting legacy of Frank Fenner, and in particular his cricketing achievements. Among other things, we are invited to consider not only Fenner’s contribution to the sporting world of Cambridge itself, but also his keen interest in the development of the county game and his involvement in attempts to establish county clubs in Cambridgeshire and Gloucestershire, where he moved in the 1860s. The impact of his legacy is a complex one, although if not all of his interventions had positive results, this was not his intention.
The book is lavishly illustrated, with many high quality contemporary photos as well as pictures of the Cambridge of yesteryear, although as this review was compiled from an advance pdf I am unable at this stage to comment on the production values of the final printed version. One picture in particular played an important role in the genesis of the project. Fenner’s personal copy of the famous painting of the fictional match between Sussex and Kent in 1849, in which Fenner himself appears in the foreground, was for many years left unregarded in the family loft, while most of his personal effects were disposed of during the Second World War, thus losing what appears to have been a remarkable collection of cricketana. But the print has been restored, and now has pride of place in the author’s family home.
Those who are looking for a simple biography of Frank Fenner may not find this book exactly what they were expecting. Nor is his sporting legacy confined to the cricket field. But this is a splendid account of the history of the city of Cambridge, its impact on the sporting world, and in particular the man who played such a large part in the development of this sporting tradition and whose name lives on in the city he graced for so many years.
Richard Lawrence (The Cricket Statistician, Summer 2023)