Born: 30 May 1879, Deptford
Died: 8 November 1917, Forest Hall to Pimmern military railway line near Passchendaele, Belgium
Right-handed batsman, slow left-arm spin bowler
Kent 1899-1914, capped 1900
Tests: 19 for England (9 v Australia, 10 v South Africa)
Wisden Cricketer of the Year 1904
Educated: Duke Street School, Deptford
Parents: Walter Blythe & Elizabeth Blythe (née Dready)
Colin “Charlie” Blythe’s standing as one of the greatest exponents of classical left-arm spin has diminished over the last hundred years or so. Few of his contemporaries seem to have had doubts.
England batsman Ranjitsinhji said he was the best left-arm bowler he had ever faced and England all-rounder Gilbert Jessop “the best left-hand bowler of my time, the most difficult and probably the most accurate”. One of his opponents, Charles Macartney, thought him: “The best left-hander on English wickets I have ever seen. His remarkable flighting of the ball and his deception in pace are the best I ever met.”
Pelham Warner was more circumspect: “Peel, Briggs, Rhodes and Ferris were in their day great bowlers but he would be a rash man who would aver that even Peel was a greater bowler than Blythe”.
Writing in 1909, Philip Trevor, manager when Blythe toured Australia with MCC in 1907/1908 and one of the more technically knowledgeable of the pre-1914 generation of cricket pundits, put it simply “better than any other bowler on a good wicket and much better than any other bowler on a bad wicket”.
By the turn of the century, all had changed. When the 2000 Wisden published its Five Cricketers of the Century, Blythe, did not receive a single vote from the 100 assorted experts who made up the electorate. Blythe took his 100 Test wickets at 18.63 each.
In Test cricket, of the 28 bowlers nominated, only Sydney Barnes (who received eleven votes) had a better career average and strike rate. Blythe’s hundred wickets came in just 19 Test matches. Shane Warne needed 23, Muttiah Muralitharan 27, Wilfred Rhodes 44.
Leaving aside that many in the modern media appear programmed to ignore anything prior to the latter part of the 20th century; more recent writers may be relying too much on the rather curious obituary in the 1918 Wisden.
Editor Sydney Pardon wrote “Blythe’s reputation will rest on his doings in England. His two visits to Australia scarcely added to his fame and when he went to South Africa in 1905-1906 and again in 1909-1910, he did not find the matting wickets altogether to his liking.” He ends: “Nearly all his finest work was done for his county”.
Although it is true that Blythe did nothing exceptional in his six Test matches on Australian pitches, in half of them he was bowling with an injured hand and his record in all first-class matches in Australia, 75 wickets at an average of 21.94, compares favourably with those of Rhodes’ 114 at 24.68 and Hedley Verity’s 72 at 21.65. As to matting wickets, on his two tours to South Africa his record was 33 Test wickets at 21.69, twice ten in a match, and 107 in all first-class matches at 17.09.
In the Wisden obituary Pardon discusses the relative merits of five left-arm spinners, Ted Peate, Johnny Briggs, Peel, Rhodes and Blythe, and concludes “judging by the practical test of results a good case could be made out for Rhodes as the best bowler of the five.” When war ended Blythe’s first-class career in 1914, he had 2503 wickets at 16.81. At this stage, Rhodes had 2735 wickets at 17.31. In Test cricket, compared with Blythe’s 100 wickets in 19 Tests at 18.63, Rhodes had 105 wickets in 47 Tests at 24.90.
In Kent v Yorkshire matches and other occasions when they were on opposite sides, Blythe’s record was 161 wickets at an average of 18.39, Rhodes 104 at 19. When they were in the same team, Blythe took 121 wickets at 19.4, Rhodes 58 at 21. For the MCC Australian XI against an England XI at Hastings in 1908 they bowled unchanged together throughout the match (Blythe 5/77 & 2/33, Rhodes 5/78 & 4/54). Against each season’s Champions (or runners-up in years when their respective counties won the Championship) Blythe’s record was 138 wickets at 18.09 and Rhodes took 105 at 24.98.
When attempting direct comparison between the two there are, however, pitfalls. Rhodes began his career a year before Blythe and was already an experienced cricketer when he did so. On the other hand, in the three or four years immediately prior to the outbreak of war he played for both England and Yorkshire primarily as a batsman. Admittedly, he took 100 wickets in 1914 but he hardly bowled at all above county level. And of course Rhodes’ career continued until 1930. Judging by Pardon’s “practical test of results”, i.e. statistics, Blythe clearly has a very slight edge.
Some more recent writers have helped to muddy the waters. Clearly echoing the Wisden obituary, in his 1971 history of Kent the historian Bill Arrowsmith wrote that Blythe’s Test record was “not outstanding” The prolific and much respected late Christopher Martin Jenkins, in his The Complete Who’s Who of Test Cricketers wrote that Blythe “bowled to a full length so could be driven on good wickets”, a strange judgement which must surely apply to most spin bowlers who have made the grade in first-class cricket.
The subject of two biographies as well as a book in the ACS Famous Cricketers Series, rather more is known of Blythe’s method than most bowlers of the period. Anyone interested can see his run up and action described at length complete with diagram in the Kent Messenger of 31 July 1909. Several sources refer to unusually long fingers, strengthened according to Blythe himself, by hours practicing the violin.
One of his greatest assets was accuracy. Sir Home Gordon, who in his long life saw more cricket than most, wrote that Blythe “kept down runs on a batsman’s wicket more skilfully than anyone since Alfred Shaw”.
In a long career, Shaw bowled more (mainly four-ball) overs than he conceded runs. In the nets Blythe could reputedly land five balls out of six on a football placed on a length.
His supreme quality however seems to have been flight – Jack Hobbs thought him one of the greatest- ever exponents. Numerous batsmen were lured into playing good length balls as half volleys or offering catches from balls pitching a foot shorter than expected.
A deep thinker about the game, he was, to quote the cricketer/journalist Teddy Sewell, “One of the last of the dying race willing enough and far seeing enough to give away two or three boundaries to get a wicket.
On wet or worn pitches he could be unplayable but as well as the left-arm spinner’s stock delivery spinning away from the bat and the ball that went with his arm, on benign wickets he bowled a full medium-pace in-swinger, often a yorker.
He believed in bowling faster to quick-footed batsmen and if a batsman looked like settling he would bowl from a yard or more behind the crease.
If there was nothing in the wicket, he would sometimes switch to leg-theory with six or seven on the leg-side. To a batsman reluctant to play strokes he would on occasions try an in-swinging full toss aimed at the off-bail.
“Long Leg” in the Kent Messenger rated an afternoon spent watching Blythe from behind the arm “an intellectual treat”.
Although he arrived with “no idea of batting” according to William McCanlis, he developed into a competent batsman, sharing in several valuable late- order partnerships. At Trent Bridge in 1904 he put on 106 for the ninth wicket (Blythe 82*, Fairservice 50) and against Sussex at Canterbury in 1906 he assisted his captain Marsham in adding 111 in 35 minutes (Marsham 119, Blythe 53).
Colin Blythe was born in Evelyn Street, Deptford, the eldest of 13 children, seven boys, six girls, all but one of whom lived beyond infancy.
His father was an engine fitter at Woolwich Arsenal who, far from being poor as often asserted, was well enough off to afford violin lessons for his eldest son and in later life help him to buy a house. Eventually, he set himself up as a bookmaker.
On leaving school in April 1892 Charlie Blythe joined his father as an apprentice fitter and turner and appears to have nourished hopes of a career in engineering .According to his biographers he began studying for a Whitworth scholarship but gave up on doctor’s advice when his health broke down, possibly under the strain of combining work with spare time study in a crowded household.
There are conflicting accounts of when and how cricket entered “Charlie” Blythe’s life but most agree that it was when he was aged around eleven. According to some accounts, he played for his school; others refer to “boys” clubs” on Blackheath.
Either way, his first cricket was almost certainly on primitive pitches on the broad expanse of Blackheath which could and did easily accommodate 20 or more matches at a time.
There are indications that he had experienced a higher standard of cricket before he became established with Kent. In An Unconventional Cricketer, Albert Kinross, who played for Plaxtol, includes Blythe among well-known cricketers who have played village cricket – “Blythe and his fiddle performed at our village concert long years before that gifted hero had figured in the London newspapers”.
Kinross does not link Blythe to any particular club but young players were regularly “farmed out” to nearby clubs and he could well have played at Plaxtol during his early years on the staff. There is another possibility.
The Woolwich Arsenal’s Gun Factory, Torpedo Factory and Ordnance Stores all ran teams and, given the size of the Arsenal work force, it would not be surprising if there were other “in-house” sides although research has not so far found them.
The story of Blythe joining Kent is well known. Christopher Sandiford in The Final Over: The cricketers of summer 1914 asserts that Blythe “applied for a county trial largely to avoid working alongside his father as a fitter” but this is at total variance with every other account, including Blythe’s own.
On Saturday 17 July 1897, he was at Rectory Field, Blackheath for the last day of Kent v Somerset. Some accounts suggest that this was his first county match but this seems unlikely given his age. Rectory Field and another regularly used Kent venue, Catford Bridge, were in walking distance (or a short tram ride) of his then home in Wotton Road.
Before play started Walter Wright came out to practice and asked Blythe to bowl to him. In Blythe’s own words, “I don’t think there were more spectators than players” but looking on was William McCanlis, manager of the Tonbridge Nursery.
He was impressed. “I spoke to him and arranged for him to come and bowl to me one evening”. This he duly did in the nets of the Charlton Park Club where McCanlis was captain and the outcome was an invitation to a trial at the Nursery. The result appears in the Trial Book at Canterbury “Bowls slow left. A very useful bowler.”
Blythe was taken on the staff in August 1897, carrying on at the Arsenal in the winter. Despite the absence at the time of a structured programme of Second Eleven or Club & Ground matches, Blythe, coached for the most part by George Webb, proved himself a quick learner and in 1898 took over 100 wickets in all matches.
On August 21 1899 he made his first-class debut, against Yorkshire at Tonbridge. Brought on as second change, he bowled Frank Mitchell leg stump with his first ball and retained his place for the remaining four matches of the season.
On his third appearance, against Surrey at Blackheath, his figures read 5.1-1-15-3 in the first innings, 24-16-24-3 in the second and included the wickets of Bobby Abel (bowled) and Tom Hayward (caught).
In the final match of the season at Hove he added the even more illustrious scalp of Charles Fry. With the bat he was less successful; after four visits to the wicket (twice not out) he had yet to score a run.
Wisden was non-committal, “he has not yet done enough to justify one predicting a great future for him” but the 1900 season saw Blythe make, to quote Wisden again “a sudden jump to the front”.
With 114 wickets at 18.47 each, he was Kent’s leading wicket taker. Eleven times that year he claimed five or more in an innings, twice ten or more in a match. To Wisden he was “clearly one of the best slow bowlers in England.”
He excelled in his first Canterbury Week with 11 for 74 against Lancashire and 6 for 73 in Surrey’s only innings and two weeks later on the same ground 12 for 123 against Worcestershire.
His season’s bag included the cream of English batting – Abel, Reginald Foster (twice), Fry, William Gunn, George Hirst, Jessop, Archie Maclaren (twice), Ranjitsinhji, John Tyldesley (twice) and Pelham Warner.
During the 1900/1901 winter Blythe returned to Woolwich Arsenal as usual but missed several weeks work due to an unspecified illness. In March the Kent Managing Committee, in a rare but not unique gesture, decided that “because Blythe has wintered badly he should be examined by a doctor and then “sent to the seaside for a fortnight”.
Whether due to illness or the effect of an exceptionally dry summer on a young and still inexperienced bowler, 1901 proved to be the only season in Colin Blythe’s career in which he failed, albeit narrowly, to claim a hundred wickets – 93 at 23.12.
Among his best efforts were 7 for 64 & 4 for 57 at The Oval and at Taunton where with Jack Mason he bowled unchanged through the match (Blythe 4 for 37 & 2 for 48, Mason 4 for 26 & 8 for 29).
After an early taste of Test cricket in Australia, Blythe returned to English cricket in 1902 fitter, stronger and probably wiser and, although Rhodes was preferred for the Test series, he excelled on the numerous rain-affected pitches in a very wet summer.
For the first time he claimed 100 wickets (111) in Championship matches alone and by the end of 1903, another wet one, he was firmly established in the very front rank of English spinners.
He claimed five or more in an innings on 13 occasions including his best analysis to date, 9 for 67 against Essex at Canterbury. Wisden chose him as one of their Five Cricketers of the Year.
There can be little argument over Blythe’s status as a county cricketer. He was Kent’s leading wicket-taker in 1900, 1902 to 1905 and 1908 to 1914.
Between 1900 and 1914 he headed the Kent bowling averages eight times and in each of his final two seasons he led the national averages. Apart from 1901, he exceeded 100 wickets in every season between 1900 and 1914.
In his eight final seasons his haul only once fell below 150, his highest 183 in 1907, 197 in in 1908 and 215 in 1909. His most economical season was 1912 when his wickets cost 12.26, his most expensive the dry summer of 1911 when the cost rose to 19.38.
While statistically his most remarkable bowling was at Northampton in 1907 when he bowled Northants to defeat with 10 for 30 & 7 for 18 in a single day, given the quality of the opposition, he rarely bowled better than in 1903 when, in the space of five days he took 7 for 41 & 5 for 26 v Surrey at The Oval, bowling unchanged throughout the match, and 6 for 35 & 7 for 26 v Yorkshire at Canterbury.
Possibly the best of many notable performances on bland and unhelpful wickets was at Old Trafford in 1914 where, as Lancashire compiled 475 from 148.1 overs, his figures were 52.1-14-138-7.
In addition to his 17 wickets at Northampton in 1907, he took 16 for 102 at Leicester in 1909 and 15 in a match three times of which perhaps the most significant was 15-99 for England v South Africa in 1907.
He claimed nine in an innings five times, 9 for 67 v Essex in Canterbury 1903, 9 for 30 v Hampshire at Tonbridge in 1904, 9 for 42 at Leicester 1909, 9 for 44 at Northampton in 1909, 9 for 97 v Surrey at Lord”s, 1914.
Blythe’s two hat-tricks were both in 1910, v Surrey at Blackheath and Derbyshire at Gravesend. Against Surrey he actually dismissed four in five balls and five in ten – Hayward from the first and Andy Ducat from the last ball of one over, Herbert Strudwick, William Abel and “Razor” Smith from the second, third and fourth of the next.
Linked as it is with what is now widely assumed to be Blythe’s epilepsy, his career in Test cricket is worth examining in some depth. Test cricket came to him earlier than he or anyone else can have expected.
In 1899 when MCC having turned down an invitation to send a team to Australia, Maclaren was faced with raising one as a private venture. It was hard going.
Not only were most of the leading amateurs unwilling or unable to make the trip; half a dozen top professionals also refused. The upshot was that Blythe, with only 48 matches and a little over 1800 first-class overs under his belt, was chosen in place of Rhodes.
He had not had an outstanding season in 1901 and the selection was not without its critics. Ranjitsinhji, soon to be one of Blythe’s greatest admirers, predicted he “would never get a wicket”.
On the outward journey the team amused themselves and their fellow passengers with “musical entertainments”, a feature of which was the popular sentimental ballad The Blind Boy sung by the Somerset all-rounder Len Braund, accompanied by Blythe on his violin.
The song was not to everyone’s taste. Poor Jessop, enduring agonies with sea-sickness, wrote “I had Blind Boy before breakfast and at regular intervals during the day for so long that in the end ophthalmia seemed to me a small infection as against the dreadful fate of a listener condemned to constant reiteration of the plaints of that visionless individual.”
Whether Jessop objected to the singer, the song or both is unclear but apparently he attached no blame to the violinist, He judged Blythe’s performance with the ship’s band “quite one of the features of the tour”.
Blythe began well with 5 for 45 v South Australia at Adelaide and 3 for 26 & 4 for 30 in the first Test at Sydney, the latter earning him an engraved gold pocket watch.
Despite the handicap of a split spinning finger, his good form continued with 4 for 64 in the first innings of the Second Test at Melbourne but he suffered further injury to his bowling hand and was advised by a doctor to rest.
However, Maclaren, never the most considerate of skippers, was short of bowling and a handicapped Blythe played for the rest of the series. According to Jessop in A Cricketer’s Log, in the third Test Blythe delivered the ball from the palm of this hand and in the fourth bowled with two fingers strapped together.
His figures make instructive reading – 12 for 205 in the first two Test matches, 6 for 265 in the remaining three. Even so, Blythe dismissed Victor Trumper three times in Test matches and his other victims included Monty Noble (three times), Joe Darling and Syd Gregory (twice each), Reg Duff and George Giffen.
Charlie Blythe experienced cricket overseas again at the end of the 1903 season when Kent broke new ground by touring the USA, the first county to tour outside the UK. He was one of four professionals who for “expenses and a ten pound note” offered to join what was originally envisaged as an all-amateur venture.
Although unwell for much of the tour, he nevertheless took 23 inexpensive wickets, ten of them now recognised as first-class.
In 1905 Blythe tasted Test cricket in England for the first time, when chosen against the Australians at Headingley as a replacement for the injured Rhodes. Little used in the first innings, his 3 for 41 from 24 overs in the second gave England a brief hope of victory as Australia played out time. In the winter he toured South Africa with MCC under Pelham Warner.
The team was not fully representative and England lost the series by four matches to one but, while most of the batsmen struggled on matting wickets, Blythe contributed hugely to England’s only victory with 6 for 68 & 5 for 50 in the fourth Test at Cape Town.
He was second in the Test averages with 21 wickets at an average of 26.09 and 57 at 18.35 in all first-class fixtures. During the tour Blythe was impressed by CJ Nicholls, a young fast bowler of Malayan extraction who bowled to MCC in the nets but family opposition prevented the young man from accepting Blythe’s invitation to come over for a trial.
When South Africa toured in 1907, Blythe played in all three Test matches, selected for the first time ahead of Rhodes. Split webbing in his left-hand acquired in attempting a catch at mid-off in the first Test at Lord’s meant bowling throughout almost the entire match under the handicap of strapping and in the circumstances 2 for 18 & 2 for 56 was a satisfactory return.
In the second Test at Headingley, played throughout on a rain-affected wicket, Blythe produced his, statistically at least, finest performance in Test cricket.
After England had been dismissed for 76 he bowled them back into the game with 8 for 59 although, interestingly, Wisden judged “he was not quite so accurate in length as he might have been”.
On the last day with the tourists needing only 129 he skittled them for 75, his figures – 22.4 – 9 – 40 – 7. The only spinner in the side, he bowled unchanged except for one over and suffered at least three dropped catches.
Ten of his victims were caught, three lbw, two stumped. In the light of Wisden’s comment it is worth noting that Fry in his autobiography Life Worth Living insists “from start to finish he never bowled a single ball except of impeccable length”.
Blythe had, to quote Wisden, again, “almost bowled himself to a standstill”. Fry described him as “completely knocked up”. In 1907 epilepsy, if such it was, was little understood and seldom spoken of and it seems likely that this was its first semi-public manifestation. Fry says as much in his autobiography (see above) published in 1939.
Although Blythe joined Kent for their next match at Worcester, 1 for 143 suggests he was some way off his best and he was rested from the following fixture, the first of Canterbury Week .When he returned for the second, against Lancashire, his three wickets cost 170 runs but normal service soon resumed with 5 for 69 v Gloucestershire at Cheltenham and 7 for 45 v Somerset at Bath.
The Oval Test match was also affected by rain. On a drying wicket, Blythe was below par on the first evening finishing 1 for 47 but returned to his best on the second morning with 4 for 14 as the last five South African wickets fell for 29. He headed the bowling averages for the series with 26 wickets (avge.10.38).
Both Rhodes and Blythe were chosen for the 1907/1908 MCC tour of Australia but after playing in the first Test match in which he took only one expensive wicket Blythe was not picked again.
In all first-class matches he took 41 wickets at 22.80 including 11 for 83 against Queensland and actually ended with a better record than Rhodes – 31 at 27.00. Chosen presumably by virtue of his superior batting, Rhodes” seven wickets in the Test series cost 60.14 apiece.
In 1909 Blythe marked his benefit year with 215 wickets in all matches, 178 in Championship matches –his personal best in both cases.
Both Blythe and Rhodes were chosen for the first Test match against Australia at Edgbaston but in the event the Yorkshireman bowled only one over, Blythe (6/44 & 5/58) and Hirst (4/28 & 5/58) bowling unchanged through the first innings and all but five overs of the second. Given the opposition, this was arguably Blythe’s greatest Test match but the aftermath would reverberate for the rest of his career.
In the next fixture, against Middlesex at Lord’s, he felt faint after bowling one over and was taken off although he remained on the field. After an hour or so he was back to normal and finished with 6 for 37.
He again started shakily at Old Trafford but, carefully nursed by Ted Dillon, he returned after a rest to bowl superbly for 7 for 57. Blythe was in the 13 for the second Test at Lord’s but Dillon and the Kent committee were clearly worried-and called in a specialist.
The outcome was a telegram from Lord Harris to the acting Chairman of Selectors, “Shrimp” Leveson Gower. “Specialist strongly advises Blythe ought not to play on Monday but is quite hopeful he will be fit for the remaining Tests if wanted”.
The specialist concerned was Sir William Gowers (1845-1950), at the time the foremost authority on epilepsy and author of several books on the subject.
His Manual of Diseases of the Nervous Systemis, known as the “Bible of Neurology”, is still widely-read. The Sir William Gowers Centre in Chalfont St Peters, part of the charity the Epilepsy Society and now run by the University Colleges London NHS Foundation Trust, is named after him.
In the period between the first and second Tests, Blythe had taken 26 wickets at 15.65 but in the match at Tonbridge against Worcestershire, starting 14 June and played over the same three days as the Lord’s Test, he apparently had a ‘fit’ on the second evening and returned home.
At that point Worcestershire had batted twice, Blythe had bowled 65 overs and picked up nine wickets. On the final day, as Kent declined from 51-1 overnight to 108 all out, Blythe, batted and was bowled for one.
Over the next two days, still at Tonbridge, he bowled 61 overs and took 4 for 226 against Lancashire. If this was some way below par, three days later he bowled unchanged with Arthur Fielder to dismiss Gloucestershire for 61 at Catford (Fielder 6 for 34, Blythe 4 for 20).
Meanwhile, for reasons which need not concern us here, the selectors, Leveson Gower, Fry and Maclaren, were on the receiving end of a storm of vituperation from the press and others.
At the end of the season Wisden joined in, accusing the selectors of decisions that “touched the confines of lunacy. Never in the history of Test matches in England has there been such blundering in the selection of an England eleven.” In defence of the selectors but with sublime disregard for patient confidentiality, Sir William Gowers’ report was made public:
Mr. Blythe, whom I have seen this morning, suffers from the strain on his nervous system caused by playing in a Test match, and the effect lasts for about a week afterwards.
It is desirable that he should take a temporary rest from the work, and should not play in the coming match at Lord’s. If this can be arranged there is good hope that with treatment his difficulty will pass away. It does not exist in the case of county matches.
At the time the press and others seem to have accepted the report calmly enough but some 90 years later, with all those involved safely dead, Peter Mahony would have none of it.
In his account of the 1909 Australian tour Mary Ann’s Australians, he wrote: “The autocratic Lord Harris, keen to preserve Kent’s Championship chances, jumped on the medical board bandwagon. How any ‘specialist’ could judge the degree of strain on Blythe’s nerves so that spearheading a county a county attack was tolerable but appearing in Tests insupportable defies credibility.”
He thereby labelled Harris, Blythe and by association the Kent Committee as liars or worse and blackened the reputation of Sir William Gowers, a man described as recently as 1949 as “probably the greatest clinical neurologist of all time.”
Although it seems unlikely that the decision to publish was taken without some discussions, if formal permission was sought or obtained from Kent, the specialist or Blythe himself, there appears to be no documentary evidence.
What cannot be much in doubt is that the publicity affected what remained of Blythe’s England career. Although fit for the Third Test match at Headingley, he was not chosen. While England were losing by 126 runs, Kent were beating Northants by 125 runs at Gravesend (Blythe 6/49 & 1/44).
Whatever his state of health, in the nine matches in the period between the end of Tonbridge Week in which he suffered his ‘fit’ and the next time the selectors called on his services Blythe garnered 72 wickets at 12.77 apiece, eight times five in an innings, three times ten in a match including 5 for 48 & 7 for 55 for Players v Gentlemen at The Oval, the only time he appeared in what was then still in the eyes of many, the high point of the season.
In what proved to be his last home Test match, Blythe returned to the team for Old Trafford and, in tandem with Sydney Barnes, bowled superbly in the first innings (Barnes 5 for 56, Blythe 5 for 63) but did less well (2 for 77) in the second innings when Rhodes (5 for 83) was the pick of the bowlers as the game subsided into a draw. He was one of the 13 for the fifth Test match at The Oval but was left out of the final eleven.
Blythe was selected for the 1909/1910 MCC tour of South Africa but the captain, Leveson-Gower revealed in his memoirs that he did not want him, ostensibly because there were two other left-arm spinners, Rhodes and Frank Woolley, in the party, both better batsmen.
Despite 7 for 20 v Natal and 5 for 21 v Eastern Province, Blythe did not get into the Test side until the fourth Test match but he emerged with far the better record – in Test matches: 13 wickets at 12.92, Rhodes took two at 73.50, Woolley seven at 35.85.
In all first-class matches; Blythe 50 wickets (avge.15.66), Rhodes 21 (25.47), Woolley 15 (30.53). Together with the batting of Hobbs and Rhodes, Blythe’s 7 for 46 & 3 for 58 in the final Test match at Cape Town was decisive in England’s nine-wicket victory and, if nothing else, ensured that his Test career ended on a suitably high note.
Blythe’s problems were not it seems entirely confined to Test matches. In a much publicized incident during the 1911 Canterbury Week he was accused by Charles Fry, quite wrongly according to all the evidence, of deliberately bowling full tosses out of the sun (a full account can be found in the Kent County Cricket Club Annual 1992).
Although virtually the entire cricketing community supported Blythe, the incident affected him and he missed the second match of the Week against Lancashire, his friend ‘Pip’ Fielder’s benefit.
Although arguably still the best spinner in the country, Blythe was not chosen for any of the six home Test matches staged in the four years remaining before the outbreak of war or for the MCC tours to Australia in 1911/1912 or South Africa in 1913/1914.
In the early years of the 20th century mental health, nervous disorders and related matters tended to be swept under the carpet and rarely talked about outside an enlightened minority which makes it difficult to avoid the suspicion that his health may have had a bearing on selectorial decisions.
Oddly enough, it seems to have been generally overlooked that, other than Lord’s in 1909, Blythe never actually turned down an invitation to play in a Test match.
Apart from a remark to his violin teacher, Leonard Furnival, and a statement by the South African all-rounder Gordon White that “Charlie Blythe hated Test matches “ there seems to be no actual evidence that the man himself ever expressed a view one way or the other.
In the Wisden obituary Sydney Pardon referred to a “tendency to epileptic fits” and the consensus now seems to be that some form of epilepsy was the problem.
Not everyone agrees, notably his biographer John Blythe Smart, a member of the extended family, and it has to be said that, as far as can be discovered, no suitably qualified medical authority ever used the word.
Some authors since have preferred “nervous disposition” “highly strung” “temperamental” etc. Simon Sweetman in his Dimming of the Day, (ACS Publications), also published in 2014, described Blythe as effective at Test level “when he could bring himself to play. Patrick Morrah, in his Golden Age of Cricket published in 1967, went rather further.
To him Blythe was “sensitive, shrinking, neurotic” Odd words to use for a man promoted Sergeant after little more than a year in the Army. Somewhat different but equally puzzling, Christopher Sandiford in his book published in 2014 (see above) without naming his sources, asserts that Blythe “would sometimes work himself into a state approaching hatred of the batsman.” Fielders if they watched closely enough, could hear him muttering to himself and see him clenching his jaw.
None of this seems to bear any relation to what was written of Blythe during his career and immediately following his death by those who played with and against him. Dick Lilley, who played against him on numerous occasions and toured Australia with him, in his Twenty Four Years of Cricket (Mills & Boon, 1912) writes “He is also one of the most pleasant fellows it is possible to meet.
He never seems to mind if a batsman hits him for a few fours but on the contrary does not always discourage him from attempting this.as he knows it often gives him a better opportunity of getting his wicket. I have never, under any circumstances seen him lose his temper; he is always too keen on getting as much pleasure out of the game as possible”.
When Hampshire’s South African all-rounder CB Llewellyn hit him for five sixes, Blythe was reported as saying “Charles. I would give all my bowling to be able to bat like that” and a similar story is told of his reaction to suffering at the hands of the supreme stylist, Reggie Spooner.
Another who batted against him, Harry Altham, wrote in his A History of Cricket, “Here was bowling raised from a physical activity on to a higher plane. The very look on his face, the long sensitive fingers, the long last stride – all these spoke of a highly sensitive and nervous instrument, beautifully co-ordinated, directed by a subtle mind”.
From his Kent colleagues, ”even tempered”, “genial,” easy-going” “sterling character”, “heart & head of a lion”, “calm, reflective and unflinching” were just some of the terms used.
Nor do Charlie Blythe’s off-the-field interests fit the ‘shrinking violet’ image. As well as a love of boxing – “he would pay five guineas to see a good fight” he was no stranger to the racetrack, played football and, after he moved there, turned out on occasions for Tonbridge Town. On his first tour of Australia he formed a formidable half-back line with John Tyldesley and Willie Quaife when England beat Freemantle 4-0. He also skated; his last holiday was for winter sports at Chamonix in early 1914.
In the days before radio and television, the ability to play a musical instrument was not an uncommon skill but, as a violinist, Charlie Blythe was clearly well above front parlour standard.
In his latter years from October to March he practiced every day for two hours and owned two violins, one made in Italy for which he paid £80. One of his bows was by the celebrated bow maker Alfred Tubbs who presented it to him in recognition of his bowling at Leeds in 1907.
In March 1907 at Greenwich Registry Office, Colin Blythe married Janet Gertrude Brown from Tunbridge Wells, almost ten years his junior. Up to that time he had lived with his family in New Cross and, when not touring, worked in the winter at the Arsenal or at the Maxim Gun Company in Crayford.
On his marriage he moved to Tonbridge, eventually settling in Goldsmid Road in an eight room detached house for which he paid £800 with the aid of a mortgage and help from his father.
While living with the family, he had played with the orchestra at the long defunct New Cross Empire but after moving he was able to indulge his love of classical music as a first violin in the Tonbridge Symphony Orchestra, conductor the former Kent batsman Dr Haldane Stewart.
After one performance of the final movement of Mozart’s Sixth Symphony, Stewart named Blythe as “the nimblest player in the orchestra”. Blythe’s services were much in demand by other local musical societies, notably the Rochester Orchestral Society with whom he worked closely.
Blythe played his last first-class match, against Middlesex at Lord’s, on August 27-28 1914, taking 5 for 116 & 0 for 67 as Kent lost in two days. Following the outbreak of war, married men were in the early days under no great pressure to enlist and, with his health issues and his experience in the armament industry, he could easily have avoided military service.
Nevertheless, Blythe, alongside Henry Preston, David and Tom Jennings and Frank Woolley’s brother Claud, had enlisted in a Territorial Army unit” the Kent Fortress Engineers, and he missed Kent’s final game of the season at Bournemouth. He joined Number One Reserve Company in Tonbridge.
In October Blythe and his fellow recruits were posted to the Woodlands depot in Gillingham. According to the Tunbridge Wells Advertiser, who sent a reporter to see them off, Blythe was the life and soul of the party”.
Promoted to Corporal at the end of 1914 and Sergeant in the following year, he remained at Gillingham for two years with 2/7 Reserve Company working on coastal defence and construction tasks.
While at Gillingham, Blythe was involved with Woolley and Bill Fairservice in the formation of the KFE cricket team which, with seldom fewer than four county cricketers, proved too strong for much local opposition.
In their first game, when a RE side was beaten by an innings he took 3 for 33 & 4 for 3, followed by 7 for 36 against a South African Eleven at Gravesend and match figures of 14 for 85 v Chatham Garrison.
Following the introduction of conscription in 1916, all Territorials were obliged to sign Imperial Service Forms and became liable for service overseas.
Early in 1917 Blythe and Woolley were among a party posted to Marlow for further training prior to posting. While there Blythe, Woolley, Jennings and others played for Royal Engineers (East Anglia). Unsurprisingly, Blythe was too much for the opposition – 9 for 33 v RNAS (Transport), 7 for 26 v RE (Regent’s Park), 7 for 13 v Royal Naval Division.
He played his last match at Lord’s for Navy & Army v Australian & South African Forces for Lady Lansdowne’s Officers’ Families Fund. Not fully fit, his figures were 14-2-54-1, his last wicket, Charles McCartney.
In September, a party of Kent Fortress Engineers from Marlow, including Sergeant Blythe and Corporal Woolley, were among 277 soldiers who sailed to France as reinforcements for the 12th (Pioneer) Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (31 Division).
In John Blythe Smart’s biography it is suggested that, following his younger brother Sidney’s death on the Somme in September 1916, Colin Blythe had asked for a transfer to an active unit but as some 30 others from the KFE were posted at the same time, this seems unlikely.
However, the local Marlow paper carried a story that he had offered to take a step down in rank to ensure he was not left behind which might indicate he was not an original choice.
Arriving in early October, the new draft was posted to Watou for a course in light railway construction and maintenance, an activity in which the 12th Battalion specialised.
On rejoining the Battalion, B Company began work on the Wieltje (Forest Hall) and Bedlington lines near Passchendaele. On the night of November 8 a shell from a long-range gun burst above a working party killing three, wounding six with one missing. Sergeant Blythe was killed instantly by shell splinters, Corporal Woolley was among the wounded. Blythe left an estate valued for probate at £2,828.13s 8d.
Colin Blythe is buried in Oxford Road cemetery in Ypres and is commemorated on the memorial at The Spitfire Ground, St Lawrence in Canterbury as well as on a plaque in Tonbridge Church.
The memorial is the site of a simple wreath-laying ceremony, traditionally held during Canterbury Cricket Week and the Club intends to mark the anniversary of his death in a similar fashion in future years.
First Class Career (1899-1914)
439 matches, 2503 wickets at an average of 16.81 and strike rate of 41.36, 218 five-wicket hauls, 71 ten-wicket matches
Test Career (1901-10)
19 matches, 100 wickets at an average of 18.63 and strike rate of 45.46,
9 five-wicket hauls, 4 ten-wicket matches.