Colin Blythe (30 May 1879 – 8 November 1917), also known as Charlie Blythe, was an English first-class cricketer , active from 1899 to 1914. Born in Deptford, he played for Kent as a slow left arm orthodox (SLA) bowler and a right-handed batsman. He played in nineteen Test matches for England from 1901 to 1910. He was one of the five Cricketers of the Year in the 1904 edition of Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest bowlers in cricket history and is one of only 33 players who has taken 2,000 wickets in a first-class career. He shares (with Tom Goddard and Hedley Verity), the world record for the highest number of first-class wickets (17) taken in a single day’s play.
Blythe was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele while on active service with the British Army during World War I. He enlisted in the armed forces at the outbreak of war despite suffering from epilepsy. A memorial at Kent’s home ground, the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury, is dedicated to Blythe and to other members of the club who died on active service in the war.
Style and technique
Off the field, Blythe played the violin and Harry Altham, writing in Barclay’s World of Cricket, said that his slow left arm action “reflected the sensitive touch and the sense of rhythm of a musician”, the left arm emerging from behind his back “in a long and graceful arc”. Blythe, who had complete mastery of flight and spin, bowled consistently to a full length and made effective use of his fingers at the point of delivery to determine if the ball would be an orthodox break or a late inswinger, either of which was a difficult ball to face on a pitch that helped the bowler. Although he was ostensibly a slow-paced bowler, Blythe sometimes bowled an “arm ball” which was decidedly fast and, in general, he had more pace than would be expected.
In his Golden Ages, A. A. Thomson praised Blythe as Wilfred Rhodes‘ “historic rival as a slow left-hand bowler”. Thomson declared Rhodes and Blythe to have been “the greatest of slow left-hand bowlers” but stated a slight personal preference for Rhodes. He qualified his opinion by admitting that many better judges, including Ranjitsinhji, considered Blythe to be “the more difficult to play (against)”. As well as Ranji, all the leading batsmen greatly respected Blythe and Gilbert Jessop wrote in his book A Cricketer’s Log that his particular btes noires as bowlers were Blythe, Monty Noble and Tom Hayward.
Blythe is depicted as the bowler in Albert Chevallier Tayler‘s oil painting, Kent vs Lancashire at Canterbury, commissioned by Kent at the suggestion of Lord Harris to commemorate the club’s first official County Championship title in 1906. Harris made two conditions: the ground had to be Canterbury; the bowler had to be Colin Blythe. Harris’ choice of Blythe for this honour is echoed in Altham’s history: “But when all is said, it is the figure of ‘Charlie’ Blythe that stands out above his fellows as the greatest factor in the county’s success”.
Altham went on to say that Blythe elevated bowling “from a physical activity onto a higher plane” and summarised him as “practically unplayable” on a “sticky wicket“. Technically, Altham says, Blythe’s strengths were “the quickness of his break and rise (of the ball) from the pitch, combined with his perfect length”.
Blythe met Janet Gertrude Brown, who was from Royal Tunbridge Wells, in 1906. She was called Janet by her own family but Blythe and everyone in his family called her Gertrude so, like him, she had two familiar names. Born in February 1889, she was ten years younger than Blythe. They were married on 11 March 1907 at the registry office in Greenwich. The couple lived in Tonbridge, not far from the Angel Ground. They had no children. Before his marriage, Blythe had continued to live with his family during the off-season. They had moved from Deptford to New Cross and he continued to work through the winter as an engineer at either the Arsenal or at the Maxim Gun Company, which was in Crayford.
Regarded as a sensitive and artistic person, Blythe was a talented violinist. He had played with a London music hall orchestra before his marriage, and afterwards with the Tonbridge Symphony Orchestra and other musical organisations in Kent. His preference was for classical music, especially that of Brahms and Mozart.
Blythe suffered from epilepsy, the onset of which may have been during his teenage years. It was after his marriage in 1907 that there are records of his condition which may have been exacerbated by competing responsibilities at home and on the cricket field. Altham recounts how Blythe was “utterly exhausted” after the Headingley Test in 1907 when he took 15 wickets in the match.
Military service and death
Despite his epilepsy, Blythe still enlisted as a soldier in the British Army when the Great War broke out in August 1914. He had intended to announce his retirement from cricket at the end of the 1914 season, and he confirmed it in September after the season had been brought to a premature close.
Initially, Blythe enlisted in the Kent Fortress Royal Engineers (Fortress Engineers) as a member of the No. 1 Reserve Company. This was in Tonbridge at the end of August. Bill Fairservice, Wally Hardinge and Northamptonshire’s Claud Woolley (brother of Frank) were also in the Fortress Engineers. In 1917, because of heavy losses in the Battle of the Somme, the army began to move men from Royal Engineers (RE) units into combat units. In August, Blythe was posted to an RE camp at Marlow for combat training. The authorities were by this time encouraging charity cricket matches and on Saturday, 18 August, Blythe played for an Army and Navy team at Lord’s against a combined Australian and South African team. It was to be his last-ever match. Accepting that he would not play first-class cricket again, he agreed to become coach of cricket at Eton College after the war ended.
Soon afterwards, Blythe was posted to the 12th Pioneer battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI), which had been raised in Leeds and mostly consisted of Yorkshire miners. He attained the rank of sergeant. Working in the Ypres sector of the Western Front, the battalion was mainly engaged in laying and maintaining light railway lines to allow easy passage of men, equipment and munitions across the area. On 8 November 1917, during the Battle of Passchendaele, Blythe was working on a railway line between Pimmern and Forest Hall near Passendale when he was killed instantly after shrapnel from a shell burst pierced his chest.
He is buried in the Oxford Road Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, near Ypres (Ieper) in Belgium. Like his Kent and England colleague Frank Woolley, Blythe is commemorated in Tonbridge Parish Church and has a road in North Tonbridge named after him. There is a memorial to him at the St Lawrence Ground, now more popularly known as the Spitfire Ground. Inscribed in block letters on the west face of the plinth is the dedication: “To the memory of Colin Blythe of the Kent Eleven who volunteered for active service upon the outbreak of hostilities in the Great War of 1914-18 and was killed at Ypres on the 18th (sic) Nov 1917. Aged 38 he was unsurpassed among the famous bowlers of the period and beloved by his fellow cricketers”. The date is wrong: Blythe was killed on the 8th.
In 2009, when the England cricket team visited the Flanders war graves, they laid a stone cricket ball at Blythe’s grave. England’s then captain Andrew Strauss said: “It was a deeply moving and humbling experience”.