Fred Spofforth lived for much of his youth in Derwent Street, on the southern side. Born in Balmain, he spent part of his childhood in New Zealand before, by 1863, settling in Glebe, a suburb with plenty of open space, including a vacant block next to the Spofforth home. Fred was educated privately at the Reverend John Pendrill’s Eglinton House on Glebe Road (Pendrill and Eglinton streets near the Point indicate the location) and, for a short time, at Sydney Grammar (the Alma Mater of another local boy Edmund Barton, Australia’s first Prime Minister).
Fred’s father was Yorkshire-born Edward Spofforth who landed in Fremantle aboard the Addingham in June 1836. An uncle was Markham Spofforth, a solicitor and election manager for the Tory Party. Although he went into the staid profession of banking, Edward first came to public notice in 1839 as the leader of two search parties tracking survivors of one of George Grey’s expeditions into the interior of Western Australia. (Spofforth brought four men back to Perth.) In New Zealand he married Anna McDonnell, who came from a pioneering family. The couple had four children: Anna Elizabeth, Edward Arthur (died 1883), Frederick Robert and Adelaide. Edward died in 1875 and was buried in Balmain Cemetery. His mother died in 1891 at Molong.
Like his father, Fred became a clerk with the Bank of New South Wales, a career he combined with ever-increasing involvement with cricket. Fred’s first recollection of the game was being taken by his father to watch Stephenson’s All England Eleven playing a New South Wales team of 22 at Sydney’s Domain in 1862. England won this match but lost a later one on the same ground and against the same numbers. The result was popular with the crowd but not really fair to the visitors who had to catch a steamer that afternoon and hit at everything. Fred noted that the English favoured a round-arm delivery while almost all locals bowled underhand. The next season a stronger English team returned to the Domain. While scoring was slow – again there were 22 in the field – Fred was impressed with George Tarrant’s over-arm style. Modifying his own “throwing” action, he started to bowl as fast as he could. Schoolboy opponents became afraid of his deliveries; in the summer of 1873 he took nine for ten against Sydney University, including seven clean bowled, the only batsman remaining being Edmund Barton. He played for the Newtown Cricket Club and on the Albert Ground, on Elizabeth Street opposite what is now Redfern Oval.
Cricket in those amateur days was very different from the present. Flannels were unknown, people played in their ordinary clothes and hardly anyone had his own bat. There were no shelter sheds or places to change, and no rollers for the pitch. Grounds hard and uncared for meant wickets suited to fast bowlers. But it was Spofforth’s increasing subtlety with variations in style that earned him his nickname, “The Demon Bowler”. He worked tirelessly on different deliveries while maintaining an unfathomable demeanour: “the balls thunder like cannon-shots, yet he has the guile, when seemingly about to bowl his fastest, to drop in a slow, which is generally fatal to the batsman”. Six feet three inches tall, weighing under twelve stone, with a Mephistophelian expression, he was “all legs, arms and nose” as he struck terror into his opponents. One batsman remembered passing him on the way to the crease: “His look went through me like a red hot poker”. “Always attack the batsman,” was Spofforth’s advice. “Bear in mind that batsmen are sometimes nervous creatures … Go at him for all you are worth. If a batsman confides in you that he does not expect to make runs, encourage this idea; if you can make him believe he is in for a duck, he will probably get it.” He had a special delivery for those quinting into the sun, and a formidable leap. His ability as an all-round athlete was demonstrated in 1881 by his record sprint of 100 yards in 10.2 seconds.
Stimulus to Australian cricket came with W G Grace’s visit in 1873-4. Spofforth, who was in Tasmania, went to Melbourne for the opening match. He noted that Grace (who evoked memories of his old schoolmaster who joined in the game and taught by example) treated the Australian bowlers with respect. In January 1874 Spofforth played against Grace’s team for New South Wales, taking three wickets for 14 runs. In December that year he took four for 22 and five for 50 against Victoria, giving his State its first victory in seven years. In the days before Federation intercolonial hostilities ran high in politics, society and sport. Caught in a storm en route to England, New South Wales batsman and expert swimmer Charles Bannerman said he would save his brother and Spofforth, but wouldn’t risk his life for the Victorians. A riot occurred during the 1878-9 English visit to Sydney when Victorian umpire George Coulthard gave an unpopular run-out decision, the crowd declaring they wanted an English replacement. “We won’t have a Victorian!” Spofforth withdrew from the 1876-7 test against England because the Victorian keeper was preferred to that of his own colony.
It was the 1878 tour of England which established Spofforth’s reputation. The players left Australia with little send- off and the Victorian and New South Welsh players avoided each other on the trip over. Freezing in their light silk shirts and constantly chasing their felt hats which blew off in cold, blustery weather, the Australians lost their first match at Trent Bridge (“much smaller and greener” than the grounds Spofforth was used to in Australia). But the Marylebone side was demolished at Lord’s where Spofforth took 10 for 20 and bowled Grace for a duck. In contrast to their departure the returning team was met by a flotilla of boats in Sydney Harbour and driven in a four-horse coach, through streets decorated with flags and flowers, to the Town Hall. In Melbourne and Adelaide too they were feted as heroes of the hour. In 1879 Spofforth took the first hat -trick in a Test match. In the original “Ashes” game he took 14 for 90, enabling Australia to win by seven runs. He shrugged off setbacks and never gave up on a match: “Recollect it only takes one ball to get a man out”.
Overall, Spofforth played 18 Test matches. He toured England five times and in 1886 married Phillis Cadman, the daughter of a rich tea merchant. The couple lived for a time in Melbourne where Fred managed the Moonee Ponds branch of the National Bank of Australasia but settled permanently in England in 1888. While managing the Star Tea Company, he continued to play for Derbyshire and Hampstead, but after 1903 devoted most time to business and horticultural interests. On his last trip to Australia in 1924-5 he saw the visiting side defeated 4 -1.
A wealthy man, he died in Surrey, survived by his widow, two sons and two daughters. Edward Spofforth had risen from “clerk” to “gentleman” by the time of his death. As early as 1878 Vanity Fair had said of his son: “like all the better kind of Australians, he is not distinguishable from an English gentleman.” Fred’s ties to the gentry were reinforced by the marriage of his sister Anna into the Lyttleton family. Lord Lyttleton, a cricketing enthusiast, had 14 children and at one stage fielded a full Eleven of little Lyttletons.