Sport Remembers Fred Kelly, rowing genius

The amazing Fred Kelly - Rowing genius, composer, leader

Fred Kelly was unusual – musical prodigy, eccentric, obsessive, highly strung, friend of poet Rupert Brooke. A fabulously wealthy disciplinarian who moved in high social circles, he won a rowing gold at the 1908 Olympics, quit sport for music and was killed at the Somme.

Lieutenant Commander Fred 'Cleg' Kelly had just the thing to divert his men’s minds from the horrors of battle. He assembled his regimental band in a wood a little way behind the lines and, wearing dress uniform, white gloves and a thick black beard, conducted a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

The climax to the piece, composed to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon a century earlier, features a battery of cannons. Kelly’s rendition was accompanied by the 18­ pounders of the British artillery, hammering German lines, commemorating nothing but the stalemate of the Somme.

Playing Mozart and Beethoven aged five

Frederick Septimus Kelly was an extraordinary man, multi-­talented, cuttingly honest and full of contradictions.

He was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1881, the son of an Irish immigrant who made his fortune in mining and wool dealing, and by the age of five had reputedly memorised Mozart and Beethoven piano sonatas and composed his own music.

Kelly wanted to study music but his parents persuaded him to go to school. In 1893, at the age of 12, he travelled across the world to Eton and began his prodigious rowing career, winning races at Henley Regatta. On a musical scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford, Kelly plunged himself into a whirl of society, sport and music, which probably accounted for his fourth ­class degree in history.

"His boat was a living thing under him."

Kelly was a stunning oarsman who seemed to derive some of his talent from his musical ability. “His natural sense of poise and rhythm made his boat a live thing under him,” the Eton Register said. “Many think [he is] the greatest amateur stylist of all time.”

He took up single sculling, winning three Diamond Challenge races at Henley in 1902, 1903 and 1905, that year’s time standing as a record for 30 years. In 1903 he won the Wingfield Sculls, a gruelling four-and-a-half-mile race on the Thames first held in 1830, and rowed No 4 in the Boat Race as Oxford lost to Cambridge by 6 lengths.

Frederick Kelly rowing

After Oxford, Kelly joined the Leander Club and was a member of the crews who won the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley for three straight years between 1903 and 1905 and the Stewards’ Challenge Cup in 1906.

The Manchester Guardian wrote in detailed praise: “His swinging and sliding were perfect in unison and symmetry... the grace with which his hands left the body at the finish of the stroke, was like the downward beat of a swallow’s wing.

“The whole thing was so astonishingly easy that at first sight it was impossible to believe in the pace of the boat. His bodily appearance and his impassive ways also deceived you as to the bodily strength. He seemed so pale and delicate, and his movements were so quiet and facile, that it was only when you had seen his leg drive that you appreciated the weight and wiry strength and boniness of the man.”

War dances and animal impressions

The GB rowers swept the board in the 1908 Olympics at Henley, winning gold in all four events. Kelly, who a year earlier had written in his diary of his desire “to be a great player and a great composer” then abruptly abandoned competitive rowing.

He went to Frankfurt to study, played in Sydney and in 1912 returned to London to give and organise concerts, accompanying legendary cellist Pablo Casals, arranging a performance by Bolero composer Maurice Ravel and national premières of works by fashionable impressionists such as Debussy.

Kelly’s piano career had its ups and downs; alongside several acclaimed performances was one he had to stop when his memory failed.

Kelly, a teetotaller, lived with his sister Maisie, holding social gatherings at Bisham Grange, a lavish manor house on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire. He was given his nickname “Cleg” after a popular novel of the time, Cleg Kelly: Arab of the City, and sometimes showed his creative personality in unusual ways.

One biographer told how that while happy he sometimes “rolled on the ground or indulged in war-dances and animal impressions”. He had “an apparent bluntness of manner and a disregard for some of the conventions of polite society,” said Sir Edgar Speyer, chairman of the Classical Concert Society. But this came from his “transparent honesty,” added Speyer “...and contempt for anything like pretentiousness or insincerity”.

“No more fitting resting place for a poet... as though the gods had snatched him away to enrich this scented island.” Kelly after burying Rupert Brooke

On hearing that war was declared Kelly immediately walked to 10 Downing Street to discuss enlisting with his friend Arthur Asquith, son of the Liberal Prime Minister. He was commissioned into the Royal Naval Division, an infantry unit of reservists and volunteers not needed at sea.

The division attracted an extraordinary collection of prominent men who became known as the Latin Club. They included Rupert Brooke, one of the most celebrated of war poets, Asquith, son of PM Herbert and later a brigadier-general, Patrick H. Shaw-Stewart, war poet and at 25, a director of Barings Bank and Bernard Freyberg, who won a Victoria Cross on the Somme and became the youngest general in the war at 28 and later Governor-General of New Zealand.

After seeing action in the calamitous retreat from Antwerp in 1914, the men of Hood Battalion sailed on a steamer for the Dardanelles and Winston Churchill’s disastrous attempt to defeat the Turks at Gallipoli. On April 23, 1915, Rupert Brooke was bitten on the lip by an insect and died on a French hospital ship from blood poisoning.

The grieving men of the Latin Club carried his coffin into an olive grove on the nearby Greek isle of Skyros and buried him at midnight with full military honours. Kelly wrote in his diary: “No more fitting resting place for a poet could be found... and it seems as though the gods had jealously snatched him away to enrich this scented island.”

He brushed his teeth 12 times a day and kept cats in a sandbag

A week later, he landed at Cape Helles, Gallipoli, where he was wounded twice and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Recuperating in his tent, he wrote his most famous work in tribute to his friend, Elegy for String Orchestra: In Memoriam Rupert Brooke.

In 1916 Kelly was on the Somme as commander of B Company in the renamed 63rd (Royal Naval) Division. Some complained he was too strict but he won respect for his “unfailing fearlessness and scrupulous justice”. According to Asquith, he was “brave as a lion”.

Kelly showed further eccentric behaviour; brushing his teeth 12 times a day, wearing white gloves and developing an attachment to stray cats, which he carried about in sandbags. Occasionally, songs by Wagner would ring out across no man’s land; Kelly’s attempt to try and persuade German soldiers to surrender.

Sonata lost for 80 years

He continued to compose as the conflict raged. He wrote to Hungarian violinist Jelly D’Aranyi, promising her a sonata: “It is all there in my head but not yet on paper. You must not expect shell and rifle fire in it! It is rather a contrast to all that, being somewhat idyllic.”

Kelly was killed aged 35 leading a rush on a German machine gun post at Beaucourt-sur-Ancre on November 13, 1916, in the same action that saw the deaths of England rugby player Alfred Maynard, and MCC cricketer Cyril Rattigan. An unfinished piano sonata was found in his dugout.

Kelly is buried in the British Cemetery in Martinsart. The violin sonata he had promised vanished for 80 years before it was found with a relative of D’Aranyi’s in Florence.

At a memorial concert at Wigmore Hall, London, in May 1919, his Rupert Brooke piece was played along with several of his songs and piano compositions. The haunting, beautiful strings and harp of the elegy for his brilliant friend soared high above the rest.

Remembering the Somme

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.

Make your own commemoration to the Lieutenant Commander Frederick Kelly or one of the other casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.

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