- Born 11 September 1815, Marylebone, London
- Died 12 March 1895, Mayfair, London
- Educated Harrow School, Cambridge University
- Occupation Barrister and Politician
- Debut 10 September 1855 v Gentlemen of England at Phoenix Park
- Cap Number 8
- Style Right-hand bat
- Teams Cambridge University, MCC, Gentlemen Cambridge Town, I Zingari, Phoenix, Vice Regal, Na Shuler
Fred Ponsonby came from a long established Anglo Irish land owning, military and political family. Six foot and hatchet faced, he was a tremendously enthusiastic cricketer, a free scoring batsman, strong on the leg side who once, playing for MCC v Cambridge in 1842 scored an all run 9 on the vast field of Parker's Piece. He was also a good field at long stop or mid wicket. In all first class matches he scored 1129 runs at 10.96. Though he once played for a team of fast bowlers, his bowling style remains a mystery. He took one wicket in first class matches.
He first appeared at Lord's for Harrow v Eton, in 1832 but made a pair. He was only marginally more successful in his one appearance in the University match, scoring 11 and 0 in 1836. His first class career was, to all intents and purposes cut short in 1845 by the requirements of his legal work and by a severe injury. He slipped when running between wickets and twisted his left arm so badly that he never regained full use of it. Instead he devoted himself to the administration and development of cricket. Modern eyes might look unfavourably on some of his work, seeing it as maintaining and promoting social division but what he did was of considerable importance to cricket history and thus has to be considered in some depth.
His real interest was Harrow cricket. For 50 years, or more, he and his life long friend Hon Robert Grimston, an autocrat who later banned mowers from Lord's on the grounds that sheep were preferable, spent much time at the School. coaching and encouraging the young. Harrow was a dominant force for many years for this reason. In 1841, Ponsonby was responsible for saving the Gentlemen v Players fixture. The Gentlemen had become almost a laughing stock, being heavily outclassed time after time. MCC declined to take further responsibility for the match. Fred organised a subscription to keep it going. Whatever may now be thought of such a contest now, it did provide some of the best cricket seen in England over the next 120 years. He was also a good actor. In 1842 he founded the Old Stagers, now the World's oldest amateur theatre company. Their performances were linked to the start of the famous Canterbury Cricket Week.
1845 saw Fred's two most long lasting and important bequests to cricket. In July 1845, together with his brother SCB Ponsonby (later Sir Spencer Ponsonby - Fane) and JL Baldwin, he founded I Zingari, the famous amateur wandering side. From the point of view of cricket in general, its importance was Fred's refusal to allow it to engage professionals. Thus amateurs had to learn bowling skills, something in which many of them had been deficient. Also in 1845, Fred was the leading light in the foundation of Surrey County Cricket Club, coming specially from Ireland to chair the meeting that established it. He had previously played one match for a side styled Surrey, but this was the first permanent organisation. When finances threatened its survival a few years later, it was Fred's proposal and willingness to put his hand in his pocket that kept the County afloat. He became its permanent Vice President.
His main involvement with Irish cricket was between 1851 and 1863. He took part in several of the I Zingari tours, playing in the first match v Phoenix in which his scores of 21 and 1 helped I Zingari gain a 136 run victory. That 21 was to be his highest recorded score in such contests, he also appeared for MCC v Phoenix and for Vice Regal XX11 v MCC between 1851 and 1862. He was also involved in Ireland's first three matches, all of which were v Gentlemen of England. In the first encounter, playing for Ireland, at Phoenix CC, he batted at 9 and made 3* and 2. A year later the sides met again. Possibly because he should have been in court across the Irish Sea, Fred appeared as R Roe. The name change did not improve his batting.
He was out both times to the 1855 Oxford Captain Reginald Hankey for 4 and 2. Perhaps seeking an improvement in form, he changed sides the following season for the match staged at the Rotunda Gardens. Alas it did not help. Charles Lawrence and Joseph McCormick routed the visitors in the first innings, Fred making a duck. Time ran out before he could bat again. His last contribution to Irish Cricket came in April 1863, when at a dinner at Coolatin Park, Co Carlow, he was one of those who founded Na Shuler as an Irish version of I Zingari. The name supposedly meant the Wanderers or the Rovers. Perhaps the most charitable description of it is Gerard Siggins', who calls it "joke Irish." Despite the name, the "Shulers" played much good cricket until 1914, two subsequent revivals have not had the same aura. Seven of his relatives also played first class cricket, including his brother Spencer and nephew John who both also played for Ireland.
In 1866, Fred became one of the trustees of MCC, when it finally bought Lord's for £18000; he was, in fact, at the heart of decision making and appointments there for some 40 years. In 1880, however he was asked to play a political role. He had succeeded to the Earldom on the death of his brother, a Liberal minister, in 1880 and was asked by Gladstone, to chair a Commission to review the Irish Land Act of 1870. He himself was known as a model landlord with estates of 37000 acres in Carlow, Kilkenny and Tipperary. The Commission proposed a means for the transfer of land to tenant ownership and was adopted by Gladstone. However it did nothing to solve the fundamental problem of the decline of the Irish rural economy. Fred believed in a readjustment of the relationship between Ireland and England, but he voted against Gladstone's Home Rule Bill.
The Sixth Earl of Bessborough died of bronchitis on 12 March 1895 and was buried on his Kilkenny estate. His Wisden obituary 1896 states, "There was no more honoured figure in the cricket world" His biography appears in S&B volume 2 and a full account of his political career can be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
NB It is generally assumed that the R Roe who played for Ireland v Gentlemen of England in 1856 was Fred. THe late GD Martineau, an assiduous researcher into 18th and early 19th Century cricket, unearthed at least three instances of him having played under this alias. However RJ Roe, who played for Dublin University from 1853 to 1855. was active in Dublin cricket at the time. Both men played for the Vice Regal XVI against the MCC (the same side as the Gentlemen of England) in a match which followed the Irish one. This matter is further discussed in Roe's biography which has now been added to this site. I am grateful to Philip Bailey of Cricket Archive for bringing the Vice Regal match to my attention.
Edward Liddle, updated February 2011