For this, the second in a series of six blogs about the earliest known provincial chess club in
A view of the Quad (or Old Quad as it is now called) at
looking towards the gate tower with the Radcliffe Camera in the background.
From R Ackermann’s History of Oxford published in 1814.
The view of the quad is much the same today as it would have been to the members of the Brasen Nose Chess Club, except that the statue of Samson Slaying a Philistine shown in Ackermann’s view has long since gone. Most of the members of the chess club occupied rooms around the quad, and it was in those rooms that the chess club met each Thursday between January 1810 and April 1811.
At that time Brasenose was one of the wealthiest
colleges. According to the history page of the college’s website, it was widely perceived as a place where the sons of gentlemen (there were no women at Brasenose in those days) got a little education and a lot of horse racing and fox hunting. Posh boys, you might be thinking. Oxford
It’s all very different today of course. Err, hang on though... that posh boy prime minister, David Cameron, wasn’t he at Brasenose? Indeed he was, though he preferred tennis to the turf and must have put in some serious studying because he came away with a first class degree. That’s something he shares with the chess players of 1810 – they were serious students too and achieved some of the best academic results of their generation.
A talent for tennis perhaps, but apparently not chess.
David Cameron (standing on the right) represented
at tennis as an undergraduate during the 1980s. Last year he described EU treaty negotiations as ‘like playing chess against 26 different people, rather than just one person’ and added ‘I am not very good at chess anyway’. Brasenose College
The young gentlemen who were members of the Brasen Nose Chess Club had much in common. All were from comfortable backgrounds; most came from the
North West; all were in their mid-20s; and all except one were postgraduates studying at . Brasenose College
The exception was the founder himself, William Tuckwell. He was a young surgeon who had recently moved to
. According to Philip Sergeant in A Century of British Chess, he was a ‘good’ chess player and had taken lessons from ‘the great J H Sarratt, whose fee was a guinea a lesson’. There are some games of Jacob Henry Sarratt (1772-1819) here on the chessgames.com website and they are certainly worth a look, especially if you are brave enough to play the Muzio variation of the King’s Gambit. Oxford
Here’s a lively example, played appropriately in 1810, the year of the Brasen Nose Chess Club. No doubt the club members relished such swashbuckling chess and maybe even played through this game.
William Tuckwell may have been rather better at chess than just ‘good’. If his son’s account is to be believed, he was ‘famed for his excellence’ at the game, as well as being one of the best piquet and whist players in
. An England Oxford hospitals website gives us some biographies of eminent past surgeons and Tuckwell merits a lengthy entry all to himself, from which we learn that he had come to at the age of 23 in 1808 and the following year was elected Surgeon to the Radcliffe Infirmary. Oxford
Tuckwell was, according to his son’s not-altogether-reliable account, the leading
But what was a surgeon, who was not a member of Brasenose, doing setting up a chess club at the college? We don’t know the answer to that, but perhaps he knew some chess players at Brasenose and took it on himself to get a chess club up and running.