Saturday, October 20, 2012

The beginnings of organised chess: Brasen Nose Chess Club 1810-11, part 6 of 6.

We have now reached the final part of our exploration of the short-lived Brasen Nose Chess Club in Oxford and the time has come to reflect and ask what, if any, conclusions we can draw about the first flowering of chess clubs in Britain.

The founding of Brasen Nose Chess Club in late 1809 or early 1810 predated the next earliest known provincial club, Hereford, by nearly three years. In one of his Kibbitzer articles for, Tim Harding has given us this highly informative account of early chess clubs, from which we learn that Ipswich had a club by October 1813 and a Manchester club was formed in September 1817. There may also have been a club in Liverpool around 1813/14 when the Liverpool Mercury carried a chess column.

Hereford and Brasen Nose were not the sort of chess clubs we would recognise today. There were no chess leagues, no inter-club matches (as far as we know), and certainly no ECF ratings (or indeed an ECF) in those distant days. And chess today is an inclusive game that attracts players from all backgrounds; not so in the early years of the 19th century, when it was still a pursuit for the privileged few.

We now have detailed knowledge of the membership of both the Brasen Nose and Hereford clubs, and it is clear that both were gentlemen’s clubs with a social as well as a chess purpose. These were clubs for young men from affluent backgrounds in their early to mid 20s who probably already knew each other (several of the Brasenose men had attended Manchester Grammar School before they went up to Oxford); and both were small in scale, with just 7-9 members each.

This was ‘social networking’, Georgian style. The Hereford men were predominantly lawyers who would have continued to socialise and do business with each other as their careers progressed. The Brasenose men probably did likewise – apart from the founder they were all scholars who went on to become churchmen, and we know that one of them, Ambrose Dawson, gave another, John Lingard, a job as a curate in 1832.

Chess was to become a popular pursuit for men-of-the-cloth in the later 19th century, and maybe some of those legions of Victorian chess-playing parsons had belonged to now-forgotten chess clubs in their college days.

Readers of the series of blogs that Martin Smith and I wrote about Thomas Leeming’s paintings of the Hereford chess club will be familiar with this image:

The Hereford chess club, as portrayed by Thomas Leeming in 1815. 
Courtesy of the Hereford Heritage and Museum Service ©

Had Leeming painted the Brasenose chess gents, they would probably not have looked so different – young, well-turned-out, confident men from affluent backgrounds with promising futures ahead of them. Men who were comfortable in each other’s company.

Interestingly, Leeming was in Oxford around the time of the Brasen Nose club when he painted a portrait of a prominent Oxford surgeon, John Grosvenor, which you can see here. Grosvenor would surely have known the club’s founder William Tuckwell, who was also a surgeon, and perhaps the artist, great networker that he was, got to meet the Brasenose men and played a game or two of chess with them.

There is another intriguing, if circumstantial, link between the Brasenose and Hereford chess gents. As we noted in last Saturday’s blog, one of the guests at the anniversary dinner in February 1811 was Henry Matthews, brother of a Brasenose man Arthur Matthews (who may also have attended the dinner). Henry and Arthur were the sons of Colonel John Matthews of Belmont near Hereford, who was a patron of the arts and a prominent figure in Herefordshire public life. Martin and I encountered the Matthews family in our Leeming researches and we even speculated that one version of his picture of the Hereford chess club may have been partly painted by a member of the Matthews household, where there was at least one amateur artist, Henry and Arthur’s sister Elizabeth.

Henry Matthews: the Hereford connection? 
Pencil and watercolour portrait by Joseph Slater.

Henry Matthews would surely have known the Hereford chess gents, and in particular the bookseller John Allen Junior who we think may have been the prime mover behind the Hereford club. Could Allen have heard about the Brasenose chess club from Henry Matthews and been inspired to set up something similar for the chess-playing gents of Hereford?

Brasen Nose and Hereford chess clubs may be the earliest known provincial clubs in Britain but there could have been many others springing up at the time. We know about the Brasen Nose club only because the founder’s son took the trouble to preserve its records, while the only evidence of the existence of the Hereford club is Thomas Leeming’s paintings. Neither club merited any reference in the local newspapers of the time. Moreover, there is no sense from the Brasen Nose minute book that the founders thought they were doing anything unusual or innovative in setting up a chess club.

Could it be that in college rooms, town houses, country estates, hotels and public meeting rooms around the country, small groups of gentlemen were getting together to share their passion for the game? We can only speculate, but it does seem that there was a wave of enthusiasm for the game around this time. The London Chess Club had opened successfully in 1807, and prominent figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte and even the king himself, George III, were helping to popularise the game across Europe.

Nothing better to do than play chess: 
an 1816 lithograph of Napoleon during his exile on the island of Saint Helena.

Rules were being rationalised and standardised, and Europe’s leading players were giving exhibitions and coaching talented amateurs including William Tuckwell, founder of the Brasen Nose club (as we noted in the second blog in this series). And there was a growing appetite for chess books. In one of the versions of Thomas Leeming’s paintings of the Hereford club, a chess manual rests on a stool – perhaps the members of the club passed it around amongst themselves to extend their understanding of the game and improve their play.

The gentlemen of the Brasen Nose and Hereford clubs were in at the beginnings of organised chess and they were pioneers. What an exciting time it must have been.

See the earlier posts in the series here.

Series credits
Thanks to:
Brian Denman, who started all this off by telling me that the Brasen Nose Chess Club minute book might still survive at the Bodleian.
Martin Smith, who read my drafts and kindly undertook the considerable task of entering them into this website.

Main sources:
Martin Smith & Richard Tillett: Every Picture Tells a Story, a series of 21 blogs about Thomas Leeming’s paintings of the chess club at Hereford.
Philip Sergeant: A Century of British Chess.
B Goulding Brown: British Chess Magazine October 1932.
Rev. William Tuckwell: Our Memories: Shadows of Old Oxford, a copy of which is filed at the Bodleian Library with the Brasen Nose Chess Club rules and minute book.
Rev. William Tuckwell: Reminiscences of Oxford (this has been digitised and is available here).
The rules and minutes of the Brasen Nose Chess Club, Bodleian Library ref: MS. Top. Oxon. e. 159.
Tim Harding: Which are the Oldest Chess Clubs? on


ejh said...

Presumably you didn't shell out seventy-five notes for this. but it might be worth asking somebody with deposit-library access (or other ways of reading it for nothing) to see if the club is mentioned.

Of course similar college histories might be sources for information about other early clubs.

richardT said...

I hadn't thought of looking there; I'll check it out next time I'm browsing in Blackwells on Broad Street.

Sarah Beth said...

I'm not from England. I've never even visited the country. So my understanding of all things British is somewhat limited and probably skewed. But I have a peculiar interest in chess clubs the world over. So, I have a question.
That repository of all knowledge, Wikipedia (and therefore hundreds of other places), under the Philidor entry, claims: "In 1771 and 1773 Philidor made brief stays in London to play at the Salopian coffee-house, Charing Cross and at the St James Chess Club."
The only St. James Club I was aware of was of a much later date - Loewenthal was it's president and Morphy played his famous, and only, sighted simul. I know Philidor did frequent Parsloe's Coffeehouse which happened to be located on St. James Place. Would there be some confusion there? I really don't picture Philidor playing in an actual club, but rather someplace where there would be fast money to be made.
The book, "Round about Piccadilly" by HB Weatley in 1870 claims, "At "Parsloe's Coffee-house" "Johnson's Club " was held before it was removed to the "Thatched House." Here were the head-quarters of the celebrated chess club of which the great player, Philidor, was a member." Was there a Johnson's Club in Parsloe's?
To come full circle, Philidor was buried in the St. James Churchyard on Piccadilly (I love writing that word!).