Saturday, April 12, 2014

Brixton Byways: 1. Earnest Endeavours

Eighteen months or so ago we strolled around Streatham, Brixton and thereabouts plotting its chess history. Now we return to the task in this post and ensuing series, but this time with a specific focus: the history of the Brixton half of Streatham and Brixton Chess Club. And to be more specific still: its history during its first few decades, from its inception to the end of the 19th Century. Yes, the 19th. It's a narrow focus, and it will be an intensive investigation.

Not that we'll completely neglect the origins of the Streatham half. New evidence about this has only recently emerged, and the accepted wisdom down at the Club  - viz. that Streatham CC appeared only after the First World War, and amalgamated with Brixton CC just after the Second - now needs drastic revision. We'll get on to that in a few weeks time, so watch this space.

In this account of the early history of Brixton CC (and the Streatham bit too, when we get to it) we are not trying (as we did in Streatham Strolls) to document the many well-known chess-historical figures who were "blow-ins" passing through the area, or who, while living hereabouts, played their chess in the main elsewhere (probably in one of the big city clubs) and perhaps at a more exalted level (e.g. Isidor Gunsberg, Henry Bird). We will be looking here at local talent, our home grown variety: Brixtonians brought up and chessed, maybe within the purview of the Town Hall (though it wasn't built until 1906) and who loyally supported their local club through the thick and the thin.
Edwardian Brixton - now with Town Hall (from here)

There's not much of this ancient history to go on in the current Streatham and Brixton CC's archives - because there aren't any. Zilch; save for some recently donated copies of Knightmare!Chess players may be conscientious at hoarding their game scores, but are (with some notable exceptions) rather casual when it comes to club records. Nor is there anything to speak of in the local London Borough of Lambeth Archives. Instead we'll have to do our best with what was in the chess and other press at the time, with the assistance here and there of the local historians at the Streatham Society.

Incidentally, and without trying to talk-up this exercise in chess club archeology, this isn't of mere parochial interest. It could be seen, here and there, as a bit of social history illuminating chess as a popular leisure activity in the Victorian metropolis; and there maybe points of comparison with other clubs throughout the land - yours even - and abroad. Thus I hope that this series will readable for non-S&BCCers, and perhaps even non-chessers, and now and then you might come across a hint of a human interest story. Here and there you'll also find a bit of your actual chess (though not, alas, in this episode).


Talking of players who lived locally but plied their trade elsewhere: just before we go any further, a confession, and a correction to Streatham Strolls 1 in relation to H.E. Bird lately of Upper Tooting, who, we claimed, was buried in Wimbledon's Gap Road Cemetery not too far from E.E. "Rb8" Colman. Well, there was a Henry Edward Bird buried there on 5 April 1908, in plot D/B/120, but joining him in there later was an Ann, and a Louis; and he came from Wimbledon; so he wasn't our Henry Bird at all, who still had a few days left: he died on the 11 April 1908. Grave error, for which, apologies; and I do hope no one out there made a pilgrimage to visit the site on a false premise, especially as there no headstone to be seen at the plot for any Henry Bird, chess-player or otherwise. Which is a shame.

Gap at D/B/120, near enough. 
The Bird has flown (or never landed)
After that it is worth issuing the usual health warning about what follows in this series: all mistakes, exaggerations and embellishments are the responsibility of your blogger - but it should be possible to tell fact from conjecture, hard-core from soft-centred.


Perhaps a telling introduction to this reconstruction of S&BCC's lost history is given by the October 1874 edition City of London Chess Magazine, a short-lived production (reporting matters from late 1874 just into 1876) of the already longstanding City of London Chess Club (est.1852) and source of most of the chess data in this episode. "Chess Clubs" it said "are springing up all over the Metropolis, giving evidence of the ever increasing popularity of this ancient pastime." The Endeavour club of Brixton, the earliest ancestor of our present day club, was part of this boom and gets its first mention in the Magazine in a report of its match on the 16 July 1874 with the South London Working Men's Club. Reading between the lines Endeavour is likely to have sprung to life a little earlier, perhaps in 1870 or 71 (the clue to this comes next episode).

The City Club (now at new premises in Knight Rider (!) Street, Doctors Commons E.C.), through its Magazine, took an almost paternal interest in Endeavour's activities a few miles to the south, and lavishly praised its Victorian-style application and industry. Thus in late 1874 and into 1875 the CLC Mag noted with approval Endeavour's record of 28 matches ("a larger number than any other chess association") played in 1874 (won 15, drew 4, lost 9); and when reporting Endeavour's AGM of 23 January 1875, held "at their rooms No.138, Brixton-road, Brixton". It said:
"The Endeavour CC supplies and admirable illustration of what may be achieved by steady hard fighting. It was certainly not a very strong body when it lost a match last year to the 5th class (Rook strength) of the City of London Club. The Brixton players have not had their revenge, nor can they now, for any return match would be an absurdity [because Endeavour has improved so much - MS]. We should expect them also to beat the 4th class (Knight strength ) of the City Club though such a contest might well take place and would be very interesting."
"Rook" and "Knight strength" incidentally comes from an early and crude grading system based on the odds given, or would be given, by the very strongest players (Bird, and the like). The matches referred to above would, I imagine, have been played "evens", but the CLCC teams would have been from among their weaker players at the respective levels of strength. Odds play itself was much in vogue in those times, even with analyses of openings at "pawn and move" for example. All this is explained by Tim Harding (2012) in his chapter on Staunton.

In April 1875 the above-mentioned Endeavour v City Club (Knight Strength) match did indeed take place, and "very interesting" it was too, as the Brixton boys beat the City gents 9 v 6. The CLC Magazine was generous in defeat...though it sounds a portentous note at the end:
"The victors have the more reason to be proud inasmuch as the team brought together against them was exceptionally strong. They in every way deserve their success which they have achieved, and their present strength is an exemplification of what may be attained by persistant “pegging away.”...We wish our Brixton friends still further progress, and trust it will be long before they are attacked by that cancerous apathy which is now eating the roots of energy and zeal in so many of the Chess Institutions of the metropolis."
"Cancerous apathy" by George. But fair do's to the City Club (and its Magazine editor,William Norwood Potter) for engaging with, and encouraging, chess in the emerging suburbs; and there was another approving (and didactic) reference to Endeavour in November 1875 to what the Mag regarded as an...
"...essentially fighting Club, incessantly engaged in playing matches over the board with other metropolitan chess bodies. The advantages of such continued earnest, real practice in improving the play and begetting confidence in the player cannot be over-estimated, a good style and a certain increase of strength, a lessening of the tendencies to blunders, and development of a natural aptitude are the natural results of steady, constant match-playing." 

The address given for the club was 138, Brixton Road. It is a sturdy Georgian end of terrace built in 1824, formerly known as 5a, St.George's Place before the authorites rationalised the out of control numeration along the main road in 1871. If anything it is further from Brixton proper than it is closer to Kennington which then had its own Town Hall and thus perhaps more local significance as compared with today, unless cricket is your bag (or football - apparently they played the first FA cup match at the Oval in 1872). Brixton is actually at the southern end of Brixton Road (there's a map below) developed rapidly following the arrival of the overland railway in 1870 and the opening, in the 1880s, of its famous "Electric Avenue", an illuminated street market - the nation's first it is claimed (especially in Brixton).

Number 138 still stands today, but is clearly now, as it was then, a residential address.

138, Brixton Road,
plus satellite dishes in 2014.
In the 1870s and early 80s it was, according to the censuses, the home of Henry Muggeridge Esq., surveyor, and his family (Mrs M., and a typical burgeoning Victorian brood of two sons and two daughters but, maybe unusually, no servants - perhaps they didn't live-in). However, Henry appears not to have been the club secretary, as we'll see in the next episode, nor even on the club committee (not at the 1875 AGM anyway). But looking at the above photo: quite how the club "had rooms" at this address is a little baffling, unless the kids had flown the nest and they had converted a bedroom or two.

There is, however, a photograph in the Lambeth Archives, dated 1973, which shows the property in a rather dilapidated state...
With kind permission of Lambeth Archives
...but with a feature at ground level that was, so the caption says, the "original coach-house", and maybe that's where "the rooms" might have been for casual games and smaller matches. Bigger affairs would have been scheduled at any one of the favoured premises in central London used by the metropolitan clubs, and perhaps Endeavour also used another venue locally for larger home fixtures.


Art lovers among you - sorry about this everyone else, but we'll see later that art really does occur in the story of Brixton chess - we will want to know that Vincent van Gogh lodged just round the corner in 1874 and 1875, at 87 Hackford Road, where he famously fell for the landlady's daughter. Sadly there is no record of him turning up at the Endeavour, instead he must have been poring over the topical illustrated magazines which evidently provided inspiration for his early social realist efforts.

Left: Tip Girls; F. S.Walker in Illustrated London News 27 Feb 1875
Centre: Plaque today at 87 Hackford Road, Brixton, London SW9
Right: The Potato Eaters (Lithograph); Vincent van Gogh 1885

It seems to have been the norm in those days to play another club on the promise of a return match, sometimes within a week or so - there were as yet no Leagues in operation in Surrey (the Surrey Chess Association was founded later in 1883, about which more in later episodes) or quite yet in London. The Endeavour Club accepted its return match obligations, pushed its luck, and played again against a City (Knight Strength) team in May 1875 - and duly lost; though even here the CLCMag sprang to Endeavour's defence, praising again its "exceptionally strong" team and conceding that Endeavour's defeat was "of the character colloquially called a 'fluke'" - apparently a word not in the lexicon of the Magazine's sheltered readership.

Otherwise, the "militant activity" (another accolade from the CLC Mag in July 75) of Endeavour took them into combat (over 10 or 12 boards) against such as Athenaeum, Bedford (based in Spital Fields E.C.), Bermondsey, Excelsior (Camberwell), Greenwich, Ibis (Prudential Insurance Co.), International (314-316 Euston Road), St. Andrew's (Stockwell), the South London Working Men's Club, and the WMC & Institute Union (150, Strand). So many matches, in fact, that in 1875 (said the Mag) Endeavour exceeded the record 28 of the year before - not a bad tally even by today's standards - with 33 matches in the year. If you are familiar with London geography, you will know that many of these clubs would have been in close proximity, and the others not so far afield. If you are not so familiar, here is a map from 1903 of the Brixton  northwards to central London, from which you can pick out some of the localities mentioned above.

Central and South London in 1903 showing approximate location of 138 Brixton Road.
(Map adapted from here
There was thus a good number of clubs in this sector of London, and the City of London Magazine (in October 1874) recognised, indeed welcomed, that chess was now embraced by the lower orders:  
"Like Suffrage, [chess] has descended vertically, and now find its votaries amongst the toiling many. We see no reason why not. The clever mechanic puts his mind into his fingers, and those who play Chess do nothing more."
And a couple of months later they loosed off a broadside against the dissipation and laxity of the chess fraternity in the upper echelons. Thus, after lauding the "spirited rivalry now going on between the Metropolitan Chess Clubs" which was "...a most encouraging proof of the remarkable development and unexampled progress now being made in the practice and cultivation of the game in London", they felt "called upon to say"...
"...that what is now being done in the cause of Chess, often under unfavourable circumstance, and with small means, brings into glaring contrast the apathy and brain corroding sloth which is now the prevailing characteristic of wealthy and influential circles..."
... and on they thundered...
"...Therefore Chess has deserted those mansions where once is wore plush, has shaken the dust off its shoes, and the powder off its head, at the doors of those whose condescending patronage it formerly submitted to; has come as a welcome guest, not only to the middle, but to the lower classes, and can produce like so much pulp, the inert brains of the wealthy flâneurs, who, pushing wooden dolls about on a wooden board, think they can play chess. This ancient pastime is not intended as a means whereby persons whose misfortune it is that they are able to be indolent, and may waste time that it is useless to themselves or to any one else. They do nothing for Chess, and Chess will have nothing to do with them. Its mission henceforth is to solace and cheer the worker and the thinker."        

Thus was chess hailed by the City Club Mag as an agent for improvement among the ranks: the lower middle class, and "the toiling many" of the working class with their clever mechanics. This is where the popular future of the game resided, and not - as the Mag might have said - with the dissolute and effete dilettantes of the pampered elite. Such was the emerging chess landscape in London and the home counties: chess was becoming classless, even if not mass participation, and this is the terrain we will populate with the men of Endeavour, and (if only too briefly) a young lady, in two weeks time. And not a wealthy flâneur among them.

Acknowledgements etc:
The City of London Chess Magazine. [vol. 1, 2.] Edited by W. N. Potter, etc. [vol. 3, no. 25 by J. Whisker.] Pub 1875 and 1876, London.

A number of clubs have published their histories back into the 19th Century, a local example being Battersea, and there are many others nationally too numerous to mention. There is also an interesting thread on the English Chess Forum about early chess clubs (sparked off - if we may blow our own trumpet - by this post and series), and another on Victorian and Edwardian Chess in the UK. All this is comprehensively summarised by Dr.Tim Harding in his online article Which Are The Oldest Chess Clubs? (2011); mention must also be made of his indispensable Eminent Victorian Chess Players (published by MacFarland in 2012).
Note added 11 July 2014. See also this currently viewable article by Tim Harding on early chess leagues.

Thanks also to the staff at the Lambeth Borough Archives at Minet Library.

Subsequent episodes are: 1. Earnest Endeavours2. Peyers You Go3. Onwards And Upwards; 4. Regular Bricks; 5. Sargent Majors;  6. Men of Might7. Streatham News! 8. Uncommon People :
Or go to them  via the History Index.      

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