Saturday, October 11, 2014

County Counting: 1. Preface

Our various series on the chess history of our locality - here in this corner of south-west London - are getting more and more confused. First we had Streatham Strolls which, after noting the imprint of chess history on SW16, went off piste and south to Rodmel, in Sussex, then east to Brockley in the London Borough of Lewisham. It will go west as well: some time soon. For one episode anyway. Then Brixton Byways wended its tortuous way through SW9 and SW2 before entwining itself with the origins of Streatham Chess Club: south once again to SW16. And there is yet more to come here - in the not too distant future. If we don't get lost.

Now, we will add a third strand to this spaghetti conjunction, with considerable thanks to Martin Cath, long time officer of the Surrey County Chess Association (currently its Curator of Trophies), who has kindly given me access to a pair of remarkable (and in one case, ancient) volumes: the County Match Books - which go back to the very first Surrey county match in 1884. These are so fascinating that I have interrupted normal service to research and post about these wonderful documents.  

Encounters with remarkable books.
(With thanks to the SCCA)
This first episode, in an occasional series, is a kind of preface before we delve deep into their combined eighty-seven years of history.

As you can just see in the photo above, the first volume (and this is the one that we will concentrate on in this episode) has "MATCH BOOK" and "S.C.C.A." still just visible in gold capitals on the spine, whose once-proud faux-leather skin has been scarified to leave, for the most part, only the livid orange under-layer.

This volume records matches from the "First season" (as someone has written, in pencil, on the first page of real business; it looks like it was done at the time) in 1884, through to 1950. Whoever it was who wrote up the last record (Surrey v Middlesex, 18th February 1950 at St. Brides) - presumably the match captain - may not have been born when the first entry was made (Surrey v Sussex, 19th January 1884 in Croydon).

Talking of spines, it sends a shiver up mine just looking it: something that old, that had seen active service for nearly 70 years. All that history. Imagine what it must have been like for the match captain of 18/2/1950 adding his entry to those accumulated over the previous six and a bit decades, all the way from the high days of Victorian Britain. Had it been me, I'd have been terrified of dousing the precious pages with my morning coffee.

The outer covers bear the marks of the better part of a century of wear and tear: buffeted in over-crowded London omnibuses (once horse-drawn); salted away for safe-keeping in two world wars; prodded and poked to settle arcane disputes over past battles; now pored over (but not with coffee) by - speaking of myself again - a stumbling chess historian manqué: not surprising that it looks as time-worn as a team captain.

"Is anyone sitting on the Match Book?"
or Omnibus Life in London by William Maw Egley
Tate Gallery
(Actually painted earlier, in 1859, but you get the picture.) 
Open the covers and you get an inkling of the erstwhile grandeur it must have displayed when the first entry was painstakingly inscribed for that groundbreaking match in January 1884. Unlike the covers, the end papers were, likely as not, seldom directly exposed to the rough and tumble, and so have remained nearly pristine for 130 years, waiting, waiting, to open like a peacock's tail to dazzle with their magnificence.

This also reveals that the Match Book was originally produced by Eden Fisher & Company, Bankers' Stationers, Account Book Manufacturers, Engravers & Printers of 6, 7 & 8 Clement's Lane, Lombard Street; 96-97, Fenchurch Street London EC. But this example of their craft serves a far nobler cause than to register the grubby comings and goings of filthy lucre. It records, of course, who played for the County, and who played against.

Who were the instigators of this county counting? Perhaps the first matches will give us a clue, for there is precious little indication in the flyleaf of who started the ball rolling into the future. But before we get down to names, note a few telling details. As we have already seen, the spine was "customized" - as we might say these days - with "MATCH BOOK" and "S.C.C.A."; but there is more evidence of its "bespoke" - as they would have said then - character on view: the pages are "formatted" - pre-printed - with "MATCH PLAYED" and (in a couple of places) "SURREY"; in addition the tabulation is picked out in red, with the team numeration pre-printed as well.

So it had all been done specially to order. This volume is a one-off. We can safely say that it is "unique". The SCCA officials went to great lengths, and exercised considerable forethought, to make a Match Book of a quality commensurate with its role as the official and dignified match record for their new Association. And they wanted it to last. Just as a bank ledger, they expected that their volume would be the definitive document, to be used, consulted, and referred to over the...over the decades, into the foreseeable future, and maybe beyond; thus they commissioned this volume of maybe four hundred pages (it isn't paginated, but that's my guess). They must have expected that their Chess Association would march on - maybe not for a thousand years, but perhaps a hundred - and on into the history books. You might even say into their own history book, for that is what the Match Book has become.

We can also enjoy the well-formed script, penned for posterity. It is a feature of the book that the results are entered by hand, although now and then they are confirmed by a press-cutting pasted in. There are also some miscellaneous items loose inside the back cover (you can see them peeping out in the first photo at the top of the post). We will pick over these in later posts.  

Now a name: to be found in the early match lists, but also prominently, and hastily, scribbled across the corner of a flyleaf - with a note that emphasises the importance to these pioneers of preserving their own history.

Preserving their history (and their biscuit crumbs - in the gutter between the pages, visible over on the right - along with other detritus awaiting formal identification): the Match Book, it says, is "To be returned to the Treasurer at the General Meeting in Each Year". This is over the signature of - for my money - H. A. Jacobs, i.e Harold Aflalo Jacobs, who was, as we saw in Brixton Byways 6: Men of Might, elected to the post of County Association Treasurer in 1894. His stern warning was issued in March 1897, thirteen years down the track when the Association was on "the slide", in the words of the ever-dependable Captain Beaumont, long serving S.C.C.A. President. After a decent stint the good Captain had stepped down from the role, but now stepped back up to steady the ship (though actually he was Army) and refresh the officer team. With his standing order Harold reminded the new blood that they held a bit of history in their hands and that the County Association would not thank them if they forgot it. Captain Beaumont did his job well, and the S.C.C.A righted itself.

As we are now getting down to names: you can see Harold Jacobs (again, and now explicitly) on Board 21 against Mr. Ridpath on the 3rd May 1894. His brother Herbert Levi Jacobs (the stronger of the two) was on Board 4 May against Mr Leulliette. This I think gives a clue to which of the two Jacobs may have been the "H." in action earlier in January on the left-hand page: it was maybe Herbert again, against the same Mr L, although that time at number 15.

And why such a low number as 15 in January compared with board 4 in May? Because in January the Match Book recorded their team list in alphabetical order. This strikes us now as extremely odd, but it suggests that at the very beginning they reckoned on keeping, match by match, a simple and democratic register of players: thus all players should be treated equally in the Match Book, without fear or favour - save for their initials. But in May, as if with second thoughts, it became a record according to the chess strength of the players - wherein some were more equal than others and took precedence accordingly. Note also each board played two games, in both matches - though this practice died out in 1887.

We can also spot the first President of S.C.C.A. - J. Steele - listed at numbers 18 (in January) and 11 (in May). And there is also its first Honorary Secretary, and that chess mover and shaker extraordinaire, Leonard Percy Rees (S.C.C.A., Redhill C.C., Croydon League, S.C.C.U., B.C.F., to name but a few of his projects): he gets a game in May on board 18, whereas in January the footnote records that his "opponent failed to turn up" but, - as the note goes on to explain - because another game (Herbert v Wade) had "only just begun, it was agreed that the two games should not be counted". Which I find a little baffling, even if rather sporting. I wonder whether it is Mr Rees's impeccable hand-writing that annotates his own very decent gesture, securing for himself a modest footnote in the bigger history that he is making.

Finally, to round off this initial County Counting, let's note a number of Brixton players whose names are familiar from Brixton Byways. There's Wyke Bayliss, Surrey Champion in 1886 at number 1 in January, claiming alphabetic priority over Mr Beardsell, who then takes the Board 1 slot in May. We met Messrs Carr and Nursey (6 and 16 in January, 17 and 19 in May) early on in Brixton  Byways when we saw a game played by each of them (here); and there's J.Wilson listed at 21 in January, and sadly defaulting in the footnote to May. He was in the early Brixton/Endeavour teams in the 1870s, and was active (or so I think) in trying to establish a chess club in Streatham in the late 1880s. We gave a game of his in Streatham News! in which he beat Wyke Bayliss in October 1884, the same year as the two matches under inspection here.

...and all that from just the first few pages of Volume One.                    
The second volume, the blue one, picks up from where the first finishes, and covers 1950 to 1967. Physically it isn't half as interesting as the orange one - it's just an off-the-shelf job; it is the contents that are as absorbing. Incidentally, and this applies to both volumes, what they tell us about the opposition - the other counties and who played for them - is fascinating as well, and a happy hunting ground blog-wise. But, apart from noting its colour we haven't gone anywhere near Volume Two yet. We'll come back to it, of course, and to Volume One again; wrapped up though we may be in our other history strands.

Thanks again to Martin Cath, and through him the SCCA, for access to this material.

[Links to subsequent episodes of County Counting 2. More Isidor; 3. Striking Matches; 4. Well, Well, Well;  5. In the Jellie Mould; 6. Local Derbys. 7.  Local Derbys - They Also Ran.]

History Index
Streatham Strolls
Brixton Byways
SCCA today


John Townsend said...

Thank you for bringing attention to these records, which are obviously an important source for local chess history. Martin's future episodes should be something to look forward to.

Does the Surrey C.C.A. have the facilities to conserve these volumes for future generations? If not, then has it considered using the local authority's archive services? If deposited at the Surrey History Centre, e.g. on permanent loan, the preservation of the records for future chess players and other users should be assured.

Martin Smith said...

Thanks for your comment, John. I quite agree with you about conservation and access for the future.
I'll see what we can do.