Friday, January 16, 2015

County Counting: 6. Local Derbys

Here we are with these chess history posts on Fridays in the new schedule, today continuing a series (previous episodes linked here) devoted to an examination of the Surrey County Chess Association Match Books. They record the details of Surrey's matches against other county opponents and the like, from the very first, played on 19 January 1884, through to 7 October 1967. After that they were superseded by bulletins, files and computer records etc. Time will tell whether these newfangled methods will be a help or a hindrance to chess historians of the future. And time will tell whether we are safe to assume the old method to be as reliable as it appears; about which more below when we look at a series of contests from the 1920s, and reveal an apparent mistake or two in the Match Books that have lain unnoticed for over a century.    

The contests that we are going to examine (at some length) are between a pair of very neighbourly adversaries here in the county of Surrey, so they have the character of a local Derby.

Finish of the 1920 Epsom Derby. From Wiki Commons
Talking of which, Epsom Race Course is Surrey turf, and Epsom Town had its own chess club in the 1930s with around a dozen members. They met in the Co-op on the High Street. Not a bad idea: in 1921 "a keen chess amateur" in Central London had arranged a Co-operative Circle of chess mates which the Wholesale Co-op Depot would supply with "wines, spirits, liqueurs and cigars, in large or small quantities" - all at trade prices. "This should prove a great saving" the British Chess Magazine (BCM) remarked - as it cannily offered free membership of the Circle to its subscribers (current BCM Editors please note). Epsom, however, is not the geographical focus of this episode. That lies a few miles to the east.

Before we get there let's briefly sketch out the unfolding of Surrey's inter-county chess from that first entry in 1884, through to 1926 when the chess Derby days - being the focus of this episode - petered out. Things got off to a slow start with no more than five county matches a year over 16 or 20 boards, usually against Sussex and Kent - and just one or two others. The number of counties fielding opponents crept up with the passing years. In 1906, for example, there were 5 matches against 5 different counties (Gloucs., Hants., Kent, Norfolk and Sussex). The Southern Counties Chess Union in 1892/3 and the English Counties Championship from 1908, provided the framework for a continued expansion so that 10 matches a season was the norm by the 1920s.

In the first decade of the new century 50 board matches appear: the first one against Kent in 1906, and then again in 1907, and - what interests us in this post - the "Rest of Surrey" takes on "Croydon", over 100 boards, in the first such local Derby noted in the Match Book. This was on the 12th January 1907.

In those days the venerable market town of Croydon was the heart of a "County Borough of Croydon" semi-detached from the County of Surrey since the late 19th Century. This confusion was compounded in 1964 when it was reconfigured as "the London Borough of Croydon" and swallowed by the Greater London Council. The county chess community successfully ignored all this and continued as if nothing had happened: Surrey was Surrey, and Croydon was a town-cum-district within it. Streatham, and Brixton, likewise. They are now parts of the London Borough of Lambeth, and had been technically lost to Surrey longer ago than anyone can remember - but for chess they remain in Surrey.      

Locally we talk about "Croydon" meaning Croydon town (the heart of its namesake Borough), suggested by some wags to bear a resemblance, in its skyline, to Dallas.

Croydon and Dallas. Or is it the other way round?
The entry for 12th January 1907 seems to record the first, inaugural, Rest of Surrey v Croydon contest - so it is all the more odd that this auspicious event should be noted in pencil, at the foot of the page of another match, with no further details: no venue, no players, nothing: just the bare final score, 55 - 45 to the Rest. It is as if the Keeper of the Match Book had decided, on behalf of posterity, that it should go down as a mere footnote in chess history.

They continued in the same vein in the following year, and the next, right up to 1920 - having upgrading to ink for 1911 and subsequent years. Here is the entry pertaining to 1910, casually added in a gap at the end of 1909, at the beginning of the "27th season":  

A footnote in chess history: 1910 Jan 8. Surrey 56, Croydon 44.
A Surrey victory...

...but only pencilled in.
Apart from the war and its aftermath (1914-20), the matches are recorded every year. In all 15 of them "The Rest" was triumphant - bar once in the series. This solitary exception to RoS's dominance was recorded as happening on the January 11, 1908. See Appendix 1 for a summary of the sequence.  

We needn't get too exercised about the variation in the titles used in the Match Books for RoS's opponents: "Croydon" from 1907 to 1910 (with the BCM of 1908 using "Croydon and District"); and the "Borough of Croydon" in the Match Books from 1911 to 1914. It seems that people couldn't really make up their minds what to call them until 1921, when something interesting happens. In April 1921 the Surrey v Croydon match record blossoms and at last we get the glorious detail we have come to expect in the Books: the venue, and the players, on whole pages of their own, in ink, elegantly scripted, as if they now bear witness to a proper contest.

So, 1921 was some kind of watershed. Before then the "Croydon" (or whatever you want to call it) team was limited pretty much, by their own choice as I understand it, to members and favoured guests of the Croydon and Wallington clubs, and you might expect that therefore they would have been rather handicapped, explaining perhaps their run of defeats. Moreover, there is the additional complication that Croydon CC had an "on-off" relationship with the SCCA - even though their President, Joseph Steele had been a prime mover in the formation of the County Association in 1883/4.  

In 1921 the new status in the record arrived as Surrey started playing against a formal multi-club chess entity: namely - to give it its full title - the "Croydon and District Chess League" (CDCL), which had been called into existence the previous year by South Norwood CC (though its arrival wasn't reported in the BCM). The clubs that formed the League were (using their short titles): Croydon, Mitcham, South Norwood, Streatham, Sutton, Thornton Heath, and Wallington (West Norwood declined the invitation to join).  In the inter-war years the League flourished with several divisions and, admirably, a number of local works teams (see a note on CDCL's history on their website here); though certainly in 1927, and perhaps later, Croydon CC was not affiliated to SCCA.

The 1920 and 21 Derby matches were in April, but from 1922 onwards, the 100 board contests reverted to January, and continued thus, as regular as clockwork, up to 1925. But, in that year only 68 boards played. The writing was now on the wall. The next year, 1926, the match was "arranged for 100 a side but...only 78 boards were engaged", reported the press (well, the one newspaper with the story) under the well-spun headline "Big Tournament at Thornton Heath". A cutting of this was pasted into the Match Book (see Appendix 2) in lieu of a copper-plate hand-crafted record. It was the end of a tradition in Surrey chess that stretched back apparently some twenty years to 1907.

We don't have the time to pick over the details of all of these local Derbys, but the press cutting from 1926 gives us an insight. The "visiting side", i.e. the Rest of Surrey, was arranged by the County's match captain, Mr G.Wernick, thus implying the match's official status (Wernick was from Battersea CC). The CDCL was the home team, whose "local organisation was in the hands of the of Mr. A.J. Petty, Secretary of the Croydon and District League" (he was from Wallington CC, according to SCCA handbook of 1932-33).

On board 1 (Croydon League first, as per the press cutting) H.C.Griffiths beat J.H.Blake (club affiliations Brixton, and Kingston, respectively). On board 2, L.P.Rees (South Norwood - and also associated with Redhill) drew with E. Macdonald (Streatham); and A.D. Field (Croydon) lost to G.A. Felce (Brixton) on board 3.

It seems odd that a player (Griffiths) from a non-CDCL club (Brixton) should represent the Croydon League   - and therefore, with Felce on 3 for RoS, Brixton was represented on both sides!  Also odd that Macdonald of Streatham (a CDCL constituent) was playing (on board 2) for the Rest of Surrey  - though he did play for Brixton in the London League (BCM report of Brixton LL match on 8 Dec 1919). It all suggests some gentlemanly flexibility to make a match of it. Another example: allowing Griffiths from a non-CDCL club to play for "Croydon" and face Blake (also a RofS club player) on board 1: and thus providing the latter with a serious challenge, and indeed he lost. Blake was almost British Champion in 1909, and we shall see him again below.

The home team was, as the results show, underpowered compared with RoS. Not surprising really: in the late 1920s, CDCL clubs totaled about 150 members (plus a unknown number - but guess at 30 - for the unaffiliated Croydon CC), and the other SCCA clubs around 350. Thus, in the 1922 match it is explicitly stated that 3 players were "lent" by Surrey to Croydon (boards 3, 4 and 11), yet Croydon still defaulted board 1. For their part RoS defaulted several boards in 1924, in spite of calling up reserve players (though they won nevertheless).

Presumably no-one cared too much about the affiliations of Mrs Ward and Mrs Garraway who, in 1926, got an honourable mention (and thus their names in the newspaper) for "assisting with the tea".    

The final 1926 match was at the Thornton Heath Bath's Hall, the venue for most of the post-war meetings, thus taking advantage of its winter conversion from an unheated swimming pool (segregated) to ballroom-cum-meeting hall (mixed). Built in 1897, bombed in 1940, it stood bloody but unbowed until recently redeveloped, and thanks to our friends in the Streatham Society we can report further incidents in its chequered past. In 1913 Suffragette Charlotte Despard addressed a packed audience of women. Incensed, a mob of Thornton Heath's brightest and best, the worse for beer, congregated outside, forced an entry and succeeded in disrupting the meeting. Suffragette recruitment soared and Mrs Despard regarded her visit as a great success. There were similar scenes on the pavement in 1956 when, queuing to immerse themselves in its benificent waters, a mighty throng (sober) descended on the Baths for a mass baptism of Jehovah's Witnesses. There are no reports of any such disturbance of the peace at the Derby chess matches. Sadly.       

Left: Mrs Despard in action, but in Trafalgar Square circa 1914 (Daily Herald?)
Centre: Thornton Heath Baths in 1905 before it lost is upper storeys in the Blitz (pic courtesy John Brown).
Right. Mass Baptism at the Baths July 1956 (Croydon Guardian).     
The moving hand for the formation of Croydon and District Chess League was Leonard Percy Rees (1862 - 1944) who seemed endowed with an irrepressible urge to make an organisation of any chess that moved. Thus he was involved with the formation of the SCCA in the 1880s, the SCCU in the 1890s, and the BCF in the 1900s (he was its first Secretary), and FIDE in the 1920s (he was its first vice-President) - not to mention South Norwood CC and Redhill CC for over 50 years, perhaps for many years in parallel (obit in Surrey Mirror 29 Sept 1944). His flair and "never ceasing exertions" (Croydon Guardian 8 November 1884) in creating the infrastructure for serious competitive chess suggests he might have had a hand in the post-war resuscitation of the Derby matches, rebranding them so as to be worthy of inclusion in the Match Books. We gave one of his games in Brixton Byways, and here he is taking a keen interest in another from an early British Championship.

L.P.Rees (standing) at the Tunbridge Wells BCF Championship 1905 (sic), and J.H. Blake (RofS board 1 in 1926) is seated front with moustache. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Cleveland Public Library
See Note below for the correct date (1908), and the other participants.
I have (so far) found only a couple of references to these Derbys (and, come to that, the CDCL) in the British Chess Magazine : the first in 1908, coincidentally the year in which we see Leonard Rees above. The other reference, in 1914, notes that, in the match that year, 13 boards "were unoccupied" and were scored at 6.5 to each side - a detail not of course given by its economical note in the Match Book, which otherwise agrees that the final score was Rest 59 v 41 Croydon. By the way this pre-war match was, according to the BCM, also played at the Bath's Hall, Thornton Heath.

Now we delve into some devilishly obscure detail and, as promised, expose an error or two in the Match Books.

That earlier 1908 BCM (February, p 61) reference tells us a lot. Crucially that the Croydon and District versus the Rest of Surrey match was the "'big' match of the Surrey season...100 players a-side - and the seventh of the series" (my italics). In that case the matches started in 1902, and not 1907 as per the first entry in the Match Books. Thus any results for the years prior to 1907 are missing from the record.

But it gets worse, and not only because the report once again notes the number of defaults: nine added to the score of the winning side. It gets much worse: the "local combination" i.e "Croydon and District", who hosted the contest, achieved a total (including the wins by default) of 52, against the 48 of the visitors, i.e. the default-prone Surrey. But the Match Book - horror of horrors - has it the other way round. 

And yet worse still: the Match Book has not only inverted this result, but mistakenly gave it for another date: January 9, 1909.  
1909 January 9. Surrey 52, Croydon 48.
Sic! Wrong. Twice.
The correct date, if you believe the BCM (which I do - current BCM Editors please note), should have been January 11, 1908 (both of these dates are Saturdays, as they should be). This incidentally is the one of the two wins in the seres by Croydon - according to the BCM of February 1908.- it may be that the other one was some time prior to 1907.  

So what are we to make of all this? We noted above that these footnote entries are in pencil, and in fact there is a series of them from the end of 1906 (where you find the supposed January 1907 Derby result) up to the end of 1910, when they go to ink. As you can see above, these pencil entries are not only of the local Derbys but are sometimes other county matches as well; and (it seems to me) they are all in the same hand. The abbreviated scores (in ink) in the course of 1911 are for the Derby match and (entered at May) three correspondence matches. 

To my mind this all strongly suggests that these short entries - the pencilled ones above all - were made not only provisionally (i.e. allowed for subsequent revision), but more especially retrospectively in an attempt to fill gaps in the record. If the earliest Derby results in the match book (1907 to 1910 inclusive) were put in after the event, we might have to accept that any earlier results - going back  to 1902 - were then already lost to history. We might also understand why, in respect of these matches there is the odd error - which may even corrupt the sequence of dates. As someone who has committed several faux pas in my own scribblings on the blog, I can only sympathize.    

Well, I suppose all this does not spell the end of the world, nor has the sky yet fallen in - but is there another reference point whereby we might put the record straight? Unfortunately, even if the County's definitive official records - its Annual Reports - were published in the period concerned, they have since been lost.  

All in all a curious glitch in the record of that commendable, but long extinct, tradition in Surrey chess history, which had a reprise later, after a gap of some 30-odd years. In 1960, a Surrey 2nd team beat the "Croydon League" over 36 boards, 21.5 v 14.5. This time the venue was Rotameter on the Purley Way, one of the works teams still in the League post-WW2. It is a pleasure to mention that a youthful Martin Cath of South Norwood CC and SCCA - whose help with this series has been generous, and invaluable - played on that occasion, on board 17, joined on board 21 by his father. They both represented the CDCL.

Addendum posted 23 January 2015
I have just discovered references in BCMs of 1902 and 1903 to Croydon v Surrey matches. All will be explained in a post planned for the 13th February.        

Thanks again to Martin Cath, de facto historian of the SCCA, and John Brown of the Streatham Society.  
Note on Photograph. It comes, says the Cleveland Public Library in the States (and once again thanks to them for permitting its use so readily) from the John White collection, and puts the date at 1905. There is a reverse to the photo whereby pencil notes identify Rees, the Revd Palmer, and Mackenzie, and H.F.Blake (sic). The full and correct identification of the date, 1908, and the players, has been offered by the unfailingly excellent Ilkley Chess Club blog here. It explains that "Joseph Henry Blake (1859-1951), the man with the bald pate and impressive moustache, was considered to be the strongest amateur and correspondence player of his time. In fact he would tie for the British title the following year in Scarborough but lose in the play-off to the great H. E. Atkins. His opponent, leaning over the board and puffing on his pipe, is one of the so-called ‘fighting reverends’, the Reverend Wilfred Charles Palmer (1873-1914) who ended his days in Trinidad. To their left we see the tail-ender R. E. Lean playing White against Arthur John Mackenzie and at the top of the picture, Hector William Shoosmith on the left playing Black against Edward G. Sergeant.See the full tournament 1908 crosstable in John Saunders' Britbase here
See also a brilliant and revealing Art in Chess style post on another 1905/8 confusion, again by Ilkley Chess Club here. And for another Derby day Chess in Art reference on our blog see here.

Appendix 1
Rest of Surrey v Croydon League 1907-1926

Appendix 2 
Croydon League v Surrey 1926 

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