Saturday, July 28, 2012

Streatham Strolls 1

It’s summer! And a good time to step back and look at chess from a different point of view: the pavement. So, come and join me on a virtual chess ramble around Streatham and Brixton. It’s an area unexpectedly rich in chess history, as I discovered when I pored over Tim Harding’s magnificent new book: Eminent Victorian Chess Players.

Our stroll will visit many sites of special chessical interest to be found in our corner of the Metropolis. We will use Tim Harding's book as our guide, along with Edward Winter’s list of chess players' addresses, other Chess Notes of his, and bits and pieces from sundry sources. Info. will accordingly be flagged TH or EW (or whatever, as appropriate, to be decoded at the end). Except for one or two minor items, the historical stuff will not be your blogger's original research, but that of others, and due credit must go to them. My contribution is the repackaging.

After a long season slumped over the board, speaking for myself anyway - others are still hard at it elsewhere - we’ll take it gently over three Saturdays, weather permitting. It’s a circular walk and we’ll be going clockwise round the circuit. To give non-Londoners their bearings, this map pinpoints the locality in which we wander through our backstreets of chess-times past.

The “A” marks the exact spot where will begin (click on any pic to enlarge), and this is the party you’d have found there in the early 1920s.

No. Not, unfortunately, chessers. We are at Stop 1 on the map below...

...which is the location of the present home of Streatham and Brixton Chess Club, and the picture shows it as it was in the 1920s. We play our chess at the accommodating Woodfield Grove Tennis Club, now in its ninth decade, founded by the builders of the adjacent streets (WGTC). Three of our chessers also grace its courts...must ask them if they've tried chesstennis.

Although the tennis club was built in 1924 (and rebuilt in 2008), 4 Woodfield Avenue just round the corner was much older, though it no longer stands today. Together with number 2 it is replaced now by low-rise post-war flats; and that's a pity because Isidor "Mephisto" Gunsberg lived at no. 4 in his later years, and he died there on 2 May 1930 (TH). Gunsberg (born in 1854) is one of Tim Harding’s Eminent Victorian Chess Players.

There is a lot to say about Gunsberg’s chequered chess and private life (TH), including his peripatetic wanderings around South London, and elsewhere. We’ll give him an airing later on in our travels when we come across more of his ten known local addresses (we exaggerate tastelessly - one of them is a cemetery (TH)). There are even more further afield. Actually, we've encountered one of the local ones before.

Here is the man himself in his younger years.

BTW, we'll also come back to the chess strength of Gunsberg and the others we encounter. For now let's just note that he is assessed as having been of today's GM level (TH).

Stop 2 is south across Tooting Bec Common (no time to explain why the Bec is so-called), and down a bit. It is the site of the old Tooting Golf Course. E.E."Rb8" Colman (1878-1964), about whom we have blogged before, played there near the turn of the century (OU). You can see the course marked on this grainy 1896 map (right below) sandwiched between the River Graveney and the railway.

The present day street lay-out is on the left, with a “Links Road”, by the station, as an echo of yore. It has a Golf House, nos. 1 and 2, at the top end, possibly the old club house – pic top left in the composite below. The Golf Club opened in 1888. Colman might have rubbed shoulders there with the rich and famous, including golfing Prime Minister Arthur Balfour M.P. (1848-1930) who was also a member (TBGC). Sporting Balfour was President of the International Lawn Tennis Club of GB in the twenties and, according to O. C. Müller's reminiscences (BCM), also frequented Simpson's Chess Divan. Might Gunsberg have encountered the P.M. over the board, or if he also played golf - a big "if", for which no-one has offered any evidence - on the fairway?

Now we swing north and thread our way across the multi-cultural melting-pot of Tooting. If you need a comfort break there's The Castle on the High Street, with its chess-themed pub sign.

Otherwise, sticking to the red-dotted route on the map, we'll pass through early 20th century Arts and Craft Totterdown Fields Estate (pic top right below) - a style that might have met the discerning approval of another eminent Victorian: artist, critic, and chess commentator (of sorts) John Ruskin, and we'll meet him again, too. Pleasing though the Estate is, JR might tut-tut at the inauthentic white render and neo-Georgian front doors some have inflicted on its otherwise harmonious aspect.

Eventually we get to the quarter on the maps referred to as Upper Tooting. Henry "f4" Bird (1830-1908) lived there at 16 Chetwode Road, part of a modest Victorian terrace that still stands today (pic bottom left below) after narrowly escaping the attentions of a V1 buzz-bomb in WW2. This is Stop 3.

Drawing of H. E. Bird by Sam Loyd.
1877 Scientific American Supplement

This was his last known address before he died in 1908 (TH), which brings up the unlikely, and unchessic, connection between Bird and Colman: they are buried in the same cemetery in Gap Road on the Earlsfield/Wimbledon border a mile or so away. A visit there, however, would take us too far to the west, although nearer to Colman’s old stamping ground, and his club in Wimbledon (OU).

Upper Tooting (which sounds a bit grand; it's commonly known these days as Tooting Bec) has a prominent Charles Holden art-decoish tube station (pic bottom right in the composite below).

The Undergound arrived in the 1920s – too late for our Henry, who would have had to walk up to Balham overland station to get to Central London. We can follow him, and continue on as he would have done... order to join the company at Nightingale Lane Chess Club (somewhere near Stop 5). Here he is at a their garden party, possibly in 1901, in the bath-chair on the right (EW). "He was always a humorous and cheerful old soul, in spite of the gout which often tormented him in his later years", according to Müller.

Nightingale Lane Chess Club demised as the years ticked by, and a Balham Club was also returned to the chess box of history (BCC), but the Clapham Common Chess Club was alive, kicking, and winning the London League in 1946/7 and 1947/8 (LCL), but alas no more. There are some who can still remember chess on the Common in the 70s, over by the bandstand (Stop 6). We have shown this picture before, but its worth another look.

Chess on Clapham Common in 1986

As we are now on Clapham Common (the chain of green open spaces - Richmond Park, Wimbledon, Clapham, Tooting Bec and Streatham Commons; Peckham Rye, Brockwell, Dulwich and Greenwich Parks, etc. - is South London's pride and joy) we might as well go on up to North Side (Stop 7) and, if he is at home, pay our respects to RDKOBE erstwhile member of S&BCC, and well known to readers of this blog and beyond. His (over?) enthusiastic championing of Howard "c4" Staunton (1810-1874) - RDK's book is "hagiographical in tone" (TH) - provides our first reference to the subject of the second chapter of Tim Harding's Eminent Victorian Chess Players.

Time for a break. Please double back to the Windmill On The Common for refreshment. If it turns out nice we’ll meet up next Saturday down by Clapham South tube, at the top of Balham Hill.

Acknowledgments/sources etc.
BCM: British Chess Magazine 1923-1932 An Anthology. Müller's Reminiscences are an article from November 1932.
EW: Edward Winter's Chess Notes: Where Did They Live?
TH: Eminent Victorian Chess Players. Tim Harding. McFarland &Co. 2012. Thanks to the author for permission to use the quotation near the end.
OU: E.E.Colman: A Chess Biography. Olimpiu Urcan. Singapore Heritage Society. 2007.
WGTC: Woodfield Grove Tennis Club, for its history and pic.
War damage info is based on The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945.

Bird portrait is on Google Images, sourced from EW Chess Note 3862. The same image also appears in Chess Archaeology. Bird was buried on 22 September 1908, grave reference D/B/120, but there is no visible trace. WFIW it is supposed to be somewhere in this area of the cemetery (2011 pic by MS).

Chess on Clapham Common pic by kind permission of Billy Rizcallah.
Gunsberg image taken from Czech Wikipedia. It also appears in EW's Chess Note 5154 which gives the origin of the picture itself as Illustrite Zeitung 5 July 1890.
Howard Staunton, the English World Champion. R. D. Keene and R. N. Coles. BCM. 1975.
Nightingale Bird pic is on Google Images, which got it from EW Chess Note 5972 where it is credited to BCM of 15 July 1964 to which it was submitted by Miss E.G. Bell of Worthing.
Old Map was grabbed from here; others from Google Maps.
Totterdown Estate is discussed here, pic from Google Images, as is Tooting Bec tube pic.
Other pics by MS.

Note added 3 September 2012.

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