Saturday, June 07, 2014

Brixton Byways: 5. Sargent Majors

We started our promenade along the pathways of Brixton chess club history with the 1870s, here and here; then spent two more episodes exploring the 1880s, here and here - and we have now reached the latter years of that decade. Somewhat royally we have allowed ourselves to pause in our progress so as to acknowledge favoured subjects, and indulge them should they take our fancy. We will continue so to do in this episode wherein we will finally reach the 1890s. Let's hope that we will be engaged by one or two diverting characters, and perhaps other curiosities, en route.

Once again, it's maybe helpful to scope the terrain in which Brixton played its chess, and it is time to put in place the London Chess League. Or try to...

...because it was a bit tortuous. We saw in episode 4 that the League was foreshadowed by other competitions for the metropolitan clubs, namely the Staunton Medal and the Baldwin-Hoffer Trophy (which Brixton won in the 85-86 season), and the suggestion of formalising the regular annual autumn fixtures meetings of London club secretaries into some kind of proper association appeared in The Chess Player's Chronicle in September 83...and then again in September 85 ("We have yet given up all hope of the formation of a Chess Association for London."), and yet again in October 85 (floating the idea of clubs at least subscribing to a common match venue). Finally a firm proposal for a proper Metropolitan Chess Association appeared in June 1886 in a letter from Mr H. A. Schlesinger, the Secretary of the London Athenaeum Club writing "entirely on his own account" as both he, and the CPC, treading gingerly, seemed to be at pains to point out.

It was a jolly good idea to create an MCA agreed the magazine, which had "long been of the opinion that such an Association would prove of benefit". But, just as they had over the formation of the Surrey County Chess Association, it flagged up practical impediments of "you may take a horse to water" variety. It noted the same problem concerning support for the faltering British Chess Association, a propos of which, some of the horses were, so to speak, stabled with some of the very same metropolitan clubs now being propositioned about an MCA.

Cliff Williams in Knightmare! (S&BCC's short-lived house journal) writing ninety years later, says that back "in 1887 the secretaries of the Metropolitan Clubs appointed a committee of 9 to form a league" on which Brixton was represented, though locating any reference in the chess press of the time to the club's involvement has so far defeated your blogger. However the editor of the BCM appears to confirm it retrospectively in June 1888 as follows:
"A representative committee of the Metropolitan Clubs has been organising a plan for an inter-club tournament, with valuable prizes; it has now finished its labours with the most satisfactory results. Two prizes will be competed for annually..a senior prize, entrance fee, £1; and a junior prize, entrance fee, 10s" 
and continues, somewhat ominously, "I shall have something to say on this, later on."  

So, something was firmly afoot in 1888, and League's current online archive gives the first championship winners in 1888/9, namely Athenaeum, with the BCM in September 89 confirming that there was now in fact now a "Metropolitan Cup" for the winners. J. Arnold Green writing later in 1898 (he was a Surrey man, I think, appearing a couple of times as J. A. Green in county team lists in the BCM, in '94 and '96) adds more: that a two division system for "regular inter-club competition was adopted in 1888, and a London Chess League was formally constituted five years later [i.e. 1893 -MS] with three Divisions" - with the latter point alluded to by the BCM in November 1892 reporting...
"On the 22nd October, a meeting was held for the purpose of forming a London and Middlesex Chess Association ... The general opinion was adverse to the proposed title, and in favour of a Metropolitan Chess Association. It was therefore resolved to invite the standing committee of secretaries of metropolitan chess clubs to act further in the matter."  
...and the following 18 May of 1893 (reported in BCM June 93) the Council of  Metropolitan Chess Clubs changed the title to the "London Chess League" as per J. Arnold Green's account.

They (and we) have got there at last.

Cliff Williams provides us with useful snippet identifying one of the active participants in this glacial progress: Brixton's representative on the 1887/8 committee was "I. (sic) Sargent" - not that I have yet corroborated this, though he is named by the Chess Player's Chronicle as being present at the regular October meeting of metropolitan clubs back in 1885

And so, after beating about the bush in pursuit of the LCL, we get to the favoured subject of this episode: John Sargent and he was obviously a 'J' not an 'I' (Cliff was not alone - elsewhere the chess press played havoc with the spelling of his name; perhaps it was a Knightmare-ish! typo). Of the many candidates for Sargent in the censuses I'd like to go with the stockbrokers clerk born in Lambeth in 1864 (so aged 23 in 1887) who, in 1891, was living at 17, Holland Street, Stockwell with his mother and two lodgers. He is later to be found in 1911 upsized to Croydon, with a wife of 19 years marriage, 4 children and a servant; and if our man was that stockbrokers clerk, then he happily fits my hypothesis of chess in these parts having an aspiring white-collar/upper-working class, demographic.

John Sargent of Brixton Chess Club wouldn't have been related, I don't suppose, to his near namesake, the artist John Singer Sargent (who anyway was American), and the reason I'm mentioning it at all is that (a) it's time for an illustration in this post, and (b) John Singer Sargent did a chess painting in 1907. Well fancy that, and, in view of the happy coincidence, here it is.

The Chess Game (1907) John Singer Sargent
Harvard Club of NewYork
(from here)
Very laid back, and maybe something vaguely to do with this episode.

As for John Sargent (the chess player) he was one of the more active Brixton members (as we've noted before, a head count in the team lists in the 84 to 86 period shows about 40 players in the club - we'll list  them in the last post of the series); he also played in City of London Club tournaments - in 1886 for example.  

So, Brixton, represented by John Sargent, was maybe there at the creation of the London League, and Brixton's (and subsequently, Streatham & Brixton's) fortunes therein have yo-yo'd over the 120 plus years of the League since: it has finished bottom, has been promoted, relegated and has dropped out of it altogether - and even won it. And that was just in the first dozen years of the League's existence. The promised final episode in this series (still some way off) will give a table showing Brixton's record in London competitions up to 1900, with its Surrey record alongside, but for the moment let's give the floor to the abovementioned Cliff Williams, Streatham and Brixton's President in the 1970s (and SCCA President from 1967 to 1988 and, at the time of his article, BCF President) summarising "The first hundred years" of Streatham and Brixton CC  in Knightmare!. Here is his paragraph covering the London League in the period up to 1914, telling it how it was, i.e. how it had been:
"About that time [1887 - MS], however, the club struck a bad patch and their first few years in the league were unproductive and after 4 years they dropped out, rejoining the 2nd Division in '94/5. Then in '97/8, they returned to the 1st Division and won it. Then, after another good year in '98/9 - equal second - came a sudden collapse, the reason for which is not recorded but in '99/00 no team was entered and in the following year they finished equal bottom out of 11 with 1/2 a match point. From this point until the 1st War results in the league were uneven and undistinguished, the best being in 1908/9 - 3rd equal out of 15...."
As we know from the last episode, Brixton had also won the Surrey Trophy 4 times in the early/mid 1880s , and again in 88/89; and just to complete the picture we'll add that the following won the Surrey Individual Challenge as Brixton Club players: Wyke Bayliss in 1885, Herbert Jacobs in 87 and 89 (he'd won it earlier when with Croydon CC) and W. N. Osborne in 91 (winning also the Handicap Tournament). All in all a chequered picture - a pretty typical chess club, maybe.    

And a feature of a pretty typical chess club's life in these parts, in those times, was the local availability of the chess elite to give simuls, etc., and we have encountered them already on several occasions. It was one way for the professionals to bring home the bacon, although, as we stated at the outset of this series, the heavyweights of the era - the likes of Bird, Blackburne, Gunsberg and Zukertort - tended generally to play competitively in tournaments and matches at "Grandmaster" level, even internationally, even contesting the World Championship, and to play their team chess for the top London clubs rather than locally.

But, as became their status, they might also be found hereabouts as guests of honour, at exhibition events perhaps - and an example was on Saturday December 5th, 1885, when both Blackburne and Gunsberg were at a "Chess gathering" organised by Captain Beaumont of the Surrey County Chess Association at the Vestry Hall, Anerley. It was attended by 150 gentlemen, including, among other notables, the energetic Leopold Hoffer, and the clubbable Revd G. A. MacDonnell - always good value on such an occasion.

Vestry Hall, Anerley in 1905
Thanks to Penge Forum for the postcard,
and good luck to the Friends of Anerley
with their campaign to conserve the building
(- this bit of chess history may help)
This was all in the BCM the following January, telling also of "the room...gaily decorated with flowers, ferns, holly, and shields emblazoned with the names of the Surrey Clubs and the Surrey insignia" - Capt. Beaumont could be relied on to throw a good party. At 4.00pm Blackburne played sans voir against 6 opponents including Mr T. Green of Brixton, who lost, also (mentioned here for local interest) Messrs J.H. Dillon of Balham, who drew, and A. Anderson of Peckham, later of Tooting - who also drew, though he had the better of it, according to the BCM. In fact "the Black Death" won only a single game, excused by the BCM by his "severe cold which interfered materially with the rapidity and brilliance of his play." Poor Blackburne didn't enjoy the best of health.

Then, at 6.00pm Gunsberg took on 12 boards over two hours, losing to Herbert Jacobs and, the star of this episode, John Sargent "of the Brixton Club". Other entertainments included a consultation game with Jacobs, Sargent and Wyke Bayliss "of the Brixton Chess Club" sadly losing to a team from South Norwood, and a problem solving competition that had Herbert Jacobs claiming the second prize after an hour and a half's puzzling (so, a busy afternoon for him).

Although we can't, unfortunately, give Sargent's victory over Gunsberg, Jacobs' victory over the honoured guest made it to the Hackney Mercury, which was then quoted by the CPC, giving ordinary clubbers everywhere hope and encouragement:
"It is a pretty game, and up to the 22nd move is well fought on both sides, as indeed it was sure to be, for Mr Jacobs is a fine player, and one with whom Mr Gunsberg would have trouble singly. It is a pity that White's (i.e. Gunsberg's) blunder on his 22nd move brought the game to such a premature conclusion."     
The move evaluations are given by the CPC:

Talking of special events: let's leap ahead a bit to 1891 and visit the German Exhibition at Earls Court.

(Details in the Acknowledgements)
A certain Mr John Whitley masterminded this and three preceding exhibitions - showcases for America, Italy and France. If, at the German show, we had side-stepped the Teutonic lederhosen, iron-clads and heavy-metal, we could have sampled the offer in the food department where (following the official account)...
"...the place of honour belongs, of course, to the real German sausage...not the vile article that is manufactured and sold in London under this name, but the genuine German Wurst...An insight into the mysteries of sausage-making as practised in Germany is offered at a pavilion in the Central Garden, where some very ingenious machinery is at work in the manufacture of this toothsome delicacy..." 
Moving on (yes, the wurst is over), the visitor was invited...
 " direct his steps to the Lecture Room and....witness the skill displayed by Herr Lasker, whom Mr John Whitley had engaged in Berlin, with a view to making chess one of the instructive features of the Exhibition...[and in a footnote]...This young champion of the scientific game well repaid the compliment by winning the First Prize at the Annual  Congress of the British Chess Association, in March, 1892."
In his blindfold display at Earls Court Lasker took on a mere three opponents - one of whom (said the (Morning Post on the 6 August) was our John Sargeant (sic) identified as from Brixton CC. Lasker beat a Mr Vandyk "within the hour ...announcing mate in four moves". Then "about six minutes later the German resigned the second game" and with this brutal demolition of the young champion, Sargent claimed another elite scalp - making it a hat-trick after Zukertort in 85, and Gunsberg in 85. Lasker's third game against Mr Home "was eventually left drawn".

The score of John Sargent's annihilation of Lasker, with these notes, was given in the Morning Post of 10th August 1891. In truth Lasker was the author of his own misfortune.

As we now find ourselves in 1891, let's stay there, but in another exotic location even closer to home - an à la mode department store in the heart of Brixton : the Bon Marché - designed, as you might have guessed, in the French manner:
From the Bon Marché Business Centre
This, with Electric Avenue (the illuminated street market in the heart of the town), was another national first for Brixton (or, so it was said), built by a Mr James Smith of Tooting (no relation, but he gets us a second mention of Tooting in this one chess blog - which must be some kind of record) with £80,000 won on the Cambridgshire and Cesarewitch Stakes at Newmarket, and open for trading in 1877. His other innovation was the "ready money" principle - to insist on immediate payment for purchases, with no credit - which (perhaps counter-intuitively) threatened other local tradesmen, one of whom was driven, sadly, to suicide.

Smith's Bon Marché went bust in 1892 and the business was bought up by a consortium of local retailers (mit, no doubt, über schadenfreude). Not that any of this put off the club from having "The Club Rooms" (note the plural) c/o Bon Marché Restaurant, Ferndale Road - possibly in the Staff block at Nos 240-250 (connected to the main store by two underground passages; men and women segregated), where an "assistants' restaurant" was said to seat 300 - plenty large enough for the Brixton Chess Club, even if its ranks were now swelling as might be seen from this report in the London Standard of 6 October 1892 about the club AGM on the 4th:
"...owing to an increase in the number of members it is hoped that the Club will resume its former high place amongst Metropolitan chess clubs"
In 1892, as Cliff Williams noted above, the club was in the doldrums, but with now a membership surge, and a fashionable Club HQ #4, we conclude this episode on a moderately hopeful note. This chronicle has now reached the 1890s where they waxed poetic about Brixton Chess Club, as well see in a fortnight's time.

Note Added 3 July 2014. Martin Cath of South Norwood CC, who has been active in Surrey chess circles for decades advises that C. E. Williams was never known as "Cliff" but as "Ellery". I have also just found again the reference in Knightmare! by Cliff - sorry, Ellery - to John Sargent's involvement in the 1886 Committee of nine to form the London League. His source, Ellery says, is the League's own minute book.
On the German Exhibition: Four National Exhibitions in London and their Organiser With Portraits and Illustrations, by Charles Lowe 1892, published by T. F. Unwin.
On Bon Marché:  Shops and Shopping 1800-1914, Alison Adburgham (1964) published by Faber.

Previous episodes
1. Earnest Endeavours;

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