Saturday, July 19, 2014

Brixton Byways: 8. Uncommon People

This Brixton Byways series continues, but with the focus shifted three miles away from Brixton to Streatham as we are now researching the origins of the Streatham half of Streatham and Brixton Chess Club - we have gone, temporarily, Streatham Sideways.

As we saw in the last episode, in 1886 the British Chess Magazine reported a body setting up as Streatham CC; but judging from the Streatham News in October 1893 another outfit was the one that really had lift off and could claim the name, and it had been launched in all likelihood in 1891. The News looked back on this club's successful season just gone of sixteen matches, and an internal club tournament of 120 games.

Who were the principal officers of this dynamic outfit? The standout, and uncommon, name is that of the Club President, Edward John Vavasour Earle, and we are going to have a good look at him next, even though it make this post more of a study of social types than chess games. We will also give William Morris Esq., Hon Sec., a brief once-over (no, not that William Morris, unfortunately). If we may say so, and if our readers will entertain the expression, Mr. Morris of the Streatham Chess Club had a rather chequered career.   

But let's start with Mr Earle, and here he is; and this, in fact, is the only likeness we have found of a Streatham, or Brixton, Chess Club officer from the period we have been examining.
Edward John Vavasour Earle (1851-1923)
Photo courtesy of the Earle/Bedbrook family
Vavasour Earle (as he preferred to be known) is worth a look not just because he was President in 1893 (unfortunately there is no data on the Streatham Club presidency before or after him - up to WW1 - nor anything about his chess-playing as such), but also because he makes a perfect case-study of a classic Victorian (cum Edwardian) stereotype: the entrepreneur and homme d'affaires thriving in the world of diverse business opportunities made and taken, successful and failed, at a time of burgeoning manufacture, trade and markets. We can tell his story thanks to the redoubtable John Brown of The Streatham Society, and also the Earle/Bedbrook family in the States and Canada who have posted their family research on Ancestry. They have generously allowed us reproduce their portrait photographs and draw on their material (referred to as E/B below).          

And it is with his business interests that we start. Early on Vavasour Earle had been set up with his father (who incidentally is buried in Gap Road Cemetery [(E/B)], a location we have come to know rather well in these posts) as "Earle and Son, Agents and Importers". The partnership was dissolved in 1880 (E/B) - when he was almost 30 - and he went on to make a name for himself sufficient to be granted the Freedom of the City of London in 1892. By 1893 he was (as part of his portfolio) an owner and director of the London Shoe Company with a stylish outlet in New Bond Street (see it here) for chic up-market footwear for fashionable ladies. This same year he registered patents for "Improvements In Boots". Some might say that at this juncture the jewel in his crown was the Presidency of the Streatham Chess Club.   

Among many intriguing aspects of Vavasour Earle's career was the help he afforded the nascent Women's Writers Club (aka The Society of Women Writers). In 1893 he provided them with meeting rooms at his New Bond Street premises, and although there is no other definite explanation as to why he gave them this support he was "a colleague" of the Society's of Women Writer's founder John Snell Wood (according to Sylvia Kent's History of the SWWs of 2010). Interestingly Wood was, as you'll have noticed, a man. A fellow entrepreneur, he was a committed philanthropist as well as a promoter of good causes - and he was a Conservative (giving us a glimpse of another Victorian stereotype: the wealthy philanthropist). As for Vavasour, his gesture doesn't look to me much like an opportunist business ploy, other than to show off shoes to new clients and get them written about; it suggests rather that he, too, had a philanthropic side. 

Incidentally, the Women's Writers Club, and other clubs for ladies, were lauded as follows by The Dundee Courier of April 25 1894:
"When it is considered how many women live in the Metropolis, and at such distances from their home few movements in social reforms are more to be commended than this extension of club accommodation for women in the great city. Men far too long enjoyed a monopoly of such privileges as clubs afford..."   
But, just don't give them the vote, eh?   

Vavasour's charitable aspect is underlined by his stewardship at a gala ceremony for the endowment of 60 new pensioners at The Royal Blind Pension Society (Patron H.M. The Queen Victoria) on the 27th April 1897 (Morning Post 7 April) at the Hotel Metropole. No doubt he was a subscriber to this commendable cause.            

His business activities made, among other papers, the Dundee Courier of 6 May 1893 which recorded his involvement in a venture to launch Keats’ Feather-weight Spool Company Limited by a sale of shares.

Part of the 1895 documentation for the patent (and poetic)
Keats' Feather-weight Spool 
From here.
The new machinery, said the prospectus, promised a cost saving of 40% (yes, 40%!) in yarn manufacture, as well as benefits in quality; and “the well-known London Agent, Mr Vavasour Earle, of 119 Cheapside, E.C., has offered to provide the necessary warehouse room for the stock, to employ travellers…required for the sale of same…etc.” 

Indeed "Manufacturers Agent" was how he was described in the 1891 census, though it hardly does justice to the range of his activities. But the fortunes of a manufacturers agent can go down as well as up; Vavasour Earle seems to have been associated (perhaps not for the last time) with a venture that was to fail: the Keats' etc. business was wound up in 1896 (The London Gazette 27/11/1896). If Vavasour Earle was merely on a contract for services he may have escaped relatively unscathed from the debacle; but share holders will have had cause to reflect on the popular dictum that a spool and its money are soon parted.    

As a further example of the breadth of his activities: on February 5 1895 Vavasour had a fulsome statement in the Pall Mall Gazette headed “The Revolution in Assurance” in which he goes in to bat for a new system of life assurance which, though “it is not pretended that…it is more perfect that any other, certainly has the advantage of being cheap…”. The statement does not appear to disclose, or otherwise, any financial interest in the new scheme. Other business ventures included concrete (handy if you make enemies): he was Chairman of Martin, Earle and Co. Ltd, of Rochester, Kent at whose "extensive works" he hosted a visit by, and presided at a dinner for, (The Courier, 27 July 1904 [see note]) political heavyweight Joseph Chamberlain - a man who, said Winston Churchill "made the weather"...
Joseph (The Weather Man) Chamberlain, left, 
and the Young Winston (he knew which way the wind blew) .
By Spry in Vanity Fair 1901 and 1900 respectively
 ...and was involved with new technology - batteries with his company Electric Niblett (E/B) - and old: i.e. copper extraction. 

Now in the new century Vavasour Earle was embroiled in a long running saga concerning a copper mining venture in Italy. As chairman of the Etruscan Copper Company he was, in 1903, defending the company against "organised attacks" in the markets (Sheffield Daily Telegraph 1 April ), whilst seeking to convince share holders that profits were assured (The Courier 3 April ). The press seemed unconvinced: referring, wearily, to another "pretty controversy" in "the eternal business" of the Company as hostile parties circled (The Manchester Courier 6 June 1903). The following year the papers spoke of "The Etruscan Mystery" as Vavasour Earle issued a profits warning (blaming - what's new - strike action, in Italy). The press sceptically reported on a share issue to raise more working capital (Edinburgh Evening News 19 October 1904). Matters may not have been helped by the "terrible death by a fall down the shaft" - in 1907 - of the mine's young Director, a Swansea man (Cheltenham Chronicle 18 May 1907). In December 1908, amid accusations of mismanagement, Vavasour Earle was to be found chairing a shareholders' meeting recommending that the Company be wound up. We may surmise that this collapse was the cause of some personal financial loss (it has come down through the family that he lost money in a mining venture), and perhaps there was also collateral damage to his reputation: after all Vavasour Earle had been trenchant throughout  in advocating the viability of the enterprise. 

Shortly afterwards, in 1910, he left for the States, with the ensuing period of his life shrouded in some mystery: except, according to the family's researches, he was frequently backwards and forwards across the Atlantic, with his children split between the two continents. 

On the domestic side, we can follow the rise in his social standing alongside his entrepreneurial trajectory. Having married Elizabeth Selina Bedbrook in 1875 (and thanks to the family for this serene picture)...
Mrs Earle (1850-1926) taken c. 1901
Photo courtesy of the Earle/Bedbrook family 
...he lived in an already not-so-modest dwelling at 29, Streatham High Road - Holly Lodge (below left) - in 1887, and by the time of the 1891 census had a family of 4 sons and 4 daughters, and a household staff of a Nurse, Cook and 2 Housemaids. They moved on in 1894 to upper-market Porchester House, 15, Streatham Common North, neighbours now to the Cow family, owners of the noteworthy India Rubber Company (remember Cow Gum?) of Streatham; Vavasour's daughter Mable Louise was to marry Peter Cow, the son, in 1898. Then in 1901 came the most spectacular step in Vavasour Earle's ascent of the property ladder: to Franks Hall, Horton Kirby in Kent (below right) - just a short cross-country commute from his cement works at Rochester.
Left: milestone in front of Holly Lodge, 29 Streatham High Road, in 1895.
Right: Franks Hall, Horton Kirby, Kent.
Both pictures courtesy of Streatham Society & copyright John Brown.  
One can note the close coincidence of this domestic relocation with the sale of shares in the London Shoe Company (in 1899, referenced by E/B) - was it this that financed Vavasour Earle's acquisition of this fine estate and his attendant elevation to the status of soi-disant country gentleman (besides established factory owner)? One, indeed, with a developed taste for, and collection of art, that he had installed in a specially constructed art gallery at the end of the drive. The Hall survives, but not the gallery or collection, but John Brown at the Streatham Society has logged this item once in Vavasour Earle's 
discerning ownership:
Portrait of a Gentleman...(1641) by Govert Flink (1615-1660)
As auctioned at Sotheby's 8 May 2007 
As mentioned above he went to the States in 1910, returning eventually to another substantial house, The Chestnuts, 196, Denmark Hill, where he died in 1923. His death was registered at Lambeth and he appears to have been cremated.
Compared to all this William Morris, the Honorary Secretary of Streatham Chess Club was in another class altogether. He lived at Heath Villa, 32 Pendennis Road (just off the High Road, not far from Vavasour Earle's Holly Lodge) in a property that today bears a blue plaque - not, alas, because of our man's services to chess, but because in 1883, the house had been the birth place of the composer Arnold Bax.

Heath Villa/32 Pendennis Road, Streatham.
Mr Morris was an accountant, well qualified therefore to pronounce upon the club's healthy financial status at its 1893 Annual Meeting as we saw in the last episode; and he knew certainly knew a thing or two about organising the funds: just 3 years later in 1896, and then aged 57, he was up before the beaks accused of stealing £210 7s 10d from his employers Messrs. Elliott Bros., electricians of St. Martin's Lane. He had, it was alleged, been "cooking" the books (as the Streatham News actually called it) enabling him to trouser "£3000 of the firm's money". Suspicions had been aroused when his MO was eventually rumbled:   
"As an example of the method employed, the figure 'one' in an entry such as £143 would be scratched out, the £43 remaining, and the £100 being entered in another book. A fictitious "balance" would thus be obtained, and a casual examination of the books would not reveal any discrepancy, though the £100 was appropriated."  
At the time of writing we have not tracked down the outcome of the case, though the News makes it sound pretty open and shut. As we noted in the spat over the Surrey County Chess Association's Treasurer's report at its AGM in 1894 it's as well to keep your eye on what your officers are doing with the dosh.  

So, a rather uncommon pair to encounter as the principals of a chess club, one of whom challenges, and the other confirms, our theories as to the class composition of local chess in Streatham, as in Brixton. Vavasour one feels, would - if he had been a serious player - have been comfortable in one of the big city clubs; he could, after all, have afforded the subscription. He was, in spite of the failures reported by the press, a talented and successful man according to the conventional criteria of the time, and in the high-end upper middle class or, to use another terminology: an owner of the means of production. William Morris on the other hand is more of lower middle class type; and appeared to have found it necessary to adopt extraordinary measures to supplement his lower middling income. They had chess in common, and shared a creative bent when it came to making money, though on different sides of legality (allegedly).   

Together they provide an nice sign-off for our investigation into the origins of Streatham Chess Club, which, although the club goes back into the late 19th century, had its continuity broken by the extinction event visited upon Europe in 1914-18. That "founded in 1918" reference in Knightmare! noted last time must have marked a new beginning for the club - a demise and re-birth, observes John Brown, that befell many local clubs and societies as a consequence of the Great War.  

After this digression into the world of late Victorian and early Edwardian business, and thus a break from chess, this series will take a short respite too, and re-appear after a month or so when it will return to its Brixton byways to meet two more uncommon people, but this time from the early Brixton Chess Club. 

Thanks again to Linda Bridger for responding to my initial enquiry via Ancestry, and Diane Earle for her generous assistance with information about her husband's grandfather, Vavasour Earle - but the family bears no responsibility for how I have told his story in this post.     

The Chamberlain visit story was also in The Manchester Guardian on the same day. It is probably safe to say that many of the stories appearing in the regional papers (referred to in this, and other, posts in the series) about London and national matters were "re-cycled" out of the national newspapers - sometimes possibly vice versa.

As noted in the comment box to the last episode, Tim Harding has recently published an excellent article covering the early history of chess leagues (including London's) here, which should be read in conjunction with episodes 5 and 6 of Brixton Byways.

Common People the Movie is based on Tooting Bec Common - the next along from the one at Streatham.    

Previous episodes: 1. Earnest Endeavours2. Peyers You Go3. Onwards And Upwards; 4. Regular Bricks; 5. Sargent Majors;  6. Men of Might7. Streatham News!



ejh said...

It reckons here that Arnold Bax's brother played chess with Aleister Crowley.

Martin Smith said...

Thanks ejh. Interesting connection, if true - though, as Crowley was at pains to show off, he could indeed play chess, and he even haunted Streatham for a bit as noted in Streatham Strolls 3

Diane Earle has been in touch to point out some inaccuracies in the original text, which I have now corrected: her branch of the family lives in Canada, not the States, and Franks Hall still stands (it is now a Conference etc Centre). Thanks Diane.

Richard James said...

Arnold Bax was also a chess player according to a 1983 Radio 3 documentary. You can read the transcript at

This room contains not only his printed music and manuscripts but over there in another glass case a most extraordinary collection of miscellany. Chessmen - was he an avid chess-player?

Oh yes.

Martin Smith said...

Thanks Richard. He looks like a subject to whom we might return.

Jonathan B said...

I wonder how many times I’ve walked past that house in Pendennis Road? 1,000 at least.

And to think an old time S&BCCer used to live there. A cad and a bounder. Whatever next.