This is the fourth episode of a series on the life and chess of Louisa Matilda Fagan (née Ballard, 1850-1931) - earlier episodes are linked below. So far we have looked at her chess: she emerged on to the domestic scene in 1895, around the time of the formation of the Ladies Chess Club, and pretty much disappeared chess-wise (as did the LCC itself) when war broke out in 1914. She was considered, at some time in that career, to have been the strongest lady playing.
Now, in this episode, we will begin to reconstruct her non-chess biography (although there is - should anyone feel the need - one game of chess), though, be warned, it includes - as always - a fair degree of plausible supposition and guesswork. But before getting on with the job I will come clean and explain my fascination with Louisa Matilda (though surely I'm not the first to be in her thrall).
|Mrs Fagan c 1897|
Could it be relevant that in none of the reportage, such as it is, of the social side of her chess career (the Congress dinners, the soirées at the Ladies Club), nor even in her BCM obituary (which we might have expected to refer to her personal circumstances and her nearest and dearest) is there scarcely a mention of her husband Joseph George Fagan; nor anyone else as her loyal escort, constant companion, and rock? Of her own published references to Joseph, the most telling comes in the BCM in October 1905, which we will deal with below; and now that we talking of her family life: nor is there any mention of children. This was all a stimulus to my curiosity about the enigmatic Mrs Fagan. So, in this episode we shall begin to try and get to the bottom of it, as we follow her through the long 81 years of her life, and begin to touch on the mores of Victorian society, and religion.
We start in Naples, where she was born on 9th January 1850 and where - as we saw in episode 1 - her father William Robert Ballard Senior had married an Italian lady, Angelina De Deo. Whereas William Roberts Ballard Senior, author of a text (in 1862) on the governance of the unified State of Italy, was to die in 1908, he was pre-deceased by Angelina, in London, in 1895.
Although by age 11 Louisa Mathilda was in England (as was her family, recorded in the 1861 census), her early childhood would have been spent in Naples ("for years she lived" there - BCM October 1897), where we can meet another expatriat family: the Fagans. The Dictionary of National Biography has a lot to say about them, starting with the paterfamilias, a British diplomat to the city, who - also - had married an Italian lady. They had a brood of seven, of which the second son Louis Alexander (who will crop up again later) was painted by no lesser an artist than John Singer Sargent with his customary attention to the self-regard of his subject.
|Louis Alexander Fagan (1845-1903) - Mrs Fagan's brother-in-law.|
By John Singer Sargent (1893). Private Collection
There is a youthful picture of a "[Joseph G.] Fagan" dated 1862 in the British Library India Archive. Having inspected it, I can say that it looks as if it could be our chap - he had been nominated for Cadetship in the Lancers already in 1859. The photograph, visiting card-style, was taken in India around the same time as Louisa was at boarding school (as she appears in the 1861 census - her first appearance in the decennial head-count). She was lodged with Elizabeth Jay, Headmistress, at Oakfields Academy for girls, in the genteel spa town of Malvern on the edge of the Welsh Marches. Victorian Malvern offered the Water Cure, and fee-paying schools on an industrial scale: apparently the child-care solution of choice for absentee parents abroad running the Empire, or busy carving out professional careers at home, etc. It seems unlikely, though, that chess would have been on the curriculum as a must-have accomplishment for young ladies primped for the marriage market. If she wanted to play chess at school Miss Ballard may have been short of opponents.
Louisa was back home in Manchester Square in the 1871 census, and she and Joseph were married on 8th July 1872 at St.Thomas's (Roman Catholic) Chapel, Charles Street, Marylebone, with William Roberts Ballard Junior and Louis Alexander Fagan as witnesses. As we noted in episode two, the couple seemed to go pretty much straight back to his posting in India, via Italy (to visit his relations, presumably).
As you would expect, children arrived. Marie Blanche ("Dottie") was born 6 January 1874:
and her sister Eleanor on 24 May 1875, announced in the Times of India on the 2nd June 1875.
We are now in India in the last quarter of the nineteenth century - the jewel in the crown of Empire. It seems that (e.g. from here) medical conditions among officers of the Raj, comfortable in their bungalows, were not so much worse than back in London (which is not saying much) - hard luck, though, if you were in the ranks and in the barracks. Joseph Fagan was a Captain on 8 June 1875, so already favoured. That was the day that Eleanor (the second born) died. She was just 15 days old. She was buried the same day.
A tragedy for the Fagans.
As we saw in episode 2, Louisa Matilda had not forgotten her chess while out there as an army-wife in the Raj. She had sent her "Deesa" problems to her brother, to pass to Herr Zukertort, and they were published in 1875, and she played in the fêted Bombay Gymkhana tournament in 1882 - and won it. Joseph George was by then a Major and had been so since at least July 1880 (The Times of India). She was then, as the BCM October 1897 recalled - surely as told by Louisa herself - an "active member of the chess scene". But whether that was enough to keep her occupied while her husband was off a-soldiering, and a-clubbing at the Gymkhana, who knows. But at least she still had one daughter to devote herself to.
Marie Blanche was back in England in 1883 when she died aged 9 years and 4 months, carried off by measles like so many other children.
The Times of India 25 May carried the announcement (actually giving the place of death as 26, Manchester Square, the Ballard family home). Tragedy number 2 for the Fagans.
Incidentally, the address given on the death certificate (44 Fairholme Road, Fulham) was, as far as I can make out, a doctor's surgery. The cause of death was given by the unfortunate R.J.M. Coffin F.R.C.P., who was, later anyway, attached to the Army Medical Corps - so Dottie may have got the best care available, such as it was. Whether or not she had been sent to school in England, or returned for treatment; whether or not the parents were at her bedside when she died: these are unanswered questions. Travel from Bombay to London took around 12 days. Nonetheless, it would be reasonable to assume that Louisa Matilda had come back to London at some stage around her daughter's death; and equally it is plausible that Major Fagan came home too, though he would have had to return to his duties shortly afterwards.
After this second loss it is clear from all the evidence here on that some kind separation occurred between Louisa and Joseph, although precisely when is difficult to establish, and whether it was mutual or on one party's initiative or insistence is perhaps even less clear: but we'll have a go. First, though, another relevant question: why only two children? After all, they were married in a Catholic Chapel, and Louisa was only 25 when Eleanor died, and still only 33 when Dottie passed away. For an answer, consider the point that Eleanor - the second born - died perinatally: so perhaps Louisa's ability to conceive again had been compromised in her second childbirth. Such an affliction might have been stoically borne while Dottie was alive; but when she, too, later died (in 1883) the marriage must have come under existential strain. Louisa would have had no children to mother; and Joseph no family to head. For a Bombay Lancer with the future of his genes to consider, this may have been untenable.
Just as an aside on the Catholic dimension, as it could be relevant to the interpersonal dynamics: William Ballard Senior (an American) had written an essay in 1862 in which he proposed that the capital of the new Italian state should be physically distanced from the Vatican, suggesting that even if he was a follower of the Church of Rome he may have been a touch critical. On the other hand it is more probable that his wife - Italian by birth - might have been more devout. Quite how that would have played out in the religious affiliation of their children is impossible to know. I suppose the same goes for Joseph George Fagan. But the fact is they were married in a Catholic Chapel. Would that have been just to please their respective matriarchs?
It seems likely that Joseph was still persona grata in 1884 (chez Louisa's brother William, anyway - they may have been childhood friends, don't forget) because there is this famous game played at QN odds "quite recently" as said The Chess Monthly of January 1885. Herr Zukertort was the editor. (The game is best seen via Google Chrome).
The fact of this game means that if, in 1884, Joseph was losing spectacularly to William when in London (as I'm assuming), then Louisa would have been in London as well, and maybe also playing a game here and there, though maybe not losing so entertainingly.
Now consider the biographical note in the BCM in 1897 (in its extended commentary on the Ladies' International Tournament) that must have been based in good part on Mrs Fagan's own observations. It says: "for the last twelve years Mrs Fagan has been out of chess". This appears to indicate 1885 again, as the key year. However, the note continues "...but the Ladies' Chess Club brought her back into ranks of active players" - and we know she was playing for them in 1895: twelve years before that would take us back to 1883. But whichever: the chess referred to before the cut-off must have been that which she played in India; and after 1883, or 85, she was - as the BCM put it - "out of chess". Though tragically unencumbered by children she nonetheless would then have had a lot on her plate: an estrangement, resettlement in England, filling the hole in her life.
Thus 1883-5 seems to be a critical juncture, the turning point when she left India perhaps, and also Joseph (or - more likely IMHO - the other way round). As for Joseph: on January 1 1886 (reported in The Times of India) he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, which decidedly would have put him back in Bombay - where, as befitted his status, he was to be reported as a steward and judge at the July 1887 Gymkhana races: "all Deesa turning out to witness the sport" (ToI 27 July). It is possible to follow Joseph through the subsequent years back in India, but we will leave that for a later episode - it is a fascinating footnote in itself.
Finally another small piece to slot into the jig-saw puzzle of this period. In 1897, when reporting on the Women's International Tournament, some local papers recycled the observation that "Mrs Fagan was a pupil of the late Dr Zukertort, who had a high opinion of her talent." (eg Shetland Times 17 July) He had come to London in 1872, and had died in 1888. It seems plausible then, on the face of it, that the coaching would have taken place in the mid/late 80s, after her separation, even though her emergence into the formal domestic chess scene didn't happen till later - in 1895, in fact, with the creation of the Ladies Chess Club.
Whatever the actual sequence, it is clear that Louisa and Joseph went their separate ways some time between 1883/5 and - I would say - 1887 (basing the latter date on evidence from Joseph's side - which we will come back to). It was in this period that she developed, or gave wings to, her "strong views" on social issues: and we will come back to this in the next episode. But first we need to round off her biography - there was, as if she needed it, yet more bad news to come.
In 1891 the census shows Louisa living in a "Ladies Residential Club" at 30, Upper Montague Street in Marylebone, and giving her details as: married, an "Officer's Wife", born in Naples, and a "British Subject". She must have been, even more than ever, close to her brother, both in chess (he was mentioned - but never Joseph George - as a guest at Ladies CC soirées), and as family. So, she would have shared his grief when their mother Angelina died in 1895 - along of course with their father. Louisa was aunt to her brother's own daughter Lena Violet, he having married Mary Alice Jones in 1888. Lena Violet came along in 1890, at the time the Ballards were not far away in Drayton Gardens, Kensington. Having lost two daughters of her own one could imagine the special place that her niece Lena would have had in Louisa's heart.
It seems appropriate to interpose here a photo of Mrs Fagan, maybe from around 1898, showing her customary composure, and maybe more engagement with the viewer. It was used with the BCM obituary in 1931.
"..the champion of the [Ladies Chess Club], Mrs Fagan - owing to a family bereavement, will not play this season. The loss of a beautiful and promising niece, at the tender age of sixteen [sic], is a grief which every heart can realise; and in extending sympathy to Mrs Fagan I cannot refrain from expressing sorrow with the parents, Dr and Mrs Ballard, in the awful blow which has befallen them. She was their only child..."Devastating to lose children in their teens: yet that was tragedy number 3 for Mrs Fagan - or maybe number 4 if you think Joseph had, ten years previously, marched out on her and back to the Cavalry.
In 1905 she was embroiled in mild controversy concerning her non-appearance in the Southport British Ladies Championship that was won by her constant chess-chum Kate Belinda Finn. The BCM of September has a swipe at one chess writer "of foreign nationality" - it names the offender: Mr Gunsberg - for...
"...rush[ing] into print with the statement that Mrs Fagan, of London, is debarred from competing....As a matter of fact Mrs Fagan being the widow of a deceased Irish gentleman, is a British subject, and therefore fully qualified to play..."Egg on faces situation: Mrs Fagan wrote a perfectly temperate clarification - published the following month - correcting all parties with respect to widowhood (for the BCM's apologetic addendum, see the Appendix), and revealing her attitude as to nationality and eligibility for the British Ladies - note the opening sentence.
"I am not a widow - as stated - but the wife of an Irishman. May I also add that I was not born in America (as stated by Mr. Gunsberg....) but in Italy...being of Italian and American parentage, I certainly thought myself ineligible as a competitor for the British Ladies' Championship. Though a British subject by law, I did not suppose that my own nationality could be set aside in a matter of this kind...I think it most reasonable that the Federation should have a tournament for British Ladies only, and have never for a moment felt aggrieved at being unable (as I supposed) to compete for it...."So, she was Italian, thank you very much; and asserts her legal status as a wife - and therefore not divorced, let alone widowed. Joseph Fagan incidentally may have not seen it quite like that, as a subsequent episode in this series will show. A small detail worth noting here is that the letter to the BCM was sent from the Pioneer Club. 5, Grafton Way, Piccadilly, W. Another detail, an anomaly, is that she says that Fagan was an "Irishman"; but perhaps he was born there, or took his father's nationality, even though brought up in Italy.
Now, the final years of Louisa Fagan: she does not appear in the 1911 census, but it was boycotted by many women in the campaign for the vote. However, her brother - now 63 - does appear, now residing in Marylebone. She died on 11 August 1931 (of afflictions associated with her great age - 81 - as her death certificate shows) at 41 Tavistock Square, the address at which she appeared in the 1929 and 1930 electoral rolls along with another nine other persons, suggesting some kind of sheltered/care facility.
She is described on the death certificate as the "Widow of Joseph George Fagan, Lieutenant-Colonel Indian Army (Retired)". Her probate record show effects valued at £130, the administation of this estate (perhaps equivalent to £8000 today) being entrusted to William Roberts Ballard, retired dentist. William died in 1933, and he too had an obituary notice in the BCM. Like his sister he too had "gradually dropped out of chess" after the war.
Looking back we can now see that Louisa's life was wracked by personal tragedy and disappointment. The loss of her children, and for some reason the failure to bear more, must have been painful, and the source of profound regret, maybe even self-reproach. Divorce may not have been an option for her and her husband - for religious or, in the climate of the times, legal and practical reasons. She persisted in calling herself, and being identified as, the "wife of an Officer" to the bitter end, so in her eyes the marriage had never been cancelled de jure whatever its status de facto. It was a mark of her strength of character that she had moved on to build a successful career in chess, which - as we shall see - she may have had the confidence to do from her personal convictions concerning the emancipation of women.
Perhaps all this explains why the portrait of Mrs Fagan at the top of the post speaks to us as eloquently as it does.
In the next episode we will retrace our steps back to 1885 and explore the political outlook of Louisa Matilda Fagan, intimately connected, as it seems to have been, with the trajectory of her personal life.
Probable photograph of Joseph George Fagan: item (459/116) in the Hogg Collection: Carte de visite album of Major-General George Crawford Hogg. Described thus by the British Library: George Crawford Hogg (1842-1941) entered the Bombay Cavalry in 1858 and served in the Second Afghan War 1878-80; he was Quartermaster General, Bombay 1891-95 and commanded the Deesa District 1895-1900. Transferred to unemployed supernumerary list 1904.
From BCM October 1905
1. Waltzing Matilda; 2. Mrs Fagan's Game; 3. Mrs Fagan's Game Resumed. 5. Mrs Fagan's Politics 6. Another Mrs Fagan...and Her Politics. 7...And the Final "Mrs Fagan"
For all chess history posts in a previous incarnation go to the Streatham and Brixton Chess Blog History Index.