Friday 6 October 2017

Streatham Strolls West: Outward

Back in 2012 we instigated the practice of strolling chess-wise around Streatham and its environs - and occasionally even further afield. This is of obvious interest to those who live hereabouts and are members of the local chess club, but as chess knows no boundaries our wayfaring may have a broader appeal. So please follow as we set off for another chessic forage, this time to pastures, places, and games anew.

After Streatham Strolls East sometime ago (we got as far as Brockley and its cemetery, a few miles away, only to be stopped dead in our tracks by Joseph Blackburne, who pops up again below, large as life), now we go West - though not as far as Canada, the destination of our last outing. No, this time we go only as far Cornwall; and although our principal quarry is chess, there's another board game that will detain us en route: one as unfathomable as our own...

....draughts (or "checkers" as it also gets called).

The Cornish were rather good at it (and some, of course, still are) as I discovered by accident from an unlikely source: a chess magazine, from 1950. It was this discovery that prompted this perambulation westwards to follow up a piece of distant Streatham chess history, which will become clear - eventually - as we proceed.

This is what I stumbled on, one morning in the British Library:

From Chess November 1950

"World-famous draughts tradition". Remarkable. A "tradition" implies a practice passed down from one generation to the next over a long time-span - for as long as anyone can remember. If draughts is such a thing, it is one of Cornwall's better kept secrets: compared to, say, processional dancing, or eating pasties, perhaps at the same time. However, some digging around reveals that indeed there has been something interesting happening on 32 squares in Kernow, and it has been going on for ages.

There is an excellent book about it, as I discovered: The History of Draughts in Cornwall by John Gillbard (2015), which has the subtitle 1800's to 2015 - which thus goes well back beyond the year of 1950 of the Chess photo above. As he explains in his book, John (who was English amateur champion in 1980, and has represented England internationally) is himself is a fourth-generation draughts player - his great-grandfather played before him, and set the bug loose in the Gillbard gene-pool. This quote, from John's introduction, explains the game's popularity:
"[It] used to be played every day somewhere up and down the county, in pubs, village halls, homes, farms, etc and it was free entertainment and not much travel or none required. It could fill an evening very well....From about 1900 to c.1990 may towns and villages had a Draughts Team, from Launceston in the East to Penzance in the West." 
A painting - executed in 1928 - by the precociously talented 15 year-old Joan Manning-Sanders, who was then living in Sennen (near Lands End), helps make the point.

Joan Manning-Sanders (1913-2002)  The Brothers, 1928.
Oil on canvas, 90x97 cm. Private Collection. © The Artist's Estate

It shows draughts played by Cornish fishermen in the local pub, just as John Gillbard described. The game seems to have been a favourite a pastime for working folk - much more so than was chess, in Cornwall anyway, and other provincial areas.

Apart from its anthropological observation, the picture is interesting in itself. It was shown in the Royal Academy in 1928, and according to the eminent critic R.H.Wilenski (writing in 1929), The Brothers evokes Cezanne's Card Players - which, however, Joan Manning-Sanders had never seen. The "brothers" were - according to the artist herself - three individuals, and not the same model painted in three different poses, moreover the scene is worked up from sketches made at the pub doorway - the young artist wasn't allowed inside. The scene depicted on the back wall is apparently a also made from one of those studies.

Our strolling now seems to have turned up a side-street (but not, I hope, a blind alley): Draughts in Art. Let's have a quick look in case something else catches the eye: like this energetic counterpoint to the Brothers.

Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) Draughts  ?1900s 
Oil on card laid on canvas 50x69cm. From here

Here the move is happening before our very eyes in a mêlée of players and kibitzers. Whereas The Brothers are/is all inward composure and composed symmetry, Brangwyn's scrum is explicit in expression and unbalanced as if by design. I'm guessing that it was painted at the turn of the century (so, maybe a couple of decades earlier than Saunders), and once again there is no mistaking the demographic - although there is no certain clue as to location or geography.

If you fancy continuing a detour into the back-doubles of Draughts in Art you might explore this site, or this one (to take two examples) where you will find names and themes familiar from Chess in Art. But, to resume our strolling down the main-line: the resolute rambler should follow the lead set by John Gillbard and head Falmouth way. The earliest date of draughts significance he gives is, if I've got him right, 1859, when Robert Martins (1822-1904) of Penryn (near Falmouth) became World Draughts Champion. World Draughts Champion! From 1859 to 1864 (Gillbard p 5).

World Champ: though not in actual fact while he was in Cornwall, however much they may claim him as one of their own. He had already migrated (like so many) to London in 1833 (aged 13), and from there he "ventured up north to 1858" (Gillbard p5)

Martins (right) in action for the World Draughts Championship.
Wyllie and Martins played 6 matches - 400 games - over 40 years.
Dundee Evening Telegraph 28 April 1897
While in London it is said that "he played with an English and World Chess Champion Howard Staunton" (ibid). Readers who came along for Streatham Stroll Three will know that Staunton lived in Streatham in the late 1850s - if for no more than a year or so. This unexpected connection with our home turf demands investigation.

Corroboration of the Martins/Staunton encounter comes from John Townsend's "Notes on the life of Howard Staunton" (2011), who refers to an account originating from Martins himself, published in the journal Draughts World, and then recycled in the Otago Witness (April 15 1903 p 59). We can be sure that Martins had told his story many times, and "with glee" - and although Martins doesn't date it, there are sufficient clues for John Townsend to narrow down the relevant year to 1848 (or slightly earlier). In which case, it seems that, sadly, the Martins/Staunton engagement wouldn't have happened in Streatham: but it's worth noting some edited highlights nonetheless (for Staunton aficionados, if no-one else).

"In his early draughts history [Martins] had a good deal of intercourse with Staunton, the chess master" who, although "an expert of the first water in his own science...could do little at checkers" (Otago Witness as above). Staunton's friend and fellow writer on, indeed publisher of, the Illustrated London News, Herbert Ingram, was, by contrast, a decent player, and (so Martins' story goes) the two repaired for a "bachelor Easter holiday" to Ingram's uncle's "baronial hall" for some checkers - likely to have been Swineshead Hall, Boston, Lincs., says John Townsend. [Editorial Comment by MS - actually "Swineshead Abbey"; see comments box below]. They invited Robert Martins along, "to add to the pleasure and profit of their outing".

Swineshead Hall, Boston, Lincs. (not Cornwall)
The account continues: Martins "could always act the gentleman with his brilliant conversation", and was "a diplomatist" when the circumstance required it. After a lunch "speedily served in a sumptuous manner", a draughts board was produced and stakes were agreed:
"...each win was to be a sovereign, so the great checkerist [i.e. Martins] allowed the first game to be drawn; and the next three went to his credit, and the golden ducats into his pocket!....This went on for a week - a most enjoyable one for Martins, and he returned to London pleased with his achievements and richly lined purse!" (Otago Witness April 15 1903).        
So, Staunton was a chess and draughts cross-dresser, even if he is mainly remembered for his appearances in the former guise. There were - and are - many others with such ambiguous inclinations, and we'll come back next episode, on the return leg of this stroll in and around Cornwall, to someone else who played both ways: he has emerged recently from the Streatham and Brixton Chess Club back catalogue.

However, now that we are down here in Cornwall, let's look at another cross-chesser from days of yore, from Ludgvan. This snippet comes from the Cornish Telegraph July 2 1902 - a paper that demonstrated the parity of the two games in those parts, at least as far as the look of their respective columns was concerned.

In style both follow the model established by Staunton in the Illustrated London News back in 1845, though "our royal game" seems like a presumptuous attempt to upstage "this interesting pastime". Putting rivalry on one side, this is from a little further down the draughts column: a memorial notice a Mr Olds - another devotee of both games.

The village of Ludgvan is, by the way, a couple of miles or so from Penzance, and it is where today's Penwith/Penzance Chess Club meets. Penzance has a worthy draughts history including hosting the inauguration of the Cornish Draughts Association in 1911 under the guidance of its first President Zachy Nicholas of Sennen (where Joan Manning-Sanders painted her Brothers). Penzance Chess Club was formed in 1843 (it says here) or 1848 (it says here) - though that proves nothing about the extent of the popularity of chess compared with the endemic pursuit of draughts in the region; only perhaps that chessers were quicker off the mark forming a proper club (perhaps it was a class thing).

Blackburne (who claimed he was a "good player at draughts...from boyhood"...before turning to chess) played an 8-board blindfold chess simul in 1888 in Penzance, as part of a tour of the western counties (Harding p 258). Sadly none of his opponents turn up in the record in a draughts context. Bird was in Penzance a couple of years later taking on 10 (or 13) in a simul - and complimenting the players on an equivalent standard to the "major club at Plymouth" (Renette p 435).

But enough of chess: let's go on further to the wild-west granite town of St.Just, in its hey-day the tin-mining capital of Penwith, and the site of much draughts activity. A local derby in 1878 helps to underline the local working-class credentials of the game. This was the public challenge issued in The Cornish Telegraph (29 October 1878) by...
"...three or four members of the Penzance Working Men's Association desirous of meeting a similar number from the Parish of St.Just, to engage in a few friendly games at draughts...a good opportunity for Mr James Eddy the leading player of St. Just, and some of his friends, to show the Penzance men their skill." 
...and such was some poor soul's desperation for a decent game that he made an appeal in the same paper: "The advertiser will CHALLENGE anyone West of Penzance for a game of a friendly game....for 5s, 10s, 15s, or 20s.." (The Cornish Telegraph 16 April 1885). At that money it was a serious business.

A few years later, in 1890, St. Just saw the above-mentioned Messrs Olds and Nicholas play an exhibition match of 30 games (Cornishman 13 March 1890). The report of the affair affords us an opportunity for a "White to play" puzzle - it comes from one of the games in which (according to Mr. Nicholas) "Mr Olds (black) had gained an advantage early in the contest and it looked almost impossible for Whites to pull through. After close playing I (Mr Nicholas) was forced in the following position, which looks even now like a win for Black. What thinks our draughts-playing friends?"  Moreover, addressing readers of this post, what thinks our chess-playing friends?

"White (Nicholas) to play. What result?"
 (Cornishman 13 March 1890)
See Appendix for analysis.

So, all the suggestive indicators of a thriving tradition of draughts-playing are there: a proclaimed "county champion" as early as 1875 (i.e. Mr Tonkin of Penryn - a chap of the same name, and place, appeared on bd 16 of the first Cornwall v Devon chess match in 1902 - see here), local team matches, exhibition games by the experts, a County Association, press reportage, and a regular draughts column in the local paper - and even a painting: all this at the end of the 19th Century into the beginning of the 20th.

No doubt the First War put a dampener on proceedings, but draughts flourished on into the late 20th century, as our next episode will show when our rambling will continue as we head up-country to Eastern Cornwall and dog the footsteps of a pretty decent draughts-man. He will lead us back home to Streatham. We'll also take a longer look at the West Penwith Draughts Club, featured in Chess in 1950.

For anyone who is feeling a bit lost on this stroll, here is Western Cornwall in 1895, with Falmouth, Penzance, Sennen and St. Just circled in blue. The most dramatic walking route to follow would be the modern-day coastal path, which links all these points of draughty interest (with a short inland detour to St.Just ). It's only 90 miles, but is not for the faint of heart. Alternatively, you could get as far as Penzance by train, and then catch the omnibus.  

Adapted from here

Analysis of the Nicholas position by John Gillbard. [But see comment box - MS] 
"I cannot find anything bar a win for black here.
1. If white moves 13-9, then 10.17, 9-6, then black goes 7-11 , 6-2, and black can go 1 for 1 by 19-23,15-22 and white cannot win as it is 4 black to 2 white.
2. If white plays 14-9, 5-14, 13.9, 14-17, 9-6, 10-14, 6.2, 7-10, 17-21, 7-11, 10-14, 11-7, 14-17, 7-10, 18-22, 10-14, 22-25,  and black will win even if he loses a man.
I have tried other ways but to no avail for white. So I can find NO way that white can escape a loss here."

[I (MS) have not yet been able to source a free, safe, 8x8 draughts game animator - like this one for chess. If any reader knows one for draughts, please put the details in the comments box] 

Acknowledgments and References
Special thanks to John Gillbard: for so generously spending much more time on the Nicholas position than I ever imagined necessary; and for setting Zachy spinning in his grave. Thanks also to Katie Herbert @ Penlee Gallery Penzance, for assistance with The Brothers; and thanks for leads from Tim Harding, Hans Renette and John Townsend.

John Gillbard (2015). The History of Draughts in Cornwall.
Tim Harding (2015). Joseph Blackburne: A Chess Biography. McFarland, North Carolina.
R,H. Wilenski (introduction). (1929). Drawings and Paintings by Joan Manning-Sanders.  Faber and Faber.
Hans Renette (2016). H.E.Bird: A Chess Biography. McFarland, North Carolina.
John Townsend. (2011). Notes on the Life of Howard Staunton.

For the rest of the series West continue thusBacktrack; Inward; and Home Again.

Previous excursions:
Streatham Strolls 1; Streatham Strolls 2Streatham Strolls 3Streatham Strolls In The CountryStreatham Strolls In The Country ContinuedStreatham Strolls EastStreatham Strolls to Canada.  Also Brixton Byways, starting here.

For all our chess history posts see here and here.


Martin Smith said...

John Gillbard has just been in touch this morning to suggest that his analysis may have been based on a misapprehension. Watch this space (and enjoy - if you may - the rest of the post).

John Townsend said...


I was pleased to see the illustration of the draughts match. Robert Martins looks suitably crafty! The violinist in him is perhaps not so obvious.

I'm especially interested in his early assocations with Staunton. As I mentioned in my book, Martins lived in Farnham Place, Southwark, in 1841. Your remark that he had migrated to London in 1833 is interesting. That seems to be from page 5 of John Gillbard's book. If so, does he give a source for it?

It was Swineshead Abbey (not Hall) that I identified as the scene of the draughts games with Herbert Ingram. My suggestion that the date was between February 1845 and Easter 1848 was conditional upon Staunton's having been a bachelor at the time, taking into account that the visit was described as a "bachelor Easter holiday". However, that expression could have been used more loosely - as, in fact, it would have been if applied to Ingram, a married man - and that could mean the date was later.

Best wishes,

John Townsend

Martin Smith said...

Thanks for the correction, and clarifications, John (Townsend), and apologies for mixing up the country houses.

Since we are on corrections: John (Gillbard) actually has 1835 for Martins going to London.

JOhn Townsend said...

Many thanks for the reply, Martin. 1835 would be consistent with the age of 13. It would be interesting to know the source of that information.

Kind regards,


Martin Smith said...

I hope to clarify matters in a post on 20th October.