Friday 10 June 2016

Robert Coombes' Comeback

[This post by Martin Smith]

Back in 2011 - it seems so long ago - we told the story of Robert Coombes, aged 13, who, in 1895, murdered his mother. After an Old Bailey trial he was sent to Broadmoor - popularly known as a Lunatic Asylum - where he learnt to play chess, as it said in his hospital notes. In 1904 he appeared in The Irish Times listed as playing in a correspondence match for England against Ireland - and winning. His fellow inmate (or "patient", as you should prefer) Reginald Saunderson (also inside for murder) played for Ireland (and lost). We told Reginald's tale here.  

From the Weekly Irish Times, Saturday 7 May 1904

At the time it was enough that our Blog should follow Robert, and his acquisition of the chess bug, up to his release in 1912 (now age 30 and after he had been inside for 17 years). Beyond that his trail appeared to go cold in spite of your blogger's half-hearted effort to follow it further. I assumed that he had perished in World War 1.

Not, though, bestselling author Kate Summerscale, who, by dint of compulsive curiosity, dogged determination and formidable research, has unearthed the full story of Robert Allen Coombes (1882-1949) and tells it in gripping detail and illuminating context in her recently published, and widely reviewed, historical biography-cum-case study: The Wicked Boy.

She begins Robert's story in his time - late Victorian England - his place - the fetid Docklands of the East End of London - and with his childhood indulgence - a diet of Penny Dreadfuls. By chance all this provides a salutary counterpoint to the Mrs Fagan series that is currently unfolding on Lost on Time. It is a far cry from the contemporaneous middle class milieu of Louisa Matilda, of Manchester Square in Marylebone, the society of ladies, and chess over dinner at the Divan.

Chess resurfaces in the Coombes story, and there was a hint of this when Kate (Grandmaster Aaron is her cousin, by the way) contacted me three or more years ago in connection with that particular episode in our Asylum series on chess in Broadmoor (accordingly we get an acknowledgement in her book - thanks!). She tracked Robert via a brief period of rehabilitation with the Salvation Army and then to Australia.

Robert had learnt tailoring skills inside - where he had also developed his childhood musical talent. In Australia he signed up when war was declared, and served as a stretcher bearer and bandsman, to be decorated for valour in Gallipoli and the trenches of Northern France. Perhaps he had played chess in the killing fields, as did so many others.

After the war he settled down in Nana Glen in the north of rural New South Wales - up towards Brisbane. Remarkably, Robert - who perhaps had long since comprehended, and atoned for, his dreadful deed back in 1895 - continued to right the wrong by adopting an abused child and developing into his loved and loving substitute father, as Kate's researches revealed. It is likely that those now around him, including his adopted family, were unaware of Robert's tragic past. And he continued to play chess - still by correspondence. Amazingly three games of his were published in the Australian press in 1927/8 (and thanks to Kate for pointing me towards them). They are not included in The Wicked Boy, so the "press cuttings" and transcriptions are in the Appendix below.

Robert, playing White, won all three games against the same opponent, Maurice Ryan, who lived 150 or so miles to the north in Lismore. For the benefit of any non-chess players who may stumble on this post: in the first game, Coombes opens in swashbuckling style that would have been more common in the nineteenth century. He then calmly brings his pieces into play before pushing his opponent off the board. There is a nice coincidence in the accompanying notes in The Australian i.e. a reference to an earlier game involving William Ballard, Louisa Fagan's brother. The second game also demonstrates a fair degree of chess sophistication. Robert employs an opening variation he must have studied in the past. The last game is really a piece of chess trivia in which Ryan overlooks one of the oldest tricks in the book (unforgivable in correspondence chess where you have days to work out the best move) and loses in short order. The three games show Coombes outclassing his opponent.

It appears from the cuttings that it was Ryan who sportingly sent the games to the press, and seems to have been running the chess column in the local Northern Star - consequently I'm surmising that, of the two of them, it was Ryan who was more actively involved in the Australian chess scene - though, to date, I can't find any other reference to them playing in local chess competitions (for example, the New South Wales Championships - where games would have been played face to face). There is, though, this interesting press appearance by Maurice Ryan in the Western Mail (Perth) of 14th February 1929.

Presumably the above mentioned correspondent in New South Wales, referred to by Ryan, was Coombes. Ryan also crops up sending solutions for chess problems to the Brisbane Courier 20 September 1930.

On a personal note: after having given up on Robert when my own feeble efforts to follow him after Broadmoor came to naught, I was delighted to learn from Kate's email that he had survived the War. After the earlier calamity in his life he had made it though that particular hell. To read in her book that he had really "come good" was heart-warming. I had a tinge of pride in so far as chess might have had a small role in stabilising this troubled soul.

As to Robert's guilt: when I first read the Old Bailey transcript I had wanted to find that it was all a grotesque miscarriage of justice in a Victorian system ready to rush to judgement. I had hoped that it wasn't Robert whodunnit and that the one adult at the scene, John Fox, the odd job man, was in fact the culprit. But that was going too far. Robert's confession was immediate, voluntary and incontrovertible. However, in her book, Kate hints that all was not well in the Coombes household. There was a suggestion that Emily Coombes was excessively violent towards her two boys, and yet that Robert had been sleeping in the same bed as his mother in the days leading up to the murder (the father was away at sea). In our more enlightened times (as we like to think) we might consider that this helps us understand how he came to do it. But - as Kate explained in a session at the Brighton Festival in May this year - there wasn't enough evidence in the historical record to nail down these potentially mitigating circumstances.

As for Coombes' chess comeback in Australia, if anything further emerges, you (and Kate) will be the first to know.  

Notes etc
Books by Kate Summerscale (i.e the ones I have read): The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008); Mrs Robinson's Disgrace (2012); The Wicked Boy (2016). All excellent.
For chess in the Asylum see here.
For more on chess in World War 1, see the series beginning here.
For all our chess history posts see here.

The Chess Games of Robert Allen Coombes.

Click on to enlarge
The first game (on the left) was published in The Australian of 26 November 1927. The opening paragraph reads:

"ALLGAIER GAMBET [sic] M.R.of Linsmore, N.S.W. writes to us pointing our how rarely an Allgaier Gambit is seen nowadays. Too true! The opening yields positions which are among the finest in chess. It is specially rich in brilliant endings. And yet it has disappeared from serious play. Many players having the Black pieces are afraid to accept it. Others think they can get an advantage by other moves such as 2...P to Q4 in the opening, and as a result it is now only of historical interest. Our correspondent sends in a fine example of the opening recently played by correspondence".

In this, and the second game, I have retained the descriptive notation in the Notes. (These games may be better seen via Google Chrome.)

The second game, with Coombes as White again, was published in The Australian 14 January 1928, and was reproduced, with the same notes, in The Brisbane Courier 11 February 1928. The contestants were described as "two enthusiasts".    

The third game was published in the Northern Star (Lismore N.S.W.) 26 May 1928. Chess readers can play it blindfold from the cutting above.


Ilkley Chess said...

Two more games of Coombes and Ryan

19 May 1928 - COUNTRY CHESS. - Trove - 19 May 1928 - COUNTRY CHESS. - The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946)

Trove - 11 Feb 1928 - THE "BRISBANE COURIER" 24th INTERNATIONAL COMPOSING TOURNEY. - The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 - 1933)

Gerard Killoran

Martin Smith said...

Great.Thanks Gerard.
Will resurrect and post in due course.

Ilkley Chess said...

Don't tell Justin, but Maurice Ryan was a chessboxer.

08 Sep 1934 - GORDON WINS EASILY - Trove - 08 Sep 1934 - GORDON WINS EASILY - Northern Star (Lismore, NSW : 1876 - 1954)


Martin Smith said...

No; better not.