Friday 7 April 2017

Herbert Jacobs: 6. Engaging Agnes

After a lot of his chess in this series (beginning here) about Herbert Levi Jacobs (1863 - 1950) we now go off-piste and look at the other aspects of his absorbing life, beginning with the lead up to his marriage. There should be room for more chess-oriented episodes up ahead.

As we reported in episode 2, Herbert passed into the bless├Ęd state of Benedict on 14th April 1888 in the Registry Office at Paddington. Now 25, he married Charlotte Agnes Larkcom, about whom, and their puzzling relationship, there is much to be said. Agnes was already in the public eye in 1877 some years before their marriage - and so you can get a good look at who we are talking about, here is the "pretty" Miss Larkhom (as the press - chess and otherwise - was wont to describe her).

Miss Agnes Larkom. 
The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News Saturday February 7, 1877.  

She was on the front page. To find out why, read on.

Singular Eminence

The first interesting thing to note about Miss Charlotte Agnes Larkcom - aka Agnes Larkcom, or Madame Agnes Larkcom, or, as she finally wanted to be known, Agnes Jacobs-Larkcom (but never, apparently, if she had anything to do with it, Mrs Herbert Jacobs) - is that she was born in 1856, which made her about seven years older than Herbert. This strikes one as unusual, and means that when they married she was 32 - most sources say that the average age for marriage in that Victorian period was the early twenties. To put Agnes's late marriage in context: Herbert's mother had had 8 children by the same age.

Charlotte Agnes Larkcom hailed from Thatcham in Berkshire, and the first reference that I found to her was in the local paper, the Berkshire Chronicle. She crops up on 2 December 1871 (when she would have been 15) with reports of three performances in Reading. Her sister Rebecca was also mentioned - suggesting music in the family. Miss Agnes Larkcom drew "forth a rapturous encore": "this young lady possesses an excellent voice and has all the qualifications for making a really good singer."  

Three years later she was in the Berkshire Chronicle again (26 December 1874), when she was 18, having won a competition for the Westmorland scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. This was after having being sent there earlier to study "at the proper time" and since a "very tender age". This tactful imprecision comes from the 1877 issue of the ISDN that featured her "attractive 'counterfeit presentment'" on its front page (reproduced above). "Counterfeit presentment" seems to be a knowing reference to a comedy of manners of that title written in 1877 by William Dean Howells (it was not called the Dramatic News for nothing). It is also from a line in Hamlet suggesting simply a painted image, and perhaps the picture above, was of Agnes in performance costume.

The 1877 ISDN piece is helpful because it notes, retrospectively, that Agnes had won another national music competition in 1875 and that she had also just had a season of 26 performances at the Covent Garden Promenade Concerts, which had sufficed "to establish her reputation" (though she "had not been heard much" prior to that in the capital). The piece enthusiastically offered such ringing endorsements as: "singular eminence in her profession"; "her rapidly augmenting"; "her repertoire is extensive"; "she is young reasonably aspire to any position in her art". Moreover, and to cap it all, she "is not grievously afflicted by the last infirmity of noble minds" (i.e. the thirst for fame). Quite a catch for some young fellow.

The 1881 census has Agnes with her mother (now a widow) at an address in St. Pancras (Herbert was then still in Streatham) - convenient for the Royal Academy in Marylebone, presumably. In the early 80s she was giving a succession of concerts in the provinces; including her home town of Reading. Below is a very small selection of her billings in her energetic and crowded itinerary in this period (you can find them by the bucket-load in the newspapers of the time). She was performing in all corners of the country, over some three or four years: Lincoln (1881), Galashiels (1882), and Plymouth (1883), joining, to do so, various touring concert ensembles (as noted by the ISDN piece referred to above).

Enigma Variations

So now we come the intriguing issue as to how it was that the paths, and the stars, of Herbert and Agnes, came to cross. To begin with some tantalizing clues from the chess press: we know that Jacobs was an enthusiastic problemista, with several published in 1883 in the chess column of the Croydon Guardian, including 13 January, but perhaps significantly, Miss Agnes Larkcom had a problem in the same paper on the 20th January 1883. It was welcomed thus:

And here is her first Croydon problem:

By Miss Agnes Larkcom (London)
White to play, and mate in 2 moves
(From Croydon Guardian 20 January 1883) 

Presumably some talent spotter suggested that the Croydon Guardian should publish her contributions, and perhaps the following gives the game away (in the chess column on 17 February 1883): "The last issue of the 'Torquay Directory' contains a problem by H Jacobs of Addiscombe dedicated to Miss Agnes Larkcom" (though unfortunately I haven't been able to find it in the British Newspaper Archive; Morland Road is in Addiscombe, a neighbourhood of Croydon). Such dedications were common at the time and obviously indicates admiration, though not necessarily intimate association.

So, it is clear that both Agnes and Herbert were involved in the world of chess problems throughout 1883 - maybe on parallel tracks, maybe in consultation, maybe not - and we can place Agnes and Herbert on the same page again in 1884 (Herbert's chessic annus mirabilis), in connection with the Sheffield Independent Problem Competition of 83/4: though, yet again, this doesn't mean that they were both in Sheffield at the time, nor (in and of itself) that they were making moves together somewhere else.

Sheffield Independent 15 March 1884
(M.R. is the Matlock Register, in which the tournament started. It transferred in November 83
 because of too many printers errors - per comment in the Croydon Guardian 17 Nov 83) 

The Matlock/Sheffield column was run by the doyenne of the chess problem world, Frideswide Beechey (or Mrs T. B. Rowland; although based in Dublin, she joined the new Surrey Chess Association as a remote member). Jacobs and Agnes had contributed to the Rowlands' wedding tribute in 1884 - indeed their names were printed adjacent in the list of subscribers (in the Croydon Guardian 12 July 1884, for example). By the way, the Jacobs family was now living in Morland Road, Croydon (if not for long, only until 1885). Herbert would then have been 21.        

Obviously Agnes was bitten by the same chess-problem bug as Herbert, and is later credited in the Nottinghamshire Guardian (9 May 1884) as correctly solving a Jacobs problem, which perhaps suggests that they were not "out" as "an item" at that stage (even if they were one) - insider collusion would have been bad form. Agnes was continuing to compose throughout '84, with many examples in the chess columns. Worth mentioning is a five-move help mate in the Irish Sportsman March 15 1884 where Miss Beechey, no less, applauds her as "a young lady who has distinguished herself as one of the most talented and gifted solvers of the day." Herbert was also publishing frequently, and offering prizes, in the Croydon Guardian, during 1884.

There is another suggestive, if obscure, Larkcom/Jacobs coincidence in the Sheffield Independent 26 July 1884 where both Herbert and Agnes have brain-teasers published in the same holiday edition of its Puzzledom section (though the composite below is not the layout in the paper). So as not to spoil your fun I have removed the answers to an Appendix: but as a clue to the solution of the Jacobs' "Enigma": you are after a word that makes its mark in three letters, and its French equivalent in five. Agnes's solution is a semi-acrostic (first row nine letters, diminishing one by one thereafter).

I regret that today, unlike the Sheffield Independent thenI am unable to offer prizes; but since we are on the subject of acrostics, try and read (and even enjoy) this one from Croydon Guardian 24 November 1883 (reproduced, it said, from the Matlock Register) - and wonder (like me) who might have composed it:

With apologies for the poor reproduction.
Perhaps the puzzles are not really a coincidence, and maybe Herbert and Agnes did, indeed, spend time together contriving their diversions. For another connection (also from 1884), with a stronger chess-flavour, which does actually put them together in the same place, here is an unambiguous note in the Croydon Guardian 9 August. It reports on a match (26 July in Croydon) between the Surrey Chess Association (for whom Herbert played and won) and the "strong" North London Chess Club - "which resulted, contrary to the expectations of many, in a victory for the Association" - 11.5 v 8.5 in fact. The report continues: "the meeting was one of the pleasantest held in connection with chess for some time...Among those present among the players were Miss Agnes Larkcom..." - which fits our developing narrative - "and" - it continues - "Mr. Herbert Reeves (son of the famous tenor)" - hinting, possibly, at another suitor. Perhaps, then, in true rom-com fashion, the course of the Larkcom/Jacobs courtship did not always run smooth, as we'll see below.

For a final chess clue - one that can surely only have been based on some degree of mutual association (and probably something stronger) - we can turn to Herbert's chess column in the Whitgift Magazine of October 1884 (the magazine for his old school).  It shows a chess problem set by a pupil, and crediting a notable solver: Miss Agnes Jacobs (though former student Harold Jacobs also cracked it). How, if not by direct contact with Herbert, do you imagine Agnes would have got hold of his old school mag? Not from her local newsagent, that's for sure.           

Harmonic intervals

Thus the connections between them seem strong in 1883, and maybe stronger in 1884. But we can sandwich these with some even more intriguing clues about the course of their relationship: one from 1881, and another from 1885.

In 1881 - when Herbert was only 18 - he had a song lyric from his own pen set to music (by one J.G. Callcott, about whom little is known). It was, says the front sheet, "composed expressly for and sung by Miss Agnes Larkcom". The way to this lady's heart was down her vocal chords.

Words by Herbert Jacobs. Music by J.G. Callcott. Pub by Enoch and Sons London, 1881 
It is perhaps not to our taste today, but the sentiment of the lyric is clear: she's a bit of a tease, but he gets her in the end. Fast forward 4 years (with all that problem setting and solving, and performing) to 1885, and we find this notice of a concert given in Norwich early that year.
The Norwich Mercury February 14 1885
Thus, the talented Herbert Jacobs was himself sufficiently accomplished to set words to music - at a standard acceptable to a professional singer such as Agnes - and again it is dedicated to her, for her to perform. Here are the words, composed by the 17th Century poet Sir John Suckling, and set by Herbert...

Words by Sir John Suckling. Music by Herbert Jacobs. Pub by Boosey and Co., 1885  
...and perhaps a change in tone: a touch of frustration, maybe? Stop messing about. Is it on or is it off?

How very Victorian, and romantic. However, I'm still baffled about the initial circumstances wherein Agnes, aged 25 and already launched on a concert career, might have crossed the radar of an 18-year old who - in 1881 - had barely left school (but might have just started his University studies). Was he perhaps smitten by her evident "prettiness" at some concert or other? Might it have been earlier even than 1881, by which time he had already written his ode, and had it set to music? Specifically, might it have been at the Croydon Literary and Scientific Institute on Thursday 13 December 1877, when the star struck?

For that concert she was "engaged to assist" (Croydon Advertiser 15 Dec) in a performance of Mendelssohn's oratorio St.Paul, where she gamely struggled on "although suffering from the effects of a cold". She "render[ed] ... artistically the soprano music ...being loudly applauded" added The Advertiser. If he had been there, might his feelings for her have stirred at that very moment, captivated her appearance, her voice, and her stoicism - even though he was a stripling of just fourteen summers? Or was he back in Streatham doing his homework?

Common Cause

Whatever the origins of Herbert's and Agnes's relationship, there is evidence that, in addition to the music, the chess and the puzzles, something more may have had them singing from the same hymn-sheet: Women's Suffrage.

The first hint of this on Herbert's side is in the Croydon Guardian 5 July 1884, in a feature in its chess column headed "Ladies and Chess". I have reproduced it in Appendix 2.  His embryonic, if tentative, emancipationist inclinations are apparent from the first sentence: "It has often been a matter of wonder to me why chess is comparatively so little cultivated by ladies. This may be because there is an impression among them that the game is to [sic] abstruse for the feminine intellect, and this has certainly be growled out in some few impotent and obscure chess columns", going on to say that "I need only assure them, that chess, with its complexity, variety, hearty and historic dignity affords exercise and amusement for every kind and degree of intellect."

To make his point Herbert gives examples of ladies who have "gained distinction as players, solvers and composers". Some of those he then names will be known to students of chess history: Miss Beechey (see above), Miss Thorold, and Miss Rudge. However, in such company the next one comes as a surprise: Miss Larkcom. Or does it? It surely flatters Agnes's chess abilities to put her on the same level as the last two, there is no evidence, for example, of her playing competitive over-the-board chess. But perhaps Herbert's judgement was clouded...

Two weeks later, in the Croydon Guardian (19 July), Herbert "proposed to establish in Croydon a Chess Club for ladies, the members meeting for play in one another's homes". Those interested were invited to "communicate with him" at Morland Road, Croydon. On November 15th the column announced that Mrs Webb, also of Morland Road, "puts her home at disposal, at 3pm on Thursday 20 November, for the Ladies Club". According to the Ward's name/street directory for Croydon in 1884 and '85 - which shows the Jacobs at No 17 (but not in '86) - the Webbs were at "Cherwell" just across the road. Sadly, there are no further reports, success or otherwise, of the Croydon Ladies Chess Club.

At about the same time, on Saturday June 21 1884, Agnes had a letter published in the correspondence column, not, as you might have expected, of the Berkshire Chronicle, but of the South London Press, Herbert's local paper. Her letter is also reproduced in full, in Appendix 3. It is headed WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE, and begins by expressing disappointment that the governing Liberal Party should have been whipped into voting down a pro-suffrage amendment in the Commons. She inveighs against those who claim "to know always better than women what is good for them, and by endeavouring to limit the development of the female mind by their own personal wishes and convenience, men are guilty of the same injustice as that committed when one nation forces its laws and institutions on another."

Is it really just another coincidence that both Herbert and Agnes make their pitch in terms of the "intellect" of women. Agnes goes one step further though, with this refreshing thought: "The most patriotic Englishmen will scarcely suggest that it would be an improvement were the whole world peopled solely by his compatriots."

Next, as clear evidence of her involvement with suffrage campaigning, she was reported "directing" two concerts in support of the National Society for Women's Suffrage "from which it is to be inferred...that Miss Agnes Larkcom is herself an advocate.." according to the rather sniffy The Musical World (June 4 1887), which reported the Grand Morning Concert of 21st May at the Princes Hall.
From The Graphic January 27, 1883.

"The music selected was not of a very high order", it loftily declared, "though the supporters of the society, who were present in force, seemed thoroughly to enjoy it." There was more snobbery concerning one performer, and her fans: "Miss Eleanor Rees appears to to think her friends are always satisfied with the same song from her, so regularly does she give 'The Worker' in public."

The Shields Daily News 27 May 1887 gave a more sympathetic account. Agnes "the well-known soprano" had organised the concert with "the energetic Secretary of the Women's Suffrage Society" Miss Balgarnie - who we met in episode 3 at the August 1888 match between teams from the Inns of Court (also present, then, was chesser and suffrage advocate Llewellyn Atherley-Jones MP). The paper's columnist - "Filomena" - allows herself a style note, as if to say that all those suffrage-supporters are really quite normal: "I really think the notion that advocates of the right of women who pay rates to vote about their expenditure, must be unfashionable and curious persons, has by this time died a natural death." "Penelope" in her "Ladies Column" in the Western Times 21 June 1887, was also supportive, reporting that Agnes "sang most pleasantly", and that there were a number of men in attendance (as well as Suffrage royalty such as Mrs Fawcett, Mrs Joseph Bright etc.), and "others who are fairly struggling to gain for women their just and proper representation in the State."

Enough Already

And that is probably as far as we need to go in plotting the process of the engagement of Herbert and Agnes - even if we have not established precisely the magic moment when he went down on bended knee. When we pick up this thread again we will follow them the other side of the nuptials, when Herbert appears to take over as the more prominent campaigner for women's suffrage - but the next episode will be a chess reprise.

[With thanks to the Croydon Local History Centre.]

Previous and subsequent episodes on Herbert Jacobs may be accessed via Lost in History    
Appendix 1
Solutions to Puzzles

Enigma solution: Ink - Encre (actually given as "Incre" in the Sheffield Independent

Half-word square:


Appendix 2
Jacobs on Ladies and Chess

From The Croydon Guardian 5 July 1884 (reconfigured)
Click on to enlarge
Appendix 3
Agnes Larkhom letter on Women's Suffrage 
From South London Press 21 June 1884 (reconfigured)
Click on to enlarge

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