Last time you met, amongst other chess playing Leicester Ladies, Elsie Margaret Reid, a British Ladies’ Championship contender, and witnessed her marriage to Alfred Lenton.
It’s now time to meet her husband.
Perhaps you’ve see Michael Wood’s 2010 documentary series Story of England. If you have, you’ll be aware that it tells its story from the perspective of Kibworth, seen as being a typical village in the middle of the country. In fact it’s two villages in one, owned by different families in the Middle Ages. Kibworth Harcourt is north of the railway line, and, the more significant part, Kibworth Beauchamp (just as Belvoir is pronounced Beaver, Beauchamp is pronounced Beecham), where the shops are, is south of the railway line. There used to be a school there too: a Grammar School founded in about 1359, but in 1964 it migrated to the Leicester suburb of Oadby. You’ll meet one of the new school’s most distinguished former pupils next time.
The Lenton family had been prominent in the village for centuries, perhaps arriving there from the area of Nottingham bearing that name. There’s a brief mention in one of the Story of England episodes, but they don’t seem to have educated their children at the Grammar School.
Join us now on 28 December 1744, when, between the Christmas celebrations and the dawn of the new year, the community welcomed the arrival of Robert Lenton, who was baptised that day. We know his father’s name was Richard, but it’s not entirely clear whether this was Richard the son of Robert, born in 1710, or Richard the son of Richard, born in 1719. I suspect they were cousins, but there’s no way of telling for certain from the extant parish registers. There are reasons to believe – and hope – that it was the older Richard who was Robert’s father.
Robert was a butcher by trade: a significant member of the local community. His youngest son, William, was born in 1787. He married a girl from Bedworth, Warwickshire, in 1811. Maybe he had moved there to seek work, or perhaps she was in service in Leicestershire. They soon returned, settling in Smeeton Westerby, a small village just south of Kibworth Beauchamp.
The first census as we know them today was taken in 1841, and we can pick William up there in both the 1841 and 1851 censuses, where his occupation is given as FWK – Framework Knitter. This was a very common occupation in the East Midlands at the time: William and his family would have been working at home using mechanical knitting machines. By 1851 his oldest son, also named William, had moved into Leicester, but was still working as a framework knitter. In 1853 he married a widow, adopting her children and presenting her with two more sons, William and Thomas.
His younger son, Thomas, very typically for his place and time, spent his working life in the footwear industry, involved in various aspects of making shoes. So here we see a very common pattern of men and their families moving out of villages and into cities where there was plenty of factory work available. His oldest son, another Thomas, also sought factory work, but rather than on the manufacturing side, he worked as a warehouseman for the clothing company Hart & Levy. Sir Israel Hart, one of the company’s founders, was Mayor of Leicester 1884-6 and 1893-94 and President of Leicestershire Chess Club. between 1894 and 1896.
In 1910 this Thomas married Ethel Wood, born in 1888. Ethel was perhaps slightly higher up the social scale: her father, John, was a School Attendance Officer, although his background was also very much working class. Here he is, on the right. John and his wife Sarah had five daughters (Ethel was the fourth), the oldest of whom married into a branch of the Gimson family, followed by a son.
In the 1911 census Thomas and Ethel, not yet able to afford their own house, were living with Thomas’s widowed father and two brothers. He was described as working in the tailoring industry.
On 1 November that year, their first son, Alfred, was born, followed in 1914 by another son, whom they named Philip.
In this family photograph, taken in about 1917, you can see the proud parents with their two boys.
By 1921 the family were living at 27 Halkin Street, north of the city centre (the door of this very typical two up two down Victorian terraced house is open to welcome us in). I would have passed the end of the road regularly in my first year at what was then the Leicester Regional College of Technology, when I was living in digs in Thurmaston. Ethel’s mother had died a few months earlier, and her father was now living with them.
By now Ethel was expecting a third child, and another son, named Clifford was born later that year.
Alfred, a bright, bookish and perhaps rather quiet boy, won a place at Alderman Newton’s Grammar School, where he was a contemporary of the historian Sir John Plumb and a few years below novelist CP Snow, a member of Leicestershire Chess Club during the 1923-24 season.
This was a time when chess was becoming popular amongst teenage boys, and it was when he was 15 that young Alfred learnt the moves. The earliest appearance I can find is in December 1928, at the age of 17, losing his game on bottom board for the Victoria Road Institute (I’d encounter his son playing chess for Leicester Victoria more than four decades later.)
At the Victoria Road Institute, Alfred received some instruction from their top player, building contractor Herbert William Lea, soon making rapid progress. By early 1930 he’d come to the attention of the county selectors, and was one of the promising young players they tried out in a match against Birmingham.
By 1931 Lenton was playing on top board for Victoria Road, taking a high board in the county team and participating in the county championship. Here was a talented and ambitious young man who was clearly going places.
If you’re an ambitious chess player, one of the places you’ll go to is Hastings, and, at the end of that year, he travelled down to the south coast where he was placed in the Major B section.
Here’s what happened.
Full tournament report (and larger format crosstable) here.
This was a whole new experience for him, and it’s not surprising that he found the going tough. In this game his hesitant opening play soon got him into trouble when he was paired against a creative tactician who unleashed a cascade of sacrifices. (Click on any move of any game in this article for a pop-up window.)
Alfred learnt from this experience that he needed to take the game more seriously: in an interview many years later he explained that, at this point, he was studying chess for three hours a day.
The following year he returned again – and seems to have brought a friend along with him – as you might remember from last time.
He did indeed maintain his lead to the end of the tournament, as you can see here. Perhaps the opposition was slightly weaker than the previous year, perhaps his hours of study were paying off, or perhaps it was Elsie’s presence that was responsible for his success.
Full tournament report (and larger format crosstable) here.
(As far as I can tell, C(ecil?) H(unter?) Reid, Peter Reid, whom he played the previous year, and Elsie Margaret Reid were totally unrelated.)
In 1933 the British Championship was held separately from the remainder of the congress, which took place in Folkestone at the same time as the Chess Olympiad.
Alfred was one of a number of promising young players in the Premier Reserves, the second section down: you’ll meet some of them in future Minor Pieces. His 50% score was a good result in such a strong field.
Full tournament report (and larger format crosstable) here.
This game demonstrates that he’d been working on his openings since his first tournament appearance, and concludes with a neat tactic.
The following month the Leicester Evening Mail had some important news.
Alfred had got himself a column in a local paper. Each week there would be the latest chess news, a game, which could be of local, national, international or historical interest, along with a puzzle for solving. He was a young man who enjoyed both reading and writing.
Here’s a powerful win against the stronger of the Passant brothers, slightly marred by his 17th move, giving his opponent a tactical opportunity which went begging.
By now established as his county’s second strongest player behind Victor Hextall Lovell, he returned to Hastings after Christmas, where he scored an excellent third place with only one defeat, well ahead of his Leicester Victoria clubmate Watts and former Leicestershire player Storr-Best.
Full tournament report (and larger format crosstable) here.
In this game he missed a win against his Dutch opponent.
The 1934 British Championships took place in Chester, when Alfred was places in the Major Open Reserves, in effect the third division, while his future wife Elsie (were they engaged at this point?) played in the British Ladies’ Championship.
Lenton was essentially a positional player, but here he unleased a very different weapon when Black against 1. d4 – the dangerous and, at the time, fashionable Fajarowicz variation of the Budapest Defence. It proved rather successful against his clergyman opponent (you can read about him here) in this game, where his opponent miscalculated a tactical sequence, overlooking a queen sacrifice.
His opponent in this game, another talented young Midlands player, will need no introduction.
Full tournament report (and larger format crosstable) here.
You’ll see that he was extremely successful in this event, sharing first place. Full tournament report (and larger format crosstable) here.
He was rather less successful at Hastings that winter, as you’ll see below.
Full tournament report (and larger format crosstable) here.
On the home front, though, he was more successful.
Don Gould, in Chess in Leicestershire 1860-1960, sums him up at this stage of his career:
The new champion had left Alderman Newton’s School only six years previously. He was a fine all-round player, with a particularly good grasp of positional play. Unlike Lovell, he had been entering for national tournaments, and profiting by the better practice obtained thereat. Later on he twice won the Midland Counties Individual Championship, and finished in a tie for second place in the British Championship. At that time, he favoured the Reti Opening and the Buda-Pest Defence. Lenton for some years ran a chess column in the local press.
This result (he’d repeat his success the following year) established him as the strongest player in Leicestershire, and, in the 1935 British Championships, held in Great Yarmouth, he was selected for the championship itself.
In this game Lenton displayed his endgame skill after his opponent missed an opportunity on move 17.
Endgame skill, along with hypermodern openings, were the key to his successes at this time of his life. His opponent here was unable to cope with the opening.
Admittedly it wasn’t the strongest renewal of the British, but this was still an outstanding performance, which would have been even better but for a moment of tactical carelessness in the last round.
At this level you can’t afford to give your opponent an opportunity like that.
Full tournament report (and larger format crosstable) here.
Now top board for his county, and with a new job as a local government officer (he’d transferred his chess allegiance from VIctoria to NALGO) he returned to Hastings over the Christmas holidays. There were so many entries for the Premier Reserves that the organisers decided to run two sections of equal strength, with Alfred in the B section.
He used his favourite variation of the Caro-Kann in this game, grabbing a hot pawn early on (sometimes you can get away with Qxb2) and surviving to dominate the enemy rook in the ending.
You’ll see from the tournament table this was another great success for the Leicester man. It’s perhaps significant that, while all three of his losses were published, the only win I’ve been able to find was the game above.
Full tournament report (and larger format crosstable) here.
1936 was the year of the famous Nottingham tournament, which took place in August. The British Championship itself took place separately, in Bournemouth in June.
Again, many of the top players were missing, and Sir George Thomas, who would probably have been considered the most likely winner, was out of form. Would Alfred improve on his shared third place the previous year?
Here, he was outplayed in the opening, but his Birmingham opponent miscalculated the tactics, leaving him two pawns ahead in the ending.
He only needed 11 moves to defeat his Ipswich opponent in this game. White’s catastrophic error would be a good candidate for a Spot the Blunder question in the next Chess Heroes: Tactics book.
As you’ll see above, he equalled his previous year’s score, which, this time round, was good enough for a share of second place. There were a lot of talented players in their mid 20s around at the time, and Lenton seemed at this point to be as good as any of them.
Full tournament report (and larger format crosstable) here.
Meanwhile, Alfred had reached the final of the Forrest Cup, the Midland Counties Individual Championship, where he faced future MP Julius Silverman. A rather fortuitous win brought him the title.
Nottingham in August was only a short journey. The Major Open was split into two equal sections, both in themselves fairly strong international tournaments.
This time his performance was slightly disappointing. The three games I’ve been able to find include two losses and this game, where he did well to survive and share the point.
Full tournament report (and larger format crosstable) here.
After the tournament, Alekhine visited Leicester to give a simultaneous display, winning 33 games, drawing 5 and losing 2, one of which was to Lenton.
Alfred’s marriage to Elsie Margaret Reid was registered in the fourth quarter of 1936. They both decided to give Hastings a miss that year.
His favourite Réti Opening wasn’t always successful against stronger opposition, but it could be devastating against lesser lights, as shown in this game from a county match.
In May that year, Alfred made his international début in the inaugural Anglo-Dutch match, scoring a win and a draw (he was losing in the final position) against Klaas Bergsma. He also won the Forrest Cup for the second time.
Then it was on to Blackpool for the British Championship. Would he improve on his performances in the two previous years?
It was soon clear that the answer would be no. Something was clearly wrong in the first week, when he lost his first five games. Was he unwell? Who knows? But he fought back well to score 4½ points from his last six games, including wins against two venerable opponents.
Winning this game against a man who must have been one of his heroes, 9 times British Champion and Leicester’s finest ever player, now in the twilight of his career. A powerful pin on the e-file proved decisive.
Against the tournament runner-up he demonstrated his knowledge of Réti’s hypermodern ideas: note the queen on a1. His position wasn’t objectively good, but it seemed to leave Sir George confused.
Full tournament report (and larger format crosstable) here.
Two games from this period demonstrate again how lethal his queen’s bishop could be in his favourite double fianchetto set-up. You might want to see them as a diptych: both being decided by a Bxg7 sacrifice.
In 1937 Leicestershire reached the final of the English Counties Championship.
We have two photos and a report.
Now into 1938, Alfred won the Forrest Cup for the third time, his final game producing another sacrificial finish.
He again scored 1½/2 in the 1938 Anglo-Dutch match, this time paired against Chris Vlagsma. His opponent was doing well here before ill-advisedly opening the f-file.
Then it was down to Brighton for the 1938 British Championship, which proved to be another disappointment.
The low point was a loss in only 9 moves against Tylor.
In the very next round, though, switching from his usual Réti, he won in 13 moves when Frank Parr got his queen trapped. This time capturing his opponent’s b-pawn with his queen wasn’t a good idea.
It’s not clear what had happened to his chess here. I suspect that, with the twin demands of his job and married life, he was no longer putting in the three hours study every day.
Here, from Battersea Chess Club’s obituary of Parr, is a photograph, with Lenton on the right considering his move.
And here, as you see, he finished in a share of 10th-11th place, quite a comedown from his results of 2 and 3 years earlier.
Full tournament report (and larger format crosstable) here.
In spite of this result, he was selected for the 1939 Anglo-Dutch match, where he was up against Carel Fontein, drawing one game and losing the other.
How strong was he during this period? EdoChess gives his rating peaking at 2250 in 1936, so, although he finished high up in the British on two occasions, he was only, by today’s standards, a strong club player. A player with considerable ability, both tactical and positional, but also with some weaknesses.
Storm clouds were gathering over Europe, war was declared on 1 September 1939, Lenton’s chess column was wound down, perhaps anticipating a paper shortage. A register was taken on 29 September listing all residents, for the purpose of producing identity cards and ration books.
Alfred and Elsie were recorded two miles east of the city centre, at 65 Copdale Road, Leicester (on the left here), living next door to his parents and brothers at number 63 (with the blue van up the drive: looks like it might have been rebuilt). The family had moved up in the world since 1921.
While Elsie is knitting socks with her circular machine, Alfred is a Gas Department Securities Clerk, working for the local government office.
At this point it’s almost time to break off our story, just noting that our hero had won his third county championship, receiving the trophy in October. “A worthy champion, who will be British Champion one day”, said the county President Robert Pruden on presenting the trophy. You’ll find out how accurate that prediction was in our next Minor Piece, when we look at what happened next in Alfred’s life.
But first, let’s return to Kibworth Beauchamp, where our story began. We met Robert Lenton, born in 1744, who might have been the son of Richard born in 1710. He had a brother named Mark (a very popular name in this family) who moved to the nearby village of Thorpe Langton. We travel down the generations, another Mark, Henry, and his daughter Ann, baptised on 27 July 1794. On 2 December 1816 Ann married Thomas James, from the small village of Slawston, a few miles further east. We travel down the generations again, another Thomas, who moved back to Thorpe Langton, John, Tom Harry, and to the youngest of his 18 children, Howard, who was my father.
Which makes Alfred possibly my 6th cousin twice removed, or if Robert’s father was the other Richard, my 7th cousin twice removed (I think).
Another golden chain. Even though I didn’t inherit his talent, I’m delighted to be a kinsman of someone who finished =2nd and =3rd in two British Championships.
Sources and Acknowledgements:
findmypast.co.uk/British Newspaper Library
BritBase (John Saunders)
John Saunders also for providing me with his Lenton file
EdoChess (Rod Edwards)
Chess in Leicester 1860-1960 (Don Gould)
Battersea Chess Club website
Wilfred Hugh Miller Kirk was perhaps Richmond Chess Club’s strongest player between 1925 and 1937, as well as playing an important administrative role in the club.
Wilfred was born in Culmstock, Devon on 18 May 1877, where Teddington novelist, market gardener and chess player RD Blackmore also lived for a time. His family were originally from London, but his father was working in Devon as a Schools Inspector at the time of his birth. The family later returned to London, where young Wilfred joined the Civil Service on leaving school. He would remain there for his entire working life.
In 1899 he married 20 year old Mabel Ellen Gannaway. Wilfred and Mabel had four children, Talbot (1902), Beatrice (1903), Evelyn (1907) and Ruby (1908).
We hear of him as a chess player for the first time only in 1904, at the age of 27, when he took part in the Second Class B section of the inaugural British Championships at Hastings. He did pretty well for a newcomer to competitive chess, finishing in third place, just half a point behind the joint winners.
The following year he took part in the Kent Open Amateur 2nd Class A tournament, held that year at Crystal Palace, where he shared first place with his old rival WT Dickinson.
Shortly afterwards, leaving his wife and two young children at home, he crossed the channel to Ostend, where a mammoth tournament was taking place. The master event had no less than 36 entrants, with a complex group structure, and, below that, there were two amateur sections which attracted a number of British participants. Wilfred played in the Amateur B section, scoring a very respectable 11/17.
He didn’t take part in another tournament until 1908, when he again played in the Kent congress, that year held in Sevenoaks. This time Wilfred was promoted to the 1st Class Open Section 2. He found 1st class competition a lot tougher than the 2nd class, scoring only 1½/6, The leading scores in this section were Harold Godfrey Cole (5), Kate Belinda Finn and Percy Rawle Gibbs (4½). Miss Finn wasn’t the only (fishy) lady in the section: Mrs Frances Dunn Herring brought up the rear on 1/6.
Although he wasn’t very active in tournament play at the time, he was very much involved in Civil Service chess. He may well have been playing for the Local Government Board before his first tournament, and, when the Civil Service Chess League was founded in 1904 he was appointed to the post of Secretary.
When the British Championships were held in Richmond in 1912 he returned to the fray. This time he was in the 1st Class Amateurs B section, and, from the result, it was clear that he was a lot stronger now than a few years earlier.
The British Chess Magazine (October 1912) remarked that Mr. W. H. M. Kirk (Putney) is a well-known fine player in the Civil Service League, but does not play much otherwise. With work and family commitments, it was understandable that he wouldn’t have had much time for tournament play.
Unfortunately the only game of his from this event that appears to be extant was his only defeat. For all games in this article, click on any move for a pop-up window.
Kirk took part in the Surrey Championship that year, where he finished in first place with a score of 4½/5. This time we do have one of his wins, which his opponent, a dentist usually known as Frank St J Steadman, generously submitted to the British Chess Magazine. It was published in their December 1912 issue.
Wilfred entered the 1st Class Open in the 1913 Kent & Sussex Congress but had to withdraw before the start of the tournament. However, he did play in the Major Open section of the 1913 British Championship, making a respectable showing in a strong tournament.
Here’s a loss against the German born but English resident Georg Schories, a regular Major Open competitor whose nationality precluded his participation in the championship.
In this photograph of the competitors in this section, Kirk is the good looking youngish man (he was now 35) standing second on the left. He doesn’t look very happy, does he? But then they rarely did in those days.
And then World War 1 intervened. The Civil Service Chess League continued in 1915, but then stopped for the duration, only resuming in 1919.
The British Championships were also suspended, again resuming with a Victory Congress at Hastings in August that year. The British title itself wasn’t awarded, the top section being a semi-international event with visiting stars Capablanca and Kostic taking the first two places, well ahead of Sir George Thomas and Yates. The Major Open went to Edward Guthlac Sergeant, and, below that were three parallel First Class sections. Kirk was in the C section, finishing in first place, beating, amongst others, future World Champion Max Euwe. The enforced break had done nothing to dull his chess strength.
Again, his only loss, against Irish champion John James O’Hanlon, is the only one of his games from this event I’ve been able to locate.
In 1919 he also entered the City of London Chess Club Championship: the only time he took part in this prestigious event. He finished in 6th place with 6/11 behind Sir George Thomas, a clear winner on 9½, Michell, Walker, EG Sergeant and Blake, whom he beat in this game: a notable scalp.
Throughout much of his life, Wilfred Kirk seemed to move house every two or three years. He had previously lived in Putney and Wimbledon, but by this time had moved to North London, playing for Hampstead Chess Club and winning the Middlesex Championship in 1920. He had also moved departments in the Civil Service, from the Local Government Board to the Ministry of Health.
Then, in Autumn 1925, he moved to Richmond, living in several addresses in Richmond and Twickenham in the following 12 years or so. He wasted no time in joining Richmond Chess Club, but, in his first match, was only playing on Board 3.
He also entered the Surrey Championship, in 1926 regaining the title he had previously won 14 years earlier.
As an able administrator he was soon appointed secretary of his new club, as reported here, where, on top board, he was successful against our old friend George Archer Hooke.
His addresses at this point included 17 The Barons, St Margarets in 1927 and 27 Richmond Hill in 1928.
In the 1928-29 season Kirk swept the board, winning not just the club championship (you’ll see PGL Fothergill in 3rd place: he only seemed to play in internal competitions rather than club matches), but the handicap tournament (one wonders how the scores were calculated) and the prize for the best percentage score in matches.
Wilfred was very much involved in charitable endeavours of all sorts, promoting chess at the Star and Garter Home for disabled ex-Servicemen, donating money to a fund for distressed miners, and, later in life. helping at a local home for the blind.
That summer, by then in his 50s, he unexpectedly received an invitation to take part in the British Championship, held that year in Ramsgate.
Wilfred was a very effective player top level club opposition, but here, against mostly master standard opponents, he was rather out of his depth.
He lost in 19 moves to Gerald Abrahams: a game which attracted some attention at the time. Abrahams, rather typically, played a speculative sacrifice which Kirk should have accepted, but instead declined it and resigned the next move.
In this group photograph, Kirk is standing on the left next to the permanently disheveled William Winter.
That year there was a merger between Richmond and Kew chess clubs, who, however, continued to meet at both venues on different days of the week. Kirk now had a serious rival in Kew star Ronald George Armstrong, about whom more in a future Minor Piece.
Meanwhile, in 1933, Kirk’s service to chess in the Civil Service was marked by a presentation.
This 1934 match must have been a surprise result.
Richmond & Kew were a second division team, playing in the Beaumont Cup, while Kingston, who had won the Surrey Trophy two years earlier, were a genuine first division team. Unfortunately, they lost to Battersea in the final of the Alexander Cup.
Armstrong must have been very pleased with his draw against Michell, while Kirk also shared the point with (Richard) Nevil Coles, who later became a celebrated chess author and who beat me in a Richmond v Guildford Surrey Trophy match in 1972.
In the 1934-35 season Kirk won the club championship while Armstrong took the handicap shield: they gave a tandem simul at the end of season prizegiving.
It was the same story in 1937, with Kirk taking the club championship for the sixth time with a 100% score, and Armstrong again preferring the handicap shield. Wilfred was now entitled to hold the cup in perpetuity, but generously returned it for future years. I wonder what happened to it.
At this point, though, Wilfred Kirk retired from the Civil Service, spending some time travelling round Europe playing chess before moving, like many retired chess players of the time, to Hastings.
However, he competed in the 1938 British Championships in Brighton, now down in the First Class B section, where he shared first place on 7/11, winning this miniature.
He was soon involved in administration again, both at Hastings Chess Club, and with their annual tournament. He also found time to compete in the 1938-39 event, sharing second place in the Premier Reserves C section.
He also threw himself into county chess, here losing to another former Civil Service player Bernard Henry Newman Stronach.
By now the world was at war again, but Hastings managed to arrange their annual tournament that winter, with Kirk taking part in the Premier.
In this game he held the tournament winner Frank Parr to a draw, sacrificing a knight for a perpetual check.
Although it was no longer possible to run formal competitions, Hastings Chess Club remained active during the war, with friendly matches against local rivals Eastbourne and Bexhill.
His opponent in this game, George Edward Anslow, a Gas Company clerk, was a member of both Eastbourne and Hastings Chess Clubs for many years. He beat me in a 1974 friendly match between Hastings and Richmond & Twickenham Chess Clubs.
Frederick William (Fred) Boff, whom he defeated in this game, seems to have been an interesting character both on and off the chessboard.
He was still very active locally as the war finally came to an end, and was involved in the administration of the 1945-46 Hastings Congress as Treasurer and Assistant Secretary. In June that year, still playing regularly in club events, he was taken ill with appendicitis. The operation, sadly, proved unsuccessful.
There’s more information in this pen picture from Kevin Thurlow’s book on chess in the English Civil Service.
Wilfred Hugh Miller Kirk, then, was a strong player (2261 at his peak according to EdoChess) and a highly efficient administrator. He seems to have been well respected at work and was also devoted to various charitable causes.
His family life, though, wasn’t happy.
In the 1901 census we see Wilfred and Mabel, only recently married, and living in Pimlico.
They soon moved south of the river, the births of their first three children being registered in Wandsworth, and the youngest in Balham.
By 1911 the family had split up. Wilfred was living on his own in Streatham, a Second Division Clerk in the Civil Service. Mabel didn’t appear to be around. Talbot, Beatrice and Evelyn (aged 9, 7 and only 4) were boarding at a school in Wimbledon, while 2-year-old Ruby was living with Wilfred’s mother in Battersea.
Then, in 1914, Mabel filed a petition for judicial separation. She was represented by her solicitor, PR Gibbs, who, I’d imagine, was the same Percy Rawle Gibbs who had played Wilfred at Sevenoaks in 1908.
Mabel’s petition, citing eight addresses, mostly in the Wandsworth area, at which they lived during their marriage, listed dates and places, from 1906 onwards, when and where Wilfred had assaulted her, and treated her with coldness and neglect. He had punched her on her body and head, thrown her against the furniture and onto the floor, grabbed her by the collar and dragged her upstairs. Wilfred denied the charges of cruelty, claiming that Mabel had become mentally deranged and assaulted him violently, and he was only acting in self-defence. On other occasions she had become hysterical and behaved in an ill tempered and unreasonable manner, causing him to lose his temper.
It was also revealed that, from late 1910, she had been a patient at St Luke’s Hospital: she was probably still there at the time of the 1911 census.
The separation was granted, with Mabel having custody of the two older children and Wilfred the two younger children. Would a man who had assaulted his wife, even with provocation, be given custody of two young girls today?
Was he a violent and abusive wife beater whose behaviour had driven his wife to the lunatic asylum, or a good man who found it difficult to cope with his wife’s mental health problems? I don’t know: I wasn’t there and it’s far from me to pass judgement.
The ramifications continued for a decade (the papers are available online at ancestry.co.uk).
The 1921 census found Wilfred now living in Islington with Evelyn and Ruby, who were both at school. Mabel and Beatrice, now an art student, were the other side of London, in South Norwood. Meanwhile, Talbot had emigrated to the USA, where he married in 1927 and had two sons, Fred (1928-76) and Jack (1929-67).
His marriage didn’t last and he returned to England. The 1933 Electoral Roll shows Mabel, Talbot and Beatrice sharing a house right by Hampstead Heath.
Then, in 1934, Wilfred sued Mabel for divorce on the grounds of adultery.
Well, I don’t know. In September that year he married Olive Emily Holmes. Was he committing adultery as well? Again, I wasn’t there.
What happened to the rest of his family? Talbot remarried in 1941 in Brentford, at some point moving to Yorkshire, where he died in 2006 at the extraordinary age of 104.
Beatrice never married: by 1939 she was working as a typist in the Ministry of Food, and died in Hastings at the age of 78.
Evelyn married young, in 1926, to a man almost twice her age, George Arthur Tomlinson, who seems to have been a mechanical engineer working at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. They lived with Wilfred for a time after the marriage before moving to North London where two sons, Brian (1928) and Robin (1930) were born. George died in 1944, but Evelyn, like her brother, lived a long life, dying in Bath at the age of 96.
Ruby married in 1939, like Evelyn to a much older man: a divorcee with the impressive name Bernard de Lerisson Cazenove. She had no children and, again like Evelyn, lived into her 90s: she was 91 when she died in Warwickshire.
The report of Wilfred’s cremation leaves some questions unanswered. You might have wondered why the local paper mentioned that he left a son, but failed to note his daughters.
At the cremation, Talbot, Evelyn and Ruby were there, but there was no mention of Beatrice as a chief mourner. Did the paper forget her? Or had they become estranged?
Talbot, Dolly and Sylvia sent flowers, but who were Dolly and Sylvia? There were also flowers from Eric, Brian and Robin. Brian and Robin were his grandsons, but who was Eric? And why wasn’t Evelyn included? Her second marriage, in 1948, would be to Ernest (Vokes), not to Eric. Or was ‘Eric’ a misreading of ‘Evelyn’?
There’s one further family tragedy to report.
This is Wilfred and Mabel’s grandson Robin taking his own life in 1950, at the age of 19.
Had he inherited mental health problems from his mother? Impossible to tell, of course.
Although Wilfred Hugh Miller Kirk was a formidable club player and respected administrator, it seems that his family life was unsettled (moving house every couple of years) and unhappy. I can only hope that the game of chess brought him some comfort.
Few people know the story of Vera Menchik yet it deserves to be told. She was the first women’s world chess champion in 1927 and retained the title undefeated until her untimely death at the age of 38 in 1944 during a rocket attack on London. She is more properly compared with the great male players of her era against whom she scored creditably. The absence of a full biography of Vera in English reflects the peculiar circumstances of her life and death.
Vera was, in modern terminology, a refugee and essentially a stateless person for much of her life. She was born in Moscow in 1906 during the period of the Russian Empire to an expatriate family who was forced to flee when she was 15 following the Russian Revolution having lost their livelihood. As they passed through Europe, her father and mother split up in his homeland Czechoslovakia which had been created out of the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian empire. She arrived in England and took up residence in the seaside town of Hastings. (The fact that Hastings had hosted the world’s longest series of annual chess tournaments since 1895 was a happy coincidence.) Vera never attained British nationality until near the end of her life even though she had been domiciled in England from 1921. She won the first-ever Women’s World Championships held in London in 1927 under a Russian flag; thereafter she nominally represented Czechoslovakia until finally she represented England in 1939 following her marriage to a senior official within the British Chess Federation.
Vera’s grandfather was Arthur Illingworth, a wealthy trader from Lancashire who had set up business in Moscow where his Anglo-Russian daughter Olga married František Menčik. He was a successful estate manager. Vera learned chess from her father and performed well at school. Her younger sister Olga was also a good chess player and the sisters remained close throughout their lives.
Vera was a woman in a man’s world – she had to struggle harder to achieve the kind of recognition which was accorded to men. She appeared like a comet in the sky and it would be many years until other women were able to reach her level. At her first major international tournament at Karlsbad in 1929, she was the only female participant in a tournament of 22 great players. Even as women’s world champion, some of the male players objected to her participation. The Viennese master Albert Becker joked that anybody who lost to her should belong to the Vera Menchik Club. By an irony of history, he became its first member losing to her in the third round. She beat many other grandmasters during her career including the Dutchman Max Euwe in 1930 and 1931 (both at Hastings) who was to become world champion in 1935.
Although she is often portrayed as being Russian or Czech or latterly British, she was a true cosmopolitan. She knew that life could be unstable in any country. She had lived through the Russian Revolution; one parent was left behind in Czechoslovakia; she had moved westwards across Europe and embraced different cultures and languages at formative stages of her life. It is no wonder that she learned also to speak Esperanto which was designated to be the world’s lingua franca before English achieved its dominance. As a leading chess player, she travelled back to Moscow and to Czechoslovakia several times as well as to South America for her final match to retain the women’s world champion title in 1939. She needed to be self-sufficient and was obtained roles as the games editor of a chess magazine as well as being appointed the manager of the National Chess Centre in Oxford Street which was destroyed during the Blitz in 1940.
She survived most of the war and now a widow moved in with her mother and sister to a house in south London. They took the precaution of going down to the cellar during bombing raids. Tragically the house received a direct hit from a flying bomb and the entire family was wiped out. Hardly any of her possessions remained save for one dented trophy. The records at the national chess centre were destroyed as were her personal effects including her chess memorabilia. At least there remains a record of the moves played in her games which serve as testimony to her remarkable career as not only the first women’s world chess champion but also a woman who broke boundaries wherever she went and demonstrated that a woman is capable of standing on her own feet professionally and leading a full and eventful life.
The Bomb Attack
BCN remembers that in the early morning of Tuesday, June 27th, 1944 (i.e. 77 years ago) Vera Menchik, her sister Olga, and their mother were killed in a V-1* flying bomb attack which destroyed their home at 47 Gauden Road in the Clapham area of South London.
(*The V-1 was an early cruise missile with a fairly crude guidance system.)
All three were cremated at the Streatham Park Crematorium on 4 July 1944. Vera was 38 years old.
Vera’s Parents and Sister
Vera Frantsevna Menchik (or Věra Menčíková) was born in Moscow on Friday, 16th February, 1906. Her father was František Menčik, was born in Bystrá nad Jizerou, Bohemia. František and Olga were married on June 23rd 1905 in Moscow and notice of this marriage appeared in British newspapers on July 22nd 1905. Vera’s sister was Olga Rubery (née Menchik) and she was born in Moscow in 1908. Olga Menchik married Clifford Glanville Rubery in 1938. Vera married Rufus Henry Streatfeild Stevenson on October 19th 1937.
Her Maternal Roots
Our interest in unearthing her maternal English heritage / roots has led to the following:
Her mother was Olga (née Illingworth (1885 – 27 vi 1944). Olga’s parents were Arthur Wellington Illingworth and Marie Illingworth (née ?). Arthur was born in October 1852 in the district of Salford, Lancashire, his parents were George Illingworth (1827-1887) and Alice Whewell (1828-1910).
In the 1861 census Arthur is recorded as being of eight years of age and living in the Illingworth household.
In the 1871 census Arthur is recorded as being of eighteen years of age and living in the Illingworth household of nine persons at 5, Lancaster Road, Pendleton, Lancashire. Arthur’s occupation is listed as being a merchants apprentice. In fact, he was a stock and share broker.
Arthur died in Moscow on February 21st 1898. Probate was recorded in London on July 6th, 1900 as follows:
Illingworth Arthur Wellington of Moscow Russia merchant died 21st February 1898 Probate London 6th July to Walter Illingworth stock and share-broker Effects £4713 7s
£4713 7s in 1898 equates roughly to £626,600.00 in 2020 so it would appear that Arthur was considerably successful and almost certainly left money to Olga Illingworth.
What do we conclude from all of this? Quite simply that Vera’s maternal roots were from Salford in Lancashire.
The August 1944 British Chess Magazine (Volume LXIV, Number 8, page 173 onwards) contained this editorial from Julius du Mont:
“British Chess has suffered a grievous and irreparable loss in the death by enemy action of Mrs. R.H.S. Stevenson known through all the world where chess is played as Vera Menchik.
We give elsewhere (below : Ed.) an appreciation of this remarkable woman. Quite apart from her unique gifts as a chess-player-the world may never see her equal again among women players-she had many qualities which endeared her to all who knew her, the greatest among them being here great-hearted generosity.
We sympathise with our contemporary “CHESS” : Vera Menchik was for some years their games editor. Few columns have been conducted with equal skill and efficiency and none, we feel sure, with a greater sense of responsibility.
The news of this remarkable tragedy will be received by the chess world with sorrow and with abhorrence of the wanton and useless robot methods of a robot people.
One shudders at the heritage of hatred which will be theirs, but their greatest punishment will come with their own enlightenment.”
BCM Contemporary Obituary from EGR Cordingley
From page 178 of the same issue we have an obituary written by EGR Cordingley :
“The death by enemy action of Miss Vera Menchik removes not only the greatest woman chess player of all times but a charming personality.
The world will remember her for her chess prowess, for her exceptional skill as a woman player who had beaten in tournament play such gifted players as Euwe, Sultan Khan, Sir George Thomas, Alexander and Yates. In such company, and she played in several of the Hastings International tournaments and other of similar grade, she usually obtained about 33%, though in the Maribor tournament of 1934 she finished third, behind Pirc and Steiner but ahead of Rejfir, Spielmann, Asztalos and Vidmar.
Her game was characterised by solid position-play, with the definite aim of bringing about a favourable end-game and of avoiding wild complications. The ordinary stratagems of the game, small combinations and the like, were of course part of her equipment, but she lacked that imaginative, inventive spirit without which few become really great players.
In recent times, Reshesvky and Flohr (as a professional with a reputation to maintain and a living to earn) have shown that great success can be achieved by reducing the game to pure positional play, the technique being firstly to build up a position devoid of weaknesses, an ‘I can’t lose position,’ and secondly to create and take advantage of the minutest weaknesses in the opponent’s camp, a major weakness may show that imagination is not quite dead within.
This defect in her play was the inevitable reflection of her character: sound common-sense, conscientious to an unusual degree, and persevering, while she had the combative, tenacious nature so desirable and so often found in good chess players; for chess is battle of wits, the fight is what most of use love in chess. Vera was, seldom assertive, a fault not uncommon in chess players. She sat placidly at the chess board, never causing even mild irritation by any of those nervous mannerisms that may always be seen in any chess room, the peripatetic fever being the most prominent. A slight flush would rise when the position grew difficult, or when she was short of time on her clock – and that was recurrent according to the time-limit.
Away from the chessboard show would readily talk of other subjects, and her great interest was in persons, in their actions and behaviour under the strain and stress of the unruly passions; in the moulding of their lives under the inscrutable dictates of chance; in the twists and turns of a mind warped perhaps by a casual incident long ago. Of course, she was a pagan, a thinking one, who had asked and asked and found only the answer that reasoning gave. She judged kindly and never inflicted upon others her own opinions or beliefs: she asked only that these should be heard as one side of any argument, for she enjoyed a dialectic bout.
A delightful side to her character was her simple sense of humour, and I remember so clearly her pleasure – glee would describe it more eloquently – when I gave her the punctuation necessary to make sense of that ludicrous collection of words, ‘Jones where Brown had had had had had had had had had had had the master’s approval’ Anyone who knew her only at the chessboard would have been astonished at the amount of bubbling merriment she discovered of of life’s events.
I shall remember her more for the woman as I knew her over many cups of coffee spread over many, many weeks – complacent, smiling, and kindly; conscientious, loyal, and sincere; as I understand the word, a Christian who would help any deserving person as best she could. E. G. R. C.
and here is the original article as printed:
BCM 1958 Appreciation by Peter Clarke
From British Chess Magazine, Volume LXXVIII (78, 1958), Number 7 (July), page 181 onwards) we have this retrospective from Peter Clarke:
“The night of June 27th,1944, Vera Menchik, World Woman Champion, was killed when an enemy bomb demolished her home in London; with her perished her mother and sister Olga. In these tragic circumstances the chess world lost its greatest woman player, still undefeated and at the height of her powers.
Vera Francevna Menchik was born in Moscow on February 16th, 1906, of an English mother and Czech father. There she spent her childhood, showing a love for literature, music, and, of course, chess, which at the age of nine she was taught by her father. She had a natural bent for the game and when only fourteen shared second and third places a schoolboys (!) tournament. The following year, 1921, the family came to England, where Miss Menchik lived the rest of her life.
As if by some fortunate coincidence, the Menchiks settled in Hastings, though it was not until the spring of 1923 that Vera joined the famous chess club. Her natural shyness and lack of knowledge of English caused this delay. However, they did not handicap her too much
as she herself afterwards wrote: ‘Chess is a quiet game and therefore the best hobby for a person who cannot speak the language.”
She studied the game eagerly, and very soon her talent caught the attention of the Hungarian grandmaster, Géza Maróczy, who was resident at Hastings at that time. Thus there began the most important period in her development as a player; a sound and mature understanding of positional play-and a thorough knowledge of a few special openings and defences: in particular the French Defence. The influence of
the grandmasters ideas was clearly apparent in her style throughout the whole of her career.
Miss Menchik’s rise to fame was meteoric: by 1925 she was undoubtedly the strongest player of her sex in the country, having twice defeated the Champion, E. Price, in short matches; and only two years later she won the first Women’s World Championship in London with the terrific score 10.5-0.5. She was just twenty-one, but already in a different class from any other woman in the world. For seventeen years until her death Vera Menchik reigned supreme in women’s chess, defending her world title successfully no less than seven times (including a match with Sonja Graf at Semmering in 1937, which Miss Menchik won 11.5-4.5. In the seven tournaments for the World Championship she played 83 games; winning 78, drawing 4, and losing 1 only! However, what was more remarkable was that she was accepted into the sphere of men’s chess as a master in her own right, a feat which no woman had done before or has done since. Up to then, women’s chess had been a very poor relation of the masculine game, but here was a woman who was a worthy opponent for the strongest masters.
Flohr wrote of her: ‘Vera Menchik was the first woman in the world who played chess strongly…who played like a man.’ It was as the ambassador extraordinary, so to speak, of the women’s game that Miss Menchik really made her greatest contribution to chess. Wherever she went, at home and abroad, she aroused great interest among her sex; others were eager to follow her, to identify themselves with her. Nowadays women’s chess is well organized, and much of the credit for this must go to Vera Menchik for first bringing it into the light. Among her many personal successes in international tournaments perhaps the greatest was at Ramsgate in 1929: as one of the foreign masters (she was still of Czech nationality) she shared second and third places with Rubinstein, * point behind Capablanca and above, among others, her tutor Maróczy.
Even the greatest masters recognized Miss Menchik’s ability; Alekhine himself, writing on the Carlsbad Tournament of 1929, said: ‘Vera Menchik is without doubt an exceptional phenomenon among women. She possesses great aptitude for the game…The chess
world must help her develop her talent!’
The Vera Menchik Club
An amusing incident occurred at this tournament. There were naturally sceptics among the masters over the lady’s participation. Flohr recalls how one of these, the Viennese master Becker, suggested:
‘Whoever loses to the Woman Champion will be accepted as a member of the Vera Menchik Club which I intend to organize.’
Becker was the first to lose to her, and that evening the masters chided him: “Professor Becker, you did not find it very difficult to join the club. You can be the Chairman.’ And forthwith he was chosen as Chairman for three years. Everyone wished that the new club would soon obtain more members! Indeed, the Vera Menchik Club has many famous names on its lists-Euwe, Reshevsky, Colle, Yates, Sultan Khan, Sir G. A. Thomas, Alexander, to mention a few.
In 1935 Miss Menchik returned to the country of her birth to take part in the great international tournament in Moscow. To be truthful, she had very little success, but she was everywhere treated with respect and sympathy by masters and spectators alike. The Soviet master l. Maiselis, writing in CHESS in 1944.(Shakhmaty za 1944 god), related the following entertaining anecdote from the tournament: One day a group of players and organizers were discussing the chances of Alekhine and Euwe in the forthcoming match. Flohr said: ‘It is quite clear that I will be World Champion.’ We looked at him inquiringly.
‘It’s very simple,” continued Flohr, ‘Euwe wins a match against Alekhine, Vera Menchik beats Euwe (at that time her score against Euwe was +2, =1, -1) and I will somehow beat Miss Menchik.’
We laughed at this good-natured joke, and we laughed all the more the next day when Flohr was unable, despite every effort, to defeat her in a vital game.
ln 1937 Miss Menchik married R. Stevenson, but in chess she continued to use her maiden name, made famous by so many victories. Her husband, a well-known organizer, became, Secretary of the B.C.F: in the following year and remained so until his death in 1943.
Since the days of Vera Menchik women’s chess has taken great strides forward; now there is a special committee of F.I.D.E. to look after its needs.- Only last year the first lnternational Women’s Team Tournament took place ln Emmen, Holland; the new World Champions, the U.S.S.R., became the first holders of the Vera Menchik Cup. So chess goes onwards, but the name of its first Queen will ever be remembered.”
From The Encyclopaedia of Chess (Robert Hale, 1970 & 1976) by Anne Sunnucks :
“Woman World Champion from 1927 to 1944. Vera Menchik was born in Moscow on 16th February 1906 of an English mother and a Czech father. Her father taught her to play chess when she was 9.
In 192l her family came to England and settled in Hastings (at 13, St. John’s Road, St. Leonards-on-Sea, TN37 6HP) :
Two years later, when she was 17, Vera joined Hastings Chess Club,
where she became a pupil of Geza Maroczy. The first Women’s World Championship was held in 1927. Vera Menchik won with a score of 10.5 out of 11. She defended her title successfully in Hamburg in 1930, in Prague in 1931, in Folkestone in 1933, in Warsaw in 1935, in Stockholm in 1937 and in Buenos Aires in 1939. She played 2 matches against Sonja Graf, her nearest rival, in 1934 when she won +3 -1 and in 1937, in a match for her title when she won +9 -1 =5.
The first woman ever to play in the British Championship and the first to play in a master tournament, Vera Menchik made her debut in master chess at Scarborough 1928 when she scored 50 per cent. The following year she played in Paris and Carlsbad, and it was at Carlsbad that the famous Menchik Club was formed. The invitation to Vera Menchik to compete among such players as Capablanca, Euwe, Tartakower and Nimzowitch was received with amusement by many of the masters. The Viennese master, Becker was particularly scornful, and in the presence of a number of the competitors he suggested that anyone who lost to Vera Menchik should be granted membership of the Menchik Club. He himself became the first member. Other famous players who later joined the club were Euwe, Reshevsky, Sultan Khan, Sir George Thomas, C. H. O’D. Alexander, Colle and Yates.
Her greatest success in international tournaments was at Ramsgate in 1929, when she was =2nd with Rubinstein, half a point behind Capablanca and ahead of Maroczy. In 1934 she was 3rd at Maribor, ahead of Spielmann and Vidmar. In 1942 she won a match against Mieses +4 -l -5. In 1937 Vera Menchik married R. H. S. Stevenson, who later became Hon. Secretary of the British Chess Federation. He died in 1943. She continued to use her maiden name when playing chess. On her marriage she became a British subject.
From 1941 until her death she was Games Editor of CHESS. She also gave chess lessons and managed the National Chess Centre, which opened in 1939 at John Lewis’s in Oxford Street, London and was destroyed by a bomb in 1940.
In 1944 Vera Menchik was a solid positional player, who avoided complications and aimed at achieving a favourable endgame. Her placid temperament was ideal for tournament play. Her main weakness was possibly lack of imagination. Her results have made her the most successful woman player ever.”
From The Encyclopaedia of Chess, (BT Batsford, 1977) by Harry Golombek :
Probably the strongest woman player in the history of the game, Vera Menchik was born in Moscow and, though her father was a Czechoslovak and her mother English, she played for most of her
life under English colours.
In l92l her family came to Hastings in England and there Vera became a pupil of the great Hungarian master, Geza Maroczy. This was to have a dominating influence on her style of play which was solidly classical, logical and technically most well equipped. Such a style enabled her to deal severely not only with her fellow women players but also with contemporary masters and budding masters. Vera did extremely well, for example, against C. H. O’D. Alexander
and P. S. Milner-Barry, but lost repeatedly to H. Golombek who was able to take advantage of her lack of imagination by the use of more modern methods.
Vera was soon predominent in women’s chess. In the first Women’s World Championship tournament, at London in 1927, she won the title with a score of 10.5 out of 11 and retained the championship with great ease at all the subsequent Olympiads (or International Team tournaments as they were then known more correctly) at Hamburg 1930, Prague 1931, Folkestone 1933, Warsaw 1935, Stockholm 1937 and Buenos Aires 1939.
With Sonja Graf, the player who came nearest to her in strength among her female contemporaries, she played two matches and demonstrated her undoubted superiority by beating her in 1934 (+3-l) and again in a match for the title in l937 (+9-l=5).
In 1937 Vera officially became a British citizen by marrying the then Kent and later B.C.F. Secretary, R. H. S. Stevenson (Rufus Henry Streatfeild Stevenson: ed).
(Rufus Henry Streatfeild Stevenson was home news editor of the British Chess Magazine, secretary of the Southern Counties Chess Union and match captain of the Kent County Chess Association).
Oddly enough, Sonja Graf, many years later, also became a Mrs Stevenson by marrying an American of that name some years after the Second World War.
Vera Menchik also played and held her own in men’s tournaments. She did well in the British championship and her best performance in international chess was =2nd with Rubinstein in the Ramsgate Team Practice tournament ahead of her old teacher, Maroczy. She also had an excellent result at Maribor in 1934 where she came 3rd, ahead of Spielmann and Vidmar.
Her husband died in 1943 and Vera herself, together with her younger sister Olga and her mother, was killed by a V1 bomb that descended on the Stevenson home in London in 1944.
This was a sad and premature loss, not only for British but for world chess, since there is no doubt she would have continued to dominate the female scene for many years.
As a person Vera was a delightful companion, jolly and full of fun and understanding. As a player she was not only strong but also absolutely correct and without any prima donna behaviour. Generous in defeat and modest in victory, she set a great example to all her contemporaries.
An example of Vera’s attacking play at its best against her nearest rival, Sonja Graf, is shown by the following game which was played in her 1937 match at Semmering in Austria :
From The Oxford Companion to Chess, (Oxford University Press, 1984) by Hooper and Whyld :
“Woman World Champion from 1927 until her death. Daughter of a Czech father and an English mother, Menchik was born in Moscow, learned chess when she was nine, settled in England around
1921, and took lessons from Maroczy a year or so later. In 1927 FIDE organized both the first Olympiad and the first world championship tournament for women. These events were run concurrently, except in 1928, until the Second World War began, and Menchik won the women’s tournament every time; London 1927 (+10=1); Hamburg 1930 (+6=1 — 1); Prague 1931 (+8);
Folkestone 1933 ( + 14); Warsaw 1935 (+9); Stockholm 1937 (+14); and Buenos Aires 1939 ( + 17=2). She played in her first championship tournament as a Russian, the next five as a Czech,
and the last as a Briton. She also won on two matches against her chief rival, the German-born Sonja Graf (c. 1912-65): Rotterdam, 1934 (+3-1), and Semmering, 1937 (+9=5—2),
In international tournaments which did not exclude men Menchik made little impression; one of her best results was at Maribor 1934 (about category 4) when she took third place alter Pirc and L. Steiner ahead of Spielmann. In 1937 she married the English chess organizer Rufus Henry Streatfeild Stevenson (1878-1943), A chess professional, she gave lessons, lectures, and displays, and was appointed manager of the short-lived National Chess Centre in 1939. In 1942 she defeated Mieses in match play (+4=5-1), She, her younger sister Olga (also a player), and their mother were killed in a bombing raid.
Her style was positional and she had a sound understanding of the endgame. On occasion she defeated in tournament play some of the greatest masters, notably Euwe, Reshevsky, and Sultan Khan. Men she defeated were said to belong to the Menchik club. When world team championships for women (women’s chess Olympiads) were commenced in 1957 the trophy for the winning team was called the Vera Menchik Cup.”
BCM 1994 Appreciation by Bernard Cafferty
From British Chess Magazine, Volume CXIV (114, 1994), Number 8 (August), page 424 onwards) we have this retrospective from Bernard Cafferty:
Fifty yezus ago the chess world was tragically robbed of its most talented female representative of the first half of this century. A Vl rocket (ed: The V1 was not a rocket but a flying bomb) fell on a house in Gauden Road, Clapham, London, that was the residence of Russian-born Vera Menchik, her younger sister and their mother. The trio were sheltering in the cellar, as they usually did during the Nazi air raids on London. The house was completely destroyed. The air-raid shelter in the garden was all that was left.
Vera Menchik was born in Moscow on 16 February 1906, and died on 26 June 1944. The date of death is usually given as 27 June, but Ken Whyld has seen the death certificate and tells us the tragedy occurred before midnight, not after.
The young Vera grew up in a cosmopolitan family in Moscow, where her Czech father and English mother lived in a six-room flat, which they had to share, after 1917, with families from ‘the lower depths’ (the name of a famous play by Gorky which could also be translated as ‘on Skid Row’). In autumn 1921 the family left Soviet Russia and came
to England where they lived in Hastings.
Botvinnik recalls that he visited the Menchik household in Hastings in 1935, where he met Vera’s grandmother. Then, in 1936, he visited the other house in London, after the Nottingham 1936 tournament. At that time the Soviet Embassy arranged a reception in an attempt to counter the awful image of a country deep in the throes of the show trials and widespread repression. However, only Botvinnik, Menchik, Capablanca and Lasker turned up.
Vera Menchik was taught the moves of chess by her father, Franz, when she was nine years old. However, she only took the game seriously from the age of 17, when she joined the Hastings and St Leonards Chess Club, which at that time had its famous extensive sea-front premises near the pier.
According to the 1957 book in Russian by Bykova, on which this account is largely based, Vera only knew Russian when she cam to England, and one of the reasons for her to join the chess club was that a fluent knowledge of English was not necessary for her to be able to benefit from such a silent activity as chess.
The young Vera was fortunate in that the Hungarian grandmaster, Géza Maróczy, had a professional engagement with the Hastings club at this time, and the young lady became his most famous pupil. Her sound style with no fear of long endgames was a mirror of her mentor. She was also helped by Professor JAJ Drewitt, another Hastings club member, in the study of openings, particularly the closed openings.
Vera was initially counted as a Russian and did not enter the British Women’s Championship at the traditional August BCF Congress. However, she made her debut in international chess at a lower section of the 1923-24 Hastings Congress. In 1925 she beat the leading English player Edith Price by a score of +5 =2 -3 in two private matches. She duly took part in the Hastings Congresses, year after year. In the 1926-27 event she scored her first big success by sharing first place with the young Milner-Barry on 6.5(9) in the Premier Reserves.
By 1927, VM was ready to enter the first Women’s World Championship, which was played at the 4th FIDE Congress, alongside the Olympiad in London. She conceded only one draw in her eleven games and so took the title which she was to retain with ease from that day, when she was just 21, till her death 17 years later. In her first title attempt, she
was counted as a Russian, but at the next five (at the Hamburg 1930, Prague 1931,
Folkestone 1933, Warsaw 1935 and Stockholm 1937 Olympiads) she played as a representative of Czechoslovakia. It was only after her marriage to the prominent English organiser R. H. S. Stevenson in 1937 that she was counted as British and played under the Union Flag in her last title defence at Buenos Aires 1939.
Her dominance can be gauged from the fact that she won all eight games at Prague, all 14 at Folkestone, all 9 at Warsaw, all 14 at Stockholm and conceded just two draws in 19 games in 1939. The most serious challenge came in a title match at Semmering-Baden with Sonja Graf, then of Germany. Here too it was largely one-sided: +9 =5 -2.
She made her debut against male masters in an international tournament at Scarborough in 1928, finishing equal 7-8 in a field of 10, but in only the following year, at the Kent Easter Congress, she had one of her best results.
It was decided to run a Scheveningen tournament at Ramsgate with seven foreign masters pitted against seven home representatives. As was only to be expected, Capablanca came top of the ‘external examiners’, yet the next placing was a sensation: Capablanca 5.5(7) followed by Miss Menchik and Rubinstein 5, Koltanowski and Maroczy 4.5, Soultanbeieff 4 and Znosko-Borovsky 3. Sir George Thomas, whom Menchik beat, scored 3 to head the English team of Yates, Winter, Michel, Tylor and E. G. Sergeant.
Naturally enough, after this it was inevitable that foreign invitations should follow. Later in 1929 the young ‘Russian’ took part in a Paris tournament and then in the great Carlsbad tournament, the last of a wonderful series. Her presence here created some scepticism, and on the eve of the first round the Austrian theoretician Becker suggested that a Vera Menchik club be formed, membership of which would be granted only to those who lost to the lady. According to Flohr, there was an expectation that it would be a small select club, but Becker was quickly proved wrong for he became its first member in the third round! His only consolation was that the club proved far more extensive and democratic as the years rolled by. In fact the club came to include grandmasters such as Euwe (who earned a two-fold qualification) Sultan Khan and Reshevsky as well as masters such as Saemisch, Colle, Golombek, Sir George Thomas, Alexander…
However, Miss Menchik could not make much of the universally strong opposition and made only three points out of 20, finishing last, three points behind Sir George Thomas. With further experience she was to have more impressive results, such as her 8th place at London 1932, won by Alekhine, where she came ahead of Milner-Barry, Sir George, Burger and Winter.
A high spot of the 1930s for Vera was her participation in the 1935 Moscow tournament, but her return to her native city was so taken up with social engagements that she was unable to give of her best, and she scored only one and a half points from 19 games though she did take a draw off the winner of second prize, Flohr.
Vera had to eke out a living from teaching chess, adjudications and simultaneous exhibitions. After her return from Buenos Aires she lived in London. She was appointed administrator of the new National Chess Centre at John Lewis’s store in Oxford Street, which, alas, was destroyed by enemy action in 1940.
Her last great success was a match with the veteran GM, Jacques Mieses who was a refugee from anti-Semitic German. Played in 1942, the result was +4 =5 -1.
In 1943 Vera’s husband died. In 1944 she was playing in the championship of the West London Club, a strong event which included Sir George Thomas, PM List, EG Sergeant and Mieses amongst the players. Doubtless she was looking forward to the resumption of International chess activity after the war. It was not to be. We live in an age when the achievements of women players such as Gaprindashvili, Chirburdanidze, Xie Jun and the Polgar sisters have built on the pioneer work of Vera Menchik. Yet the path of the pioneer is always the hardest.
Finally, by all accounts of contemporaries, Vera was a cultured and sympathetic person who never gave cause for offence amongst the many players she met. Had she lived, she would have continued to be a jewel in the crown of British chess, which had to drag itself up from the boot straps after the devastation of war. What a tragic loss.
She was inducted to the World Chess Hall of Fame in 2011. The Women’s Olympiad trophy is known as the Vera Menchik Cup in her honor. The fifth FIDE Vera Menchik Memorial Tournament was held in 2022.
The Caplin Menchik Memorial ran from Saturday 18th to Sunday 26th June 2022 (games started 14:00 BST) at the MindSports Centre, Dalling Road, London W6 0JD. The format was 10-player all-play-all, one game per day, WIM & WGM norm opportunities were made available.
We remember WIM Eileen Betsy Tranmer who passed away on September 26th, 1983.
She was the first English woman to be awarded by FIDE the Woman’s International Master title in 1950.
“From The Anglo-Soviet Radio Chess Match by Klein and Winter :
Miss E. Tranmer was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire in 1910, and learned chess at the age of six. She did not take it up seriously, however, until 1936. Under the tuition of W. Winter she has made notable progress, and her performances include a second prize in the British Correspondence Championship 1944, as well as first prize in one of the subsidiary tournaments at Hastings, 1945.
By profession Miss Tranmer is a musician and has played principal clarinet in the Scottish and Sadler’s Wells Orchestras.”
From British Chess Magazine, Volume CIII (103, 1983), Number 11 (November), page 482-83 (presumably written by Bernard Cafferty) :
“Eileen Tranmer died in hospital at Ticehurst on September 26th after a long illness. Born in Scarborough, May 5th 1910, she was a professional clarinet player and played in a number of prominent British orchestras till forced to retire by deafness.
One of the leading British players in the two decades after the war, Eileen won the British Ladies Championship in 1947, 1949 (with a 100% score), 1953 and 1961, and played in the British Championship at Buxton, 1950. Her international record was sparse, as was the case with nearly all English players of that period. Nevertheless, she made her mark in the 1949-50 first post-war Women’s World Championship where she finished 5-7th in a field of 16, beating Bykova, again, and finished 7th in the field of 16.
“Eileen Tranmer was one of the best English chess lady players of her generation.
I only played her once at Oxford in an International Ladies Tournament held between 24 July and 1 August 1971. Eileen totally outplayed me and I lost the game.
Eileen was a member of Acton Chess Club where there were three active lady players at that time. They were Jean Rogers, Olive Chataway and Eileen. Eileen lived in Acton then.
Eileen was a professional musician and had to stop playing when she became deaf which was dreadful for her.
In 1969 Eileen, Rowena Bruce and I were selected to play in the Ladies Chess Olympiad Team in Lublin, Poland. Sadly Eileen was taken ill just before the event so Rowena and I had to play all 13 rounds without a break. I was on Board 1 and at the end Rowena and I were exhausted and I had to withdraw from a tournament in the Czech Republic without playing a game. The food in Poland was awful so we said never again!
Eileen was very friendly with Harry Golombek. The expectation among the lady chess players was that they would get married but she never did. Harry did not drive and Eileen was very kind driving Harry and his elderly mother around.
Very sadly Eileen’s brother was killed in a car crash and after that Eileen suffered mental problems. Eileen lived near John and Jean Rogers and John said Eileen would turn up at their home in the middle of the night wanting to play chess.
The last time I saw Eileen was at Paignton. Her friend Olive Chataway brought her to Paignton and Eileen played in the bottom tournament and did badly. Eileen did not recognise myself or Rowena which was very sad.
Eileen later left Acton and moved to Tring. Eileen was a pleasant and modest person and was well liked. She had a good sense of humour.”
From the obituary in The Times of London we learn that her last few years were over-shadowed by an illness that preyed on her mind.
We take the following game from the August 1944 issue of BCM. The game was played in the BCCA Championship, and curiously enough there was an enquiry about that event to the BCF only a short while ago – a Georgian journalist wishes to quote that wartime performance as an early example of success by a woman in male chess company! ”
Gerald Abrahams in Not only Chess, wrote about Eileen (Chapter 18 : What Achilles Saw Among Women) as follows :
“To revert to the British Ladies, they were joined in the late 1930s by a very able pupil of Miss Menchik, the Yorkshire Clarinettist Eileen Tranmer; a woman whose chess I have seen to express some admirable qualities of mind and character. I had the privilege of watching her is Moscow in 1949-50, when, handicapped by influenza of a particularly virulent kind – what the Russians call “grippe” – she won some five or six consecutive games, to finish in the prize list of the new official Women’s World Championship. There had been two championships before, which Vera has won easily. Since Vera had unhappily perished in the Blitz, they looked at Moscow for her successor.”
BCN remembers Joseph Blackburne (10-xii-1841 01-ix-1924)
The following (excerpts of) information were obtained via ancestry.co.uk / findmypast.co.uk:
Joseph Henry Blackburne was born on Friday, December 10th, 1841 in Chorlton, Manchester. His father was Joseph Blackburn (aged 23, a temperance reformer) and his mother was Ann Pritchard (aged 24).
His brother Frederick Pritchard Blackburn died on 11 October 1847 in Lancashire, Lancashire, when Joseph Henry was 5 years old.
His sister Clara was born on 4 November 1847 in Street, Lancashire, when Joseph Henry was 5 years old.
His mother Ann passed away on 26 November 1857 in Manchester, Lancashire, at the age of 40.
His half-brother William Thomas was born on 17 June 1865 when Joseph Henry was 23 years old.
Joseph Henry Blackburne married Eleanor Driscoll on 10 December 1865 when he was 24 years old.
Joseph Henry Blackburne married Beatrice Lapham on 3 October 1876 when he was 34 years old.
His wife Beatrice passed away in January 1880 in St Olave Southwark, London, at the age of 26. They had been married 3 years.
Joseph Henry Blackburne married Mary Jane Fox in St Olave Southwark, London, on 16 December 1880 when he was 39 years old.
Joseph Henry Blackburne lived in Everton, Lancashire, in 1891.
According to Edward Winter in Chess Notes JHB lived at the following addresses :
16 Lucey Road, London SE, England (The Chess Amateur, October 1924, page 32 (address in 1879) and the 1881 British census (C.N. 4756)*).
116 Barkworth Road, Camberwell, London, England (1891 British census (C.N. 4756)*).
7 Whitbread Road, Lewisham, London, England (1901 British census (C.N. 4756)*).
45 Sandrock Road, Lewisham, London SE, England (Ranneforths Schach-Kalender, 1915, page 56, and Hastings Chess Club address list, 1922*).
According to chessgames.com :
“Joseph Henry Blackburne was born in Chorlton, Manchester. He came to be known as “The Black Death”. He enjoyed a great deal of success giving blindfold and simultaneous exhibitions. Tournament highlights include first place with Wilhelm Steinitz at Vienna 1873, first at London 1876, and first at Berlin 1881 ahead of Johannes Zukertort. In matchplay he lost twice to Steinitz and once to Emanuel Lasker. He fared a little better with Zukertort (Blackburne – Zukertort (1881)) and Isidor Gunsberg, by splitting a pair of matches, and defeating Francis Joseph Lee, ( Blackburne – Lee (1890) ). One of the last successes of his career was at the age of 72, when he tied for first place with Fred Dewhirst Yates at the 1914 British Championship.
In his later years, a subscription by British chess players provided an annuity of £100 (approximately £4,000 in 2015 value), and a gift of £250 on his 80th birthday.”
In 1923 he suffered a stroke, and the next year he died of a heart attack.”
From The Oxford Companion to Chess (OUP, 1984) by Hooper and Whyld :
“For more than 20 years one of the first six players in the world and for even longer the leading English born player. Draughts was the most popular indoor game in his home town, Manchester; he learned this game as a child and became expert in his youth.
He was about 18 when, inspired by Morphy’s exploits, he learned the moves of chess. In July 1861 he lost all live games of a match against the Manchester chess club champion Edward Pindar, but he improved so rapidly that he defeated Pindar three months later (-1-5=2—1), and in 1862 he became champion of the club ahead of Pindar and Horwitz.
Instructed by Horwitz, Blackburne became one of the leading endgame players of his time; and wishing to emulate the feats of L. Paulsen, who visited the club in November 1861, he developed exceptional skill at blindfold chess. He spent most of the 1860s developing his chess and toying with various occupations.
After winning the British championship, 1868-9, ahead of de vere, he became a full-time professional player.
Blackburne achieved excellent results in many tournaments: Baden-Baden 1870, third equal with Neumann after Anderssen and Steinitz; London 1872, second (+5-2) after Steinitz ahead of Zukertort; Vienna 1873, second to Steinitz after a play-off; Paris 1878, third after Winawer and Zukertort: Wiesbaden 1880, first equal with Englisch and Schwarz; Berlin 1881, first (+13=2 — 1), three points ahead of Zukertort, the second prize winner (Blackburne’s greatest achievement); London 1883, third after Zukertort and Steinitz; Hamburg 1885, second equal with Englisch, Mason, Tarrasch, and Weiss half a point after Gunsberg; Frankfurt 1887, second equal with Weiss after Mackenzie; Manchester 1890, second after Tarrasch; Belfast 1892, first equal with Mason; London 1892, second ( + 6-2) after Lasker; London 1893, first ( + 2=3).
He was in the British team in 11 of the Anglo-American cable matches, meeting Pillsbury on first board six times (+2-3 — 1), and he continued to play internationally until he was 72, long enough to meet the pioneer of the hypermodern movement Nimzowitsch, whom he defeated at St Petersburg 1914.
Blackburne had remarkable combinative powers and is remembered for his swingeing king’s side attacks, often well prepared but occasionally consisting of an ingenious swindle that would deceive even the greatest all his contemporaries. The tournament book of Vienna 1873 refers to him as ‘der schrwarze Tod [Black death] der Schachspieler’, a nickname that became popular.
His unflappable temperament also earned him the soubriquet “the man with the iron nerves’. Even so, neither his temperament nor his style was suited to set matches, in which he was rarely successful against world-class players. He had other chess talents: a problem composer, he was also a fast solver, allegedly capable of outpacing the great Sam Loyd. Blackburne earned his livelihood by means of simultaneous displays, for this purpose touring Britain twice-yearly, with a few breaks, for more than 50 years.
Before this time such displays were solemn affairs; Lowenthal, who would appear in formal dress and play for several hours in silence, was shocked when Blackburne turned up in ordinary clothes, chatting and making jokes as he played, and refreshing him self with whisky, (Blackburne confessed, however, that when fully absorbed in a game he never noticed whether he was drinking water instead,) Once, walking round the boards, he drained his opponent’s glass, saying when rebuked He left it en prise and I took it en passant‘
The illustrator Julius Hess depicted Blackburne in a New Yorker Staats Zeitung evening edition as sitting at a chesstable and beckoning: “Waitah! A whiskey and limejuice!”
He played his blindfold displays quickly, and with little sign of the stress that besets most blindfold players. Probably the leading blindfold expert of his time, he challenged Zukertort, a close rival in this field, to a match of ten games, played simultaneously, both players blindfold; but Zukertort declined. Many who knew and liked Blackburne subscribed to a fund which sustained him in his last years.
P. A. Graham, Mr Blackburne’s Games at Chess (1899) contains 407 games annotated by Blackburne and 28 three-movers composed by him.
A reprint, styled Blackburne*s Chess Games (1979), has a new introduction and two more games.
One of Blackburne’s contributions was the suggestion of using chess clocks rather than the archaic hourglasses.
Here follows a reproduction of an article from British Chess Magazine, Volume LXXX1 (1961), Number 12 (December), page 340-342 written by RN Coles entitled “Early Days of a Great Master” :
“The only record of how J. H. Blackburne first, entered the chess world is the one provided by P. Anderson Graham in the introduction to his collection of Blackburne’s games. This has all the ingredients of a romanticized version of the truth-the first casual games in a temperance hotel, then entry to the important Manchester Club and a series of victories over ever stronger opponents until at last Pindar, Champion of the Provinces, comes along, plays the unknown youth and is defeated.
Reference to C. H. Stanley’s column in the Weekly Guardian and Express helps to supply a more accurate version. Young Blackburne’s earliest interest was in problems and he submitted one to the Guardian and Express which appeared in January, 1861, only to be found by several solvers to be cooked, Then silence till May 11th, when the column carries a note:
J. H. B. Problems received with much pleasure…Shall be glad to see you at the Club.”
Here are a couple of published problems. For a complete listing see below.
Manchester Express, 1861
The Field, 1893
Not yet a member, clearly. Nevertheless, he contrived somehow to meet Pindar outside the club and played some games-with him (two scores appear in the Guardian and Express, July 20th), and a set-match of five up was then arranged, still played in private (Guardian and Express, August 3lst), which “was terminated by Mr. Pindar winning a clear victory, the score being Pindar 5, Blackburne 0” (one game was quoted in the July “B.C.M.” and another score can be found in the Guardian and Express, July 27th.
“A second match was agreed upon, level games to entitle either player to the victor’s palm. The result … is calculated positively, to startle the chess world. The first game was scored by Mr. Pindar; of the next seven, Blackburne won five and the two remaining were drawn. ‘At this point Mr. Pindar resigned the match.” (Guardian and Express, September 7th, with the score of a Blackburne win from this match quoted February 1st, 1962.)
Only now does Blackburne appear to have joined the Manchester Club, meeting such players as Stanley himself for the first time (Guardian and Express gives the score of a casual game, November 9th), though Stanley later claimed personally to have discovered the young prodigy.
In November, 1861, Paulsen visited the club and the score survives of a casual game in which he beat Blackburne, who played a Winawer Variation of the French Defence long before Winawer ever came on the-scene (Guardian and Express, December,1861); Paulsen concluded his visit with one of his celebrated ten-board blindfold displays and not unnaturally the young Blackburne eagerly took a board; his defeat is No.25O in his games collection. This so stimulated him that he himself tried blindfold play and by January 20th, 1862, was able to give his first display against four boards, winning them all (Guardian and Express, January 25th, with one of the scores). This he followed with seven games on February 8th,
winning five and losing two. (Guardian and Express, February 8th) and finally ten games on February 8th, winning five, losing two, and drawing three (Guardian and Express,February 15th, which quotes the score of one game in addition to No. 254 in his games).
Inter-club matches were something of a rarity in those days and were regarded as of considerable importance when they occurred; one such was the annual Manchester-Liverpool match and in 1862 Blackburne took part for the first time, being matched against Wellington, another young player of promise who seems to have got no further; as many games were played between opponents as time allowed and these two young men played three, all won by Blackburne. (Guardian and Express, February 22nd, which quotes the score of one game in addition to No. 138 in the collection).
During this spring the rivalry with Pindar was renewed in a third match for the first five wins and after eleven games the score stood at 4 each, with three drawn (Guardian and Express, March 15th, quoting the score of the eleventh game), but I cannot find who won the last game. Since Blackburne was hailed as club champion this season, one must suppose he was the victor.
Such was his first club season. ln June, 1862, he played in the London lnternational Tournament and from then on his chess career was public property.
To conclude, here is the score of the eleventh game of his third match with Pindar, a critical struggle in which his budding mastery appears at the-end. From an inferior opening he struggles into an equal ending but by a rash exchange of Rooks on the 36th move gives Pindar a clear advantage, which could have been held by 41. P-R4. Blackburne seizes on this omission like a real master to switch into a most accurately calculated queen ending.
and here is the original article:
Many juniors and beginners will know the Blackburne Shilling Gambit (or Kostić Gambit) in some circles known (named by Julian Hodgson) as the ‘Oh My God’:
There are variations named after Blackburne as follows :
The Blackburne Attack in the Four Knights is
and the Blackburne Variation of the Dutch defence is
and a popular line in the Queen’s Gambit
are attributed to Blackburne in the literature.
According to The Encyclopedia of Chess (Batsford, 1977) by Harry Golombek :
“British grandmaster and highly successful tournament player who was one of the most prominent masters of the nineteenth century. He did not learn to play chess until the age of nineteen, but his natural gifts soon brought him into the front rank of British players, and in 1868 he abandoned his business interests and adopted chess as a profession.
Blackburne’s international tournament career spans an impressive fifty-two years from London 1862 to St. Petersburg 1914 – a total of 53 events in which he played 814 games, scoring over 62%. Although he rarely won international events, he generally finished in the top half of the table and his fierce competitive spirit coupled with his great combinative ability earned the pleasant nickname of ‘the Black Death’.
His most notable successes were =1st with Steinitz at Vienna 1873 (Blackburne lost the play-off match), 1st at Berlin 1881 ahead of Paulsen, Schallopp, Chigorin, Winawer and Zukertort, and 2nd to Tarrasch at Manchester 1890.
Blackburne won the BCA Championship in 1868 and for many years was ranked as Britain’s foremost player. In 1914 – at the age of 72 – he shared first place at the BCF congress in Chester.
In match play his success was mixed. He defeated Bird in 1888 (+4-1) and Gunsberg in 1881 (+7-4=3) but lost a second match to Gunsberg in 1886 (+2-5=6). He lost to Lasker (+0-6=4) in 1892 and was defeated heavily twice by Steinitz : in 1862/3 (+1-7=2) and in 1876 (+0-7=0), the latter of these matches being for the World Championship.
Blackburne excelled at blindfold play and in simultaneous exhibitions, which provided a major portion of his income. He died in Lewisham, a much respected veteran of eighty-three.”
BCN wishes FIDE Master Bernard Cafferty best wishes on his 87th birthday, June 27th in 1934.
Bernard was born in Blackburn, Lancashire (his mother’s maiden name was Croft) migrating to Birmingham and now resides in Hastings, East Sussex and is a member of Hastings & St. Leonards Chess Club.
Sunnucks notes that he was British Junior Champion in 1952, British Correspondence Champion in 1959 and British Lighting Champion in 1966. He wrote a thesis on Chess in Schools for his University Education Diploma and is now a schoolmaster. His contribution to Anne’s Encyclopedia was on Education and Chess.
He was editor of British Chess Magazine from 1981 to 1991 and continued as Associate Editor until 2011 when FM Steve Giddins took over.
Here is the 1981 announcement (written by Harry Golombek, Chairman of Directors) of his appointment in the British Chess Magazine, Volume CI (101), Number 3, March, page 82 :
In the December 2010 issue (Volume CXXX (130), Number 12, pages 622 – 625 of British Chess Magazine there was a tribute to Bernard’s 30 years at BCM from editor FM Steve Giddins that was interview based :
In 2009 Bernard was interviewed by the privately published Chess Parrot whose editor was / is Basingstoke based James Pratt (who became BCMs editor from 2011 – 2015). Here is that previously unseen interview :
BCN wishes a happy birthday to Peter Markland born on Friday, April 13th, 1951
From the rear cover of “Sicilian:…e5 :
“P.R. Markland is a British Master, and a member of many English international teams, including those at the 1972 and 1974 Olympiads, and is also a British correspondence international”
Peter first qualified to the British Championship in 1967 (Oxford) and obtained an IM and GM norm at Hastings 1971.
In 1984 he became a Grandmaster for correspondence chess (GMC).
Peter became a banker and lives in Woodbridge, Suffolk, IP13.
Following excellent recent work by Paul McKeown, the English Chess Federation made a request to FIDE to grant Peter the much overdue title of FIDE Master. This was awarded in 2021.
From British Chess (Pergamon Press, 1983) we have this contribution from Peter himself:
“1951 seems to have been a vintage year for chessplayers and although I cannot claim to count myself in the company of Andersson, Karpov, Ribli and Sax we do all share the same year of birth.
Although I learned the moves at the age of 5, I only took any real interest in the game at 13 when I began to play schools chess. Compared with such as Nigel Short I was a very late starter!
I was educated at Bolton School and played for Bolton and Lancashire in my early years. This was fortunate in that all three of these teams enjoyed great success in the late 1960s. In all three teams I played along side Martyn Corden who was to precede my rise to international level himself by playing in the Siegen Olympiad team in 1970. In 1967, I qualified for the British Championship at my first attempt and I was pleased to score 5/11. The following year the school team won The Sunday Times tournament playing without Martyn Corden in the finals.
Up to this time I had concentrated chiefly on junior teams and had won the NCCU junior titles. Over Christmas and New Year of both 1966-7 and 1967-8 I travelled down to play at the Devon Junior Congress at Plymouth but in 1968 I decided to try my luck at Hastings. This proved to be one of the turning points of my career.
I was placed in the Challengers Reserves for 1968-9 and after the first round loss (to the eventual winner) my play gained momentum and I qualified for the Challengers the following year. The intervening year passed quietly with a trip to Ireland in the Glorney Cup. I went up to Balliol College, Oxford in October 1969.
The Hastings Challengers tournament 1969-70 began when I met the same opponent as in the previous year in the first round. This time I managed to come out on top. By the time the last round came, I had played most of the leaders and had 6/8 including two pleasing wins with my favourite defence at the time – the Sicilian Pelikan variation.
In the last round I was paired against de Veauce who had a reputation as a good strategist and whom I hoped to unsettle tactically. I had white and my plan failed. He outplayed me in the opening and middlegame and I sacrificed my isolated centre pawn to activate my pieces.
So I then had to wait had to wait to see the other results before I could confirm a somewhat lucky place in the Premier.
In 1970 I had the opportunity to travel with the student team to the Olympiad in Haifa. My score of 5.5/7 was reasonably pleasing but the standard of opposition was far from good.
At the end of the year came the Hastings Premier – a tournament which I can only describe as the highlight of my career. I began nervously and lost a nondescript game to Uhlmann in the first round. My confidence grew with two comfortable draws with Portisch (the eventual winner) and Keene. In round four I met the surprise leader, Mestrovic (who had 3/3) and perhaps partly due to the fact that this game was played on 1st January I won convincingly in 18 moves.
The next four rounds brought an uneventful draw with Wade and three exciting encounters with Byrne, Krogius and Gligoric all of which after several reversals of fortune ended in draws.
In the last round I was to play Hort who needed to to win to gain a share of first prize. He played a horribly passive opening and by move 14 I was already well on top. To try to compensate he snatched a queenside pawn and gave me the chance to play the type of move one can only dream about!
This victory meant an equal second on 5/9 with Gligoric, Hort, Krogius and Uhlmann and both a GM and IM norm.
As a result of this I became a regular member of the England side. During 1971 my results were erratic, possibly caused by too much play. I was pleased with my 3.5 score in my first Clare Benedict, although I lost my first game for England due to nervousness and I was first equal with George Botterill in the Slater Young Masters at Hastings (again). Here I declined a last round draw offer, blundered almost next move and lost to an up-and-coming junior by the name of Michael Stean! On the debit side my performances in the British Championship, The Oxford International Congress and the Robert Silk tournament left room for improvement.
Whilst playing with Bolton in the National Club Championship, we had never won the competition although we had reached the semi-finals many times. This year, 1971, playing for Oxford University, we won the tournament beating our old rivals Cambridge University in the final on board count.
The Hastings tournament of 1971-72 saw me firmly entrenched near the bottom. It is very difficult in this type of international tournament when one becomes marked as an out-of-form player. All the other players make extra efforts to beat you and this drains your strength further.
My main problem at Hastings was a lack of defence to 1.e4. I lost five games against this move. In the last round I had a very interesting struggle against Karpov who needed to win this game to tie first with Korchnoi who had beaten him in the previous round, but the strength of 1.e4 proved too much.
The summer of 1972 saw the advent of my University finals and thus I played very little for the first six months of the year – even I had to decline an invitation to the Teeside GM event. Later in the year I played in the student Olympiad in Graz and then in the Olympiad is Skopje.
In the preliminaries we had drawn Yugoslavia and Switzerland, who were the only other teams likely to qualify for the ‘A’ final. We missed qualification narrowly and I think that every team member had one poor result in the qualifying rounds – mine being a scraped draw against a Syrian team.
We won the ‘B’ final by beating the Israeli team in the last round and I felt pleased by my score of 11.5/16 with no losses. Indeed, in my last round game with Balshan I was quite rightly instructed to agree a draw in a winning position to secure the team’s first place.
I feel that this tournament from my point of view aptly demonstrates the difference in title norms in the early 1970s and today. I played five players who had no Elo ratings and only four titled players. Hence an IM norm would not have been available under any circumstances. The main reason for the lack of Elo ratings in 1972 was that the new system had only just been introduced and for many players this was their first Elo-rated tournament. In the last Elo list, all but one of the sixteen players are rated, there are now four GMs and five IMs amongst my opponents and the norm figures would be 10.5/16 and 12.5/16 for IM and GM respectively.
Here is my best game from the Olympiad. It is indicative of an early combination prevailing through into a winning ending.
In 1973 I was once more plagued by too many invitations and played indifferently throughput the year. The only bright spots were my score of 3/7 on boards 3 and 4 of the European Team Finals and second place in the Woolacombe International.
1974 was once again an Olympiad year. The England team won the Clare Benedict for the first time in Menorca and I was able to contribute 5/6 winning both a board prize and the best score prize. I was drafted into the Olympiad team as a late replacement and although we qualified easily enough for the ‘A’ finals this was in no way due to my efforts as I had a 50% score in the preliminaries.
We had qualified for the ‘A’ final with one round to spare and our last group match against the USE (from which the score was to be carried forward) began the final matches. It had been decided, as a tactical measure and in our view of our differing styles, that I should take black whenever we had this colour on the fourth board, so that Whiteley and Stean could utilize a greater proportion of whites. This worked to a limited extent and indeed, Stean obtained an IM Norm. Also, as it worked out I played in matches against seven of the top eight teams (being rested against Yugoslavia) and only three teams below us. In the end, I was pleased with my +3 =1 -4 with black in the finals to give overall a 50& score.
During 1973 and 1974 I was co-author of two books in the Batsford opening series, both with Tim Harding on Sicilian Defence variations.
I also wrote a best game collection of Karpov which was by far the most interesting of the three books to write.
At about this time, I decided to embark upon a career in banking and to abandon that of a professional chessplayer. Since then I have concentrated on correspondence chess.
Having received master certificate, I entered a European and World tournament in both of which I finished first. The second of these two results qualified me for the world Championship Semi-finals. But first attempt in the eleventh championship ended in failure to qualify.
As a result of an invitation received by the BPCF I played in the Eino Heilimo Memorial Grandmaster event. I have , however, qualified as a postal IM by scoring the required seven points and had an outside chance of trying for first place at one stage.
BCN remembers Sir Stuart Milner-Barry KCVO CB OBE who passed away on Saturday, March 25th, 1995 in Lewisham Hospital, London aged 88. He was laid to rest in the Great Shelford Cemetery, Cambridge Road, Great Shelford, Cambridge CB22 5JJ.
A memorial service was held for him at Westminster Abbey on 15 June 1995.
Philip Stuart Milner-Barry was born on Thursday, September 20th 1906 in Mill Hill in the London Borough of Barnet. Mill Hill falls under the Hendon Parliamentary constituency.
His parents were Lieutenant-Commander Edward Leopold (1867-1917) and Edith Mary Milner-Barry (born 17th May 1866, died 1949, née Besant). Edward was in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, H.M.S. “Wallington.” Prior to his war service his father was a professor of modern languages at the University of Bangor and Edith was the daughter of Dr. William Henry Besant, a renowned mathematical fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge University.
Stuart was the second born of six children, There was an older sister Alda Mary (18th August 1893-1938) and four brothers Edward William Besant (?-1911) , Walter Leopold (1904-1982), John O’Brien (4 December 1898 – 28 February 1954) and Patrick James . Many of the Milner-Barry family were laid to rest in the Great Shelford churchyard.
Stuart learned chess at the age of eight and his autobiographical article below goes into more depth.
He was educated at Cheltenham College, and won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained firsts in classics and moral sciences.
On leaving Cambridge in 1927 he went to work at the London Stock Exchange (LSE).
According to the 1928 and 1929 electoral rolls he was living with his mother Edith and his brothers Walter and John O’Brien at 50 De Freville Avenue, Cambridge CB4 1HT:
In 1931 the family had relocated to 11, Park Terrace, Cambridge which is nearby to Emmanuel College. Now living with the family was brother Patrick James.
He discovered that he did not enjoy his LSE work and switched careers to became chess correspondent of The Times in 1938.
At the time (September 29th) of the 1939 register he (aged 33) was living as a journalist in a household of three with his mother Edith who carried out “unpaid domestic duties” and sister Alda who was of “private means”.
In 1946 Stuart was awarded the OBE from the Civil Division in the New Years Honours . The citation reads that was “employed in a Department of the Foreign Office”. A modern translation of this was he was engaged in Top Secret work at Bletchley Park alongside Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman and Hugh Alexander and was thus honoured for his war work. More on this later…
After the war he worked in the Treasury, and later in 1966 administered the British honours system where he helped to facilitate the award of honours to other chess players ultimately retiring in 1977.
As well as the OBE he was made Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in 1962 and Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCV0) in 1975.
A conference room was named after him at the Civil Service Club, 13 – 15 Great Scotland Yard, London SW1A 2HJ.
Peter Hennessy* and The Rewarding Career of Sir Stuart Milner-Barry
*Peter Hennessy is a renowned historian and journalist. The following was originally published in The Times in 1977 following PSMBs retirement.
“Few careers can have been as varied and rewarding as that of Sir Stuart Milner-Barry, who retires today as Ceremonial Officer to the Civil Service Department and custodian of the British honours system.
Into the 48 years since he left Cambridge with a degrees in classics and moral sciences, he has crammed spells as a stockbroker, chess correspondent of The Times and member of the British chess team, a wartime codebreaker for MI6 and a senior Treasury official before taking over administration of the nations “gongs and bongs ” nearly 11 years ago.
The richness of Sir Stuart’s progression is all the more striking given the difficulty he experienced in finding a job at all after university because of the Wall Street crash in 1929. His first 10 years spanned the slump of the 1930s, when there was little for a stockbroker to do, but fill his days reading The Times.
In 1938 he joined the paper full time as chess correspondent and, along with many of the world’s leading players, he was nearly trapped in Buenos Aires when war broke out the next year (ed. should be month rather than year). Catching the first ship home, he finished up with that brilliant collection of dons, antique dealers, mathematicians and chess players billeted in Nissen huts in the park of Buckinghamshire country house, who broke the code transmitted by the German Enigma machine.
Sir Stuart eventually rose to lead hut six, which broke the most secret messages of the Luftwaffe. Quartered in a comfortable Bletchley public house with another formidable chess player, C. H. O’D. Alexander, and Gordon Welchman, the Cambridge mathematician, he acquired a taste for rum, the only alcohol in plentiful supply for some reason, and a sense of guilt about enjoying, his stimulating, important job, safe while other men faced the bullets.
He was not tempted to stay on in the arcane world of code-breaking after the war, unlike his friend, the late Hugh Alexander, as he regards such activities in peacetime as akin to reading somebody’s private correspondence, though he recognizes the necessity of such efforts for intelligence work. Instead, he took the reconstruction competition for the administrative class of the Civil Service and entered the Treasury.
While battling with the post-war dollar shortage in Treasury Chambers he “found a wife, carried her off and lived happily ever after”, as he cheerfully puts it. Apart from a spell as establishment officer to the Ministry of Health, he stayed at the Treasury until he reached the normal retiring age of 60 in 1966.
Lord Helsby, then Head of the Home Civil Service, asked him to stay on and take over the smooth machine that underpins the honours system, which had been built up over many years by Sir Robert Knox. Sir Stuart has loved every minute of it.
He looks every inch the part, a tall stately man of immense natural dignity, he is the incarnation of propriety. The stresses to which the honours system has been subjected to in recent years must have caused him great distress but he is far too proper a civil servant to talk about it. His retirement at 70 has nothing to do with the alarums and excursions stimulated by the honours lists associated with Harold Wilson.
“One of my principal jobs has been the protection of the system”, he says. “The pleasures are very great. It’s fascinating in itself. You see so much of the history of people in every walk of like”.
Sir Stuart waxes eloquent about the beauty and uniqueness of the British honours system. He is a confirmed monarchist, so the spontaneity of the jubilee celebrations provides the perfect backcloth for his departure. He is succeeded by Mr. Richard Sharp, an under-secretary at the Treasury.”
Below is the original article:
Marriage to Thelma
In the third quarter of 1947 Stuart married Thelma Tennant Wells in Westminster. A consequence of the “rules of the day” of the marriage was that Thelma had to resign her post in the Treasury immediately. (Ed: this somewhat antiquated view of life was finally corrected in 1972 when the Civil Service dispensed with this rule).
Lady Thelma was to support Stuart in his chess activities for their married life. She also served as the first UK Director of Women’s Chess and made many lasting friendships in the chess world. She was buried together with Stuart in 2007. Stuart himself was President of the British Chess Federation between 1970 and 1973 as well as being Director of International Chess following his presidency.
Stuart and Thelma had three children, one son and two daughters: Philip O. (born 1953), Jane E (born 1950) and Alda M (born 1958).
Stuart was knighted on January 1st 1975 for his role as the “Ceremonial Officer of Civil Service Department” between 1966-77. Technically the knighthood is known as a KCVO.
He first competed in the British Championship in 1931 and made regular appearences as late as 1978: a span of 47 years!
In their retirement years Stuart and Thelma lived at the salubrious location of 43 Blackheath Park, Blackheath, London SE3 9RW.
In June of 1933 at the age of 27 Stuart wrote an autobiographical piece for British Chess Magazine to be found in Volume LIII (53, 1933), Number 6 (June), pp. 241-2 as follows:
Champion of the City of London Chess Club
I learned chess at the age of eight and played regularly after that with members of my family. My first-class practise (with due respect to my family) began at fourteen, when Mr. Bertram Goulding Brown and started a series of serious friendly games which has continued ever since, almost without interruption. The vast majority of these games were begun with 1 P-K4, P-K4, and as we both eschewed the Lopez and the Four Knights, we have acquired a fairly extensive knowledge of the older forms of the King’s side openings – King’s Gambit (all sorts), Vienna, Guioco Piano, Evans’s Gambit, Danish Gambit, Bishop’s Opening, etc. These games have undoubtedly born the most important influence in my development, apart from which the serious friendly game is to me much the most enjoyable form of chess. We each have runs of success, and there has never been much to choose between us.
(An aside : Stuart wrote a extensive obituary of Bertram Goulding Brown which appeared in British Chess Magazine, Volume LXXXV (85, 1965), Number 12(December) pp.344-45 in which he noted:
B. Goulding Brown was my oldest and closest Cambridge friend, I started playing with him in 1920, and we have played ever since, though, alas, not nearly so often since the War as in the 1920s and 1930. Our last games, when he was eighty three, were played about a year ago in the same book-congested upstairs study at Brookside as all the others had been. Both were cut-and-thrust draws: a Kieseritzky Gambit from myself and Two Knights’ (with 4.P-Q4 for White) were typical of the openings we adopted. We were planning another this Autumn, but he died suddenly and peacefully at the end of August, )
I have also been very fortunate in playing a good deal with C.H.O’D. Alexander. Our games have taken the form of a series of short matches (first player to win three games) played with clocks. Alexander was already stronger than me when he came up to Cambridge, and he won the University Championship from me in his first year and my fourth.
All three matches have been won by him, the first easily and the last two by the narrowest possible margin; a fourth now in progress looks like coming to an early and ignominious conclusion (Score 0-2-2). These results have neither surprised nor disappointed me : I would not back any player in England to do better.
In 1923 I won the first Boy’s Championship at Hastings, but lost badly the following year (ed. Alexander won).
Since then I have competed twice at Hastings, once tieing with Miss Menchik in the Major Reserve for the first place and once for the last, in the Major. In between I played in the Major Open at Tenby, and came out fifth, with my first important win against Znosko-Borovsky.
Meanwhile I played four years against Oxford, with somewhat chequered results. The first year I won against G. Abrahams, the second and third years, I played K.H. Bancroft and scored a (very fortunate) draw and a win, while finally I permitted Abrahams to fork my King and Queen with a Knight, a performance unhappily repeated by R.L. Mitchell in the following year (his Queen was pinned by a Bishop). Since then the spell has been broken. In 1931 I played in the British Championships at Worcester, and was quite satisfied with my form, though my score of 5 out of 11 was nothing to write home about. In February 1932, I have the great good fortune to fill a vacant place in the Sunday Referee* London International Tournament, an extremely exhausting but very valuable experience which I greatly appreciated.
*TheSunday Referee was a newspaper of the time which was adsorbed into The Sunday Chronicle in 1939.
My score of 3.5 out of 11, equal with Sir George Thomas and above W. Winter and V. Buerger, was quite as good as I expected. After this came the Cambridge Tournament, which, though a very delightful little congress, was a fiasco from my point of view. Three of my opponents were unkind enough to show their best form against me, and two other games I spoilt by clock trouble.
I do not expect to play much serious competitive chess in future. I admire sincerely the business man who is ready, after a hard day at the office, to undergo a further four hours of strenuous mental exertion; and who is also prepared to spend his all too brief holidays in the same exhausting pursuit. Moreover, while many players find the atmosphere of match and tournament play a stimulus or an inspiration, it only renders me nervous, and though this does not affect my play it certainly interferes with my enjoyment. As long as I can play my week-end games with B.G.B., and inveigle Alexander from Winchester to add another to his monotonous series of victories, I shall not much mind if I can only occasionally take part in congresses. ”
PS Milner-Barry Cup
In issue #53 (April 1946) of West London Chess Club’s Gazette we have a news item concerning a newly inaugurated trophy called the PS Milner-Barry Cup:
Sergeant on Milner-Barry
Writing in A Century of British Chess (Hutchinson, 1934), PW Sergeant records in Chapter XXI, 1925 to 1934:
The City of London C.C.’s Championship Tournament which ended this (1933) spring deserves special mention; for it introduced an entirely new name on the list of champions, that of P.S. Milner-Barry, formerly of Cheltenham College and of Cambridge University. Ten years previously he had won the first boys’ championship at Hastings.
Now, he won the City of London Championship with a score of 11 out of 14, followed by the bearers of such noted names as R.P. Michell (10 points), Sir George Thomas (9), and E.G. Sergeant (8.5). It caused some surprise, therefore, when it was found that he was not selected as a British representative at Folkestone.
Golombek on Milner-Barry
Surprisingly and disappointingly there is no direct entry in either Hooper & Whyld or Sunnucks for Sir Stuart but (as you might expect) Harry Golombek OBE does not let us down in The Encyclopaedia of Chess (Batsford, 1977):
“British master whose chess career was limited by his amateur status but whose abilities as a player and original theorist rendered him worthy of the title of international master.
Born at Mill Hill in London, he showed early promise and in 1923 won the British Boys Championship, then held at Hastings.
He studied classics at Cambridge and developed into the strongest player there. At the university he was to meet (ed. three years later) C. H. O’D. Alexander with whom he played much chess.
Though nearly three years younger, Alexander exerted a strong influence over him and both players cherished and revelled in the brilliance of play in open positions.
By then along with Alexander and Golombek, he had become recognized as one of the three strongest young players in the country. Whilst not as successful as they were in tournaments as the British championship in which stamina was essential, he was a most formidable club and team match player, as he had already shown in 1933 when he won the championship of the City of London Club ahead of R. P. Mitchell and Sir George Thomas.
He played in his first International Team tournament at Stockholm 1937 and was to play in three more such events : in 1939 at Buenos Aires where, on third board, he made the fine score of 4/5 ; in Helsinki 1952; and in Moscow 1956 where, again on third board, he was largely responsible for the team’s fine showing.
In 1940 he shared first prize with Dr. List in the strong tournament of semi-international character in London and then, like Alexander and (later) Golombek, helped in the Foreign Office code-breaking activities at Bletchley Park for the duration of the Second World War. Staying in the Civil Service afterwards, he rose to the rank of Under-Secretary in the Treasury and was knighted for his services in 1975.
“I first met Sir Stuart Milner-Barry when I was fifteen years old (1962) playing in a tournament in Bognor Regis who played some rustic king’s pawn opening against me, sacrificing a pawn for nothing in particular and then astonished by writing “castles” in full on his scoresheet. I think he used “kt” for a knight too. I thought I had discovered a true relic from a bygone age and the more I got to know him I realised the more correct that judgement was.
Milner-Barry was the last of the true gentlemen amateurs and was one of the few people I have ever met who played chess for the sheer love of the game.
A few typical incidents may give a flavour of his unique personality. First and most typical was the way he would resign: with a firm handshake, a smile and a booming whisper of ‘You are far too good for me I’m afraid!’ When I first heard those words I was totally taken aback : What was this, a chessplayer acknowledging that his opponent was better than him? Impossible!
Once, at close of play in a county match against Milner-Barry I had the extra pawn in a difficult queen and pawn ending. We analysed a little with most variations suggesting I was winning. It was the kind of position you would send for adjudication even if you are convinced it is lost. It avoids having to resign anyway and the adjudicator may always discount the pawns. But, Sir Stuart never thought like that. After ten minutes analysing he extended his hand and congratulated me.
Finally there was the splendid incident in Moscow during the (Ed. 6th) European Team Championships in the late 1970s (Ed. 1977) Stuart was then the President of the BCF and took up an invitation of his old friend the British Ambassador to the USSR (Ed. Sir Howard Smith) to visit the event. Since he was staying at the Embassy he had a KGB tail assigned to him to follow him everywhere. On one of his morning walks Sir Stuart got lost and was not certain which bridge he should be on to get back to the Embassy. So, he turned around and walked back to the not very secret policeman, followed him and asked for directions! For the rest of his stay they walked practically hand-in-hand.
Whilst most of us knew Stuart as an amiable old gent who played for Kent and in the Lloyds Bank Masters who could still play brilliant attacking games in his eighties most knew little of his distinguished career in real life.
We suspected with some justification that in his civil service career he was responsible for doling out all those OBEs to chess players in the 70s and 80s when he was in charge of the honours list.
It was the wartime work at Bletchley Park that was Milner-Barry’s greatest achievement. As everybody knows the allies won the Second World War mainly because of the brilliant code-breaking work of the Cambridge quartet of Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Hugh Alexander and Stuart Milner-Barry. Turing and Welchman were mathematical geniuses, Milner-Barry was the supreme administrator and Alexander straddled the gap with great talents in both areas. The group of four were known as “The Wicked Uncles”
The astonishing achievement at Bletchley was not so much in breaking enemy codes as maintaining complete secrecy of the entire operation for the duration of the war. Only with such people as Milner-Barry and Alexander in charge could such a large operation be run so successfully without anybody knowing about it.
Milner-Barry’s importance in the running at Bletchley may be judged from the fact that he personally delivered the note to Winston Churchill stressing overriding importance of their work asking for more funds.
Compared with that the invention of the Milner-Barry Gambit and the Milner-Barry variation of the Nimzo-Indian are minor achievements.
Sir Stuart was proof that nice guys can be chess players although one cannot help suspecting he would achieved even better results if he had even a slight streak of nastiness about him. He would surely have not let Capablanca off the hook in Margate in 1938 when the attacking player secured a winning position against the ex-champions dragon variation and he would have surely also not let the British Championship slip from his grasp in 1953 when he finished as runner-up after losing his last two games.
He always performed well when playing in Olympiads (or Team Tournaments as they were known then) for England during the 1930s and 50s. He was, after all, one of the most naturally gifted players this county has produced. What other Englishman has two opening (or even just one) named after him?
While at Cambridge while he won the University Championship in 1928, losing to Alexander in the following year, Milner-Barry composed some fine problems, a frivolity he never returned to later in his life.
An excellent though infrequent writer on the game, he wrote a fine memoir of C.H.O’D. Alexander in Golombek’s and Hartston’s The Best Games of C.H.O’D. Alexander, Oxford, 1976.”
An Obituary from Bernard Cafferty
From British Chess Magazine, Volume CXV (115, 1995), Number 5 (May), pp. 258-59 we have this obituary by Bernard Cafferty:
“Sir Philip Stuart Milner-Barry KCVO CB OBE (20 ix 1906 – 25 iii 1995) was the oldest of the British chess masters who came to prominence in the 1930s, He was always thought of in conjunction with his great friends Hugh Alexander and Harry Golombek who both predeceased him. The length of Stuart’s career is amazing – he was inaugural British Boy Champion in 1923 and was still playing for Kent first team in the Counties Championship of recent years, thus spanning a period of seven decades! Botvinnik spoke of him to me on my 1994 visit to Moscow.
Yet Stuart, who never gained the IM title, was always the true amateur and genuine English gentleman, whose sense of duty and tradition was very great. It speaks volumes of him that he agonised over whether he should attend the Times Kasparov-Short match of 1993, in a private capacity. He would have liked to watch the play, but as a former British Chess Federation President, 1970-73, he felt it was his duty not to lend any extra recognition to the contest other than that assigned it by the BCF.
Before the war, after graduating from Cambridge in Classics, he took some fine scalps including those of Tartakower and Mieses and should have beaten Capablanca at Margate 1939.
He worked, rather unhappily, in a stockbroking firm up to 1938 and it is in that capacity that his name appears on the official document that set-up the British Chess Magazine as a limited company in 1937.
During the war he played his part in the Bletchley Park code-breaking undertaking along with Alexander and Golombek, and after the war went into the Civil Service where he had a distinguished career at the Treasury. Then his career was extended as he spent his final working years in the patronage department that sifted recommendations for the honours list.
I recall asking him in 1981 if there was any chance that Brian Reilly could qualify for an award. Stuart’s diplomatic answer was to the effect that he was now retired but would drop a word in the right quarter.
Stuart represented England at the Olympiads or 1936, 1939, 1952 and 1956. At the last of these he played particularly well on fourth board. He was conscious that his old friend Hugh Alexander could not take part in Moscow because of the sensitive nature of his work in the Intelligence Service.
In playing style Milner-Barry, a tall gaunt figure, delighted in an open tactical fight.
He was The Times correspondent 1938-45, resigning the post to let Harry Golombek take over. His best result after the war, apart from the 1956 Moscow Olympiad, was probably his second place in the British Championships of 1953 at Hastings. The abiding impression of his opponents over the years must have been that here was a player who greatly enjoyed the game, win, lose or draw.
Certainly, that was my idea of him in the tussles we had from the British Championship of 1957 up to county matches in the 1980s.
We shall not see his like again. The England that formed his character is no longer with us.”
Kenworthy on Milner-Barry
Sir Stuart as a student was taught by his lecturer friend Gordon Welchman, later 1940 his Head of Hut. They were firm friends, a band of brothers, as per the rest of the chess players and mathematicians from the Interwar years at Cambridge University.
His studies were obviously well aligned to be a stockbroker in the City, plus the tedious details of Blotters and Order Management registration.
Obvious exceptions to this University circle was Dr Jacob Bronowski who was given the suspected 5th columnist treatment by authorities in Hull. Obviously, he would have been excellent.
Exception also according to John Hevriel was if you were also from Sidney Sussex, like Staff Sgt. then an RSM Asa Briggs, who was more Contract Bridge with this all friends crossword addicts team. Asa Briggs felt that Sir Stuart was initially badly rewarded leaving Hut 6 in 1945 for HM Treasury.
Sir Stuart was a noted top cribster, his crosswords, German and thinking from how the Nazi operator would think from his side of the board, obviously helped with Bombe cribs. He always played down his role and abilities in a diplomatic way. He was the facilitator and mentor to many, especially back to Gordon Welchman in his troubled times from 1974 onwards. Sir Stuart was not happy about the proposed book of the Hut 6 Story.
He was the bureaucrat who cared for the welfare of his staff, especially on tedious protract tasks which was the norm. He was into ethics, Quadrivium, logic and rhetoric, philosophy and his knowledge of German poets and Great German thinkers would have been invaluable in solving the Enigma puzzle and how might his opposite number blunder and be sloppy in procedures.
Though never at home in close(d) positions, he was an outstanding strategist in the open game and it is significant that his most important contribution to opening theory was the Milner-Barry variation of the Nimzo-Indian Defence which is essentially as attempt to convert a close position into an open one (1.P-Q4, N-KB3; 2.P-QB4, P-K3; 3. N-QB3, B-N5; 4.Q-B2, N-B3).
Hooper & Whyld (1996) note:
“Sometimes called the Zurich or Swiss variation, this is a line in the Nimzo-Indian Defence introduced by Milner-Barry in the Premier Reserves tournament, Hastings 1928-9. This line became more widely known when it was played at Zurich 1934.”
Two famous opening lines are named after him – 4…Nc6 in the Nimzo-Indian (as above), and the gambit in the French Defence: 1.e4 e6;2.d4 d5;3.e5 c5;4.c3 Nc6;5.Nf3 Qb6;6.Bd3 cxd4;7.cxd4 Bd7;8.0-0 Nxd4;
Stuart played this line both in correspondence and over-the-board play. If Black takes the pawn with 10…Qxe5, White gets a fierce attack by 11,Re1 Qd6 (else 12.Nxd5) 12.Nb5.
There is also a sub-variation of the Caro-Kann which is named after Sir Stuart viz:
which is a Blackmar-Diemer style pawn sacrifice.
There is also a Milner-Barry variation in the Falkbeer Counter Gambit to the King’s Gambit thus:
which is an ancient line that he revived at Margate 1937.
and finally, there is a Milner-Barry Variation in the Petroff Defence:
giving a total of five named variations. How many English players have that many?
Problems and Compositions
Stuart developed an interest in problem composition in the 1920s
Further examples may be found on the excellent Meson Database maintained by Brian Stephenson
Milner-Barry on The English Chess Explosion
Stuart was a great supporter of the development of British chess. Nothing would have given him more pleasure than to witness the meteoric advances of English players in the 1970s. Indeed, he wrote the foreword to the English Chess Explosion (Batsford, 1980) by Murray Chandler and Ray Keene:
“It gives me great pleasure to have been asked to write a foreword for this book. Nothing has given me more satisfaction than the flowering of British chess talent that has taken place in the past few years.
Between the wars, though we had some splendid players like H. E. Atkins, Sir George Thomas and F. D. Yates, we were a second rate power at chess: in the great Nottingham tournament of 1936, for example, our quartet brought up the rear, and that was where, with occasional shining exceptions, our representatives in international tournaments tended to find themselves. Similarly, after the war in the 1950’s and 1960’s, in spite of Alexander and Penrose, we seldom achieved a really creditable place in the Olympiads.
Alexander who retired early from the arena because of the exacting demands of his profession, must have had rather a depressing time as non-playing captain.
I myself date the renaissance from the Spring of 1974 when we won a closely contested match against West Germany at Elvetham Hall.
Thereafter we went from strength to strength, with the appearance year by year of highly talented, original and adventurous young men from the Universities – Keene and Hartston, closely followed by Miles, Stean, Nunn, Mestel, Speelman, and a still younger generation of schoolboy prodigies like Nigel Short.
The peak of our performance so far has been the third place (after the USSR and Hungary) last winter in the finals of the European Team Tournament at Skara (compared with our eighth and last place at Moscow in 1977).
How did all this come about in the short space of six years? The Spassky-Fischer match of 1972 was a watershed. Since then, and the first time, it has been possible for able young men from universities to consider chess seriously as a full-time profession, or at least as a career to which they devote the major part of their time and interest, Secondly, the fruits were being reaped of the unobtrusive but devoted spadework in junior training pioneered by Barden, Wade and many others. Lastly, no doubt, sheer good fortune smiled upon us in the simultaneous emergence of a group of brilliant enthusiastic and likeable young men, five of them already grandmasters and others likely to become so before long.
It is sad that Alexander, who did so much to uphold the prestige of British chess in the doldrums, did not survive to witness the transformation. I would like to wish the BCF President, David Anderton, and Alexander’s successor as captain, all possible success for the future.”
In the March issue of CHESS for 1963, (Volume 28, Number 427, pp.147-155) William Winter wrote this:
P. S. Milner-Barry is a close friend of Alexander’s and plays like him, though not quite so well. So far the Championship has always eluded him, though he seemed to have it within his grasp at Buxton where he played superb chess for nine rounds and cracked in the last two. I fancy that the physical strain of these long Swiss tournaments
is rather too much for him. Like Alexander he has a most attractive style and one or two of his combinative games will certainly live after him.
A brief biography, formerly displayed in the ‘Hall of Fame’ in Bletchley Park mansion. Stuart Milner-Barry had achieved fame as a champion chess player when he came to Bletchley Park early in 1940. He led the ‘cribsters’ team in Hut 6 from its opening in January 1940, becoming head of the Hut in March 1944. The work of Milner-Barry and his team lay at the heart of the triumph over the German Luftwaffe & Army Enigma codes. After the war he had an outstanding career in the civil service. Philip Stuart Milner-Barry was born on 20 September 1906 in London; He went to Cheltenham College and on to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he achieved a first in both the classical and moral sciences triposes. He became a not-notably enthusiastic stock broker, though it was chess that filled his life. He had been boy chess champion of England in 1923, playing for England before and after the war. He was chess
correspondent of the Times from 1938 and throughout the war. It was Gordon Welchman, a friend from their days at Trinity together, who persuading Milner-Barry to join Bletchley Park.
He arrived in January 1940 joining the newly created Hut 6, and was encouraged by Welchman to study the decrypts that were beginning to emerge from the Zygalski sheets being operated by John Jeffreys. Welchman wanted Milner-Barry to develop an intimate knowledge of the German cipher clerks and radio operators. When the Germans dropped the use of the repeated indicator, as they did on 1 May 1940, Hut 6 would have to rely on its knowledge of the traffic to find suitable cribs to enable the Bombes to operate, and in the meanwhile to make use of the careless procedural habits of some of the German operators.
Milner-Barry had noted that the cipher clerks tended to use addresses and signatures that were both long and stereotyped, providing a fruitful source for cribs. A crib had to be a phrase of about 13 characters long that was very likely to be found in certain easily identified messages, but also had to have linguistic features that provided good ‘closed loops’ for the bombe menus. The use of ‘kisses’, cribs derived from suitable decrypted messages from other keys, often provided the first break into a new key. Milner-Barry organised a team of wizards, as Welchman called his cribsters, who eventually were able to provide good keys for Hut 6 to be able to break into most of the Luftwaffe keys and then some of the Army keys. Milner-Barry became recognised as Gordon Welchman’s deputy, and when Welchman left in March 1943, to become responsible for mechanisation projects, it was Milner-Barry who became Head of Hut 6. Milner-Barry signed the Turing letter in October 1941 and it was he who took the letter directly to Downing Street. It drew Churchill’s attention the extreme shortage of support personnel in the Enigma huts. His powers of smooth administration now became clear as Hut 6 grew, reaching over 550 in total, one of the largest teams in Bletchley Park.
Milner-Barry was a quiet, undemonstrative, highly effective leader who believed in delegation and was always to be seen sporting a very large pipe. His reports show that he was totally unflappable, in the midst of the problems for Hut 6 created by the tightening of German cipher security in 1944, which they largely overcame. Stuart Milner-Barry was recruited to Whitehall in June 1945. He rose rapidly, becoming the ceremonial officer in the Civil Service Department. He received an OBE in 1946, a CB in 1962, and a knighthood in 1975. He married Thelma Wells in 1947 and they had three children. He died in Lewisham on 25 March 1995. He had repeated his visit to Downing Street in October 1991, with a letter signed by 10,000, asking for Bletchley Park to be preserved as a monument to the great war-time work.
We remember Hugh Alexander who passed away on Friday, 15-ii-1974. The death was registered in the Borough of Cheltenham. Currently his burial / cremation site is unknown.
The Alexander Family
Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander was born on Monday, April 19th, 1909 in Cork, Munster, Republic of Ireland.
Hugh’s parents were Conel William Long Alexander (1879-1920) and Hilda Barbara Alexander (née Bennett) (1881-1964) who married in Hook Church, Hampshire. His father was a Professor of Civil Engineering from County Donegal and his mother was the daughter of a timber merchant and was from Birmingham.
Hugh’s father moved to Hook in Hampshire. At some point they returned to Cork and then relocated to Birmingham.
In the 1911 Irish census aged two Hugh was recorded as being a Presbyterian. The household consisted of his father, mother and two servants Maud McAuliffe (19) from County Cork and Johanna Hanlon (20) from Cork City all living at 20, Connaught Avenue, Cork.
At the time of the census all members of the household were capable of reading and writing apart from Hugh who was recorded as “cannot read”.
and Hugh’s father signed the Return as follows :
Hugh attended Londonderry College and then went to King Edward’s School, Birmingham.
Hugh married Enid Constance Rose Crichton Neate (1900-1982) in October 1934 and the marriage was registered in the district of Westminster, Middlesex.
“Enid, was an equally striking personality. She was descended from one of the defenders of the Eureka Stockade, the “birthplace of Australian democracy”. She was educated at the Sorbonne, a formidable dialectician, art historian and collector. In her later years she returned to Australia, where she was endlessly hospitable to passing Russian chessplayers, and to itinerant musicians, including my own father.”
Hugh and Enid had a son Michael (19 June 1936 – 1 June 2002) who became the foreign policy secretary to Margaret Thatcher and the UK ambassador to NATO. Here is Michael’s obituary.
Michael married Traute Krohn. Michael and Traute gave Hugh a grandson, Conel Alexander who is a Cosmochemist at the Earth and Planets Laboratory, Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington.
We contacted Conel and he replied more or less instantly as follows:
I don’t have that many anecdotes or photos of my grandfather. My great aunt, his sister, was the family archivist. She had a lot of photos of when they were young in Cork and Birmingham. She did send me some photos before she died, but not the sort that would interest your readers. She lived in Fort Erie, Canada and my grand father used to visit when in North America on ‘business’. I don’t know how much she knew about what he did but she must have had some inkling. Unfortunately, since she died I have lost touch with her family. Amongst the photos she sent me were some of my great grandfather and his Irish relatives. An archivist at Cork University contacted me a few years ago. According to him, my great grandfather has a rugby player and organizer of Irish rugby (as well as an engineering professor), but also opposed to Irish independence which might well have caused trouble for him and his family had he not died when he did.
I was 13 when my grandfather died and wasn’t told how ill he was until almost the end. I would have liked to have know him better, but I assume he was always on the go and my father was a diplomat and we had been living abroad until I was 8 (US, Moscow and Singapore). Even after moving back to London, we would only see him a few times a year as far as I remember. I think he probably realized that he had missed out on some things as he was planning to retire (early I believe) and come to live with us in London, only to learn that he had terminal cancer.
It just so happened that next door to where I work is a rather upscale retirement home. A man called Authur Levinson had retired there with his wife. He was sent to Bletchley when the USA joined the war and had worked with my grandfather. Arthur’s wife had somehow followed him to the UK as a driver. Both had gotten to know my grandfather during the war and then afterwards when Arthur joined the NSA. Somehow Arthur found out I was working next door, and my family used to visit them occasionally. They had an Enigma machine that they used to show my kids, but they were probably too young to understand the significance. Arthur told me that the NSA had tried to recruit my grandfather when they heard he was retiring from GCHQ, but he was adamant that he wanted to retire to spend more time with family and to write.
I was told that, rather surprisingly, he didn’t think that chess was a suitable pastime for a healthy boy. I don’t know if this was the reason, he believed in trial by fire, or he just could not help himself (he was extremely competitive at everything he did), but when we did play chess a few times he used to give me huge advantages and then thrash me! After a few such humiliations, I gave up. I don’t think I would have been very good anyway and my grandfather probably recognized that, so perhaps it was his way of letting me find out early. My father was an olympic fencer, so naturally I tried that too. For a while I was able to ‘bully’ my way to wins, until I came up against people who really knew what they were doing. I abandoned that too.
One other thing I learned about about my grandfather fairly recently is that he taught Freeman Dyson mathematics and chess at Winchester. Freeman contacted me out of the blue having come across my name somehow. Remembering my chess experience, I ventured that he must have been a rather impatient teacher. Not a bit of it, apparently, but then Dyson must have been the ideal student for him.
Working for John Lewis
Prior to the second world war Alexander was officially employed by John Spedan Lewis in his Department store in Oxford Street. When he returned from Buenos Aires (“good air”) from the 1939 Olympiad he travelled aboard the RMS Alcantara. Here is the entry in the passenger list for September 19th, 1939 :
and here is Alexander’s entry in detail. Note that his occupation is described as “Drapery Manager” :
Hugh sailed from Buenos Aires, Argentina in September 1939 to arrive at Southampton September 19th 1939. The ship was the Alcantara operated by Royal Mail Lines Ltd hence the RMS Alcantara.
According to Wikipedia : “RMS Alcantara was a Royal Mail Lines ocean liner that was built in Belfast in 1926. She served in the Second World War first as an armed merchant cruiser and then a troop ship, was returned to civilian service in 1948 and scrapped in 1958.
Ports of the voyage were : Buenos Aires; Montevideo; Santos and Rio de Janeiro and Hugh’s official number was 148151 and he travelled 2nd class. His proposed destination residential address was
316, Rodney House, Dolphin Square, London, SW1
According to Wikipedia : “The proximity of Dolphin Square to the Palace of Westminster and the headquarters of the intelligence agencies MI5 (Thames House) and MI6 (Vauxhall Cross) has attracted many politicians, peers, civil servants and intelligence agency personnel as residents.”
From British Chess Magazine, Volume XCIV (94, 1974), Number 4 (April), pp. 117-120 by PS Milner-Barry :
“A proper assessment of Hugh Alexander, who died on February 15th 1974 must await a later issue. But I think he might have been pleased to see our last game published, and I give the score of it below, with notes based on our usual analysis immediately after the game. Over the past 45 years, ever since he went to Cambridge, we played whenever opportunity offered serious games with clocks.
Before the war they were played mostly at my mother’s house in Cambridge, and after the war and my own marriage at our house in Blackheath. When he moved to Cheltenham the opportunities became fewer but no year ever passed without two or three such games, usually at Easter or Christmas.
Alexander always used to say, it was certainly true of me, that this was the kind of chess that he enjoyed most. The games were conducted with the utmost vigour, though not without a good deal of propaganda on both sides. I suppose he won in the proportion of about two to one, but the disparity in strength never became one-sided. Nearly all the games opened 1 P-K4, P-K4; he played the Lopez when I allowed him. (I usually played the Petroff or Philidor), and I played a mixture – in the early days the Vienna and latterly mostly the King’s Gambit. On the whole Black did better than White for both of us.
The only concession we made to advancing years was that latterly we contented ourselves with four hour sessions and 36 moves, instead of 40 in 5 hours. We thought we had done enough for honour by then, and the games were usually finished in the time.
Hugh stayed with us the weekend before Christmas, when this game was played. He looked ill, but he was very cheerful and as good company as ever. He loved a good argument, and as my family so too,- the evening meal was its usual lively affair! I am myself a man of peace, and intellectually lazy; so in deference to my feelings the argument was suspended, before it became too hot. I am afraid they all thought I was a spoil-sport. It was as happy a visit as any of us could remember and it is difficult to accept there will not be another.
As for the game, it was not one of our most exciting encounters. But it is quite an interesting one, and shows Hugh playing as
well as ever – certainly much too well for me. But then he usually did.”
Following PSMBs contribution, in the same obituary there was this from Harry Golombek :
C.H.O’D. Alexander and the ‘B.C.M.’ by Harry Golombek
I have written elsewhere about Hugh Alexander both as a person and as a chess-player and I also intend to devote a forthcoming article in ‘The Times‘ on Saturday to an appraisal of his place in British Chess. Here, however, I would like to describe briefly his connection with this magazine over the years and to show how
important his help was to the progress of the ‘BCM‘.
In the years immediately preceding the Second World War, Ash Wheatcroft and I had made a determined effort to maintain and increase the role of the ‘BCM‘, he in a managerial capacity and I as its editor. With the coming of war and the departure of both of us into the army a sort of caretaker regime had to be provided. It worked as well as could have been expected but inevitably there had been a decline both in quality and financially. When peace came, the quality improved since it was possible to get more and better contributions but the financial aspect became almost alarming.
The question arose – was there a need for the magazine and if so how could that need be fulfilled with the fairly limited resources at hand. Some of us thought there was, but the ways and means were not so clear. Of all those who thought like this Alexander was the most effective in his approach to the problems. I know that from his very youth onwards he had been convinced of the importance of the ‘BCM’ to British chess and, being a practical idealist, when the
crisis came he set about dealing with it in the most expeditious way.
In November 1946 he became a director of the B.C.M. and continued in that position till February 1952, by which time the magazine had been set on a solid basis from
which it was unlikely to be shaken. It was his idea that Brian Reilly be asked to act as editor and almost his first act as director was to write a letter to him inviting him to become so. Then, in January 1947, he himself took over the editorship of the games department, an arduous task which he fulfilled with great competence and the utmost conscientiousness until May 1949 when the heavy work of the Civil Service department of which he was head compelled him to hand over the Games Section to me.
Before, however, that he gave up this post he, again in the most practical way possible, rendered the ‘BCM‘ another service. He wrote a book giving a selection of the games from the last period of Alekhine’s life and generously donated half the royalties to the ‘BCM‘ in order to bolster up its slender finances.
Even after he had to give up official connection with the magazine he retained a strong interest in its welfare. So, even though this recognition is belated and posthumous, I thought it was right to afford readers the possibility of joining with me in thanking High Alexander for all that he did in this respect in especial. At any rate, such matters should be on record for the chess historian.
“CHO’D Alexander was born in Cork in 1909 and learned chess at the age of ten. He was educated at King Edward School, Birmingham, where he exhibited early prowess by winning the Birmingham Post Cup. In 1927 he won the British Boy’s Championship. During his student days, from 1928 to 1932, he was a convincing champion of Cambridge University. Subsequently he competed in five British Championships, winning the title in 1938. He also played in several international tournaments, his outstanding performance amongst these being Hastings in 1938, where he shared second and third prizes with Keres, following Reshevsky who won the tournament, and ahead of Fine and Flohr. In 1939, in the England-Holland match, he had the satisfaction of defeating the ex-World Champion, Dr. Euwe, in a sensational games, drawing the return game.
A brilliant mathematician, he took a first at Cambridge and chose a scholastic career, joining a well-known public school (Winchester College). From there, via a short spell in a business appointment (John Lewis), he entered the service of the Foreign Office, where, during the war years, his valuable work earned him the OBE.
He plays imaginative and courageous chess and is never afraid of the wildest complications.”
An Obituary from Stuart Milner-Barry, Part 2
From British Chess Magazine, Volume XCIV (94, 1974), Number 6 (June), pp. 202-204 by PS Milner-Barry :
With the death of Hugh Alexander at the age of 64, British chess has lost the outstanding figure of the past forty years. His active playing career over some thirty years included two victories in the British championship and regular appearances in all representative teams from l93l-58, except when the nature of his Civil Service
duties prevented him from travelling behind the Iron Curtain. During the whole of the period after the war he was the regular top board for the England team. In the Hastings international congress he twice won the Premier tournament, on the second occasion tying with Bronstein. His victories in this series included two world champions (Euwe and Botvinnik) and numerous others in the Grandmaster class. He was an outstanding example, like H.E.Atkins and Dr. Milan Vidmar, of the amateur who could combine an exacting professional life of great responsibility and distinction with success in competitive international chess at the highest level and with the increasing professionalism of the game and the demands of knowledge and research that it makes upon the masters, this was much more difficult in Hugh’s time than in an earlier age.
It was indeed in the international field that his fame will principally rest. On the British championship scene, although he always did well before the War, and won convincingly at Brighton in 1938 in a strong field, his record did not match his abilities.
He never established anything like the superiority over his contemporaries that Atkins in a former age and Penrose in a later achieved. He won the championship again, in 1956, but that was a weak year when the Moscow Olympiad took first claim on the leading British players. It was not that he cared less – like all the great players he hated losing, though he was the most magnanimous of opponents – but that he seemed to require the stimulus of the great occasion, and of a world famous name on the other side of the board, to bring out the best in him.
Alexander was perhaps the only English player of his day whom the Grandmasters would have treated as on a level with themselves. On his day he was liable to beat any of them, and they were well aware of it. In his younger days he was very much the gay cavalier, and a brilliant combinative and attacking player with a touch of genius. Latterly he lost some of this elan, and adapted his style to the responsibilities of the B.C.T. top board. His opponents too, with a healthy respect for his powers, were less inclined to give him opportunities. He was as capable of the dead-bat technique as anybody, and to that extent (to my way of thinking anyway) his games became less interesting, with quick draws making a higher contribution to his top-board results than in earlier years. But none the less he was the anchor-man of the British team until his retirement after the 1958 Olympiad.
It was a great pity he gave up the game over the board at 50. He had years of good chess in him. But I think he felt he had scaled all the peaks he could scale, and that he was finding top-class competitive chess a burden difficult to reconcile with his Civil Service work and the prospect of a gradual and inevitable decline in his powers did not appeal to him. I made many efforts to tempt him back to the arena, but to no avail. I do not think he ever seriously regretted his decision, and in his last years he immensely enjoyed correspondence chess.
In 1964, Alexander became non-playing captain of the B.C.F. team, and held that role continuously until after the Siegen Olympiad in 1970.
It was rather a disappointing period for British chess, and the results, while we were rebuilding a young team, could not – even with Penrose’s outstanding efforts at top board – have been expected to be favourable. But he threw himself wholeheartedly into all the work sponsored by the B.C.F. and the Friends of Chess to find and develop talent in the younger generation, and before he died the fruits of these labours were beginning to appear. He would have been proud indeed to have witnessed our recent triumph in the Anglo-German match.
As a captain he was, of course, immensely liked and respected by his team. My impression was that he took his responsibilities almost too seriously, and agonised too much over his decisions about whom to play and whom to rest. Nevertheless on balance he thoroughly enjoyed the work, and certainly, in spite of his innate modesty, he
was never one to be disturbed by ill-informed or irresponsible criticism, of which he had his share.
I suppose his most famous tournament result was his equal first with Bronstein at the Hastings Christmas Congress of 1953. Coming at a time when we were gloomily resigned to British players bringing up the rear in international tournaments, this created a great sensation.
The game with Bronstein lasted over 100 moves and Alexander won a most difficult Queen and Pawn ending by impeccable technique.
He went on with the Black pieces to massacre Tolush, the other visiting Russian Grandmaster.
Immense interest was created by this event. The popular press carried diagrams of the successive phases of the Bronstein saga. It was reported on the radio. By comparison with the furore created by the Spassky/Fischer match, it was no doubt small beer, but for those days the publicity was tremendous, and Alexander became the
hero of the hour.
It was entirely characteristic of him that this adulation did not go to his head. He kept everything in proportion, and encouraged everybody else to do the same. He said all the right things about Bronstein, but he did not claim, as one tends to do on these emotional occasions, that international sport was a panacea for friendship between the nations. Altogether it seemed to me an impeccable performance both on and off the board.
It is as a player that Hugh would, I think, have best wished to be remembered; and I have left myself little room to say anything about him as a journalist and writer. We are blessed, as readers of the B.C.M. will know, with many good and interesting writers on the game. But Hugh had, I believe, exceptional talents as a journalist. In his columns in the ‘Sunday Times‘, and latterly the ‘Financial Times‘, he set a very high standard. He always had something fresh and original to say, especially, I think, to the intelligent amateur rather than the expert; and he said it in a way that was both disarmingly modest and yet lively and entertaining. The warmth of his personality came out clearly both in his writing and in his public speaking – both were entirely natural and wholly without amour-propre.
His articles gave great pleasure to a wide circle, and many who never met him in the flesh must have felt that they had come to know him as a person. Similarly his book on the Spassky-Fischer match
(like the ‘Book of Chess’, which was written in the last year of his life) is an extremely vivid, as well as scholarly, piece of writing. It is almost impossible to believe that it was completed, within days of the conclusion of the match, by a man apparently under sentence of death throughout its progress.
Now that it has come, the loss of Hugh Alexander to British chess and chessplayers, alike as player, writer, administrator and friend, is immeasurable.
An Obituary from BH Wood
From CHESS, Volume 39 (1974), Nos. 693-94, March, p.162 by BH Wood :
The death of Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander deprived English chess of one of its most vivid characters. Born l9th April 1909, he learnt chess at the age of 8.
From a Londonderry college he went to King Edward’s School, Birmingham, where as a schoolboy he won the Birmingham Post cup, which carries with it the unofficial championship of Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. Going on to Cambridge, he not only won the University championship four years in succession, but picked up first-class honours. He won the British championship in 1938.
In 1939 I found myself on a boat with him bound for the Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires. He was team captain with Sir George Thomas, P. S. Milner-Barry and H. Golombek : other distinguished members of the team.
War broke out after about six rounds. With typical determination, Alexander jettisoned chess for patriotism, caught a boat home, volunteered for service on disembarking, and within a few weeks had attained the rank of colonel in British Intelligence. He remained attached to Intelligence and the Foreign Office until his retirement a few months ago. As a curious consequence of this commitment, though he settled in to the team captaincy for the British Chess Federation in the biennial chess Olympiads and participated in many chess events abroad, he was never allowed to travel anywhere behind the iron Curtain.
His fame certainly did, however. In the radio match, Britain v USSR in 1946, the most important event in British chess for a decade before and after, he found himself pitted against Mikhail Botvinnik, then at the height of his powers and destined to hold the world championship for 14 years. The first game he lost; the second he won, in superb style. His great adversary was outplayed.
He had some great years at Hastings. A 120 move victory over Bronstein with a queen and pawns endgame stretching over l3 hours through 3 days, earned headlines in the national press unequalled until the Spassky-Fischer furore of 1972, won him first place in 1954 and started him with a chess column in the Sunday Times. He was equal with Bronstein, above O’Kelly, Matanovic, Olafsson, Teschner, Tolush, Tartakover, Wade and Horne.
Hastings illustrated Alexander’s weaknesses as well as his strengths. Twice he won the premier tournament there, only to finish among the tail-enders the year after. Only once more was he to win the British championship; in a rather weak field, entering at the last minute with typical opportunism.
He was a brilliant conversationalist and speaker, a fine bridge player, a master mathematician, an expert on codes, a first-class journalist and writer. Among varied other interests were croquet and philately. He threw himself wholeheartedly into anything he did. His organization, “The Friends of Chess”, provided generous financial support for a wide range of chess events. A few days before his death he was full of plans for the future, including a big History of British Chess. He burnt himself out. The world of chess is a poorer and duller place without him.”
“The great mathematician G. H. Hardy described C. H. O’D. Alexander as the only genuine mathematician he knew who did not become a professional mathematician. Hardy recognised that Alexander’s failure to win a fellowship at the Cambridge Tripos exams was most likely due to his attention being absorbed by chess. Conversely, Alexander’s fellow chess International Master Harry Golombek said of the two-time British Champion “the demands of his profession left him with comparatively little time for [chess] practice and study; otherwise he would certainly have been of true grandmaster class, and possibly even of world stature”. Above both chess and mathematics, Alexander prioritised leading the British Government effort on cryptanalysis.
Alexander was an early recruit to Bletchley Park; he began in Hut 6 working on Army and Luftwaffe Enigma messages before moving in 1941 to Hut 8 to join Alan Turing’s work on the Naval Enigma. Alexander had one of the most agile minds of the new breed of mathematical cryptanalysts; he proved the best at the pen and paper methods of ‘banburismus’ that reduced the computational work of Enigma attacks and his military aptitude test assessed him as suitable for development up to four star general. Although he has not achieved the renown of Good, Turing, Tutte, and Welchman, he was responsible for many breakthroughs. Perhaps the most significant was spearheading the UK-US joint work breaking the Japanese CORAL system used by Naval attaches. More importantly, as a former teacher and head of research at John Lewis, Alexander was much better suited to the organisational and administrative tasks of Hut 8 than the hyper-rational Turing. Alexander gradually assumed more and more of this work. The story goes that one day when Turing arrived late at the Park and the record book asked him to name the head of his section; Turing wrote “Mr Alexander” and with the logic of bureaucracy Alexander was treated as the head of Hut 8 from then onwards. Praise for Alexander’s leadership is a theme common to all those who worked in Hut 8.
After the war, Alexander briefly returned to John Lewis before returning to the new GCHQ and continued to excel as both a cryptanalyst and leader. By 1949 he had been appointed head of the cryptanalysis division. It was a post that he held until his retirement, despite offers of promotion to more senior positions. He used the weight of his position to testify strongly as a character witness on behalf of Alan Turing during Turing’s indecency trial. By 1971, already past the age of retirement by two years, Alexander decided to step down. Both GCHQ and their partners were keen to make continued use of his expertise and offered all manner of consultative work, which he declined. He died in 1974 and although his obituaries rightly spoke in glowing terms of his chess achievements, the impact of his more secret work still cannot be fully revealed.”
Hugh and Correspondence Chess by Tim Harding
“Correspondence chess is only mentioned briefly in the article. CHO’D took up international postal chess in 1963 playing board 3 for the BCCA “Socrates” team in the Eberhardt Wilhelm Cup, a European team event. He annotated his first two games to finish in the November 1964 issue of the BCCA Magazine, Correspondence Chess, one of which is in my history of British CC.
He had in fact taken board 2 for GB against the USA in the 1,000 board match which began in 1935 but was never completed. Alexander’s opponent was Fred Reinfeld (according to Chess Magazine) but I have never seen a result and don’t know if they actually played many moves.
Starting in 1964 Alexander played in a GB-USSR postal match, with a draw and a loss against Yudovich.
In 1965 he started CC Olympiad 6 preliminaries on board 3 in section 1 for GB and scored 3 wins and 5 draws; he was the only player not to lose to M. Ali Farboud of Iran, the country which won the group. (Farboud played on the Iranian team in the 1962 and 1964 FIDE olympiads.) I have only found two of Alexander’s games from this tournament.
Next GB played in the preliminaries (section 3) of the 7th correspondence olympiad (starting 1968) with a much stronger team which won its group. Alexander played board 2 below Adrian Hollis. His score of 6 wins and one draw earned him the ICCF international master title. I have only found three of his games from this event.
In 1972 Alexander started, again on board 2, in the olympiad final but had only completed one or two of his games when he died, and the unfinished games were taken over by Ken Messere who found it hard (since he was given no notes) to work out what Hugh had planned in various complicated middle game positions.
Alexander also played most years for Gloucestershire in the Counties and District correspondence tournament run (then) by the BCF and my book also includes a win against Peter Clarke from that event. It is a pity that more of Alexander’s CC games are not known. I have only 17 plus a few that Messere completed.”
In the March issue of CHESS for 1963, (Volume 28, Number 427, pp.147-155) William Winter wrote this:
Thrives on strong opposition
The late 1920’s and the early thirties produced a crop of fine players most of whom are still in full Practice. The leading representatives of this group are C. H. O’D.Alexander, H. Golombek, R. J. Broadbent
and P. S. Milner-Barry, of whom Alexander is to my mind infinitely the greatest. It is true that he has only once been British champion while, at the time I write (July 1955), Golombek and Broadbent have each held the title on two occasions, but he has a remarkable record against the grand masters.
Like Yates, of whom his style is reminiscent he requires the best opposition to bring out the best in him. Among his victims are three Soviet grand masters, including the
world champion Botvinnik, and he has secured a number of other notable scalps. Of all his games the one I like best is that against Gligoric in the Staunton Centenary Tournament in 1951. The great Yugoslav who won the tournament simply did not know what had hit him.
Anomalous naming of Openings
Alexander’s approach to the theory of openings is very interesting and highly practical. He does not try to acquire a wide comprehensive grasp of the openings as a
whole, but concentrates on little practical variations of which he makes an exhaustive study, often discovering qualities which have hitherto escaped notice. A case in point is his rehabilitation of the Dutch Defence with an early . . .P-KN3, a line which, if there is any justice in chess nomenclature, should certainly be called the Alexander variation. I fear however that this is unlikely as the names given to the chess openings are ridiculous in the extreme. Take for example this very Dutch Defence. So far as I know (and my knowledge of these things is extensive) no Dutch-player has ever practised it, while it was played regularly for over twenty years by the English master H. E. Bird, who also published a considerable amount of analysis on it. This is the more surprising in that the kindred system P-KB4 f6r White, is called by the name of Bird’s Opening! There is another funny case of a variation of the Slav Defence invented by Gerald Abrahams. I played this in a short match against the Dutch master Noteboom. The latter was favourably impressed, and adopted it himself in a few games, with the result that it has ever since been called the Noteboom variation, although before I played it against him he had neither seen nor heard of it. It is high time that the whole question of nomenclature of the Chess Openings was taken in hand by the International Federation.
“Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander was born in Cork, Ireland. Awarded the IM title in 1950 at its inception and the IMC title in 1970, he was British Champion in 1938 and 1956.
During the Second World War, he worked at Bletchley Park with Harry Golombek and Sir Philip Stuart Milner-Barry, deciphering German Enigma codes and later for the Foreign Office. Alexander finished 2nd= at Hastings (1937/38) tied with Paul Keres after Samuel Reshevsky and ahead of Salomon Flohr and Reuben Fine. He held Mikhail Botvinnik to an equal score (+1, -1) in the 1946 Anglo-Soviet Radio Match, and won Hastings (1946/47) while finishing equal first at Hastings (1953/54). He represented England on six Olympiad teams. Alexander was also an author of note. He passed away in Cheltenham in 1974.”
From The Oxford Companion to Chess by Hooper & Whyld :
International Master (1950), International Correspondence Chess Master (1970). Born in Cork, he settled in England as a boy. In spite or because of his intense application at the board his tournament performances were erratic. From about 1937 to the mid 1950s he was regarded as the strongest player in Great Britain, although he won only two (1938, 1956) of the 13 British Chess Federation Championships in which he competed; he played for the BCF in six Olympiads from 1933 to 1958. Holding a senior post at the Foreign Office, he was not permitted to play in countries under Soviet control or influence; but when he did compete abroad he achieved only moderate results. His best tournament achievement was at Hastings 1937-8 when he was second (+4=5) equal with Keres after Reshevsky ahead of Fine and Flohr; but he is better remembered for his tie with Bronstein for first prize at Hastings 1953-4. He won his game against Bronstein in 120 moves after several adjournments, and the outcome became a kind of serial in the press, arousing great national interest in the game. Alexander was the author of several books on chess, notably Alekhine’s Best Games of Chess 1938-1945 (1949) and A Book of Chess (1973).
For many years the chess correspondent of The Sunday Times, The Spectator (pseudonym Philidor) and the Evening News. There was probably no “chess name that was better known to the non-chess-playing element of the British public than that of Hugh Alexander. His victory over Russian Grandmaster David Bronstein at Hastings in 1953, after a struggle which lasted for 120 moves and took 13 hours, made chess front page news in the British press.
Born in Cork on 19th April 1909, Alexander picked up the game at prep school at the age of 8. In 1926 he won the Boy’s Championship, later to be recognised as the British Boy’s Championship, at Hastings. After coming down from Cambridge University, where he won the university championship four times, Alexander taught mathematics at Winchester College from 1932 to 1938. He later joined the Foreign Office.
One of the few British players who might have reached World Championship class if he had chosen to devote sufficient time to the game, Alexander was at his best when he faced a top class opponent.
During his chess career, he scored victories over two World Champions Botvinnik and Euwe, and he beat a number of other Grandmasters, international tournaments were all at Hastings where he came =2nd in 1938 with Keres, half a point behind Reshevsky and ahead of Fine and Flohr; 1st in 1947 and =1st with Bronstein in 1953. In 1951 tournament he came =5th.His other hobbies included bridge, croquet and philately, He was the Author of Alekhine’s Best Games of Chess 1938-1945 (Bell), Chess (Pitman) and joint author with T.J. Beach of Learn Chess; A New Way for All (Pergamon Press);
A Book of Chess (Hutchinson) 1973; The Penguin Book of Chess Positions (Penguin) 1973.
Here are further third party articles of interest :
“Glenn Curtis Flear was born in Leicester, England. He was awarded the IM title in 1983 and GM title in 1987. While still an IM, he shocked the chess world by winning the GLC Chess Challenge (1986) ahead of a field that included Short, Chandler, Nunn, Portisch, Polugaevsky, Spassky and Larsen. He married Christine Flear during that tournament. He represented England at the Dubai Olympiad in 1986.”
This was written about Glenn prior to the 1979 Spassky vs the BCF Junior Squad simultaneous display : “Surrey University and Leicester.
Rating 208. Twice British men’s championship finalist. Captain England juniors, 1977. Former Leicestershire men’s champion.”
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