A couple of years ago I published a 3 part series on the famous Ladies Chess Club of London. Although those posting were pretty much raw data set in a chronological order with some photos and games to lighten things up, I felt it gave a good overview to anyone willing to wade through it all. Recently, I came across a 3-part article by Rhoda A. Bowles in the periodical "Chess Amateur" in which she winnows out from all that same data a concise and well-presented narrative of the Ladies' Chess Club story. [note: The photos weren't in Bowles' original article]
Ladies' Entry into the Chess World
by Rhoda A. Bowles
"Chess Amateur" October, 1906
ALTHOUGH some years before a club had existed under the able management of (the late) Rev. and Mrs. Manning, in which ladies and gentlemen were eligible for membership, yet the real entry of London ladies into the Chess world dates from January, 1897, when Miss Burrell and Miss Mathilde Wolff originated the idea of ladies meeting at each other's houses for the purpose of playing the game and practising together. Each member paid the modest sum of 2s. 6d., to defray expenses of chess men, stationary, etc., and Miss Burrell was appointed to act as Hon. Secretary. We quickly found that a club room was really necessary, and although we had no funds in hand for rent, that difficulty was surmourted by starting a tournament and using the entrance fees for the practical purpose of defraying the hire of a room where we could meet once a week, prizes for the competition being given by Miss Burrell, Miss Fox, a member of the Metropolitan Club, and myself.
Miss Fox (later, Mrs. Donald Anderson)
We secured a room at Argent's Restaurant, Charing Cross, a capital centre, which commended itself to a large number of ladies, who quickly joined to swell our number. The subscription was increased to 5s., and Lady Newnes became president. The result of the first tournament, played in the London Ladies' Chess Club, was highly satisfactory end successful in every way. Mrs Buckton won the first (without the loss of a single game), Miss Wilkens second, Miss Burrell third, and Mrs. James fourth. The late A. Mocatta, Esq., who took a deep interest in our doings came and presented the prizes.
There was no limit to the amount of encouragement we received from amateur and professional alike. Dr. Lasker, the champion or the world, was among our first visitors and he not only aided us by his sound advice, but gave us a simultaneous display, and often popped in to instruct us in the game. Mr. Steinitz (late ex-champion of the world), and many more distinguished men were often to be found in our tiny room, which was the forerunner of a most important Club.
We enjoyed much assistance in making our movement known through the Press, and thus obtained members from all parts of the kingdom, through the kindness of such able Chess editors as Mr. Antony Guest (who was the first to mention it in the "Morning Post "), Mr. Gunsberg, Mrs. Gunsberg (who devoted her Choss column in "The Lady's Pictorial" [Mrs. Gunsberg chess column in the "Lady's Pictorial" started on May 18, 1895 with a sketch of Mrs. W. J. Baird along with a Baird 3-move chess problem] almost entirely to our work), Mr. Hoffer and others.
The month of August, 1895, will ever be a menorable one in chess history, as being the one in which the great International Masters' Congress was held at Hastings. Mr's. Gunsberg and I jointly arranged a ladies' congress to take place during the time, and we provided seven competitors from the Ladies' Chess Club, each of whom took a prize, although there were 13 other competitors from Brighton, Hastings, and elsewhere. The championship was won by Lady Thomas (of Southsea), other prizes falling to Miss Field, Miss Fox, Miss Finn, and myself; while consolation prizes were awarded to Mrs. Fagan, and (the late) Mrs. Rumboll. So that of the seven prizes provided but two remained for "outsiders" of the L.C.C.
Mrs. Bowles and Lady Thomas in the foreground
It was at this time that the L.C.C. obtained his very flattering notice in one of the leading London papers:—
"The Ladies' Chess Club has scored a most brilliant triumph,
they have outdistanced every other club in the world, and
will be the first to have a Chess exhibition by H. N. Pillsbury."
He was —as all Chess players know— the hero of the moment, and I well remember walking with him to the Hastings Post Office to cable his victory across the Atlantic to his enthusiastic countrymen. It was during this walk that he generously promised the exhibition, and simultaneously with his cable went a wire to my friend, Mr. Marsden, Hon. Secretary of the Metropolitan Chess Club, London, asking if we mjght have the use of the club— which had hitherto befriended us through its members in every possible manner— for the occasion and a reply was promptly brought me "With the greatest possible pleasure." Need I say that the evening of the seance saw the Metropolitan Club crowded with a most brilliant assemblage to witness the champion's display against 11 ladies, among those present being M. Tchigorin, (the late) Mr. W. Steinitz (who did much to make us known throughout the U.S.A., and was mainly responsible for a challenge received from the women of America to a cable match with our club), and many other masters and important ladies and gentlemen.
Due allowance must be made for the excitement of the single player (who when surrounded, and generally spoilt immediately he appeared in the club, which rung with cheers and congratulations from the members tf the M.C.C. and their friends, but all the same it was highly gratifying to the ladies to secure 2½ wins after such a short existence in public club play. Nevertheless the fact that Mr. Pillsbiiry gave the odds of a Knight must not be overlooked. After this Mr. Pillsbury was a frequent visitor (and always a favourite) at the L.C.C. whenever in London, and many blindfold, simultaneous lectures, and other modes of help were contributed by him.
But to return to our small room at Charing Cross.
Miss Burrell had found that added to her profession—that of an artist—the duties of Hon. Secretary were too great, and had relinquished that post in favour of Miss Hooke. Our club now being in a position to play matches with other clubs, I was anointed Match Captain, in addition to the duties of Hon. Tourney Secretary. The membership rapidly increased, we made an entrance fee of 5s., and larger premises were an absolute necessity.
These were found m Great Russell Street, W.C., and were formally opened by Lady Newnes, being ably supported by her husband. Sir George, who made a capital speech before a goodly gathering of Chess friends. After this Lady Thomas played simultaneously against eight members; Miss Field sans voir against four; and a bright musical programme completed a very pleasant inauguration of better quarters.
Before the first year of our existence was up we had played one club tournament, twenty matches against other clubs (winning 79½ out of 186 games involved in the encounters), enjoyed simultaneous exhibitions, lectures, blindfold play, etc., from Messrs. Pillsbury, Hoffer, Gunsberg, Lasker, Guest, Van Vliet, Loman, and H. L. Bowles, who, in addition, acted as general coach to many grateful pupils, and our membership had increased to 85! For some time I had been filling the working offices, and at the first annual general meeting was appointed Hon. Secretary, Tourney Secretary, Treasurer and Match Captain.
"Chess Amateur" November, 1906
In those early days when the significance of "touch and move" was being very dearly bought, I fear that mere man while looking somewhat askance at our entry into the Chess world, tolerated us, because he salved his conscience by saying: "It's merely a whim, a passing fancy of the ladies— God bless 'em "; and flattering himself that he knew their ways said: "It only wants a few defeats, and we shall see them utterly crushed, and hear no more of trespassers on the ground" (hitherto sacred to the lords of creation). "So let us spoil them while it lasts." And spoil us they did. Every Club of importance, including The British, City of London, Metropolitan, North London, etc., etc., entertained us to afternoon tea and a match; or, if in the evening, then the choicest of light refreshments were provided for our delectation, and often flowers played a large part in those gatherings, and beautiful bouquets were presented to each of us. We right well enjoyed and appreciated all this kindness, but we had come to stop, and so did not allow our heads to be turned by all the flattering attentions we received, but rather strove to benefit by every game played, and thus strengthen the setting of the foundation stone upon which the Club now stands.
Our experience soon began to assert itself by the marked improvement in the strength of our play, and this induced us to take a bold step and enter the arena of the League.
Beginning at the bottom rung of the ladder we decided to join the C Division. Naturally the Chess world was startled by our courage, but the move proved a beneficial one for the League, as no fewer than fourteen other clubs entered (a record number then), and Mr. Moore, the genial Hon. Secretary, laughingly remarked to me: "You have put them on their mettle, and they are anxious to cross swords with their fair antagonists."
We selected our best team for these matches, and although in the first few the clocks bothered us a little, and cost us a few games, yet we felt that that was one of the difficulties to be surmounted, and it did not take us very long to get used to the tick tick, and be as alert in watching our opponent's time as he was in watching ours.
To prove that our entry into the League was justified I need only mention the fact that we emerged third out of the fifteen competing clubs, having won eight, drawn two, and lost only four of the fourteen matches involved. In addition to these we had a large number of friendly matches in which the general body of members had the privilege of taking part. Altogether that year (1896-97) we played twenty-six matches, consisting of two hundred and eighty games, of which number we secured one hundred and forty victories! Enough to satisfy, and even exceed our own expectations, and to quieten once and for all the "mushroom life" predictions of the "flannelled fools" who think they can play chess and have the patent right to form Clubs for its practice.
During 1896 the youngest daughter of our beloved King was married to Prince Charles of Denmark, and as a fitting wedding gift from the members of the Ladies' Chess Club we subscribed for, and presented to Her (now) Majesty Queen Maud of Norway, a set of solid ivory chessmen in a rosewood case (fitted with plush lined sections for each piece) and rose and boxwood chessboard to match: and it is gratifying to Chess players generally to note that England's favourite Princess "derives great pleasure from the game."
In addition to our Match Programme we enjoyed much helpful advice from Lectures and the pleasure of playing in simultaneous and blindfold displays given us by our good friends, Dr. Lasker, Messrs. Pillsbury, Bird, Blackburne, Tinsley, Gunsbcrg, Lee, Van Vliet, Jacobs, Atherley Jones, etc., etc.; while Mr. Bowles acted as general referee on all knotty points, and continues to coach the members in the openings, and adjudicate all match games for our side. The Press helped our
cause very considerably by giving notices of our doings; and Messrs. Hoffer, Guest and Gunsberg were largely responsible thereby for our increase of membership, which at this time reached the splendid number of ninety two. Miss Field (now Mrs. Anderson) undertook and admirably managed our next Club Tournament, which, owing to the larger number of players, was naturally played on a larger scale as we were in a position now to classify them into different sections. Thus we had A, B, C and D. Mrs. Fagan won the A Division. I cannot remember who won the B, but I distinctly recollect that four tied for it, and had to play off; their names, however, fail me at the moment. Section C was won by Mrs. James; and D by Mrs. Vorrell.
A very pleasant surprise awaited me one day —it was November 19, 1896— when I walked into the Club, and to my astonishment found the members seated in rows instead of playing at the tables, with our President, Lady Newnes, seated on the platform (our club room, being used as a lecture room when we were not using it, was provided with a platform) evidently awaiting the arrival of someone! Who could it be? There was an air of mystery about the place, when Miss Hooke came and whispered in my ear that Lady Newnes would like to speak to me. I went on to the platform, and in a few words of infinite grace and sweetness, after referring to my work in connection with the L.C.C., Lady Newnes presented me with a very beautiful inlaid writing table and gold fountain pen as a gift from the members. I was quite overcome, and the kindness which prompted the action touched me very deeply. The gift itself has been a great boon, and serves me, as I now write, like the true friend that it is.
Next month I shall have something to say about the International Ladies' Chess Congress, which was the only Chess Commemoration of her ever lamented Majesty's Diamond Jubilee, played under the patronage of the present Queen Maud of Norway in 1897.
Queen Maude of Norwaychess player and patroness
"Chess Amateur" December, 1906
By May, 1897, no fewer than one hundred and twenty-five ladies had been enrolled as Members of the Ladies' Chess Club, and under its auspices an International Ladies' Chess Congress was held in commemoration of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. It was just a year previous to this, however, that the idea of holding the Congress occurred to me, and being thoroughly backed up by my Committee and our President (Lady Newnes), it will readily be understood that I left no stone unturned to make it the success it eventually proved to be.
Queen Maud having graciously consented to become Patroness; Sir Geo. Newnes, Bart., having generously promised first, and my late lamented friend, H. W. Pillsbury, second prize, I set to work to obtain the balance of the fund required, and although there was little difficulty in securing the names of many men of eminence as patrons of the Congress I grieve to say that in most cases their generosity stopped there, and very little between them was contributed towards the working expenses and prize fund, which alone claimed two hundred and fifteen pounds. Of course there were exceptions, for a few of those whose names appeared in the list may always be found in that of every good cause in connection with the Royal Game, and their liberality is too well-known to need mention here.
It was almost entirely due to the kind influence of Sir Geo. Newnes that the Management of the Hotel Cecil were persuaded to hire us the Masonic Hall for the Congress just when London was overflowing with visitors, and every inch of town extremely valuable.
My greatest difficulty of all was to locate foreign lady players, and my mental capacity for letter writing was severely tested. I remember that I wrote something over 2,500 letters! but in response to my appeal for addresses, etc., I received great assistance from Dr. Tarrasch, Herr Mieses, M. Tchigorin, Mr. H. W. Pillsbury, etc.; and encouragement came from other well-known foreign sources such as Heydebrand von de Lasa, who ended a charming letter thus: "In presenting my sincerest regards and compliments, I express the confident hope that your International enterprise will prove successful." Baron Albert Rothschild sympathised with the scheme to the extent of £20. This, while it was a generous gift, carried with it certain restrictions, for it was to be devoted to a brilliancy prize.
However, all difficulties were surmounted, and on June 22, 1897, the Right Hon. Horace Plunket, M.P., declared the Congress open, and the historical event, in which twenty ladies representing England, Ireland. Scotland, America, Canada, Italy, France, Belgium and Germany, commenced a ten days' battle for the Championship of the World.
The eyes of the world was centered upon them, and every paper of importance in all languages gave a daily report. "The Times" went one better, and gave three or four games daily, and the final result of the whole contest ended in favour of an English player, Miss Rudge, who has held the title ever since, no woman apparently having the courage to challenge her to a match.The L.C.C. made another notable hit soon after this by playing a Match of 50 a-side, a unique event which had never before (nor since) been attempted, and, pleasure of all pleasures, we won! Our opponents were fifty gentlemen of the Metropolitan Chess Club, where the match took place, Lady Newnes playing just above Lady Thomas, and both securing their games.
The Club continued to grow, not only numerically but in point of strength, and I recall the great pleasure with which our Match Captain, Miss Fox (now Mrs Russell) announced that we had won the C Division of the League. This was during the season, 1899-1900, and in giving statistics of all the Matches, including friendly ones, she stated that the best match average for the season had been obtained by Rhoda A. Bowles, who played in 39 matches, winning 27 and drawing 3; 73 per cent.; which included 9 wins out of 11 League match games. Second best average, Miss Finn, who played in 30 matches, of which she won 18 and drew 9; 62 per cent. ; which included 7½ out of the 11 League. Mrs. Fagan's average was third with a total of 60 per cent., including 10 out of the League 11, which doubtless helped considerably towards our success in winning the Section. Out of 48 matches played the Club won 26, drew 4, and lost 18.
I need not dwell further upon the success achieved, as it is a matter of common knowledge that the L.C.C. has succeeded in winning the Early, or Second Division, since then, and is now in the throes of competing in the First, or A Division. May success continue to attend them, until one day a lady player of equal strength with that of a Master, may yet usurp the throne hitherto occupied by man.
A three-part article on the Ladies' Chess Club of London
The First Year
The Early Years
The Middle Years
A two-Part article on Rhoda A. Bowles:
Little Mother, Part 1
Little Mother, Part 2
About the 1st Women's International Chess Tournament of 1897
Woman Can Play Chess
Pillsbury and the Ladies
Some Turn-of-the-Century Ladies