In the 1890s women's chess in England, as in most places, was considered nearly inconsequential. To bring this arena to the forefront required dedication, energy and persistance. It so happened that many women who had those requirements and were willing to apply them towards chess also had blood relatives or husbands who were also devoted to the game. One of the most energetic, dedicated, persistant and effective promoters of women's chess in England during it's infancy, was Mrs. Rhoda A. Bowles.
Rhoda Annie Knott of Dawlish, a small town in Devon, married Henry Lewis Bowles, a strong chess player from nearby Exeter. While Rhoda wasn't a chess-player at the time, when she came down with an illness that left her temorarily blinded, her husband taught her to play the game by touch. Rhoda Bowles soon became one of the stronger woman players in England. More importantly, she became one of biggest promoters of women's chess.
In January of 1895 she, with a group of other ladies, formed the British Ladies' Chess Club of London. In 1896, she started acting on her idea for women's international tournament. She found support, backers and competitors from all over for the Ladies' 1st International Tournament held in 1897. Ada S. Ballin enlisted her to write the chess column for her new illustrated monthly, Womanhood, that premiered in Dec., 1898. This was a magazine of exceptional quality that catered to the more intelligent, informed and independent-minded women. The chess column was, indeed, of high quality. It seems that the magazine ended around 1906. After that, Mrs. Bowles contributed some articles for The Chess Amateur, which premiered in Oct. 1906.
Concerning H. L. Bowles, the BCM in 1903 wrote:
Mr. H. L. Bowles, whose chess career dates from the time when, being still quite a lad, he defeated his father in a game. This was in 1866. He was an early member of the Swansea C C., and, at the time of leaving that town for Exeter, in 1878, he could claim to be second to none in that district. The Exeter C.C. in those days met at the Literary Society's Rooms, in Bedford Circus. Mr. Bowles could hold his own against most of the habitues: Messrs. Fox, Newman, Sheppard, Surridge, and other, whilst with Mr. C. J. Lambert, of five games played the score was 2½ each. In 1881 he removed into the Metropolitan district, and was an active member of the "Isleworth," "Great Western," and "Railway" Chess Clubs for some years. Later, he joined the City of London C.C., and was there promoted to Class I. Mr. Bowles' record in London is a fine one. Of the first 128 games played in club matches and tournaments, he scored 100 wins, 14 draws, and 14 losses. When the Metropolitan C.C. was founded, he was one of the original members, and is now its vice-president. He is also president of the South London Polytechnic Club.
Rhoda was born in 1861 and died in 1931. The 1932 issue of the BCM had this to say:
The Metropolitan Chess Club has sustained a heavy loss by the death early in December of Mrs. Rhoda Bowles. She had been a vice- president and staunch supporter of the club for a generation. At one time she was secretary of the Ladies' Chess Club, and ran a successful and informative column in Womanhood. A great organiser, she ran the Ladies' International Tournament of 1897, and together with her husband, the late HL Bowles, conducted a series of matches between the English and American Universities. It was, in fact, her husband who taught her chess, in the course of a long illness. In June last she was involved in a serious motor accident, and her death must be attributed to injuries then received.
The British Chess Magazine gave an account of Mrs. Bowles in 1900
Mrs. Rhoda A. Bowles.—Among the new chess columns we have received during the past year, that started in Womanhood, in February last, is now always certain of hearty welcome to our table; not only on account of the literaly ability of its conductor, but also because of her charming personality and the influence for good she wields in the London chess world. Mrs. Rhoda A. Bowles or,''Little Mother," as she is affectionately called by her intimate chess friends, has, in the short space of four years, compiled such a remarkable record as an organiser that we take special pleasure in referring to her achievements in the pages of the B.C.M.
All well informed chess votaries know that Mrs. Bowles is the life and soul of the now famous Ladies' Chess Club, but few know how she became acquainted with chess. The story is a pretty one. Mrs. Bowles tells us that it was entirely through her husband's love of chess that she, under his tuition, learnt to play. At tennis, billiards, &c., they could play together. Chess she deemed quite beyond a woman's powers; but nature subsequently came to her aid. After a few years of married life she was seized with a terrible illness, and was almost blind for three weeks, during which period I had, she says,—to be amused in some way. My dear husband read to me until I tired of that, then the brilliant idea struck him that he might teach me the ' names' of the chess pieces by 'touch'—for my eyes were bandaged night and day—this interested me greatly, and by the time that I had learnt the names and how to move the pieces, the shield could be lifted from my eyes sufficiently for me to see the 64 squares, and by the time of my convalescence I could move each piece correctly. Then came my eagerness to play a game! Oh the pleasure of it! No woman can realize until she has faced her husband on what she thinks the highest pinnacle beyond her. Of course I never stood a chance of winning, but the pleasure was to be in the same 'running'; to try, now that I was on the track, to perfect my speed—in other words play—until I could catch him up. I haven't done this yet, but I sometimes trap him, and have the pleasure of hearing him say 'well-played.'
After her recovery Mrs. Bowles became one of a coterie of ladies who met every week at each others houses to play chess; but finding there was a natural feeling of diffidence to this system Mrs. Bowles advocated, and was chiefly instrumental in securing, a small room at Charing Cross. Lady Newnes was invited to become president, and gladly consented; Mrs. Bowles was the first match captain and tournament secretary of the club, and was shortly after elected secretary and treasurer, and here, with the modest annual subscription of 5/-, was practically started the now famous Ladies' Chess Club. A successful tournament with 28 players was inaugurated, and the membership increased so rapidly that the subscription was raised, with an entrance fee of 5/-. Matches (23), chiefly for the sake of practice and experience, were arranged with other clubs; and of the first 200 games played the Ladies scored 79½ to 106½—a more reliable index of their skill than match results can indicate. As might be expected the little room at Charing Cross soon proved inadequate to the requirements of the now vigorous society, and it was found necessary to remove to more suitable quarters at 103, Great Russell Street, W C., which however was quickly outgrown, and the club now meets at 18a, Clifford Street, New Bond Street, the subscription being one guinea, with entrance fee 10/6.
At the Hastings Tourney, in 1895, in the Ladies' section, no less than five of the prizes were won by members of the Ladies' Club. The esprit de corps now manifest in the club could be traced largely to the indefatigable energy and exceptional organising powers of Mrs. Bowles, whose efforts were so highly appreciated by her fellow members that they presented to her in 1896 a beautiful writing table as a slight token of regard.
By this time the club membership had risen to over 100, and yet the ambition of the "Little Mother" was not satisfied. She had long thought that an International Tournament for Ladies would be a fitting event to be held during the Diamond Jubilee year of our Queen's reign. Indeed so far back as Whitsuntide, 1896, Mrs. Bowles had sought the opinion of several influential friends, whose encouragement was further emphasised by Sir George Newnes, who generously gave £60 for the first prize. The tournament was played in London; lasted a fortnight, from June 23rd, 1897, and proved a huge success—no less than 20 Ladies from all parts of the world competing for the prizes—the aggregate value of which amounted to some £250! The competitors came from Canada, New York, Germany, France, &c. Miss Rudge (England) proved to be the champion player and took first prize. Mrs. Worrall took the fourth prize to America, and received a great ovation. After the tournament the competitors marked their indebtedness to Mrs. Bowles by giving her a beautiful gold bracelet, with gold chess Queen as pendant.
We have long held the opinion that the officials of chess clubs devote too little attention to the social side of the game; and the wonderful successes achieved by Mrs. Bowles confirm our opinions. Every year the birthday of the Ladies' Club is honoured at a delightful re-union party, the fifth of which was given last month. On January 17th, Mrs. Bowles wrote to us as follows :—We celebrated the club's fifth birthday on Monday last (January 15th), when Mr. Atherley-Jones, Q.C, M.P., played 10 ladies simultaneously, winning 8½; Mrs. Chapman, one of our best match players, being the only winner against him. Congratulations were poured in upon us by our numerous chess friends, who came from all parts to wish us 'many happy returns of the day,' and to see our new quarters, which are situated at 18a, Clifford Street, near New Bond Street. Among those present were Gen. Minto Elliot, Col. White (C.W.., of Sunbury), Capt. McCanlis, Mr. Edward B. Schwann, Mr. W. W. White (Kent County Association), Mr. Walter Russell (hon. sec. City of London Club), Mr. Carslake Winter Wood, Mr. Gunsberg, Mr. Antony Guest (chess editor Morning Post), Dr. Ballard and Mrs. Ballard, Mrs. Ada S. Ballin (editor Womanhood), Mrs. Van Vliet, Mrs. Guest, Mr. Grantham Williams, Mr. Mocatta, Mr. R. Griffiths, Mr. Walter Gurner, and many other well-known chess enthusiasts.
We also learn from the February issue of Womanhood that the new quarters lent themselves capitally for the occasion, and the brightness of the rooms was enhanced by the scarlet and white (the Ladies' Chess Club colours) of the beautiful flowers which were prettily arranged about them. One room was devoted to alternation and consultation games. At one table Mrs. Fagan (the club's champion) paired with Mr. Mocatta (vicepresident City of London Chess Club) against Miss Rita Fox and Dr. Ballard (St. George's Chess Club) played two alternation games, both of which were won by Mrs. Fagan and her partner. Miss Finn, with Mr. Grantham Williams, played a spirited game against Mrs. Anderson and the Rev. F. W. Cleworth (of the Manchester Club), while Mrs. Bowles and Mr. Walter Russell won two games against Mrs. Robins in partnership with Captain McCanlis. There were several single-handed games of an enjoyable character, and plenty of chess chat. The gold medal, which was given as a brilliancy prize by the Ladies' Chess Club, and won by Herr Lasker in the recent London International Tournament, fully inscribed with the winner's name, was handed around for his many admirers to see before posting it off to Herr Lasker, who is at present in Berlin.
The continuous tournament of the club was finished on January 1st, and the prize-winners for the best percentage of wins on the number of games played were Mrs. Fagan, 1st, for the very fine percentage of 90.72; and Mrs. Clerke, 2nd, with 70.62 per cent. There were three prizes given for the largest number of games played, showing the best proportion of wins; in this Mrs. Clerke headed the list with 143 games played, of which she won 101. Mrs. Hussey was second, with 140 games played and 95 wins; Mrs. Stevenson third, having played 81, winning 41. The tournament brought so much pleasure to those competing, that it was decided to start another, which is now in full swing.
In the London League contest this season the Ladies' have done remarkably well, having won five matches out of six played. They now tie with the Polytechnic, whose team they defeated early in the season.
We congratulate Mrs. Bowles most heartily on the success which has attended her efforts on behalf of the club for which she has done so much, and we hope that the members will continue to enjoy, for many years to come, the pleasures which arise from her arduous labours in their behalf.
For permission to reproduce the portrait we publish of Mrs. Bowles, we are indebted to Mrs. Ada S. Ballin, the editor of Womanhood—a bright magazine of woman's progress and interests political, legal, social, and intellectual; and of health and beauty culture. Written by the highest authorities in each branch and splendidly illustrated. Published by F. L. Ballin, 5, Agar Street, Strand, London, price sixpence.
This photograph from a 1905 issue of Womanhood depicts H.L. and Rhoda Bowles together. the caption reads:
Just a little souvenir of the chess fortnight at Southport. To those in the group, and many others who joined them, bright recollections will arise of enjoyable picnics, whist drives, bowls parties, &c, which were indulged in outside the official programme. I am indebted to Mr. Frank Streather, a chess amateur photographer, for this, one of many capital picture postcards he was kind enough to take.
(Mrs. Waterhouse, pictured above, took part in the chess congress, but died that October)
from the BCM, 1902:
On March 26th the Cambridge University Chess Club concluded its annual Metropolitan chess tour with the return match against a team of ladies, captained by Mrs. Rhoda Bowles, chess editor of Womahood. The first match was played at Cambridge in June last year during Ccmmemoration week, and a very close match resulted. This time the venue was 18, Somerset Street, Portman Square,'the residence of Mrs. Ada S. Ballin, and among the numerous chess enthusiasts who witnessed the play were Misses Catlin (Cambridge), Mrs. Rose Johnson (Brighton), Mrs. Glenfield, Mrs Fulham Hughes, Misses Robertson, Mr. and Mrs. H. N. Pillsbury, Mr. and Mrs. Mocatta, Messrs. W. W. White, Grevatt, &c. The University team, which was comprised of past and present members, was very strong, including such experienced strong players as Messrs. Tattersall, Softlaw, Fothetingham, Lowenthal, and Major Rawlins; but the ladies made a very stubborn fight, Miss Read winning cleverly against Mr. Fotheringham, while Mrs. Sydney, Mrs. James, and Mrs. Holmes each played steadily and well against their opponents. Mrs. Herring also gave her formidable opponent considerable trouble before surrendering. At the call of time the unfinished games were adjudicated by Mr. Pillsbury, who then gave the assembled company several remarkable illustrations of his mental powers. The first illustration was the placing of a Knight upon any of the squares of the chessboard that the company might select, and then, without sight of the board, Mr. Pillsbury rapidly dictated move after move by which the Knight, without covering any one square twice, covered each one of the sixty-four squares in turn. In the next illustration a pack of cards was shuffled and about twenty dealt out, each card being called. Mr. Pillsbury not seeing the cards simply listened, and then rapidly and accurately called off all the remaining cards that had not been dealt. Then a list of thirty words and names, some of them most fantastic, were written down by the company, and after the list had been read over he answered correctly all enquiries as to what name appeared against particular numbers and vice versa, and then in conclusion gave the whole list backwards in proper order. These feats were all accomplished by memorising efforts alone, and bear striking testimony to the remarkable development of his mental powers, which have already become world-famous by his successful achievement of twenty games of chess played sans voir. It was a most successful arid pleasant social chess function, reminiscent of the.events which marked the early years of ladies, practical participation in chess matches. Full score :—
Cambridge - Ladies
Mr. FW Clarke, Mrs. Bowles 1-0
Mr. Tattersall, Mrs. Herring 1-0
Mr. Sofilaw, Mrs. Sydney ½-½
Mr. Fotheringham, Miss. Read 0-1
Mr. Lowenthal, Mrs. James ½-½
Mr. Clarke, Mrs. White 1-0
Mr. Prichard, Mrs. Joughin 1-0
Mr. Stead, Mrs. Tapsell 1-0
Mr. Rawlins, Miss Holmes ½-½
Mr. Smith, Miss Renton 1-0
Below is the mast that appeared above almost all of Mrs. Rhoda A. Bowles' chess columns in Womanhood magazine.
Besides the original sources, some information on Rhoda and H.L. Bowles came from the Keveral Chess site.
related blog entries:
Little Mother, Part II
Women Can Play Chess!