SHEFFIELD Chess History

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Narrative: 2) 1847 to 1883: Dominance of the Sheffield Athenaeum Chess Club

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1847 saw the formation of a “gentlemen’s” club called the Sheffield Athenaeum Club.  It was not the only such club in Sheffield, but it differed from the others in its active promotion of chess.


At that time, in the eyes of many, chess was a worthless, indeed undesirable pastime akin to cards and other activities associated with gambling and general moral depravity.  The prevalence of this view is evidenced by the occasions on which speeches during dinner at the Yorkshire Chess Association (and similar) meetings challenged the view.


Some enlightenment was evidenced by the rules of one Sheffield gentlemen’s club, which listed the only games allowed in the club, and the listed included chess!


The Sheffield Athenaeum Club did more than tolerate chess, it advertised a chess room as one of the facilities it offered, and more importantly it had a chess club within itself.  In other words, some of the members of the Sheffield Athenaeum Club banded together to form a chess club, with officials and annual subscriptions, open only to members of the Sheffield Athenaeum Club: a formal chess club within a gentlemen’s club.


Similar chess clubs seem to have come and gone in the early years.  Not long after the Sheffield Athenaeum Club and its chess club were formed, a confusingly similarly-named organisation, the Sheffield Athenaeum & Mechanics Institution was opened in 1849, with its own chess club, Sheffield Athenaeum & Mechanics Institution Chess Club, which in 1851 was renamed the Sheffield Lyceum Chess Club, only to disappear in 1854.   The second “Sheffield Chess Club” was formed in 1857, but seems to have lasted only a couple of seasons.


The Sheffield Athenaeum Chess Club continued into the early 1900s, by which time numerous other chess club had sprung up.


Most Sheffield chess-players evident in the chess literature of the first few decades of this era were members of the Sheffield Athenaeum Chess Club.  A relatively early reference to a Sheffield chess-player who was not an Athenaeum member was when the Chess Players Chronicle, 1853 published on page 351 a problem composed by “H. E. Kidson, Sheffield”, whose residence in Sheffield seems to have been brief.


In time, the Sheffield Athenaeum Chess Club members engaged in the activities of the West Yorkshire Chess Association, the spiritual descendant of the original Yorkshire Chess Association. 


By the rest of Yorkshire, the Sheffield Athenaeum Chess Club was often referred to as “the Sheffield Club” in the same way as referring to “the Leeds Club” or “the Wakefield Club”, but whereas there were a “Leeds Chess Club” and a “Wakefield Chess Club” by those names, the was no “Sheffield Chess Club”.  Nevertheless, as the oldest and/or only extant chess club in Sheffield, it assumed the role of representing chess in Sheffield to the rest of Yorkshire, and hosted the West Yorkshire Chess Association’s annual meetings of 1863, 1868, 1875 and 1880.


The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent carried articles on local chess events.  An important aid to the promotion of chess in Sheffield was the decision by the Sheffield & Rotherham Independent to carry a syndicated chess column written by Henry Edward Bird, starting on 02/12/1882.  After a year, this was replaced by a similar column produced by Frideswide Fanny Beechey.  That continued in the Independent until 10/06/1887, when the chess column moved to the Sheffield Weekly News (which is not available in Sheffield libraries).  Later, coverage of chess in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph exceeded that in the Independent.  From October 1889, Bill Batley wrote a chess column in one newspaper or another until WWII.


By the 1880s, however, various other chess clubs had sprung up in Sheffield, with a relatively full programme of inter-club over-the-board matches, albeit on an informal basis.  The need was perceived at the Sheffield Athenaeum Chess Club for an official voice for Sheffield chess as a whole, representing the Sheffield clubs as a body to the outside world, and managing formal inter-club relationships and activities.


So it was that in 1883, the Sheffield & District Chess Association was formed, allowing the Sheffield Athenaeum Chess Club to retire from acting as “the Sheffield Club”.


The timing was singularly expedient, albeit probably unwitting, in that in a few years formal inter-club competitions between Yorkshire towns started up, and when that happened it was the Sheffield & District Chess Association, not individual Sheffield clubs, that entered teams in such competitions.


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Copyright © 2012 Stephen John Mann

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