By Alastair Brown
A history published in the 75th League anniversary issue of the Bristol Chesstimes in 1982.
With postscript by David Collier
The Bristol & Clifton Chess Club is the direct descendant of the Bristol Chess Club formed in 1829. It is probably the oldest chess club in the country outside London. (A claim to this distinction by the Liverpool Chess Club, formed in 1837, in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in March 1916, was very quickly refuted).
Prior to its formation, enthusiasts played weekly at the home of a Mr. Withers in Castle Street but, eventually, when the membership reached 60 they moved to rented rooms at 25 Trinity Street, College Green.
The club’s first president, Elijah Williams, was one of the greats of his day and good enough to play in the first London tournament in 1851. He was, however, one of the slowest players of his time, so much so that Howard Staunton, when playing him, is reputed to have remarked ‘My God, Elijah, you’re not just supposed to sit there – you’re supposed to sit there and think!’
The club meandered its way through the 19th century, its fortunes, and clubroom, changing from time to time. At one period it was open seven days a week from 9.30 am to 9.30 pm for an annual sub of 2/6 (12½p). Riotous evenings, otherwise known as soirées, were held in the Victoria Rooms and these helped to keep the club’s financial head above water.
In 1871, the club was relegated (promoted?) to the attic of the Athenæum where the members declared ‘their brains were frozen in the winter and dissolved in the summer’. This precipitated a crisis and the club was reformed under the name ‘The Bristol & Clifton Chess Association’ and opened in the Academy of Fine Arts in Queen’s Road. The following year membership had reached 100 – plus six lady associate members at a reduced fee of 5/6!
Several of the leading players of the day visited the club over the years. Among these were Löwenthal who wrote in the Daily Telegraph that ‘of all chess clubs out of London, that of Bristol is one of the most famous’ and who was engaged by the club for a week’s practice; Blackburne who played a ten game blindfold simultaneous; Zukertort who played a twelve game blindfold simultaneous followed by a 60 board simultaneous; and Lasker.
In 1882, after moving house to the Imperial Hotel, Clifton the club changed its name to that by which it is known today.
In 1883 there was published a history of the club (see the link to this on the League website), written by one of its vice-presidents, J.Burt. Included in the book are 150 games played by members over the years and annotated in a style that sounds foreign to the modern ear, shades of the days of gracious living, e.g. B & C v Howard Staunton, Correspondence Game: ‘but for the necessity of making this defensive move, there is every probability that the Bristol players would have acquire the better game’. ‘This is a very effective move in appearance but it did not answer the expectations of its authors.’ B & C v Birmingham: ‘The Bristol Players are entitled to the highest degree of credit for the skilful manner in which they handled their Q at this stage of the game’. And many more.
The club’s claim to fame in having an opening named after it stems from a correspondence match with Dublin where, in a King’s Bishop Gambit, the club opened 1 P-K4 P-K4; 2 P-KB4 PxP; 3 B-K2 which is annotated ‘This ridiculous mode of continuing the opening is simply third rate play, styled by its admirers “The Clifton Gambit”. For the credit of the Bristol Club, we trust its sponsors will give their protégé a more deserving title; one in accordance with its merits’.
At the turn of the century, the club was in a very healthy state and, by far, the strongest in the city and beyond – strong enough to take on the best of the rest and win. In 1921, Capablanca played a 40 board simul and won 39. There were 200 spectators at the event.
With the formation of more local clubs in the late twenties, the club fell into decline and only the efforts of a few dedicated members kept it from falling by the wayside. It recovered slowly to a position where it was, once more, able to invite the best, Alekhine and Koltanowski giving simuls in the late 30s.
It survived the 2nd World War when activities were drastically curtailed and, by 1946, membership had risen to 95.
From the records it appears to have had over 20 clubrooms in its long history, most of these being in and around the Clifton area. These have varied in standard from good to downright appalling.
The club has always taken a very active part in the League and supported it through good times and bad. One of its main attractions was that it tried to cater for all standards of player, running tournaments throughout winter and summer, two nights a week, to suit everyone. Although no longer able, or willing, to run soirées in the Victoria Rooms, nevertheless, it could loosen its stays, let down its hair and enjoy the lighter side of the game on occasions. In addition, it had an extensive library of chess books available on loan to members.
It would be unfair to single out the contribution of any individual in its history as it has been well served by many enthusiastic and dedicated officers since its foundation – as enthusiastic and dedicated today as they were when they formed the club at Mr.Wither’s house in the year when Oxford first met Cambridge in the Boat Race and Stevenson’s Rocket won the Rainham speed trials at 29 mph.
Postscript by David Collier, 2007
Over the last 25 years the fortunes of the club have continued to fluctuate. At the beginning of the period Clifton, bolstered by a significant influx of players from Swindon, dominated the League with two strong teams in the first division, the B Team actually winning the championship on one occasion.
The club enjoyed several long runs in the National Club Competition at a time when it was heavily sponsored, which boosted club funds to what seemed at the time almost to be an embarrassment of riches (but which were eventually used to keep the club going through some of the bad times to come). The Club reached the final twice but were beaten finalists both times.
After a long stay at St Georges Hall (big and spacious, but freezing in winter), the club moved briefly to a church hall in Redland, then found a very popular venue, the Polish Club in St Paul’s Road. Although big and spacious, but freezing in winter there were the added advantages of a Clifton location and a separate bar serving amongst other things, excellent Polish beers and spirits. At this time there was a flourishing social side with players happy in the knowledge that if they turned up there would always be somebody to play.
Due to a clash of personalities and the apparent inability of the club to pay the rent on time (despite its significant reserves) we obtained premises across the road at the British Legion, or so we thought. The expected rubber stamping by the British Legion committee was not forthcoming and suddenly the venerable club was in the unhappy position of starting the season without a venue. Stirling work by a couple of club stalwarts found us shelter in the RAFA Club in Henleaze.
This was great news in that it meant we were no longer homeless, but it was not the place we would have chosen except in dire emergency. The room was, unusually for Clifton, small, cramped and overheated in winter. The venue was not central and there was a rapid exodus of members.
The reduction in membership meant that we were able to fit into a room above the Lansdown public house. This proved to be a popular location except for the rather cramped conditions. There was also the problem that moving back to Clifton attracted more members but they wouldn’t fit in. The offer of much larger and rent-free premises in the basement of the Channings was too good to miss, despite the poor lighting and inadequate furniture.
Unfortunately a change of manager at the Channings meant our stay there was limited and we were pleased to squeeze back into the Lansdown. This too did not last long as the ceiling fell down, fortunately not on a club night, hence the sudden move to the premises of the West of England Bridge Club.
There are undoubted differences between Bridge and Chess but there are enough similarities in their requirements to be sure that playing conditions are about as good as one could wish for.
It seems fitting that in the League’s centenary year the oldest club should celebrate one of it’s best years, winning the Championship, the 2nd division, the Open and Minor cups and the summer quickplay team tournament. Also one of our members, Chris Beaumont, won the League’s individual championship. It is good to see that there is a lot of life left in the old club and we are now working towards getting the social side flourishing once more.