The Bristol Chess Club

by John Burt (1883)

Introduction to this Internet edition

The Bristol Chess Club was formed in 1829 or 1830, probably the first English club outside London, and for many of the following years Bristol was a major chess centre. Players such as Staunton, Lowenthal, Blackburne and Zukertort were visitors to the club, and it had its own strong players, such as Elijah Williams, Captain Kennedy and Miss Mary Rudge (the best female player in the world of her time). The club (now called Bristol & Clifton) is still very much in existence today.

In 1883, John Norman Burt produced his history of the Bristol Chess Club. Burt was a committee man, having been vice-president, and one of the strongest players in the club. By this time he was also an ex-member, and it appears that one of his motives for writing the book was to justify his decision to resign.

Burt is not a great writer, and his prose is often pompous or tedious to our ears, but his history is fascinating nonetheless for an inside view of a Victorian chess club; there were disputes over competition rules, back-biting amongst committee members, and recriminations over the decision to move to a new venue. In fact, very similar to a modern chess club!

We know little about John Burt, but we can deduce some things from the book. We know he was a gentleman living in Clifton, but we do not know his occupation or profession. He had sufficient leisure time in 1870 to undertake a lengthy "summer tour" in the Isle of Wight. In 1873, he announced his decision to leave Bristol and got a gift of a very handsome clock from the members. But then, he never left and we never find out why in the book. We can only imagine the mutterings of the members who had contributed to the magnificent leaving present!

John Burt died suddenly, "in the prime of life" at the age of 55, obituaries appearing in the British Chess Magazine, Chess Monthly, and The Clifton Chronicle and Directory. On the 21st March 1888, the latter had printed what is probably Burt's last known published game: a loss to Blackburne in an eight player blindfold simul on the 3rd March, and, the following week, it reported that Burt had played on board 3 for Bath and beaten Mr. Leonard of Bristol & Clifton. He died just two weeks later, on the 11th April 1888.

Burt seems to have had some very progressive views for Victorian England. He writes "All creeds and classes should be dropped at the chess-room door, and one and all meet in Caïssa's Temple on an equal footing." In 1872, we find Burt "proposed that ladies should be admitted to the Club as associates, at an annual subscription of 5s., which was agreed to. We believe that no members of the softer sex were admitted as subscribers, by any chess club in this country, prior to this date."

The rules of the early clubs contain further surprises. About four years ago, the Bristol League's AGM voted to permit clubs to decide to make their venues non-smoking. We thought we were being terribly up to date and moving with the flow of public opinion. But, in the Bristol Athenæum Club's rules of 1859 we find: "7. Smoking is not allowed in the club room."

Copies of the book are now quite rare and I decided to put this copy on the Internet so that more people would get a chance to read it. The "Bristol Chess Club" is actually in four parts or "books". Book I is the history section and Books II - IV consist of games and problems. I would be interested in receiving any further information anyone has on John Burt and Bristol's chess history.

John Richards, 12 November 1997

Sources: Clifton Chronicle and Directory, March 1888. Ken Whyld, letter to John Richards, 5 August 1997

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