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Chapter 1: A grand fancy bazaar

A Grand Fancy Bazaar

Sir George Stephen never came to term with his life in the colonies. Perhaps he had made the move too late. He was more set in his ways than most, and on July 31 1855, 20 years after John Batman, he reached Melbourne he was already over 60. Disembarking from the Oliver Lang, he found the fears that had been growing on him during the 3 month voyage from Liverpool quickly realised. Foreign agitators were demanding the vote for all men. Only a few months before his arrival the republic of Victoria had been proclaimed by a rebel named Lalor at a place called Ballarat and Governor Hotham had found it necessary to send up troops to restore order. In Melbourne itself seditious placards had been circulated and inflammatory speeches made and the Mayor had sworn in hundreds of special constables, seamen and marines had been dispatched to guard the powder treasury and a hundred mounted gentlemen volunteers had been ready for action.

As a former deputy lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, Sir George regarded himself as a military man and on his arrival he applied for a grant of land accordingly. In fact he was no soldier, but a barrister, although his father had intended him for the army medical corps until in 1813 Napoleon's defeat at Leipzig through hundreds of army surgeons out of work. One of the handful of knights in Victoria (he had been honoured for his work against slavery), Stephen soon found himself in demand as president of this or patron of that. But he never ceased to regret his emigration. He remained an Englishman. He was uneasy about the democratic institutions of the colony. Melbourne Punch lampooned him for his military pretensions and his habit of writing letters to the editor under pseudonyms. His attempt to enter public life as the candidate for East Melbourne came to nothing, and for years he smarted under he impudent note that some rascal had written about him in the Victorian Elector's guide: "Ability, not equal to his reputation. Politics, doubtful". Disappointment with colonial life combined with a natural acerbity to produce a formidable man.

One day in November, 1855, not 4 months after his arrival, Sir George was scanning the "Amusements" column in his newspaper. Lola Montez was playing at the Theatre Royal, delighting some and shocking others with her spider dance and "the petite drama entitled Maidens beware". But what caught Stephen's attention was the open letter to the Lady Mayoress about the Grand Fancy Bazaar in aid of the Melbourne hospital. The writer suggested a chess problem tournament and offered an original problem and a prize for the first to solve it. Now that did promise a small intellectual diversion in this upstart city, and to a chess player and problemist the attraction was irresistible. His wife Henrietta looked up as with a grunt he began to read the particulars out loud: an entry fee of 5 shillings in aid of the hospital and a diagram of the problem to be issued at half past 3 on 22 November - that was next Thursday - at the stall presided over by the Lady Mayoress. Thursday came, and Sir George could not keep away. It was scarcely 3 when his carriage reached the top of William St. The Exhibition building, its glass walls refulgent, its flags fluttering in the afternoon breeze, was a fine sight; modelled on the Crystal Palace. It had been used 12 months earlier for the Melbourne exhibition of 1854. (The Mint now stands on the site.)

The Argus had promised that the inside of the building would present a most elegant coup d'oeil, but the hall was so crowded, with its 42 stalls and huge number of visitors, that Stephen's main impression was one of seething humanity. Mrs Carson's floral stand, by the side of the fountain, was certainly a pretty sight. He paused at the panoramic series of waves of the progress made by the Allies in the Crimea. (Britain moved slowly at the outset of any war. Lord Palmerston was confident that civilization and liberty would soon triumph.) The war sketches were poorly executed, but that attracted many patriotic spectators. Passing by the "Bachelors' forlorn hope society" without a glance, Stephen arrived at the brightly decorated stall of the Lady Mayoress. The anonymous composer of the problem, A.C.Combe, one of the colony's strongest players, was there already. In exchange for his 2 half-crowns one of the ladies gave Sir George the problem.

There was jostling as other competitors crowded around; about 150 in all tried their hand in the course of the Bazaar. The simplest problem (mate in 4) gave Sir George no difficulty. He hurried back to the stall with his entry, and was annoyed to learn from Dr Casperson , who was in animated conversation with the Scot, that the doctor had forestalled him and so presumably won the 3 guinea prize. On that Thursday afternoon neither Stephen nor Casperson could know that this problem, the first published in Victoria, would lead to a chess boom in the colony that Stephen and McCombe would themselves do much to foster.

There had been a Melbourne Chess Club in 1851, which survived after its foundation on May 8 for only a few weeks. 4 years later, by the time of the Grand Fancy Bazaar, the second Melbourne Chess Club had come into existence., although the exact date of its birth will probably never be known. A meting held at the Argus hotel in Collins St on 15 May 1855, to discuss founding a club had been inconclusive, but by early September of that year the second Melbourne Chess Club was described as recently formed and very active, so this second club must have been created in mid 1855. Two years later the club wound itself up; William Lancelot Kelly, the chess playing licensee of the Argus hotel, was then secretary. Whether the club existed continuously from mid 1855 until mid 1857 is not clear, but there was plenty of chess activity in Melbourne during that time. The chess problem tourney at the Grand Fancy Bazaar had brought the chess players out in force, and the months following it saw articles on chess by an anonymous Stephen in the Herald and problems in the Argus. The Age countered with a column in its new weekly, the Leader. A tournament - the first in Victoria - with 32 competitors, played early in 1856, gave Sir George Stephen a chance to instruct Herald readers in the legal interpretation of "best of three" when the final match , between Watts and McCombe, gave Watts a win and two draws. Next year a tournament of 8 players produced the first published Victorian games. Scarcely was this over when the third Melbourne Chess Club was established by a meeting held at the Argus hotel on 27 June 1857, in the course of which Sir George spoke on his experience in managing the Liverpool chess association and other clubs. He was made a president of the new club, which was really a continuation of the old, the members of which presented it with their funds and name. Watts and McCombe became vice-presidents.

Nine years have passed, and we now find Sir George Stephen on a Winter's night in 1866 arriving at the Mechanics Institute in Collins St. He feels the cold more now - remember, he is 72 - but a warm welcome awaits him. No-one would think of forming the 4th Melbourne Chess Club without him. He knows the others have held preliminary meetings and that tonight (it is 4 August) the club is to be born. The others are all ready for him - it would not do to keep them waiting. Rusden comes forward. Sir George has said that he will take the presidency but cannot be expected to come in from Glen Eira rd for committee meetings, and Rusden knows that he himself will be taking the chair after tonight. Stephens greets him warmly enough; at least Rusden, despite his remarkable rural rides in the cause of education, is a person of influence, holding a certain position in society. (A confirmed bachelor, and stronger at billiards than at chess, he irritates Stephen at times with his Shakespearian quotations.) Samuel Mullen is more deferential to Stephen as he bids the knight good evening in a voice that still betrays his Dublin origins. Mullen is a decent enough fellow. He is already marked down as treasurer and his bookshop in Collins St will be the source of the club's small library; he will also come in handy as a publisher of games. Mullen never tires of telling the others of his quarrel with Robertson, to whom he has not spoken for nine years. How could he know that the rival firms would merge a generation after his death and in time become a household word?

As Sir George declares the meeting open he cannot help wondering whether this club will last longer than the one they started in 1857: It survived, as he recalls, only a year. Looking at the faces of his 18 companions he sees himself as the only link with the committee of the club formed 9 years before. But now Phillips hands him the report of the provisional committee and the draft rules. He returns to the present and quizzing glass in place (his sight now is not what it used to be), looks through the papers. At least that fellow Phillips, the secretary Pro Tern, writes with a fair hand. The report, he sees, raises only one question: Where should the club meet? Alfred Harris, proprietor of the Temple of Pomona, is anxious to attract the new club. Chess is already played at his cafe, along with billiards, draughts, dominoes and other games. It was the venue for the open handicap tournament, won only a few weeks earlier by the Scot Andrew Burns, the strongest player in the colony, who now sits opposite Sir George as the latter asks the meeting to consider the provisional committee's report. (The idea of forming a chess club had indeed been born at the Temple of Pomona during the presentation of prizes in the tournament won by Burns). Harris, whose advertisements boast of "the most elegant lounge in the southern hemisphere, replete with every comfort that the most fastidious and refined taste could possibly desire for beguiling a leisure hour", has offered a room for £50 a year. Nissen, who runs a cafe and billiard saloon in Bourke St, has offered one for £25. Harris has been quick to match this offer. Both buildings are conveniently placed, Nissen's being just up the hill from the Temple, separated from it only by Tattersal's hotel and Philemon Sohler's waxworks. But Nissen's cafe has advantages which, despite its advertisements, the Temple of Pomona cannot offer. The room above Nissen's, Sir George reads in his report, "has advantages of a separate entrance, is of more commodious shape, is further removed from disturbing influences and adjoins another room of equal size, which the proprietor is willing to let to the club should the increase in members render it desirable, and which would also be useful on such occasions as the holding of a tournament and playing of more important matches". The report and draft rules are adopted. The clubroom will be at Nissen's, opening at four from Monday to Friday and 32 on Saturdays.

Sir George is elected president, repeating his warning that he cannot attend routine business. Rusden becomes Vice-president, Mullen and L.S.Phillips are confirmed as treasurer and secretary and Burns, Sedgefield, Pirani, Lulman, Daniel and P.D.Phillips form the remainder of the committee.

As Sir George emerges from the Institute, making his way carefully down the steps to street level, he can see his breath in the cold August air. But he is glad that he has made the effort. Chess is one of the few comforts this raucous city offers. Why (he asks himself for the thousandth time) did he ever leave England, where his talents were properly appreciated and where Staunton himself gave favourable notice to his games? He does not realise, as he says goodnight to his companions beneath the gaslight at the foot of the steps, that he has presided at the formation of the most notable chess club in what Mr Alfred Harris, of the temple of Pomona, would no doubt have called the southern hemisphere.

Because of his age, Stephen is only a figurehead. It is the younger man, George William Rusden, clerk of the parliaments, Shakespearian scholar and finest billiard player in the colony (but best known to later generations as an educationist), who will guide the club for the next three years, first as president in all but name and then as holder of that office.

The first pawn was advanced at the club on 9 August 1866, by which time the members numbered 23. The first tournament, an open handicap, was held in 1867 and became an institution that would last for 90 years. Strangers have been welcomed ever since the first November, when the committee resolved that visitors from the country and neighbouring colonies should be admitted to the clubroom on leaving their cards with the secretary. Three years later the governor of Victoria, Viscount Canterbury, agreed to become an honorary member, whether his Excellency ever came and played is not known. For its first years the club flourished.

While the society formed in 1857 is the descendant of that in 1855, we cannot, with the best will in the world, claim that the 1866 club is the continuation of some earlier body.

But from 1866 the line is unbroken. Other chess clubs had been founded in the 1850s at Ballarat, Beechworth and Ararat, and St.Kilda seems to have had one in about 1859; but none of these can claim continuous existence.