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Chapter 11: All around the town

All around the Town

One hundred years ago the committee observed that three things were annual events; the telegraph match with NSW, the handicap tournament and the removal of the club to new quarters. No one could now plot with certainty the moves since 1866. The sites of former homes are scattered all over the city. Early street numbers are misleading. For the first 23 years of the club's life you must think of Bourke and Collins streets as divided by Elizabeth St into East and West, each half with its own set of numbers, beginning at the bottom of the hill. And so street numbers are better avoided until east meets west in 1890 and the streets are renumbered from Spring St all the way to Spencer St.

The club was born of a meeting on 4th August 1866 at the Mechanics' Institute in Collins St, where the Athenaeum now stands. The first clubroom was on the eastern hill, and we have seen in an earlier chapter how the claims of Mr Nissen's cafe prevailed over those of his nearby rival, the temple of Pomona. The latter establishment, named after the Roman goddess of fruit, had vanished by 1875; perhaps it was too exotic a growth to flourish in Bourke St. Nissen's lasted a good deal longer, as did the waxworks that lay between the temple and Nissen's. The room above Nissen's cafe, described by the Argus as commodious and in every way adapted to the requirements of the club, was open at 4pm from Monday to Friday and 2pm on Saturdays. As so the club began as it was almost without exception to continue; in control of its premises and keeping them open for play most days of the week. In June 1875 the club moved from Nissen's to Oliver's cafe, taking the room that the Yorick club had vacated. Miss Oliver's cafe was on the south side of Collins St, up from Swanston St. The club may have had a room in the London tavern in Elizabeth St for a few months in 1878. It was in difficulties at this stage and its movements are hard to trace. A little alter we find Mrs Goodall, described as the club caterer, being authorised to obtain supplies of ale, porter and spirits for its members. By 1879 the clubroom was in the building of Mr Ogg, the chemist and druggist, on the north side of Collins St, east of Russell St. In 1882 the club crossed to the other side of Collins St and took up residence in the City Club hotel, a few doors up from Swanston St. A "handsome ground floor room" was obtained in the Oriental hotel at the top of Collins St in July 1883, but a few weeks later yet another move brought the club back to Nissen's cafe.

After the club purged itself of whist in 1884 it met every Monday evening at the Victoria Coffee Palace, and in 1885 it began meeting there on Saturday evenings also; at this troubled stage of its life the club seems to have had no tenancy or similar arrangement.

Players were distracted by concerts at the Athenaeum, which stood next door to the coffee palace in Collins St. And there were other disadvantages, all duly noted by that unpopular expatriate G.H.D.Gossip, who had arrived from England not long before. In his letter to Stenitz's International chess magazine Gossip complained of the short playing hours and the sound of music. He counted 58 steps on his climb to the clubroom. The annual handicap tournament lasted nearly a year because players failing to appear did not forfeit. But this was not all. "The club", Gossip continued, "labours under serious disadvantages...the coffee palace where they play being a temperance cafe, no wines or spirits can be had, and for those players who have been accustomed for tears to their glass of wine or whiskey, this is a fatal drawback." Things soon improved, for in June 1886 the club took a room in the Thistle cafe in Little Collins St, 5 doors down from Swanston St. It shared this room, and the rent of one pound a week, with the Victoria chess club, Melbourne using it on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights and the Victorian players coming on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. This Cox and Box arrangement lasted less than 3 years and members were told that the correspondence before its termination "resulted in considerable friction, which your committee ascribes wholly to the attitude assumed by the committee of the Victoria chess club, and the terms of its communications". Melbourne stayed on at the Thistle and its rival went to the Palace hotel. In May 1889 a correspondent ("Gambit" of Toorak) was given this advice by "En passant", chess columnist of the Journal of the Bankers Institute of Australasia.

"There are two clubs in Melbourne, the Melbourne, just resuscitated, and the Victorian, which has led an active and stirring life since its start 6 years ago. On sanitary grounds alone you should join the latter. The Victoria chess club has the larger members' roll. Its room is lit by electricity, and is open day and night. The former club is over a pie palace, and meets but 3 evenings a week. I can give you an introduction to either secretary as you will. Thistle cafe, Little Collins St is the address of the former and Wilson's palace hotel, Bourke St, that of the latter. You may get a game resembling chess at Parer's cafe, bit in our parlance it is known as skittles. What with the disputes over dominoes, the noise of a hundred feet constantly moving about upon a marble floor and it being a rendezvous for the betting fraternity, who do not speak in hushed voices, miracles will have to be worked before chess is much played there."

The columnist's preference for the Victoria chess club possibly had something to do with the fact that, as F.W.Miscamble, he had been one of its founders. Grand as the room at the palace may have been, it proved to be beyond the means of the Victoria club, which was forced to move to the Globe hotel in 1890 and went out of existence in 1891. Membership of the 2 clubs had always overlapped and when the Victoria club disappeared some of its remaining members transferred to Melbourne. But Miscamble always remained aloof.

In June 1890 Melbourne chess club moved to a room in the Vienna cafe at 270 Collins St, using it every night except Sunday at a weekly rent of 25 shillings. Invitations to the opening went out to other clubs and "leading gentlemen preferably". In less than 18 months another move took place, this time to a room at the palace hotel, the hours being 10am till 11.30 pm. Here the club stayed until 1895. By September of that players were perched in a large room high up in the Athenaeum at 188 Collins St. The Athenaeum was the successor to the Mechanic's Institute, and so nearly 30 years after its foundation the club was back where it started. The clubroom was open every weekday. The committee tried to encourage afternoon play , but for some reason the number of stairs to be climbed prevented this. The long climb made the committee seriously consider amalgamating with the Stock Exchange club on condition that 2 rooms be set aside for chess. Mercifully the merger was averted. But in 1902 the club did take a 12 month lease of a room in the Stock Exchange building at 376 Collins St, with the result that there was afternoon play as well as evening play. When this lease ran out, the club took a room on the first floor of 191 Collins St, opposite the Athenaeum, at one pound a week. In about 1906 the club moved next door to 193 Collins St; here the first recorded attempt was made to roster members willing to each keep the club open for a few hours every week. The club seems in 1908 to have changed its room at 193 Collins St for one on the "second floor back". In 1915 the committee asked the president to wait on the landlord and ascertain on what terms lavatory accommodation, improved ventilation and open street door could be provided. How members fared without some of these facilities is a matter for speculation. A month later a subscription list was opened to raise funds to install electric light (eight bulbs) and a fan.

The club returned to the Athenaeum in 1920, with an arrangement that every member would join the institution. It was not until 1932 that the Athenaeum agreed that only club members should have access to the clubroom. Until 1936 the chess room was open 7 days and nights a week; thereafter it was closed on Sundays and public holidays. On 21st August 1937 the recently decorated clubroom was re-opened by Sir Isaac Isaacs, former chief justice of the high court of Australia and Governor-general from 1931 to 1936. In agreeing to becoming a patron of the club, Sir Isaac recalled that he had taught R.L.Hodgson, who had won the Victorian championship in 1901. In 1944 the Athenaeum gave the club notice to quit by June 30. The club stayed on. A second notice arrived in 1947. Again the club stayed on. In 1950 it was given notice to vacate by April 30. Again the club stayed put; but all good things come to an end and on July 26 1950 the Athenaeum trustees took the case to the City Court. Dr Woinarski, who at the age of 22 had narrowly been beaten by Crakanthorp in the 1926 Australian championship and who had forsaken chess for Latin and the Law, was briefed for the club. Taking perforce the black pieces, Woinarski played at the City Court a sound defensive game lasting 2 and a half days, but the odds were too great and the club was ordered to get out by January. Woinarski would take no fee and was made an honourary life member at the next committee meeting. He was appointed to the County Court in 1958.

At the Athenaeum the club had been in what might be called a cramped position; by the time of the court case membership was twice the immediate pre-war level. The court proceedings brought newspaper publicity, which itself brought offers of accommodation. From the athenaeum the club went to the basement of 109 Flinders Lane as tenant of the Victorian Spiritualists Union, where it was open from Monday to Saturday between 1pmand 10.30 pm. In 1959 the club moved to a room on the ground floor of 447-449 little Bourke St, open from noon 7 days and nights a week. The sign had proved too much for a Swiss migrant, who wrote to the Melbourne cheese club wanting a job in a dairy produce factory. In 1961 the club moved to 23 Tattersall's Lane, between Little Bourke and Lonsdale streets. Two years later the clubroom was transferred to the first floor of 16 Little Latrobe St, where play continued 7 days a week, according to the committee, generous donations made the new clubroom "the best furnished and most decent premises ever". From there the club moved in November 1966 to the second floor of 483 Elizabeth St. The cycle began again; a building alteration fund was opened and the premises refurbished.

For many years the Victorian Chess Association used the club's premises for tournaments, matches and meetings, at first free of charge and then for a daily or yearly fee, which was often the subject of disagreement. As early as 1962 the club had talked of buying a building. Nothing came of a 1972 proposal that the club form a company to raise money for this. In 1975 and 1977 the clubrooms were extensively renovated at the cost of some thousands of dollars and innumerable hours of donated time. Some members were quite oblivious of the work, and games continued despite the noise of drills, the drips of paint brushes above the players' heads and the fine sawdust that filled the air. Side by side with the improvement of the existing clubrooms came a feeling that it was time to end the long march from one rented venue to another, and in September 1977 the committee invested $500 as the nucleus of a fund to buy a building. 5 years later the club took possession of 110 Peel, North Melbourne, which it had bought for $77,500 using the building fund (which had somehow grown to $20,000), a seven year bank loan of $30,000 and gifts and interest-free loans from members. So Melbourne became the only chess club in Australia to own its own clubrooms. The building was bought shortly before the club's lease of its existing rooms expired. A proposal had been put forward that the new lease should no longer be in the club's name and that the premises, while continuing to be shared by the club and the VCA, should simply be known as the VCA chess centre. The club saw in this suggestion a very serious threat to its existence and searched anxiously for a building. Having made the purchase, it offered the association a tenancy of the ground floor of 110 Peel St, but the offer was refused. And so the ground floor was let to another tenant. Conversion of the first floor to the present comfortable clubrooms was largely the work on the indefatigable Carl Nater, aided by other members too numerous to mention.