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Chapter 7: The propriety which the committee is bound to maintain

The Propriety which the Committee is Bound to Maintain

A few hours at the Anderson collection in the company of the old minute books will convince you that when it comes to running a chess club nothing has changed in 120 years. The meeting of 1867 might have been held last week. Chess being what it is, and people being what they are, no doubt it will be all the same in 100 years.

Members must be able to see, whether the committee is putting in 2 gas lights in 1895 or opening a subscription list in 1915 for the installation of 8 electric light bulbs. Members must be kept warm, whether the secretary is arguing with Nissen over the cost of fire in 1873 or stealthily removing a radiator despite the protests of Crowl 70 years later. Members must be kept quiet; they must not comment on games in progress (1866); they certainly must not whistle (1917); the "Silence" notices will have to go up again (1946). Members must be pursued for their subscriptions. In 1867 a debt collector visits the tardy; in 1938 so much is owed by so many that the committee grants a general amnesty and starts again. The search for new premises and for money to renovate them goes on. How can the club be kept open? Shall each member have his key? Nearly 80 years have passed since the first attempt to roster members to man the clubroom. Tortured chairs to be repaired. Unapproved withdrawers to be punished. Disputes over games. Is a forfeit to be enforced? The touch move rule is successfully invoked against Gilbertson, he must move his queen, whether he and Griffith had been touching without moving all night is not to the point. Burns is to placate Gilbertson, but Gilbertson withdraws from both the tourney and the club. Chess has him in his grip, however, next year he is back, and donating Steinitz's Modern Chess Instruction.

This cycle of disputation, mediation, resignation and restoration recurs throughout the minutes. Read leaves the room while the committee determines the sealed move controversy in his game against Watson. Feelings have run high. ("Mr Read then returned and assured the committee that he had no intention of insulting Mr.Watson in anything he said".) Clocks, sets, library books, even chairs, disappear from the clubroom, and sometimes reappear. One stolen set turns up in a second-hand shop. Quarrels flare, now long forgotten. The only recorded formal expulsion of a member is in 1915. His crimes are not chronicled. We know only that evidence was heard by a general meeting on 2 charges. In 1877 an ugly scene; Simpson calls Connell a liar and Connell reacts violently. The committee hears witnesses and resolves that "the use of the word 'lie' was calculated to produce a breach of he peace and was therefore a violation of that propriety which the committee is bound to maintain", but that Connell should control himself in future. An honorary visitor is barred from the premises in 1895 because his bearing has led to "collisions", and for the next 5 years he presents a problem. In 1945 one member sues another - the only known example. An "unpleasant scene" in the club between the pair; one takes proceedings against the other in the County Court, claiming £249 damages for assault; Dr.Gellis, a Viennese doctor of laws, offers to mediate; the affair is settled. This is the only recorded court case in the club's history apart from the City Court ejectment proceedings in 1950, when the Athenaeum expelled the tenant which had overstayed its welcome by 6 years.

Night owls have always roosted in the clubroom and the minutes show the various means of flushing them out, including outright prohibition, late fees to cover lighting and heating costs and an automatic switch to plunge the clubroom into darkness. We cannot claim to have eliminated them.

A thousand and one things claim the committee's attention. The great white fleet steams through the rip in 1908. Naval cadets march from Ballarat to see the American ships, a military review is held at Flemington; State schools demonstrate Maypole dancing at the Exhibition oval. The committee is caught up in the general excitement. Chess playing sailors will be guests of the club, but there are no funds to subscribe for decorations. A letter from India in 1910: Mr James of Bangalore wants to make his exile more tolerable by a correspondence match. cycles of strength and weakness. The move to the second floor back in 1908. The emergency rent fund of 1936. The level of subscriptions. The arguments with the association. The good times and the bad.