Composing in Bridport
A Bridport man was one of the best known names in the British chess world in the 19th century, but he has been forgotten until recently. Tony Burton-Page tells the story of ‘J.B. of Bridport’
Published in April ’16
Bridport is well known to lovers of Dorset as being an artistic haven. The visual arts have been especially connected with the town, from Fra Newbery to Terry Whitworth. In the musical sphere, many composers have been associated with it, from contemporary ones such as Andrew Dickson (composer of music for Mike Leigh’s films, such as Vera Drake) to more venerable ones such
as Samuel Wakely, organist of St Mary’s Church in Hardy’s day whose setting of the Fourth Psalm inspired Michael Henchard to intense irritation in The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Bridport can, however, boast a composer of an altogether different type: John Brown, who was a chess composer of the early 19th century. The term ‘chess composer’ has, despite its musical implications, no connection with that branch of the arts. It describes someone who devises problem puzzles for chess players. These entail the challenge for White to checkmate Black in a particular number of moves (usually two or three), with only a limited number of pieces on the board (usually fewer than ten). They usually involve positions which are unlikely to occur in an actual game, the intention being to illustrate a particular theme which will require a surprising or counter-intuitive move.
Chess is famous for being one of the most ancient games in the world, yet it was only in the 19th century that its rules were finally standardized. It was in the early part of that century that chess clubs started to flourish, many books on chess were published, and chess journals appeared. Chess problems became a regular feature of 19th-century newspapers, and the tradition endures to this day. Readers of The Times in the 20th century saw Harry Golombek’s chess column every week for the forty years that he was their Chess Corrrespondent, although he did not confine himself to the miniature chess problems which had become so popular in the previous century. The chess writer Brian Gosling says: ‘Problems are the poetry of chess. All the great early players… loved chess problems and some even composed them.’
One of the first chess masters to produce these miniatures was Bridport’s John Brown, who styled himself ‘J.B. of Bridport’ in his chess life to avoid confusion with others of the same name. (It was often printed as ‘I.B.’, the ‘I’ standing for ‘Iohannes’, the Latinized form of ‘John’; indeed his tomb in the churchyard of Bradpole Parish Church is inscribed ‘I.B. of Bridport’.) John Brown was born in Bridport on 30 May 1827 and brought up as a Methodist, having been baptised in the town’s Wesleyan Methodist chapel – not the one on South Street (now the Bridport Arts Centre), which was not built until 1838, but its predecessor in North Street. Wesleyan Methodism was established in Bridport in 1808 and a house in North Street (then called Pig Lane) was turned into a place of worship, and this is where John Brown’s baptism took place.
Bridport has a long tradition of nonconformism and dissent: in 1768 a Dissenters’ Academy (now the Bridge House Hotel) was built in East Street, and by 1865 there were seven non-Church-of-England places of worship competing with the single Anglican church, St Mary’s. The chapel on South Street was built because the number of Methodists had increased so much that the one on North Street was too small for its purpose. Methodism has close links with Dorset: the family of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, flourished in the county, for his great-grandfather, Bartholomew, was Rector of Charmouth, and his grandfather was Vicar of Winterbourne Whitechurch, where Samuel Wesley, his father, was born. Bartholomew’s oak pulpit was bought by one of Bridport’s early Methodists, Dr Giles Roberts, and presented to the town’s Methodist Society, and it it is now in the Bridport Museum.
So young John Brown grew up in a distinctly Methodist home. His father was a bookseller, whose wife, Frances, gave him five children, of whom John was the eldest son – his sister Emma was a year older than him. Although it was a strictly religious household, with the Sabbath rigorously observed, it was by no means a Puritan one: young John had access to books all through his childhood, and it may well be that he gained some knowledge of chess in these days, for the game was a favourite Victorian pastime and would not have been disapproved of by his parents. But certainly chapel-going and the activities which went with it would have been a dominant factor in their everyday life, for John’s father was active as a preacher in the local area and he and his wife were fully involved with church societies and committees.
It was therefore almost inevitable that their eldest son would also play a significant part in the church. By the time he was twenty years old he was known as a Wesleyan Methodist preacher in the Bridport area, and in 1847 he enrolled as a student at the Wesleyan Theological Institute in Richmond, Surrey, which had only opened four years previously. He had been nominated by the Superintendent of the Bridport Circuit (the Methodist term for a group of local churches). The records show that he spent three years at the institute training to be a Methodist minister. He then went to the Stroud Circuit for a year and after that to the Hereford Circuit. However, at the end of his time on the Welsh borders, just as he was coming to the end of his probationary period, he submitted his resignation to the Conference (the Methodist equivalent of the Church of England’s Synod).
What persuaded him to do this? It is true that the 1844 conference had decreed that any candidate for the ministry should ‘pledge himself not to continue in our ministry if he should change his doctrinal tenets and convictions, so as to cease to believe and preach the doctrines to which he had given allegiance’, but after his resignation he returned to Bridport and preached at the local chapel, so there was no question of a crisis of faith on his part. Perhaps more relevant is the fact that since John Wesley’s death in 1791 the Methodist church had been racked by a series of divisions and schisms, from which evolved Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists, United Methodist Free Churches, the Methodist Reform Church and so on. 1849 was a key year, for a number of Wesleyan ministers were expelled on a charge of insubordination and formed the Wesleyan Reform Union. Most of the arguments concerned the governance and decision-making processes of the church. It would not be surprising if John Brown simply became tired of the constant bickering. He actually joined the Church of England when he left Bridport and moved to London in search of employment.
In 1860 he married Sarah West, and they set up house in Kentish Town, with John working as a coal merchant’s clerk. They had a son in 1861, and soon after his baptism the family moved back to Bridport, probably to escape from the filthy air of London, for by this time John had contracted the tuberculosis which would soon kill him, at the tragically early age of 36.
But it was in the last ten years of his life that he composed the chess problems for which he is now remembered. He was an early contributor to The Chess Player, a weekly magazine (price 2d) which first appeared in 1851 while he was still at Hereford. He wrote to congratulate the editors, describing their magazine as ‘a triumph for Caissa’, the goddess of chess, and he also submitted some of his compositions. These caught the eye of the editors for their elegance and conciseness, and they published many of them.
They also caught the eye of Howard Staunton, who since 1845 had been writing a chess column in the Illustrated London News which was widely accepted as the most influential column of its kind in the world. He liked Brown’s compositions so much that he published more than a hundred of them from 1853 until 1863. Brown died on 17 November 1863, and so moved was Staunton that he wrote about him in the very next issue. ‘We are grieved to hear that, only a few days after contributing… his latest inventions, Mr John Brown, better known to chess-players as I.B. of Bridport, fell a victim to consumption, from the insidious attacks of which he had long been suffering.’ It was Staunton who instigated the publication in 1865 of Chess Strategy: a Collection of the Most Beautiful Chess Problems composed by “J.B. of Bridport” and arranged that the proceeds would be for ‘the benefit of the widow and orphans of its estimable Author’.
His gesture has been echoed in the 21st century by Brian Gosling, who has selected 50 of J.B.’s problems and re-published them in his John Brown – the Forgotten Chess Composer? The proceeds have gone to the restoration of Brown’s gravestone in the churchyard of Holy Trinity, Bradpole. Bridport’s forgotten chess composer at last has a worthy memorial. ◗
Brian Gosling’s book John Brown – the Forgotten Chess Composer? is published by Troubador, ISBN 9781848768543.
(Solution to problem: Bf4 Kxf4 2. Rf3‡ (JB writes: ‘There are many other beautiful variations, but with a like result.’))