Monday 13 April 2020

J. B. of Bridport

Chess Strategy. A Collection of the Most Beautiful Chess Problems Composed by "J.B., of Bridport", London 1865. 

Within just over a decade, John Brown (who styled himself J. B. of Bridport to avoid confusion with other chess composers of the same name), became a prominent, and even pre-eminent, composer of chess problems, and his compositions were regularly featured in the chess periodicals of the period. Staunton included over 100 of Brown's problems in his Illustrated London News columns.   

Brown died of tuberculosis aged just 36 on 17th November 1863, and 16 months later a collection of his best problems was published, primarily for the benefit of his wife and children. The book was one of the first devoted to the problems of an individual composer; Josef Kling's The Chess Euclid (1849) and Robert Wormald's The Chess Openings (1864), which includes 50 of the author's problems, being other early examples, although neither was dedicated solely to chess problems.

Staunton was instrumental in the conception of Chess Strategy, having access to so many of Brown's compositions, but the main task of collecting, editing and preparing the material for publication was undertaken by Frederick Rainger who had edited a chess column in the Norfolk News from 1859 to 1863. However, Rainger's considerable efforts were not acknowledged in the Preface to Chess Strategy, a matter raised by I. O. Howard Taylor on page vi of his book Chess Skirmishes, Norwich 1889. 

Chess Skirmishes, page vi

(See also Eminent Victorian Chess Players by Tim Harding, page 72, and the same author's British Chess Literature to 1914, pages 259 and 327).

Chess Strategy includes 174 problems, arranged on diagrams, two to a page, with solutions at the end. The problems range from two-movers to five-movers with over two-thirds being three-movers.

A few problems were repeated in error; nos. 73 and 77 are identical, as are nos. 39 and 132. 72 is a mirrored version of 32, and 102 is 35 mirrored and translated.


Nearly 150 years after the death of John Brown, his life and chess career were revisited by Brian Gosling in John Brown: The Forgotten Chess Composer?, Leicester 2011.

This extensively researched work (and very reasonably priced at just £10), includes substantial biographical information on John Brown and the history of his family in Bridport in the West Country of England. The book also constitutes an easy introduction to the chess problem composer's art and a brief history of problem composition in the 19th century. The author traces Brown's development as a problem composer and presents 50 problems from Chess Strategy with more detailed solutions and explanations than were included in the original collection.

Gosling's book opens with a photographic portrait by Lewis Carroll and closes with an item on Lewis Carroll's appearance at the Redcar Chess Tournament in 1866. John Brown and his contemporary Lewis Carroll had a number of similarities including their religious vocations and enjoyment of chess problems. Lewis Carroll had a copy of Chess Strategy in his library which he probably purchased at the Redcar Chess Tournament in support of Brown's family.  

The book has the following poor image of John Brown which may well be the only known portrait of him:


This is taken from opposite page 28 of The Chess Problem by H. Weenink, Stroud 1926, an invaluable work on the history of chess problems and problemists. This, in turn, was taken from the photographic chess board; Chess Champions of England, published by H. F. L. Meyer in 1871.

The Chess Problem by H. Weenink, opp. page 28.

Brian Gosling devotes a chapter to Howard Staunton and the ILN, highlighting Staunton's popularisation of chess problems through his column in the widely circulated Illustrated London News and, in particular, his promotion of the compositions of John Brown of which over 100 appeared between 1853 and 1863.  This was a major factor in developing the reputation of Brown as a problemist.

Staunton included a brief mention of Brown's death in his column for 28th November 1863 and published a long review of Chess Strategy in November 1865.  A two-page review of Chess Strategy had earlier appeared in The Chess World, May 1865, pages 70-71. Probably written by Staunton, the unnamed editor of this periodical, the review affirms that the book "has been produced under the supervision of an eminent English amateur". Was he referring to himself or Rainger? 

The Chess World, May 1865 page 71.

Gosling does not mention F. G. Rainger in his book and was seemingly unaware of the latter's participation in Chess Strategy. Chess Skirmishes is not listed in the fairly extensive bibliography of 54 chess works. 

The author summarises his researches into John Brown as follows:

The book has six Appendices beginning with The Problems of J. B. by J. Beasley.
This reproduces a lecture given to the British Chess Problem Society by John Beasley in November 1990 and includes 25 problems taken from Chess Strategy, although 14 of these are already included in Gosling's choice of 50. 

There are a few historical inaccuracies, and the odd typographical error, but the book is generally very well researched and produced. Gosling gives an enjoyable account of the life and family of J.B. of Bridport, his influence on the art of chess problem composition and the general development of chess problems in the 19th century.

                                                      © Michael Clapham 2020

1 comment:

  1. Dear Michael,
    Thanks very much for taking the time to review my book on John Brown. It seems hardly possible that nine years have passed since I wrote it.

    I took sometime considering having a photograph from Lewis Caroll especially as I had to pay for a license in order to reproduce it. In the foreword, I had mentioned the connection. To me, it seemed quite normal to have the photo there. It is of two ladies enjoying chess in the same period that JB lived. There are a number of similarities between Brown and Caroll besides there mutual enjoyment of chess problems (Through the Looking Glass has many chess references). Both put themselves forward for the ministry, Lewis as a Priest in the Anglican Church and JB-as a Minister in the Methodist Church, and both decided against the final commitment of ordination. Both were attracted to the Oxford Movement which I describe in my book.

    Regarding F.G Rainger, it is so easy to be wise after the event. Perhaps maybe I should have mentioned him in my chapter on Staunton and the book Chess Skirmishes should have been in the bibliography at the end but then perhaps I should have mentioned David Hooper's file that he had left in the Bridport Library when he left the town. One could have gone on and on. My biggest regret is not having "Bridport" in the title. ("John Brown - J.B of Bridport")
    On the whole, I thought your review was positive.
    Kind Regards,