In 1892 under the stewardship of Leonard Rees a new force emerged on the chess scene - the Southern Counties Chess Union (SCCU). Prior to presence of this organisation chess in England in the mid to late 19th Century was a somewhat hit and miss affair. Namely, there was little organised chess and any that existed was predominantly done on a ‘gentlemanly’ basis. The formation of the SCCU took chess to a different level in that it made a conscious decision to organise chess at a regional level thereby giving a focus to the affairs of the numerous chess associations that were then extant – representing an association in a county match was to be regarded as the pinnacle of the amateur chess player.
The SCCU oversaw numerous competitions and one of these was the Metropolitan (1908-1923) which was an event primarily competed for by the 4 Metropolitan counties (Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey). These 4 counties had a greater chess base thus the competition was specifically designed to cater for those players eager to test their mettle at a higher standard of play consequently matches of over 50 boards were played between these 4 counties (on occasion Sussex attempted to participate but could not sustain the effort required).
The strides made in chess prior to the Great War were significantly reduced after it. Many chess associations became non-existent as those individuals with an affinity for chess were lost to a greater cause. The effect of the Great War saw the number of associations participating in SCCU run events, primarily the Championship, fall from 11 (Devon, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Kent, Middlesex, Norfolk, Somerset, Surrey, Sussex, and Wiltshire) to 7 (Essex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey and Sussex).
Despite the reduction in overall competitors in the Championship, the Metropolitan tournament had resumed its fierce competition as the traditional entrants had quickly returned to business as usual after the war. There was one challenge though that was consistently posed to these teams: since the minimum number of boards was 50 the question was how many boards in excess of the minimum could the respective teams’ field? A watershed moment was reached in 1921 when Kent and Surrey were able to field a 200 aside match in the spring of that year. The match at the time was considered a world record. It was this monumental match that proved to be the catalyst for SCCU to attempt to stage a record chess match and in turn aim to revive interest in English chess in general.
“Preparations are already being made for the epoch making match on September 24th, of four hundred aside between teams under the title of North v. South of the Thames. The match is being played under the auspices of the Southern Counties C.U., and Sussex and Hampshire are assisting the Southern side. The organisation required to successfully run a match with 800 chess players makes one think that Hercules had a soft job in comparison, but everyone knows what the hon. Secretary of the S.C.C.U. [R.H.S. Stevenson] is capable of in this direction, and no qualms are felt as to its ultimate success. It is to be hoped that the result may be as close a nature of the 200 aside between Kent and Surrey this Spring.” BCM August 1921
There are no accounts of the efforts the respective captains H. Meek (North) and R.H.S. Stevenson (South) went to compile the teams but suffice to say that the Herculean effort required to ensure 800 players participated was met. The following abridged details of this record match are obtained from the Middlesex Match Records (Vol.1 1908-1954)
On Saturday, September 24th, the Record Match of 400 aside, representing the North and South of the Thames took place at the Central Hall Westminster. Before commencing the Battle Royale Mr. Holloway, the Organising Secretary for next year’s International match addressed the meeting.
The composition of the teams was as follows:
It is clear that Middlesex and Surrey provided the backbone of the respective sides.
Mr. Rees is quoted as saying, “The aim of the gathering is to bring together as many chess players as possible with little regard to be given to the form shown in play.”
Unfortunately it is not possible to provide a breakdown of how the respective counties performed as the Middlesex match records containing the various articles about the match does not report which county each player represented. However the following breakdown is given:
The final result shows a bloodless victory to the North.
The legacy of this match for chess in England cannot be commented on however the benefits for the SCCU were soon realised as by 1925 the SCCU had to drastically review the competitions they oversaw, these being, Shannon (20 boards); the Metropolitan competition being split into Amboyna (50 boards) and Ebony (100 boards) and the Six Counties Competition. This seminal event had a positive effect on chess in the south of England which lead to a golden age of participation throughout the latter part of the 1920’s and into the 1930’s – the peak saw 21 counties take part in competitions overseen by the SCCU.
Anthony Fulton Middlesex CCA