By Gordon Cadden, Club President
The Death of Mrs Mary Mills Houlding
The following obituary appeared in the British Chess Magazine for April, 1940:
The death is reported of Mrs Mary Mills Houlding on February 19th, 1940, at the age of 89 years. She was an exceedingly brilliant player and may be said to have been a pioneer of chess amongst women.
After her marriage she lived in Australia for many years, and was the recognised Lady Chess champion of Australia, where she often played chess by telegraph.
Upon her return to England, she went to live at Newport, and joined the Newport Chess Club. In 1910, when it might have been expected that her mental powers had passed their zenith (for she was then about 60 years of age) she entered for the British Ladies Championship, which in that year was contested at Oxford, and won the Championship. In the following year, she again won the Ladies Championship. Then in 1914, in her 64th year, she won it once again. On quite a number of subsequent occasions, even until quite recent years, Mrs Houlding entered for the Ladies Championship but did not succeed in winning it again.
On one occasion she played in a simultaneous display against the then World Champion, Emanuel Lasker, and won her game. She said that she never remembered learning the game of chess, and seemed (like Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin) to have "grown" with it. At four years of age, when playing a game of chess with her father, she lost her Queen. Her father said to her; "Why Mary, you have lost your Queen !" She quickly retorted, "I know that daddy, but look at my position".
She bequeathed a number of chess trophies and medals, to her relations and friends.
Thus ended a long love of chess, that began in Lancashire, in the 1850's.
I was curious about the person who wrote this extended obituary. He had more than a casual interest in Ladies chess at the highest level.
Rufus Henry Streatfeild Stevenson 1878-1943, was the Honorary Secretary of the British Chess Federation in 1940. His first wife, Agnes (née) Lawson, was to win the British Ladies Championship on four occasions: Edinburgh, 1920; Stratford on Avon, 1925; Edinburgh, 1926; and Scarborough, 1930. In 1935, she had been selected to represent Great Britain in the Women's World Championship, held in Warsaw, August 1935. She arrived in Poznan, by plane from Berlin. After presenting her passport for inspection at the airport building, she started returning to her aircraft. The pilot had started the propellers, she panicked thinking that the aircraft was leaving and, running to what she thought was the rear (it was the front) of the plane, she made physical contact with the propellers and was killed instantly.
In 1937, Stevenson married a second time, to the Ladies World Champion, Vera Menchik, born in Russia, 15 February, 1906. Vera was to meet a terrible tragedy, when a V-2 Rocket destroyed her home at 47 Gauden Road, Clapham, London SW4, on 27th June, 1944. Her mother and sister Olga were also killed.
R.H.S.S. died in 1943.
The Early Years
Mary Mills Palmer was born in Manchester, on 24th September, 1850. Her father was a Vicar, who taught Mary the chess moves. Her mother and three brothers all played chess. Mary and G. Mills Palmer were step-brother and sister to their elder brothers, Edward Davidson Palmer and C. Palmer. All three brothers attended Manchester Grammar School, which was the leading Independent School in Lancashire. They joined the school chess club, which had a reputation for producing strong chess players.
The following obituary was published in the British Chess Magazine for March, 1928:
The North London Club has suffered a severe loss by the death of Edward Davidson Palmer, a member of the club for 23 years, and in 1919-20, its President. Deceased, who was in his 82nd year, was a familiar figure at Federation Congresses, and his genial personality will be much missed. He came from a chess playing family, his sister, Mrs Houlding, being a holder of the Woman's Championship, while his brother, G. Mills Palmer, formerly played a strong game for Manchester, and for Lancashire.
In the 1891 match, Manchester v. Liverpool, G. Mills Palmer was on board 7 for Manchester. He won his game against G. Imlach. Interesting that the top board player for Manchester was Wilfred Charles Palmer, who was born on 1st July 1873. His father was the Reverend H.J. Palmer. He also attended Manchester Grammar School, and may have been a cousin to Mary Mills Palmer. He followed his father, and became the Reverend W.C. Palmer, in 1900.
Richard Clewin Griffiths, the son of the Founder of Hampstead Chess Club, published his Reminiscences in the April 1932 edition of the British Chess Magazine. He attended Charterhouse School, in the City of London, between 1885 and 1890. After school hours, they would sometimes walk to Crosby Hall, where chess players would gather. He describes meeting two brothers, known as E.D. Palmer, and C. Palmer. The pupils would call them little "P", and big "P", because the latter was very fat, and the former very spare. A third brother, G. Mills Palmer, was described as living in Manchester.
It is evident that the Palmer brothers were attracting attention as strong players, but apart from playing chess with her immediate family, there is no evidence of Mary Mills Palmer taking part in competitions. Chess clubs were all male gatherings, that did not encourage women to become members. Not until the 1890's did women form their own chess clubs. The world's first International Ladies Tournament, took place in London, 1897.
It is very likely that Mary Mills Palmer was engaged in Missionary activities before her marriage. She was to marry Harry Maughan Houlding, before departing for New South Wales, in 1885.
During 1885, Mary Mills Houlding and her husband Harry, departed Great Britain for New South Wales. They were to settle in Narrandera and Wagga-Wagga. These townships had large Aboriginal Settlements. Harry was to find employment as a Law Clerk, but I believe that it was Mary's work as a Missionary, that brought them to New South Wales. She was to leave a lasting influence on chess in Australia, pioneering the play of chess by Telegraph. She coached Spencer Crackenthorp, who went on to win the Australian Championship at Sydney, 1926, and Perth, 1927. The Son-in-Law of Crackenthorp was Cecil John Seddon Purdy, who won the Australian Championship at Melbourne 1934/35, Perth 1936/37, Melbourne 1948/49, Brisbane 1951, and Perth 1962/63. He was to edit the Australasian Chess Magazine, and "Chess World". He wrote several books on coaching, and correspondence games. In 1939, he wrote a classic book on chess humour, using the pen name "Chielamangus". The book was entitled "Amongst These Mates". He was the first inaugural World Correspondence Chess Champion, and a grandmaster of Correspondence Chess. In 1976 he was awarded the "Order of Australia", for services to chess.
An excerpt from the Australian Town and Country Journal, 1897:
Mrs Mary Mills Houlding, Narrandera, NSW. "A Leading Chess Player". Strongest OTB and Telegraph Player. Travelled from England to NSW in 1885. Mrs Houlding had played her first match by Telegraph, in 1893, Narrandera against Wagga-Wagga. I quote from Mary Houlding; "Chess lovers must feel under obligation to the Government, for granting the use of the Telegraph to the various country clubs, for these matches. Not only is chess made more popular, but a quite unique friendship is created between persons who may never see each other. When I remember some of the friendly "enemies" with whom I am now acquainted, and think of their awe-inspiring appearance, I feel sure I could not have braved an introduction without the shelter of miles of distance. All loyal chess players will acknowledge the justice and appropriateness of this grateful tribute to the efforts of Mr S.H. Lambton and Colonel P.B. Walker, themselves enthusiastic chessists, in facilitating Telegraph Operations in matches". During 1893, Mrs Houlding took part in nine other Telegraph Contests, and has been victorious in eight. She has played at board 1 for Narrandera, and at board 4 for Wagga-Wagga. The Wagga-Wagga club paid her their compliments in 1894, of electing her an Honorary member.
Sydney 1898 Sydney Daily Telegraph
Mrs H.M. Houlding vs Mr William Ridley
During 1899, Mary and Harry Houlding returned to Great Britain. They settled in Newport, Monmouthshire.
It was a mystery as to why they selected Newport. Many years later, in the early 1960's, C.J.S. Purdy was to make a special journey to Newport, in the hope of solving this mystery. He arrived at the Central Reference Library in Newport, hoping to find a relative in the Town. Mary and Harry had no children, and he was to discover that they had no roots in Newport. A few nieces and cousins did attend Mary's funeral service, but they are likely to have travelled from Lancashire and London.
I believe that it was Mary Mills Houlding's work as a Missionary that brought her to Newport. In 1900 she became the Superintendent of the North Street Mission, which used a building next to St Woolos Primary School, opposite St Mary's Street, Baneswell. This area was the poorest district of Newport. Before the Welfare State was created, the Christian Churches were the Guardians of the Poor.
Upon arriving in Newport, they rented accommodation at 40 Bassaleg Road, and joined Newport Chess Club, which met at Newport Town Hall in Commercial Street. The club met on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, from 6pm. Egalitarianism had yet to reach the Newport Club, whose members represented the gentry, the clergy and the businessmen of the Town. The arrival of a female must have caused great consternation at the club. But Mary was erudite, and accomplished in the Arts and Literature. She soon became one of the most popular members, and was a regular competitor in the Club Championship. But she was not to win the male dominated Championship until 1922, and again in 1928, at 78 years of age. This age record stands to this day.
During 1908, the World Chess Champion, Emanuel Lasker, arrived in Newport, to give a simultaneous display on behalf of the Newport Club. The venue was Blands County Restaurant, at 153 Commercial Street, not far from the Town Hall. Lasker lost just one game, to Mrs Houlding.Dr E. Lasker vs Mrs H.M. Houlding, Blands County Restaurant, Newport, 1908
Mary was to become the British Ladies Champion at Oxford, in 1910. Later that year, Mary was the guest of honour at Blands County Restaurant. The Squire of Llanwern, Mr D.A. Thomas, presented her with a magnificent Davenport Bureau, the cost of which had been raised by subscription, from her chess friends in Monmouthshire. She was to win the British Ladies Championship at Glasgow, in 1911, and for the last time, at Chester in 1914. She continued playing in the British Championship until 1932, when she retired at 82 years of age.
Her husband, Harry, was employed as a Cashier, at Messrs. Davis, Lloyds, and Wilsons, and used to join her at the Newport Club, but I have no record of him playing in match events. He died on 10th December, 1917, at just 67 years of age. Mary continued to play for the club, and at Monmouthshire County Events, up until the Autumn of 1939, when the club secretary, J.W.F. Greenleaf, a Surveyor for the Great Western Railway, made the decision to officially close the club premises, following the declaration of War against Germany. Seven members continued to meet weekly, at the home of Reginald Brine Herbert, where they played American Swiss Tournaments. They were joined in 1943 by an industrial chemist with the name of Henry Golding, who moved from Banbury to Newport, and was engaged in war work, at Aluminium Industries in Rogerstone.
Funeral of Mary Mills Houlding
Her death was extensively reported in the South Wales Argus. She was a Superintendent of the North Street Mission, a religious charity for helping the poor of the Baneswell District of Newport.
Her death certificate records that she died at 20 York Place, Newport, on the nineteenth of February, 1940, at 89 years of age. Her death was attributed to a brain haemorrhage, and old age. Certified by Dr Charles Stuart Vines, who was a high board player for Newport in the 1920's and 1930's. He lived at 55 York Place.
South Wales Argus, 20 February, 1940:
Christian Worker and Chess Champion. There are many to deplore the death of Mrs H.M. Houlding, one of the Founders of the North Street Mission, Newport. She was old, in her ninetieth year, and lately her activities had been seriously curtailed through ill-health, but she maintained her interest in the Mission, and was an inspiring power.
South Wales Argus, 24th February, 1940:
The funeral of Mrs H.M. Houlding, of 20 York Place, Newport, formerly the Superintendent of the North Street Mission, took place at Newport (St. Woolos Cemetery), on Thursday. The Reverend D.W. Ingram officiated at the house, and cemetery, and graveside. The Hymn "Forever with the Lord" was sung. The mourners were Messrs. Alfred and Henry Palmer, nephews, Miss Palmer and Miss Curry, nieces, Miss Elaine Oakley, companion and friend. The bearers were Messrs. Wilkes, Corcoran, Oakley and Cliss. Representing Newport Chess Club were Charles O. Lloyd, Mr & Mrs Ivor Smith, G.F. Colborne. Dr. Charles Stuart Vines, and his wife Dr Charlotte Vines, and Harold Smith.
Many members were missing, because J.W.F. Greenleaf had closed the official club premises, at the outbreak of war. Members under 50 years of age would have been available for active service, Civil Defence, and many other war duties. Ivor Smith was the 1916 Club Champion. I was astonished to see the name of George Francis Colborne on the list. According to chess historian, Martyn Griffiths, he was born in Wiltshire in 1859, and later moved to London. Upon qualifying as a Solicitor, he took up a position in Newport, where he remained for the rest of his life. My records show that he played in a 10 board double round match Cardiff versus Newport, held at the Angel Hotel, Cardiff, on Saturday, 25th October, 1884. He won both his games. Cardiff won the match 11-9
Representing the North Street Mission were Superintendent Mr E.M. Jones and secretary, Mrs Wallis-Evans; Workers, Mrs Norrish, Mr J.H. Hughes, Mrs F.H. Beddis, Mrs Hunt, Mrs Wilkes, Mrs Harry Davies, Mrs Cliss.
Mrs Houlding was described as a Lady cultured in Literature, Arts and Music, with an outstanding personality.
In Loving Memory of Harry Maughan Houlding, born 10th December 1850
Called home December 10th 1917.
Sent from the body present with the Lord.
Also of Mrs Mary Mills Houlding, beloved wife of above. Born September 24th 1850, Re-united 19th February, 1940.
Grid Reference: Block 82 grave 10, about 150 yards from the Cemetery Office, alongside the cemetery wall that runs parallel with the Bassaleg Road.