Winner of the club championship in 1910 and 1929.
By Brian Denman
H J F S Stephenson was a significant figure in the chess history of Hastings and Sussex. He was born Harold John Francis Spink Stephenson in the March quarter of 1879 in the Auckland (N.B. in Durham) Registration District. His family brought him to Hastings when he was a boy and he attended St Mary-in-the-Castle School. In 1902 he was appointed assistant master at that same school and he filled this post until his retirement on 7.1.1940.
He learnt how to play chess at the age of 16 and in February 1897 joined the Hastings CC. He had also been a founder member of the Hastings YMCA CC, which started its existence in 1896. In the late 1890s and early 1900s a number of chess clubs/groups were formed in Hastings and surrounding towns and villages. The success of the 1895 Hastings international tournament had greatly stimulated interest in the area and, as well as the Hastings YMCA, the following chess clubs or societies were formed in Hastings or nearby parts of Sussex: St Leonards Institute, Beehive (for both chess and draughts – located in Hastings), Sala Tea Rooms (located opposite the pier), Hastings Church Institute, Hastings Conservative Club (also called Hastings Chess Circle), Bexhill, Bexhill Institute, Battle, Robertsbridge, Biddenden and Rye. A number of local chess players were members of the main Hastings CC and one of the smaller clubs. In 1902 a district league was formed in Hastings, which was made up of local clubs in the area. The main Hastings CC regularly entered teams in this competition in the form of Hastings Ladies or Hastings ‘third class’ players. When the league was first formed a decision was taken not to let ‘first class’ players participate and it was called a ‘junior’ league (N.B. the term ‘junior’ did not mean that the players had to be young in age, but they would not have been the star players of the town).
This was the chess environment in which Stephenson began to become a promising player and in his early chess career he was interested in chess at the YMCA and the main club. In January 1904 he was ranked as a ‘third class’ player and we find him playing for the main chess club against the Eastbourne YMCA CC. Progress was now rapid and before the end of the year he had played for the county team. His potential had obviously been noted, as most county players were in the ‘first class’. In 1905 he won the East Sussex Queen, which presumably meant that he became a ‘first class’ player. At about this time he also was successful in winning a handicap competition at the club in which there were as many as 52 entries. The first prize was a 15 guinea bicycle, but on winning the event Stephenson was allowed to choose a different prize and he opted for a gold watch. This bicycle competition seems to have been played in the 1904-5 season.
In 1908 Stephenson was first elected on to the club committee and he served on it until his death about 43 years later. He first became club champion in 1910 and he repeated the achievement in 1929. Surprisingly, however, he won the club championship fewer times than the main county event. In 1909, 1911 and 1913 three joint Kent and Sussex congresses were held and the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 16.11.1929 reported that Stephenson had started the congresses with R H S Stevenson of the Kent Chess Association.
In the 1912-13 season the Sussex president, A F Waterhouse, offered a valuable trophy for competition and a strong entry of players was attracted. Stephenson reached the final, where he had to face a very strong opponent in the French Swiss player, Jean Raoux. Raoux was a member of the Christ Church CC in Brighton and was almost certainly the strongest player in the county at the time. In the first play-off between the players Stephenson held his own, but when it was decided to resolve the tie with a match where the winner had to secure five victories, Raoux won five games to Stephenson’s one (excluding draws). Raoux, himself, joined the Hastings CC in 1913.
Stephenson won his first county championship in 1919 and he then went on to win the title in the next two years also. As a result of winning the county championship on three consecutive occasions he was awarded a chiming clock as his own property. This was made of brass and steel and would ring out the Westminster chimes as well as the eight bells’ chimes (hopefully not at the same time!). The chiming clock had been held for a year by the county champion since 1893 and in 1911 the Sussex Chess Association had decided that whoever won it three consecutive times or four times altogether would receive the clock as his or hers own property. Stephenson now looked for another trophy for the Association and he sought to acquire the original trophy. This had first been presented in 1883 and it had been purchased following a call for subscriptions from players in the county. The impressive and valuable trophy had been won three times by William Wilson by 1892 and it had become his own personal property. By 1921 Wilson was willing to part with the trophy and, after handing it over to Stephenson, the latter presented it to the Sussex Chess Association. This is still the county championship trophy today. It is not clear whether Stephenson actually paid Wilson for the trophy. The inscription on the trophy tells us that it was presented to the Association through the courtesy of Wilson, but the Sussex Daily News of 9.2.1923 states that the trophy was purchased. Wilson himself died in 1922. In the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 24.9.1921 there is a photograph which reveals a number of trophies on show at the Hastings CC. It is interesting that both the chiming clock and the original county trophy appear in this photo.
In 1920 Stephenson played a match against a W Macbean of the Metropolitan CC in which he lost two games and drew two. Following his county successes he occupied the top board in the county team and in a large match played between the South of the Thames and the North of the Thames in September 1921 he won on board 13 for the ‘southern’ team. In the same year he competed in the British Championship at Malvern, but found the opposition tough. After he had scored 1.5/11, the British Chess Magazine suggested that his difficulties were attributed to his not encountering ‘class players’. The editor of the chess column in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer, Edward Ackroyd, interpreted this as a sly dig at Hastings players (N.B. i.e. suggesting that Stephenson did not get enough strong practice at Hastings) and he responded by saying that Hastings performers had as much class as Metropolitan players and Sussex chess was a cut above any of the Metropolitan counties with the added advantage of not being ‘puffed up’ in the chess columns of the London Press! (Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 22.10.1921).
Ackroyd was a very controversial columnist and in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 11.2.1922 he referred to the ‘dead weight’ on board one of the county team playing against Middlesex. This could be seen as very insulting to Stephenson, who was occupying the top position. Later in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 10.3.1923 he reported that Stephenson lost his game against Middlesex ‘whilst being pressed to partake of tea and cake by a fascinating Kent damosel (sic)!’
In 1922 Stephenson was elected as president of the Sussex Chess Association and he embarked on a course of actively spreading chess in East Sussex. He was influenced by the veteran Brighton player, Henry Butler, who wrote in the Sussex Daily News and had taken the title of ‘Crusader’. In his younger days Butler had been instrumental in spreading chess into many villages in Sussex and Stephenson now took on the role of an East Sussex crusader. The Sussex Daily News of 13.12.1922 tells how Stephenson travelled to the Christ Church CC, Brighton, in his ‘bijou’ car. The word ‘bijou’ normally means jewel, but perhaps here is used in the sense of his ‘pet’ car. Anyway there could not have been many people in the early 1920s who possessed a car and Stephenson could travel easily to encourage chess. In 1923 he went down to Rye with the Hungarian master, Geza Maroczy, and increased the enthusiasm for the game in the area. He also arranged a special occasion for the chess players of Eastbourne. He drove Maroczy and a party of Hastings players to the town for the Hungarian’s eight board blindfold simultaneous display. Stephenson himself gave simultaneous displays (not blindfold) from time to time and in 1922 he gave 16 board and 11 board displays at the Christ Church and Hastings clubs respectively.
In 1923 Stephenson’s late arrival for a Hastings v Christ Church match led to an argument between the two clubs. He was scheduled to play on board 3 against an elderly opponent, Dr Dunstan. Hastings introduced as their substitute none other than Maroczy who unsurprisingly won his game. Butler wrote of his displeasure about this in the Sussex Daily News, but Ackroyd’s mischievous response in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer was to recall how Butler had once played Zukertort under an assumed name in a match between a Brighton team and Henfield! (N.B. this happened as long ago as 1883!)
In 1924 Stephenson gave up the presidency of the Association. That same year seems to have been a milestone in his chess career, as his appearances for the Sussex team seem afterwards to have generally been less frequent. In 1928 he played for the Christ Church CC in a match against Battersea. I am not sure that he ever actually moved to Brighton, but he did make a few occasional appearances for the Brighton club. In the Sussex Daily News of 1.12.1932 it was even reported that he had entered the Christ Church Championship.
Following his retirement in 1940 he had to have a serious operation (Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 1.6.1940), but his remaining years seem to have generally been very active. In 1943 he was co-opted to serve on the Council as representative of the All Saints Ward and subsequently contested three post-war elections. In 1946 he became a member of the Education Committee. At the time of his death in 1951 he was a local authority manager of a number of schools in the area. He was also a member of committees responsible for Baths and Foreshore, Entertainments, Public Hygiene and Watch. Until a short time before his death he had represented the Local Authority of the Sussex Sea Fisheries Committee.
He died on 27.5.1951 at the age of 72 and an obituary published in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 2.6.1951 listed his achievements and hobbies. For some years he had been the proprietor of the Sandringham Hotel, Pelham Place. He had spent over 40 years in freemasonry and had been one of the founder members of C.P.H Ltd, an organisation set up in 1920 to purchase the lease of the club’s premises in Carlisle Parade. He had been elected as an Hon. Vice-President of the chess club in the year that he died.
In 1952 Mrs Stephenson presented the chiming clock to the Hastings CC. The clock was displayed at an exhibition given by Fred Robinson at the club in August 1966, but I wonder what happened to it after that. Perhaps it was sold as an economy measure when the club apparently ran into financial difficulties for part of the 1970s and 1980s.