Yorkshire Chess History



James Gavin Cunningham











Made in Yorkshire



Sheffield Sub-Site



19/01/1838, Sunderland, Co. Durham


25/02/1838, Bishopwearmouth


13/08/1905, London



Identity of the Chess-Player


There was more than one James G. Cunningham born in County Durham in the relevant era, but apart from the fact of residence in the right period in Leeds, his entry in the 1881 census return actually mentions chess.


His father was born in Scotland, but whether he was tangibly related to the Alexander Cunningham (1654-1730), the Scotsman who invented the Cunningham Gambit is unclear.  He most probably wasn’t, but it’s a nice idea.


Non-Chess Life


James Gavin Cunningham’s parents were Thomas Cunningham, born vaguely 1813/14 or 1815/1816, depending on which census return you believe, in Scotland, and Elizabeth Cunningham, similarly born vaguely 1814/15 or 1816/17, at Sunderland.  Neither the 1851 census nor the 1861 census suggested they had any other children.


The birth of a James “Gravin” Cunningham was recorded in the birth index as registered in the first quarter of 1838, at Sunderland, though he could conceivably have been born at the end of 1837.  This was clearly our man, with a spurious “r”.  The middle name Gavin is supported by his name as an author, and his entries in the marriage and death indexes.


His place of birth is usually given as Sunderland (censuses of 1851, 1861, and 1891) but the 1881 census gave it as South Shields, which may have been confusion on the part of the enumerator with his wife’s place of birth.


England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975, records James “Savin” Cunningham, as being baptised on 25/02/1838, at Bishop-Wearmouth, Co. Durham, now known as Bishopwearmouth and a district of Sunderland.  This is clearly our man, with another spelling mistake.


The 1851 census found parents Thomas and Eleanor, 13-year-old Sunderland-born son, James, living at 11 Bedford Street, Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland.  Father Thomas was a carver and gilder, perhaps of ships’ bow figureheads.  Mother Elizabeth was a stay and corset-maker.  James was a scholar.


The marriage of James Gavin Cunningham, without any spelling mistakes, to Eleanor Dunbar, was registered in the second quarter of 1860, at Sunderland.  The couple had at least the following two children:


McLaren Cunningham

born 1866/67, South Shields

Eleanor M Cunningham

born 1869/70, South Shields


The 1861 census found James and Eleanor living with James’s parents, still at 11 Bedford Street, Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland. Father Thomas was still a carver and gilder.  Mother Elizabeth was still making stays.  23-year-old Sunderland-born James G. Cunningham was described as both a timber and coal agent, and as a Methodist lay preacher.  The reference to the timber trade provides confirmation that the next stage in the story does indeed relate to our man and not a namesake.


The place of birth of the children rather implies the family moved, at some time from 1861 to 1867, to South Shields, on the south bank of the Tyne.  Nevertheless, the family seems to have moved back to Sunderland, as the London Gazette, when reporting the bankruptcy proceedings described below, referred to him as “James Gavin Cunningham, of the borough of Sunderland, in the county of Durham, Timber Merchant.”


The North Otago Times (New Zealand) of 25/10/1870 carried the following report:


AT THE RECENT DURHAM ASSIZES James Gavin Cunningham, timber-merchant, pleaded guilty to uttering forged acceptances for bills of exchange for £212 9s. 2d., £295 6s. 2d., and £372 6s. 2d., at Sunderland.  The counsel for the prisoner stated that the prisoner did not commit the offences to provide himself with money, but to meet some pressing business engagements; and had the offences not been discovered, he no doubt would have been able to meet the bills when they became due.  Since his imprisonment the prisoner had become bankrupt, but his estate was large, and a good dividend would be paid.  He was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude.


The Shield Daily News and other English newspapers of 18/07/1870 gave the date of the above-mentioned trial as Saturday 16/07/1870.  The London Gazette of 08/03/1870 had formally reported the bankruptcy as having been declared on 04/03/1870.  A dividend of 11s and 2d in the pound had been realised and paid, and the London Gazette of 07/07/1874 had reported, over two years after the event, that the bankruptcy was formally closed in Durham County Court on 06/02/1872.


Whether he served the full five years in prison is unclear, but it does explain why he seems absent from the 1871 census.


Leaving Sunderland may have been part of his attempt to build a new life in fresh pastures, where recent events were perhaps unknown.  Thus the 1881 census found him living with his wife and two children at 5 South Ridge Street, Holbeck, Leeds.  James had left the timber trade, and was described, as regards occupation, as “soap manufacturer and author on chess.”  His place of birth was recorded as South Shields, his wife’s place of birth; whether this was confusion on the part of the enumerator, or an attempt by James to cover his tracks, can only be guessed.  (Kelly’s directory of West Yorkshire dated 1881, which probably gave data from 1880 did not list nos. 1, 3 of 5 of South Ridge Street, so no. 5 may have been empty, or housed people of insufficient status to merit being listed.)


W. R. Bland’s Chess Player’s Annual and Club Directory dated 1882 (again possibly 1881 data) gave his address as Leeds View, Beeston Hill, Leeds.  (South Ridge Street was in the Beeston Hill area, so this address may have been that referred to in the 1881 census.)


The soap manufacturing was apparently done in partnership with Charles Wesley Hatton, as Hatton & Co. at 29 East Street, Leeds.  The London Gazette of 14/06/1881 carried a notice of the dissolution of the partnership, by mutual consent, leaving Charles Wesley Hatton carrying on alone, from 08/06/1881.


Chess activity places him still in Leeds in 1882, but at some time thereafter he moved to London.


The 1891 census found James, Eleanor and the two children, with a boarder, living at 1 King’s Square, Finsbury, London.  James’s place of birth was back to being declared as Sunderland.  James was a “journalist and editor,” but the text runs into a large blob of ink which obliterates anything after “editor”, such as what he edited.  McLaren was now a furrier, while Eleanor junior was a journalist.


The death of the family’s mother, Eleanor Cunningham, aged 63, was registered in the third quarter of 1900, at Islington.


The 1901 census found widower James G. Cunningham, with McLaren, Eleanor junior, three boarders and a servant, living at 164 Richmond Road, London.  James was now a journalist and private boarding-house keeper.  McLaren was a furrier’s cutter.  Eleanor junior was manageress of a private boarding-house.




James Galvin Cunningham died on 13/08/1905, aged 67, in the Islington area of London.  The British Chess Magazine of 1905, p 385/386, carried a notice on his death.




One of Paul Morphy’s opponents in a blindfold simultaneous display he gave at St. George’s Club, London, in 1859, was reportedly “James G. Cunningham,” the game being published with notes by Lowenthal.


While resident in Leeds, he attended the annual meetings of the West Yorkshire Chess Association of 1878, 1881 and 1882.


In W. R. Bland’s Chess Player’s Annual and Club Directory dated 1882, he was listed as somebody willing to give simultaneous displays at clubs, though in his case only Yorkshire clubs.  An example of such an event was a visit in 1882 by J. G. Cunningham to Dewsbury Chess Club.


He was one of the eight players playing against the master in Zukertort’s 1881 simultaneous blindfold display in Huddersfield.


In 1894 he produced a book of the games of the Lasker-Steinitz match.


He was a collaborator, or assistant editor, of the British Chess Magazine in the 1890s, at least from 1892 and 1896.





Copyright © 2013 Stephen John Mann

Census information is copyright of The National Archive, see UK Census Information

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