Yorkshire Chess History



Cecil Valentine De Vere











Made in Yorkshire



Sheffield Sub-Site



14/02/1846, London (1)



09/02/1875, Torquay (2)




Cecil De Vere was an English chess-player who showed early promise, winning the first competition for the Challenge Cup of the British Chess Association, but not going on to achieve the full potential seen in him by his peers.  Illness leading to early death left him as a notable “might have been”.  His background, like that Howard Staunton, is largely impenetrable.  He was probably born illegitimately; his name is strongly suggestive of a connection with the family of the Irish Baronetcy of Curragh, which had ancestry traceable back to the Earls of Oxford.




Cecil Valentine De Vere appears possibly to have been the illegitimate son of a Welsh-born servant girl called Catherine (or Katherine) Mathews.  Purely circumstantial evidence suggests his father may have been William Cecil De Vere, a Royal Naval officer who was a son of the 2nd Baronet of Curragh, or else another member of the same family.


The birth of “Valentine John Cecil De Vere Mathews” was registered at St. James, Westminster, in the first quarter of 1846.  The name contains all the elements of that of Cecil Valentine De Vere, but jumbled up a bit, and with extra bits added in.  This pops up readily when searching on-line genealogy records.  Sometimes, documents transcribed for digital searching on genealogical websites result in two or more names being jumbled or concatenated, and then presented as a single name.  In this case, inspection of the original handwritten quarterly return of births reveals the forenames “Valentine John Cecil De Vere” carefully written in letters specially made small to fit the available space, rather like a long name in a tournament cross-table in a Russian chess magazine.


Such quarterly returns, whilst freely accessible on line, fail to give details such as exact date of birth and parents’ names.  For those recourse is needed to a birth certificate or baptismal record.  It is to Owen Hindle that we owe thanks for digging out the underlying birth certificate and publicising its content in the British Chess Magazine’s Quotes & Queries section.  A subsequent book, “The English Morphy” (unseen), by Owen Hindle & Bob Jones, presumably covers all that follows here.


The date of birth is given as 14/02/1846, not the traditionally quoted 1845.  1846 is consistent with census records and age at death.  The child’s mother is given as Catherine Mathews, but the father’s name is not given, consistent with an illegitimate birth.  A link with William Cecil De Vere is suggested by a combination of their names both containing the elements “Cecil” and “De Vere”, and the fact that in the latter days of his life the chess-player went to Torquay, where William Cecil De Vere had lived and died; these circumstances may of course be pure coincidence.


The name “Valentine” is obviously attributable to the date of birth being Valentine’s Day.  The sequence “Cecil De Vere” seems wholly consistent with William Cecil De Vere, or a relative, being the father.  The “John” may well have been suggested by the father, or have been the child’s maternal grandfather’s name.  The surname Mathews is apparently that of the mother, and is of course a surname originally of Welsh origin.


In time, both mother and son seem to have adopted “De Vere” rather than “Mathews” as their surname, reaffirming a possible connection with the de Vere family.  Also, “John” was dropped from the son’s name, and “Valentine” (which his mother apparently used for him) was moved into second place.


The Baronetcy of Curragh


Vere Hunt was born in 1761.  In 1784 he was created the first Baronet of Curragh.  This made him Sir Vere Hunt, but as this was an Irish Baronetcy, he did not get with it a seat in the House of Lords.  On the death of the first Baronet, his eldest son, Aubrey Vere Hunt (born 26/08/1788), succeeded, becoming Sir Aubrey Vere Hunt, 2nd Baronet of Curragh.  On 12/05/1807, Sir Aubrey Vere Hunt, married Mary Spring Rice. The second Baronet was something of a poet, which might explain what happened on 15/03/1832 which was that he changed his name by “letters patent” (a form of permission from the monarch) from Aubrey Vere Hunt to Aubrey de Vere.  The family’s surname thus became “de Vere”, with a lower case “d”, which was the form it took as the surname of the Earls of Oxford from whose line this Baronetcy’s family was descended.


On the death of the 2nd Baronet, his eldest son, Vere Edmond de Vere succeeded to become Sir Vere Edmond de Vere 3rd Baronet.  The 3rd Baronet died seemingly without issue and his brother, the 2nd Baronet’s second son, Stephen Edmond de Vere, succeeded, becoming Sir Stephen Edmond de Vere, 4th Baronet of Curragh.  The 4th Baronet outlived all his brother, and himself died without issue, and so with him expired the Baronetcy of Curragh.


There seems no trace of a “John Cecil De Vere” who might be a slightly better candidate than William Cecil de Vere for fathering “Valentine John Cecil De Vere Mathews”.


Sir Aubrey de Vere, 2nd Baronet, Aubrey Thomas de Vere, and Sir Stephen de Vere all have entries in the Oxford Encyclopaedia of National Biography.


William Cecil de Vere


Sir Aubrey Vere Hunt, 2nd Baronet of Curragh, had other sons besides the 3rd and 4th Baronets.  The third son was Aubrey Thomas de Vere, who in turn was a poet.  Of the two other sons, one was William Cecil de Vere (5).  He was born 1823/24.  In time he joined the Royal Navy, presumably working his way up the ranks.  On 15/08/1846 he was made a lieutenant, and as such served on the Spartan in the East Indies.  The marriage of William Cecil de Vere to Sophia Allen was registered at Axbridge, Somerset, in the third quarter of 1852.  Thus he was presumably unmarried at the time of the conception of Cecil Valentine de Vere.  On 10/05/1856 he was made a commander, and served on the Agamemnon in the Mediterranean.  In was aboard the Agamemnon that the 1861 census found him as a 37-year-old London-born commander.  Later on, from 07/10/1861, he served as acting captain on the Orion in the Mediterranean, until paid off on 09/11/1861.  He appears to have spent his retirement in Torquay, not that far from the naval port of Plymouth, and died at The Plesaunce, Torquay on 02/02/1869, age 45, the death being registered at Newton Abbot in the first quarter of 1869.  He was survived by his wife, Sophia de Vere, who proved his will (6).  His effects fell in the “under £8,000” bracket.  It would be interesting to know whether Cecil Valentine de Vere was mentioned in the will, but it seems reasonable to guess he was not.  Sophia seems to have died on 02/01/1906, at the time being resident at St. John’s Cottage, Clevedon, Somerset.


Census Records


There is a lack of concise evidence provided by census records, chiefly because Cecil Valentine De Vere’s name is rarely if ever represented fully, always leaving room for doubt as to the identity of the person named in the census return.  The following assumes both mother and son assumed the surname De Vere (with a capitalised “d”) rather than Mathews.


The 1851 census finds 5-year-old London-born “Valentine DeVere” (no evident space but a capital “V” in the surname, and no “Cecil”) in the company of a 24-year-old married woman called Emma Robinson who was born in “Harrowgate”, which was at one time a normal spelling of Harrogate.  The two are represented as visiting a 25-year-old married woman called Mary Best (or something which looks like “Best”), at 24 Warwick Place, Westminster.


Also in the 1851 census is unmarried 21-year-old “Catherine Devere” represented as a nurse, one of five domestic staff, in the household of solicitor James Rogers, his wife, son and three daughters, at 3 Dean’s Yard Terrace, London.  Her place of birth isn’t easily decipherable, looking like “Bricton”.  (The transcriber of the data for digital searching purposes opted for “Brikton”.)  Enigmatically, no county was given.  The place-name doesn’t seem to look like anywhere in Wales, but could be “Brixton”.  There is the well-known Brixton in London, but there is also the village of Brixton about 5 miles ESE of Plymouth, on what is now the A379 road.  It was not uncommon for those at boarding school, or otherwise away from home, to be recorded in census returns as being born at the place whence they had arrived.  Thus, conceivably, a Welsh-born “Catherine Devere” (James Rogers couldn’t be expected to distinguish between “De Vere” and “Devere”) arrived in London from Brixton, Devon, having conceived in the Plymouth area while William Cecil de Vere was on shore leave having docked at Plymouth.


Whether Cecil Valentine De Vere normally resided in the Rogers household, or was looked after by Emma Robinson isn’t evident from the census.  It’s believed the boy’s mother called him “Valentine”, so Emma Robinson might understandably have supplied his name as “Valentine De Vere”, and so the omission of “Cecil” can be explained.


No evidence of much formal education for the boy comes to light in census returns.


The 1861 census found a 36-year-old Welsh-born widow called Katherine De Vere, of no occupation, living at 10 Lower Calthorpe Street, London, with her 15-year-old son, “C. V. De Vere”, born in the St. George’s part of London, along with one servant, and three lodgers.  This C. V. De Vere was described as a “Clerk to a West Indian Merchant.”  It seems income from the son’s work and that from the lodgers kept the family afloat financially.  There could, of course, have been some support also from Commander William Cecil de Vere.  Such financial support might have necessitated him telling his wife Sophia about his illegitimate son.  Such knowledge on her part could tie in with that son travelling to Torquay at the close of his life.  Katherine De Vere’s stated place of birth, Wales, was presumably correct as it would have been supplied by Katherine herself (unless she chose to make something up), and agrees with “Mathews” being of Welsh origin.


Fuel for speculation or research is provided by the identity of one of the lodgers, a 30-year-old unmarried Irish-born civil engineer by the name of Thomas Burden.  The chess-playing Cecil Valentine De Vere learnt chess, reportedly, from Irish civil engineer Frances Burden (7), who, conceivably, might be a relative of the said Thomas.


By this time “Catherine” De Vere seems possibly to have adopted £Katherine” or “Katharine” as her preferred spelling of her first name.  Equally, it could merely be that the 1861 enumerator, and later others, used “K” off their own bat.  It was common for “Catherine” and “Katherine” to be intermingled in this way by various enumerators, scribes and clerks with their own views on how names should be spelt.


“Cecil Valentine De Vere”, as such, is elusive in the 1871 census, though it’s reasonable to assume the chess-player was somewhere in London.


Death of the Parents


The death of a Katharine De Vere was registered at St. Pancras in the third quarter of 1864 (3).  This was presumably our man’s mother.  Cecil Valentine De Vere is said to have referred to the impact of the early death of his mother, “the only person who ever cared for me” (4), so this ties in.


William Cecil de Vere, who is here suspected to have been Cecil Valentine De Vere’s father, died at Torquay on 02/02/1869.


Terminal Illness


At some stage Cecil Valentine De Vere contracted consumption, now known as tuberculosis.  As far back as 1866 his ill-health was apparent. (2).  By early 1875 friends are said to have recommended departure from London for Torquay (or perhaps they said the seaside less specifically).  He was by that time reportedly a penniless alcoholic, so why, without adequate funds would he go, or be sent, as far away as Torquay rather than to a much nearer location like Brighton?  The choice of Torquay suggests that possibly he was in touch with William Cecil de Vere’s wife Sophia de Vere, or some other de Vere, even though his father (if such he was) had been dead for six years.  Once in Torquay he seems to have adopted the name “Cecil Valentine Brown”.


At the time of death, “Cecil Valentine Brown” was resident at 10 Vaughan Parade, Torquay.  Vaughan Parade was and still is a terrace of twelve properties along the west side of the harbour, numbered sequentially from right to left.  Most of the properties were business premises or official offices such as the custom house.  There were three floors above the ground floor, the uppermost being in the roof space, so there was ample space for boarders, lodgers or the like.  White’s directory of Devon for 1878-79 showed no. 10 to have then been the residence and business premises of Torquay-born George Limestreet Oaks, keeper of an eating-house.  The 1881 census recorded George as still plying this trade at the same address, with a boarder in residence.  Whether this George Oaks was the proprietor at 10 Vaughan Parade when Cecil Valentine Brown was there, in 1875, isn’t clear.




Cecil Valentine De Vere, as he was known to the chess world, was reportedly in Torquay only ten weeks before he died there of tuberculosis on 09/02/1875.


Among the death registrations in the quarterly returns, the one which appears to represent Cecil Valentine De Vere’s death is the registration in the first quarter of 1875 at Newton Abbot, the relevant registration district, of “Cecil Valentine Brown”.  This seems to be the origin of the popular comment that “Cecil Valentine De Vere” was a made-up pseudonym for “Cecil Valentine Brown”, but it would seem that “Cecil Valentine Brown” was a made-up pseudonym for “Cecil Valentine De Vere”, which in turn was a reworking of “Valentine John Cecil De Vere Mathews”.  There can hardly have been two people with “Cecil Valentine” in their names, both dying in Torquay on the same day, so this “Cecil Valentine Brown” was presumably the chess-player “Cecil Valentine De Vere”.  Where “Brown” came from is difficult to explain, unless the intent was to avoid any connection in the minds of the local population with William Cecil de Vere or his wife Sophia de Vere.


According to the burial record, “Cecil Valentine Brown”, who had died aged 29, lately resident at 10 Vaughan Parade in the parish of St;John’s, Torquay, was buried at Torquay cemetery, Hele Road, on Wednesday 10/02/1875, seemingly at 3.30 p.m., in section B, plot 2406.  This was seemingly in an unmarked pauper’s grave which already held an occupant, so presumably Sophia de Vere didn’t intervene, unless to pay the funeral costs.  Those costs were 11s. 6d., made up of 10s. 6d. non-parishioner rate for the grave (digging etc.) and 1s. for the service conducted by the Rev. J. C. Honey [dissenting minister John C. Honey; born 1834, Bridgerule (SW of Holsworthy), Devon, to William Jacobs Honey who became the proprietor of the Bideford Gazette; died 1912, Bideford].


Who paid the funeral costs?  Who reported the death to the chess-playing world?


The Chess Players’ Chronicle, 1874-75, reported his death on page 219, and carried an obituary on page 251.


Reportedly, about a decade later, chess-players arranged for a memorial headstone to be erected at his grave in Torquay.  No such headstone is now (September 2016) evident in section B, unless it is one of two lying face down.


The same cemetery contains the grave of former Sheffield chess-player George Octavius Cutler, and the family tomb of the Singer family of sewing machine fame.




His chess-playing career was summarised in broad terms in the obituary mentioned above.  Notable appearances etc. were as follows:


1861: Blindfold simultaneous given by Paulsen – De Vere lost to Paulsen, but impressed onlookers.

1865: Match with Steinitz, who gave odds of pawn and move – De Vere won, scoring +7 =2 -3.

1866: Redcar Chess Meeting – De Vere finished 1st with 6 out of 7 (losing to Edmund Thorold).

1866: British Chess Association meeting, London – De Vere was winner of 1st BCA Challenge Cup tournament.

1867: Paris – De Vere finished 5th.

1867: British Chess Association meeting, Dundee – De Vere shared 3-4 place with MacDonnell (whom he beat), receiving 75% of 3rd prize.

1868: British Chess Association meeting, London – De Vere shared 1-2 place with Blackburne (to whom he’d lost), but then lost the play-off.

1870: Baden-Baden (10-player all-play-all twice) – De Vere finished 6-7 equal with Winawer with 8½ out or 18.

1872: British Chess Association meeting, London - De Vere shared 1-2 place with Whisker (to whom he’d lost), but then lost the play-off.

1872: Became Chess Editor Chess of the Field, but did not function satisfactorily and was relieved of the post after 18 months.

1874: Match with Zukertort – De Vere came second.




(1) Birth certificate unearthed by Owen Hindle.

(2) Obituary in The Chess Players’ Chronicle 1874-75, page 251.

(3) English Death quarterly returns on line via FreeBDM &c.

(4) The Oxford Companion to Chess, David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld.

(5) Death notice in The Sidney Morning Herald, Wednesday 21/04/1869.

(6) Probate records

(7) Francis Burden obituary in Chess Player’s Chronicle, Vol. VI, 1882, page 47.





Copyright © 2013, 2016 Stephen John Mann

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

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