Yorkshire Chess History
Sheffield’s Firth Family
The name Firth is famous in Sheffield due to the activities of industrialist and benefactor Mark Firth.
“Firth Stainless” use to be a well-known name on cutlery. The recreational open space called Firth Park was donated to Sheffield by Mark Firth, and that in turn gives its name to the area of Sheffield called Firth Park. Mark Firth’s contribution to the setting up of Sheffield University is commemorated in the name of Firth Hall.
Mark Firth’s father, Thomas Firth senior, was a smelter at one of Sheffield’s steel manufacturers. In time, Mark Firth and one of his brothers, Thomas Firth junior, joined the same firm. The story goes that the brothers were a bit put out by the disparity between their wages and that of their father, so they set up as steel makers on their own account. They went on to establish Norfolk Works in partnership with three more brothers, John, Edward and Henry.
The above-named John Firth married Eliza Bowden, with whom she had two children, but Eliza died a year after the birth of the second child, and in due course John Firth re-married, to Charlotte Harding(born 1829/30, Newcastle, Staffs) with whom he had six children. The fourth of those six children was Arthur Firth, born 13th February 1862, at Machon Bank, Sheffield. The place of birth is slightly odd as no Firths were listed as residents on Machon Bank in White’s 1862 directory.
Thus Arthur Firth was a nephew of the famous Mark Firth.
Grandfather Thomas Firth senior died on 15/11/1850, while uncle Thomas Firth junior died on 10/03/1860, thus both were unknown to Arthur. Father John Firth died on 17/04/1869, by which time the family was resident at Holt House, on Abbeydale Road.
The 1871 census found 41-year-old widowed Charlotte Firth living at Holt House on Abbeydale Road, Sheffield, with children Jessie Eliza Firth (21), Thomas Firth junior (20), Arthur Firth (9), Edward Harding Firth (7) and Charlotte Isabel Firth (5), along with a governess and four servants.
White’s 1879 Sheffield directory listed Thomas Firth (junior) as resident at Holt House, Abbeydale Road, though the household presumably had not otherwise changes much. Thomas junior had now simply come of age and displaced his mother in the directory entry.
Arthur was educated at Clifton College, Bristol, and became a law student (on the basis of the 1881 census). That may mean he became an articled clerk around 1879.
In 1881 the census found 19-year-old Sheffield-born Arthur Frith, a law student, as a visitor at a school run by Joseph Chambers and his wife Frances Chambers (née Chambers) at 20 Waterloo Road, Wolverhampton. He was visiting his mother’s sister Frances, who was now the said Mrs. Chambers, and her family.
He appears to have qualified as a lawyer, and set up a law practice in his native Sheffield, which must have been around 1883 or 1884.
Soon, however, he pursued a surprisingly different line of business, getting involved with the Limpley Stoke Hydropathic Co. Limited, which type of establishment was all the rage in those days, at Limpley Stoke, in the Wiltshire parish of Bradford-on-Avon. This establishment had been founded in 1860. Kelly’s 1889 directory of Wiltshire listed George Gent M.D. as resident physician, and Mrs. Smith as manageress. A reasonable guess would be that Arthur Firth had gone into partnership with the John Smith mentioned in the next paragraph, and that “Mrs. Smith” was either the mother or wife of John Smith.
Gwynedd Council archives catalogue lists a draft conveyance, dated 25th March 1886, relating to property in the vicinity of Little Orme’s Head, Llandudno, involving “Arthur Firth of Sheffield, co. York, gent.” [catalogue ref. XD/62/25/10, also listed with related items in the Gwyedd Archive catalogue]. It appears land was being purchase from John Ramsden, of Chester, by Arthur Firth, of Sheffield, and John Smith, of Limpley Stoke, Wiltshire. What this seems to have been leading to was the establishment of a “Hydro”, which establishments were all the rage in those days, at the foot of the Little Orme. Directories in Llandudno Archives show the said John Smith to have been proprietor in 1889, and Ralph E. Munro to have been manager in 1911, so it appears Firth was not directly involved in the running of the Hydro, though he perhaps had a financial investment it the business, but maybe he just handled the legal affairs relating to its establishment. Whatever the case, this was leading up to the establishment of the series of “Craigside” chess tournaments.
Arthur Firth seemingly did not immediately move to Llandudno. In August 1886, at Limpley Stoke, or thereabouts in the registration district of Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, he married Sarah Jane Smith, daughter of business partner John Smith (born 1836/37, Ilkley) and Jane E. Smith.
Before move nearer Llandudno, Arthur Firth was for a while resident at Picton Farm, in the parish of Llanasa, to the east of Prestatyn, which in turn is to the east of Rhyl. At a vestry meeting held in Llanasa on Thursday 31/03/1887, when “gentlemen” were appointed wardens of the poor, etc, Arthur Firth of Picton Farm was appointed “waywarden” for the Picton area of the parish.
At some stage the couple moved to Llandudno, where daughter Violet Mary Firth was born on 6th December 1890. Violet Mary Firth became famous in circles concerning themselves with the occult, under the name “Dion Fortune”, which was apparently a play on grandfather John Firth’s homespun family motto, “Deo, non fortuna” meaning “By God, not by luck”.
The 1891 census found Arthur Firth and family at “Bryn-y-bia”, Bryn-y-bia Road, Craig-y-don [=Craigside], Llandudno, which was Arthur’s address in Slater's Directory of North & Mid Wales, 1895, p 231.
The Firths were reportedly still in Llandudno in 1900, but by the time of the 1901 census Arthur Firth and family had moved to the f Sheen House, Sheen Lane, Mortlake, Surrey, which was described as a “club”, where the census recorded Arthur, wife, daughter, parents-in-law John and Jane E. Smith, and their other daughter Emily Smith, as well as 4 domestic staff and 5 employees of the club (secretary, manager, two housemaids, and a page). Arthur was described as a retired solicitor, but an employer working from home – i.e. he owned the club.
They were by 1904 reportedly living in Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset, but moved back to the London area soon after, (reportedly in 1906, following the death of Arthur’s business partner and father-in-law, John Smith) and were living in Kensington, London during the 1911 census.
It seems, nevertheless, that he retained connections with the Llandudno area, as in 1935 he became involved in starting a “residential chess club” at the Queen’s Hotel, Llandudno, which started in November 1935. Arthur Firth’s address at this time was 4 Homesgarth, Letchworth, Hertfordshire. This was his address at least from 1932 to 1935, over which period it appeared on the front of Social Chess Quarterly.
Arthur and his wife may have moved to Llandudno in 1935 or 1936, as Sarah Jane Firth died at Llandudno in late 1936.
The 1939 register found Arthur living in Llandudno once. Thereafter, his movements are difficult to track.
There was an Arthur Firth who died in Torquay in 1943, aged 81. This may have been our man, who had perhaps gone to the south coast “for the sake of his health”, in the manner once common among those who could afford it. (There was also an Arthur Firth who died aged 82 in 1944, in the Lancaster area.)
Arthur Firth’s Craigside Hydro was to the venue for a series of Craigside Tournaments (q.v.) running from 1891 to 1898, of which with Arthur as secretary.
Besides organising tournaments, he got into chess publication. In 1928 he started publishing a series of beginners’ booklets on the openings, called “Chess Nuts” (or “Chess-Nuts”), described as “a series of small handbooks for beginners and social chess players, by A. Firth”, produced in Letchworth, by Letchworth Printers. No. 1 was of 76 pages.
In October 1930, there appeared the first issue of a quarterly chess magazine called the Social Chess Quarterly, which was an organ of the Empire Social Chess Club, which met on the first floor of Whiteley’s [restaurant etc], Queen’s Road, London. Quite when Arthur Firth got involved is unclear, but he was editor of the magazine in 1932 to 1935 at least. There appear to have been 23 issues, the last being that of April 1936, at which point it seems to have been absorbed into B. H. Wood’s Chess magazine.
The October 1935 edition of the Social Chess Quarterly announced the formation of a “residential social chess club” at the Queen’s Hotel, Llandudno. This was organised by Arthur Firth in co-operation with Reginald John Hollins (b. 1887, d. 1959), who was secretary of Llandudno Chess Club. The plan was to hold chess weekends at the Queen’s Hotel, running from Friday to Monday, much like a modern weekend chess congress, with special weekend terms for the chess-players.
The first weekend ran from Friday 1st to Monday 4th November 1935. At the opening, the England-resident world woman chess champion, Miss Vera Menchik, gave a 20-board simultaneous display, winning 15 games, drawing 3, and losing 2. During that weekend, there took place the first round of a competition, the ultimate winner of which was to receive the Empire Social Chess Cup. The format of the competition isn’t clear, but the winner of the first round was reported as Sheffield-born B. H. Wood, of Birmingham, with Dr. St. John of Manchester coming second. Further rounds were to be played at subsequent monthly chess weekends, the second such being scheduled for 6th to 9th December 1935. The final round was expected to be around Easter 1936. Other competitions were envisaged at the weekends.
Copyright © 2012, 2013 Stephen John Mann
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