Yorkshire Chess History
“G. Johnson” of Doncaster attended the 1850 meeting of the Yorkshire Chess Association, in Leeds, being described as treasurer of Doncaster Chess Club. “Johnson” was one of three Doncaster players present at the second meeting of the Yorkshire Chess Association, at Wakefield on 08/11/1841. Apart from a correspondence match between Doncaster and Leeds in 1834-35, there is little trace of a Doncaster Chess Club at this time, and this early Doncaster Chess Club may have faded out of existence.
Though the name “G. Johnson” lacks distinctive features, there is nevertheless seemingly only one person who is a likely candidate to be our man, the one described here. The two essentials cited below for being chief magistrate, time and money, at his disposal, were also those needed for attending meetings of the Yorkshire Chess Association! The obituary of the ex-Mayor of Doncaster lacks any reference to chess, so the possibility that the chess-playing George Johnson was the Arksey cordwainer or the Frenchgate shoemaker (who may have been one and the same person) still remains, but is highly improbable.
The 1851 census recorded George Johnson’s age as 65 and his place of birth as Whiston, now part of Rotherham, South Yorkshire. His age at death was given on his grave as 70. This implies he was born in 1875, more specifically at some time from 31/03/1785 to 04/11/1875.
His obituary refers to his origins. His family had originated in Derbyshire, and were farmers. At some stage they moved to Whiston, two miles south of the centre of Rotherham, and now at the edge of Rotherham’s built-up area. His father was Michael Johnson, of Royd Moor House, Whiston, who died 27/12/1798, and was buried at St. Mary Magdalen, Whiston. Royd Moor House was presumably part of what is now Royds Moor Farm, off Royds Moor Hill George, about a mile east of Whiston’s High Street. The Rotherham Round Walk now passes through the farm.
Goerge had at least one sibling, older brother Michael Johnson, junior, who died in 1814 at the age of 32, and was buried beside his father at Whiston, on 09/05/1814.
Reference by censuses to a wife imply that at some stage from about 1813 to 1841 at the latest, George Johnson took a wife named Maria, who had been born at Brompton, London. Her date of birth was either some time from 27/02/1792 to 26/03/1793, on the basis of gravestone data, or from 31/03/1794 to 07/04/1794 on the basis of 1851 and 1861 census data. This rather suggests that at death she was in her 69th year, rather than being the 69 years of age stated on her grave. There is a record of a George Johnson marrying a Mary Senior on 25th September, 1810, at Arksey, 2 to 3 miles north of the centre of Doncaster, but this George Johnson proves to be a different one, a cordwainer by occupation.
George’s obituary gave no indication of him ever having had children.
He had moved to Doncaster by 1837. He appears to have accumulated a reasonable amount of wealth, and henceforth censuses never suggested he needed to work for a living, something confirmed by the below-mentioned remark of Alderman Morey. George was thus a “gentleman”.
White’s Directory of the West Riding, 1837, listed George Johnson, gent, living at Brunswick Terrace, Doncaster. This seems to have been his residence for the remainder of his life. Brunswick Terrace is a terrace of houses on the south side of Bennetthorpe, then spelt as two words “Bennet Thorpe”. Later, the house number 50 gets mentioned; presumably he lived at number 50 Brunswick Terrace, Bennet Thorpe, for the next eighteen years, rather than moving from one house in the terrace to another.
As early as 1839, George Johnson was some kind of legal official in Doncaster. The law journal for the year 1832-1839 contained a notice to which was appended his name, describing him as “Pet. cr., George Johnson, of Doncaster, esq.”
Pigot & Co.'s Directory of Yorks, Leics &c, 1841, listed Mr. George Johnson, Bennet Thorpe, Doncaster.
The 1841 census listed George Johnson and Maria Johnson living at Brunswick Terrace, Doncaster, with two servants.
Slater’s Directory of Northern England, 1847, listed Mr. Geo. Johnson, Brunswick Terrace, Doncaster.
Slater’s Directory of Northern England, 1848, seems to have had a hiccup; it listed Rev. Geo. Johnson, Burlingham, Bennet Thorpe, Doncaster. “Burlingham” may well have been a name applied to the house which was given the number 50, but the “Rev.” must be a mistake.
His obituary in the Doncaster, Nottingham and Lincoln Gazette pointed out that although he was engaged in promoting the prosperity of Doncaster, he nevertheless didn’t become a town councillor until quite late in life:
“His conservative principles had had a tendency to retard his advancement in municipal honours. His deep interest in the success of our races, his anxious desire for the prosperity of the agricultural interest by the success of the Doncaster Society, his earnestness in the promotion of vocal and instrumental concerts, were not without their influence, and had rendered him useful and popular within the borough. Hence his cordial co-operation with the inhabitants on all questions of public utility, pointed him out as a desirable candidate for the office of Town Councillor for the West Ward.”
So it was that he stood for election as a Doncaster Town Councillor for the first time in1848, and was returned as one of the two councillors for West Ward, along with Alderman Webb, having received 154 votes. After two years on the Council, he was unanimously elected chief magistrate. Alderman Morey, on proposing him as chief magistrate, had said that in early life, by his industry and business habits, George Johnson had “realised an handsome independence, and had thus the two essentials, time and money, at his disposal.” (These were the same two essentials for attending meeting of the Yorkshire Chess Association.)
George Johnson was elected Mayor of Doncaster for 1850-51. This appointment normally took place in October each year, so he will not have been Mayor of Doncaster when he attended the West Yorkshire Chess Association’s meeting in Leeds on 22nd May 1850.
While he was Mayor, Doncaster was visited by Prince Albert and his family, but not Queen Victoria herself. George gave a banquet at Doncaster’s Mansion House in honour of the visitors.
The 1851 census recorded 65-year-old Whiston-born George Johnson and his 56-year-old Brompton-born wife Maria Johnson living at Brunswick Terrace, with two servants. George is described as a fund-holder and Mayor of Doncaster.
White’s General Directory of Kingston-upon-Hull, and York, 1851, despite its title, included Doncaster. It listed George Johnson, Esq., as magistrate and Mayor, under “Corporation and Officers, 1850-51”, as well as being one of the councillors for West Ward. (Doncaster had three wards: North, East and West, like Yorkshire’s Ridings.) His address was elsewhere given as Brunswick Terrace, Doncaster.
White’s Gazetteer & General Directory of Sheffield, 1852, listed G. Johnson, ex Mayor, among Doncaster’s borough magistrates, and a councillor for Doncaster’s West Ward. His address was given as Brunswick Terrace.
Slater's Commercial Directory of Durham, Northumberland & Yorkshire, 1855, listed Mr. Geo. Johnson under “Nobility, Gentry and Clergy”, still at Brunswick Terrace.
As stated above, he was interested in promoting horseracing in Doncaster, and at the time of his death he was chairman of the Doncaster Spring Meeting committee, and died the day before he was to chair the meeting at which the dates for the 1856 races were fixed. His interest in promoting agriculture in the area reflected his family’s agricultural background. His obituary alluded also to his interest in promoting music. What is missing is an explicit statement of any involvement in chess.
There is a record in the quarterly death returns of the registration at Doncaster of the death of a George Johnson in the fourth quarter of 1860, but it turns out to be explicable by the death on 14th November 1860 of George Johnson, shoe-maker of French Gate, Doncaster, who was buried on 17th November 1860 in Hyde Park Cemetery, Doncaster. This was not our man, whose name is unfortunately common and indistinctive.
Our George Johnson died at his home around half past nine in the morning, on Sunday, 4th November, 1855. The cause was described as exhaustion produced by choleraic diarrhoea.
He had experienced a short illness, which had been worsened by a fall caused by slipping on fallen leaves on 30th October.
His death was noted under “Deaths” in the Doncaster, Nottingham and Lincoln Gazette of Saturday, 10th November, 1855, page 8, and on the same page appeared an obituary.
He was buried on Wednesday 7th November, at St. Mary Magdalen, Whiston, alongside his father and brother.
The inscription of his grave reads as follows:
THE MEMORY OF
Mr GEORGE JOHNSON,
OF BENNETT-THORPE, DONCASTER,
WHO DIED NOVr THE 4TH 1855,
AGED 70 YEARS.
Slater’s Directory of Northern of England, 1858, listed Mr. Geo. Johnson, Brunswick Terrace, Doncaster, though he had in fact been dead for over two years!
The 1861 census listed 67-year-old Brompton-born widowed Maria Johnson living with one servant at. She was described as a proprietor of houses. This tells us George had died. It also gives a number to the Johnson residence in Brunswick Terrace. Number 50 Bennetthorpe is the penultimate house in Brunswick Terrace, which is on the right-hand side when going out of town. (Click here for a modern picture of 50 Brunswick Terrace, Doncaster.)
White’s Directory & Topography of Sheffield, 1862, listed “Miss” Maria Johnson living at 50 Bennetthorpe (the latter now spelt as one word); this looks rather like a substitution of “Miss” for “Mrs.” It further listed Mrs. Maria Johnson living at 56 Hallgate (now occupied by “Your Move”), but this cannot be our man’s wife as this Mrs. Maria Johnson at 56 Hallgate persists in White’s directory of Doncaster, 1867, five years after our man’s wife’s death. (This Mrs. Johnson of Hallgate was more probably connected with the shoe-maker mentioned above.) Also listed was a George Johnson as “librarian, Young Men’s Christian Association, 13 High Street.” This was perhaps the shoe-maker or a relative.
George’s wife, Maria, died on 26/12/1862, and was buried in the churchyard of Christ Church, Doncaster, not alongside her husband in Whiston. The inscription on the grave was as follows.
TO THE MEMORY OF
WIDOW OF THE LATE
GEORGE JOHNSON ESQ.
OF BENNITTHORPE, DONCASTER;
WHO DIED THE 26TH DECEMBER 1862,
AGED 69 YEARS.
“Bennitthorpe” is apparently an engraving error for “Bennetthorpe”. The spelling used in directories and censuses was in earlier years the two words “Bennet Thorpe”, and later the single word, “Bennetthorpe”, which is the present-day spelling. On George’s grave it was “Bennett-Thorpe”, with an extra “t”, which is apparently wrong though the hyphen is arguably justifiable. Maria’s grave spells it “Bennitthorpe”, with an “i” instead of an “e”. George’s obituary also has “i” instead of “e”, but the “B” got lost leaving “ennitthorpe”! The ghost of the eponymous Mr. Bennet had presumably long since stopped worrying about such things.
Copyright © 2012 Stephen John Mann
Census information is copyright of The National Archive, see UK Census Information