No. 1 - Thomas Winter-Wood  

(1818 - 1905)

25/08/2008 13:40   


Thomas Winter-Wood, fully deserving to head this list of pioneers, was the patriarch of Devon's first chess dynasty. His three children, Edward, Carslake and Edith, were all deeply involved in the Royal Game all their lives, and played significant roles in the development of organised chess in their native county.

The family's ancestral home was Hareston Manor, in the parish of Brixton, near Plymouth.

Higher Hareston Manor after restoration in 1974.

Although only 3 miles from Devon's largest city and close to two main roads, Hareston was, and still is, largely forgotten at the end of a long and restricted lane, a fact that has helped to keep this early Tudor manor house unspoilt by later modernisation. The manor existed in the reign of Edward the Confessor, and by the early 1300s had passed to John and Alice Carslake. Their daughter Alice married a John Wood, whose family then held the estate for 300 years, until the last male heir died in 1743. Then it passed to John Wood's only married sister Audrian, who had married a John Winter. On taking over the estate, he added the Wood name to his own, in recognition of his inheritance, a practice not uncommon at the time, and became John Wood-Winter. In 1824, the new successor, Thomas's father, changed these surnames around and the family became known for the first time as Winter-Wood.

Thomas Winter-Wood was educated first at Plympton Grammar School, where Sir Joshua Reynolds had been a pupil, and then under the private tuition of the Rev. Samuel Rowe, Vicar of Stonehouse, before going up to King's College, Cambridge.

Looking back on his life in old age, he couldn't remember exactly how and when he learned to play the game, writing "…as nearly all the members of my family indulged in the game, I suppose I imbibed it as a child imbibes his native tongue". His most regular opponent at this stage was his Grandmother.

Playing mostly en famille he, perhaps not unnaturally, got the impression he could beat almost anybody, until he started visiting the big London clubs. His friend, Thomas Hampton, who in 1856 had succeeded Löwenthal as secretary of the St. George's Club at 20 Kings Street, introduced him to various of the club members. He later recalled seeing Staunton in action. "Staunton seemed rather morose and was giving a Knight to all-comers; and I shall not soon forget his manner and expression when an elderly man beat him at this odds. I was never fortunate enough to meet with an opportunity of playing with him, and I dare say I have nothing to regret on that score, so far as my own ambition goes".

He inherited the estate in 1838 at the age of just 20. He married Eliza Ann, daughter of Edwin Sole, a Devonport solicitor, and 8 years his junior. They had four sons and two daughters in total, but the two younger sons and elder daughter died in infancy. Edward was born in 1847, Carslake in 1849 and Edith, the youngest of the surviving children by a decade and destined to become most famous of them all, in February 1859.

Thomas's main occupation was as a writer and poet, contributing poems and articles to westcountry papers and Tinsley's Magazine, under the nome de plume "Vanguard", the name of the boat one of his ancestors had commanded against the Spanish Armada. His two best-known poems were called "Armada" and "The Death of Carnot", and he wrote a three volume novel called "Mabeldean". In his writing he extolled the virtues of village and country life, and in some quarters he was dubbed "the Wordsworth of the West", though his work has not stood the test of time in the same way. A volume of his collected works was published in 1893 by Simpkin, Marshall & Co. A second volume followed in 1902 entitled "Harvest Home".

A number of his poems had chess as a subject. In 1883, for example, on the10th anniversary of the death of Cecil de Vere, the first British Chess Champion, he penned the following lines in an attempt to help raise funds for a memorial for the deceased, who had been buried in a pauper's grave in nearby Torquay. Even today, they serve their purpose very well.


Ah! What? Have they left thee alone and unburied?

Disowned in thy tomb, and unmarked by a tear?

Shall the scorner say, when from the graveyard they hurried,

"They left not a stone over Cecil De Vere?"


Then shall breasts which so late were all fain to adore thee,

Ignore every tie which on earth can endear?

Shall memory’s footsteps in silence pass o’er thee,

Or whisper "’Twas only poor Cecil De Vere!"


Shall the gravedigger’s voice in grim irony tell thee,

The term of thy privileged sojourn is near?

That another is come in rude haste to expel thee,

Or mingle his ashes with Cecil De Vere?



Shall the moralist say that in death we forsake thee?

Nay, nay, for our prayers shall yet hallow thy bier;

Till the sound of the clarion from Heaven awake thee,

Rest on in thy slumber, loved Cecil De Vere!


Yea, we ask, shall the finger of scorn raised above us,

Point the spot where he lay, with satirical sneer?

Or voice of the future in sympathy love us,

For raising a stone over Cecil De Vere?

The Winter-Woods were a somewhat peripatetic family, living at one time in Shropshire where he was Master of the Wheatland Foxhounds, and spending many years in Guernsey and France, living for some time at Boulogne. During this time, the family estate at Hareston was let to a series of tenant farmers, and in the absence of the landlord the condition of the buildings deteriorated.

The opportunities for playing chess varied according to the circumstances in which he found himself, which changed often. There was a period of 20 years when he didn't look at a board. However, at one time or another he played Löwenthal, Thomas Inglis Hampton, George Maude and the great Thomas Henry Buckle (estimated Elo rating 2480 or 235), who was for a time considered the greatest player in England, after Staunton.

He recounted the story of the time in November 1861 when he encountered Buckle while he was living in Boulogne and Buckle was passing through on his way to the East. Buckle's host, one Admiral Hathorn, took his guest to the chess club where he met Winter-Wood, who later recalled the occasion thus; "'We sat down to play, when, to my surprise, Buckle asked what odds he should give me. As I had not been accustomed to receiving odds, I dare say I betrayed a satirical smile, which I was warranted in doing. He, however, grasped it, and, before I had time to reply, brusquely said: 'Never play otherwise'. He then removed his King Bishop's Pawn, and continued, in the same tone, 'I'll give you Pawn and move." The upshot of it was that he won the first game and I won the second. A third was commenced, and after arriving at the following position, with Black's move, Buckle abruptly exclaimed, 'I don't feel well - I’ll give it up'.

Buckle (to play)

T. Winter-Wood

This little incident will impress the reader with the idea that Buckle must have been an ill-conditioned sort of fellow; but it was known that he was in bad health, which might have demonstrated that 'circumstances alter cases'. "

Buckle was indeed ill - he travelled on to Palestine and Syria researching his next book, but died in Damascus the following May.

Eventually, Thomas returned to the family pile. Now rapidly approaching 70, he moved into the city, to The Crescent, Plymouth and in 1888 sold off the Hareston estate in several lots. Now living a more settled life, he sought to establish a chess club there. He got together with the Revd. H. C. Briggs and the club was founded on 1st October 1888, meetings being held at Mathews Restaurant at a nightly rent of 17½ p. Thomas Winter-Wood was elected its first President, a position he held until his death in 1905, with his son Carslake both Secretary and Treasurer. By the end of its first season in April 1889 the new club had 48 members. Interestingly, during this first season, the Club played six matches, of which five were won, but the minutes say only they were against "neighbouring clubs". If Plymouth is credited with being Devon's first recorded club, who were their six opponents in 1888 / 89?

The Winter-Woods, father and son, were keen to give the new club a high profile and invited a number of big names down to give simultaneous displays. Blackburne came down that very autumn and gave one of his popular blindfold simultaneous displays. In 1891 the Rev. George McDonnell took on 37 opponents, and Blackburne returned, taking on eight opponents blindfold one evening and 23 simultaneously the next. McDonnell returned in 1895. He described the illustrious visitors thus "Blackburne, quiet, gentle and thoroughly good-natured. McDonnell, ever gay and humorous. Bird, as naturally he should be, ever 'chirpy'."

In 1898, Emanuel Lasker himself paid a visit. Even though he passed through Exeter on his way to Plymouth, the newly-formed Exeter Club, after some agonising, felt unable, for some undisclosed reason, to invite the great world champion to their clubroom.

This early policy of the Winter-Woods set a pattern that continued for many years into the 20th century, with the Plymouth Club playing host to a number of big names, among them, Gunsberg (1908); Boris Kostich (1922); Mir Sultan Khan (1932); Znosko Borovsky (1936 & 1947); Koltanowski (1936); Flohr (1939); Euwe (1948); Smyslov (1963) & Spassky (1966).

Thomas' wife, Eliza, had learned to play chess during their courting days, but she didn't take it seriously until their days in Guernsey and Boulogne, when she became a player of some strength, playing all the same people as her husband, the writer Mortimer Collins, Maude, Hampton et al. During this time she also became an excellent French scholar, a skill she added to her musical expertise.

Later in life she rarely played, but took a great interest in the many chess activities of the rest of the family. At the new Plymouth Club, she attended the simultaneous displays given by Blackburne, McDonnell and Bird. In the case of the latter, she watched her sons' games and even helped Carslake avoid defeat and escape with a draw, much to the amusement of the company.

Of his brain-child, the Plymouth Chess Club, Thomas wrote in 1898, "a club of which any man must be wanting in all proper respects to Caissa not to be proud. Long may it live to give pleasure to its devotees after its founders have passed away".

Thomas Winter-Wood, founding father of Devon's longest-lived club, died on 7th May 1905 aged 87. His obituary in the BCM noted that "he was so highly esteemed by the players of his native county that he was lovingly known as 'the father of Devon chess'."

This picture  was his last known portrait, aged 85.

The Devon County Chess Association was formed in 1901, and in 1909 Edward Winter-Wood was their President. At that year's A.G.M. the secretary, George Cutler, announced that

Mrs. Winter-Wood, the mother of the President, wished to present to the Association a trophy to the value of £20, as a memorial to her late husband. She left it to the committee to decide the form of the trophy and the competition for it. The announcement was greeted with loud and long-continued cheers. The offer was accepted to a round of applause.

Bought for £20 it was valued for insurance purposes in 1994 at £2,000, and today is played for by the champions of each club affiliated to the Association.

After Thomas's death, his widow went to live with her son, Carslake in Paignton in his house called "Hareston". The exact date of her death is not known, but she was still alive in 1916 aged 90. However, she and her three famous children were all to die there within a few years, bringing a sudden end to a unique chess dynasty that had spanned a century.