I became interested in Philidor's grave after borrowing a book from my local Hampstead Library.
The book was entitled “Life of Philidor”, by Professor George Allen (1863).1 This was a scholarly work by a Professor of Greek, but the biography unravelled at Chapter XI, with disputes over the date of Philidor's death, and an attack on George Walker, for making charges against the English Club. Allen believed Richard Twiss, when he stated that Philidor died on the 24th August.
I found it hard to believe that a grave could vanish without a trace in Central London. Some years later, in the late 1990's, I set out to find Philidor's grave. I traced comments made by past and present historians and writers.
Howard Staunton, writing in the Chess Players Chronicle Magazine for 28th August 1841 stated that Philidor died on 31st August 1795.2
I read George Walker's book entitled “Chess and Chessplayers” (1850).3 I quote from Walker:
Philidor died almost literally in a garret. During his last hours, he was chiefly indebted for support, to the assiduities of one kind friend, and he passed from life in such obscurity, that I have never yet been able to discover the spot where he was buried.4
George Walker lived in Central London, his father had a bookshop in Chancery Lane. It was evident that Philidor did not have a memorial on his grave.
The Australian William Harris, who came to England in 1842, to see Philidor's grave, wrote to Howard Staunton, stating, “It is to the everlasting disgrace of English amateurs, that Philidor's place of interment is not known.”
Charles Tomlinson, writing in “Amusements in Chess” (1845),5 gave support to Twiss, by stating that on Saturday, 29th August 1795, the following sad intelligence appeared in the Daily Papers:
“Mons. Philidor, the Chess-Player... On Monday last, the 24th August, etc.”
Harold Murray, in his “History of Chess” (Oxford, 1913), gives Philidor's death as 24th August, 1795. He gives his source as Professor George Allen's “Life of Philidor.”
1926 was the bi-centenary of Philidor's birth. John Keeble, the Norwich problemist, former chess editor of the Norwich Mercury, and stalwart of the Norwich Club, wrote an article on Philidor, for the October 1926 BCM. Giving Philidor's date of birth as 6th April, 1726, was not a good start.6 This mistake was corrected by G. H. Diggle in the following November issue of the BCM. He did expose the false date of 24th August, as the day of Philidor's death, and was the first historian to question the integrity of Twiss. He quoted the “Times” chess editor, Samuel Tinsley, who said that Philidor's death was reported in the “Times” on Wednesday, 2nd September. He gave the chess world the “wonderful news” that Philidor was buried in the graveyard of St James Church, Piccadilly. He had seen the old Burial Register, and the entry for 3rd September 1795: “Francois Andrék [sic.] Danican Philidor. M.” Keeble said the M stood for man (it stood for male). He further stated that Philidor's address was 10 Ryder Street, in the parish of St James.
For this achievement, Keeble was given a special vote of thanks by the French Chess Federation.
I will return to the incorrect spelling of André, and Philidor's given address, at a later stage.
Charles Michael Carroll's dissertation for his thesis was entitled “Philidor in London”. Excerpts were published in the 1961 BCM volume.7 He said that Philidor was buried from St James Church, Piccadilly. He was the first writer to identify the St James Chapel, on the Hampstead Road, but did not query the purpose of that chapel. Carroll further said that Philidor had been a member of the St James Church, since he had begun his annual journey from Paris to London in 1775. It would have been surprising if Philidor had regularly attended this church; Philidor was a Catholic.
Richard Eales gave a good account of Philidor's life, in his chess history (1985),8 but avoided controversy by simply stating that Philidor died in August 1795.
Ken Whyld, writing on Philidor in the “Oxford Companion to Chess” (1992), gave Philidor's last address as 10 Ryder Street.9
Gareth Williams, writing in the CHESS magazine for September 1995 – the bi-centenary of Philidor's death – states that Philidor died on the 24th August, and was buried from St James Church, Piccadilly. He did identify Little Ryder Street as Philidor's place of residence, but did not give the street number.10
Philidor could not have been buried in the graveyard of St James Church. The church was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and consecrated on 13th July, 1684. The graveyard was full long before Philidor died. A second burial ground was opened in Soho, between Poland Street, Broadwick Street and Marshall Street. The St James Workhouse was built on a section of this site in later years.
A third burial ground was acquired by an Act of Parliament, on 30th September 1789. A lease of ninety-nine years was granted on a four acre site, being a former brick-field lying eastward, before the Turnpike on the Hampstead Road.
A chapel was constructed facing west on the Hampstead Road, to the designs of Thomas Hardwick. A house was built on the north side of the chapel, to be known as the St James Parsonage. This would accommodate the Reverend John Armstrong and his family. John Armstrong was to remain the incumbent chaplain until his death on 17th August 1835. A second house was built on the South side of the chapel. This would provide administration offices, storage for the burial ledgers, storage for the sexton and the gravedigger, and a reception area for the mourners.
The burial ground was laid out like a giant chessboard. Every burial plot had the same dimensions, eight by six feet.
From south to north, the rows of burial plots were designated 'A' through to 'W'. Row J was used as a carriage drive, with a circular shrubbery for the hearse and carriages to return. The rows I shall call 'files'. Each file had one hundred and eighteen burial plots. The plots I will call 'ranks', the low numbers commencing by the chapel, west to east. Sixty-four burial plots were on the graveyard chessboard. An early chess historian is on that chessboard. He was James Christie the younger, son of James Christie the auctioneer.
In 1801, his book entitled “Inquiry into the Ancient Greek Game” was published by Bulmer of St James.11 According to George Walker, this was a limited edition of forty copies. Christie was buried in “Greek Sacrifice” burial plot h7.
Philidor, the greatest chess player of the eighteenth century, was laid to rest on the adjoining file, burial plot g18.
I visited the Westminster Archives Department and searched the Ledger Index for St James Chapel of Ease. There I was informed that the required ledger was withdrawn from the public shelves, because it needed conservation. An Assistant Archivist brought the ledger to my table and watched while I searched for the burial entry, 3rd September, 1795. All the entries were in brown ink, with the same handwriting: that of the Reverend John Armstrong.
The ledger was divided into columns: Name – Andrék [sic.] Danican Philidor; Address – 8 Little Ryder Street; Age – 69 years; Date of Death – 31st August 1795; Cause of Death – Decline; M
A burial fee of one guinea was paid, with a request for prayers. The burial plot reference was g18, Ground 3.
The catalogue listed a plan of the burial ground, which was withdrawn in 1800. I examined the plan, again with an Assistant Archivist standing nearby. Most of the burial plots around the chapel were full.
Plot g18 stood alone, away from the occupied burial plots around the chapel, but Philidor was not alone in the burial plot. The first interment was for Ann Hughes on 17th October 1794. The second interment gave me important information. This was for Ann Tipper, who was laid to rest on 2nd September 1795. I searched her records and discovered she was eighty-eight years of aged, and was removed from the St Marylebone Workhouse. A burial fee of one guinea was paid, with a request for prayers. This was the standard fee for a pauper's funeral service and burial.
Philidor's name was not visible to the naked eye, but there was a space where there should have been a name.
I placed a magnifying glass over the space, and could see the faint outline of two words: François Philidor.
The last interment was for Eleanor Griffiths, who was laid to rest in 1796.
Possibly lemon juice was used to remove Philidor's name. Exhumations were very expensive, and required a signed and sealed parchment document issued by the Bishop of London. I have examined all exhumation documents for the burial ground and can confirm that the name of Philidor was not listed. Philidor's eldest son, André, is believed to have searched for his father's grave early in the nineteenth century. André could have placed a memorial to his father inside the St James Chapel of Ease. The London County Council published an extensive survey of the St James parish in 1960. They listed all the memorials inside the chapel and the name of Philidor was not listed.
The Anglican Church would not allow a memorial to be placed on a pauper's grave. Today, the burial ground is known as St James Gardens. The gardens were opened on 17th August 1887, by the St Pancras Vestry. Many of the standing gravestones were removed to the perimeter. One or two layers of soil would have been placed over the graves. The vaulted tombs, including one for the Reverend John Armstrong, and his mother, remain in situ.
The St James chapel was demolished in the 1870s. The foundation stone of the National Temperance Hospital was laid on 8th May 1879. The car park of this hospital now occupies the site of St James chapel. During the 1880s an Act of Parliament secured one acre of the burial ground for the North Western Railway Company, to widen Euston rail station, and to construct Cardington Street. The high numbered burial plots were exhumed, and the remains re-interred in St Pancras Cemetery.
Philidor's gravesite is undisturbed.
Here is a list of the London newspapers that reported the death of Philidor, for Monday the 31st August. The “Whitehall Evening Post” indicated the wrong date for Philidor's death. Instead of “same day”, the newspaper should have stated “yesterday”.
The “Morning Post” was the first newspaper to record his death, on Tuesday 1st September. The obituary has the 'hallmarks' of Richard Twiss. Describing Philidor as “near 80 years of age” and as a “poor old man”.
I will repeat the last words of this memorable obituary:
“From the moment he was made acquainted with this circumstance, he became the martyr of grief, his philosophy forsook him, his tears were incessant, and he sunk unto the grave without a groan!”
And this was three days before Philidor was lowered into his grave! Twiss was a friend of Dr Samuel Johnson, who first used the expression “sunk unto their graves” lamenting the loss of so many of his friends during the eight years it took to finish his dictionary in 1755.
The “St James Chronicle” reported his death on 1st September.
The “Whitehall Evening Post” on 1st September.
The “General Evening Post” on 1st September.
The “Times” on 2nd September.
The “Oracle and Public Advertiser” on 2nd September.
The “Sun” on 3rd September.
The “Star” on 3rd September.
The “Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle” was published in September, with an extensive obituary on Philidor.
The members of the chess club had nothing to record on the mystery of Philidor's grave. There was a wall of silence. Embarrassed silence, since they had allowed the greatest chess player of the eighteenth century as well as an important composer to be buried like a pauper. Hence also the effort to erase his name from the register. I will now come to the figure of Thomas Bowdler, who died at his home the Rhyddings, overlooking Swansea Bay, South Wales, on 24th February 1825.
Shortly after his death his nephew, also named Thomas Bowdler, published a memoir of his uncle. I quote:
“His residence in the Metropolis during some portion of the year, continued until 1800, when finding his health considerably impaired, and wearied of a Society, where moreover, he saw his friends dropping all around him, he quitted London altogether, and retired to St Boniface, on the Isle of Wight, where he lived 10 years.”
His nephew also wrote:
“He became a Fellow of the Royal and Antiquarian Societies; the Chess Club, of which he is well known to have been a distinguished member, introduced him to many valuable persons, with some of whom he contracted an intimate friendship, which formed a source of comfort through many years; his presence was welcome wherever science and literature were cultivated and admired.”
Louis Dutens (1739-1812) was a member of the London Club, but spent the greater part of his life travelling.
In his Memoirs of a Traveller, published in 1806,12 he made comment possibly with Philidor in mind; “Society does nothing in England for the sick; I mean the bedridden. In France and Italy, a man goes a hundred miles to be at the bedside of a sick friend. Here, if he is in the house, he quits it.
I wish neither to praise or to blame.
I only mention the fact.”
Twiss travelled through Spain and Portugal, in 1772 and 1773. He dined with the brother of Lord Grantham, Britain's Ambassador in Madrid.
On 22nd March 1773, Frederick Robinson, brother of Lord Grantham, wrote to his sister Anne:
“Your friend Twiss dined with me yesterday, you was much in the right when you said he was a great vulgar, and you might have added, a compleat gig. It seems he is a great traveller, speaks most of the foreign languages, and is the son of a man of considerable fortune, that at least is his own account of himself.”
Had Professor George Allen lived in Ireland, instead of Philadelphia, he would have been familiar with the history of Richard Twiss. The second edition of his book, “Travels in Ireland 1775”, was published in Dublin in 1776.13 The indigenous population of Ireland was insulted. I quote: “The women of Connemara are remarkable only for the thickness of their legs.” I further quote: “What little the men can obtain by their labor, or the women by their spinning, is usually consumed in whiskey.”
A Dublin Pottery exploited the public dislike of Twiss, by selling a bedroom chamber pot with a portrait of Twiss on the inside bottom, and accompanied by this verse:
“Here you may behold a liar,
Well deserving of hell-fire,
Everyone who likes may piss,
Upon the learned Doctor Twiss.”
And so the colloquial piss-pot became known as a Twiss-pot.14
Twiss visited Philidor and his family, in Paris, 1783. He later wrote that Philidor had nineteen children.
According to Professor George Allen, Philidor had five sons and two daughters. A son and daughter died in early childhood.
Twiss had a tolerable relationship with Philidor, until the publication of “Anecdotes of Mr Philidor” as communicated by himself in CHESS vol. I pp. 149-171.15 According to Twiss, in his two volume Miscellanies (1805), Philidor never communicated with him again. Philidor's father, and several of his brothers, were described as belonging to the Band of Lewis [sic.] XIV and Lewis [sic.] XV.
Twiss describes a blindfold display at Parsloes, on 25th May 1782. Philidor's opponents were Count Bruhl and Thomas Bowdler. I quote the last lines of “Anecdotes of Mr Philidor”:
“In that period, the memory of this astonishing man, was never for a moment absent or confused. He made not one mistake. Of the two games, one Philidor lost – the other he left a drawn game.”
I also researched the MS correspondence from Richard Twiss to his close friend Francis Douce, held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Douce had an outstanding collection of books at his home, 6 Coney Court in Grays Inn. They shared a love of literature with chess references, and they also had many other interests.
They would meet regularly at the Black Bul Inn, 60, Grays Inn Lane (1851 cencus). The Black Bull had overnight accommodation for country gentlemen. Chess would be played at the Black Bull, and Twiss was fascinated by a circular chessboard.
Twiss had a country estate at Bush Hill, Edmonton, where he lived with his wife, and children.
I will quote some excerpts from this Twiss correspondence:16
18th October 1788
“I have written to Paris, to Philidor, and to the Abbe Rives, to know if they have any communications.”
“I wish not to make any more quotations from Hyde; many trifling stories are in his book, and that of Lambe.”
“What has Mr Thorkelins got for me?” (I believe Twiss is writing about Professor Thorkelins, the Icelandic-Danish scholar, who travelled to London in 1786.)
3rd November 1788
“I am trying the trick of the horsemove on the circular chessboard. I can get as far as 60, no further: I try on a slate; perhap's tis impossible.”
29th November 1788
“I wrote to Paris 5 or 6 weeks ago, to Philidor, to see if he could get it there, and desired him to send it by Post.” (He is looking for a particular book.)
He writes about CHESS, volumes 1 and 2:
“Vol.I CHESS 750 copies printed. Sold 335 copies, gave away 60 copies. 355 copies remain on hand.
Vol.II 500 copies printed. 149 copies sold. Gave away 41 copies. Remained 310.”
“I am still about twenty guineas out of picket by both. This is a fine livelyhood.”
18th May 1789
“My Uncle Christopher Twiss is a farmer near Norwich.”
“Francis Twiss, my brother, married to Frances Kemble, lives near Norwich, one child.”
“My father's second wife who is now alive (the more the pity). She is near 80 years old, and I find it high Time she should be gathered with her ancestors, as I pay her £40 per annum.”
22nd May 1789
“The Philidor game I shall never bother my brain about.”
30th July 1789
“Philidor ran away the day after the performance of his Restoration Concert, Hanover Square, without paying the musicians, so that he has checkmated us all. His book is not yet sent to press.”
19th January 1795, Bunhill Row, Old Street, London
“I suppose it hardly possible that they have mistaken some other person for Philidor, pray make some inquiries about this, and let me know.”
20th September 1795: No mention of Philidor.
9th April 1799: Attends music concert. Mentions Mr Atwood.
1st December 1803: Has lost most of his money in a disastrous Straw to Paper venture. He plans to publish two volumes of Miscellanies.
All the London Newspapers reported Philidor's death for the 31st August.
Richard Twiss was not telling the truth when he gave Monday 24th August as the day that Philidor died.
In Miscellanies, vol. II, p. 110, Twiss said that he had the original newspaper before him.17
The Anglican Church, represented by the Reverend William Parker, Provost of St James Church, Piccadilly, in 1795, must share some responsibility for the cover-up. The burial ledger at St James Chapel of Ease gave Philidor's address as 8 Little Ryder Street. This ledger was examined, because they repeated the same mistake on Philidor's second name.
The gentlemen of Parsloes Club should not be condemned. The 1794 etching of Philidor shows him surrounded by his faithful surviving friends, Count Bruhl, Frances Masere, Thomas Bowdler, George Atwood and Joseph Wilson. General Henry Seymore Conway died during 1795. Richard Twiss had ceased to be a friend of Philidor. This was a farewell occasion for Philidor, who was returning to Paris for good.
Verdoni would take his place as the new coach.
With the gentlemen of the chess club on their estates, or travelling in the United Kingdom or Europe, Philidor was left alone, desperately waiting for his passport. During his last period in London, he was ailing, and lived like a pauper. He was to die as a pauper, and was buried as a pauper. He was a victim of the French Revolution, and the war between Great Britain and France.
1. Allen, George: The Life of Philidor, E. H. Butler & Co., Philadelphia, New York, 1863, 155+ xii pp.
2. Staunton, Howard: Chess Players Chronicle, Vol. I, 1841, p. 284.
3. Walker, George: Chess and Chessplayers, London, 1850, 384+ ii pp.
4. Ibid., p. 127.
5. Tomlinson, Charles: Amusements in Chess, J. W. Parker, London, 1845, pp. 85-86.
6. Keeble, John: Philidor, in BCM, October 1926, pp. 434-436.
7. Carroll, Charles Michael: Philidor in London, BCM, 1961, pp. 11-13, 76-79, 102-104 & 152-155.
8. Eales, Richard: Chess – The History of a Game, Batsford, London, 1985, p. 118.
9. Hooper, David andWhyld, Kenneth: The Oxford Companion to Chess, 2nd ed., OUP, Oxford, 1992, p. 305.
10. Williams, Gareth: Philidor Bi-Centenary, in CHESS, Vol. 60, 6, September 1995, pp. 21-24.
11. Christie, James: An Inquiry into the Ancient Greek Game, London, Bulmer, 1801, pp. 169+xvi.
12. Dutens, Louis: Memoirs of a Travellers, London, Richard Phillips, 1806, 5 vols.
13. Twiss, Richard: A Tour of Ireland in 1775, London, J. Robson, 1776, p. 198.
14. Powell, Martyn J.: Piss-pots, Printers and Public Opinion in Eighteenth Century Dublin, Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2009, pp. 7 and 40.
15. Twiss, Richard: Chess, J. Robinson, London 1787, vol. I.
16. Bodleian Library, Special Collections Department, MS Douce392, p.v. MS Douce c.11.
17. Twiss, Richard: Miscellanies, London, 1805.
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