A ‘Pride Of  Huddersfield’ Man

A Biography of John Watkinson

By Edgar Priestley

A Famous Huddersfield Citizen

John Watkinson was born in West Parade, Huddersfield in 1833; and he died at his home at Fairfield, New North Road, on December 26th 1923, aged 90 years. So that he lived under four British sovereigns. He was the youngest member of the  family of Mr. Charles Clapham Watkinson. He was one of the first pupils of the Huddersfield College, which began its career in two cottages near the site of the present St. Paul’s Church. He was then only five years old, and under the age limit, but was admitted because his elder brother, Edward, was also a pupil. When the new college buildings in New North Road were opened, as a boy of six, he took part in the procession of children from the school in Commercial Street (now lost by the University campus), to the stone laying ceremony of the Secondary School building in New North Road. John was thus, at the time of his death, one of the oldest surviving ‘old boys’ of that school. The first principal was Dr. Wright and the vice-principal (was later succeeded Dr. Wright) was Dr. Miles.

Always a warm supporter of educational movements, John Watkinson in later life became a trustee of the Huddersfield Old Boys’ Scholarship and for a great many years held the office of treasurer and secretary from its formation in 1874. He became one of the two survivors of the original trustees, the other being the late Dr. Cameron, the medical officer for Huddersfield, and later for Leeds.

Upon leaving school in 1848, John Watkinson went as a clerk into the Halifax and Huddersfield Union Bank, whose premises at that date were in what is now Union Bank Yard, New Street.

Five years later he entered the services of  Messrs. John Brooke and Sons, Armitage Bridge Mills, and, although he returned to the bank for a short period, he completed fifty years with that firm on December 31st 1903. He served Messrs. Brooke as book-keeper and confidential cashier, a position which had been held by his father. To mark his retirement, John Watkinson was presented by the firm with a solid silver salver, an inscription on which testified to his ‘faithful service and friendship’.

An Enthusiastic Chess Player

John Watkinson was a keen chess player beginning when 15 years old. By the age of eighteen he was already proficient in the specialised department of chess – the problem.

As a player he entered the Great Exhibition of London, where he won a prize of 1 guinea (£1.10), no mean amount at that time.

In early 1852, he began to test his skill against more experienced players in Huddersfield, such as Thomas Parratt, who was the organist at the Parish Church for many years, and a Mr. D. Marsden, a bank manager. These players used to meet in the reading room of the Philosophical Hall to play casual games. At first, although he had acquired a good knowledge of opening theory from having the possession of Staunton’s handbook, he found that he could not compete in practical over-the-board play. But in due course his standard of play increased to be able to compete with the best opposition.

So in November 1852 he persuaded several other young players to form an organised chess club. He had the honour to be elected as the first President and a Mr. Henry Shaw junior became the first secretary.

On February 1st 1862, he was presented with a very handsome set of Staunton pattern ivory chessmen and board. The inscription on the silver plate, let in to the lid of the box read ‘Ivory chessmen, box and board, presented to Mr. John Watkinson by members of the Huddersfield Chess Club, to testify their appreciation of the services rendered by him to the Club, and for promoting a taste for the game of chess generally.’

By this time John Watkinson was regarded as being one of the strongest players of the game in Yorkshire. In 1861 he was challenged to play a match against Edmund Thorald of Sheffield. The match took place from February to August, on Saturdays with alternating venues. The winner was to be the first player to achieve seven wins. Thorald won the first game, but John levelled the score in the following game. After this the Sheffield player won the next three games, so that he lead by four games to one. The Huddersfield supporters were not very happy at this stage. But John Watkinson came back in great style and won all the next six games to take the match by seven games to four, with no draws. He could then rightfully claim to be the strongest player in Yorkshire.

In 1872, John Watkinson began to edit a chess column in the ‘Huddersfield College Magazine’, and later he edited the whole of this journal. The fame of these chess columns spread world-wide, in a short time, particularly because of the high standard of the chess problems included. By 1880 it was agreed that it should have a separate existence as an independent chess organ, and this became the ‘British Chess Magazine’. John had editorial and financial control for seven years. This still survives to the present day, being the official publication of the ruling body, the British Chess Association.

His retirement from the magazine was the subject of a poem. In the same year he disposed of a library of works on chess, the second largest in England. John Augustus Myles wrote a work entitled ‘Poem and Chess Problems’ and dedicated it to Mr. Watkinson.

The Jubilee President

John Watkinson was elected as President of the Huddersfield Chess Club, for a long period in the 1870s and 1880s. Then when the Club celebrated their 50th anniversary, John was again elected, and he was presented with a silver rose bowl. On this occasion he astonished many who were present by producing a book in which he had kept a record of every game he had played from 1850 to 1880. In all were 4136 games (many of them giving odds) of which 3136 had been won, 996 lost and 233 drawn.

John was again made President when the Club celebrated its diamond jubilee in 1912-13, and yet again in 1922 for the 70th anniversary. This, thus completed a record which is noted in the ‘Guiness Book of Sporting Records’. This refers to the fact that John Watkinson had the longest time interval between his first and last terms as President (70 years) of any other sporting organisation.

On this last occasion the Club entertained him to a dinner held at the South Parade Masonic Hall. In his reply to a proposition of his health he said:-

"Our great dramatist has said, 'some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some  have greatness thrust upon them'. On the present occasion I feel to be in the last position. I at first shrank from the proposed publicity, although I fully appreciated the honour, but the committee kindly modified their first intention, and excused me from making anything like a speech. I must however express my thankfulness to be able to take part in the 7Oth anniversary of the Huddersfield Chess Club, and to be honoured by being elected to the position of President."

He went on to mention the names of several distinguished visitors, "such as my old friend Mr. Woodhouse, who has done so much for chess in Yorkshire; Mr. Woolard, the veteran player and editor; Mr. lviary, who holds a high position in Yorkshire chess; and last but not least, the British Champion Mr. Yates, and the ex-champion Mr. Atkins, who have just returned from their victories -- and defeats -- in international tournaments. I would also include Sir Walter Parratt, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Weir, who I am sure are with us in spirit if not in bodily presence.”

"Another great honour I feel is the projected Chess Congress. I have on former occasions spoken of various matters of chess interest, from Staunton to Morphy, and from Morphy to Steinitz and Lasker; chess with the board, and without the board; of gambits and close openings; and will not go over the ground again. I wonder how many people are alive now, who have heard Jenny Lind sing, how many have seen Alfred Mynn bowl and George Parr bat; how many have seen Howard Staunton and played with Harrwitz and Lowenthal? I have done all three --seventy years ago! Looking back on my life, which has long exceeded the allotted span, and is now approaching its termination, I will, with your permission bring these desultory remarks to a close with a few personal allusions. My business life has been a happy one - fifty years with one firm, and such a firm! My home life has been a very happy one. My outlook on life has been a wide one, and has given me many pleasures; pleasures of sport. When chairman of the Football Committee it was my duty and pleasure to accompany the team over the county, and I have witnessed many a tough fight from the days of Harry Ruth, Jack Dyson, down to the days of Wrigley and Wagstaffe. Cricket! How many times have I set off with my county ticket and sandwiches in my pocket to Leeds, Bradford or Sheffield to watch our great trio Hirst, Rhodes, and Haigh! Pleasures of travel! I have seen the sun rise on Mont Blanc from an elevation of 8000 feet; I have looked dowm on the plains of Italy from the spires of Milan Cathedral; I have viewed Wales and the Lake District from the summits of Snowdon and Skiddaw. Romantic Scotland, with its Ellen's Isle, its Staffa and Iona. Pleasures of literature -- the three Thomases, Thomas Carlyle, Thomas De Quincy, Thomas Hardy; and the poets Longfellow, Tennyson and Wordsworth. Pleasures of music, which I have enjoyed and enabled my fellow townsfolk to enjoy as well. But there is no pleasure I have enjoyed more than what has brought us together this evening, the game of chess."

The headmaster of Huddersfield College, from 1909-36 Henry E. Atkins, who was also the leading British chess player of the time, having won the British Championship for a record nine times, was present at this meeting. In his speech he pointed out that very few people had solved as many chess problems as John Watkinson and practically none were as quick at them.

In 1895, the Huddersfield Chess Club organised the increasing number of local clubs into a league, which then became a separate organisation entitled the Huddersfield and District Chess Association. John Watkinson took it upon himself to present a trophy for the annual competition between these clubs. This ‘Watkinson Trophy’ is still competed for to the present day, and the league is referred to as the ‘Watkinson League’. The association instituted three knockout competitions for players of various strengths in 1936 and the three trophies were inscribed as the ‘Watkinson Cups’.

Musical Interests

At an early age John Watkinson was given piano lessons by a Mr. Horn, a local organist.

In 1865 he organised a series of lectures on music at the Highfield Chapel, which developed into concerts as well.

In 1882 the Town Hall, then recently opened, was engaged as an experiment. The lecturer and solo organist on that occasion was one of Huddersfield’s eminent men, Mr. (afterwards Sir) Walter Parratt (later ‘Master of the King’s Music’). Walter was a fellow chess player and a logical choice for John’s first concert. The title of ‘Huddersfield Subscription Concerts’ was adopted in 1885. For his enterprise as promoter of the Subscription Concerts, Mr. Watkinson earned the warmest gratitude and praise of music loving people in the town and district.

John Watkinson also found time to advance the musical interests of Huddersfield by association with the Choral Society, of which he was President in 1906, and later a member of the executive council, the Glee and Madrigal and the Amateur Operatic Societies.

Literary and Art Interests

This remarkable gentleman possessed keen literary tastes. He was a man of wide reading in several branches of science. He wrote a series of articles for the ‘Huddersfield Examiner’ entitled ‘Recollections of a Tour of Switzerland’. He was a member of the Public Library and Art Gallery Committee, becoming deputy chairman in 1906, and he was an honorary member of the Art Society.

Interest In Outdoor Games

The Huddersfield Cricket and Athletic Club at Fartown also owed a good deal to John Watkinson. The first annual meeting of the club was held on June 25th 1865, and in 1880 he was elected vice-president and chairman of the Football Committee. For years, despite his advancing years, he continued to take great interest in the club, and was frequently seen at Fartown.

Private Life

In June 1863, John was married at Highfield Chapel, by the Rev. Dr. Bruce to Miss Laura Ellen Robinson. There were two daughters of the marriage.


It seems quite extraordinary that a man who worked at a responsible job for over fifty years, could also have had the time and energy to be involved in so many other interests. But this many talented man was no jack-of-all-trades, he was a master craftsman.

It is quite clear that he had a great ‘Pride in Huddersfield’, and he is a man of whom Huddersfield should be proud.