The Mystery of the Selwyn Chessmen by Greg Wilson

Replica Mandarin Chess Piece Set. Image Courtesy of Games From Everywhere.
Replica Mandarin Chess Piece Set. Image Courtesy of Mallee Blue Media.

Have you ever heard of the Selwyn Chessmen – otherwise known as The Selwyn Trophy? Probably not! Forgotten in time, these Chessmen remain elusive in Novocastrian History. The mission is to track them down with the aid of historians and local readers of this blog. If you can shed any light on their whereabouts, no matter how trivial your information may seem, please contact Greg Wilson at cavalierchess@gmail.com or on mobile on 0419 120 265 or Gionni Di Gravio at Gionni.Digravio@newcastle.edu.au

So what exactly is The Selwyn Trophy, aka the Selwyn Chessmen? Firstly the Selwyn Trophy is named after Dean Arthur Edward Selwyn of Newcastle’s Christchurch Cathedral. The Selwyn Trophy is not a trophy as such, as in a cup or shield that is contested for in typical sporting events such as rugby or cricket. The Selwyn Trophy is in fact a set of ornate ivory chessmen, sculpted with an oriental Chinese theme. The chessmen, as far as we know, were crafted in China in the last decade of the 19th Century. They are described in a Newcastle Morning Herald article of January 1948:

A team of Chinese Mandarins, their favourite wives, priests, elephants and warriors on horseback. They are chessmen in an elaborate set carved in ivory. The mandarins are kings, the elephants are castles and the warriors – two of whom have lost their fragile swords – are mere pawns.

So what is the connection between the Royal Game of chess, an oriental set of chessmen, a “trophy that’s not quite a trophy” and Dean Arthur Edward Selwyn of Newcastle’s Christchurch Cathedral? Let’s take a trip in the “Tardis” back to the year 1870, to get some insight and feel for this story.

It is not very well known that Dean Selwyn was an avid chess player. In fact, his wife Rose has also been documented as being a keen player as well. In October 1870, upon advice from P B Walker, Selwyn was requested (in writing), by Vincent Brown and Charles Heydon of the NSW Chess Association to take part in trials at Sydney for the NSW Chess Team. From these chess trials, the final team for NSW was to be picked for the up and coming Telegraphic Chess Match between the two fiercely rival colonies of NSW and Victoria. The match took place in November 1870. Dean Selwyn declined the offer to compete in the trials (presumably because of his parish duties). He was obviously regarded by others as a strong player and was also a great lover and patron of the game.

Let’s fast forward 24 years from 1870, to the year 1894. Because of his passion and admiration for the Royal Game, Dean Selwyn gifted a set of ivory chessmen (described above) as a “trophy” to resuscitate the chess in the local area. Hence the Selwyn Trophy or Selwyn Chessmen became part of Novocastrian Chess Lore. At this time the Schools of Arts and Mechanics Institutes were widespread across the Newcastle region (along with the rest of Colonial Australia). It is my understanding that the Newcastle School of Arts Chess Club organised an interclub chess tournament amongst the local knowledge based institutions centred around the gifted Selwyn Chessmen.

According to the rules of the tournament, the club who won the competition three times, or twice in succession, were allowed to keep the ivory Selwyn Chessmen. The Stockton School of Arts Chess Club were worthy victors, winning the competition in 1894 and 1895 respectively, allowing the team to retain the coveted “trophy”.

Historical evidence confirms that the Selwyn Chessmen were housed at the Stockton School of Arts, then the Stockton Literary Institute, at least until the year 1948. After this time, the chessmen seem to have vanished! Whether the chessmen are still housed locally, were donated to an organisation, or were sold to an overseas collector, or even auctioned as has been mooted, the whereabouts of these chessmen remain a mystery. A photograph of the winning 1895 team existed (at least in 1948). Whatever happened to this? Someone may still have the photograph and not know the history behind it.

Once again, if anybody can shed any light on the Mystery of The Selwyn Chessmen, it would be appreciated. For example, older Stockton residents may remember seeing the chessmen on display in their youth. Some residents, not having seen the chessmen, may well remember their family members talking about them. Even if you are not a Stockton resident, your grandfather, grandmother, great uncle or great aunt may have been involved with the former Stockton Literary Institute. They may know something. Any information will be of assistance in trying to track down and unearth what has happened to The Selwyn Chessmen.

Greg Wilson
12 June 2015


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