The Boy’s Own Paper – (part 1)

[Revised version – the idea is a bit chatty, explaining how I came across this title in the first place…]

Sometimes strange twists and turns lead to interesting research topics, and to quote from the song:

… Well I ain’t often right but I’ve never been wrong, 
Seldom turns out the way it does in the song. 
Once in a while you get shown the light 
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.

Grateful Dead – Scarlet Begonias

This story begins with the usual channel surfing just before bed, when I stumbled across the “Guns of Navarone”, where once again I only watched about 10 minutes of it, and not for the first time.  But this time I resolved to see what Halliwell (the wonderful lamented English critic) had to say about the movie, remembering he gave it two-stars (a high rating for Halliwell).  Here’s the relevant snippet:

“Ambitiously produced Boy’s Own Paper heroics, with lots of noise and self-sacrifice; intermittently exciting but bogged down by philosophical chat.”

– Halliwell’s Film & Video Guide

More critical excerpts about the movie, a topic we thankfully leave presently, can be found on this TCM link.

We instead now turn our focus to the reference to The Boy’s Own Paper  (tBOP)  in Halliwell’s comment – a reference somewhat baffling to this New England Yankee.  It’s a standard British-centric point of reference, even if one I’ve never even heard of. After consulting the wiki page, I learned it was a long running (1879-1967), and much beloved, magazine. Being a curious curious chap, I decided to find an actual example volume on the web, and luckily came across this 1890-1891 volume first:

Of course it was full of stories of adventure and bluster (and maybe some derring-do), with many fantastic and exciting illustrations, a few of which were in color – suggesting life on the seas, mountains, jungles and beyond:

tBOP v13 (Oct 1890) frontpiece – A New Song (Percy R. Craft)

Now, I obviously have too much time on my hands, because not only did I skim the volumes for stories of treasure and battle, but also for chess! And lo and behold, there was gold buried in dem there pages (exaggerating only slightly):So, a funny tale of discovery and reward, because luckily I happened upon a year when the chess column was rich in content, given that, though present from almost the very beginning, it was usually a column with just a composition. In fact, this particular year (1890-1891) not only had the usual editor (more on that later), but had a guest article by Charles Tomlinson, an interesting chess figure all his own. And various discussions of important players like Philidor, Minckwitz, and others.

There was a question in my mind as to the identity of the full-time chess editor, because, as common at the time, the column had no by-line. The obvious guess would be H.F.L. Meyer, who Harding identifies in this passage from his thesis:

THE loss of Cassell’s was not easily replaced. Various smaller and specialised periodicals later ran correspondence tournaments, but nobody did it again in a national weekly until Bow Bells began organising them in 1874. In the case of the Gentleman’s Journal and Youth’s Miscellany, Pardon was overall editor and he hired H. F. L. Meyer, later chess editor of the Boy’s Own Paper.

— “Battle at long range”  – Timothy Harding PhD Thesis, Trinity College (2009) p242

Harding neglects to specify when his citation of Meyer as editor of tBOP applies, and his thesis’ bibliography on p364 gives tBOP v1-2 (1879-80) only. It’s also unclear (at least to me) what source Harding used for determining Meyer as the original editor, or whether Meyer was still editor in 1891, when the volume of interest appeared.

As for The Boy’s Own Paper itself, Harding has this interesting tidbit to say about the magazine, from earlier in his thesis:

Education was a central theme of improvement, from the ‘three Rs’ at one end of the scale to university reform at the other, with workers’ technical training firmly on the agenda. As literacy increased and publications became much cheaper, it was of increasing concern that people (women and children especially) should read the ‘right’ things, leading for example to the Religious Tract Society’s 1879 launch of the Boy’s Own Paper to counter-act the so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’, although the publisher Brett was associated with both.

ibid p4

Let’s also note, from wiki, some of the better-known contributors to this penny-righteous magazine: “Many prominent authors contributed to the paper. W.G. Grace wrote for several issues, along with Arthur Conan DoyleJules Verne and R.M. Ballantyne, Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout Movement, was a regular columnist and urged readers ‘to live clean, manly and Christian lives’“. A righteous list of contributors, indeed!

An array of the magazines various covers over the years is worth a quick look, if only to  get a visceral impression of the flavor of the magazine:  see this google image search.  As a further sample of its wares, from The Boy’s Own Paper  1879 premier issue, here is its very first full-color front piece:

tBOP v1 (1879) front piece (click to enlarge)

Just the sort of educational stuff that a young boy/man would enjoy. And, lets add, an old men or women might just enjoy as well (e.g. note some the various archaic flags used, including the differential gears(?) of Japan, the various Man-of-War flags, the Chinese dragon flag, the Marrocan shearing flag, etc.).

Once more let’s return to the subject of chess, and the presumed editor H.F.L. Meyer. The various issues of tBOP can be found online, both on Google Books, and on Hathitrust (in addition to the WebArchive).

The Boy’s Own Paper – Google Books search
The Boy’s Own Paper – Hathitrust search

(Beware- the annual bound edition was often referred to as “The Boy’s Own Annual“)

H.F.L. Meyer is Heinrich Freidrich Ludwig Meyer (1839-1928), a German chess player best known as a problemist. He’s visible on the right in the photograph visible on his wiki page (de or it): (de) (hi-res CPL photograph)

The English wikipedia is missing any page for him though. It doesn’t affect us much in this write-up, because there is no mention of his editorship role in the magazine on either wiki page (at the moment). Note is made though, in the Italien wiki, of how little is known about him, other than his residing in Hanover, and then relocating at some unknown date to England to live out  the end of his life (however see the followup post for a little more).

I suppose we can confirm Harding’s assertion about his being the editor of tBOP from Meyer himself, given the front cover to his his 1882 work “A Complete Guide to the Game of Chess, from the Alphabet to the Solution and Construction of Problems”:

I assume that humility informed Meyer’s self-designation as “Chess Contributor” versus the more natural “editor”. But Meyer’s name does show up in the very first chess column published by the magazine, not as editor, but as composer of Problem No. 1:

tBOP v1 N5 (Feb 15, 1879) p80 – 1st Chess Column – Problem 1 (H. Meyer)

The main hint that Meyer was the editor during the chess column’s  very extended run is both the occasional inclusion of his compositions, and the frequent mention of his so-called “Universal Chess Notation” – a variant of algebraic notation with an unusual nomenclature for the pieces.  In fact, when Meyer first began the column he very soon started using the notation, but unlike Kieseritzky (who never gave up on his bizarre notation),  Meyer knew enough to switch back to the more-popular English description notation, before losing his audience as Kieseritzky did his. As they say, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”. For the curious, given that this notation is virtually unknown today, here’s a sample from its first appearance in The Boy’s Own Paper:

The Boy’s Own Annual (1879-1880) – front cover

tBOP v1 N8 (Mar 8, 1879) p128 – Universal Notation introduction

The main wrinkle, and the one that didn’t ultimately catch on, is the use of K,L,M,N,O,P for K,Q,R,B,N,P for the piece names, together with the otherwise usual use of algebraic names for the squares. The idea was to not use any letter used for the file names on the board, and to keep the lettering for the pieces consecutive as well. Meyer used this notation throughout his 1882 book, “A Complete Guide to the Game of Chess …” cited above.  I believe he first introduced the notation in 1875, possibly in one of his other columns, but in early 1884 he had dropped using it in his tBOP column, though the promotion of its utility is still mentioned in the text from time to time, even in 1891. Personally, I’m rather glad it didn’t catch on, in the same way I feel about Esperanto. Here is the announcement of the return to Descriptive Notation:

tBOP v6 N275 (Apr 19, 1884) p463

(If you want to read a little more about the notation, Winter has a post here: C.N. 4589.)

This concludes part 1, in part 2 I intend to discuss several interesting excerpts from the 1891 volume.


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