Chequered past of the extreme sport of draughts

Draughts was a major sport in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. World champions included the likes of the “Herd Laddie” James Wyllie from Scotland. I told this chequered story from an Ipswich perspective on West Bremer Radio.

Wyllie dominated as world champion for forty years and toured the globe taking on all comers. Draughts sometimes paid handsomely such as when Wyllie visited Melbourne in 1887 and he was given a purse of gold sovereigns to play members of the local club. 

The “Herd Laddie” went to Brisbane and his matches in 1890 with the then Queensland draughts champion Robert Mar became the stuff of legend.

Mar went to Ipswich to challenge the locals as sparring partners in preparation for his big contest. In the Haig’s Rooms in Nicholas Street in 1890, spectators were charged one shilling each to watch Mar play eleven of Ipswich’s best draughts players. Mar beat them all.

Mar faced off against the world champion James Wyllie at the Metropolitan Hotel in Edward Street, Brisbane. The contest went for days and was reported Australia-wide. The tension and excitement were palpable as one report noted, “Mr. Mar astonished the spectators by getting a winning stroke off Mr. Wylie at the twenty-seventh move, which eventuated in the removal of nine men from the board.”

And so the contest continued. The crowds witnessed a struggle between two titans of the sport whose exploits are spoken of in revered tones to this day. The Queenslander ultimately more than held his own against the “Herd Laddie” – he won one match by 5 wins to 4 and lost the second 4-2. 

A rare photo of Mar and Wyllie in their famous contest of 1890

Mar went on to become the champion of Australasia and achieve his own legendary status. He remained undefeated as Australasian champion for seventeen years until his death in in 1908.

More than a quarter of a century later, Mar’s draughts board was being referred to as “the most historic board in Australia” because it was the one on which the undefeated champion of Queensland and Australasia played his great matches against the world champion.

Mar left a legacy with his visit to Ipswich which pre-empted great things for the sport in the town. One of his Mar’s sparring partners was George Allen who was the president of the Chamber of Commerce and one of the founders of the Ipswich Draughts Club.

The Ipswich club had been so motivated that three years later, Allen captained Ipswich to its first ever win over arch-rivals Brisbane. The Brisbane club was the best in Australia at the time, boasting the reigning Queensland draughts champion and the Australasian youth champion for the contest against Ipswich. Mar didn’t compete for Brisbane and acted as umpire that day. It was reported that the “visitors returned by the late train highly pleased with their victory.“

In 1911 three years after Mar’s death, the Brisbane Draughts Club hosted a childhood friend of Mar’s from Glasgow who had travelled from Adelaide specifically to place a wreath on the champion’s grave. It was suggested that a headstone be erected over the grave of  the late Australasian champion by the draughts players of Australia. The secretary promised that it would be raised at the next meeting.

Mar was a man of science and for a time was the Queensland analyst, or chief scientist in today’s terms. He died without family and is buried at Toowong Cemetery in Brisbane in a holy triangle with two other sporting greats from the same era. The world’s best boxer of the 1890s Peter Jackson lays just one hundred metres away, as does Ipswich football star Steve Welch who was the 1888 Queensland captain for Australian Rules.

While Mar’s exploits on the draughts board went down in history, the man himself rests in obscurity. The grave of the undefeated draughts champion today is one space on a chequerboard of unmarked paupers graves.

The chequerboard of unmarked graves seen here at Toowong includes that of Robert Mar

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE DRAUGHTS STORY FROM AN IPSWICH PERSPECTIVE ON WEST BREMER RADIO.

Photo credits:
Robert Mar and James Wylie – The Brisbane Courier, Saturday 26 December 1908, page12
Unmarked hospital paupers graves, Toowong Cemetery, 2020 – my own

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