George Brunton Fraser

29 April 1829 Kirkcaldy, Fife ─ 01 December 1905 Wormit, Fife

G.B. Fraser
Photo from Cleveland Public Library, Special Collections.

Associated with Angus Chess Club and Dundee Chess Club.
Organiser and administrator.
Possibly the strongest player in Scotland in his day.
Opening analyst.
Edited a chess column in the Dundee Courier and Argus 1862-64.
Supporter of correspondence chess.
Scottish Champion 1898.

Fraser did much to advance the cause of chess in general, and of the Dundee CC in particular. During the 1850's he played matches against Wormald, Falkbeer and Hannah, amongst others. Kolisch, one of the leading masters of the time, visited Dundee in 1860 and played a match of seven games with Fraser on level terms. Fraser won 2, lost 4 and drew 1, a very creditable score.

In 1867 Steinitz, at the time recognised as the leading player in the world because of his defeat of Adolf Anderssen the year before, visited Dundee. He played a match with Fraser in January, giving odds of pawn and move. Steinitz won 7, lost 1 and drew 1. In February another match took place, this time on level terms, the winner being the first to win three games. Fraser drew the first game, won the second and lost the third. A break in the match then occurred as Steinitz had a commitment in Glasgow. On returning to Dundee Steinitz won game four after Fraser blundered, game five was drawn, and Steinitz won game six and the match. Still, another creditable performance.

The same year, 1867, the British Chess Association proposed to hold its annual congress in Dundee in the autumn. This acted as an incentive to Fraser and others, who organised the famous tournament won by Neumann, in front of Steinitz, De Vere, MacDonnell, Blackburne and others.

Mr Fraser was recognised as a noted opening analyst, and his name is attached to lines in the Evans Gambit, the Scotch Game, the Greco Counter-Gambit, the Vienna Gambit, and the King's Gambit Accepted.

Fraser also organised and conducted a number of correspondence tournaments; he was the author of 200 Games of Chess (1896), a collection of games played by correspondence.

In 1886, a testimonial was organised for Fraser for his great services to chess, which raised 44 15s. It's possible, however, that an additional reason for the gesture was because some people were aware of recent financial difficulties. Fraser, working as a commission agent and wine merchant, had to deal with bankruptcy proceedings several times during his working life as shown in newspaper reports from 1871, 1873 and 1884. He even spent in jail.

Scotland's national records do not show a birth of a George Brunton Fraser, but his marriage and death records, as well as census information allow us to look at his family background in some detail.

His parents were Robert Fraser (1798─1839) and Ann Cumming (c1800─1841). In his early life Robert Fraser served apprenticeships to a wine merchant and an ironmonger. He later started his own business as an ironmonger/hardware merchant. Largely self-educated, Fraser gained a knowledge of several foreign languages and contributed original articles and verse translations to several Edinburgh journals and various newspapers. In 1838 he was appointed editor of the Fife Herald. He died 22 May 1839 in Cupar, Fife.

Robert Fraser and Ann Cumming married in Kirkcaldy, Fife in 1820 and had ten children between 1821 and 1836, all born in Kirkcaldy.

There were seven sons: Henry (1824); Robert Alexander (1826); Alexander (1827); James George (1829); James (1830); John (1833); Thomas Dobson (1836). The daughters were Margaret (1821), Elizabeth (1822), and Ann (1834).

In view of the fact that ten children were meticulously recorded in the Parish Registers, it appears unlikely that there is a 'missing' child. It seems reasonable, therefore, to focus on the only member of the family who carried the name George.

After Robert Fraser died in 1839 there was a fundraising effort to help his widow, which included the publication of Poetical Remains of the late Robert Fraser. This featured a memoir of Fraser by David Vedder and a reference to:

 'Miss Ann Cumming, who, together with eight surviving children, bewail their irremediable loss.'

The 1841 census shows Ann Cumming at 19 Salisbury Street, Edinburgh with seven children; Margaret, Harry [Henry], Robert, Alexander, James, Ann and Thomas. The three who are not listed are Elizabeth, James George and John.

James George Fraser, the sixth child, was born 29 April 1829. The seventh child, James, was born November 1830. An explanation for his naming could be that James George was ill and expected to die, so the newborn was given the same name. When the sick child revived the family then had two children named James, which might explain why the chess player chose to use George as his first given name.

Further, a 1905 newspaper reporting on the death of the chess player said:

 'When a lad he was engaged in commercial affairs in Dundee, and for a long time was in the employment of the late Bailie Clark, a well-known shipowner in the city.' 

The fact that he was not with his mother in Edinburgh at the time of the 1841 census suggests that he might already have been apprenticed.

In the 1851 census the brothers George B. Frazer [sic] (20) and James S. Frazer (18), both born at Kirkcaldy and both employed as clerks, were living at 19 Seafield Road, Dundee. This was a short distance from shipowner William Clark's business address at 23 Exchange Street. The fact that the brothers were living and working together would be an obvious reason for the older brother to use George as his forename.  

In the 1861 census the brothers (ages 29 and 28) were living at 9 Somerville Place, Dundee; both were employed as shipping and commission agents.

Their ages are inaccurate, but this is not unusual. Both were clearly unaware of their correct dates of birth.

Too much reliance is often placed on ages in official documents, but experience suggests they are often unreliable. For example, George Brunton Fraser was 59 in the 1891 census, 67 in the 1901 census, and 74 at his death in 1905.

Several sources, including Hooper and Whyld in The Oxford Companion to Chess give Fraser's date of birth as c1831, likely based on the death record. However, the above references make it clear that G.B. Fraser was an older brother to James, born 1830.

It is not known why Brunton was adopted as a middle name; it could have been used by a past family member, or perhaps it was a reference to the Fife hamlet of the same name. It could also have been one of his forenames given by his parents, even though it did not appear in his birth record. It has been shown above that James, born in 1830, gave his name as James S. Fraser in 1851 and 1861, and his 1864 death registration records his name as James Stevenson Fraser. Ann, born 1834, is shown as Anna C. Fraser in the 1861 and 1871 census documents, and legal documents issued after her 1914 death show her as Ann/Anna/Annie Cumming Fraser.

It seems reasonable to conclude that James George Fraser became the chess player George Brunton Fraser.

Dictionary of National Biography: edited by Leslie Stephen (Macmillan, 1889)
Poetical Remains of the late Robert Fraser, pub. Tullis, Cupar, 1839.
Dundee Post Office Directories (several editions).
ScotlandsPeople web site (national records).
Dundee Courier and Argus: 29 March 1873; 22 November 1884; 22 December 1884; 17 April 1885; 4 December 1905.
Glasgow Herald, 11 February 1871.
The Story of Dundee Chess Club, by Peter W. Walsh (1984).

Alan McGowan
Historian/Archivist, Chess Scotland

updated 22/5/2021