46. Philidor’s hike through Holland
In December 1745 Philidor travelled from France to the north to give a series of concerts with a harpsichord player, a young girl. In don’t know which cities he passed; probably Brussels and Antwerp. In the north of the Dutch province (county) Brabant there was a barrier: the river Hollands Diep, come into being in the 15th c., when storm floods had several times inundated the border region between the provinces Holland and Brabant. Because this happened around the dying day (1231) of Saint Elisabeth, the daughter of a Hungarian king, on November 17, the floods were called Saint Elisabeth floods. Before those floods one could go on foot or on horseback from Brabant to the north. Flanders had troubles too because of the storm floods. So, Philidor passed the river on a ferry and then took a new coach to Rotterdam.
There fatal news waited him: the harpsichord player had fallen ill in Paris and had succumbed to her disease. Returning to Paris was no option: he had put all his livres or libra’s (the French franc did not exist yet) in the outward journey. How to survive?
The coffee house
In that time a lot of money was gained or lost in public places by plating tables in the coffee house (chapter 39) and with gambling and playing cards in the bar. In Paris, Philidor could play chess for a modest stake: a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a pasty, and as he also played a strong game of draughts, see below. No player would become rich in the coffee house with chess or draughts, but if he played very strong he could survive. And Philidor did survive!
In the winter of 1745, he departed to Amsterdam. By track boat I assume, it was a cheaper transport than the stage-coach. The track boat navigated the Dutch canals. It had a covered deckhouse with two benches in the longitudinal direction and a table in between. It was pulled by a hors on the path beside the canal, the towpath. The transport company took care of a draughtboard, often hung with an eye on the wall. Se for pictures and more information Mourik & Stoep 2019:82-3.
After a stay in Amsterdam, Philidor travelled to The Hague, according to his own words. Probably again by track boat.
Anton Pieck (Holland): interior of a track boat with draughtboard
Supplement to information from chess side
This story about Philidor’s Dutch travel is based on four chess sources. They did not know all ins and outs chess and draughts in 18th c. Holland, so that their information needs supplement or correction. See about chess and draughts in the Netherlands chapter 45. What did they say?
George Allen [1863:22-3]: Philidor played draughts in Rotterdam en later in Amsterdam with Dutchman.
Harold Murray [1913:862]: “Philidor was able to earn a living by playing chess and draughts, and the presence of the English army provided him with many opponents”.
Jacob Silbermann & Wolfgang Unzicker [1977 I:50]: “Chess saved him“.
Richard Eales [1985:113]: “Philidor resorted to playing chess and draughts with English officers”.
Anton Pieck (Holland): interior of an English inn with gaming board on the wall
I follow Philidor on his journey through three Dutch cities.
See him sitting in his Rotterdam hotel! In his mother country he rubbed shoulders with the people we now call with disparaging envy jet set. If he could not even pay the coaches that could bring him back to Paris, could he efford then any better than a shabby dump in a cheap hotel? We don’t know. At any rate he wore the clothes of his social class, which allowed him to play the stylish seigneur. He asked the owner: “Where are the coffee houses where I can play chess?” The man did not know them: “Try the Fransch Koffiehuis”.
The Fransch Koffiehuis was the most distinguished coffee house in Rotterdam, built on the Beursplein (chapter 45). As all Dutch coffee houses, it made draughtboards at the disposal of its visitors. As the owner, Jean Almary, received Rotterdam’s most prosperous inhabitants, he also offered them the opportunity to play chess. It is unknown if Philidor found a chess playing opponent there.
According to Allen [1863:22] he had plenty draughts playing opponents. “[Rotterdam] could point to plenty of homely coffeehouses, where pairs of heavy Dutchmen sat pondering over a larger board (10×10), deliberately puzzling their brains with the intricacies of Polish draughts”. Polish draughts is the variety played in the Netherlands since the second half of the 16th c.
Philidor defeated all his Dutch opponents, on nearly all of them, and could collect the stake. It should be happened like this, how else could he have survived?
This needs a thought. A French nineteen years old chap sets foot in the Fransch Koffiehuis, lifts a draughtboard and the bag with pieces from the wall and challenges one of Allen’s heavy Dutchmen. Often enough without words of course. There were, however, visitors he could communicate with, for in the better circles it was in those days the done thing to speak French (chapter 42). Philidor came, saw and vanquished, a 18th c. Julius Caesar. Hoe was it possible? Did the Dutch play draughts in such a weak way that a Paris’ boy defeated them all? Here are coming up nationalistic feelings ‒I am a Dutchman‒, because when comparing the technical level of French draughts books with Dutch draughts books I hardly see any difference. I reach to the conclusion that Philidor in addition to music and chess also excelled in draughts. Consider him a triple wunderkind.
After three months or so horses dragged Philidor from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, slowly, where he could repeat his draughts trick.
Gerrit Groenewegen (Holland, 19th c.: Rotterdam, Beursplein. Left (house with the coach) Almary’s former coffee house
And from Amsterdam to The Hague where he spent (a part of?) the summer, autumn and a part of the winter 1745-1746. The English colony in the cite admitted him in the circle of officers. Allen [1863:25] told why: they respected his capacities on the chessboard. And his character helped him, Philidor was an aimable person. And another positive factor: in Versailles and Paris he had seen how the upper class dressed, behaved, conversed. This explains why he could as an adult man could deal on equal terms with high placed persons of the French and England. And without any doubt he profited from the thorough general ‒he even learned the principles of Latin‒ and musical education he enjoyed as a music pupil in Paris [Allen 1863:4].
Allen’s positive image of his hero was shared by the young English wife Fanny Burney. In 1771, Philidor knocked on the door of her father, the musicologist Charles Burney, with a letter of recommendation from Denis Diderot: could Burney shelter Philidor? He could. Fanny: “M. Philidor is a well-bred, obliging, and very sociable man; he is also a very good musician” [Eales 1985:117].
So, Philidor saved his life in Holland during the first months playing draughts in Rotterdam and Amsterdam with Dutchmen for a stake and later because he was supported by members of the English garrison in The Hague. The chess historians I mentioned think his chess capacities pulled him through, but how many opponents he could challenge? Probably, the garrison was small (chapter 45). The English were in the Netherlands to help the country against the threatening French invasion. The Dutch did not need English officers in The Hague but in the south.
In the early part of 1747, Philidor departed to London, on the initiative of prince William Augustus, duke of Cumberland (1721-1765) [Allen 1863:25]. The prince was in command of the English garrison and led in Flanders the fight of the allied troops of England, Hannover, Austria and the Netherlands against the French.