Monday 9 June 2014

Football and the Brussels Brontë Story…

The World Cup 2014 is fast approaching, as every soccer fan knows. Perhaps now is a good time to trace some football links in the Brussels Brontë story. There are some interesting connections which merit highlighting - however unlikely the idea might seem at first glance!

The Jenkinses

The first connection relates to the Jenkins family of Brussels. A previous, highly informative blog post here by Jenkins descendent Monica Kendall details how this Ixelles-based family was closely involved with Charlotte and Emily Brontë during their Brussels stay. Indeed it was due to its intervention that the two Brontë sisters ended up at the Heger pensionnat on the Rue d'Isabelle in the first place. But not only were the Jenkinses responsible for introducing the two literary geniuses to Brussels, the same family was also largely responsible for the introduction of the British sport of football to Brussels. (For these two feats alone, perhaps the Jenkinses merit some day an honorary plaque or a street named after them in their adopted city?!)
     The Jenkins family's role in the beginnings of the Brussels, and indeed Belgian, football story is a theme still to be fully researched, yet its close involvement is widely acknowledged by Belgian football historians.
    This involvement should come as no surprise. Rev. Charles Edward (1826-73) and Rev. John Card (1834-94), the sons of Rev. Evan Jenkins (1794-1849), were both keen sportsmen. According to Monica Kendall, John won trophies for rowing, still in the family's possession, while studying at Cambridge in the 1850s. The brothers founded the Brussels Cricket Club, the first of its kind in Belgium, in the early 1860s, and both were fine amateur cricket players.
     Most of the early members of the Brussels Cricket Club were pupils from the brothers’ school, known from around 1870 as St Bernard's and the largest British boys boarding school in the city. Indication that these young cricket players might have been playing football too, as early as 1865, is found in  L'Indépendance belge ( 31 May 1865): "Les membres du Cricket-Club, fils d'Albion habitant Bruxelles, viennent de reprendre leur jeu favori dans les plaines de Cureghem, entre le Nieuw-Molen et l'Ecole vétérinaire. Demain, ils donneront une fête comportant des jeux divers, qu'ils appellent athletic sports". Football at the time was foremost among the activities described as "athletic sports"; it would surely have featured at this sporting fête.
     If the Jenkinses counted among the very earliest pioneers of football in Brussels, some sources hold that the first man to introduce football to Belgium was an Irish student from Killarney, Bernard Murrogh, who brought the game to his college at Melle, near Ghent in 1863. The sport was soon being played in other cities across Flanders; the first official football club in Belgium was Antwerp FC, formed in 1880.

La Plaine de Tenbosch

La Plaine de Tenbosch
In the 1880s the Jenkinses and their friends were playing their football matches on the sandy open
ground of Tenbosch. [See photo of a match here from the epoch]. Now built-up, this open ground was located between the present day Avenue Louise, Rue Tenbosch and Rue Defacqz in the Ixelles commune. It was very much Jenkins family territory. In the latter 19th century, the family lived at several different addresses on the Rue des Champs Elysées in Ixelles and the Rue St. Bernard in St. Gilles, both of which were a stone's throw away from the football grounds. In 1874, the Church of the Resurrection, built largely through the efforts of Charles Edward Jenkins (Senior), was inaugurated on the Rue de Stassart, which was also close by. Given the connections the Jenkinses had with this part of the city, it is no coincidence that Tenbosch became an early home to Belgian football.
Some of the very first Belgian intercity club football matches took place at Tenbosch. Here for example on 1 November 1892, Brussels FC, at this time comprised mostly of St. Bernard's pupils, played Antwerp FC, winning 2-0. Charles Edward Jenkins (1873-1931), son of John Card Jenkins, played in attack for Brussels and scored one of the goals. International club matches were also hosted at Tenbosch.  In April 1894, the Brussels Football Association team played á visiting English team, Old Westminster. Jenkins was in this Brussels team too but could not prevent a 5-1 defeat.
     By the final decade of the 19th century, Brussels was capital of the Belgian football world, with more clubs than any other city in the country. Brussels still occupies a preeminent position on the Belgian football scene today, being home to the country's most honoured football club, RSC Anderlecht, recently crowned national champions for the thirty-third time. The Royal Belgian Football Association was founded in Brussels in 1895, under the name of Union Belge des Sociétés de Sports Athlétiques. The first Belgian League competition took place in 1895-96; it featured seven clubs, four from Brussels, alongside Antwerp FC, FC Brugeois and FC Liégeois. Among the Brussels clubs participating in the inaugural league was Léopold FC. This leads to the second noteworthy Brussels Brontë football connection, for this club was led by a certain Albert de Bassompierre (1873-1956).

 De Bassompierre

At a meeting at his family home in 1893, Albert de Bassompierre [see photo] founded Léopold FC. It was one of the most unusual clubs in the history of Belgian football; its early members were almost exclusively from aristocratic circles; almost all were barons, bankers or rentiers. Albert himself was a baron; for many years he also served as Belgian Ambassador to Japan. The list of early club members includes many names still prominent in Brussels society today - Solvay, Nothomb, de Laveleye, Lambert, Lippens. Albert de Bassompierre not only set up the club, he was also a capable footballer and team captain. His club is still going strong in Brussels under the name of Royal Léopold Uccle Woluwe FC.
De Bassompierre
     The name de Bassompierre, besides its significance in Belgian football history, rings a bell for anyone interested in the Brussels Brontë story. For Albert de Bassompierre's aunt was a fellow student of the Brontë sisters in their Heger pensionnat days. She was about sixteen years old when the Brontës came to study in Brussels. Charlotte Brontë borrowed her family name to give to two characters in Villette; indeed, chapter 24 of the novel is called M. de Bassompierre.
     In March 1913, Albert de Bassompierre wrote to the Brontë Society explaining that his aunt Mlle. L. de Bassompierre was still living in the city. He presented the Society with a letter in which his aunt furnished some recollections of the sisters at the Heger pensionnat.  Mlle. de Bassompierre's letter has gone on to be much quoted in Brontë studies; the Belgian lady was one of the few people in Brussels to have had fond memories of Emily. "Miss Emily était beaucoup moins brillante que sa sœur mais bien plus sympathique", she recalled.
     Albert de Bassompierre also presented the Brontë Society with a pencil drawing by Emily of a tree, a gift from Emily to his aunt seventy years previously. Baron Albert promised in his letters of 1913 to do some further research on other fellow students of the Brontës who might still be living in the city; it is not known if he ever followed up on his promise.
     The exact forename of Albert's aunt is something of a mystery. In her 1913 letter and in Mrs. Ellis Chadwick's In the Footsteps of the Brontës (1914) she is called simply Mlle. L. de Bassompierre. Which name does the initial 'L' stand for? Among Brontë scholars she is invariably called Louise, yet Albert's aunt Louise de Bassompierre died in 1869 so it cannot be her. Louise's grave, coincidentally, lies close to the graves of Constantin and Zoë Heger at Boitsfort cemetery. The Mlle. de Bassompierre who knew the Brontës was probably Léonie, a younger sister of Louise’s, but unfortunately her precise biographical dates are lacking.

W. Shaw Sparrow and Mary F. Robinson

‏Some more (loose!) Brussels Brontë football connections could be noted. Walter Shaw Sparrow (1862-1940) was one of the young Britons involved in sporting activities at Tenbosch in the 1880s. Sparrow Shaw studied art in Brussels during these years and recounts some of his experiences in Memories of Life and Art through Sixty Years (1925). He recalls being one of the first captains of Brussels FC, and taking part in games against pupils from the Jenkins and Harlock schools. He also recalls playing rugby at Tenbosch, surely among the first rugby games ever played in Belgium. Shaw Sparrow went on to become one of Britain's leading art critics, author of numerous works, often with a sporting angle, including British Sporting Artists from Barlow to Herring (1922). Among Walter Sparrow's addresses during his Brussels years was 304 Chaussée d'Ixelles. Curiously this is the same address Winifred Gérin gives in her biography of Charlotte Brontë for the Jenkins family for 1842, when Charlotte and Emily used to visit them. (Here Gérin was mistaken however, for at the time the Jenkins lived at no. 388.)
‏     Shaw Sparrow's cousin, Agnes Mary F. Robinson (1857-1944) also studied at Brussels, probably in the 1870s. Hers is still a well-known name in Brontë scholarly circles; she wrote the first-ever biography of Emily Brontë, published in 1883. Her bibliographical history is rather complex as she also published on the Brontës and other subjects under her two married names, Madame Duclaux and Mary James Darmesteter. Some of her works were originally published in French.
‏To conclude, it would be interesting to know if these diverse personalities from the 19th century Brussels British community - the Jenkinses, Walter Shaw Sparrow and his cousin A. Mary F. Robinson,  along with local anglophiles such as Albert de Bassompierre - ever got together to share their knowledge of the Brontë sisters and their Brussels stay. It seems unlikely. There is little evidence that the Brontës were ever much of a topic in late 19th century Brussels; few references or articles have come down from this period. It seems that the sons and daughters of Albion residing in Brussels had more important interests to occupy them in their idle hours - such as cricket, lawn tennis and, of course, football.

 Select Bibliography: 

Jacques Dubreucq, Bruxelles 1000: une histoire capitale, Vol.1 (Bruxelles: Dubreucq, 1996)
‏Jean Fraiponts and Dirk Willocx,  Kroniek van het Belgisch voetbal, Deel 1, Pioniers en Rode Duivels 1863-1906 (Antwerpen: ASSOC.BE, 2003)
J.R. Scott, The Family Guide to Brussels (London: Edward Stanford, 1871).
Walter Shaw Sparrow, Memories of Life and Art through Sixty Years (London: John Lane and the Bodley Head Ltd., 1925)

Brian Bracken

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