Asked who was the first Briton to be awarded the FIDE title Grandmaster, most people, if they had any idea at all, would probably guess Tony Miles. Yet Mansfield had been awarded the title 4 years earlier in 1972, almost as soon as FIDE broadened their title range to include problem composition, firstly to Master level and then later to GM. So eminent was he in this field that Mansfield was an almost automatic first choice.
Comins Mansfield was born on 14 June 1896, in the village of Witheridge, a few miles from Tiverton in mid-Devon, the son of Herbert John Mansfield. In his childhood, Herbert had been looked after by a Miss Comins, and named his son after her. Strangely, although his date and place of birth are recorded in all the literature, the family does not appear anywhere in the 1901 census.
From the age of 13, Comins attended Blundell's School in Tiverton, during which time he began to absorb his father's interest in the game. Herbert had played correspondence chess for Devon from an early stage. In 1910, for instance, he took Board 49 of 50 for Devon v Yorkshire, where he was listed as living at Morchard Bishop, 5 miles south west of Witheridge. Incidentally, at the same time, Devon was involved in another 50 board match against Suffolk, half of that team not being involved in the Yorkshire match; i.e. 75 Devonians were playing postal chess for Devon at the same time. In the 1920s Herbert was paying his annual subscription of 52p to be one of the 21 Vice Presidents of the County Association.
Like many Devonians living in rural parts at this time, opportunities for over-the-board play were rare and many were forced to turn their attention to problem-solving, and for the keener ones, to composition. If his father was limited to solving and postal chess, his son's innate ability pushed him into composition while still at school. He saved his pocket money to buy the BCM and in 1910 they ran a series of articles by Alain C. White under the heading First Steps In The Classification of Two-Movers. One particular article, containing problems by Laws, Bettman, Taverner and Mackenzie, caught the imagination of the 14 year old Comins, and he was inspired to try his hand at composition.
Within months, he had won 1st Prize for a 2-mover in Carslake Winter-Wood's column in the Plymouth-based the Illustrated Western Weekly News. (His column in the Western Morning News had been transferred there in March 1906). The following year Comins won a 2nd Prize in the Brisbane Courier, fame for the 17 year old having rapidly become worldwide.
From the first, he was interested only in 2-movers, saying life was too short for anything more. He invented the term "half-pin", first used in a letter of 1915 to fellow composer, Murray Marble, a term that has subsequently entered mainstream chess from problem terminology. By half-pin is meant an arrangement where two Black pieces stand in line in such a way that if either moves, it leaves the other pinned by a White piece standing behind both.
He sent his compositions to wherever competitions were held, one outlet being the Hampshire Telegraph & Post, where Guy Wills Chandler was the chess editor, although only seven years older than Mansfield. They inspired each other and became lifelong friends, both surviving to the early 1980s. It is a matter of conjecture whether Chandler was connected in some way with the Wills tobacco business, giving the couple even more common ground. For, on leaving school, he joined the tobacco firm of W. D. & H. O. Wills in Bristol, with whom he stayed for 45 years, with a break for service in the Great War. In 1901 the Wills firm had become the founder of the giant Imperial Tobacco when it merged with the Glasgow firm of Stephen Mitchel & Son, and they were noted as a family-run company with a benevolent policy towards its employees.
In September 1915 he joined the Royal Artillery, and carried a small travelling set at all times, with which to while away the long hours spent in the trenches. He never lost contact with Chandler during the war, even though the latter was involved in a rather messy British invasion of Iraq, (then Mesopotamia), and the two combined on problems by post, one of which won 1st Prize in the Good Companions magazine in January 1918. Shortly after, he was temporarily blinded by mustard gas, requiring 12 months in hospital.
On his release from hospital, the war was over and he re-joined Wills in Bristol and his local chess club, Bristol & Clifton. He soon became established in Gloucestershire as a very strong player, winning his club championship for the first time in 1920 and the county championship every year from 1927 to 1934. From his return to Bristol he played for the county regularly, never lower than Bd. 3 and from the time of his first county championship, always on top board. From 1926 to the time of his move to Scotland he was also the Problem Editor of the Bristol Times and Mirror .
During this time he got married and had three children.
His last game for Gloucestershire was against Norfolk in March 1934, as later that year he transferred to the Wills branch in Glasgow. Problem production dried up for a few months, but early in 1936 they started appearing again in publications, headed "Mansfield - Glasgow". Soon after his move, he played for Glasgow on Board 3, behind the soon-to-be British Champion, W. A. Fairhurst, but there is little evidence that he played much in Scotland.
The significance of this period in his life was intensified by a decision of the unofficial lord of the problem world, the American millionaire, Alain C. White. He had the finances to fund a private publication each year, which became known as The Christmas Series. He underwrote the printing costs and gave copies to his friends. He did this for 32 years until he decided to make the 1936 edition the last of the series. For this special book, he chose to concentrate on the work of Mansfield, entitling the book A Genius Of The Two-Mover. In his introduction, White describes how for about 20 years, one of Mansfield's tasks for the New Year had been to send him all his compositions from the previous 12 months, usually between 10 and 20 in number, altogether about 300 by that time, which White cut down to 100 for inclusion in his book.
White's other remarks included:-
"Comins Mansfield celebrated his 40th birthday last June, and in his quarter century of composition he has never lost the extraordinary spontaneity he revealed in his earliest masterpieces . The keynote of his style lies in this freshness of outlook and in a clarity of vision with which few composers have been gifted"…
He also quotes from Brian Harley, "The general opinion, with which I concur, is that no greater two-move composer than Comins Mansfield has existed".
After this, it would not have been surprising if Mansfield had, perhaps, run out of gas or rested on his many laurels. Certainly, his time in Scotland seems to have coincided with a lessening of chess activity, for whatever reason. The war years would doubtless have had a bearing on this. In 1944, A. C. White published Mansfield's Adventures In Composition -The Art of the Two Move Chess Problem, using Frank Altschul's private press, the Overbrook Press, in an edition limited to 400 copies. Four years later, it was re-published in the UK by Barry Wood's Chess. Mansfield used about 100 problems, none found in White's 1936 book, and it is regarded as an excellent guide to the art of composing.
By 1950, he had moved to one of Wills' London subsidiaries, and was living in Carshalton Beeches, near Croydon in South London.
It can be deduced that he retired about 1960, and moved to Paignton in his home county. Now free to budget his own time, he was able to become involved in international affairs, and honours were heaped upon him in his twilight years. In 1959, he was awarded FIDE's title of Master for Chess Composition as soon as the title was created. In 1963, he became President of FIDE's Problem Commission. In 1964 he took over as chess columnist of the Sunday Telegraph, a post he held for 14 years. In 1972, FIDE approved the plan to extend the Grandmaster title to problem composers, and Mansfield was an automatic first choice. In 1976 he was awarded the MBE for his services to chess.
In the mid 1970s, he could be found visiting the Paignton Congress, walking round watching play, especially in 1972, that of his grandson, R. Mansfield, who was playing in the Open Swiss, but not actually competing himself. Bill Frost, the Congress Secretary at the time, recalls chatting to him from time to time, but as he was a very quiet, reserved man, too modest to dwell on his own achievements for long, these were fairly brief moments. On one occasion, a very young John Nunn and Michael Stean saw Bill talking to Mansfield and asked to be introduced. As Bill took them over, it was as if they were being introduced to the Pope, and after a 10 minute chat they thanked Bill effusively. The moment was certainly not lost on Nunn who went on to become one of the world's best solvers, becoming only the 3rd person to hold two Grandmaster titles, for playing and solving.
At Paignton, Mansfield seemed to know Milner-Barry quite well, but Golombek kept his distance. It is noticeable that Golombek's Encyclopaedia of Chess (Batsford 1977) is almost unique of its kind in containing no individual entry for Mansfield; even a long 3½ page article on the history of chess problems, which mentions numerous half forgotten composers, contains no reference to him. This is surely no oversight and must be interpreted as some kind of inexplicable snub.
Comins Mansfield died on 27 March 1984, aged 87, for most of his life almost universally recognised as one of the world's three best chess problem composers of all time.