FINDING an original way to raise money for a church is almost impossible: every variation of a gala day has been tried over and over again.

But in 1882, the vicar of Heighington came up with such a novel idea it gained national press attention for his south Durham village. To raise money for his new church bells, he organised a game of human chess.

It was played out elaborately in the grounds of Redworth Hall, which was then a private mansion owned by the Surtees family.

“A genial sun shone from a sky of almost Italian clearness on Heighington yesterday,” reported The Northern Echo on September 8, 1882, as it told of the novel game of chess.

The board was 15 yards square, marked out in white on the close-cut lawn, with spectators paying half-a-crown admission. Many came by train, with special carriages arranged to transport them from either Heighington or Shildon stations, although many members of the gentry simply drove up in their private horsedrawn carriages and watched from the comfort of their own chairs.

The human chess pieces got dressed in a nearby farm and then marched in their armies of 16 across the fields to the board.

“At a little after four o’clock, the strains of the New Shildon Temperance Brass Band announced the approach of the combatants who were to engage in the peaceful warfare,” said the Echo. “As they approached from Hope Farm, it was evident to the observant visitor that the costumes had been prepared with most careful completeness.”

The vicar, the Reverend CC Chevalier, had paid a special visit to the British Museum to study the 15th Century designs he wished to replicate.

“The opposing parties marched in two divisions,” said the Echo. “First came six pawns, dressed as pages in yellow tights, green doublets, and long pointed shoes, bearing staffs and flags, who preceded the two castles of rooks. These were of canvas, painted to imitate ancient keeps, and animated by girls, whose smiling faces appeared over the battlements and who bore the whole structure with them as they walked.

“Two knights followed, armed with spears, and wearing helmets and light armour. The two bishops, in all the dignity of mitre, cope and crook, came next, followed by a pawn and then by the queen. Her Majesty, who was personated by Miss Chevallier, wore robes of green trimmed with yellow and the high-peaked hat affected by our lady ancestors a hundred years ago.”

Mr Chevallier sat at one end of the board and acted as the commander-in-chief of the green team; Mr Thomson, the Heighington schoolmaster, took charge of the reds, bellowing out orders from the other end of the battlefield.

After the vicar won, two Darlington vicars – the Reverend H Spurrier and the Reverend WHG Stephens – took charge of the pieces for an impromptu match, and everyone returned the following day with even more spectators for another day’s play.

“It was greatly enjoyed by a very large company, and was repeated a third time on Saturday for the amusement of all the village folk,” said the Illustrated London News, which produced an etching of the event, made from a photograph, to thrill its 300,000 readers in the capital.

Such was the excitement that a week later, Mr Chevallier took his pieces to play on the cricket field of Darlington Grammar School in Stanhope Road before “a large and fashionable assemblage”.

After Mr Chevallier had put on a stage-managed game so that he won, an “impromptu” contest followed between the Vicar of Cowton and Mr C Armstrong of Stockton.

“The latter played a remarkably fine and dashing game until he was obliged to leave the ground to catch a train,” said the Echo.

“His place was well supplied, however, by Mr J Wright, who in a few more moves forced his antagonist to resign, all hope being lost.

“This terminated the proceedings, which were watched throughout with great interest.”

Mr Chevallier counted the proceeds with great interest and discovered he had raised enough money to rehang Heighington’s bells, and they ring to this day.

AT noon today, Heighington scouts are holding a local history exhibition in the village hall. They have been challenged to get 100 people of all ages to attend an event, and have got all sorts of helpers to put on historic displays. There will also be refreshments raising money for a defibrillator.

There probably won’t be a re-enactment of the human chess game, but Chris Lloyd, who compiles Memories, will begin proceedings with a short talk. The exhibition closes at 2pm.