Durham County Chess Association was formed in 1925 when twelve clubs, from Barnard Castle to South Shields, felt the need for a formal competition. The driving force was a mixture of clergy (two village YMCAs and Hunwick Church Army), teachers (such as Fred Yielder who taught maths at Bishop Auckland Grammar School), businessmen, craftsmen and miners. Unemployment was persistent between the two great wars and chess may have occupied many otherwise empty hours. Ron Knowles (Consett) who was a coal hewer at Crookhall Colliery, learned the game as a boy during the great strike of 1921, and won his first County Championship in 1935. At any rate the fact that they had printed 500 copies of the embryonic Association’s rules seems to indicate that there was widespread interest.
Significantly, these rules were based on those of the Newcastle & District League at a time before Northumberland Chess Association had been formed. The two county associations have long had friendly relations, and there have always been players who were members of clubs on both sides of the Tyne. In 1931 the NCCU sanctioned a joint Durham – Northumberland team for the Counties Championship, an arrangement which lasted two years.
One founder, Mr. B. Barton-Eckett, of Durham City, match captain in 1929, emigrated to Kenya in 1932, then South Africa. It was a surprise when in the 1990s his widow presented to the Association a bound volume of his life’s games. Another outstanding contributor to the early years was Mr. R.S. Friends, who died in the prime of life in June 1930. His contemporaries, Harry Hunnam (Sunderland) and George S. Sell (Newcastle), were blessed with long lives, however, long enough to commemorate Mr. Sell’s 100th birthday in a special Durham-Northumberland match – their result was the same as in their game of October 1931: Hunnam 1-0 Sell.
Problem-solving is a minority interest among chess players but not for Charles Salt of West Hartlepool, who between the wars was one of the most prominent and successful solvers in the country.
Such was the upsurge in chess during the last war that small leagues independent of the county organisation were formed. The North-West Durham League comprised six village teams: Bearpark, Chester-le-Street, Craghead, Langley Park, Quebec and Esh Winning. This league, now deceased, entered a composite team in the main county league. In 1948 there was briefly even a grammar schools league, with teams from Bishop Auckland, Consett, Durham, Darlington, Stanley and Sunderland. The Darlington League still exists.
But, in a surprising downturn, by 1952, only four teams were left in the main county league – Blaydon (for whom the ex-county champion, Charles Henry, played), Consett, Durham and Stockton. Things could only improve after this and usually about eight teams contested the league up to great fillip given to chess by the Fischer-Spassky match of 1972, after which twenty teams were involved. Even Durham Constabulary had a team. Not to be outdone, the staff at Durham Prison entered a team. Both teams are now dormant, if not extinct.
Durham looked south as well as north, and had strong links with the Teesside area which had a formal chess organisation as early as 1883, affiliating to Durham in 1935. Players from Middlesbrough, Stockton, Saltburn, Darlington and Hartlepool were well represented in Durham teams of the 1930s. When Cleveland formed its own county association in 1974 Durham regarded this as a strengthening of chess in the region, though strong players such as Tom Wise and his son, David, Norman Stephenson, Richard Hall, Ron Thomas, and brothers Brian and David Smith were lost to Durham’s teams. Tom Wise’s contribution was all the more valuable since he produced a long line of fine players from his base at Acklam Hall Grammar School, Middlesbrough.
A Boy’s Championship was held for the first time in the 1936-7 season, won by J.H. Elliott of Consett Technical College. Since then, with the exception of 1939-45, juniors have kept the pot boiling. It seems inevitable, but is disappointing, that so many of our young players are lost to senior chess.
Among the exceptions to this have been Alan Sayers, Under-18 champion in 1949, and Ken Neat, who won the junior championship three times in the 1960s. Alan, a mainstay of Sunderland chess throughout the period 1950 to his premature death in 1980, was county champion several times and acted as county match captain. Ken, another native of Sunderland, who exchanged a career in atomic physics for the task of translating Russian chess books and technical material, has also been county champion several times, and runs the Durham City club, encouraging large numbers of youngsters.
It was Alan Sayers who was the chief local organiser for the 1966 British Congress at Sunderland. This had the incidental benefit of bringing Paul Bielby to the North-East. He came to play in the congress and liked the area so much that he took a teaching post in Sunderland and has stayed ever since, bringing ideas, organisation and energy to all aspects of chess, especially to the coaching of juniors and production of the county bulletin. He too has won the County Championship several times. On the wider stage he has been NCCU secretary, NCCU president, and a most experienced NCCU junior organiser. His reputation as an arbiter leads to many invitations to run congresses and his well-coached Newcastle Royal Grammar School team rarely fails to reach the final stages of the Sunday Times Schools Championships.
Many and varied have been the characters who have adorned the county captaincy. Dr. Jack Crosby, match captain from 1954 to 1960, was a lecturer in Biology at Durham University. He perpetually wore his shirt open at the neck, despite the coldest weather, and was transparently honest about his lost games on the way home. Tom Wise, in the same post from 1953-4 called everyone “old man”, even the old men! David Turner and Jim Stearn both introduced good organisation systems for team selection and travel, aided by the knowledgeable Maurice Bell. Obviously, Paul Bielby also took his turn in this post.
The youngest captain was Mark Johnson (Sunderland), in his late teens when he took the post from 1980 to 1981. The oldest, Peter Wilson (Darlington), was a painstaking captain, also acting as BCF delegate for many seasons. He was remarkable for using the top floor of his home as the venue for Darlington chess club, with splendid home-made refreshments during matches. The latest incumbent, Alan Price, (Leam Lane), has undertaken the mammoth task of computerising the whole of the county records and minutes for the last 75 years.
Three treasurers have dominated the post-war period; George Perfrement, a Sunderland headmaster, shrewd and thorough; John Wearmouth, a Sunderland maths teacher, quiet and reliable; and Geoff Knapton, Bishop Auckland insurance broker, affable and concise. The Rev. William Bentley, a clergyman in Chester-le-Street (where he founded the club in 1942), in Bishop Auckland, in Sunderland and in Hartlepool, had the widest responsibilities, being simultaneously county secretary, treasurer, junior organiser and correspondence captain for several years. In recent years the man for multiple posts has been Bryan Bainbridge (Bishop Auckland), who handled the league, gradings, adjudications and NCCU delegacy. Early into computers, his efficiency has been impressive, his public relations easy.
By the 1970s the county teams travelled to away matches by coach to places as far away as Chester and Liverpool. It allowed players to socialise to some extent but it meant a long day. There was only one mishap. Once, halfway home, the coach required a wheelchange. Alan Sayers led the team which assisted the driver.
Weekend congress chess became more and more popular at the expense of county matches, and a survey in 1985 revealed that Durham players preferred to play five games over a weekend rather than travelling for many hours on a Saturday for a single game. Consequently the post of match captain stood vacant during the early 1990s; in 1996, the now annual friendly match v. Northumberland was initiated and has grown since. Durham’s own weekend congress was first held in 1980 at Washington School where it was to continue till the mid-90s. The director was the ebullient Jim Stearn, a Grimsby man drawn to the North-East by his work as timetabling expert with a large coach firm. His team worked very well – Paul Bielby, Maurice Bell, George Wade, Ken Neat, Tom Reynolds, and David Turner – indeed Paul took over the organisation and introduced George Thirlaway, who later became a BCF Director (Home Chess). Bob Hedley, the founder of the Seaham Congress, began in a small way by organising regular Friday evening congresses, which matured into a regular weekend congress in November, part of the BCF Grand Prix. Bob always obtained funds from local firms and the DCCA could not resist his smiling appeals either! The latest congress in the county, known as the Prince Bishops, is still flourishing in Durham City in December.
In 1990 Durham, hitherto the nation’s firmest supporter of the BCF capitation scheme, was first to revolt against the immense increase in the BCF levy fees. Yorkshire were of the same mind and other counties in the south were also mutinous. Durham were disaffiliated by the BCF in 1991 after refusing to pay the 1990 levy, and continued outside the auspices of the BCF for several years. In the end the BCF, despite bluster about expelling Durham and not allowing them back till all levies had been paid, abolished the levy scheme and replaced it with game fees.
A North-East League formed in the 1970s, to imitate Yorkshire’s Woodhead Cup competition over the three North-Eastern counties, playing matches on Saturdays, eventually succumbed to the increasingly popular weekend congresses. Composite teams representing Newcastle, North Durham, Central Durham and Teesside included the strongest players in the region.
This report would not be complete without a tribute to the man who has done more for chess in County Durham than any other: Roger Simpson (Chester-le-Street), who has given almost his whole life to Durham chess. In a career spanning more than fifty years, (he was a key part of the grammar school league just after the war) he has held just about every post in the County Association, often more than once and more than one at a time. Invariably accompanied by the other mainstay of Chester-le-Street and County Durham, Maurice Bell, Roger, headmaster of Washington School (and hence an integral part of the Washington Congresses there) is always to be found at the heart of chess in the county, and where the county is represented in larger circles, as in the NCCU. These few words cannot convey the importance of this man to the Association; a tireless worker, an unsurpassed ambassador for the County, and the most pleasant man one could wish to meet. The Durham Lightning Team Trophy has been the Roger Simpson Trophy for a number of years; when it was first presented, David Turner unforgettably stated: “We normally wait until someone dies before we honour them(!)”. Roger Simpson is the exception, and rightly so.