Saturday, 3 September 2016

HOCCC: The Essex-Suffolk Border League

Before the North Essex Chess League was formed there was the Essex-Suffolk Border League. Three games from this league have been included in previous posts, the material for this post was taken from the booklet "The History of the North Essex Chess League" by J. Priestley.

The Scene Prior to Formation

In 1963 the County of Essex could have been divided, so far as the active chess player was concerned, into two distinct portions. In the extreme south lay rich and fertile territory in which a substantial number of clubs could readily be found, all thriving under the stimulus of active competition provided by the Essex Chess League. The remainder of the County, in contrast, comprised a large area of barren wasteland populated only by a very small number of clubs which were both underactive and poorly publicised. For a while, little or no contact existed between these clubs, far less any organised competition, so that each club was somewhat akin to a sudden oasis in a desert. Chess activity in the area was thus at a very low level, so low that many were unaware it existed at all. Indeed, a newcomer to Essex at that time who enquired about facilities for the game might easily have been offered the advice "there's nothing north of Brentwood".

The situation is, however, very different today, for activities in the area comprising the central and northern parts of Essex have developed to a level comparable with those in the south since the formation of the North Essex Chess League. This is the story of the birth, and subsequent growth, of the League.

It is known that chess clubs have existed in the area for about 100 years, and possibly longer. Colchester Chess Club has records dating back to its formation in 1888, which reveal that the club was soon engaged in friendly matches against clubs from Chelmsford, Clacton and Sudbury. But although such encounters took place regularly over many years, it appears that no organised competition existed specifically for clubs in the area until 1950, when the Essex and Suffolk Border League was formed. Before then, competitive chess came only in the form of the Essex County Trophy, in which clubs from the area competed for a long period. Chelmsford actually won the event more than once in the 1930's. Colchester also played in the National Club Championship for quite a while.  As both events were on a knockout basis, even the successful could expect no more than a handful of matches in a season. The competitions must have involved considerable travelling too, for most of the entrants in the Essex County Trophy came from the far south while opponents in the National Club Championship were likely to be situated even further afield. The formation of the Essex & Suffolk Border League must have been very welcome to all those who relished the challenge of regular competitive play against opposition within reasonable distance.

But the League never really developed in the way its promoters had no doubt hoped. Although it covered the sizeable area from Chelmsford in the south to Stowmarket and Bury St. Edmunds in the north, membership was always confined to about half a dozen clubs, and competition was destined to last for just twelve seasons. In its final years, membership consisted of only five clubs who met over six boards once a season. Chelmsford found themselves playing just one home match in every other season, arising from the alternation of venues with old foes Colchester. The other three surviving members, Clacton, Ipswich and Bury St. Edmunds, were all played "halfway" at either Colchester or Sudbury. The luxury of a home match was a similar rarity for both Bury and Clacton.  Under these conditions it is, perhaps, hardly surprising that enthusiasm fell away, and play in the League ultimately ceased in the area, for by that time no club was still taking part in the Essex County Trophy, a fact which no doubt helped to give rise to the myth that there was nothing north of Brentwood.

If the Essex & Suffolk Border League had succeeded in maintaining its existence for just a little while longer, the development of competitive chess in the area might well have taken a very different course from the one it subsequently did. Central and northern Essex saw a substantial rise in population between the late 1950's and the mid 1970's, and indeed the population has continued to expand right to the present day. Inevitably, the newcomers included chessplayers, some of whom swelled the ranks of existing clubs while others set about forming new clubs after failing to find any existing ones within reach. Ironically, the new clubs first started to appear in 1963, just after the demise of the Border League. Had there been a local league available some may well have joined it, but as there was not it meant that the area had no central agency through which clubs could readily make contact with each other. As a result, a newly formed club often remained in total isolation from any others until some while after its formation.

Even the most undaunted explorer would have had difficulty in tracking down every single pocket of chess activity which existed at this time. Enquiries of official sources ought to have unearthed Colchester, for they alone had been affiliated to the British Chess Federation. Discovery would have led on to Chelmsford and Clacton, both known to Colchester, but no further, for the established clubs knew nothing of the new ones. Advertising a small club or society on a continuous basis has never been an easy matter and was even more difficult then than it is today, for nowadays we have the useful media of comprehensive local directories, free "advertiser" newspapers and a large network of community centres which were virtually non-existent in 1963. So contact between clubs often came about only after diligent enquiries by newly appointed club secretaries desperately seeking opposition against which their clubs could play. Gradually, contacts were made and friendly matches arranged, and the desert wastelands started to show a few signs of fertility.
Incredibly, a newly formed club in Chelmsford actually operated for some months within half a mile of the Chelmsford club itself before contact was established between the two. The new club had been formed at the Hoffmann Company (now Ransome Hoffmann Pollard) and, although membership was small, the enthusiastic efforts of secretary Stan Wooller had led him into contact with other small clubs as far apart as Kedington (Haverhill), Ghyllgrove (Basildon) and the United States Air Force Base at Wethersfield as well as a more substantial group at Braintree. A number of friendly matches had taken place between members of this group before contact was established between the two Chelmsford clubs. It happened when Chelmsford's John Priestley wrote to local companies asking if there was any chess activity taking place in sports and social sections, and received a very prompt response from Stan Wooller to the effect that at Hoffmanns there most certainly was!

See also, a game from the past: 1, 2, 3

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