The origins of the club go back to the early days of 1949 when a few individuals met at each other's homes to play chess as they had nowhere else to go. Through the generosity of the late Mr. W. Rolls, a keen chess player and a well respected resident and builder in Downend, a hut was provided. The club officially came into existence on November 17th of that year. Nine attended that very first meeting and, as far as is known, all are gone except John Uren, the first Hon. Secretary, a well known chemist and local celebrity in Downend, and Len Turner who is no longer a member. The name adopted was the Downend Chess Club. The Club Room was officially opened by Mr. R.A. Slade, the then W.E.C.U. champion, on June 15th 1950.
The club gradually increased in numbers and a few friendly matches were arranged with Kingswood, Charfield and Bedminster. In July 1950, it was decided to enter two teams in the League in Divisions 4 and 5 respectively. By August, the club membership had risen to 40.
1950 was one of the most important years in the club's history, for the late Mr. W.J. Matthews became a member. He was from Bristol & Clifton and was the only chess player of standing Downend had at that time. The club owes him a great debt of gratitude. He was our king pin who taught us all the rudiments of strategy, the strength of the pieces, what the 'opposition' was all about and much else. Inevitably under such a wise and sagacious player, our chess improved. In November 1950, at the earnest request of the League Management Committee, Downend entered a 'C' team also in Division 5. The results were quite creditable. The 'A' team finished runners up in Division 4 and the 'B' and 'C' teams 5th and 7th respectively in Division 5. In those days promotion and relegation were one up, one down.
The next red letter day in the club's history was the visit of the late C.H.O'D. Alexander in March 1952. He gave a simultaneous display over 26 boards, winning 25 and drawing 1. Those who took part will always remember his unfailing courtesy and patience with us struggling and inadequate chess players - with the exception of Mr. Matthews our maximum grading was probably about 120-130. Downend also had its first promotion, the 'A' team going from Division 4 to Division 3. The annual subscription in those days was 15/-. Happy times!
Then Mike Wood won the Gloucestershire Under 15 County Championship. We felt we were going places. 1956 was another 'annus mirabilis'. C.H.O'D. Alexander, our Vice-President, won the BCF championship at Blackpool. Mr G. Scudamore won the WECU junior championship at Bath, and the club won 3 of the 5 Divisional Championships - the 'A' team winning Division 2, the 'B' team winning Division 4 and the 'C' team winning Division 5.
However, there was one fly in the ointment. Although the club paid no rent to Mr. Rolls, it was responsible for paying the rates and for the heating and lighting of the premises. It was Mr. Rolls' ambition to build a Community Centre in Downend, the club room being the beginning of the project. Therefore he laid down that other organisations should have the use of the room as well and pay the chess club a nominal rent. So we became the parent organisation of the Townswomen's Guild, the Church Lads' Brigade, the Wendons (drama), the Camera Club, the Social Club, the Art Club, the Ladies' Bowling Club, the Horticultural Society and the Tennis Club. The O.A.P.s used it every afternoon free of charge, and they used up all our coal free and gratis, and then the rates were increased. In addition, for some obscure reason, Miss Natalie Gonella, the daughter of Nat Gonella of jazz fame, became the club's Hon. Treasurer in 1955. She had been 'Miss Bristol' the year before and had presented the trophies at the A.G.M. She didn't play chess and rarely came to the club - hence few subscriptions. Some members paid nothing for years. The situation became impossible and, with the sad death of Mr. Rolls, the club felt it must move.
In 1958, the club changed its headquarters to the Horseshoe Inn, Downend. Our rental at that time was 5/- per week and our genial host was the late D.W. Burland of Bristol, Gloucestershire and England rugby fame. In the same year, the Fishponds Chess Club folded up and some of the members joined Downend. Their trophies and other assets came with them but the condition for amalgamation was a change in name. So the Downend Chess Club became the Downend and Fishponds Chess Club. The sole surviving member of the old Fishponds club is Dave March, a former Vice-chairman of the League Management Committee.
The club had a happy time at the Horseshoe and remained there until 1971, when extensive alterations by the brewers meant the club lost its room. Fortunately we found a new home at the Portcullis Hotel, Staple Hill and we all hope it will be the club's permanent home.
Our present membership is 50, including 14 juniors. The membership fee is £5 p.a. Juniors under 18 pay only 50p p.a. unless they are earning. O.A.P.s pay nothing. We now run 6 teams in the League. It is a happy club with many pleasant memories of the past and a record second to none.
Cricket matches with the Blind School when they were at Westbury, and with Hanham and Kingswood; visits to Leyhill Prison - not only for their chess, but to enjoy the admirable dramatic productions the prisoners presented. Such rich and varied memories the club has had!
Downend has won the County Team Championship on several occasions; the County Individual Championship, the League Team K.O., and numerous divisional championships. Between 1967 and 1976 the 'A' team won the Division 1 championship 9 times, only losing 19 out of 160 games. The Dragons (mainly present or ex Downend players) have won the Postal Chess Championship of Great Britain on two occasions. And the club's A team is the current League Champions.
Derek Wise represented England in the Glorney Cup and later won the WECU chess championship as well as the BCF under 21 title in 1970. Chris New was responsible for the very successful Manor Tyres weekend congress of 1980 which attracted some of the finest players in the country; the third congress being of recent memory.
We have always given the League full support. The club has provided:
But perhaps the one thing Downend will pride itself on most is its achievement in the National Club Championship in 1967. Then it reached the last 16, being drawn against Cambridge University. The match was played at Merton College, Oxford. This beautiful college dates back to 1265. Downend lost 4-2 but there is no doubt they should have won. Pete Jones on board 6 was a piece up for two pawns and in a winning position. Ian Pickup had a certain draw against A.T. Ludgate, the BCF under 21 champion, with equal pawns and two bishops each. But Ian had had a sleepless night with stomach trouble and concentration became more and more difficult. Pete Jones wilted and sadly got into time trouble and the piece was lost. Ten minutes from time, Ian made one slip and that was that.
But glory be, Derek Wise with the black pieces on board 1 drew with W. Hartston, runner up in the previous BCF championship and victor over ex-World Champion M. Botvinnik at the Hastings Christmas Congress. And further glory - Geoff Young on board 2 hammered A.M. Davies, the Scottish champion, into the ground. Great days!
The early pioneers would be proud if they could see the results of their efforts. They sowed the seed and the harvest has been exceeding fruitful.
1997 postscript: Downend continue to be one of the League's top clubs. They have won a couple of League Championships in the last 15 years, the most recent being in 1993-94. A few years ago, they moved from the Portcullis (with its orange lighting and small wobbly tables) to the much nicer Downend Cricket Club. - JR