In former times, St. Luke’s College (now incorporated into Exeter University) was an independent, men-only, teacher-training college with a reputation for having the finest student rugby team in the country.
I arrived there in September 1960, never having played either rugby or a competitive game of chess. I discovered that friends of mine who had played rugby at county level couldn’t get into any of the college’s twelve(?) teams, which, added to my total ignorance of the game and low pain threshold, suggested little point in my pursuing that particular outlet for aggression. The college chess club was more promising, although I had only ever played friendly games with my father and a school friend during the previous couple of years.
At the first meeting the chess club appeared to have just five members, comprising myself, three other freshers and a sole second-year student, Philip Walker of Weston Super Mare. Philip, however, was steeped in chess and all its finer points. His father, I later discovered, was Ernie Walker, who was Secretary of the WECU Easter Congress for many years. At the time I had no yardstick to estimate Philip’s true chess ability (as opposed to his obvious and abundant enthusiasm), as the present grading system did not exist. He was, in fact, shortly to become West of England Champion aged 20 (1962) ahead of A.R.B. Thomas, Dr. Aitken, Mardle, the Wheeler brothers et al.. Thus his ability and enthusiasm made him a formidable force and he was determined to whip this unlikely rabble into a team capable of participating in the Exeter & District League.
The other members of the club were Stewart Walker, from Astwood Bank in Warwickshire, who had played junior chess to county level, and John Simpson, who lived in Exeter. He had been to Exeter School and had invaluable local knowledge. The fifth member was Roger Betts, whose main allegiance was to the football team but would play for us if pushed.
We launched into the league matches, playing now-extinct teams like St. Loye’s, led by their Principal, Frank Tregellas, who was unable to sit at the board, and Rex Willis. The Civil Service team met at the Black Horse in Heavitree and included Ray Shepherd and Eric Soper. The University had a strong team, while Exeter was led by Messers Clapp and Richards, both University lecturers.
Under Philip Walker’s leadership, we were drilled in the finest points of match play; never to agree any result without his knowledge, when to offer or accept draws and so on, and somehow or other we won the 1st Division and Philip won the Exeter & District Individual Championship.
The following season, with Philip gone and no new members to replace him it looked impossible to retain the trophy. However, we dragooned a fifth unwilling player from the new first years, and not only did we win it again but did so for a third time in 1963. To this day, I have no idea how we managed this with only two experienced players, one novice and two pressed men. I could believe I dreamt it if the name St. Luke’s wasn’t engraved on the Div I cup for those three consecutive years.
Equally strange was the story of what happened in the early spring of 1961. At the beginning of March, knowledgeable second-years started to move among us, talking about the approaching Rag Week. Coming from a grimy pit village in the Midlands, this phenomenon was quite beyond my experience, but it seemed that during this particular week any whacky idea was legitimate by virtue of it being fund-raising for charity. At this particular moment in the history of education, it should be remembered that most of the second-year students were the last to have done National Service, had been all round the world and seemed very worldly-wise to we first-years who had mostly come straight from the sixth form. Simply, they were men, we were still boys. For example, at a Rag Week brain-storming session, one of these ex-National Service students volunteered, as a Rag stunt, to parachute into the middle of St. James' Park during an Exeter City match. It was given serious consideration by the Rag Committee but eventually rejected because of the danger, in the event of a crosswind, of the parachutist landing on the adjacent Exeter — Waterloo line!
Keen to keep our end up in the light of this level of thinking, we came up with the idea of playing chess in the High Street. The original idea was that Stewart Walker and I would set up a table, two chairs and a set and board somewhere on the pavement and just start playing, with a collecting tin to tempt, or, more likely, deter spectators. As the Monday morning approached, the weather was bitter, Stewart caught a cold, literally and metaphorically and cried off. Thinking on the hoof, our group of mates decided that I would be the sole player challenging all-comers, and they agreed to form a rota of friends to stay around so that I would have a guaranteed opponent at all times allowing continuity to be unbroken. We got a blackboard and easel from somewhere so that the score could be displayed, and an eye-catching poster was made.
That Monday morning we carted all the equipment down into the city centre. In view of the cold and the possibility of rain, we set up the table under the Burlington Arcade where it meets the High Street, and play commenced. Shoppers would cast a quizzical glance in our direction before hurrying on by with an expression of either amusement or, more likely, disdain. In those days, bus transport was used far more than today, and all buses passing through the city stopped right alongside where I was playing, frequently packed with passengers, upstairs and down, most of whom would spend a few minutes gazing incredulously at the street entertainment before them. All this helped to get the event noticed on that first day.
A couple of times Rag Committee officials stopped by to see how it was going, and were pleased with several features of the activity; it demanded nothing of them, was right before the public gaze and was ongoing. I can’t recall exactly at what stage it was decided that the event should carry on beyond the one day, but as evening approached, there seemed no reason why it should stop necessarily, as long as I was prepared to carry on and the rota of friendly opponents was maintained. So continue we did. Evening turned to even chillier night but we kept at it.
Next morning, even the earliest commuters in the morning rush hour may have been surprised to see us still there. Busloads of workers and hordes of shoppers must have had a feeling of déjà vu as they tried to work out in their minds whether we had made a very early start or might possibly, just possibly, have been there all night. Rag Committee members were now delighted with the continuity and urged us to keep it going as long as possible. Friends brought food along and occasionally I allowed myself an occasional visit to the public toilets next to Dingles, when it was my opponent’s move, of course.
Tuesday went much as Monday, with the difference that by now, members of the public were beginning to take notice to the extent that more people would actually take up our challenge to take on all-comers and would come up for a game. Tuesday night was unforgettable as more people would stop by for a game and now, starved of sleep for a second consecutive night, staying awake at the board was becoming a serious problem. Several times in the early hours, I felt my head drooping forwards and almost slumping off the chair onto the pavement. But somehow I came through that and got ready for a third day.
Commuters and early shoppers had now become used to seeing me there and looks of withering scorn were being replaced in the main by knowing amusement. The public were now in on the joke. The Rag Committee, delighted at the way this unlikely event had taken off, now concerned themselves as to how it should end. Should I be offered dubious stimulants in an attempt to press on further into the week or should I quit now while ahead? Eventually it was decided that it should end at 3 p. m. on the Wednesday afternoon when the maximum number of people were still about. They organised an open-top Morris Minor to carry me, standing on the back seat, the length of the High Street, waving to the crowds like some returning hero. Alongside me on the back seat was the blackboard proclaiming 52 hours of non-stop playing.
Back at college I collapsed on my bed and slept for 18 hours. It was not until several days later, taking stock of what had happened and wondering whether we had inadvertently set some kind of record that a friend suggested we contact Ross and Norris McWhirter, the twins who were then establishing the Guinness Book of Records as an institution. I wrote and told them what we had done. They replied saying there was no such thing as a Marathon Chess Record, but they would be delighted to accept this as the first. It appeared in the next edition, the 10th, dated November 1962.
This was the history of the St. Luke’s College Chess Club, its achievements matched only by its brevity. And thus it was that the inaugural World Marathon Chess Record was set in the middle of Exeter High Street. The record has of course been broken many times since, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had all been done indoors. Now I think about it, I possibly could still be the World
OutdoorMarathon Chess Champion! I could be tempted to write to the Guinness Book of Records. . . but then again, perhaps not.
— R.H. Jones.