History Of Cheltenham Table Tennis Association - 1923 to 2005

By Stan Johnstone

When Cheltenham President John Boyd first asked me if I would write a digest of the above history I thought about it only in general terms as my association with the C.T.T.A. only began when I arrived at Cheltenham in 1969. Quite clearly there were huge gaps in my knowledge of the early years but by great good fortune Dick Prior has unearthed some valuable information from an old 1973 handbook which I now produce in full.

Entitled '50 years of the Cheltenham Table Tennis Association - From Ping Pong to Table Tennis' by R.M.C Dawkins (Chairman 1972/73)

Ron begins:
When our predecessors met in 1923 to establish the Cheltenham Ping Pong Association, I am sure that they little realised either how the game would develop in the subsequent 50 years or that we today would be interested in their activities. Needless to say, facts concerning the first few years are hard to come by: I have consulted the archives of the Cheltenham Echo and have spoken to several of our venerable players and ex-players but naturally faces rather than names, impressions rather than facts, come to mind and, of course, with the passage of time, recollections became blurred. But there is a considerable consensus of opinion which, although not supported by written evidence, can be regarded as factual.

Firstly I am assured that the Cheltenham Ping Pong Association was founded in January 1923. Rules were left to the interpretation of players and the quality of the tables left a little to be desired by our present standards: bats were made of wood - sandpaper bats first appeared later in the 1920’s - a considerable advance!

Of the clubs playing in those days, All Saints and Park Old Boys are no longer with us, but Cheltenham YMCA and Gas Green are still in our League today. Personalities are hard to find in those early days, although

R. Smithand J. Smith are still recalled and it was also in the 1920’s that H. C. (“Jimmy”) Robinson (who later played for the Cricket Club and was still playing just a few years ago) first tried his hand at Ping Pong.

In 1926 it was reported in the Echo that the recently formed Cheltenham & District Ping Pong League consisted of two divisions.

The Division 1 sides were:- Bethseda, Cambray, Pilley, Salem, St John’s and YMCA
The Division 2 sides were:- Parish Church, Pilley II,  Salem II, St John’s  II and YMCA II.

The rules of this period differed from our present day rules in one important respect, as will be seen from this extract: “The winner of a game of ping pong is he who reaches 21 points first. Three games are played by each player to make a set. It is the total number of points that count for the side.”

In 1927 the first Town match was played, against Evesham at the YMCA. The Cheltenham team of T. V. Pratt, C. C. Atwood, H. Lewis, F. J. Smith, E. G. Lucas, W. Vick, L. Mills and S. G. Winnett, (reserve - W. Pitman) beat Evesham by 452 points to 415.

At the AGM in 1927 the Association was re-named the Cheltenham Association. T. G. Cook was re-elected President and T. V. Pratt was elected Hon. Secretary and Treasurer. 1928 saw the first Town match against Gloucester which resulted in a win for Gloucester. The Cheltenham players were H. Symonds, T. V. Pratt, G. H. Dunks, C. Tilling and  A. H. Lewis. Each played one game against each of the Gloucester players but although H. Symonds won all his five games, Cheltenham lost 10 - 15.

The 1930's

In the early 30’s the pimpled rubber bat took over from all other types of bat and spin. The finger spin service in particular became an important factor in the game. Modern players would be appalled at the laxity of rules regarding services. Reg Jenkins (who incidentally, is still playing at the ripe old age of 67) can vividly recall viciously spun services with players either spinning the ball before striking it or holding the ball against the surface of the bat.

Successful clubs of the 1930’s, but no longer in the league today, included Bristol Trams, L. V. and S., Old Centrals, H. A. Partridge Ltd., St Peter’s, Burrows, The Famous and Bennington Hall.


The 1940's and 1950's

During the war the league was kept very much alive and in the 1942-43 season the first men’s singles competition was won by D. M. Thompson (later to become chairman of the Association and the first chairman of the Gloucestershire County Association) who beat G. Pike 21-19, 21-12, 21-16. It was during the later 1940’s that several household names in the realm of Cheltenham Table Tennis first appeared. Bob Griffin with his outstanding attacking game; Molly Jones, who also had the honour of playing for England; Peter Cruwys, who has done so much for Cheltenham Table Tennis in so many fields; his brother Stan; and last but not least, the person who, with his wife, worked so hard for so many years as a member of the Management Committee, Mr. W. E. Griffiths, ‘Griff’ as he was known to all, became the Association’s first life member in 1971.

During the late 1940’s - a highlight of which was an exhibition in the Old Town Hall by Victor Barna, Johnny Leach, Jack Carrington and Elizabeth Blackburn - the league had grown to four divisions plus a Ladies division, which was first won by the Clarence Club team consisting of Mrs Wright, Miss Spencer and Miss Smith who went through the season undefeated. In 1947-48 the following promising juniors were selected for special coaching by Jack Carrington: M. Leach, W. Riley (now the Association’s auditor - 1973)  R. Jones, A. Wellon and S. White - the last named pair are still playing today, for Gotherington and Charlton Kings respectively.

In 1949 the Montpellier Pavilion became the home of Cheltenham Table Tennis and the facilities it offered led to an immediate rise in standards. In the 1950’s Cheltenham’s best known player, who became England’s number one, Ian Harrison, came to the fore, but during this period there was a wealth of good players in the town. K. Edwards, K. D. Griffiths, K. Tarling and R. Tarling come to mind and more than one of these were picked for an England Junior team. During this period our President, Frank Newell was Chairman and under his leadership the league flourished as it has not done since. Cheltenham reached the final of the Wilmott Cup only to lose to Manchester. The Cheltenham team was I. Harrison, P. Cruwys, K. D. Griffiths and R. Griffin.

The 1960's

The 1960’s saw the loss of the Montpellier Pavilion and we can now see with hindsight what a blow this was for Cheltenham Table Tennis. In the 1960’s we lost several of our top players and the advent of the sponge bat. Names of successful players that come to mind are Martin White, Tony Smith, Johnny Mower (who long reigned as Veterans champion) John Marshall, Les Gresswell (recently appointed as E.T.T.A. coach), “Chalky” White and Derek Grant.

This brings me up to the present time (1973) with the prospects for the future looking brighter than for some years. Players such as David Harvey, Bob Thornton, Malcolm Green and Peter Slack should show that the fact that both the men’s and the Junior teams, who won their divisions of the Midland league last season, was no flash in the pan.

I am afraid that I have just scratched the surface in going over these 50 years. I have had to omit many personalities and many events, but I trust that these few words have illustrated what great progress has been made from small beginnings. But one must remember that the players who do not make the headlines, and the teams who have not won honours are the backbone of our Association. Finally we must not forget the many officials who, over the years, have given so freely of their time. All have played a part in the progress we have achieved over these 50 years.

We are extremely grateful to Ron for providing such an insight to our game in Cheltenham during those formative years. (Stan Johnstone commenting). Table Tennis or Ping Pong, as it was first known and played in the 19th century,  never really appeared in its present form until an Englishman, James Gibb, a prominent athlete, while visiting the USA in 1900 brought back some coloured plastic balls which he had noticed were children’s playthings. It must have occurred to him that these would be better to use for the new Parlour game of “Ping Pong” than a child's rubber ball which had been mainly used up to that date?

Gerald Gurney’sbook 'Table Tennis - The Early Years', which is perhaps the best authority on how the game developed, states that celluloid balls were first introduced about 1900, and it would seem that, ever since, the game has been attractive to countless generations of youngsters and parents who always sought to control that bouncing ball.  Yet for something like 20 years the game remained in the doldrums and one must ask why this should be so? Ron gives us many of the answers because we may say with some conviction that it must have been played with a great deal of interest in Cheltenham prior to 1923, as when a National tournament was organised by the Daily Mirror in that year there were more than 30,000 entrants across the UK. Wow!

Yet this must have been only the tip of the iceberg as these are only the one’s who fancied their chances.

Rontells us that the Cheltenham Ping Pong Association was formed in January 1923 and this fits in with our scant knowledge that the above tournament was played in 40 areas, from February to May 1923, the finals being played in London.

On the question of rules we may say that the (English) T.T.A.  had formulated some rules largely due to the efforts of Ivor Montagu, son of Lord and Lady Swaythling  He also changed the name from the Ping Pong Association to the Table Tennis Association, but it was not until 1926 that the I.T.T.F. got into the act. They currently represent 186 Affiliated Associations.

It was interesting to read from those early days that the results of matches depended on the total number of points scored by a team.

With reference to the old venue of Montpellier Pavilion which served Cheltenham so well in the past! Venue’s have always been a problem over the years to our C.T.T.A. Committees and Peter Cruwys must take much of the credit for linking us with our present magnificent venue at the Cheltenham College. This has meant having to adapt our playing habits to our new circumstances, where so many teams play their matches at the same venue, but there is nothing in the rules that prevents any team from having its own venue providing the conditions are suitable.


How Table Tennis Began

Table tennis was invented in England at the end of the 19 th century as a parlour game based on lawn tennis. The earliest bats were made from parchment stretched on a frame - the distinctive sound made by a ball hitting these hollow drums inspired the name ping pong, but early versions of the game were also marketed as Gossima' and ;whiff-whaff.

The Golden Age and Johnny Leach

London hosted the first official world championship in 1927. The sport enjoyed a golden age in the 1930s and 1940s when it was dominated by players predominantly from Eastern Europe, like Hungary's Victor Barna, and young upstarts from the USA like New York hustler Marty 'the Needle' Reisman. England's Johnny Leach won two World titles in 1949 and 1951, becoming a household name for the table tennis coaching camps he ran at Butlins. 'The Needle' Marty 'the Needle' Reisman holds a special place in the hearts of ping pong aficionados. A stick-thin, charismatic maverick from New York in the 'Hurricane Higgins' mould, Marty won the British Championship in 1949 and challenged for World titles in the 50s, only to see his dreams of glory scuppered by clashes with the authorities, a penchant for gambling on high stakes ping pong and the arrival of the infamous sponge bat in 1952. Ping Pong's 'great contender' and a tireless self-promoter, he remains a colourful and amusing character obsessed with the glorydays and what might have been. A Hollywood movie of his life is rumoured to be in the works. Reisman came over to Gloucester in 2004 to take part in the Gloucester Hard Bat Tournament.

The Introduction Of Sponge

In 1952, a little known Japanese player, Hiroji Satoh, arrived at the World Championships in Bombay, India, with a new racket that would revolutionise the sport and shift the balance of power inexorably from the west to the east. The sponge bat used a layer of foam rubber to impart baffling spin and speed on the ball - almost overnight, the great European and American players raised on hard, pimpled rubber bats found their skills had become obsolete. Satoh claimed the title and ushered in fifty years of Asian dominance.

The Rise of the East

Ping Pong is the most popular sport in Asia - Japanese players initially dominated in the 1950's but China overtook them in the 60's. Mao Tse-Tung was a keen player and encouraged the sport in an effort to promote China on the world stage. Asian players traditionally grip the racket in the 'penholder' style, much as they would a pair of chopsticks; western players hold the racket in the 'shake-hands' style.

Ping Pong Diplomacy

In April 1971, in the middle of the Cold War, the table tennis World Championships were held in Nagoya, Japan . When American table tennis player Glenn Cowan missed his team bus after a training session, he accepted an invitation to hitch a ride with the Chinese team. Cowan bonded with Chinese hero Zhuan Zedong and the pair exchanged gifts - when the media got wind of the encounter there was pandemonium. After years of hostility between Communist China and America , suddenly there was an unlikely opportunity for a thaw in the Cold War. Mao and the Chinese government invited the American table tennis team to visit the country, leading to an unprecedented tour - on April 12th 1971 the US team became the first Americans to visit China since Mao's communist party had come to power, 22 years earlier. The success of the American trip laid the foundations for President Richard Nixon's historic visit the following year.

Table Tennis Today

Competitive table tennis today is struggling as a spectator sport. The development of 'speed glue' - a layer of adhesive that gives the bat a propulsive quality - means that games are played at lightning speed and rallies last just seconds. Sweden 's Jan Ove Waldner emerged in the late 80's as one of the few European players who could defeat the Chinese, claiming several World titles, and is widely hailed as one of the best players of all time. But the soul of the sport is at stake in the ongoing battle between art and science...


RON DAWKINS - AN APPRECIATION BY JOHN BOYD

Ron Dawkins was Chairman of the CTTA for 9 seasons from 1970/71 to 1978/79, and the Ron Dawkins award is presented annually by the CTTA. 

Before 1970 Ron had served on the Committee and been Vice-Chairman in 1965/66 and 1966/67.  He took over as Chairman at the 1969/70 AGM, at a time when the CTTA was facing a crisis.  In the previous season the Association had made a huge financial loss - indeed had the loss continued at the same level, the Association would have run out of funds in just over a year.  At the 1969/70 AGM, the committee resigned en bloc.  At this critical point, Ron stood up and said he would stand as Chairman if others would fill the vacant positions.  Inspired by Ron's example, I and other younger members filled these vacant positions and the CTTA was able to continue. 

Ron was an excellent Chairman.  He was genuinely respected, he had a wealth of experience (he had played in the Swindon League for several years) and he whole-heartedly supported the younger and inexperienced members of the Committee.  

His most important task was to restore the financial position.  At that time most players were members of organisations' sports clubs or of youth clubs (Dowtys, Dowty Ashchurch, Smiths, the CCS, Cavendish House, the YMCA and other Youth Clubs).  Ron knew that these clubs paid the affiliation fees for their teams and so a team fee was introduced to boost income without hitting the pockets of the majority of players.  The production of the handbook was a major source of expenditure and for the 1970/71 season a handbook with only the cover and 4 inside pages was produced.  Ron took up my suggestion that we should put advertisements in the handbook to reduce its cost.  (This was done, and in some years the Association actually made a profit on the handbook). 

By these (and other) measures, the committee was so successful in restoring the Association's finances that in 1973 we were able to put up the financial guarantee to the ETTA to stage an International match at the Town Hall against Russia to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the CTTA.

But Ron's greatest achievement was to change the whole character of the Association.  When he took over as Chairman there was a huge gulf between the top players, whose participation in Town matches was a significant source of expenditure, and the majority of the members, who played only their league matches but whose subscriptions were used to finance the CTTA.  Ron was determined to break down this gap and to give members playing in the lower divisions a better deal.   In 1972/73 he conceived the idea of the Jubilee Cup, where players in the top divisions played as a team with players in lower divisions, and he devised the very successful format of the competition.  It was during Ron’s Chairmanship, furthering his aim of bringing members of the CTTA together, that the CTTA’s newsletter ‘Net and Edge’ was launched, with Viv Pyner as the first editor.     

Secondly, Ron believed that every player in the Association should have the chance of winning a trophy, if they played to the best of their ability.  The number of tournament events was increased significantly - in 1970 there were 12 events but in 1979, when Ron relinquished the Chairmanship, there were 20. 

Thirdly, Ron felt that Officers of the Committee, who freely gave their time to the running of the Association but who were not able to win trophies themselves, should be recognised and rewarded.  He therefore set up the Ron Dawkins Award (first presented in 1979/80) and it was his wish that one year the award would go to an administrator and the next year to a player who had achieved an outstanding success in the previous season, regardless of the division in which they played.

I was delighted to attend recent Warner Shield matches, where the teams were not the top players of Cheltenham and Gloucester, but were made up of players who in some instances played in lower divisions.  I am certain that Ron would have been thrilled to see such players given the opportunity to represent their town.  

I dread to think what might have happened to the future of the CTTA if Ron had not taken over as Chairman in 1970.  We can now see and enjoy the fruits of his leadership.  He should not be forgotten.

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