Table Tennis: A Notable Absence

By: Charlie Ellis, Jean Guild Grant awardee

Capturing vanishing Edinburgh history

The Old Edinburgh Club has a mission to uncover and capture vanishing evidence of Edinburgh’s history. Table tennis is, I believe, a clear example of a portion of Edinburgh’s history in danger.

Helen Elliot, double World Champion
Helen Elliot, double World Champion (signed photo from the collection of Bert Kerr)

Many people have played the game in a social context or on the kitchen table but its existence as a fast and exciting competitive sport flies beneath the radar. There is little awareness that the city produced, in Helen Elliot, a double world champion (in women’s doubles) or that a keenly contested league structure has existed since 1935. Despite a dip in participation due to the pandemic lockdowns, the Edinburgh and Lothians Table Tennis League (ELTTL) currently (2024) comprises 63 teams in 6 divisions. Further, several Edinburgh & Lothians clubs also take part in the Scottish National League, where almost 150 players compete. Despite many thousands of people in Edinburgh having played the sport over the last 100 years, it has gone on largely unnoticed. As a result, its history is in danger of vanishing.

Scottish National League matches at Bell’s Sports Centre
Scottish National League matches at Bell’s Sports Centre, Perth (photo by Chris Main)

Since getting involved in the sport of table tennis (in 2009), I’ve become aware of the sport’s rich history within the city.  However, I’ve also noticed an absence of a proper historical record and a general dearth of documentation. In many cases, the historical information is largely lodged in the heads of the senior figures in the game. In an attempt to document this, I’ve conducted interviews with some of these ex-players and officials, such as ex-Scottish champions Eddie Still, Johnny Campbell, and the late Bert Kerr, but time is pressing. In late 2023 one of Scotland’s greatest ever players, Malcolm Sugden (who spent much of his early life in Edinburgh), died, his memories largely unrecorded.

For the last few years, I’ve been trying to collate as much material as possible, from a variety of sources. This helped me in writing a history of Murrayfield Memorial Club (which celebrated its centenary in 2022). Table tennis is the last surviving part of the club, established in 1922 as a recreational and meeting place in memory of locals who died in the First World War. Murrayfield are now one of the leading clubs in Scotland with two of its ‘graduates’, Faye Leggett and Calum Morrison, current national champions.

With the aid of the Jean Guild Grant, my intention is to extend this historical examination to table tennis in the city more broadly and to do further digging into the records to see what further documentation exists.

At present, much of the Edinburgh table tennis archive exists as piles of yellowing papers and photographs in my cupboards. This includes a handwritten manuscript by Bob Hayman which details the early years of the Gambit club, the personal archive of Bert Kerr of the Gambit club, and the minute books of the Murrayfield Memorial Club. A focus of this project is to digitise the most important parts of this archive and, in due course, find a proper home for it; where it can be properly catalogued and available for others to use.

Bert Kerr of Gambit TTC, 5 times Scottish Champion (1953)

A rich, cosmopolitan history

It shouldn’t be considered a surprise that table tennis is somewhat absent from the published history of the city. There are thousands of untold stories about Edinburgh; aspects of the city which could easily vanish if not researched and written up. What I want to emphasise is that embedded in the history of table tennis in Edinburgh are some significant aspects of the city, possibly not recorded elsewhere. The history of table tennis reveals elements which, like the sport, have often been overlooked. As the political writer C.L.R. James put it in his classic book on cricket, Beyond a Boundary, ‘What do they know of cricket that only cricket know?’. James’ searching question emphasised the impossibility of understanding sport without reference to its social context. Perhaps we can’t fully understand Edinburgh without examining some of its sporting history.

One aspect has been the ‘cosmopolitan’ character of table tennis in Edinburgh. This has been evident throughout the history of the ELTTL (the Edinburgh and Lothians Table Tennis League). For example, the first league winners (1937-39) were a team of Indian and Chinese students and the Edinburgh Indian Association became an influential part of the league. G. Verghese Esq. was the first editor of the league handbook. Inverleith-International House, composed of international students, was another high-profile club in the early years. In the 21st century, Chinese students (especially at Edinburgh University) have again become a prominent feature of the ELTTL and have helped raise standards.

The post-war boom in table tennis in Edinburgh (and elsewhere) was energised by a group of top-class Polish players who were stationed in Lothian during the war, with some of them staying, marrying and becoming naturalised Scots. One of them, Johnny Miller (as he became), was Scottish champion in 1956. The Polish influence has re-emerged in recent years with several leading players in the league coming from that country. They have again helped make the top echelons of the league more competitive and many have been closely involved in coaching, helping the next generation of players.

Scottish team at the 1965 World Championships in Llubijana T. McMichael, Bert Kerr, Olive Hawkins, Lesley Barrie, Jim Carswell, Malcolm Sugden, Jim Dow

Another group prominent in the early years of league table tennis was the Jewish community. This parallels the situation in Manchester, as related in Howard Jacobson’s brilliant novel The Mighty Walzer. This highly autobiographical account tells the tale of a shy teenage ping pong fanatic in the 1950s. In Edinburgh, the Jewish influence was strongest at Gambit which emerged as an offshoot of Stockbridge Chess Club and had become Scotland’s top club by the mid-1950s, while the Macabi club was also prominent in the leagues in the early decades of the 1950s.

There is also the political aspect. Ivor Montagu, the key figure in the establishment of the ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation). He was a ‘communist aristocrat, Soviet spy and activist filmmaker’. Montagu’s fascinating tale is well told in Nicholas Griffin’s Ping-Pong Diplomacy which shows how the sport has been interwoven into significant political events.

Montague saw table tennis, with its simple, inexpensive equipment, as an essentially proletarian game and promoted the sport as a way to spread communism. It’s no accident that China adopted the sport so enthusiastically. Even genteel Edinburgh was not immune to this ‘red wave’. One team which caused a bit of a stir was the Mason Memorial Club. They were named after an Edinburgh Communist (and rubber worker) who was killed in the Spanish Civil War in the ranks of the International Brigade. Mason Memorial Club’s players were members of the Young Communist League, and their rooms (in an old factory on St. Mary’s Street) ‘were decorated with pictures of Stalin and other Russian celebrities’.

More broadly, the sport has retained a working-class identity, with strong clubs emerging in areas such as Craigmillar, Muirhouse and Gorgie. Two of Scotland’s strongest clubs are based in Drumchapel and Saltcoats, where the North Ayrshire club (which currently dominates the Scottish National League) has recently received funding as part of the government’s levelling up strategy.

As Richard Yule, Chief Operations Officer of Table Tennis Scotland (and one of Scotland’s greatest ever players), has recently written in The Herald, works teams used to be the backbone of local leagues, with matches taking place in canteens and social clubs. Rolls Royce played in the West of Scotland League while, prior to closing in 1993, the electrical engineering company Ferranti had several teams in the Edinburgh & Lothians League. De-industrialisation hit the sport hard, with local leagues waning in its wake. League participation in Edinburgh & the Lothians peaked in 1981 and went into steady decline after that, though there has been a bit of an upturn in the last decade or so. In short, the history of table tennis reveals much about changing social and economic times.

These are among the interesting tales that are embedded in the sport’s history. Tales I hope to tell more fully in future ‘outputs’, including a detailed account of the formative years of Gambit Table Tennis Club and league table tennis in Edinburgh for the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club. In this research I hope to address some apparent ‘absences’:

i) Absence of table tennis from the popular consciousness

Very few people are aware of it as a competitive sport with leagues, tournaments etc. It is very often seen as a social activity. Indeed, the most high-profile table tennis event in recent years has been the popular ‘Wiff Waff Wednesday’, held at Out the Blue in Leith. This community driven event had an emphasis on ‘friendship before competition’. Social ping pong is a great way to promote the sport and raise the profile of table tennis. However, more needs to be done to raise the profile of the competitive version.

ii) Physical absence of the sport

The sport, often played in ‘hidden’ little venues, is rarely seen by members of the public. In addition, little legacy of table tennis in the ‘built environment’. Physical evidence of table tennis having been played tends to disappear without a trace, due to the ‘adaptable’ character of the sport. Significant venues for table tennis in Edinburgh include Epworth Hall on Nicolson Square. This was used for international matches, including a Scotland vs Wales clash captured by Pathe News. However, when I contacted the archivist at Epworth Hall, they found no trace of table tennis in their records.

Another table tennis venue passed by thousands every day is Oddfellows’ Hall (Forrest Road), now a large pub. This was the site of a number of matches in the early days of organised table tennis in the city, including a major exhibition match in 1938 which attracted press attention. The Evening News reported that the event, featuring top American players, demonstrated that the sport was ‘a fascinating and spectacular game to watch…requiring immense vitality and perfect physical fitness’.

iii) Absence of table tennis from the published record: the history of Edinburgh and accounts of Scottish sport

Small section Bob Hayman’s manuscript

That very little research has been done on the history of the sport in Scotland. Work was begun by Michael McLaren of Murrayfield and Leith TTC. However, his untimely death following a heart attack during a league match in 1999, left us with only some initial sketches of a history of Edinburgh and Lothians table tennis. The archival material that exists is patchy and has not yet been systematically organised or digitised.

‘’The league matches during this season produced nothing out of the common. On the whole it was a dull season in which the standard of play seemed never to rise above middling’.

iv) Absence of table tennis from the ‘lived reality’ of people in Scotland

While the first three absences are genuine, the fourth is not. My project aims at starting to address absence no. iii. The hope is that this can help address absence i. and raise the profile of a fantastic sport that is ideally suited to those of all ages and level of physical ability – and also ideally suited to the Scottish climate! Psychiatrist Daniel Amen recently described the sport as ‘the world’s best brain sport”, as it stimulates five different parts of the brain at the same time. Studies have shown it to be effective in counteracting the onset of dementia. Sessions have been held in care homes and at the Eric Liddell Centre in Edinburgh. Table tennis has great potential to help people maintain physical and mental health and sharpness. A higher profile for the sport may see undiscovered talent emerge; as expressed in this appeal to Edinburgh’s youth – published in the league handbook for season 1946-47.

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