In the Beginning…
In the 1940s, keen Oxford bridge players would meet weekly sometimes in the Roebuck pub and at other times in a room above the Agripola restaurant in Queen Street. Then, thanks to the drive and energy of Rene Beck, the wife of a local dentist, the Bridge Club acquired a more permanent base, a room in premises in Bevington Road which her husband had leased from the University for his dental practice. Some years later, Mr Beck moved his surgery to Beaumont Street and 11 Bevington Road was leased directly by Oxford Bridge Club. At this stage, duplicate bridge was played regularly once a week on the ground floor of the house and the Bridge Club bar was situated in the basement.
Later the Oxford Bridge Club was formally established. According to an article in the Oxford Times (12 October 1967) the Club was founded in 1951 and therefore various events were arranged during 2001 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Club.
The Oxfordshire Bridge Association
The drive to form a county organisation, the Oxfordshire Bridge Association (OBA) sprang from the Club in Bevington Road, the original impetus being the desire to compete in the Dawes League. After that the activities and remit of the OBA increased substantially and regular county duplicates took place at the Oxford Bridge Club over many years.
Move to Banbury Road
In the mid-sixties the Oxford Bridge Club was forced to vacate 11 Bevington Road when the University decided to re-acquire the house on the expiry of the lease. Through the good offices of Norman Chester, then Warden of Nuffield College, contact was made with University College who agreed to lease to the Bridge Club our current premises at 147 Banbury Road.
The new premises required substantial alteration and refurbishment before the Bridge Club could move in. Many members gave freely of their time; others gave loans of £50 each to the Club, money that was repaid within two years because of the Club’s success. These loans enabled the Club to complete essential work in time for the President’s opening party on Wednesday 11 October 1967. The Management Committee at this time included Micky Beck, President, Freddie and Lilly Beckett (Freddie Beckett was then Chairman), Eva Chester (Chairman of the House Committee) and Sandy Constable whose skills as a surveyor had been invaluable in planning the building alterations. Sandy Constable subsequently became the President of Oxford Bridge Club.
Improvement and Modernisation
The Management Committee continued to improve the premises and the facilities offered, the next major development being a substantial conservatory extension to the back of the property which was built in 1994. This was financed mainly from the Club’s contingency fund but also with a grant of £10,000 from the County Association. Later, in 1996, the kitchen was modernised and the previously decrepit back yard transformed into a garden, thanks to Eileen Martensen.
Improvements continued to be made. In 2000, Rita Todd developed a website for the Club and the subsequent purchase of a new computer enabled Club and County results to be posted on the Internet as soon as they were scored each evening. Also in 2000, the Club was redecorated throughout.
In 2004 the lease was due for renewal. University College, the owners of the property, indicated their willingness to sell the freehold of the whole building, including the two flats on the first and second floors. The Club decided to purchase the freehold and then sell the flats. Thanks to the generosity of many members who made donations or loans, it was possible to secure a mortgage, purchase the freehold and sell off the two flats. Peter Stevenson, the then Chairman, skilfully guided the Club through the lengthy process of securing finance and completing the transactions – the mortgage being guaranteed personally by the four Trustees of the Club.
For many years, before and after the turn of the century, bridge lessons from beginner to intermediate level were offered on Thursday mornings. The premises were packed, with five simultaneous lessons taught by Esme Alden, Peggy Manuell, Morrie Marsh, Winnie Ling and John Simpson, all on a voluntary basis. Advancing years and declining health led to a reduction in the number of teachers and lessons, and the current model became unsustainable. In 2008 the Committee resolved to offer payments to teachers; and to ensure that future recruits to the corps of teachers would have an EBU teaching qualification.
Melinda Jordan, in collaboration with Cathy Rowland and John Briggs, had offered to put the bridge education on a professional footing, and, following approval at an EGM in February 2009, the Club outsourced the education to Oxford Bridge Learning, under a new model, involving payments to teachers and an increase in fees to a level closer to market rates. OBL continued to operate successfully for seven years, bringing many new players into the Club. However, plans for the further development of the premises made it difficult to plan a teaching programme for a year ahead; so OBL did not plan any beginners’ courses from September 2015 and ceased operations in March 2016.
This left the Club with the prospect of being unable to teach bridge at all. Fortunately, Viccy Fleming stepped in at the end of 2015 and offered to devise and run a new education programme, under the name of Oxford Bridge School. OBS organised a comprehensive programme for beginners and for a second year follow-up and laid on Saturday seminars for intermediate and advanced players; and also set up Learn and Play and Gentle Duplicate sessions, to enable learners to graduate to competitive duplicate bridge. In the four years starting in 2016, 354 students learned to play bridge with OBS.
OBC member Marryat Stevens ran bridge teaching sessions for juniors at OBC for a couple of years, from 2007 to 2009. OBC member Holly Kilpatrick set up Oxford Junior Bridge Club in 2014, playing on Sunday afternoons, initially at Summertown Church Hall, subsequently moving the operation to the OBC premises in September 2019, after the refurbishment of the clubhouse. These sessions ran on Sunday afternoons, in term time. OJBC catered for all levels of junior player and Holly was ably assisted by DBS checked volunteers, keen to pass on their love of bridge to the younger generation.
Between 2014 and 2020, nine juniors, who started bridge at OJBC, were selected for the Under 16 England squad and represented their country on many occasions, both face to face and in online competitions. When two of these, Henry Rose and Zane Soonawalla, had passed the age of 16, they trained with the England Under 21 team.
Holly was proud of these international successes but equally important was the enjoyment derived by all the juniors who learned and played at their own pace. The 2020-2021 Covid-19 lockdown did not deter Holly from continuing to keep these youngsters playing and once per month, on Sunday afternoon, the Oxfordshire Bridge Association organised online junior competitions catering for advanced and intermediate players.
Until 2004, membership was restricted to players who could demonstrate a decent working knowledge of the game of bridge, and the Club had about 220 members. When new morning sessions were started, this model was deemed inappropriate. A new category of Associate Membership was created in 2004 for players graduating from the lessons and wishing to attend the newly created morning sessions; and this drew in 56 new members in 2005, with the number of Associate members increasing over the following years, to 125 by 2009. Wednesday and Friday evening sessions were restricted to full members, and players wishing to graduate to full membership were required to be “played in” – i.e to play a couple of games to demonstrate their ability.
In 2012, the Club resolved to scrap different tiers of membership, and to have just one kind of full membership (plus Honorary Life, Student and Junior Membership), with the option of full daytime membership for members who wished to play only during the daytime sessions. Membership numbers declined in 2015, coincident with the cessation of OBL lessons; then did not pick up again until players started to graduate from the OBS education programme; and from 2017 OBS students were granted free membership for one year. In 2016, the Trustees resolved to abolish the distinction between full membership and full daytime membership. From this point, all sessions were open to all members without discrimination; and a guidance document was published, to help members to decide which sessions were most appropriate for their level of experience.
In 2009, the Club purchased a duplimating machine, and Cliff Pavelin volunteered to organise a rota of volunteers to duplimate the boards. The Club went over to the Scorebridge scoring system; and agreed to affiliate to the English Bridge Union, under the new scheme of universal membership.
In 2010, it was agreed that the expansion of Club activities had become too onerous for the Chief Tournament Director, and a new post was created – that of Tournament Secretary – the first postholder being John Fleming, who set out the parameters for the role. The Club also resolved to set up a new bespoke website; and a couple of years later converted to using a Bridgewebs website, which became a hub of useful information, integral to the development of the Club.
During the period 2005-2015, there was a significant expansion in the number of regular weekly bridge sessions. A new Tuesday morning session was established, to provide competitive duplicate bridge for players graduating from the lessons; then further morning sessions were created on Mondays and Fridays. Many more directors and scorers were trained, to cope with the extra demand. In 2012, the Club purchased the improved mark 2 Bridgemates; and adopted the Pianola on-line bridge club management system. The number of transactions gave rise to a much higher administrative burden for club officers, which was ameliorated to some extent by the adoption of on-line systems for communication, booking and paying for competition entries.
The county bridge association had used the OBC premises ever since its formation. However, attendance at weekly county nights declined in the 2010s; and in 2016 these weekly sessions were terminated.
By 2010, members were becoming aware of the shortcomings of the premises – poor heating, poor lighting and ventilation in the middle room, provision of only two separate playing or teaching spaces, shortage of toilet facilities, substandard kitchen (inadequate for food preparation) and deterioration of the conservatory, requiring structural repair or demolition. So the Management Committee began to consider the options of moving elsewhere or redeveloping on the existing site; and members were consulted about their preferences. Both options were pursued simultaneously. Several alternative premises were viewed, but a survey of members showed an overwhelming desire for the club to remain in the North Oxford area. It quickly became clear that property prices precluded the possibility of a purchase in the same locality. An architect, Sarah Murray-Smith, was invited to prepare a feasibility study for refurbishment, which was presented to the 2011 AGM. At the subsequent EGM, the members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the most ambitious redevelopment scheme, and the architect was instructed to produce detailed plans. These gained planning permission in 2012; and an EGM in November 2012 empowered the committee to progress the building works.
Charitable status and incorporation
During planning of the modernisation, the club became aware that – OBC being an unincorporated association - the four trustees who legally (but not beneficially) owned the premises could not be expected to bear the personal responsibility for a large mortgage. (Club Trustees had been willing to guarantee the earlier loan, of £130,000; but it was unreasonable to ask them to guarantee a loan in excess of £250,000.) The major barrier was funding the project, which required a large loan; so the project languished, pending resolution of the problem.
In March 2013, a new type of organisation was created – a Charitable Incorporated Organisation – which appeared to offer a chance to solve the funding problem. If OBC could achieve incorporated status, a mortgage might be secured without any liability falling on individual Trustees; and charitable status would make the Club eligible for a mortgage from an institution such as the Charity Bank, and provide other benefits such as gift aid on membership fees. A couple of bridge clubs had already achieved charitable status, so it was known the Charity Commission was open to such an application.
Chairman Richard Sills did the necessary research and planning in 2013; then a General Meeting in January 2014 approved a proposal to apply for charitable and incorporated status as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO). An application for CIO status was submitted to the Charity Commission in February 2014, and approved immediately. Following considerable officer work – especially by Secretary John Fleming and Treasurer Chris Kerr - on the implementation of CIO status, OBC was wound up as an unincorporated association, and its business and assets transferred as a going concern to the CIO on 30 June 2014. In preparation for the transfer, the existing mortgage was paid off, so the CIO began life free of any debt.
Subsequently, the club provided a written article for the EBU magazine, offering advice and tips on converting to a CIO.
After obtaining CIO status, progress continued to be delayed by several factors: adjustments to the plans; the discovery of asbestos in the ceilings; uncertainty over final costings; and awareness of the need for considerable input of management time on the project.
In addition, a request to the University Estates for access through the rear of the site rumbled on for a considerable time before being refused in 2014, thus incurring considerable extra costs. A further stumbling block was the fact that building estimates came in not only above projection but devoid of detail that might enable the Club to decide on possible savings. The preferred builder withdrew because of the delays and the project again languished for a couple of years. One breakthrough came when in 2016 the Club secured the promise of a loan in the region of £400,000 from the Charity Bank, at a favourable rate of interest and the option of early repayments without penalty. The following year, a revaluation of the property up to £750,000, combined with a reduction in the interest rate from 6% to 4%, and increased income from the activities of Oxford Bridge School, made the project more viable, but still not quite within the Club’s budget.
The whole project was reset in summer 2017 with the formation of a new project team consisting of Matthew Covill, Chris Kerr and Diana Nettleton; and the Club engaged the services of architectural partners Gray Baines and Shew to manage the project, including the provision of a detailed breakdown of all costs and a strict building schedule. The final hurdle - to secure the agreement of the flat owners to temporarily vacate their car parking spaces – was then overcome.
Temporary premises were secured at Oxford City Football Club, and OBC moved out at Easter 2018. The builders – Wooldridge & Simpson – then moved on site without delay. With no access via the rear of the premises, all works had to be managed from the limited space on the forecourt, incurring substantial extra costs. Over the next few months, the 25-year-old conservatory was demolished, and the interior partially gutted. Unsurprisingly given the age of the building, problems arose including the discovery of further asbestos, inadequate foundations to the party wall (which had to be substantially rebuilt) and existing rear extension, and additional costs for the comprehensive PA system. These all involved extra outgoings, with the total budget increasing to a final figure of £575k + VAT. There was a serious risk that the whole project would have to be abandoned or cut back for lack of funds.
The Trustees of the CIO decided to embark on a major fund-raising campaign, led by Chairman Pat Lewis, with the aim of raising £90,000 in a short timescale. Club members responded magnificently, donating no less than £130,000 (including the gift aid repayments from HMRC). So the project was able to be completed; and the Club moved back into the redeveloped premises in December 2018.
Covid 19 pandemic and on-line bridge
Members enjoyed the new facilities for 15 months, until the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic enforced a decision to close the premises on 16 March 2020. Members were left with nowhere to play bridge – until some of the recent graduates of OBS, led by Susan Fletcher started sessions of online bridge, using the Bridge Base Online platform in combination with Zoom videoconferencing. Another article - Zoom into Oxford - was published in the EBU magazine prompting a number of other Clubs to visit us and give it a try. The online provision developed progressively throughout the year, until by December 2020 the Club was offering no fewer than 8 regular weekly sessions at all levels – plus intra-Club and inter-club teams matches; while OBS was continuing to offer a full programme of online lessons. This response to adversity depended on the efforts of many members, and reflected the overall strength of the Club. In 2021 – against a national backdrop of declining numbers of bridge players - the Club was thriving and managing to keep its accounts in surplus, thanks to the progression of players from the education programme into Club duplicate sessions. It was also contemplating the challenges of whether and when to return to face-to-face bridge, continue with online sessions, run hybrid sessions, or any combination of these options.