By Brian Denman
A club might have some very good players and a wealthy patron, but without people to do the basic everyday jobs and to provide an excellent welcome it might not be successful. The Robinsons were a major part of the club’s history, as they made the chess club feel like home for the existing members as well as visitors. A few of the club’s members will almost certainly remember the two housekeepers and I am sure that they will have happy memories of this married couple.
Fred was born in 1889 at West Hill and attended the Emmanuel Church as a lad. He was a choirboy, street preacher and Band of Hope leader. During World War I he served in a Sussex unit of the Royal Engineers as a first aid and Red Cross worker. He also had a mechanic’s training. He was already a railwayman and was kept in this country because of his specialist knowledge (presumably this reference in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 7.5.1966 concerns his knowledge of the railways and first aid). He worked as part of the railway relief staff, running ambulance trains from Devon to Southampton and all through the West Country. The trains were based at Redhill and he had to work from there tending the sick and wounded. In 1917 Lord Brassey presented him with the Red Cross and Ambulance Medal.
Doris, who was born on 11.7.1895 and was known to her friends as Dolly, began nursing with the Red Cross, when she was 16 (N.B the article in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 7.5.1966 does not say where she was born). She came to Hastings to live and worked at the Royal East Sussex Hospital. After three years there, she took up private work, running a nursing home in St Helen’s Road. She married Fred at Redhill in 1916 and in 1931 they returned to Hastings, where she found employment at the chess club as the housekeeper.
Fred had his job with the Southern Railway, but in his spare time he often helped his wife with the chess club. Fred had learnt to play chess when he was 12, and, although he was not a strong player, he was involved with his railway chess team in World War II. In 1940 the National Chess Centre in London was bombed and destroyed and following this the Hastings CC was partially dismantled. Much of the property was stored in the basement and such of the furniture as could be spared was stacked round the walls of the room. In August 1941 the club decided to entertain a team from Ore Place and the club room had to be specially prepared for the occasion. All the score or so of silver cups and trophies were brought out of temporary store and polished by Fred, who had been at great pains to give the room a cheerful look. Fred played a similar role in 1944, when the club sustained significant bomb damage. A match with Brighton took place in September of that year only after a lot of effort was made to clear the room of debris, a task in which Fred played a notable part.
During the war Fred was a sergeant in the Home Guard, while Doris was a general nurse with the WRVS and the local police, for which she received a letter of thanks from the Queen. She also played a large part in starting the Hastings Civil Defence Choir. There were 135 vocalists and they included serving members of the three forces. When a bomb fell in Hastings, Fred and his wife saved the lives of several Canadians by pulling them out of the wreckage and treating them. Doris used all her household linen in the process.
Fred involved himself with the Hastings congresses and in 1954 Percy Morren referred to him as the ‘back room boy’ (even though he was in his sixties!). He and Doris were well organised in catering and at the end of 1952 they provided refreshments for a 50 board county match. In 1962 they were again employed in this role for a 50 board county match, but this time the games were played on more than one site.
At the 1954 AGM of the Hastings CC Fred was presented with a gift for his retirement from the railway after 45 years’ service and he was elcted as a full member of the club. He said that he would now be able to give more time to the club’s affairs.
In 1956 Doris reached 25 years’ service with the club and Frank Rhoden, writing in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 6.10.1956 gave this account of her: ‘During this time she must have served more than a few thousand gallons of her excellent tea and unequalled coffee to chess players from every corner of the world including every world champion since Dr. Emanuel Lasker. Many a player’s flagging morale has been revived by the appearance of Mrs Robinson with a timely Welsh rarebit, poached egg, ham sandwich or piece of cake. Every Christmas she deals resourcefully with bewildered foreign congress entrants who have arrived in the town from unlikely places at improbable hours.’
In the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 23.6.1962 it was reported that Doris was now fighting fit after her illness (we are not told the nature of the illness) and Fred, ‘ a youthful 73’, was claiming a new match record. The Robinsons and their experienced band of helpers had served 30 teas in 13 minutes. In 1963 Mrs Robinson suffered a serious illness. In the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 25.5.1963 it was stated that she was responding to treatment and the columnist wrote in complimentary fashion about her. He stated that as far as he knew, she knew nothing about chess except how to set up the pieces, a job she had been doing at the Christmas Congress ever since the columnist had lived in the town. However, in her own sphere she was unsurpassable. He added: ‘She knows who likes two lumps of sugar, who hates cake, who loathes sliced bread, who likes his tea hot/cold. A county match always finds her on top form. Beaming from behind a teapot the size of a gypsy’s cauldron, she sees that we all get exactly what we want.’
Unfortunately Doris’ illness took a turn for the worse. She fell critically ill and had to have two blood transfusions. The Hastings CC were obviously worried about her condition and that of the president Percy Morren who was in the same hospital at the same time. As it happened Doris survived, but sadly Percy Morren died following his attack of pneumonia.
……..In the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 14.9.1963 the columnist Frank Rhoden mentions how he visited the hospital and found Doris as bright and chirpy as a sparrow. The article adds, however, that she was really distressed at not being able to preside over the tea arrangements for the forthcoming match against London Transport. After a spell at a convalescent home she was back at the club by at least November. She had been missed by a visiting team from Ilford, though they admitted that Fred had ‘served the teas with the easy mastery of a Ritz.’
At the 1964-65 Congress Fred gave the first of his many exhibitions of memorabilia. He spent a long time preparing exhibits for this and he is reported to have spent 250 hours preparing an exhibition to form part of the town’s centenary celebrations in about August 1966. At the 1969-70 congress he wore an unusual coat, which had been presented to him a few years ago by a Canadian with embroidered coats-of-arms and ancient chess men. In the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 10.1.1976 there is a photograph of him wearing a garb of shirt and robe emblazoned with chess emblems and topped off with a 160 year old miniature chess board on his hat.
The British Chess Federation Congress was held at Hastings GS in 1965 and on a Sunday during the event there was no play. It is not surprising that several of the players descended on the chess club and refreshments were provided by Fred and Doris with their customary efficiency. In the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 21.8.1965 it is stated: ‘Two hundred visitors accounted for about an acre of fruit cake, biscuits and toast by the ton; lakes of lemonade and several gallons of coffee. The gallant Robbies toiled from 0900 hours until, with a final rarebit at 2300 hours, the club closed down.’
About the beginning of 1966 changes were made to the lower club room. A new lighting system was installed and we learn that Fred and Albert Tulip spent about 14 hours in moving pictures and furniture around.
In July 1967 the Hampstead CC failed to turn up for a match against Hastings. In the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 15.7.1967 the columnist described the scene as follows: ‘The teas, elegantly prepared by Mrs. Robinson, were ready to serve; Fred Robinson, with white jacket and welcoming smile, was ready to see his favourite team beat Hampstead… the inexorable clocks ticked on. Nobody arrived…. Someone had blundered.’
Not long after this Doris was rushed to hospital for an operation. She recovered from this and resumed duty, but after another health problem in 1969 she gave up the housekeeper position after carrying out the duties for 38 years. Fred naturally took over the position, though he himself was now 80 years of age. When the Hammersmith CC came down to Hastings for a National Club match in January 1970, they brought with them 20 supporters. As a result Fred ended up serving over 50 teas during the match.
In the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 10.1.1970 there is a picture of Fred being presented with a cigarette lighter on his retirement from the position of chief steward at the ABC Cinema, Cambridge Road, Hastings. He had worked 14 years in that capacity.
In about April 1971 the Slater Young Masters’ Tournament was held at the Hastings CC and the local newspaper of 17.4.1971 reported that Fred’s layout of the lower room for the event was perfect, as was his handling of the refreshments. Every player had ample room for his scoresheet, elbows, cup of tea, sandwiches and other impedimenta.
A year later Fred had to have a check up in hospital, but in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of 20.5.1972 the columnist mentioned that he was back at the club looking fitter than ever. Rhoden added that this was a matter of ‘supreme Hastings importance’.
Sadly Doris passed away on 31.12.1973 at the age of 78. Fred still continued in his job at the Hastings CC, but in 1976 he decided to retire from the post. He lived on until 1982, when he died at the age of 93.