It was in the early 1960’s when Barnet Table Tennis Club played in the school Hall of Byng Road Junior School. League matches had to be finished by 10.00pm. A tall order time wise, with the school Caretaker insisting that the tables should be put away by that time. My Dear friend the late Douglas Underwood had an idea. Give the man a TV which he did. Perhaps he would be more accommodating. Did it work? Of course it did not. After the table tennis had finished Douglas, Brian Gale, myself and others retired to the local pub, The Sebright Arms just around the corner, where we stayed until we were thrown out! During the conversation Douglas said he was fed up with the situation of not being able to finish our league matches. We should build our own table tennis facilities as headquarters of the Barnets & District Table Tennis League.
As Chairman of the League, I invited Douglas to put his idea to the Annual General Meeting which in those days was always held in the Council chamber of the old Barnet Urban District Council in Wood Street. So at the 1962 AGM in ‘Any Other Business’, Douglas put his idea to the meeting. Response from member clubs was rather muted. Where are you going to find the land? Where is the money coming from? It will be a white elephant and a vandal’s paradise! He pointed out there was some land in Barnet Lane near Dollis Brook.
Not to be put off, Douglas had an architect friend who he asked to draw up plans for a building which was done free of charge. It was estimated at the time it would cost approximately £12,500 to build. At the time, the Government of the day through the department of Education & Science were offering grants of up to 50% of the total building cost for any new Sports facility. We have an application for a grant based on our plans. 2 years later we heard the good news that our application had been successful for £6000.
Action stations! We put in an application for Planning permission to the Urban District Council to put a building on the land in Barnet Lane. Meanwhile the League formed a Sub-Committee. Some of the committee were very sceptical about the whole project and it was decided to divorce the project from the League and form the Barnet Table Tennis Centre Committee under the Chairmanship of Tony Cox. We then heard from the Council that the land we proposed to build on was Green Belt land. However we knew that there had been a previous building on this land which had long been demolished.
Having pointed out this to the authority we were summoned to a full Council Meeting to discuss our proposals. Douglas Underwood, Brian Gale and I attended. The Councillors could not understand why we wanted such a large building. Surely room for 2 or 3 tables is enough. We wanted space for ten tables because there would be demand from a number of clubs to play their matches at the venue. However we compromised an agreed to cut the length of the building down from120 feet to 90 feet. The plans were for playing hall, bar, kitchen, office, toilets and showers. Outline planning permission was given, providing we put in a new road from the site entrance in Barnet Lane to the old car park. This we did at a cost of £700, enormous sum for those days. Fundraising was started in earnest. Every Sunday we would meet in Don Kenny’s home to draw the Tote Double winning numbers, a form of the modern day Lottery.
It was obvious we were not going to raise enough money because of building costs inflation, so another application to the Government to increase our Grant, the maximum being £10,000. We were successful in getting our Grant increased to £9,044 – half of the estimated cost at that time. As the project progressed in order to protect ourselves we formed a Limited Company where liabilities were 50 pence per member. The first directors were Anthony Cox (Chairman), Victor Gibson (Secretary), Frank Hutchings (Treasurer), Douglas Underwood, Brian Gale, Peter Abraham, Gerald Stephens, Don Kenny and Geoffrey Mitchell. At the time Barnet BC were offering mortgages and we applied for £2,500 which was granted, repayable over 25 years!
We needed more money, much more! So Douglas Underwood went and saw his Bank manager, a Mr Gurney of the North Finchley Branch of NatWest bank to see whether we could borrow some money for the project. He was not at all receptive to the idea. Look Mr Gurney, you are in business to lend money and we are in a business to borrow it! So it was that I went and saw Mr Gurney after he was given a bottle of whisky and he agreed to lend us £2,500 providing I got 25 guarantors each for £100 in writing. This loan was repayable within 5 years. This I duly did, only 1 or 2 people declined.
Meanwhile Barnet UDC was merged into the new Barnet Borough Council whose legal department promptly lost all our papers. Stalemate! What to do? By coincidence Douglas Underwood at the time sold the family home to a Councillor Usher to whom Douglas turned to for help. After all we had a promise of planning permission and a long lease of 28 years on the land at a peppercorn rent of £1 per week.
Through the great help of Councillor Usher, we heard that everything was in order and planning permission and lease was forthcoming. After negotiations with Morris of Enfield who were appointed to build the centre, Douglas Underwood was in a hurry and instructed the builders to commence before we had the official paperwork. The council jobsworth challenged us on this point, but did not do anything about it.
During the course of construction we applied to the Eastern Electricity Board for supply of electricity. EEB said they could not provide the amount of power the centre would need. They told us that a Substation would have to be installed on the site and we would have to pay for it! This is where our Guru Frank Hutchings came in and found our under the local by-laws if there was already electricity supplied to the site which there was, they had to supply all the power we needed. Suddenly no substation was needed. Frank was our technical brains and designed the special lighting for the playing hall. We managed to get Thorm EMI the manufacturers of the lighting to supply at cost. In addition the drinks supplier to install the bar free of charge and a Licence was granted to serve alcohol. With the building construction and car park finished and the installation of the tables we opened the first week of May, 1970. The big exception was that we had no further funds to install heating. We were always up against inflation, so we wrote to the Barnet BB Council pointing out we would not be able open some days in the winter and this would mean we would probably go broke! I am glad to say the Council came to our rescue and received a Grant of £3000 to install gas central heating.
On Saturday November 14th 1970, with the heating installed, we had our official opening and an Intercounty Premier Division match between Middlesex and Essex. It was interesting to note at that time we had 500 members which was our maximum.
My sincere thanks go to all my fellow Directors who so enthusiastically embraced the project when in some eyes it was only a pipedream. To Douglas Underwood whose vision, foresight and tenacity which never wavered, the centre would not have been built. To Frank Hutchings whose technical expertise we could not have done without. I am proud to say this was the first purpose built Table Tennis Centre in England at a total cost of £25,000.
In conclusion, sadly all the original Directors have passed away, some quite young, with exception of Brian Gale and myself. Anthony and Brian were awarded Life Membership for services to table tennis by the English Table Tennis Association and the Barnet Centre. In 2020 we will celebrate 50 years of unbroken Table Tennis and service to the Community.
Anthony (Tony) Cox Chairman 1964-1980