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Bruce, Rowena Mary (1915 – 1999)

Rowena Mary Bruce (née Dew)

 (15.05.1915  -  24.09.1999)  


Rowena at the Women's Inter-zonal - Moscow 1952

 Rowena Bruce had perhaps the highest public profile of any British lady player in the middle decades of the 20th century, amassing eleven British Ladies Championship titles, more than any other.

 She was born in Plymouth, the youngest child of Harvey and Mary (“May”) Dew. Her brothers were Clement Harvey Dew who came to work in electronics and lived to the age of 90 and Lanning Dew, an artist and pianist who died at 50. The Dew family lived at 18, Cheltenham Place, Mutley Plain, Plymouth.

 Mary Dew (née Rowe) was the daughter of a Redruth bank manager and had 5 siblings. She had been a member of the Plymouth Chess Club for many years and had tried to interest her sons in the game, each in turn as they grew up. The boys were not particularly keen or able, but, watching her brothers at the board, Rowena took to it from an early age. By the time she was 10, her mother, who herself was later to become Devon Ladies Champion and play in the British Championship, quickly realised that the girl’s talent was such that it needed someone of greater ability than she possessed to bring out Rowena’s full potential. So she approached the fast-rising star of the Plymouth Club, Ron Bruce (22), and he agreed to take the girl for two lessons a week at his house. Thus began a partnership that was to last unbroken for 65 years. 

With his speech impediment and serious manner, it is not easy to imagine Ron in the role of inspiring teacher of 10 year olds, but whatever he had worked well enough, for within 9 years Rowena had become FIDE World Girls Champion. 

Rowena attended Gunnerside School in Plymouth, a private all-girl establishment. Her secondary education was interrupted when she had a mastoidectomy, resulting in the loss of a year’s schooling and suffering with tinnitus. In spite of this break in her education, or perhaps even because of it, she was able to concentrate on her chess training and music practice. She played the cello as a pupil and continued with this, eventually becoming Principal ‘Cellist with the Plymouth Orchestral Society.  

Rowena as a schoolgirl at her 'cello practice.

 Early in 1935 she competed in FIDE’s 10th Annual Girls’ Open Championship. In spite of its rather grand-sounding title, and the fact that it was won in its first 2 years by the renowned Vera Menchik, on this occasion, for whatever reason it attracted only 12 entrants, all from the UK. They played in two sections of 6, with the top two scores from each section playing in a Final.

  Section A Pts.   Section B Pts.
1 Rowena Dew 9   Eileen O’Dell 8
2 Mary Clouter   Elaine Saunders
3 Margaret Belson 5   Beatrice Walsh
4 Margaret Gurney 5   Muriel Ballard 5
5 Gladys Kay 3   Teresa de Rome 2
6 Barbara Bairnsfather   Alice Symington 0
  Final Pts
1= Rowena Dew 3
1= Mary Clouter 3
3 Eileen O’Dell 2
4 Elaine Saunders 1
5 Beatrice Walsh 0

 In the play-off, Rowena beat Clouter by 2 – 0. 

The BCM reported… Miss Rowena Dew from Plymouth proved the conquering heroine this year, after a tie in the final stages. ….. Miss Dew is to be congratulated, not only on her fine performance, but also on the serious way she takes the game which should never be taken any other way. It is an example well worth following, and those who do will receive their reward in a marked improvement in their game. One who needs no urging in this direction is little Elaine Saunders who celebrated her 9th birthday last week, and whose score shows the high standard she has reached in so few years.

 Rowena and Elaine were destined to become life-long friends in chess.

Above: Rowena with her FIDE Trophy.

 In 1937 Rowena and her mother went to Blackpool for the British Championships. Mrs. Dew competed in the 3rd Class Division 2 where she finished with 5½/10 and just out of the prizelist. Her 18 year old daughter on the other hand won the British Ladies Championship with the considerable score of 10/11. The BCM observed “Miss Dew gives all the credit for her success to R. M. Bruce, the Plymouth C.C. captain, who has assiduously coached her for the congress”.

On Saturday April 1st 1939 Ron and Rowena were playing for Plymouth in an away match against Paignton in the Bremridge Cup, Devon’s premier team tournament. It may have been the date or the exhilaration of a win under his belt, but there must have been something in the air that day, for on the way back to Plymouth, Ron suddenly pulled the car into a lay-by at South Brent. He didn’t know what made him do it at that particular moment, it was just on a whim, but he proposed marriage to his sole passenger. Rowena accepted, though they would have to wait till she was 21 the following year, which they duly did, eventually marrying on 13th July 1940. This little episode explained the name they later gave to their family home, Brent Whim – they had got engaged at Brent on a whim. From then on, for many years every time they passed that spot on the old A38 they would just touch hands and smile to each other.

 The 1939 British Championships moved to Bournemouth but with the political uncertainty of the time, and the absence of the top players competing in the Rio de Janeiro Olympiad, the men’s championship was scrapped in favour of a more general Premier Tournament which included Euwe and Landau of the Netherlands. The usual trio of Ron, Rowena and her mother spent the fortnight there.

 The Ladies Championship proceeded as usual but Rowena was well and truly upstaged by 13 year old Elaine Saunders who scored 10/11 without a loss, while she recorded a very modest 5. Her head may have been full of wedding plans.

Enjoying the sea air on Bournemouth promenade - August 1939. The recently-engaged couple were to marry the following year.

The happy couple leaving the church - 13th July 1940.

The war interrupted her chess career, as the couple adjusted to married life and the destruction of Plymouth in the Blitz. Rowena worked in the W.V.S. throughout the war.

In August 1945 she gave birth to a son after a difficult pregnancy. Christened McKay Bruce, the baby died after 10 days and she was advised that it would be unwise to try again.

In the first post-war season, chess activity resumed for Rowena with a vengeance, especially in the summer of 1946. The Devon team got through to the final of the Montague –Jones Cup, competed for by the rural shires of the S.C.C.U. The Cup winner would meet the winner of other section involving the metropolitan counties. On Saturday 25th May, 1946, at the Great Western Hotel, Swindon, they met a Cambridgeshire team, led by F. E. A. Kitto, then shortly to be demobbed from the RAF before moving to Devon. Rowena was one of Devon’s two winners that day, as they lost 5 – 6, one of the scheduled 12 games being unplayed.

About 4 weeks later, on 19th June she was involved in the Anglo-Soviet Radio Chess match. It was a daunting prospect, as the Soviet team comprised twelve legends, (in order) Botvinnik, Keres, Smyslov, Boleslavsky, Flohr, Kotov, Bronstein, Bondarevsky, Lilienthal and Ragosin, and with Vera Byelova and Ludmila Rudenko as the two lady players. Rowena’s lady partner was Eileen Tranmer, principal clarinettist at Sadlers’ Wells.

(Photos: right – Planet News.    Left – Central Press Photos).

Eileen Tranmer & Rowena in action at the Radio Match v Russia 1946.

The event had a high profile nationally, with generous financial backing from the Greyhound Racing Association and Cable & Wireless.

Tranmer lost both of her games against Bykova as did Rowena against Rudenko. A clue to the quality of their opposition was that Bykova was shortly to beat Rudenko 8-6 in the first post war Ladies World Championship final in 1953. The British team as a whole went down 6 – 18, though this was better than the U.S.A. had achieved in an earlier phone match.

In August the family all went to Nottingham for the British Championships. Rowena tied for 1st place with Elaine Saunders, the defending Ladies Champion from 1939, both on 9 points. Mary Dew also competed, scoring 2½. Ron, meanwhile, had tied for 3rd place in the Major Open Section 4 with Ritson Morry.

The following month, she was involved in a 4 game play-off with Elaine. After a loss and a draw, Rowena lost the 3rd game and with it the match.

Rowena & Elaine Saunders tied 1st= at Nottingham.

Below: Group photograph of the Plymouth Club in its 1st post-war season, 1946. Rowena and her mother are seated. Ron Bruce is standing 2nd left; new boy Ken Bloodworth 7th left; Jack Goodman 8th left; T. V. H. Walkey 11th left.

In 1950 she regained the British Ladies Championships at Buxton, the first time under her married name. 

The summer of 1951 was particularly busy for the Bruces. All the while in the background preparations were under way for the 1st Paignton Congress, in which Euwe was due to participate. On top of this, at Newquay, Ron became the West of England Champion jointly with F. E. A. Kitto, the only time he was able to do so. Rowena had come 9th=.

A stern-looking Rowena offers advice to one of the juniors at the WECU Congress, Easter 1951, in the analysis room at the Penolver Hotel, Newquay.

Rowena had qualified for the Women’s Zonal Tournament, part of the 22nd FIDE Congress held in Venice 5th – 11th July. The top two places would go on to compete in the Candidates Tournament in Moscow, the other English player being Eileen Tranmer. She played well in the early stages, reaching 3½/4, but was later hampered by a series of adjourned games, which made the run-in a bit nerve-wracking. On one occasion, for example, she was playing till half past midnight to complete one round, and had to be back in the playing hall for the next round at 9 a.m. Notwithstanding the tight schedules, trips out were organised, and there were opportunities to fraternise with Golombek, Wade and Barry Wood who were involved in the FIDE conference going on at the same time in the same building. However, she finally qualified for Moscow along with Fenny Heemskirk of Holland.

Then straight back to England where she successfully defended her National title at Swansea, never seriously troubled in any game. Ann Sunnucks was 2nd though significantly, neither Saunders nor Tranmer, the other two tetrarchs of British ladies chess at the time, played.

This was quickly followed by Paignton where she tied 1st= with H. H. Cole in the Premier Reserves “B”. She was certainly now at her best; in form and playing with confidence. FIDE awarded her the Womens’ International Master title at this point.

The big event of 1952 was the Moscow Candidates. There had been sufficient interest in the UK for the BBC to broadcast a series of short talks each night on the Third Programme, each given by Rowena, in which she described as best she could for a largely lay audience the progress of the tournament, but also describing the setting and something of Moscow itself as they went out on trips around the city.

Among her first broadcast was this descriptive passage…..

“The tournament is held in the Hall of the Soviet Army and we are playing in its theatre which is tastefully decorated in cream and blue. At a rough guess, I would imagine it would hold about 500 and usually, especially towards the end of the meeting it gets pretty full. On the wall are huge demonstration boards so that spectators can see at a glance what sort of game you are playing and, believe me, it is a horrifying thought to realise that every one of the audience can see quite clearly if you are getting into a jam. You can sometimes feel the excitement mounting amongst the spectators and often of the umpires has to get up and say “Sleechkom shoomno!” which means, as if you can’t guess, too much noise. There is silence for perhaps half a minute, then someone makes a surprising move and the buzz starts all over again, The audience contains also many officers and men of the Soviet Army, a good sprinkling of women and an astonishing number of youths and boys. In England chess is by no means as popular as over here … in fact if there are a couple of dozen of onlookers it’s almost a crush….”

Rowena in play in Moscow, in front of an engrossed, if at times noisy, crowd of spectators.

A later radio talk cast a light on both her musical appreciation and shopping the old Soviet way.

There was a welcome break last Friday evening when we were taken to the Bolshoi Theatre to see The Fountains of Bachesari”. The story of the ballet is based on the poem by Pushkin, with music by Asajiev. Although written only in 1934 the music is by no means modern – it contains many simple yet haunting melodies. I think the composer tried to give a bit of fat to every section of the orchestra – in one scene it was the pleading note of the clarinet which depicted the heroine’s sadness at being imprisoned; another scene had an important off-stage trumpet solo, whilst in another the cor anglais, far too rarely heard these days, reflected the mood of that particular scene, and in the act where Zaremah pleads with her rival there is a lovely duet between the solo violin and ‘cello. The story is based on the old, old one of the eternal triagle, though as this one concerns discord in a harem, perhaps I should more correctly say the eternal polygon.


There were one or two amusing incidents the other day when three of us, Eileen Tranmer, Harry Golombek and I went out shopping without an interpreter. In a shop window we spotted some bread rolls which looked tempting but inside the shop the queues were tremendous. Apparently, you have to queue up at the counter to ask for what you want, push your way across and queue up at the cash desk to pay for it, and then push your way back again to collect your purchase. We, of course, hit upon the brainy idea of dividing our forces; one at the counter, one at the cash desk with the 3rd person acting as runner, (or should I say pusher?). However, all these incidents only add to the general good humour and our fumbling is always taken in good part by the assistants.


That’s all for now – Goodnight Ron. I hope to be speaking again tomorrow on the football cup final which I saw yesterday. Goodnight Mum and Dad.”

Golombek’s much vaunted linguistic abilities don’t seem to have been much help in a Russian shop.

Rowena (left) enjoying a tour of Moscow.

Rowena locking horns with her friend Fenny Heemskerk, who finished in a magnificent 2nd place.

1952 was a significant year in her private life as well. Unable to have more children, the couple decided to try for adoption. After some enquiries, they identified a 4 year old girl in a Barnado’s Home in East Anglia and it was agreed they should foster her for a trial period of 2 years with a view to adoption if the trial was successful. They gave her a new name, Rona, being comprised of the first two letters of Ron’s name and the last two of Rowena’s. The fact that her new second name was Mary, meant that they were now a family of three, all with the name R. M. Bruce, which must have been the cause of some confusion, at least when the postman called. However, it was made clear from the outset that having a child in the home would not curtail Ron or Rowena’s chess activities in any way. So Rona was taken along to the usual series of chess venues; Paignton, Hastings or the British Championships, wherever they happened to be.

The extra responsibility seemed to have had little effect on Rowena’s performance; she won or shared the British Ladies Championship a further eight times, making the unbeaten total of eleven titles. And this was in the face of competition from her three great contemporaries – Elaine Pritchard, Ann Sunnucks and Eileen Tranmer.

Year venue Shared with  
1937 Blackpool    
1950 Buxton    
1951 Swansea    
1954 Nottingham    
1955 Aberystwyth J. Doulton  
1959 York    
1960 Leicester    
1962 Whitby    
1963 Bath    
1967 Oxford Dinah Dobson  
1969 Rhyl Dinah Dobson  

 From 1959 to 1964 the BBC broadcast a series of radio programmes on chess on a Sunday afternoon on their Network 3 channel. It was a magazine type of programme and included players going through their favourite (or worst) game. Rowena’s choice was one from the Plymouth Club Championship which she won with a spectacular mating combination that started with a Queen sacrifice. At the end, she revealed the name of her opponent; “Well, Black is my long-suffering husband! I was a bit reluctant to choose this particular game but, on the other hand, maybe it could be regarded as a kind of tribute. If he had not been such a capable and patient master all those years ago when he first started giving me lessons, this queen sacrifice would never have occurred.” She was ever ready to give Ron the credit.

The Plymouth Club had always sought to put on simultaneous exhibitions against the great players of the day, from Blackburne in 1888, and including, among others, Lasker, Frank Marshall, Mir Sultan Khan and Koltanowski and  in January 1966 it was the turn of Boris Spassky. At home Rowena kept a special chess board the back of which was signed by all the great players she had met, from Capablanca onwards. Spassky duly added his signature on this occasion.

Above: Rowena with Spassky and the Lord Mayor of Plymouth, Alderman Pascho.

Rowena with Spassky and the Lord Mayor of Plymouth, Alderman Pascho.

(photo: Western Morning News)

She got Spassky to add his autograph to the reverse side of a special chessboard she kept at home for this very purpose. It was already covered with the signatures of great players from Capablanca onwards.

1970 marked the start of the age of Jana Malypetrova who won 8 of the next 10 British Championships under her married names of Hartston and Miles, though Rowena was 3rd in 1971 and Runner-up in 1972. This made her eligible to represent England in the East European Zonal Tournament held near Sofia, Bulgaria in November 1972 a remarkable achievement at the age of 53, and a watershed.

In round 2 she was playing top board at the front of a stage before a large audience, when suddenly she slumped forward over the board, scattering pieces everywhere. She’d had a cerebral haemorrhage, and was rushed to hospital where she spent several weeks in intensive care. She had not been accompanied by any family on this occasion and they had great difficulty finding out what was going on, as communications between Plymouth and the remote Communist dictatorship were fraught. Eventually, when well enough she was flown to Heathrow where she was met at the plane by an ambulance that took her direct to hospital in London. After several more weeks she was taken by ambulance to her home. Even then, her right side was paralysed, she was unable to speak and her twisted mouth dribbled constantly. Yet by sheer force of will, she taught herself to speak and walk again, and other basic skills. Her recovery could never be complete, as she could only walk with a limp and would never be able to play her beloved ‘cello again.

Perhaps not surprisingly, she missed the British Championship at Eastbourne, but was well enough to play in the Challengers “A” at Paignton in September and incredibly just missed out on a prize, scoring 4/7 points. Thereafter, in 1974 she recommenced her annual participation in the British Ladies Championship, right up to the mid-1980s, though she generally struggled to reach a 50% score, age and infirmity taking their toll.

She was elected President of both the Devon Association and the West of England Chess Union (1965-66). The Bruces’ joint contribution to chess at all levels was widely recognised and they were awarded the B.C.F.’s President’s Award in only its second year, 1984.

Their daughter, now Rona Ross-Bryant, had given them three grandchildren, Emma, Kate and Toby.

Rowena and husband Ron continued to live a busy round of chess events; club nights, matches, congresses, championships, etc. and as if this were not enough, they were expert and regular bridge players, though on a strictly non-competitive basis. In later life, not unnaturally, she was generally happy to settle for quiet draw rather than have to endure a long tense struggle. As her husband often said, when a player at a county match almost apologetically reported a draw, “I don’t mind the draws – it’s the losses I can’t stand!”

Ron, constant support in chess since the age of 10, eventually died in April 1990, aged 86, but she stayed on in the family home of Brent Whim in Mannamead, Plymouth, until she began to suffer a series of mini-strokes, and she died there on 24th April 1999 at the age of 84.

Her chess belongings, mostly a couple of clocks and fancy sets, were sold at a specialist auction in London. Her special autographed board was bought for £900 by Terence Chapman, who in turn presented it to Gary Kasparov on the occasion of their challenge match.

The steely determination with which she followed her chess career and her recovery from serious illness belied her gentle nature; she was a modest, kind and gracious person who always thought the best of others.

For a further dimension on the couple’s chess legacy read Ron’s own biography on this site.


Various BCMs and Chess magazines.

Klein E & Winter W: The Anglo-Soviet Radio Chess match Pitman 1947

Tiller, T: Chess Treasury of the Air Penguin 1966.

Testimony of Rona Ross-Bryant.

Photographs: Collection of Rona Ross-Bryant except where stated otherwise.

© R. H. Jones 2010. All rights reserved.

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