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Denys Bonner (1919 – 2009)

Denys Pepperell Bonner.

29.09.1919   –   03.10.2009

bonner#4049

Above: Denys Bonner working on his postal chess move.

Denys Bonner was most active in the post-war years, first in his home town club of Exmouth, and after his move in 1954 to Yeovil, in his adopted county of Somerset. He operated at a high level in four areas of active play, correspondence chess and both composing and solving chess problems.

He came from two long-standing Sidmouth families. His father, Ernest Bonner, was a bank manager, firstly with the South West and London Bank and later the Westminster Bank. While working in the Sidmouth Branch of the S. W. & London Bank between 1908 – 1918, he met and married Emma Pepperell, whose father James ran a dairy business in Sidmouth Market Place which involved Emma and her sister. The Pepperells could trace their family back through Sir William Pepperell, a 17th century English settler in the New England state of Maine, though Sir William’s descendents, as loyalists,  fled back to England on the eve of the American War of Independence  in 1777.  This line can be traced right back to the Norman Conquest.

Their first child was Kenneth Harding Bonner, but with Emma pregnant with twins, Ernest joined the Westminster Bank and was created Manager in Wandsworth, London, where Denys and his twin sister Muriel (Mimi), were born in 1919.  About 1930, Ernest gave up his job with the bank and moved to Exmouth, where he took on the Moriglen Private Hotel in Salterton Road (below).

bonner#1046

Denys attended a small private school, St. Martin’s in Sidmouth, and probably had much contact with his maternal grandparents, the Pepperells. On leaving school, he followed his father’s footsteps and joined the Westminster Bank. His first post was in Crowborough, Sussex, before moving to the Paignton branch.

At the outbreak of war, Kenneth joined the RAF and was later killed in action. Denys was later called up but within weeks of leaving home developed pneumonia, was released and returned to Exmouth. After the War, Mimi became a GI bride and emigrated to the U.S.

In 1943 he moved from Paignton to Exmouth. It is not clear how he spent his leisure time during the decade 1933–43, but on September 18th 1943, he got his first mention in the Exmouth Chess Club’s records by attending the A.G.M. where he was immediately elected Secretary and Treasurer, on the recent death of M. Tucker, who had filled both posts since the club’s resurrection in 1929. His position at the bank would have qualified him as Treasurer, but quite how a newcomer, as he appears to have been, could be elected to two such key posts in a matter of days is unclear. There is no evidence of any chess activity on his part before his move back to Exmouth; his first problems were published from 1943 onwards, but he may have been a member of the Paignton Club during his time there.

In February 1946 he married Betty McDonald, an expert tennis player who had won trophies at Junior Wimbledon and was equally good at Table Tennis. Denys himself was good enough at table tennis to be a Division 1 player in the local league, but Betty was better than him, eventually becoming English Ladies Over-60s Champion. They lived first in a flat in Rolle Street, Exmouth before moving to the leafy Avenues district of the town, 58, Douglas Avenue, where two daughters were born, Daphne and Penny.

During this period in Exmouth his involvement in the world of problems increased dramatically. He subscribed to B. H. Wood’s young magazine Chess (founded 1935) and in the June 1944 issue had his first 2-mover published, even though it was incorrect. It was one of a set of six positions by different composers, and the Problem Page editor, C. S. Kipping, adds the question – “Do you see anything wrong in one of these?” It was Bonner’s that was wrong, and the errors were pointed out in a subsequent issue. Quite why Kipping published an incorrect position, instead of starting a dialogue with Bonner and putting it right before publication, is not clear. Perhaps he detected the potential talent. No more problems appeared until after his marriage to Betty, when he had positions published in August and September 1946.

In addition to the composing, he was also heavily involved in solving. In Chess, Kipping published a page of problems each month in a Ladder Competition. Interested readers were invited to send in their solutions each month and points were awarded. A list of the top 150 or so was published periodically, and at the end of the year prizes were awarded on the basis of the most points gained during the previous 12 months. In March 1943 Bonner was Runner-Up, repeating the achievement in 1946 and 1947. Then in 1948 he achieved what must have been his ambition of becoming “Champion Solver”, ahead of such luminaries as Denis Mardle and Geoff Berryman. He repeated this the following year, when Kipping was moved to observe…”Mr. Bonner is to be warmly congratulated in securing the maximum points and thus winning the Championship for the second year in succession. He had hardly done any solving until he entered our lists in 1944….

Our Champion is 29 and has other activities in the way of bridge and table tennis. He has published about 16 problems and Mrs. Bonner has published two.”

Betty’s first problem had appeared in March 1947 together with one of Denys’s own – a possible contender for a small bit of chess history – husband and wife publishing problems on the same day. It is thought that it was unlikely to be a fix – though she never took up the game seriously, the family think that she knew enough to be able to compose a problem or two, with Denys on hand to check its soundness.

Chess at this time also ran tournaments for postal chess, both for teams and individuals. The records are patchy at best and difficult to plough through, but their June 1945 issue records, in an individual knockout event, Bonner beating Dr. Maurice Jago, who was Cornwall’s top postal player for many years, capable of beating anyone, and also a noted problemist. This gives some indication of the level he was playing at.

The Exmouth Club’s minutes from the early post-war years seem to be obsessed with the matter of premises and make no mention of internal tournament winners, but Bonner was probably the strongest player until the arrival around 1950 of G. T. Womack, who retired to the town and was an experienced and even stronger player. This marked the start of a minor golden period for Exmouth. Firstly, they won the Mamhead Cup that year, repeating the feat in 1951, 1952 and 1954.

Mamhead Cup   DCCA  Div 2    1950

P W D L Pts
1 Exmouth 5 4 1 0

9

2 Plymouth 5 4 0 1

8

3 Exeter 5 3 1 1

7

4 Torquay 5 2 0 3

4

5 Tavistock 5 1 0 4

2

6 Teignmouth 5 0 0 5

0

The challenges within the Exmouth Club may not have been enough for him, as he joined Exeter as well and won their championship in the 1952-53 and 1953-54 seasons. To put the achievement into some sort of perspective, the winners of that competition before and after that 2 year period were D. J. P. Gray and F. E. A. Kitto respectively, who both represented England around that time.

At the Exmouth AGM on 26th September 1953, a new venture, the creation of an Exeter & District Chess League was flagged up, and Denis Bonner was deputed to attend an exploratory meeting at the Exeter Club three days hence, to assess the interest. He was an obvious choice as he was a member of both clubs.

At this meeting, Bonner was joined by Ted Hesse (Civil Service), Denys Gray, (a pupil at Exeter School and later to become Sir Denys) and G. R. Cottew, T. J. Maddick and S. P. Gibbons of the home club. It was clear that the will was there, so the plan was put into action and a set of rules agreed. Cottew, formerly a member of the Exmouth Club before transferring to Exeter, and clearly the driving force behind this move, was elected League President and donated a cup, the Cottew Cup.

Two weeks later, Bonner reported to a Committee Meeting of the Exmouth Club. The rules were read out and discussed, and the five members present voted unanimously to join in. Womack was elected as Match Captain for the League Team, as Denys Bonner was due to move to Somerset before the end of the year.

In the event, the League’s first season comprised six clubs, namely Exeter, St. Luke’s Teacher Training College, St. Loyes College, Exeter School, Exeter University College and the Civil Service. Exmouth had no trouble in winning the League in its first season and becoming inaugural winners of the Cottew Cup. Unfortunately for Exmouth, Bonner moved to the Yeovil branch of his bank and Womack died suddenly at the end of the season. This knocked the stuffing out of Exmouth’s 1st team, and they won no more major cups in any competition for almost 20 years.

He moved to Somerset, where he rose within the ranks of the Westminter Bank, transferring at intervals between their branches at Yeovil (Chief Clerk), Glastonbury (Deputy Manager), Warminster (Manager) and back to Glastonbury as Manager.

He seemed to go from strength to strength, and played a major part in Somerset county chess in a way that he had never done on the wider Devon scene. His record of county championships over a 20 year period was second to none.

Somerset Individual Championship
Champion Joint winners
1958 D. P. Bonner
1959 D. P. Bonner
1961 D. P. Bonner
1962 D. P. Bonner R. H. Northage
1963 D. P. Bonner R. H. Northage
1964 D. P. Bonner R. H. Northage Rev. P. R. Kings
1966 D. P. Bonner
1968 D. P. Bonner R. H. Northage
1970 D. P. Bonner
1971 D. P. Bonner
1972 D. P. Bonner
1973 D. P. Bonner
1974 D. P. Bonner
1975 D. P. Bonner

He was first a member of the Yeovil Club, but after leaving there joined Wells. It wasn’t long before he had established himself as Somerset’s most versatile chessplayer. By the end of the decade he had won the county championship twice and was Somerset’s No. 1 postal player.

His problem solving and composing continued apace, becoming Chess magazine’s Solving Champion in 1957, 1958 and 1959 after which Wood stopped the competition, or Bonner would have had more successes. Instead he won the Championship of the British Chess Problem Society in 1960 and jointly in 1962.

In 1968 he took over as Somerset team captain for a few seasons and by 1972 had become a Vice President of the county.

Bonner in his prime.

Bonner in his prime.

In October 1971 Peter Clarke and his committee of six, called The Hexagon, organised the 1st Barnstaple Open, a 5 round weekend congress, a relatively new venture in its time, which attracted 70 players including Bonner. Not a large entry in number, but as regards quality, Bonner at a grade of 180 had 21 players above him. He finished with a 50% score, level with, among others, P. C. Griffiths (205) and B. H. Wood (199). It appears that the only OTB game of his that survives from his entire career is his 1st round game against committee member P. A. Jones which appeared in the congress booklet. It was a quick draw against an opponent 50 points lower-graded, played on the Friday evening after a tiring week at the bank. He probably decided that the weekend congress scene, although rapidly increasing in popularity at this time, did not fit in with his many other interests and family commitments.

His daughters Daphne and Penny, for example, had inherited all his interests and talents. Daphne was an outstanding academic, ultimately gaining an honours degree in Maths from Cambridge and a PhD from Aberdeen. She was no blue-stocking, however, playing bridge, table tennis and chess, just like her father. Aged 16, she was the youngest player at that time ever to play Table Tennis for Somerset. But her sister, 3 years younger, soon overtook her, becoming champion of both Somerset and Wiltshire and having trials for England while still in her mid-teens. She later became British Ladies Over-40s Champion. They both played chess, too, but in this it was Daphne who was the better, twice winning the Somerset U-18 Ladies’ Championship.

The talents continued down through the generations as the grandchildren continued the chess and table tennis tradition, with Grandad Denys helping with the coaching whenever the opportunity arose. Penny’s own son, Alex Perry, twice became National Champion and has 3 Commonwealth Games Gold Medals. Her daughter Lucy played for Wales in the 2006 World Championships and other son Simon won medals at the British Universities Table Tennis Championships. Daphne’s sons, Mark and Luke Russell both play, winning junior chess championships wherever they happened to be living, in Newcastle and Aberdeen, Luke becoming British U-12 Champion in 1990 at Eastbourne.

Denys retired as Manager of the Glastonbury Nat West bank in 1979 at the age of 60. In retirement, in addition to his ongoing activities in chess, bridge and table-tennis, he converted the large wooden shed at the back of his house in Street where he had a table tennis table permanently set up, into a cattery where he and Betty cared for up to 15 stray animals at a time. He also involved himself in his passions for disarmament and the future of the railways by writing letters to local and national newspapers and his MP, all those published being meticulously pasted into a cuttings book.

As regards chess, he gave up active play and concentrated on problems. In February 1986 he was one of only 13 contestants in the British Problem Solving Championship, held at the Grosvenor Hotel, London. By then approaching 70 yrs he didn’t stand much chance against the likes of Peter Clarke and double GM-in-waiting, Jonathan Mestel, but the experience was memorable.

Bonner with Leonard Barden at the 1986 Problem Solving Championship.

Bonner with Leonard Barden at the 1986 Problem Solving Championship.

Back in 1972 he had made the acquaintance of a monk at Downside Abbey School, Dom Cyprian Stockford, having played each other when the Wells Club met Downside in the Somerset League. Although they only very rarely met in person after that, they kept in touch by letter as they explored new ideas in problems, gradually extending into the more esoteric fields of Fairy Chess, in which new pieces with different powers are added to the usual armoury, and Patrol and Orphan Chess. The latter was only devised in 1971 in which an “orphan” is an unidentified piece, powerless and immobile until such time as it is attacked, whereupon it assumes the characteristics of the attacker. In Patrol Chess, devised in 1975, a piece can only capture or give check if it is protected by one of its own side.  By involving himself in these kinds of complex problems at this early stage, Denys really was pushing back the boundaries of the game itself.

Dom Cyprian recalls Bonner’s “generosity to lesser mortals”, always appreciating and encouraging any fledgling talent whenever and wherever he came across it. They often submitted Fairy problems under both names, but Cyprian happily concedes the original ideas were generally Bonner’s.

In 1993 the couple moved to Summerway in Whipton, Exeter to be near their daughter, Penny. Denys became involved in local politics, campaigning on behalf of the local Lib. Dem. candidate, Dr. Jonathan Underwood from Seaton, another excellent chessplayer.

In 2003, when the Exeter & District League was celebrating its 50th Anniversary, I visited him as part of some research I was doing on the history of the League. I had never met him before but knew that he’d started his chess career in Exmouth, and was keen to record his memories. Game as ever, he expressed a willingness to re-join the Exmouth Club and felt the train journey and walk in the dark at each end would be no problem, but then in his mid-80s it was more than anyone could expect of him, and it never materialised.

Betty died in 2001, but Denys stayed on in the house until he became too ill to care for himself. He died just days after his 90th birthday, which he had celebrated with all his family around him.

By involving himself in four different aspects of the game, not even to mention his many other interests, it might be said that his talent was spread a little too thinly, and he might have achieved an even higher level if he had concentrated on just one aspect. Yet by limiting himself in any way, he would probably have lost more than he gained. No one can balance that particular equation.

He was true chess pioneer in, first of all, leading Exmouth to early successes, and late in life working at the very frontiers of chess problem composition.

R. H. Jones.

Bibliography:

Testimony of Daphne Russell & Penny Mann (daughters) and Dom Cyprian Stockford.

Chess magazines.

BCF Yearbooks.

Pritchard, D. P:           Encyclopaedia of Chess Variants      Games & Puzzles Publications 1994.

Hooper, D & Whyld K: Oxford Companion to Chess 2nd ed.                                                 OUP       1992

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

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