This week’s Centenary Story meets two players for whom the word stalwart might have been invented.
First, John Ruderham focuses on Ken Simmons, who has played in the Bristol & District League since 1949, then we meet Harold Feltham, who has competed in the Bournemouth League since 1947.
Ken Simmons first played in the Bristol & District Table Tennis League in 1949 and has done so every season since to this very day, including those few league matches that were able to be completed in the two recent depleted seasons due to the Covid-19 pandemic!
That is a remarkable achievement of 73 consecutive years on its own, but not only that, on 17 March 2022, Ken played his 48th individual league match for his Division 6 team in 17 matches in the current season, aged an incredible 93 years and 71 days, which may well be an English league record.
With a win rate so far this season of over 30%, and even being the Player of the Match against Civil Service Cavaliers on 12 October 2021, Ken is certainly no pushover and he has no plans to hang his bat up yet, saying: “I appreciate I am lucky to still be playing at my age, but I still love it and I dread the time when I will no longer be able to play.”
The two knee replacements that he insisted his surgeon perform in the same operation back in April 2008 so that he wouldn’t miss the subsequent season are still holding out, though he wishes his sight could be better these days, and he still goes down the local gym three times a week!
Picking up a bat aged 13, Ken quickly became hooked when he was asked to play for a team in the Bristol & District Federation of Boys’ Club League.
Just a few years later though, he was posted to Ruislip in 1947 under the terms of the National Service Act with the RAF, where he also played in the Middlesex League for 18 months. He subsequently returned to Bristol where he joined the Bishop Road Club in the senior league, though not before being fortunate to watch the top players in action at the World Championships when they were held close to where he was stationed at Wembley, 4-11 February 1948.
In the mid-1950s he trained to become an ETTA coach under the guidance of Jack Carrington, and was surprised to be partnered by Bryan Merrett (a former England No.1) in that process, with both of them achieving their diploma at the same time. “It was one of the best things I ever did”, Ken later confessed.
Other proud moments in his career include playing – “though only the social side and never in the same team due to the gulf in ability, of course” – for many years with Aubrey Simons, the England No 4 ranked player and a World Championships gold medallist in 1953. He always remained firm friends with him, practising with him twice a week until Aubrey could no longer do so.
Ken’s daughter, Wendy, however, gave him his favourite memories, winning several trophies in and around the Bristol area, “achieving things I never did,” says Ken.
We know that Dorothy de Low set the current world record when she represented Australia at the World Veterans’ Championships in Brazil in 2008 aged 97 years and 232 days, so it would be just a few more years for Ken to go to match that, but has he already set a record in our English leagues or competitions?
Harold Feltham, at ‘only’ 90, cannot quite match Ken’s age record, but he can claim to have played in the Bournemouth League since the 1947-48 season.
The former self-employed decorator has not been able to play this season because of a breathing problem, but has been running a team in the fifth division.
His career started in a local youth club and Harold said: “I won tournaments there, and a friend invited me to the league. In my second season, I played in the second division and only won four games that season and quickly came down to earth.
“Just after the war, there were three divisions and a junior division, and within about four years we were up to 30 teams.
“We were in a church hall in Throop, with parquet floor and a handmade table which was three equal pieces of inch-thick mahogany put together. We had to watch the area either side of the net where they joined and the bounce was different.
“The lights were gaslights but they were quite good. We were there about 10 years and we had to leave because they turned it into a bungalow.
“By that time I was secretary of the club and one of the committee members suggested the community centre at Kinson. We moved up there and we were there about 40 years before we were squeezed out and landed up at Winton YMCA.”
A cricketer and a cyclist in his younger days, table tennis is the one sport which has endured.
He said: “I was a keen racing cyclist in my 20s and when I was in the Army for National Service, I was posted to Blandford, which was only 20 miles from home, so I used to cycle home to play a match and then cycle home afterwards. I thoroughly enjoyed it because I used it as a training run for my racing.
“I also played cricket and bicycle polo in the national league, which was exactly the same rules as with horses.
“I’ve had a diverse life but table tennis is the sport I’ve always stuck with. I’ve been really lucky and always enjoyed myself.”
Harold was also coached by former England international and national champion Bryan Merrett, which has led to him helping his twin sons, Alistair and Duncan, to compete at the Special Olympics.
Harold said: “Bryan Merrett came down to Bournemouth every 6-8 weeks and coached 20-odd county juniors, and for two years I went along for coaching sessions. Bryan and I became quite good friends and he encouraged me to take my coaching badge.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it and I managed to help a few people after that. It helped me when I was coaching my two sons, Alistair and Duncan, to the Special Olympics.”
The family, including Harold’s wife Sheena, went to Shanghai together and the boys also competed in Tokyo, Antwerp and Dublin – Alistair won silver medals in singles and doubles in Dublin
Harold added: “They played each other in the final of one of the groups at the European Championships in Antwerp, a match that was covered on TV.
“As a result of their ping pong, they have seen a lot more of the world than most of us and it was a good by-product of my coaching with Bryan.”
On his career as a whole, Harold says: “I enjoyed it and had a lot of pleasure and made a lot of friends.
“This is the first season I haven’t played, but I have been coaching. I want to try to improve my breathing for next season.
“The NHS has also helped keep me going. I’ve had two knee replacements, a kidney removed and I had a stroke a year ago, so those chaps have kept me going.
“All I do is turn out and thank my lucky stars.”
Is there someone in your league who may have beaten Ken or Harold’s remarkable records? Can we identify the oldest or longest-serving female player? We would be really pleased to hear from you – contact [email protected]