Local memories come flooding back after sudden death of sporting icon Chester Barnes

Table tennis trio line-up photo

Chester Barnes (right), pictured with his South Devon team-mates Brian Pengelly (left) and Brian Collins (centre) - Credit: Robert Excell

The sudden death of sporting and table tennis icon Chester Barnes has brought memories flooding back for those who knew him and got to play with him while he was in Torbay. 

Described as ‘the George Best of table tennis’, Chester was one of the most recognisable sportspeople in England in the 60s and 70s. He was 74 

He won five national titles, played for England and was ranked as high as 16th in the world rankings in 1967.  

Supporters believe he would have gone on to achieve even greater things nationally and internationally –   but he was renowned for also making headlines outside the sporting arena with his forthright interviews which sometimes put him at odds with those who ran the sport. 

Robert Excell, a well-known figure in the local table tennis and amateur sports world, is also a professional photographer and first met Chester at the then Pontins holiday camp in Brixham where Chester performed exhibition games. He was to also live in Brixham for a while.  

Robert, who has been involved in table tennis since 1972 and has run a table tennis club in Torre since 2007, says: “He used to play with big bats, small bats and even frying pans.  I used to go for a practice up there as well. I never played him. I think he was a bit too good for me! 

“His death is a sad loss of a true gentleman and great ambassador for table tennis.  

Most Read

“Even though he was Number One for England, he never stopped encouraging lesser players like myself. He truly inspired me in the 70s / 80s to get back into the sport. 

“He was brilliant for table tennis. He was in a class of his own, an icon.”  

Brian Pengelly, one of the best known and much-respected figures in South Devon and county table tennis circles for decades, first came across Chester in the 60s. 

A coach for a remarkable 45 years, Brian said: "He was doing a lot of the holiday camps and decided to move down here.  

“I got to know him because he wanted to join the local leagues to keep his hand in.”  

Brian even managed to persuade Chester to play in his South Devon League team for one season. It was when Brian was doing a lot of coaching from St Andrews Church in Paignton in the 70s. 

Table tennis champion holding trophy

Chester Barnes the champion - Credit: Robert Excell

He can also remember Chester taking part in one particular local tournament in Newton Abbot. “There was a bad snowstorm in Newton Abbot," said Brian, knowing who would win if Chester ventured over. "I told him not to drive from Brixham to Newton Abbot." 

But Chester took part and unsurprisingly made it through to the final where Brian was to be his opponent. 

Brian, a former south Devon champion several times himself, feared some of Chester's trick shots coming out in the final. "People were rubbing their hands to see him play in the final. They thought he was going to put on a bit of an exhibition and I was going to be the sacrificial lamb," said Brian.  

But Chester didn’t hang about. He beat Brian 21-3, 21-5. “It was Sunday licensing hours and he had to get off to the pub before it closed," said a relieved Brian. 

He added: " He was a very quiet person and was very pleasant company. When he was in a crowd, he was Jack the Lad laughing and joking. He was so funny and nice to know.” 

"He would drive the English Table Tennis Association to distraction, " said Brian, who is now 81 and lives in Preston, Paignton. “He was a party animal but he was so gifted." 

Chester announced his retirement in April 1975. He moved into the world of horse racing and enjoyed dozens of memorable moments as assistant to the great racehorse trainer Martin Pipe. 

He is survived by his wife, Jane, and son Lester.