Bringing Chess to Visually Impaired People

The Gazette - May 2009

Sponsored by The Primary Club
Edited by Guy Whitehouse
The views expressed in the Gazette do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of the BCA, nor those of the editor.

Obituary for Sir John Wall CBE

Sir John Wall CBE died unexpectedly on 30th November 2008; he was 78 years old.

Born in East Finchly he lost his sight at the age of 8 through glaucoma. He attended Worcester College for the Blind, as it was called then, and won a place at Balliol College Oxford to study jurisprudence. Having graduated he went to work at the National Association of Local Government Officers before moving into private practice 18 years later.

He involved himself in many of the leading organisations promoting the welfare of the visually impaired. He was chair of the London branch of the National Federation of the Blind in the sixties and also of the RNIB. Later he chaired the Hampshire Association of the Blind, the Southern and Western Regional Association of the Blind, the Wireless for the Blind Fund, and he was also a trustee of St. Dunstan’s from 1990 to 2000 when he became its chairman. He was also integral in setting up the Confederation of Tape Information Services, and is reputed to have written the constitutions of 8 charities!

His interests in the welfare of the visually impaired were not limited to activities in UK based organisations. He was chair of the UK European Disability Forum during the eighties and nineties, until it was wound up due to lack of government funding. He led the UK delegation to the European Blind Union and the World Blind union for the best part of 20 years; he actually published a history of the World Blind Union in 2008. It was through his involvement in this work that I first met John. We had collaborated briefly on his campaign to preserve blind people’s entitlement to sending articles for the blind abroad free of charge, and he was also campaigning to have the definitions of goods adapted for the blind to be brought up to date so as to include computer programs and the like.

I actually met John in person at the World Blind Union seventh general assembly in Geneva last year; we sat opposite each other at the breakfast table more or less every day, and I found him to be someone who was invariably friendly and interesting to talk to. We discovered a common interest in classical music, and he and his second wife were going on to a classical music festival in Lucerne at the end of the assembly.

John’s legal career seemed to hit the proverbial discrimination ceiling when he applied to become a judge. He was turned down essentially on the grounds that being blind he could not deal with the paperwork and could not inspire those around him with confidence. He persevered and was appointed deputy master of the high court in 1991. He was awarded the CBE in 1994 and knighted in 2000.

John’s chess career seems to have gone through two distinct phases. He began by being an active over-the-board player, and famously defeated the former world champion, Dr. Max Euwe, in a simultaneous display in Worcester. He continued to play chess at university, but gave over-the-board play up so as to further his career, and this meant that he rarely met most BCA members. However, although John did not play over the board, he was very active in correspondence chess, playing for the BCA team in the British Correspondence Chess League and for Middlesex in the county correspondence championship. His name appears several times on the Tylor shield for the BCA’s postal championship, his last win being in the 38th competition.

John is survived by his four sons from his first marriage (his first wife, Joan, died of cancer), and also by his second wife Friedel, a volunteer reader whom he married some years after Joan’s death. John’s passing produced a large number of goodwill messages, and Lord Colin Low of the RNIB is collecting these and making a book out of them. The BCA would like to extend its commiserations to John’s surviving relatives.

Guy Whitehouse (with some material provided by Hans Cohn and Ray Hazan).