Edward Smith, chess player

Estimated reading time:5 minutes, 17 seconds

Everyone in Islington has a story, so meet Edward Smith who’s lived here since 1965. Interview by Nicola Baird.

Edward Smith: “The older I get the more I enjoy life.”

Born in London in 1948, Edward Smith, has been in Islington since he was 17. His father didn’t like to be tied down, so Edward remembers a peripatetic childhood. “I think he rented 21 homes so we were in Chelmsford, and Surrey and I was at school in Cambridge,” says Edward. “But we used to come to Islington for the once a month missionary meeting. Sometimes my father would get a taxi from Waterloo station up to Highbury and you could see Islington was really poor. It was full of bomb sites*, and the famous bomb site at Highbury Corner*. The gentrification didn’t happen until the 1980s.”

“My parents weren’t missionaries, but they were supportive,” explains Edward. But the missionary link led to the family first moving into the Foreign Mission Club*, still in Aberdeen Park, N5, and later to being offered a first floor flat in a missionary house at Hamilton Park West, N5.

“My father worked in the City until the war (1939-45). He decided to be a volunteer and the RAF* took him. He was an officer. He didn’t have a gun. He never went up in a plane. But he supported the troops on the ground. He’d have to get 500 men from York to London say. To stop them absconding he lined the train platforms with food! I never could understand why that worked.  But he was at Bristol and saw a bombing raid. It terribly shook him up. He became a bit ill, but avoided mental hospital. As a child we’d go by train together to see cricket matches and he was terrified of lightning. If there was a storm he’d hide under the seats. It was so embarrassing. It might have been to do with the war. He died when I was 22, so my mother (who was a pharmacist) and I moved to the smaller basement, you’d call it a garden flat now. I remember looking down the hill (towards Arsenal, Finsbury Park and Holloway) and thinking I’m going to live there…”

And he has. In fact he has only lived in five places as an adult – all in Islington. His current home is with a housing association in N4.  “I was working as a postman, and in the 1980s this got you on the council list, I only waited two years. People said it was badly paid, but I thought the money was fantastic, I felt like I was rolling in it, and it didn’t seem like much work.”

“I didn’t go to university, but from school on until the age of 30 I had 100 jobs. It was so easy to get a job then. I got two in one morning once, though that was at Madame Tussauds  and the Planetarium.  It’s not like that now. I worked in a library, the library is no longer there. I worked on the railways, as a rent collector at Gatwick airport. I was privately educated – my parents weren’t very wealthy, they spent all their money educating me. They were warned that I shouldn’t read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and Londonbut I did…” Maybe that’s what made me try so many manual jobs?”

Chess however has been a constant in Edward’s life.

“I learnt to play chess at school when I was about 11. All the kids had pocket chess sets made of cardboard and would play on the bus home. When I was 19 I met someone who had grown up in Islington, been to a secondary modern here. He was an Islingtonian*, who went on to teacher training. We used to play chess a lot. With no mercy! If you made a mistake, that was it. He won a lot, perhaps because he was more confident. But I hated losing,..”

“I have another friend, a genius chess player who I met on an accountancy course. I still play him, but on a computer. That helps my game, even though over the last three years I’ve only beaten him once – it was the best move of my life!”

This year (2012) he was urged by a church-going friend to set up a weekly chess club at St Thomas’ Church, N4 where he’s been a regular since 1996. Here he teaches the newbies, instructs on some finer moves (eg, the fork played with a knight) and provides cake. The officiating is done with a light touch and helped by Robert. “The chess club gives us older people the chance to view the younger members of the church,” writes Edward in his first chess club newsletter.

Even if rooks and bishops aren’t your thing it’s worth going to chess club, just to hear more fascinating tales from Islington people.

St Thomas’ chess club is on Mondays, 7.30-9pm. Drop in (under 16s must be with an adult). Cost: £1-£5 (fees explained at the first session).  Entrance can be a puzzler – it’s on St Thomas’ Road where the church has a door nearest to the houses.


  • Foreign Mission Club – founded in 1893 and now known as the Highbury Centre, is at 20-26 Aberdeen Park, N5. The short history on its website claims the club has hosted thousands of missionaries, Christian ministers, overseas and home visitors. It still offers short and up to three month stays, B&B and conference facilities. Edward’s family were Plymouth Brethren.
  • Islington bomb sites – Highbury Corner was hit by a V2 on 27 June, 1944 killing 26 people and leaving 150 inured, see the memorial plaque on site, and also here.  More London bomb site links here.
  • Islingtonian – born and educated in Islington. Everyone has a different definition, but this is Edward’s.
  • RAF – Royal Air Force. More info here.

Over to you
What do you think of this wonderful man or the chess club? By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know. Thank you. And yes, this blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.