Table tennis alive and well thanks to former PoW Heinz

Heinz Melchert with fellow table tennis club members
Heinz Melchert with fellow table tennis club members

FROM playing alongside his fellow German prisoners of war in the old Wilton Camp, to joining a club in the former Victoria Hotel before organising matches in his garage and around the town, table tennis is a game which has always been close to the heart of Heinz Melchert.

And more than half a century after having a table made especially for the men living in the old camp – after they had all chosen to stay here as civilians – the 86-year-old remains the driving force behind Hawick Table Tennis Club.

Now operating at Hawick Congregational Community Church as part of its Reaching Out project, the club which he founded has met every Wednesday since 1994, and continues to flourish thanks to the dedication of Mr Melchert, whose life in Hawick has nearly always included his favourite sport.

Mr Melchert was captured as a prisoner of war in the South of France and taken to Texas, before being transferred to Longniddry in 1946, then Yetholm and Kelso – but it was after volunteering and being accepted to remain in Scotland that the man from Germany’s Pomeranian region began his life in Hawick and his association with table tennis.

He explained: “I’d never had the opportunity to play table tennis but I’d always been interested in it, then in the late autumn of 1948 after signing my contract to stay here and work on a farm near Kelso, I decided to get a table made locally for our camp which was where the police station is now, and the boys all used it.”

When the camp closed that was the end of the table tennis at that time, and Mr Melchert – who also worked in a sawmill and then as a butler for Lord Napier in the Ettrick Valley – said his interest in the game still remained. “I always kept a lookout for a club,” he admitted.

As Mr Melchert settled in Hawick, working at former High Street grocers Lipton’s, in 1956 he stumbled upon a group of table tennis fans who met in the Victoria Hall, coincidentally the same year he was appointed as the Co-operative store’s grocer, where he remained until its closure in 1987.

He explained: “I heard of a table tennis and social club in the Victoria Hotel which you had to apply to join. I then had to go in front of a committee and they accepted me.”

But the eventual closure of the hotel spelt the end of the club, although with the use of the table which he had had made after the war, enthusiast Mr Melchert, and a friend who also had a table, tried to continue their sport. “We kept playing, and met at the police station, Orrock Halls and the Evergreen Hall, but without a permanent place it became impossible to keep going and we had to give it up,” he stated.

For a little while Mr Melchert’s Leaburn Drive garage even played host to games, but for around 20 years table tennis in the town lay dormant – until 1994, when the retired grocer had an idea that it could be resurrected as part of his church’s activities.

“After a chat with the minister during which I suggested that a club was started in our hall, it just took off like a house on fire and has met every week since.”

The church initially bought a second-hand German table – the sport being very popular there – which replaced Mr Melchert’s original table from the old Wilton camp, before going on to buy two up-to-date German tables. They are played on every Wednesday by a mix of people ranging from middle-aged and upwards, and Mr Melchert says he is pleased his interest in table tennis is still part of the community, and able to benefit others.

He said: “I’m delighted that the club has become a success story and is still going strong. I’ve been able to help so many people learn how to play, and those who come along get tremendous pleasure from it. It allows them to be part of another world, try to beat each other, and also have a cup of tea and socialise.”

Fellow member Albert Thompson has heaped praise on Mr Melchert’s dedication, commenting: “Heinz puts all his energies into the club and made it open to everyone. It is a strong club which is held together by him, and he gives very positive coaching to all.”

These sentiments are echoed by the church’s development worker, Geraldine Strickland, who said: “Heinz is truly a very special person – the length of time the club has been going says it all. We are delighted this club is flourishing at the Congregational Church, it’s a great example of the kind of community activity we like to nurture.

“Table tennis spans gener-ations, and Heinz has made a very significant contribution to the local community over the years through his sport. We are all very proud of him.”

Mr Melchert, who says playing table tennis for so long has kept him fit and agile, added: “As long as I am able to, I will ensure that Hawick Table Tennis Club keeps going.”