John Barrs learnt of Go in 1929 (aged 15) when there was an attempt to sell commercial sets through the big London stores and sports shops. It was publicised under the Chinese name of Wei-chi. Although he had virtually no instructional material he became very interested in the game and on 1st March 1930 founded the Linton House Wei-chi club. This had about 15 members and continued until 1936.
After the war John concentrated on one of his other interests, representing Britain at weightlifting in the 1948 Olympics. In 1953 he read a chess book by Dr Edward Lasker which mentioned Go. He contacted Lasker who replied with some names of British Go players and sent copies of the American Go Journal. As a result of luring some chess players to sample the game, John shortly afterwards started the London Go Club. Also in 1953 (or shortly after) he founded the British Go Association (BGA), which later gave a voice in the European Go Federation of which he was for a while the president. London players attended the European Go Congress quite often during this period when it was held in Germany every year.
The London Club grew and by the 1960s it had 50 members. It was helped at this time by teaching from Japanese players. Firstly Mr Yoshio Kaneko, then Mr Teiji Hosono and Mr Yoshiro Akiyama. Other clubs started springing up around the country and Barrs estimated in 1965 that 2000 people in England knew how to play, though only about 100 were members of the BGA. John was president since its inception and the first player to be awarded a shodan diploma. He and Neil Stein traveled to Japan to play in team championships. He saw that young players like Jon Diamond would soon overtake him in strength, but at that time they had no Oriental teacher and there was little teaching material in English.
Then, as ever, it was difficult to gain national publicity for Go, but a great fillip was given to the British Go scene in 1965 by the publication of an article in the magazine "New Scientist", by Dr. Good of Oxford, that gave a reasonable exposition of the rules of the game.
At the time of this article there were about half a dozen Go clubs in Britain, including those at Cambridge, Bristol and Edinburgh, which still flourish. Both individual and club affiliations to the BGA took off from this point in time. The 1966 European Go Congress was held at Avery Hill College in London, in Britain for the first time. In 1967 the first British internal tournament took place at Oxford. It was an afternoon event lasting for two rounds only. The British Go Journal, a number of duplicated sheets without diagrams, was first published in this year. By 1995, 100 editions had been produced, most in A5 magazine format with photographs and diagrams. A newsletter complemented the Journal from 1982 and latterly there has been news on the BGA web site.
The first British Go Congress was held on a weekend near Easter in 1968 at Jesus College Oxford. It was attended by 36 people. There were six rounds with time limits of an hour, all played on handicap. For the first time, the Annual General Meeting of the Association was able to be held outside of London.
At this meeting Derek Hunter was elected Secretary of the Association. He was to hold this and then Membership Secretary, when the job was split, for a further 17 years without a break, and was a crucial figure in the development of British Go. Up to 2002 there had only ever been three more secretaries helping the BGAs stability: Matthew Macfadyen (1978-1982), Norman Tobin (1982-1985) and Tony Atkins (1985-2002). Of these, Norman was the only secretary not from Reading (being from Uxbridge). Adding to stability was T Mark Hall's 20 years as treasurer (1986-2006).
The British Go Congress has become a permanent feature of the British Go scene, the only annual tournament to change its venue each year in order to give people from different parts of the country a chance to attend the AGM. The only significant changes in format from the 1968 prototype have been the addition of a lightning tournament and the change to even games, run under the McMahon system.
The latter system was tried at the fourth British Congress, at Leeds in 1971. It was invented in order to enable most players to play even games, and to avoid having to divide players up into classes, so that all players are effectively playing in the same tournament. The system has been refined, and has become standard in most British and many European tournaments. It was named McMahon after a system of that name used at the New York Go Club, but it later transpired that the America prototype had a different purpose, as more of a club grading scheme. Later, the system was re-imported into the US for their own annual congress. In its present form, the McMahon system remains essentially a British invention.
British Go received a blow in January 1971 with the sudden death of its founder and first president, John Barrs. Francis Roads was elected president in his place. John had done much of the administration of the Association in a rather independent and single-handed manner. From this point it became necessary for the administration to become more of a team effort, especially in view of the forthcoming European Go Congress in Bristol that year. Britain went on to host the European Congress again in 1976 in Cambridge, Edinburgh in 1983 and Canterbury in 1992 (plus helping the Irish run Dublin in 2001).
After Francis Roads the presidents have been Bob Hitchens (1976-1977), Andrew Daly (1977-1978), Brian Castledine (1978-1979), Toby Manning (1979-1983), Richard Granville (1983-1985), Norman Tobin (1985-1991), Alex Rix (1991-1999) and then Alison Jones, now Alison Bexfield, (1999-2001), Simon Goss (2001-2006) and Ron Bell (2006-2009). Jon Diamond became president in 2009. The quick changes in the late 1970s were caused by job relocations and by Brian being tragically killed in a cliff fall.
While the British Congress became a permanent fixture, other annual one day tournaments sprang up. The first of these in 1970 was the Wessex Tournament, run each October by the Bristol Go Club in Marlborough in Wiltshire. Most British tournaments follow the British Congress pattern of three rounds per day, with one hour time limits. Wessex managed to cram in four rounds in a single days play (by use of shorter time limits and the extra hour from the end of British Summer Time). In 2006 it moved nearer to Bristol and dropped the fourth game.
At present there are about 50 annual British Tournaments. In contrast with the Continental pattern of mainly two-day weekend tournaments, most last a single day. Exceptions include the Northern, held in Manchester, the Welsh in Barmouth and the Scottish. The London Open is the major event of the year held over four days at New Year. It is a major international event and was part of the Fujitsu European Grand Prix for several years. It was part of the Toyota European Go Tour from 2001 until this ceased. The Isle of Man Go Week is normally held every other year and Go has featured regularly in the Mind Sports Olympiad held first in London in 1997.
The first London Open was held in 1975 at Imperial College. In March the same year a permanent home for this and other Go events in London became available in the shape of the London Go Centre. This centre was opened with generous sponsorship thanks to the efforts of the great Iwamoto (9 dan), and was run until October 1978 by Stuart Dowsey and David Mitchell. It was a seven day a week centre for playing and teaching Go, a focus for Go publicity, and for the distribution of Go material. In the end it proved to be over-extended and was unable to attract enough members to be financially independent in the expensive London environment. During this period BGA membership was over 1000, boosted by the Go Centre, the Open Door television program on Go and a feature on Radio 4.
A British Go Championship has been held every year since the Associations inception, unofficially at first as John Barrs was clearly better than the rest. However in the 1960s it became formalised and remains so today. More details are here.
British dan grades used to be strictly controlled by a Committee of the Association. The aim was to keep them average by European standards; the advent of rating systems showed that British grades may be a little weak. The European Ratings are now used as a basis for awarding dan diplomas. However the top British player (as of 2011), Matthew Macfadyen, at six dan is on a par with those of the same grade in Europe and he has been European Champion four times. Japanese visitors sometimes comment that it is actually more difficult to be promoted in the amateur grades in Britain than in Japan.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the number of clubs has stayed at around the 50 to 60 level and membership around 500 or 600. Early in the 21st Century it was approaching 700. It is a constant challenge for the BGA to attract the necessary sponsorship and publicity that would enable the BGA to expand still further. Events such as visits by professionals from China, Japan and Korea help this; a game of the Meijin Tournament was held in London in 1989 and a game of the Kisei in 2002. Go is also becoming more visible in film and television dramas and the like. However maybe the best hope for the future is with children; much effort is directed towards teaching the game to children, through school visits and annual youth tournaments.