1936-1950 Executive Committee member
1961-63 President and chairman of Council
1963-67 Honorary Life Vice-President
1997 Admitted to Hall of Fame
1910-60s Northern branch secretary of Ireland
1948 Badminton Union of Ireland President
When the newspaper cartoon character Sporting Sam was created, Major John (Johnnie) McCallum could well have been the inspiration. He wasn’t just a badminton player but an Ireland wicket-keeper in cricket, no mean tennis player and golfer, and even an Irish rugby triallist.
Happily, badminton was his first love and it was through him that the sport expanded rapidly through Europe, especially in the years after the First World War.
For ”the wee Major” was a man ahead of his time – the original team manager.
He first came to prominence in badminton circles in the 1910-11 season when the Captain, as he was then, convened a meeting of 14 clubs to form the Ulster (later to be named Northern) branch of the Badminton Union of Ireland. He became honorary secretary of the Northern branch and it was a role he filled for 52 years either side of the War years and beyond, right up to the early 1960s.
After the 1914-18 War, by now a Major, he started a fund-raising campaign for a specialist badminton hall – the first in the United Kingdom – and it opened in March 1924, owned by the Belfast Badminton Hall Company.
By 1926-27 the Irish Open was held in Belfast for the first time and by then Ulster had 116 affiliated clubs with 70 more in the rest of Ireland. Around this time the Ulster branch changed its name to the Northern branch.
McCallum had started playing in 1904 at the Marlborough Club in Dublin then later joined the Belfast BC and the Ben Madigan BC. He represented Ulster in their matches with Leinster and immediately before the First World War he competed in Ulster, Scottish, Irish and All England Championships.
Even during the War years badminton was not neglected with The Badminton Gazette (April 1915) reporting: “He has introduced a modified form of badminton, the ‘modifications consisting of beams, a stove, and two doors opening inwards’. Even under these conditions he finds the game ‘good fun’.”
He played eight times for Ireland between 1913-1927 (he was originally selected for the 1912 match with Scotland which was never played). He had the distinction of winning the 1929 Irish men’s doubles title in partnership with Sir George Thomas when both of them were in their late 40s. It was the last of Sir George’s 13 Irish men’s doubles titles and McCallum’s only Irish Open win although he and
F. L Treasure won the 1932 Dutch Open to go with his 1927 Welsh International success with Alan Titherley. Opinions vary on just how good a badminton player he really was but there is no doubting his administrative and organising skills.
He had already organised a touring party called The Strollers. Initially they only played their matches in Ireland but in 1926 McCallum got the wanderlust and decided to take The Strollers further afield.
In October 1928 The Strollers went to Denmark, where badminton was starting to capture the imagination. “They crossed from Harwich on October 12 and arrived in Copenhagen on the 14th”, reports the Badminton Gazette of November 1928 (price 6d). The players – Mrs Horsley, Mrs Dickie, Messrs O. L. Goldsmith, N. V. Goldsmith G. E. Stewart, and the Major, played matches on four consecutive days from the Sunday.
There were also visits to Holland, Belgium, France, Germany and Norway.
In Denmark the visit had a profound effect and the chance for the Danes to take on famous Irish players of the day was the springboard the country needed. McCallum certainly played his part in making Danish badminton what it is today.
But it wasn’t just on court that McCallum made a difference. A lifelong involvement in the sport saw him develop into a fine administrator as well.
His rise through the Irish ranks to become Badminton Union of Ireland President in 1948 stood him in good stead as he finally became International Badminton Federation President in 1961, having been an Irish representative of the IBF at the inaugural 1934 meeting and, along with fellow Irishman John Plunkett Dillon, played an active part in preliminary negotiations. McCallum then served on the Executive Committee from 1936 until becoming Vice President from 1951. He took over as President in 1961.
Sir George Thomas described his election as “a source of very real satisfaction to a host of his friends, outside as well as within his native Ireland. The very well-merited honour fittingly sets a seal on a lifetime of efficient service to the game.”
Away from sport, he was for many years after the 1914-18 War a Resident Magistrate. Frank Peard, another of Ireland’s great badminton names, reveals in his book Sixty Years of Irish Badminton that one Badminton Union of Ireland annual meeting was even held in his court in Belfast.
His contribution to the development of the game was not forgotten. On November 23, 1963 the £27,000 McCallum Hall was opened. Thanks to fund raising organised by another prominent Irish player, Tom Boyle, £8,000 had been raised to go with a 50 per cent Government grant. The Major and his wife attended the opening along with Scotland’s then IBF chairman David Bloomer and IBF secretary Herbert Scheele.
The venue was used by the Ulster Branch for tournaments in the 1960s and 70s before falling victim of The Troubles. It closed in the early 1990s and the site was sold for housing although the proceeds produced some capital for the Ulster branch.
The hall which bore his name may have gone but his legacy to the sport is an enduring one.
Research: Dick O’Raffery, Curator Badminton Museum of Ireland
Bob Colhoun MBE, Ulster Badminton
Frank Peard: Sixty Years of Irish Badminton
The Badminton Gazette
-- By William Kings