Munchies

Touring English Working Men's Clubs Before They're Lost to the Past

They need to break out of the booze 'n' bingo mold if they want to survive this generation of drinkers.

by Daniel Dylan Wray
Apr 29 2015, 10:20pm

Locals at the Attercliffe social club. All photos by Natasha Bright.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Like most major British cities, my hometown of Sheffield is no stranger to gentrification.

A major, Jarvis Cocker-backed campaign is currently underway to stop the demolition of a group of independent shops in the city center to make way for luxury accommodation (you can now swing by the red light district for craft beer and pizza) and the once gloriously grey monolithic ode to Brutalism that is the Park Hill public housing estate now looks like the shop front to an Early Learning Centre, all courtesy of an Urban Splash redevelopment aimed at young professionals.

However, the city's gentrification is still relatively contained and, in many instances, a positive. Plus, you really don't have to go far to find the Sheffield of old: desolate factories, warehouses, and wonky post-war buildings are all plentiful. A short trip out of the city center can feel like traveling back decades in minutes.

Attercliffe, a once thriving area fueled by the proximity of the busy steelworks, is now a sparse, rather barren part of the city that's renowned for its sex industry. Brothels, saunas, sex shops, and swingers clubs sit next to boarded up pubs, garages, and exotic pet shops. Which is great if you want to have sex, get your car serviced, and buy a lizard in the space of an afternoon.

A Northern Soul poster at the Attercliffe social club

Once a month the local social club plays host to a pretty great Northern Soul night. I went a few months ago and noticed how the place provides a real stronghold for the community amid the decay going on around it—a welcome sight when you hear of so many similar institutions through the UK being demolished in favor of very expensive flats that nobody's ever going to live in.

It got me thinking about the social and working men's clubs local to me. How are they doing in 2015? Is there pressure for them to give up their plots, or are things as they've always been? And if it's the latter, is that necessarily as good as it seems? Most of these clubs seem to have aging memberships, so what will happen to them a decade or two from now, when they've been forgotten by the next generation?

Starting at the Attercliffe club, I visited a number of them to find out.

Dave and Debbie

VICE: How long have you been steward and stewardess at the Attercliffe?
Dave: Two years, but I was basically brought up in here with my mum and dad. I've been coming since I was five years old. Stewart, the previous steward, passed away, and we decided to take it on a couple of years ago. If we hadn't, it would have probably shut.

What's the club like?
It's like one big family. All the members chip in to the upkeep of the club, putting in money to a little kitty.
Debbie: All the décor we've managed to do in here has been done through money raised and given by the members. We've got a swear box and that builds up.

What's your clientele like?
Dave: It's just us regulars we get in; we don't get any strangers.
Debbie: Our regulars are great, though. They do spend and they can drink. Sometimes on a Saturday and Sunday they never know when to go home.
Dave: We have a regular who is 92, and she sups double gin and tonics all night. Then we've got Frank, who's 86, and he comes in every Saturday and Sunday and he can sup. They are mainly 70 years old onwards.

Is it hard to get younger people to join?
Debbie: Yes, very much so. I'm 46 and Dave's 53, and there's nobody else that comes in in that age bracket. The young ones don't want to know. I mean, I don't mind a bit of bingo, but it does get tedious—but our regulars love it because they're that age group. It's not boring to them. It is to us, and I think that's the same for younger people; you're not going to get people coming in wanting that. It's not a place for that age group. We'd even be happy with people in their 40s and 50s coming in, but they just aren't.

The band at Crookes Social Club

"It's an uphill struggle. It's like running through mud a lot of the time," said Maurice, bar manager at Crookes Social Club, when I asked how things are going.

"We're fighting against the home entertainment market; when you can buy a can of beer from a supermarket for less than a pound, why would you drag yourself away from your Xbox and Sky TV to somewhere that's going to charge £3 a pint? The black and white of it is that there needs to be a reason for people to come out. In the 1960s and 70s, if you wanted a beer, you went to the club or pub—there was no buying it from the supermarket."

Maurice painted a picture of an entire culture on the slide, but the next place I visited—Sheffield Lane WMC—gave me some hope. Glynn has been a member of Sheffield Lane since 1970 and club secretary for the last 15 years.

Hi Glynn. How's the club doing this year?
Glynn: We can't do anything wrong at the moment. We're doing between £15,000 to £18,000 [$23,000 to $28,000] a week over the bar. On Saturday night, if you're not in for 7:15 PM, you won't get a seat.

Your prices are very cheap. I just paid £2 for a pint of Stones
You can get a pint in here for £1.70.

So it is possible to price things cheaply—presuming you own the building outright and aren't tied to a brewery—and make a good profit still?
Absolutely, yes. When we took over this club it was on its knees; it was like a cattle shed, actually. It's a business now. This place has a £1.5 million [$2.3 million] turnover a year. It's the hub of the community if it's used properly.

Do you get approached much by younger promoters wanting to put things on here at all? You have an amazing gig room.
We never get approached. We did have a young band called Drenge who filmed a video here recently, but other than that we don't have much interest from students and the like. But we'd like some younger members; it's hard to get them in.

The noticeboard at Sheffield Lane

Tash (the photographer) and I were clearly at least 40 years younger than the majority of people in Sheffield Lane, something the stares helped to remind us of. An attempt to take photos and chat with regulars was met with some hesitancy, with most people asking if we were from the police or the Inland Revenue.

Mind you, once we assured everyone that we definitely weren't there to arrest them or repossess all their worldly belongings, the reception became much friendlier.

A sign in Sheffield Lane WMC

One of the contributing factors—and eventual symptoms—of gentrification seems to be an obsession with the notion of luxury. Luxury living, luxury gyms, luxury crisps, luxury quilted loo roll. Thanks to the rampant "regeneration" of swathes of the UK, these luxuries are becoming the new normal.

It may seem like relatively harmless frivolity, but when everything in your life is luxury – when it's perfectly acceptable to spend over £10 on a pint and a Scotch egg—the ordinary becomes subpar. The beauty of the clubs I've visited is that they are just that: ordinary. Reliable. Timeless. Not the kind of place that will serve you a ploughman's on a piece of fucking limestone.

Problem is, while that's a very welcome change, it seems to actually be detrimental to the clubs themselves. They're being left behind because they haven't adapted to the times and have essentially lost a generation of members as a result. This problem is compounded by the fact that a lack of younger members means a lack of voices pointing them in the right direction.

Ken (left)

Hi Ken. When did you join the Sheffield Lane club?
Ken: In 1974, and I became a member because they have a bowling green that's second to none.

Do many young people come here?
Clubs these days just can't get the youngsters in, and it's surprising because there are so many students up here. We're 79 years old, the pair of us, and we appreciate you have to keep things at a good price, but you see some people come in here for one drink and then they'll go into town and pay £3 or £4 for a bottle of something that they could get in here for £2. Why? I think they're brain dead, the lot of them—I really do.

What do you think the future holds for these kinds of clubs?
Put it this way—I think, in ten years, they'll all be closed.

Perhaps these places don't appeal to younger people because they don't represent what young people have come to expect from clubs and pubs. Your Oceanas and Slug and Lettuces are not second homes or places to engage with the community; they're somewhere to piss around, spill your drinks, and take your trousers off and stand on a table helicoptering your dick around because your mates dared you to.

These social clubs demand—and, in return, give—a degree of respect, good behavior and manners, and perhaps people just don't want that in a night out any more. Pull your cock out in one of these places and you'll have a 73-year-old man named Bruce chucking you out into the car park before you've even have a chance to shout, "Lads, look!"

Neil, Rachel and James

Back at Crookes we finally ran into some younger people, though had to wait until the bingo had finished being called before we could speak to them. (Speak over the bingo at your own peril; members take it very seriously.)

How long have you all been coming here for?
James: Ten years, myself.
Neil: Since I was 18, I think. I came in with my dad.
Rachel: I'm not from Sheffield. I moved back up here when I was 16 and I used to work behind the bar.

Rachel, you're by far the youngest person I've spoken to in any club. What do you think they could be doing to engage younger people and the next generation?
I suppose utilizing the concert room for more things—student gigs, hiring it out to students—but again, it's difficult to reconcile that with the stigma of it being a working men's club
Neil: I think they've already missed the next generation, that's the big problem.

I was chatting to someone who thinks these places will all be dead and gone in ten years. Do you agree, and if so how do you feel about that?
I agree with it and it will be a big shame. You come in here on Christmas Day and you'll see how integral places like this are for families.

You all come here on Christmas day?
All: Yeah.
Neil: You see all sorts of people and you can guarantee that's the one time of year you get to see some people.

That would presumably be a sad thing for you to lose then?
It would, yeah, because you'd never meet up with—or even see—some of those people again.

Regulars at Attercliffe

To my generation, the idea of a pub or club providing a service to the community is an almost alien concept. They are places to consume things, not places where one can contribute. Yet, these social clubs are the living antithesis of that idea—they are genuine nucleuses of the community: weddings, christenings, and funerals fill the function room as frequently as tribute bands, psychics, and Zumba classes.

Not all working men's clubs are nice, or welcoming, or even worth going to. But a lot of those we visited are, and the death of these kind of clubs, should it happen, represents a death of spirit in community and contribution, of having democratically-run places that aim to reflect the best interests of their members, not the owners or the brewery. It's people above profit—often to its own detriment—and given the current political climate we face, that's a rare and precious trait we should be trying to retain.

Do they need to move away from bingo six nights a week in order to attract a younger membership and stop the clubs becoming extinct? Certainly. But the only way that will happen is if young people become members, because these clubs are there to reflect the members' interests.

Some of these places have the best stages and dance floors in the entire city, and you only have to look at the enormous success that is the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds to see how you can run a successful, progressive music venue while continuing to look after your members. This needs to happen, because the outcome otherwise is inevitable and depressing: these buildings—these institutions of the local area—being developed and repurposed as luxury accommodation.

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