Working men’s clubs are under threat but one in the North-East is bucking the trend and attracting younger members. Steve Pratt finds out why getting rid of the old-fashioned is vital for their survival.

TOM WARD returned as secretary two days before the bailiffs were due in at Hunwick Working Men’s Club. These were difficult times. There was no way of repaying a £97,000 debt and membership was in decline. The place was on the brink of closure.

He recalls with understandable pride how he negotiated a time-to-pay deal. Today, the club owes only £6,500 and that should be paid off within two years. Not only is the club still pen, but stronger and more active. After younger members were told to “use it or lose it”, they got involved with the running and helped organise new activities, including a football team and ladies’ darts team, to revitalise the programme.

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The Hunwick story is an object lesson that other working men’s clubs would do well to emulate.

At 87, Tom must be one of the oldest active WMC members, having joined Hunwick after leaving the Army in 1945 and enjoyed considerable success as a billiards player with the club.

“Things were different then,” says Tom of his early days at Hunwick. “Clubs were full all the time and bar takings were far higher than they are today. The CIU is a very strong body, but now it’s getting competition from supermarkets and what have you.”

When he returned to the secretary’s post two years ago – having spent previous terms of 20 and 12 years in the same role – it was make or break time. Younger members stepped up to the challenge, forming two “younger” groups, a 40 to 55 and a 20 to 40 age group.

The club came through but others may not be so fortunate. Cheap beer and variety acts are no longer attractive enough to entice people through the doors. The smoking ban, changes in gambling laws and cheap beer sold by supermarkets have all played their part in threatening the working men’s clubs.

Kevin Smyth, general secretary of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (CIU), acknowledges that clubs are in decline but argues that they won’t vanish altogether.

“Do I believe that the decline will continue?

Yes, I do. Do I believe there will be clubs in ten years time? Yes, I do,” he says.

“When I joined 32 years ago there were 4,000 clubs, now there are 2,250. That’s a big decline.

But do I believe there will be more than 1,000 clubs in ten to 20 years time? Yes, I do.”

He pinpoints several causes for the decline, not least the fact that clubs were once in the heart of busy, employed communities just a short walk for many people.

“Then the area changes and a club can suddenly be in a desert. There can be industry all around, like steelworks and pits, and then it disappears,” he says.

The problem isn’t more accute in the North- East, but the same all over the country, he maintains. Clubs everywhere are being hit by falling attendances and it was happening before the recession.

“Some clubs do buck the trend, and ten per cent have improved attendance since the smoking ban. The impact of that has not been as great as expected,” says Kevin.

The committee running each club needs to balance the traditional – or old-fashioned as some would call it – and the new. Getting younger people involved is imperative to safeguard the future of the clubs. Some do it by forming sports teams. Hunwick WMC FC was launched and a tournament organised in memory of a much-loved teenager, Ross Hudson.

THE CIU was so worried about the number of clubs closing that crisis talks were held with the-then communities secretary Hazel Blears. The meeting appears to have been less than useful.

“I’m coming to the conclusion, rather reluctantly, that the Government – and I’m not saying they’re deliberately closing clubs – are not helping at all. They’re much keener on community- based clubs, and our clubs are based on the selection process,” says Kevin.

Working men’s clubs are essentially private members clubs, rather than the community and sports clubs favoured by Government.

“They try to encourage our clubs to become those but they don’t have a selection process like us. Otherwise you might get undesirables,”

he explains. “Working men’s club were set up in 1862 as a place where an individual could go and enjoy the company of his fellow man without brewers dictating prices, and where people could have a say in the management.

“They could run the club. Before that, it was the landed gentry who ran such organisations.

Although many had very good intentions, they were perhaps not the type of management working men felt comfortable with.”

Getting rid of many people’s image of these clubs as smoke-filled rooms full of men in cloth caps knocking back pints while watching risque stage acts isn’t easy.

“They still do have an old-fashioned image, I can’t deny that,” says Kevin, 62, who retires as the union’s secretary in three months’ time.

“Until a few years ago we were reluctant to have women in. The old perception of spitoons and cloth caps does persist. I haven’t seen a spitoon in the 30 years I’ve been here. I have seen cloth caps, but not recently, although now they’re becoming something of a fashion item.”

What Tom, manager of Burtons the tailors in Bishop Auckland until his retirement in 1960, has seen is a revival in Hunwick WMC and the community around it.

“The village has come to life,” he says.

“There are two other pubs, but one is more a restaurant now and we’ve attracted some young members from there. You must try to get the young element involved – they’re the ones with the money. At Hunwick they have taken an interest and made my work much easier.”