Does The Price Of Beer No Longer Count? (29 March 1974)
What has happened to all the clubs that used to dot the urban scene? I do not mean those private gambling clubs one hears about in the big cities. I mean those licensed social clubs run largely or wholly by bodies of ordinary working chaps, like the Bletchley and Fenny Stratford Working Men’s Social Club, and without any ties or connections.
In the town where I first worked, which was about as large as Bletchley is today, there were at least four working men’s clubs, including a central one about the size of the Bletchley club, plus one or two more called “Trades and Friendly,” which seemed pretty much of the same nature.
Today, Bletchley has still just the one club, plus a Conservative Club, a Royal Naval Club and a railway servants’ club. My first town also had a Conservative Club, an ex-servicemen’s club and a miners’ club in addition to the others.
There may be plans afoot for other working men’s clubs in the Borough of Milton Keynes, but if so, I have not heard of them. Each new development seems to have its quota of new pubs, but what is happening about clubs? Are they a fading institution, with their weekend concerts, their annual kiddies’ treats and so forth?
Does the little bit of difference in the price of a pint of beer no longer count for as much? Or is it still available? Does a game of billiards or snooker no longer have the same attraction? And, for that matter, what has happened to the old Bletchley Snooker League?
Three or four years ago I awoke from an after-meal cat-nap and was amused to see the facia stone of a Yorkshire working men’s club on the television screen for about a second. It was one of those brief flicks television producers like to flash on the screen while introducing the latest episode in a serial or series. This happened for several weeks until the series finished.
What amused me about it was that this was the sign of the working men’s club in my native village, with the date 1915 on it, and that I remembered as a boy jumping about on the joists while it was being built. Some men had previously used the end house of a terrace as a club. I wondered what they’d been getting up to in my old village now to deserve all that, but the story didn’t tell me.
When I was a junior reporter I had to include that club among a lot of others where I called each week to pick up details of the weekend concert “turns”.
The turns had names like Mike and Millie, Dan and Dilly, or whatever, but the names of the chairmen and piano accompanists never changed. Some good comedians – or “comics” as we called them – began their stage careers in that way.
Like the club in my native village, the Bletchley and Fenny Stratford Working Men’s Club began in what had been a small private house. This was in Park Street and the year was 1908. At first there were only 20 to 25 members, mostly railwaymen, but the number grew swiftly. The club was registered with the Registrar of Friendly Societies in January 12, 1909, and became affiliated with the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union in June of that year.
By 1910 the membership had swollen to the point where it was impossible to carry on at Park Street, and the club moved into the older part of its present premises, which originally had been a pair of villas. It is possible that the Northampton Brewery Co. had acquired the premises specially for the club. At any rate, the members bought the premises from that company in 1926 and financed the cost and that of subsequent improvements by a mortgage from the same company and another made later by a local resident.
A photograph taken shortly after the club’s formation shows 11 members, the names of some of whom still mean something to old residents. They are: A. Pollard, A. Ward, J. Garner (a member of the first Bletchley UDC), G. Bowler, J. Wright, E. Wright, E. Forbes Oldham (chairman or president), Barter, A.B. Pratt, Garrett, C. Burt and W. Souster.
Forbes Oldham interest me. He was the local journalist of the time. Normally journalists fight shy of being involved with any particular movements lest their reporting should be suspected of being “coloured” by that involvement.
But not, apparently, Forbes Oldham. From stories told me by Mr. Joe Fennell and others, he had both his home and his office at the old Wilberforce Temperance Hotel, but that was about as far as his temperance went.
When the club celebrated its golden jubilee in 1959 good stories of its first days in Park Street were told by some of the surviving old and bold.
“I was the eighth member signed up,” said 74-year-old Mr. Charlie Burt, of Osborne Street, “and while we were in the house the membership grew to about 100, so that we couldn’t all get in at the same time.
“We used to have the bar in the downstairs front room – and how the floorboards used to creak when the barrels of beer were rolling on them!”
Mr. Harry Sear, aged 80, of Oliver Road, simply bemoaned the fact that over the 50 years the price of beer had risen from 2d a pint to 1s 3d.
Mr. Sidney Goodyear, of Leon Avenue, recalled that the front upstairs room was used as a games room. Included was a small billiard table and on summer evenings they had the window open, with the result that now and then a miscued ball popped out of the window and was liable to pot anyone walking in the street.
Mr. Arthur Phillips also used to tell some good tales of the early days.
Complaints about the quality of the club’s beer began to be received, he said, so Forbes Oldham decided to find out if better stuff was available at other places in the town. Two members – “both of them ten pints a day men” – were each given 10s to go round the local pubs sampling the beer.
“They set off all right, but they were brought back in a farmcart. Even then, they hadn’t quite finished the round – they still had three pubs to do. I don’t think their report has ever been received.”
Mr. Phillips also recalled a practical joke played by a Mr. Fred Clarke.
A local milkman used to call in at the club, leaving his milkcan in the porch the while. One morning Fred, seeing the milkcan standing there unattended, tipped a bottle of rum into it so that eventually the milkman’s customers were served with rum and milk.
“Next morning quite a number of them ordered “Same again”, said Arthur.