Inside England's oldest working men's club, The Holbeck, where a pint costs less than £3
Country’s oldest WMC - now called The Holbeck - is new creative arts hub for Slung Low theatre company
In its heyday, Holbeck Working Men’s Club - now known as The Holbeck - boasted a membership running into the thousands. People would queue in the rain just to get in.
Like many of the old time clubs, its was a testing ground for acts which would later go on to garner fame and fortune but when a little known duo by the name of Morecambe and Wise turned up in the 1950s, their act didn’t square too well with the gritty Northern audience.
“Morecambe and Wise came here before they were famous, the secretary of the club thought they were rubbish so they weren’t invited back,” says club vice president Ian Pickup, 58, a former landlord who learned his trade at The George behind Leeds General Infirmary and went on to run The Wrens opposite Leeds Grand Theatre and The Chemic Tavern, Woodhouse, over which he presided for three years.
Together with his partner Dennis Kitchen, 74, Ian stepped in when it became clear the club was on its knees about seven years ago. Within a matter of months, they managed to turn a £30,000 deficit into a £12,000 profit.
“The club was in decline, the steward was about to leave, it was not in a good way. We proposed to run it as volunteers to save the place. This was seven years ago in May. They had £30,000 of debt. Within nine months, we turned that into £12,000 profit.
"We did it by cutting entertainment and staffing and getting members to volunteer to work behind the bar.
“Under the old system, there was the committee and members and it was almost a case of never the twain shall meet. We changed all that, by bringing members on the board and giving them jobs to do, so that in only a short time, everyone knew each other. It worked much better.”
Despite these efforts, however, the club continues to struggle to attract a significant number of new members. That despite the fact you can get a pint for under £3, there are two full size snooker tables, darts, pool, a number of activities and an atmosphere many would likely come to cherish if they only knew it was there.
Dennis, a former minister with the Wesleyan Church, explained: “Years ago we had a gala and we had people from the local area who had lived there 30 years who didn’t know we existed.”
It’s a problem not confined to The Holbeck, although even now its members are striving to keep what is allegedly the country’s oldest WMC going.
Stalwarts Margaret and John Nutter have been members for over 40 years.
Former social services supervisor Margaret Nutter, from Beeston, recalls the club’s melancholic history: “We’ve seen it grow and peter off. I can remember people stood outside on New Year’s Eve from 5.30pm just so they got in. My dad used to come in here every day after work and play cards. Our daughter found her husband here. It used to be supported much more by the local population.”
But things have changed, from the social demographic to people’s habits.
Margaret continues: “In the last 10 years we have really noticed it. At one point, it was in danger of going the way of others but thankfully Ian and Dennis stepped in.”
Part of its problem was the old club was stuck in the past. It was very male orientated and one of the last to admit women members.
Margaret’s husband John, a retired fireman, notes: “At the moment we have about 450 members but I’d say only about 60 or 70 of those are regulars. We hold events here and get good turnouts but keeping people coming back ia difficult.”
A new partnership
Since January, the club has entered into a partnership with the Slung Low theatre company, which previously occupied five railway arches on the nearby viaduct.
It has been a mutually beneficial arrangement. The club’s debts have been paid off by Slung Low and the theatre company have guaranteed the financial viability of the club, while Slung Low, now occupy The Holbeck which includes a vast upper floor which has a stage and seating for 250.
Joanna Resnick is producer for Slung Low and also club secretary. She sees the pairing offering a lifeline for the club’s future.
“It’s such a wonderful space,” she says as she shows us around the first floor. “You can feel it when you come in how much they treasure this place, it’s a piece of history and you’re made welcome by the members.”
Slung Low are probably best known for making large scale outdoor political people’s theatre shows. They also run and are engaged in a dizzying array of courses and projects, from regular choir meetings, hosting other artists, running workshops and most recently launching a ‘cultural community college’, offering people the chance to learn skills in everything from short film making and welding to star gazing and cookery, all of which is offered on a ‘pay what you decide’ basis.
“In autumn, we will be making short film which will be a pilot project for what will become Leeds People’s Theatre. Over the next five years, we look to develop more of our large-scale work in our home city of Leeds.”
Javairya Khan, assistant producer at Slung Low adds that an upcoming project in July at Temple Newsam will see 450 delegates from around the world gather for an outdoor cultural conference. She explains this while offering vegetable skewers and flatbread, which are being barbecued just outside the entrance to The Holbeck.
“We’re roadtesting it,” she explains. “At the conference in July, the idea will be that delegates cook their own food. We’ve been commissioned by Arts Council England to create a conference for current and future cultural leaders. We will create a different type of space designed to encourage new thoughts and conversations."
She adds: “We’re about enabling conversations like that but we also want to offer local people the chance to try something new and exciting.”