South Leeds: Behind the scenes at The Hunslet Club

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IT BEGAN as a small-scale distraction for a handful of boys employed as messengers during the Second World War.

Today The Hunslet Club is one of the top five voluntary youth clubs in the country, providing activities and education for about 1,500 young people every week.

Seamus O'Loan, 11, and Harry Peach, 10, at The Hunslet Club.

Seamus O'Loan, 11, and Harry Peach, 10, at The Hunslet Club.

Chief executive Dennis Robbins, who started going to the club as a boy of ten in 1971, said: “The club’s booming.

“We’re doing far more activities than ever before, we have become more involved with different groups of young people.

“We’re at a point where we’re outgrowing the building through sheer volume of numbers. When you see the amount of activities on offer every day, you can see why.”

The club was formed by local GP Dr John Wyllie as Hunslet Boys Club at the height of the Blitz in 1940.

He wanted to provide positive activities for local teenagers who ran messages between air raid shelters and first aid centres.

For the next three decades the club had a nomadic existence, moving from church hall to church hall as and when premises became available.

When its latest building on Hunslet Road was deemed unfit in the late 1960s, the club committee – at that time chaired by Martin Arnold of printers E.G. Arnold – decided to buy a plot of land on Hillidge Road.

The current club building opened in 1971 and, by the 1980s, it was providing activities for both boys and girls.

In the 1990s it was renamed The Hunslet Club for Boys and Girls, before becoming, simply, The Hunslet Club. But, as the new millennium approached, the club’s fortunes took a turn for the worse.

Mr Robbins said: “The generosity of the local community dried up as businesses moved out.

“We didn’t have decent equipment, so young people weren’t turning up because the facilities were substandard.

“Every time a roof leaked we had to shut that part of the building down. The club was shrinking and shrinking to the point where we were only operating in the area downstairs.

“We really needed to do something quite radical.”

With that in mind, and noticing that there was an opportunity to offer provision for children who struggled in mainstream education, the club launched a vocational programme.

Initially it concentrated on sport, but has since expanded to include a vast range of skill-based learning in professions including plumbing, mechanics, hairdressing and beauty therapy.

Today 280 young people, referred from more than 30 schools across Leeds, are registered on vocational courses that run during the day. More than 1,200 attend leisure activities in the evenings, the youngest of whom are three years-old.

Mr Robbins said: “We have been in this area for 70 years. It’s likely that grandad, dad and lad, even great-grandad in some cases, have all been through the club. So there’s always some sort of connection wherever you go. That’s why we’ve got a place in a lot of people’s hearts.”

Staff levels have increased dramatically – 12 years ago the club employed a club leader and caretaker. Today it has 42 members of staff and about the same number of volunteers.

Perhaps the most famous former member is ex-England international rugby player Jason Robinson, but the club has also produced boxers and dancers who have enjoyed success on the international stage.

Mr Robbins added: “Jason Robinson told me he felt like he was nobody before he came to the club. He had no confidence and was really shy. But as soon as someone gave him a rugby ball he became somebody.

“But there are so many brickies, plasterers and plumbers who have been touched in the same way as Jason Robinson and whose lives have been changed by the club.”

The club costs about £900,000 a year to run, but is entirely self-funded. Mr Robbins said the support of the community was vital.

“Only recently some of the kids went out to raise money for a trip,” he said.

“They did a bag-pack at Morrisons that raised just short of £1,000 in a matter of hours. I’m amazed at the generosity of people. It’s such a difficult time at the moment, it was Christmas as well, but that’s the support of the local community. If we need help, they’re always there for us.

“A lot of the staff who work here on a night time have come through the club. It’s much more than a nine-to-five job for them and you can’t put a value on that. Without those people this club would be nothing.”

PIC: PA

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