You've all seen them; whether on high streets or industrial estates, squirreled away near industrial wasteland or as towering red brick edifices, dominating the local environs - social clubs are firmaments of the North East drinking scene. Coming in all shapes and sizes, pulling in hard working men and women for a post graft series of pints. If you live in the North East of England, chances are, slipped into your St. Michael leatherette bi-fold that came in a gift set with a bottle of Harvard splash-on, you have a plastic card offering you safe passage to the land of the sub-three-pound pint.
Social clubs are the pint pumper for many working class north communities; providing safe harbour to a drinking landscape wrecked from Carharrt-wearing chancers who have polluted keg lines the land over with beers that are as highly flavoured as they are priced.
Photos - The Beechwood Comrades Club, Gilley Law, 1965
Many articles will lure you into thinking the club scene is dead and buried, but this couldn't be further from the truth. As the North East's official Club Publicist I was delighted to bump into Mag North Editor Colin at the launch of ClubCoin a few months ago. Whilst most people won't be aware of the fact the CIU launched its own Crypto Coin offering to members in January, this goes to show how far off the mark most news coverage is. Colin offered me the opportunity to write the occasional column to provide some much needed insight into clubland. A literary peak behind the Strictly Members Only signs that stand proud as a typographical forcefield against Guardian readers and 6Music listeners alike. I jumped at the chance to enlighten MagNorth's readers.
A quick Google search about social clubs will lead you, undoubtedly, to the Club and Institute Union website, which provides next-to-no information about their voluntary association of private members' clubs across Great Britain & Northern Ireland, nor their 1,800 associate clubs.
The cursory glance you might take will reveal a woefully out of touch website, zero mobile optimisation, and a series of PDFs that'll have you screaming into your web browser. This is, of course, completely planned, as any self-respecting clubsman would know. All genuine club history and information is shared only orally, usually over a Formica table, laden with pint glasses and betting slips. This oral storytelling is as commonplace in sub-Saharan Africa as it is on the Pennywell Estate in Sunderland.
One of the earliest known clubs was the “Murum Hic Socialis Clava” - The Wall Builders' Social Club at the bottom of the West Road in Newcastle. Dating back to around 126AD, it's recognised as arguably the first established social club in the world. Local archaeologists discovered stone membership cards and a rudimnetary bandit during their preliminary dig at the site back in 1987. An illustration of the club (seen here) can be found in the permanent Social Club exhibition at the Great North Museum.
The boom time for social clubs came in the mid-1800s when The Club and Institute Union was founded by The Rev. Henry Solly in 1862. The CIU provided a voice at national level for working men's clubs and social clubs, and also provided discounted products and services for its members. Whether pints, or plasterers, the CIU acted like a fixer for a c-list celebrity who's been given his or her own woeful travel show on Channel 5.
Clubs were inextricably linked with local industries. The North East has been a hotbed for grafters going back generations.
Stotties were a huge export from the north east up until the 1970s. For decades teams of bread boaters worked on the quays at Newburn, loading crates of freshly cooked stotties, that were then sailed down the Tyne and then off down south, to high-end bread boutiques in London and Brighton.
A ham and pease pudding butty would cost over a tenner down there, whereas the same bit of bait was given to school bairns in the north east along with their milk up until the mid-1980s. Such exports made Newburner Capt. R. R. Stottie, an incredibly rich man.
The boatmen had their own club, The Top Bap, on Newburn Quays, where they relaxed after their long shifts. There was a famous sign hung above the door that was referenced in the Alan Hull song “Nee Floured Hands!”. Sadly The Top Bap was swallowed by a sink hole in 1976 and made the front page of the Chronicle with the ill thought out headline “Baps Away!”. A Copper stottie was installed on the site of the Club in honour of its former members.
Another would be the The Shipwrights Club at Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson Ltd in Wallsend. Pre, mid and post-shift pints were served alfresco to for hard working lads. The Shipwrights looked exactly as pictured until vessel production ceased in 2006. Amazingly, the club was awarded a five star hygiene rating.
As many local lads and lasses were seemingly never out of their pyjamas, the North East experienced a post-war population explosion. Local power stations were built to accommodate the increasing energy demands of the North East. The on-site Mini Club pictured was opened at The Stella North Power Station at Lemmington in the late 1950s, with a design replicated across the North East.
Back in the days of localised, coal fired power stations it was important to keep workmen hydrated. The British Electricity Authority installed Mini Clubs to ensure each employee could get quick access to a refreshing couple of pints, mid-shift. The Mini Clubs were sparse affairs with only a part time bingo caller. The beer, thankfully, was heavily subsidised, so as not to affect morale.
Sport continues to play a huge part in social club life, as it has done for the best part of two hundred years. Contrary to Audi owners' opinions, it's not just screened on low cost HD televisions at an awkward viewing angle, with their snaking HDMI cables drooping down like a dogs undocked tail. The North East's clubs are home to countless teams and tournaments covering every imaginable sport and game; from darts to dominoes, snooker to pigeon racing, and everything in between.
Crown Green Bowls is a popular favourite amongst members. Pictured below is the famed (and feared) East Herrington Crown Green Bowling Team from The Blocker Club. They're three-time winners of the Winalot Prime North East League and known locally as the 'Heed The Bowls'.
These are seriously hard men who take absolutely no shit from anyone. During the final game of the recent Cillit Bang Inter Club Challenge, Peter Harris (back left) brained a match official from the Indoor Bowling Association with a Drakes Pride Hi Density Deluxe Wood and throttled another with his microfibre towel when he was told to extinguish his mid-match cigarette.
Peter earned himself a five point penalty but he and his teammates still outplayed their South Hetton rivals to take home the Barry Scott Commemorative Trophy. Impressive stuff and thankfully I had a ton on the result, which pretty much paid for me fortnight in Sharm.
Enjoying a flutter is as popular with social club members as disposable vapes are with under fourteen-year-olds.
Peelies are a quintessential part of any self respecting member. These five strip, cardboard lottery cards account for up to 80% of all club takings, popularised by the Golden Nugget machines bolted to the walls in almost every single club entrance across the north east.
Peelies are a huge local success story thanks to North East Peely Holdings based in Washington New Town. NEPH has in excess of 10,000 employees producing, packaging and distributing these cards of joy to the family of north east clubs.The Royal Mint recently issued a press release stating that Peelies are the only reason UK coins are still in circulation.
Another popular purse-loosener are games of bingo played communally in almost every single North East club. The Dabber Club in Guisborough is famed as our premier bingo emporium. The Dabber has four cavernous rooms for members and non-members alike, easily accommodating up to 3,000.
Picking up a pack of flimsies for as little as a fiver at the Dabber's grand entrance could see you firmly in the money. Last time I was in I scooped meself a postage stamp winner of six hundred quid.
The Dabber has eighty bingo blowers on the go for each sitting which, to the uninitiated, can be pretty loud. Thankfully, you can hire ear defenders from the bar. Their last monthly National draw saw a top prize of £800,000 payable in pint tokens. Such is the betting power of local clubsmen and women.
Clubs can be seen - to the untrained eye - as somewhat ramshackle affairs; brutalist concrete, out of character 1980s double glazing, flat roofs, et al. This is all by design. This unique 'club aesthetic' is carefully considered by the Swiss CIU Design Consortium who sit twice a year to approve all interior and exterior decisions.
For example, those dented metal bins under every table, you can thank Dieter Rams for those. Whereas the posters, push pinned to whitewashed noticeboards advertising this week's 'Top Female Artiste': the ubiquitous cursive rainbow font is not shat out in Microsoft Publisher, as you might think. Rather, each poster is hand screen printed by the Manhattan design agency formerly ran by Milton Glaser.
The late sixties to early seventies were a fascinating time in terms of club design. Lads had long hair, listening to CSNY on eight tracks, banging incessantly on about Ram Dass. Club Chairmen across the north east saw the financial incentive to allow members to align their chakras in concrete icosahedrons and the like. It was always fun to ask the barmaid for the box of crystals when you were fetching the dominoes, or to have a gong bath while watching the football scores come in on the teleprinter on Final Score.
The epicentre of this movement was seen in Killingworth, where CIU architects Wolfram Panhandle and Alison Blücher whipped up some stark additions to clubs like The Ginnel and The Baccy Tin.
Sadly, none of these structures exist today as members voted in favour of replacing them with pot-hole ridden car parks or communal wasteland. Amanda, bar manager at my local club, still has a quartz staff behind the club bar, but instead of using it to cure members’ impetigo, she just uses it to batter workie tickets.
When it comes to glitz and glamour, however, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the sensational Bants Club in Newcastle city centre. I always felt like a million dollars sauntering into Bants back in the late seventies. The club regularly placed top three in the CIU Premier League and was seen as the jewel in Newcastle’s club crown.
Honestly, the place was like Vegas. Tab Lasses handed out unfiltered Superkings to members, there was a minimum of three bands and four singers every single night and you could even take a guided tour of their professionally built rooftop pigeon lofts. The place was so big that it operated its own dog track in the basement.
Members were treated to an incredible buffet at 9pm every day and their meat draw was always chock full of fillet steak from Fenwicks. We didn’t know how how good we had it.
Sadly, Bants was a victim of its own success. When famed Fruit Machiner Harry Blooter tipped up on 8 May 1983 he successfully dropped over eighty bandits in a little over three hours. He walked out with fifty grand in pound coins and put the club out of business overnight.
Social Clubs in Popular Culture
Clubs have always loomed large in popular culture. Catherine Cookson's third novel, 1961's The Treasurer's Girth, sold like hot cakes with its wrought out tale of Billy Drivner's Hoisery Club in Backworth, but the real runaway success for club culture was on the radio. Me old man loved comedies on the wireless. He used to quote lines from Tommy Handley's ITMA all the time. His real passion though was Up The Club, the BBC Radio show that ran for four series from 1970-1973. Set in working men's club The Shunters in the fictional north east town of Coal Shippington, Up The Club centred around the officaldom that was, and to lesser extent still is, rife in the north east club scene.
The characters were Bill Thompson, Alan Brown, Harry David, Tom Wilson, Ted Harrison, Hans Hoffmann and, the first female committee member, Sheila Dixon. I remember me dad chuckling away by the fire as the committee argued about missing barrels from the delivery, overdue subs and some truly terrible turns.
The show was also famous for its profanity; the frequent and sustained use of sexual swearing was quite something on the 6.30pm slot. Nothing was seemingly off limits. Quite ground-breaking for the time.
Clubwatch was an incredible source of infotainment when it aired on Tyne Tees Television between the years of 1977 and 1984.
The half-hour magazine format, with new presenters each and every week, was indispensable for its insight. It provided the latest information about the goings on in clubs as from far south as Scotch Corner right up to the Borders.
“Chairman Chat” saw the leading lights in the club scene tell-all about how they got their start in the clubs, promoting soon-to-perform turns and even read their annual reports in their entirety. “It’s Your Round” gave fabulous reviews of beers on sale in the area, with the presenter downing pints of all twelve beers featured in each episode.
In 1981 Clubwatch moved to the newly opened Tyne Tees studios on City Road. A club-influenced set was built at a cost of over £100k, with thirty dedicated keg lines for presenters, guests and studio staff. It was always great when they’d obviously gone early and were leathered on screen.
As it was broadcast live, Clubwatch came with a BBFC warning from Simon Bates at the top of the show which just added to the drama. And bloody hell was it needed. I’ll never forget seeing Pat Givens go through the current membership list at The Forge Servicemen’s Club and tell host Tommy Keys who was and wasn’t a c**t. Just wonderful.
After it’s final season the set was dismantled and sent to Beamish Museum where they plan to rebuild it when their 1980s town gets the go ahead in about 2050. Really hope I’m still about to see it.
Future generation of clubsmen and women were also featured on television. In 1983 the BBC produced documentary "Youth Club", directed by Michael Apted, from the Up series of documentaries. Apted spent a year following a group of children in Benwell, who were given their access to their very own Social Club for a whole year. Each participant in the documentary was given a tenner a week for tabs and pints and the documentary followed their lives over twelve months.
It was so canny to see the young ‘uns go from absolutely detesting the taste of beer, to becoming barely functioning alcoholics over the six hour-long episodes. Probably wouldn’t be allowed to make something like that any more. Political correctness gone mad.
It's easy to see the indelible mark social clubs have left on the North East but I've barely scratched the surface of Clubland. You can expect further articles covering more specific elements of club life; from the feared committees that oversee day to day operations, the fascinating history of the much missed Guild Brewery that supplied all north east clubs through to features on public art installations, Club FM, Clubrobilia and more. Until then, pay your subs, and keep yourselves right.
Bobby Chainbridge is the official Club Publicist for all North East Social Clubs. You can find his coverage on his Instagram page at https://www.instagram.com/wmc.ne/
Header Image: Newcastle's Bants Club in its heyday