‘The working man doesn’t really exist anymore’
The Sheffield clubs standing against the tide of time
By Jack Walton
Before the pits closed, Killamarsh was a mining town. Mining meant thirsty workers, and thirsty workers meant working men’s clubs. It was a simple formula, but one that was woven into the fabric of working class life for years. Times have changed but Nether Green Working Men’s Club on Sheffield Road still stands in the same unpretentious grey-brown building it always has.
One club member stands at the bar and relays the story of a gig he recently attended in Sheffield. “Fucking dreadful it was,” he concludes. “It was like a student dump. I didn't know where the hell I was.” An article in the local newspaper catches the attention of another man. He drums a stiff rollie against the paper like a schoolmaster drawing attention to the blackboard and says: “I think I spotted him posting leaflets the other day.” Others lean in and tell him the man is the area’s MP, Lee Rowley. Indecipherable murmurs circulate and heads bounce like metronomes. A consensus forms that Mr Rowley and his leaflets are not to be trusted.
Considering it isn’t even midday when I arrive, the near-dozen punters present feels like a decent turnout. Crisp lagers slide across the narrow bar only to return empty minutes later. “Cash or card?” stewardess Kim asks as each pint is ordered, but there’s only really one answer — “cash”. The trendy craft ale saloons of Sheffield city centre feel decidedly distant here in the Nether Green snug.
That said, Kim has grown aware of one “poisonous trend” from outside infiltrating the town: cocaine. I’m taken aback. Killamarsh seems to me to be pleasant and tranquil: if not exactly a backwater then certainly a long way from the world of youthful hedonism. “It’s rife,” she says lowering her voice as if disclosing a dastardly secret that shouldn’t really be said aloud. “It’s absolutely everywhere around here. Evil stuff.”
“Everywhere?” I reply, with more than mild incredulity. Granted, I’ve only been in Killamarsh for an hour or so, but a good majority of the faces in the club are septuagenarian or older. “It’s not always the younger’uns either,” Kim continues. “A lot of them are in their thirties or forties.” She tells me she’s had to change club policy from “barred if caught” to “barred on suspicion”.
The marijuana policy is more lenient, but only a little. “If any younger’uns come in here stinking of the wacky-baccy I say ‘go home and give your clothes a wash then maybe I’ll think about letting you in.’” She does say that such incidents are rare and the vast majority of her clientele are respectful, both of her and of the older members. A few choice words from Kim tends to set the record straight if anyone ever tries to cause trouble. “The size of my husband, they wouldn’t dare argue back,” she laughs.
When pockets of intergenerational conflict do flash up, she’s always on hand to neutralise. The “older’uns,” for example, can get particularly territorial about seating. “If they come in and someone’s taken their seat they’ll kick up a right fuss,” she says.
Nether Green hosts plenty of christenings and baby showers, but also wakes. “The wakes are more frequent these days,” she says sombrely. Just this month, two very popular members of the club passed away, both times attracting a full house at the club.
However, Nether Green has been more proficient at bringing through a new generation than a lot of clubs. A children’s play area built out the back makes the club a popular family spot during the warmer months and an annual August fun day, complete with live outdoor music, is always a big hit, and has become even more so during Covid.
They also experimented with a “happy hour”, Kim tells me, but had to abandon it after the change caused “tensions”. Bringing all pints down to £2 in the early evening to bring “younger’uns” in before they headed off elsewhere proved successful, but the “older’uns” weren’t happy. They felt they too deserved a “happy hour” at an earlier time, when they tended to come in. Ultimately, pleasing everybody proved impossible and the idea was scrapped.
My second stop, Firth Park Working Mens’ Club on Idsworth Road, is perhaps at the higher end of the WMC spectrum. As I walk up the imposing mass of redbrick feels slightly forbidding, but it’s far cosier inside. It has an upstairs function room with high ceilings, mirrored columns and fancy lighting fixtures. Downstairs, flat screen TVs mounted on the walls play horse racing channels at a kind of ambient, background level.
When we speak on the phone prior to my visit, treasurer Trevor is a little cagey. A woman he knows only as “Yoko” has been pestering the club for a visit on behalf of the media then failing to turn up. I get the sense initially that Trevor doesn’t really understand why I, or indeed the mysterious “Yoko”, are interested in the Firth Park Working Mens’ Club at all.
Trevor is 84, somewhat austere, and likes to paint a picture of terminal decline that not only applies to the future of working mens’ clubs, but to just about every aspect of modern life. A member since the 60s, when queues would stretch out of the front on Saturday evenings and run all the way down the street, he became treasurer in the early noughties after the club found itself with enormous debts (over £150,000) and on the brink of closure.
He believes “bad management” is primarily to blame for the decline of most clubs, including the several in close proximity to Firth Park which no longer exist, but other local factors don’t help. He digs a stack of newspapers out of a cabinet in his office and starts reeling off headline after headline.
“Calls to shut alleyway amid fears of town prostitution”
“Locals blast crime in ghetto”
“Police tackle rising anti-social issues in Page Hall”
“Shocking scenes of anarchy on streets of Sheffield”
And so on. For each headline he points to the CCTV cameras in his office recording the nearby streets and dictates to me just how close the incident was to the club. “We’ve had meeting after meeting after meeting with the council, but they don’t do anything,” he says. “It’s a rat's heaven around here, everything gets thrown into the roads, mattresses and televisions. There’s fighting in the streets too, it affects trade.”
I ask Trevor if the club itself ever sees any trouble. He pauses momentarily, traces a lone finger through his bush of white beard and stares straight through me, as though mentally digging out a file out from the darkest recesses of his memory bank. “January 15th 2010,” he finally says. The events of January 15th 2010 are hard to piece together exactly. Police were called. A helicopter circled overhead. There was fighting, excess drinking (“and god knows what else”) and “all sorts of people showed up”. I prod for further detail but Trevor has already said enough. “Let’s just say we don’t have 18th birthdays anymore,” he concludes.
Firth Park was built in 1929 for around £6,500. Trevor knew some of the original builders. It’s CIU (Club & Institute Union) affiliated, which means members have a card that gives them access into any CIU club in the country. The club, and clubs in general, have clearly played a big role in his life. He believes he could ensure the future of Firth Park for another 20 years with “good management”. The mere thought of “bad management” (a phrase he repeats like a mantra) drains the colour from his face. It’s why he keeps going at Firth Park. “I’m a working man’s club kind of guy,” he says, “I don’t need fancy holidays to Tenerife. This is what I like.”
Firth Park steward Tom tells me Sundays have been the biggest change. They still do good trade until lunchtime, he says, but the club empties out by the evening. Before, all the “old boys” would get dressed up smartly for Sunday evening and bring their wives down. Now, people are more conscious about a good night’s sleep before the working week begins. It’s a small change, but it feels significant to Tom. I ask what the club was like in the 80s. “Well y’know, it were just great,” he says with a knowing smile.
Hartley House, also in the Firth Park area, is another club which is partially bucking the trend of perpetual decline. Like Firth Park WMC, it was dangling by a thread a few years back. Ted Fowler, a long-time member, knows Trevor and echoes a similar sentiment to his friend. “If a club’s run properly, it will make money, it’s no more complicated than that.” Ted tells me that committees pinching money from the coffers has historically been an issue across clubs, although this has never happened at Hartley House.
Not this committee though. With the club on the verge of collapse several years ago, a group of five stepped in to save it. They all refused payment and massive debts were paid off. A loan was then taken out and no expenses spared, they needed to “put some life back into the place,” says Jean Knights, secretary and treasurer. That included £26,000 on the bar and £20,000 on the drainage system amongst other costs. Through the pandemic, the money they’d managed to accumulate in the bank meant staff could be paid 100% of their wages, rather than the furlough 80%.
Jean has been a member since 1973 and has witnessed lots of change at Hartley House. She saw the heydays of the 70s and 80s, the bombshell of the smoking ban in 2007 and the rise of cheap supermarket booze. She was finally allowed to be affiliated at the club as a woman in 2010, giving her full rights, but sadly this came at a time when the club she’d waited so long to join was in almost terminal decline. “The working man doesn’t exist anymore really,” she tells me. “That’s the main change. I know there are men who work, but that’s offices or at desks. It’s not the rough and ready type who needs a good drink after a day at the steelworks.”
When the nearby Shiregreen club (where Oscar-winning film The Full Monty was filmed) closed down, that brought a few more customers to Hartley House. And the prices also help. “The key is keeping the beer down,” Jean says. All the beers at Hartley House were reduced five years ago by 10% and have yet to come back up. A pint of Stones at £2.40 in the club can cost almost £4 elsewhere in the city. Ted can’t understand why young people would want to be anywhere else. “To me they don’t know what they’re missing. Cheap drinks, great entertainment. It’s still the place to be.”
In the 70s, the CIU had more than 4,000 clubs and over 4,000,000 members. The numbers now are far lower. Despite the successes of Nether Green, Firth Park and Hartley House, the industry is much smaller than it was and is likely to get smaller in the future. “Young people don’t want to come in and play bingo, they want a good drink and a laugh with their mates,” says Jean. “We do have music on a Friday but they don’t want old people’s music from 60s, they want heavy beats and head shaking or whatever they do these days!”
Jean isn’t naive and is well aware that the “golden age” of the WMC isn’t coming back. But she isn’t fatalistic. I ask what the next 20 years looks like for working men’s clubs. “I’ll be totally honest,” she says, “I don’t think there is another 20 years for working men’s clubs.” She pauses, and adds, “but that won’t stop us enjoying this one while it’s here.”