Working men’s clubs are a dying breed, but in London some club members are realising that they are sitting on valuable assets and are looking at ways of cashing in.
The clubs are a fine old British institution, places where working men went to enjoy a quiet pint and a game of billiards away from the pressures of factory and family. In the 1950s and 1960s these previously men-only sanctuaries opened their doors to women and, for a brief period, became the centre of many communities, organising Christmas parties and family outings.
But times have changed. “Going down the club” doesn’t resonate with the young in the way it did with their grandparents, and the clubs are finding it hard to survive. But in two cases — and surely more will follow — clubs have found eager property developers knocking on their doors, willing to dig them out of a financial black hole and hand them a fat bonus which, if the club closes, goes straight to individual members.
The two clubs are in Kennington and Balham. In the case of the North Lambeth Liberal and Radical Club, the developer, James Laurence, managed to get planning permission for 12 flats and in return has given the club new, smaller premises in which it can carry on catering for its remaining, but dwindling, membership.
James Fawcett of James Laurence explains how the company risked £30,000 to sweeten the deal. “The club occupied about 20,000sq ft but it was practically derelict. There were two large rooms on the ground floor with a bar running through and a stage; upstairs was a theatre. But the roof leaked and there were buckets everywhere. It probably should have been closed down as a dangerous structure.
“In January 2004 we gave the club a non-returnable deposit of £30,000, which allowed them to continue running while we applied for planning permission. We then offered a further £420,000 subject to getting planning, plus a new 5,000sq ft, rent-free club on a 999-year lease.”
The development of 12 flats is called The Edge and prices start at £415,000 for a two-bedroom apartment. The club and the flats are reached through different access points. Ken Walsh, who grew up in Kennington and now lives in nearby Peckham, is president of the club. “We took a vote to maintain the club, rather than wind it up. We have more than 350 members and with smaller premises we should be financially viable. After we have paid our debts and paid the costs of setting up the new club, we should still have about £200,000 in the club bank account.”
Developer Anthony James of the Black Ant Company was not so lucky in Balham. He paid £2.6 million in 2004 for the Balham Bowling Club, a working men’s club in Ramsden Road, close to increasingly fashionable Balham High Road.
The club, which includes a large two-storey double-fronted Victorian house, a bowling green and clubhouse, occupies more than an acre of prime development land and is only a stone’s throw away from Munkenbeck and Marshall’s Blueprint Apartments, shoehorned on a similar enclosed site.
Anthony James has so far submitted four planning applications to Wandsworth Council for mixed use developments that will include flats, a restaurant and bar, and a new public open space, but all have been withdrawn or turned down.
“We like the idea of providing a community open space, and our first proposals way back in 2004 proposed houses and flats with green roofs and a large landscaped area, but there have been local objections. At the moment we are working on further proposals which we hope the local residents and Wandsworth will like”.
At the moment, the ground floor is being run as a bar and restaurant, adding to the already vibrant mix of new restaurants that have opened in recent years in Balham.
So far in Balham, only the club members are winners — or at least those who can be tracked down. The club chose to go into a solvent liquidation, handing over the job of distributing assets, after tax, debts and expenses were paid, of about £2 million.
Lynn Gibson of the chosen firm Gibson Hewitt, of West Byfleet, says the club has a venerable history. “It started in 1893 as the Surrey Staghounds. The 2000 share register identifies about 3,300 shareholders who are owed £222 a share and some members are owed up to £20,000.
"There are about 7,000 shares and we still need to trace about 800 members. So far we have found people as far afield as Australia and Canada. A lot of people don’t know they are members, but a funeral often flushes a few out. Someone mentions the club and the payout and people who suspect that their relation may have been a member get in touch."
Gibson is keen to hunt down members. "If they can’t be found, the unclaimed funds eventually go to the government, which seems a waste."*
Recently there was news of another London working men’s club that is calling it a day. The Hatcham Social Club, which occupies a fine Queen Anne-style building in Queens Road, Peckham, decided to call it a day. The building is now on the market for £2 million with estate agent Pennell 020 8993 1002.
* Balham Bowling Club began life before WWI as the Surrey Staghounds. It moved to Balham when it was renamed the Balham Club Limited. Anyone who thinks they have a claim should contact Gibson Hewitt at 5 Park Court, Pyrford Road, West Byfleet, Surrey, KT14 6SD, 0800 1955858 / 01932 336149 with their share certificate/s. Where there is no share certificate, anyone making a claim must provide evidence of why they think they own share/s. This will include proof of identity and if the shares are inherited, proof of inheritance.