Wells War Memorial Institute… and Womens Lib.
John Tuck. Nov 2008
Round about 1970 I joined the Royal British Legion Billiards Club which then was based in an outlying barn of Scarborough House in Clubbs Lane. It had 16 members, most of whom were old fellows although mostly younger than I am now. All male and that was how they liked it to be. For some of them a haven away from wives and other females? – maybe! Its previous use was as the first coffee bar in Wells and was so popular that every Sunday it guaranteed a full diesel train of 120 youngsters into Wells. As Br.Legion club its principal games were billiards, snooker, which was not played often, darts and crib. It was a cosy little club and the driving force was secretary Bob Tuck, ex railway signalman and a relative. My great great grand parents were Mark b.1799, Alice b.1797. Bob was a generation older than me and they were his great grandparents.
Bob was in the army of occupation after the 1st World War in Germany. On demob he could not get a job in Norfolk so he joined the Railway at Parkgate and Rawmarsh in Yorkshire as a shunter and with his intelligence eventually became a signalman. He was a lovely chap and worked his socks off for his good causes in Wells and was deservedly well respected.
Each year he organised a tournament of billiards, snooker, darts and crib. I was the rooky at them all. One year Bob had won three of them and when I won the 4th, Eric, a bit of a wit said, “That’s funny, our tournaments have been won by Tuck, Tuck, Tuck, Tuck”
On a later occasion when playing a club match the rooky drew the wrong straw and I was matched with the league champion of the previous year. This was at snooker. I had been coming along however, had read the snooker books and practised and applied myself and, yes, surprisingly enough, beat him. At which, instead of shaking hands, even grudgingly, the chap most ungraciously said, “If I can’t beat a guy like you I might as well give the ‘baggering’ game up!”! I won’t name him. It takes all sorts! And, poor fellow, he is long time dead. In 1975 the Billiard club was going through a sad period of unrest and things became untenable. The writing was on the wall and it seemed there was no way back to the harmony previously enjoyed
At this time the Wells War Memorial Institute had become defunct and closed and the building was deteriorating fast. We were approached by Mr. Derek Styman who was a governor with an offer for us to take over the Institute, lock, stock and barrel. This was in 1975 and not 1958 as reported by Peter Bird in Lynn News on the occasion of Tony Hannant’s retirement and the building and opening was in 1933, not in the 1920s, as also reported. Also reported was that the drinks licence had been lost. The old Institute never did have a licence for alcoholic drink. We were to have a free hand and had a preliminary meeting in the dreadfully deteriorating building to evaluate. At this time Bob Tuck was 75 and it had been decided that I would succeed him, the reason being that nobody wanted the job with all it involved and I seemed to be the only one with experience of bookkeeping, in short, as someone said ‘you’re the only one who can add up’ and that was just about true.
At a subsequent meeting in the building there was some thrashing out to do with regard to policies and establishing procedures and objectives. Government legislation was soon to take measures about equal rights for women and we had a bunch of right old misogynists all of whom wanted to keep their men only status. How much so I was about to find out. I doubt very much if most of my friends knew what a misogynist was and I’m sure they treated their wives most decently but was it maybe still a time when some men ruled the roost, gave their wives what men thought appropriate from the wage packet and probably laid down how they spent it?
Of course, in the earlier times of my boyhood, on getting their hard earned wages, especially quayside labourers who were drinkers, some spent half the pay packet in the pubs on the way home. The poor woman would then have to make do and mend even more and perhaps get a cuff of the ear if she protested.
Just what can happen if nobody will put in the effort was so evident in the decrepit and damp building which had been closed for some time.. Neglect and the lack of money, TLC, and an uninviting presence of decaying black paint everywhere. A smell of fust overhanging and an atmosphere daunting my thoughts as I contemplated the tasks ahead with my limited knowledge and capabilities, let alone desires about managing certain elements of the indigenous, some of whom had little to offer but who could argue the toss and that awful black decayed paint on every surface, including a bookcase kind of glass-doored cupboard to hold soft drink bottles and crisps.
The intransigence of my friends concerning women membership reminded me of something I knew about lovely Mannington Hall, near Aylsham. This is a 15th century house of flint, has a drawbridge across a moat and it is crenillated (battlemented). When I visited it some years ago I was allowed to go through the main bedroom, everything white including very deep piled white carpeting. Etched into a wall there is some graffiti which, the story goes, believe it or not, was put there by an ancient misogynist, the 4th Earl of Oxford and it goes as follows. ‘A tiger is worse than a snake, a demon than a tiger, a woman than a demon and nothing worse than a woman.’ Hmmm. Some graffiti!
In a very short while and whilst Bob was soon to hand over the reins to me there came a traumatic happening, all in one weekend. On a Thursday Bob had organised an old peoples Br. Legion outing to Yarmouth and one of the ladies collapsed and died on the trip. As one could imagine the event was very upsetting. At the following weekend, on Sunday, Bob had been digging four sleepers into the sand at the beach, beginning to build yet another beach hut, he was a bit of a workaholic even at the age of 75. On the Monday he collapsed and died and I was precipitated into the job of sec.treasurer.
So began three and a half years of very hard work. In those days Chairmen were often likely to be the figurehead who conducted the meetings but had little or nothing to do otherwise. It was usually the Sec. Treasurer who set the pace and tone together with the committee. With some factions of local people there could be lack of the disciplines required. It was the intention to set a benign and democratic way of going about things. To organise work parties, everything voluntary, We had little or no money to pay for labour. Lots of goodwill would get things done. However, the first thing I discovered was that sometimes I was the only one who turned up.
All the woodwork, doors and wainscoting were coloured in that hideous demoralising black. I set to and virtually by myself painted pastel and white to smarten up the building. A drinks licence had been obtained. Initially every item sold i.e. bottle of beer or a packet of crisps was entered on a list for every evening (we hadn’t got a cash register) and we opened Mondays to Fridays with a different barman each night. To begin with we took less than ten pounds a night but we had started.
On top of everything else that I did, I also did one night at the bar myself. This worked very well for a time but then once or twice a week a youngster would knock on my door just before opening time, thrust the doorkey into my hand saying ‘dad can’t come tonight, will you do it instead.!’ We joined the Stiffkey and District Billiards league, which was virtually North Norfolk, billiards being very much the game played in the clubs in those days. Snooker had not become so popular then. We also joined the Fakenham district darts league. We were not to open on Saturdays or Sundays for quite some time to come. Ladies began to arrive at the club and we began to slowly make some money.
On December 23rd 1975 two days before Christmas, and I think it was on a Saturday, a terrific windstorm lifted three whole rows of tiles, exposing the unlined ceiling below.
Those tiles were and probably still are, surely, the biggest, heaviest and longest on a roof in the whole of Wells. The tile surface that can be seen is only half the tile. The other half is underneath the next tile and they are very heavy. All work had now ceased for Christmas and no workmen about. I rang around to get some aid to get the tiles back into position but nobody came. I got a wooden ladder, got up on the lean-too part of the building roof and with much difficulty managed to reset the heavy tiles all by myself. I did it by pulling the ladder up and using the top of it to push the tiles back upwards. Fortunately they were still locked together. It was a pretty hairy business. Six rungs up I get very dizzy!
This incident, with others, could get one irritated, a feeling that I was “expected to do everything” and once or twice I probably said so. They were a pretty happy bunch though and I was soon to get my ‘come uppance’. Things were progressing and one Sunday lunchtime I arrived at the club and a good number of the lads? were present and playing cards at the tables around the billiard table. A warm atmosphere was present and I thought this was just the very social warmth we were setting out to achieve. So well behaved!. They had seen me coming? Suddenly Terry said to me “Oh John, look, someone brought his dog in and it’s done a lump on the floor.” Sure enough, there it was, looking pretty awful. I began to say “For goodness sake, couldn’t you have picked it up. Do I have to do every……,” and then the penny dropped. They roared with laughter. They’d got me. They’d really, really got me. It was a realistic lump of brown ‘plaster’ dog muck! I roared with laughter too.
Gradually we made progress but initially very slowly. At times, while serving at the bar, I would buy a round of drinks to get things started, expecting one or two would reciprocate. This I couldn’t really afford to do and there was not always reciprocation. Then some ladies began to arrive and things began to happen and the club began to move on. It helped to call ourselves a ‘club’ rather than an Institute which seemed outmoded and now I moved to change things officially to War Memorial Club but it was not resolved before my leaving office. Since then and following my leaving office the title has become what I feel is a bit of an English absurdity, i.e. an institute club!
The work needed the giving of much of ones time. My family were provided with what they had by a small salary with no overtime or extras excepting, now and again, the sale of a few paintings, and I had a mortgage to pay, and I found myself abandoning my art for a complete year, a great sacrifice with all our needs. And I was not really a club kind of man. At that time of my life, the art I wished to engage in and develop, tended toward me being a bit of a loner and not a clubber. A long artistic friendship with the exemplary artist Jack Cox was all that I needed outside my family.
Later, after these initial struggles, the fact that the enterprise became eventually such a success was down to much effort by lots of people who gave help and time over the years and the arrival of Mr. Fred Robbins as secretary. Money began to acquire and the social benefit was immense. Care was taken to see that children were admitted as much as regulations allowed. Two additional extensions were created, allowing for 3 billiard tables, beating that provision more than anywhere else around. I will mention in particular, a stalwart indeed, Tony Hannant, formerly of the old Institute and who was to become barman extra-ordinary of the new Club for so many years and what a thoroughly good job he did. My brother Dennis was the chairman, also for several years and worked hard at it. Brian Greenacre as Social secretary has also done Stirling work. One cannot name everybody but together with the invaluable help of others and the ladies in particular the club became an extremely viable and happy place.
I think there is no record in the minutes of thanks for services rendered in the setting up. It matters not a hoot. Cometh the hour cometh the man they say. For a while, I was told, after I left, the enterprise fell back until the arrival of Fred Robbins who knew a thing or two more about raising funds than most, including me, and with the backing and sponsorship of Arthur Howell took the club to the hoped for heights and beyond that we had all started out with. It was all done with the help of the better half of the human race…the ladies,
GOD BLESS ‘EM
The club has succeeded because it has always had a leadership of moderation and sensitivity and an understanding of good social values. Up to now it has not suffered from inflated ego and impoliteness on either side of the counter. It has been a model of good manners and friendly ways. Long may it continue.
John Tuck Nov 2008