Working Men’s Club

Working Men’s Club/Village Building in the mid-1970s

The Working Men’s Club/Village Building and how it began
A glimpse of a time in Shirley’s Past

Shirley of the 1880s, although just an area of scattered cottages, farms on one or two large estates of the gentry and a few homes of the ‘professional’ classes, was nevertheless quite a close community with its local church of St. John the Evangelist very much at its heart. Not least was also the vicar, the Reverend William Wilks* who took office in 1880, succeeding the first clergyman of Shirley, Matthew Farrer, whose birthplace was Shirley Cottage in Wickham Road. It is very clear from the, fortunately still surviving, original Parish Magazines of that time that Revd. Wilks cared deeply about the lives and needs of all those of the village of Shirley and that his concerns and associated actions were recognised and appreciated by the local community.

Reverend William Wilks
(1843–1923)        Picture dated 1913

In Spring of 1886 it was proposed that the village should provide a place of recreation for its ‘working men’, a dream and wish long held by Revd. Wilks and so a committee was formed to set, what was to become known as the Working Men’s Club, in motion. The committee’s President was a prominent member of the community, Lewis Lloyd of Monks Orchard House, with William Wilks as one of the Vice Presidents. The Parish Magazine recorded, at the formal opening of the club a short time later, the committee’s grateful acknowledgement of “the generosity of the Vicar in purchasing the premises”.

However, the following year disaster struck when the club’s roof fell in and the club closed pending repairs. It was subsequently decided that instead of making good the original, an entirely new building was required but the problem was how to obtain funding. It is at this point that the story of how the new building, which still stands as number 35 Wickham Road, albeit now as flats, came into being and it is the old Parish Magazines that give a fascinating insight of that time and the month by month history of how the strive for funding was eventually achieved, largely by the efforts and monetary contribution of the local people of Shirley.

Meetings were held in November and December later in that year of 1887, to discuss the viability of building a new club but with the possibility of it being a club not just for the use of the working men, but for general village purposes also. William Wilks chaired the November meeting and, in order to reach the then ultimate target of £300, said he would do his best to raise £150 by subscriptions if the ladies of the village could organise a Bazaar for the following summer to try and raise the further £150. At the December meeting, to confirm their interest in the building and formation of a new club, thirty-five working men of Shirley village agreed to pay a contribution towards the cost in the form of a subscription of one shilling a month for five months which, at that time, would have been a considerable amount from their meagre wages.

By the start of the following year preparations to fund raise had enthusiastically begun, with a reported “highly successful minstrel entertainment by the village men” resulting in a net profit of £8.5s.6d but a bigger source of funds was expected to be the “Grand Bazaar” which was to take place on 20th and 21st July in the Vicarage garden. Despite being several months away, plans were already being made and, in the meantime, the Revd. Wilks would be busy organising an appeal for subscriptions. However, by now the decision had been made that the building should, in addition for use by the working men, “provide rooms for a ‘Boys’ club, Mothers Meetings and other occasional village gatherings” but this meant the estimated cost had risen to the enormous sum for those days of £700.

There was persistent rain until the late morning of the first day of the Bazaar, when the sun finally shone, which probably kept a number of people away, but the spirit of those taking part wasn’t dampened as they enthusiastically “worked under tarpaulins and mackintoshes” to set up their colourful and varied stalls, spread out amongst the Vicarage garden’s trees and shrubs. Officially opened by Lady Beatrix Herbert, accompanied by her husband MP for Croydon, The Hon. Sidney Herbert, the Bazaar realised £297.7s.5d from the sale of what appears to have been a wealth of exotic goods and takings from such pleasurable activities as ‘Mr. Hodgson’s Wheel of Fortune’ and Mr Lamotte’s invitation to try and catch a fish from his “fish pond”. Of particular note was a collection of “beautiful specimens of pottery, both ancient and modern from around the world”, donated by the Vicar. Those looking for refreshments wouldn’t have been disappointed either as according to the magazine Mrs.Cooper and Miss Whealler “purveyed the most toothsome delights”.

By September 1888, with the added assistance of subscriptions and donations “from rich and poor”, the building fund had reached a total of £599.14s.11d. Encouraged by the success so far the Vicar nominated, including himself, five trustees who then instructed an architect to prepare the plans, but over the next few months it became apparent that the building and furnishing costs would far exceed the original estimate and desperate pleas went out again to the local community for further financial help.

Further contributions, in pounds, shillings and pennies, were finally received and by July 1889 just about all the necessary funds were in hand, but on the 10th of that month a “Sale of Work and Fancy Fair” was held, again in the Vicarage garden, to raise a little extra money towards furnishing the new building the construction of which appears to have already been underway. The Croydon Free Libraries Committee then offered that, “if the Trustees of the Village Building will set apart one room for the purpose, they will establish in it a branch of the Free Library”. This duly came to pass at the opening of the Working Men’s Club/Village Building on September 30th 1889, thus establishing the first public lending library in Shirley, providing even more facilities for the Shirley community in the one building.

The detailed accounts in the magazines graphically show how the funds were raised bit by bit mostly by local people, many of whom are named, and the tremendous effort that went into it. Clearly, those involved would have been rewarded in the knowledge that, immediately after the opening of the new building, it was reported “every night was crowded”.

Working Men’s Club/Village Building Image courtesy of Google Earth 2018

To my knowledge the building was still used as a ‘village building/working Men’s’ club at least until the 1940s and continued to be used for local meetings and latterly a dance school until finally in the mid-1970s it was sold and converted into flats.

It is very unfortunate that the old ‘Village Building’, together with Shirley Cottage and one or two cottages of ‘old Shirley’, are along a short stretch of the Wickham Road which Croydon Council has designated for ‘Focussed Intensification’ in respect of possible re-development. These buildings, with their own character and stories to tell, form part of our local history and are of the few which remain.

It has, however, been noted in MORA’s submission for the current Croydon Local Plan Review with the suggestion that the area be re-designated as of local ‘Historic Importance’ and removed as an area for ‘Focussed Intensification’.

* Well known for propagating the flower ‘Shirley Poppy’.

JOAN PRING

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