The Workmen’s Club
The building of the club began in 1884 and it was opened in January 1885 simply as a Reading Room, in which capacity it proved a failure, and on 16 June 1886 it was opened as a proper club. Next door to where the Workmen’s Club was built had been the Crown Inn, later Crown Cottage,and there was also at that time another inn, called the Three Daggers, in the village. By the 1880s though both of these had gone.
The Club was intended as a place for the men to go in the evenings to keep them away from the fleshpots of the many public houses in Theale or the Thatcher’s Arms at North Street. “In the public house there a risk of noise, bad company and excess of drink, dangers which the Committee hope to avoid in the social gatherings in the Club” as the Rector put it. Nevertheless it was not a Temperance House and although ginger beer, made by Mr Claydon, and squash were sold, so was whisky, gin, rum, brandy and beer as well as cigars and tobacco. A range of games and entertainments was provided for the members. The Club President was, of course, Mr Benyon who gave free use of the premises, with the Rector and Caretaker as other ex officio committee members. The remaining members of the committee were elected annually.
The Club originally consisted of a single large room with living accommodation for the caretaker attached. In 1892 the porch was added and in 1894 the Billiard Room was built at right angles to the main clubroom, across the school playground. The bar cellar was the small flat-roofed, single-storey addition built into the angle between the main Club room and the caretaker’s house and service was through a hatch in the wall between it and the clubroom. This may not have been added until 1895 when it is known that the matching extension to house the Post Office was built. A further, much needed, extension to the caretaker’s accommodation was added in 1909
The Steward’s accommodation comprised a living room and kitchen on the ground floor and three bedrooms upstairs. The living room was known as the “Committee Room” and initially used for meetings of the Committee. A further downstairs living room and a large larder, with a bedroom above, were added later. The standard of accommodation was probably normal for the 1880s when it was built but remained little improved for the next 80 years.
After its unsuccessful opening as a reading room and conversion to a social club a range of games and entertainments were provided for the members. Games such as bagatelle, cribbage and darts were available as well as snooker and billiards, and games tournaments against neighbouring villages were frequently played. Whist drives were a regular feature in the 1950s.
The billiard table was installed in early 1895 and first game (of “50-up”) was played between the Secretary (A E Robinson, the Schoolmaster) and the Caretaker on 5 March that year. A raised dais ran along the west wall of the billiard room with a long settle for spectators and those awaiting their turn to play. Players were allocated half an hour for a charge of twopence.
In keeping with its original purpose, a lending library was another of the facilities provided for members, accommodated in the billiard room, which had a range of cupboards up to waist height all along the south wall; on top of these were bookshelves up to the high ceiling level (a new, much lower, suspended ceiling is now in place). New books were added each year with about eight or ten pounds being spent annually in the 1890s. In 1894 there 898 books and a further 57 were added in 1895 for a total of £9 11s 6d. Lending was over 1200 books per year. In addition to the library, which eventually filled the shelves, newspapers and magazines were also provided as the gift of the President. The books remained on their shelves, though unread, into the 1970s.
In 1891 annual dances started to be held on a trial basis and, having been pronounced a success, were continued thereafter. Entry to these was free to Club members with tickets for their lady partners at threepence. At New Year there was the President’s Dance with free admission for both the members and their lady guests (although the lady’s name had to be notified to the Caretaker beforehand) and free food plus the first drink. This was discontinued on the death of James Herbert Benyon and replaced, after World War 2, with an ordinary dance. Whist Drives were also a regular feature up to the 1960s.
In 1894 it was proposed to open the Club to women for one afternoon each week “to read, to work, to talk, to drink tea and biscuits (one penny) or otherwise amuse themselves”. This was not considered a success, with numbers of 7, 5 and 3 (exclusive of babies) attending in the first three weeks and was abandoned at the AGM in January 1895. The Rector felt that this proved that “…the women of our village are too busy or happy at home to care to come out once a week…”. In the 21st century, Wednesday mornings in the village Tea Rooms prove rather more popular - for whatever reason.
Regular smoking concerts were also held in the Club, when the members entertained each other and in 1895 a troupe of “minstrels” was formed from the members and led by Mr Robinson, the schoolmaster. For several years they put on entertainments in the Long Gallery at Englefield House during the winter.
The first caretaker was Mr James Claydon who also worked as a gardener and in 1892 the caretaker’s remuneration was £4 a year, with a gratuity of £1 for Mrs Claydon. From 1 January 1893 the caretaker’s salary was raised to £6.
In addition to catering for functions at the Club, the caretaker was also responsible for erecting the Members’ Tent (for which 2/6 was paid in 1892) and providing teas at cricket matches.
In 1930 Mr and Mrs Claydon retired and Mr Cook took over. In the letter offering the job of Sub-Postmaster, the remuneration as Steward of the Club is given as £1 per week, with additional payments as determined by the committee for catering for the various functions. By 1949 the salary had doubled to £104, although no mention was then made of any extra payment for functions. The following year the flat annual rate was replaced by an hourly rate of two shillings and threepence. Coal and light were provided and the house was free of rent and rates.
Mr Cook retired in 1963 and the following year the Club became a general members' social club open to all rather than just the preserve of the estate workmen but at the end of 2018 it succumbed to the pressures afflicting so many licensed establishments and closed its doors. After extensive refurbishment, including the removal of much modernisation and a return to the original design, the Club has reopened as a Village Hall.
Mr and Mrs James Claydon after their retirement at their new home, Anningsley in Burghfield
© 2021 Richard J Smith