A rare privilege this week, to see inside the Mildmay Club on Newington Green. A big barn of a building which has seen better days, but seems to be slowly, slowly bouncing back from the prospect of oblivion.
The Mildmay and a raft of other local radical clubs were in the second tier. Hardly any are still going. This club has had a chequered history, and only moved into its current home after the heyday of late-Victorian radicalism, but it's still hanging in there. Just. And there was something both sad and wondrous about looking round this time-locked sarcophagus of a club - thinking back to what it once was, and ahead to what it could become.
Hackney's appraisal of the Newington Green (North) conservation area - which focusses on such fine buildings as the nearby Unitarian Chapel established in 1708 - offers a potted history of the club (and I've nicked the photo from there as well):
The renaming of the club was a clear statement that it had abandoned its radical pedigree. But in earlier years, the Radical in the club's title meant just that. A local vicar complained of the club's 'pernicious influence' - radicalism at that time often went hand-in-hand with freethought. And Tommy Jackson, later a leading Communist, recalled with gratitude help from the club when an anti-Boer War street meeting at Highbury Corner came under attack. Barry Burke and Ken Worpole take up the story:
The Tories resolved to smash the meeting up: the Radicals took the precaution of mobilising the gymnasium class of the Mildmay Radical Club (Newington Green) to act as ‘stewards’. Quite a pretty battle was in progress when the issue was decided by the local S.D.F., who, when the fight started, were pitched nearby. Abandoning their own meeting, the Socialists, led by their Chairman, a useful middle-weight of local fame, fell upon the Tories and routed them ‘with great slaughter’
Walking round the club, it's cavernous - on every floor. A snooker room, dark, slightly spooky, with a dozen or so tables ... a bar that's bigger than most pubs ... a big hall with stage, festooned as if for a 1960s talent night, which could easily take a couple of hundred ... a smaller hall in itself the size of many working men's clubs ... and at the top of the building, three (now empty) one-bed flats. There are city states, UN member nations indeed, smaller than this!
Once the Mildmay Club had a membership to match. Outside the hall, there's a large varnished wooden board listing the club's wartime casualties (at least, we think that's what it is - the top of the board has been obscured by a rather hamfisted renovation). There are close to four-hundred names.
And in the Conservation Area appraisal, there's a couple of grainy old black-and-white photos dating (it says) from about 1905, one of the theatre/hall and the other of the snooker room. Take a look:
It strikes me that, more than a century later, the snooker room may still have the same lino. If not, it's a close lookalike.
And the snooker hall - they should film Sherlock Holmes in here, and ghost movies, Edwardian thrillers ... it's eery, with a Martian-style greenish light intensified by the lime coloured walls.
There are still gas light fittings, adding to the spectral feel and looking sinisterly like secret police torture equipment.
Then the most macabre aspect of the room - the walls are lined with snooker cues in their cases, some locked into position. Dozens and dozens of them. In a snooker hall, where on Thursday night, just two of the tables were in use. Some have names and numbers inscribed in a style resonant of a bygone era. I am fairly sure quite a few must once have been wielded by players now seeking out record breaks in the greater snooker Valhalla in the sky.
And the bar? Well to judge by the meagre attendance last Thursday, if they sell twenty pints on a weekday evening they are doing well. Which makes you wonder whether this sign really is necessary ...
And I mentioned the tentative bounce back in the club's fortunes. Well, it's not going to be sold off for development - details here - and the club committee, whose orders are of course the last word, has had an infusion of new blood. Whether there's new signage to follow, well, I'll let you know.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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