I’m sitting in the Whitstable Labour Club, looking at the board above the fireplace on which is written the names of the honorary and founder life members. Of the 33 names up there, I recognise 19.
So, just to give you a flavour: there’s Peter Seymour, who had been a communist but who converted to Labour. He was also a member of the Co-op Party. I remember one conversation with him, when he told me about the years after the war, when the council estates were being built, and the Co-op was in the ascendency. “It was like the revolution had already happened,” he said.
There’s Maud Ehrenstein, who was like this dowager socialist from the 30s. Rumour has it that on her death bed she ripped off her oxygen mask and shouted: “up the Miners!” She was very impressive to my younger mind: this older person with real dignity, still ferociously committed to her core ideals.
Then there’s Fred Rowden – Rowden is a Whitstable name – who was the first customer. Fred told me the story of when the Black Shirts came to Whitstable. They held a rally at the Horsebridge, but were greeted by the Fire Brigade’s Union, who hosed them down, sending them scuttling from the town.
One of my favourites was Griffith Roberts, a toothless Welshman who everyone knew as Taff. He, in turn, called everyone “Vic”. One day my sister asked him what his real name was. “Griffith Owen Roberts,” he told her, in his gloriously melodic Welsh accent. After that I always called him Griff and he always called me Chris.
Or there was Stan Guildford, who was the Chair for a while, with his pork-pie hat, his Groucho Marx moustache and his pipe. “A witty curmudgeon who wanted a better world,” as a mutual friend, Andrew Ling, described him.
This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the club’s foundation, on the August bank holiday 1978. There were 20 founder members, who each put in £20. A further £300 was donated by the local Labour Party branch, and then more money elicited to provide the cash float and to fill up the fruit machine. It is said that the jackpot was won on the first night.
The place very nearly didn’t open as – ironically – the draymen were on strike. They had to find an alternative brewery and buy in stock from the cash and carry.
Older readers will remember that it was originally situated under the railway arches, where the Alimo restaurant is now. You could tell the time by the trains rumbling by overhead and rattling the glasses.
I first became involved in 1984 when I moved to Whitstable. I was in the Miner’s support group, which used to meet in the club on a Friday evening. So my first public experience of Whitstable was standing outside the Co-op, shaking a bucket, collecting money for the Kent Miners.
We held a benefit, and got an extension to the license, which had the club packed out with students and young people. After that we held benefits on a regular basis.
I referred to this as the win-win economy. The club made money. The benefit made money. The bands used the back room for practice and played for free, while the club provided a venue for the town. Everyone had a good time and nobody lost. Imagine if all economic activity was like this!
The club has always been as a much a community resource as a Labour one.
Our first anti-war meetings after 9/11 were held down there. We had people from all parties and all faiths: Christians of all denominations, Buddhists, Greens, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, the lot. It was like an ecumenical gathering for everyone with an alternative point of view. It was after we left the club that the anti-war movement in Whitstable fell apart.
I’m personally convinced that the reason Whitstable remains a Labour stronghold is because of the club.
My dad loved it here. It was me who introduced him. In his last years, as he became increasingly fragile, everyone was very protective of him, making sure he got home all right, and that, when he left his wallet or his phone, he always got them back. As part of his eulogy I read out some words from him thanking the club for all that it had done.
As you can imagine, this weekend will be a celebration of the club’s history and its connection to the town.
There’s something happening every day and I’m sure, if you want to visit, you’ll be made very welcome.
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