Monday, August 11, 2014

50th Anniversary - Dronfield Contact Club

In 1962, the local Labour Party at Dronfield in Derbyshire commenced the publication of a printed magazine which was called "contact" (in small case). With a red cover, it came out roughly on a monthly basis and was printed in Derby. Amongst the copies I hold is the second edition, which was published in January 1963. It is a neat document. Its 20 pages were just 8 inches by 5. As  it was delivered door to door to the towns 3,000 homes, it attracted plenty of advertising. Almost half its pages were taken up with no less than 25 adverts. All but three of these were for local Dronfield services, such as Dunham's hairdressers on Dronfield's main Chesterfield Road.

Bill Gilbert wrote articles on Dronfield's past, but the magazine otherwise tended to concentrate on the prominent activities of the local Labour Party, the Dronfield Trades and Labour Council, the Dronfield Young Socialists and also on local government matters effecting the Derbyshire County Council and the Dronfield Urban District Council.  Whilst the later had operated since 1894, Labour had only first obtained a majority on the Council in 1958 and its initial breakthrough only lasted for a period of 18 months. Then Labour reclaimed control in 1962 - with the Contact Magazine emerging later in that year. By the 1964-5 session, Labour controlled the Council by 10 seats to the Conservatives 3.

The editorial board of the Contact Magazine was made up of five people - Brian Morgan, Arthur Smith, Norman Rutherford, Eric Chetwynd and Fred Machin. The majority of these served periods as local Labour Urban District Councillors.  In addition to their standard editorial work they were connected with (a) liason with the printers, (b) attracting and maintaining advertisers, (c) fund raising exercises, (d) seeing that the magazine was delivered to every home in Dronfield.

In addition to all these efforts helping to aid Labour's cause in Dronfield, there was a further spin off when Labour was at its peak in Dronfield.  This was the establishment in the town of what became a large and viable social club, appropriately named the "Contact Club".  The idea for the Club was first put forward by Bill Gilbert. At the time there was an Old Comrades Club in the High Street in Dronfield which had existed since the 1920s, but it was on its last legs. So in 1964, a deal was struck to take over its debts of £25 and establish a "new" Contact Club. The finances for the full transformation were provided by a loan of £100 from the North East Derbyshire Constituency Labour Party and the support of Wm. Stone's Brewery, who installed a bar and furnishings for the main room. Money was also collected and kept in a dried milk tin.

A prominent figure in these developments was Lou Howson. He was a local Labour District Councillor, who later became Secretary of the North East Derbyshire Constituency Labour Party and a Derbyshire County Councillor. In a letter written some ten years ago well after his return to Scotland, he wrote that initially a small group, including Bill Gilbert, Fred Broadhead and himself "set about patching the whole place up and installing central heating. We decorated throughout. We applied for a licence which came through about August 1964. We appointed a Committee and Eric Chetwyn was Membership Secretary and Entertainment Secretary. We recruited our first 40 odd members and opened for business on a Saturday night..(on what seems to have been 15 August)... Eric had booked a group for our first Sunday night. The sound reverberated around the town and we had to turn people away. Within a short time we had the maximum membership and began to search for new premises". Lou and Tom Staveley were the Club's original trustees. A position which, Graham Baxter, the leader of the North East Derbyshire Council now holds.

Within three years the Contact Club had moved to its present imposing site on Snape Hill Lane. It was a substantial venture. What achieved this massive transformation is explained in an article which appeared in "The New Contact" in Autumn 1972.  It states - "What had the Contact Club got at this stage to,plan a £30,000 venture? Money? Little or none. Expertise? A committee with two year's experience of running a small club on a shoestring. Not the most heartening of assets, so what decided them? Only an urge of a body of people to create a social centre using the most important asset of all; an abundance of energy and a social conscience".

As shown on a plaque in the entrance to the Contact Club, Manny Shinwell undertook the formal opening of the present site on 12 August, 1967. I was away teaching a Summer School at Coleg Harlech at the time and I missed that fine occasion. I was doubly sorry because I had known Manny well, as I originated from the area in County Durham which he represented in parliament. But although I was living in Sheffield at the time, I had had the good sense to join the Contact Club as it moved into its site on Snape Hill Lane. I regularly attended the Club's discussion meetings on a Sunday Morning which were held in the Lounge.

Within a couple of years Ann, Stephen (aged one) and myself had moved to Dronfield. The Contact Club was a major attraction. Over the years it served as a centre for May Day activities, public meetings, electoral organisation, plus Labour Party meetings and discussions. I currently organise the continuance of the later in the Committee Room, carrying on the tradition I first experienced on Sunday mornings 47 years ago. No one owes a greater debt than I do to the Contact Club for the considerable support it gave to me in my 18 years as its local MP.  So I fully wish the Club all the very best for its next 50 years.

Too many peoples names are missing from this tribute to the Contact Club, for it has always involved a collective activity. But at one time the Club was synonymous with the name of its long serving secretary, Harold Garbutt. His tradition is carried on today by Pete Honeybone.

The final word needs to go to Lou Howson. Ten years ago he wrote "At a meeting in Ayr a few years ago regarding the setting up of a Labour Club, a man stood up and advised that we go and visit the 'best Labour Club in Britain' in a place called Dronfield. I got an ego boost when I showed my life membership card". 




Unknown said...


This is a lovely story of local history in your adopted town of Dronfield which you have served so well over many years.

In these modern times of rabid consumerism, market spin, corporate greed and me-me individualism it is a breath of fresh air to be reminded that local people can (if enabled) do things for themselves and for their communities collectively and without the need for celebrity hype and personal advantage.

What is so sad, in my opinion, is the way that the Labour Party seems to have been taken over by look-a-like politicians and would-be government leaders whose primary aim seems to be self-serving careerism and managing the system (albeit with a more human face) and in such a way that there is little or no alternative political culture and education that was such an important feature of the Labour Movement in the years before Thatcher and the triumph of neoliberalism.

This is an unbelievable horror story for someone like myself who worked as an engineer in the 1960’s and 70’s and became politicised and active via the world of work, the trade union movement, Labour Party and the ILP.

While I have no doubt whatsoever that the neoliberal nightmare and the UK’s current political, economic and social arrangements are unsustainable, I am not at all sure that the Labour Party can be an agent for change. That the New Labour apologist will ever accept that we live in a Plutocracy and that big money has captured our democratic institutions (which in my opinion are unfit for purpose) or that these descendants of Kinnock, Blair, Mandelson, et al, will ever challenge the widely accepted notion that we live in a meritocracy where hard work is rewarded handsomely while the excluded and those at the bottom of the ladder must be forced (for their own good) to bow to the needs of corporate Britain via slave labour (dead end and expensive) work schemes and zero hour contracts.

And of course this was only possible because the Labour leadership was and is complicit (over decades) in rubbishing the trade unions and never, ever, supporting working people who take industrial action in defend their wages, conditions of employment and their jobs.

Harry Barnes said...

Ernie : You will remember visiting the Contact Club for another celibration - the 120th Anniversary of the founding of the ILP. It was held on the exact anniversary date for when Keir Hardie and company set the ball rolling in Bradford on 14 January 1893. The meeting that was held is described here -

The Dronfield Discussion Group you attended carries on an old tradition which I describe above on this thread. The views you express are often amongst those that surface in debate. If we can keep some of our 50 year old Contact Club spirit alive, then we have a chance of influencing some people somewhere at sometime. Our last speaker was a 24 year old who gave a fine talk which you would fully have approved of; on "Attitudes to Welfare Reform".

As Gramsci pointed out, our pessimism of the intellect has to be matched by an optimism of the will. After all the founders of the Contact Magazine and the Contact Club were into this 50 years ago, which was itself a problematic period following 12 years of Tory Governments. They at least turned their own world upside down.

Unknown said...


As someone who has had a colourful life and (as always) with few ups and downs I'm acutely conscious that although I have a lot to be grateful for, I tend to be a bit of an old grumps and a natural pessimist. But (from my perspective) there is a lot to be pessimistic about the way the Labour Party has been performing and our neoliberal society is going.

Nevertheless, I do like your Gramsci quote written in 1929 while he was incarcerated in a fascist jail. Faced with his predicament, only the most intellectually brilliant, unique and courageous of men and women would be able find something positive to say in such desperate and terrifying circumstances. His associated quotation: “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned” seems timeless and especially relevant.

In this respect, your article on the Contact Club and local history is a useful reminder that personal ambition and greed is not the only thing that motivates the human spirit and that collective help and support is as relevant today as ever. A reminder that we are not alone insofar as it the young speaker you refer too and all those desperate for change and social justice (inside and outside the Labour Party) who must be the catalyst for a more fair and good society and for the sort of democratic and peaceful change that you, me and many others would prefer.

Harry Barnes said...

Ernie : A valuable comment on the 50th Anniversary itself; although the celibrations will take place over the weekend. Our Labour Party's contribution will be on Sunday. I especially liked your top up on Gramsci.