Confidence is growing in the fight to save the world’s oldest working men’s club.
Founded in 1860, Ridge Hill Lane Working Men’s Club has been a staple of the community for nearly 160 years.
Ricky Hatton, Eric Bristow and Gordon Banks are just some of the sporting greats to have passed through its doors.
But years of financial issues mean the club now faces an uncertain future, with members, staff and punters rallying round to save it.
General manager Paul Bishop took over the running of the club in 2011, when the committee at the time all resigned. Little did he know what he’d let himself in for.
“I had no idea at the time what the debts were,” he said. “We were left with a choice of keeping the club going or calling it a day. We all decided to try and keep it going.
“Every time we had a monthly meeting, someone else knocked on the door who we owed money. It’s been a struggle since 2011.”
Members put their own money and manpower into keeping the club afloat, while renovating the building to attract new customers.
For many members, losing the club would be a bitter blow.
Dennis Johnson, 79, has been going in the club since he was 8-years-old. “They only ever used to let kids in on Whit Friday, in our Whitsuntide coats,” he recalled.
“At weekends, you had to be in here for about 7pm or you weren’t getting in. It was packed. On Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, you had to have a ticket it got that busy.”
After seeing many changes at the club over the past 70 years, it’s now Dennis’ social epicentre. He added: “I’m in every night, not for the beer but for the company. I lost my wife 27 years ago, so I live on my own at the bottom of the road. It’s exactly 100 yards from my door to here! It’s a smashing atmosphere here.”
Brian Chaplin has been a member since the early 60s. He even used to wait on as a youngster, earning £1 an hour!
“I’m in three times a week,” he said. “We don’t want it to shut and we don’t think it will. We’ve got a lot of memories here.”
Through sheer determination and hard work, the club has managed to pay off most of its £200,000+ debts.
But despite the best efforts those who love the club, a dwindling membership and changing drinking habits means the future of Ridge Hill Lane WMC is still up in the air, with the club struggling to maintain overheads.
Paul added: “We’ve all put our own money in and painted & decorated it ourselves, for the sake of our club, but it just got to a point where we could no longer do it. We’ve all got mortgages, kids etc.
“I can’t keep putting my own money in. I’ve got a four-year-old grandson and my money should be going to him, not paying off debts. I said, ‘We’re going to have to do something about this.’"
A crowdfunding page has been set up, with a £40,000 target to secure the club’s future. A special ‘re-opening’ night was held with the brewery to launch the campaign and a party night earlier this month also raised vital funds.
Now, Paul can see the light at the end of the tunnel. “I was not confident at the start but I’m a lot more confident now,” he said. “We’re still not out of the woods but the crowdfunding runs until September so we’ll have a better idea then.”
To donate to Ridge Hill Lane Working Men’s Club, you can visit www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/paul-bishop-1.