The streets of towns across the UK are pock-marked by the decaying carcasses of what were once the heart of British social life. Traditional pubs are dying.
Many put this down to the smoking ban that forced a large part of the clientele to huddle refugee like in doorways or in perspex structures like bus shelters for those waiting for the big C to come along and claim them. Have we become more sober as a nation. Not a bit of it. There is still plenty of evidence to the contrary to be found littering the pavements of city streets on weekend nights, but the bar has replaced the pub and in a big way. For those in the north of the country, there was always another alternative – if you were a member. The working men’s club. These places offered more through providing entertainment, be it a bingo night or a “turn”, and of course the added attraction of the arrival of the pies midway through the evening. These are the places of legend in the north, and the birth place of many a comedian or singer who had to endure the baptism of fire of performing to those who were more interested in talking to one another than giving the entertainer a chance. You became resilient and developed an attention grabbing talent, or wilted and faded away.
And then there was the other attraction of club life. Cheap drink. The Northern Federation of Working Men’s Clubs had their own brewery, known to all and sundry as “The Fed”. Originally based in Newcastle it made the move to a site in Dunston when it’s further expansion was hampered by Newcastle’s historic city walls. This of course was when the club was in its heyday. In the last 30 years the number of clubs has more than halved and it continues to dwindle. Consequently the Fed brewery was sold to Scottish and Newcastle Breweries a few years back, subsequently becoming owned by Heineken until production was transferred elsewhere and the brewery closed a few years back. The only continuing presence was the Lancastrian Suite – a purpose-built centre with meeting and conference rooms for hire and a large hall with stage and balcony that became the venue for many a formal dinner until better venues like the Gateshead Hilton took away its raison d’etre too. Dunston isn’t at the heart of the metropolis. The brewery site has changed hands and the production area is now being demolished. Imagine the volumes of beers and lagers that have been produced under this roof over the years.
And who are the new owners? None other than the Metro Centre (or rather the conglomerate owners of that shopping destination). The Metro Centre was ground-breaking, being the first North American style shopping mall to be established in this country. Modelled on similar venues in Canada (and virtually copying elements of Edmonton’s vast West Ed Mall) it has long since been surpassed by others who have come along since. It is this desire for progress that has prompted the purchase of the brewery site – the Metro Centre apparently needs to offer its customers a broader experience, or words to that effect. Many would feel it just needs to offer better access and parking without creating congestion on the A1M that passes alongside.
Looking about from the roof of one of the Metro Centre car parks at the scene below I was reminded of the soulless strip malls that pepper major routes in the States and Canada. Whilst I won’t miss the brewery particularly, I won’t be too excited about its successor.
- Not Just Beer And Bingo! A Social History Of Working Men’s Clubs (morningstaronline.co.uk)