(Written by Ron Wheeler in Spring 2010)
On a warm sunny day in early May 1964 the three founders of the club, Stan Burgess, Chris Scott-Warwick and Ron Wheeler were seated in a lead lighted bay window to discuss Stan Burgess’s latest idea, “the founding of a new folk club”. Also with them was Ron’s girl friend Kathy Harris. Drinking a decent pint of beer they wrote out a list of aspirations for the club, many of which still stand true today.
The venue for this meeting was a public house on the Hagley Road in the Quinton area of the city. (Now sadly belonging to a Gastropub chain)
- The club should be primarily for locally based singers.
- It should encourage “first time singers”.
- Its aim should also be to develop a regular audience.
- A venue not used by any other folk club of suitable size should be found.
- A nucleus of regular singers should be encouraged.
- The clubroom should be on Friday nights and have good acoustics for the singers.
- The club would be called MacDonalds.
- The club would be non-profit making.
(any money taken on the door would be used for publicity purposes or an occasional guest singer)
The details of the start date were also decided and, to general agreement, it was decided that the club should open at approximately the same time as the other clubs in Birmingham closed for the summer thus providing a continuing arena for locals to enjoy live folk music. One of the founders, plus one other, should always try to be at the club to give a guarantee of an evening’s folk singing. The three regular singers were to be Stan Burgess, Chris Scott-Warwick and Erick Gooding (a newcomer to Birmingham, recently met by Stan and Ron)
Ron Wheeler would look after matters, financial and secretarial as well as look after the membership side of the club. 2/6 (old money) would be the initial entry charge on the door.
Ron and Stan had been friends for many years and so Ron was not surprised when Stan contacted him later that same week to let him know of the fact that he had located a suitable premises for the club and of the 500 posters he already had printed advertising the new club.
Stan asked Ron to help him put the posters up around Birmingham on the coming weekend in time for the club opening which would be the Friday afterwards… less than two weeks after the meeting and giving time for news of the new club to be spread around the Birmingham Folk scene. This, with the aid of a bucket of paste and a stepladder, they managed to do… not before Ron had fallen off the step ladder twice… The posters were everywhere, advertising the new folk club at the Hungry Man Public House adjoining the back of Bingley Hall off Broad Street.
The Club opened at the end of May 1964 at 8.00 p.m., door charge to non singers being 2/6d.
The Opening Night of the New Club
Ron and Kathy arrived at the Hungry Man at around 7.30pm and for the first time saw the clubroom. It was remarkable! The room was long and could obviously hold up to 80 people with plenty of seating, but the really unusual feature, was the wall opposite the doorway which was covered with large mirrors, giving the room the illusion of being twice as large. This obviously would make any audience appear twice as large too. All the founders were there by 8.00 pm. plus a number of local singers who probably came out of curiosity. By 8.10 pm. half a dozen non-singers had arrived and been signed in as members after paying their 2/6d. The singing stated with Stan and then Erick followed by Chris and thereafter-local singers.
Each sang 2 or 3 songs. At half time about 27 people were in the room and some atmosphere was starting to build up. The acoustics of the room were not bad and helped the atmosphere. By the end of the evening every one felt that it had not been a bad start and promised quite well for the future. The next week went even better and over 40 people arrived including most of the previous week’s customers and singers.
The careful planning and efforts seemed to be working and it was on this happy note that Ron and Kathy went off on their week long holiday to Italy. They arrived back to DISASTER!
Stan contacted Ron on his first day back from holiday to tell him that on the third week they had been informed that the Hungry Man was being vacated immediately, boarded up and then demolished!
This had already happened and Stan had, at almost impossibly short notice, found another venue at the Plough and Harrow near Digbeth, but was not happy about its suitability. Ron and Kathy arrived on the following Friday to enter a small gloomy public house and, climbing a steep narrow and worn staircase, found themselves in a tiny scruffy room which would be overcrowded with more than 20 people in it. As it happened only about a dozen or so turned up. The evening wound up very quickly.
Ron could see that all that initial promise had evaporated and, after a sleepless night, decided that something had to be done quickly to try and prevent the club’s imminent demise. Next day he was in the Birmingham centre before midday and began to trawl around the public houses looking for a decent alternative to what he had seen the night before. After fruitless searching and, some distance away, at the bottom of Hurst Street he found an interesting looking public house called the Australian Bar. And entered what was obviously a very well looked after premises. It was a Davenports House, a very decent beer, and after a pint he chatted to the landlord and asked about a possible clubroom. The landlord ushered him upstairs and, passing through a doorway, Ron found himself in a superb room, long, good for at least 60 people, nicely carpeted and with lots of folding plush seated chairs. Acoustics were very good, comfort indeed, and far different to the majority of folk clubrooms. Though somewhat taken aback, he asked if it could always be available on Friday evenings and, with trepidation, how much it would be. The landlord said, “Okay” and that drink profits should more than cover any hire charges. The club could indeed start on the following Friday. Hardly able to believe their good fortune Ron rushed to a phone box and called Stan. After he had passed the news on, Stan immediately agreed that they cancel the next Plough and Harrow so Ron, with great pleasure, did just that.
The following week they were very busy getting the message of yet another change of venue around. Ron and Kath arrived at about 7.00pm on Friday, Stan was already in the clubroom admiring it. Resident singers were soon in place and now all we needed was an audience.. WE GOT ONE!! Not big, but what could you expect? The evening went well, a combination of good beer and an appreciation of comfort rarely experienced in the Folk world of 1964. Next week practically every one came back and another 20 new faces in addition. A good atmosphere was rapidly developing. From this point the club went from strength to strength and was soon packed every week, all seats taken and with members standing against the walls. The coming of autumn with the other clubs reopening made no difference to numbers… We were now solidly established on the scene.
At this point I feel I must briefly give thumbnail sketches of the four personalities at the club on the day when I believe the club was truly born.
The driving force behind the whole thing, he was, and still is, someone who has tons of imagination and initiative and does inspire others with his enthusiasm and ideas. Extrovert and a great friend to have… I have been very lucky to know him for most of my life.
Modest, self effacing and very likeable. A quirky character, who could at times, unintentionally, be very funny. Chris was an ardent “Ban the Bomber” but otherwise kept himself to himself. He liked to talk to Erick about higher mathematics.
Awesomely clever but still very tolerant, he was a leading teacher of the new higher mathematics in Solihull and still managed to be likeable and very helpful to any one about almost any academic pursuit. He was a perfectionist and this showed in his musical performances.
Had been a County chess player, He was natural organiser, would take great care and think round all the angles when it was needed. Otherwise was quite carefree, even careless at times. Loyal, though it proved difficult at times. Stan was keen to get him on board, as a friend and to look after the general running of the club.
Bright and lively, she helped Ron with looking after the door and welcoming members to the club.
Opening Night at the Australian Bar
We put 30 seats out for the hoped for audience and then waited. By 7:45pm people were drifting in and The Clansmen started the singing at about 8:10pm with a chorus song. Then Stan, Chris and Erick each sang a couple of individual songs before giving the floor to the first of the local singers. We already had enough local singers, all unaccompanied, to give them 2 to 3 songs each.
Chorus songs known to the crowd immediately became an obvious singing choice because of the excellent acoustics. Whether quietly sung or otherwise, vocals went well especially as all the singers on the night already had plenty of experience of singing around the club scene. Seated by the door at the far corner of the room, I was particularly aware of every word or note coming from the other end of the room. By 8-30pm.We had about 25 paying members and six local singers. The “last minute” running about had been worth it. We had also posted someone at the Plough and Harrow to redirect members who were still not aware of the move. No one seemed to object to the luxurious surroundings and the Davenport ale gradually made a big impact on the audience participation. When the night finally finished with a suitable song from the Clansmen we all felt that it had been a very good evening. The following week proved the point when about 40 paying members, including practically everyone from the week before, came to the club with even more local singers. The landlord was obviously happy with his extra sales and I just hoped that this would see an end to our run of bad luck.
The weeks that followed saw almost continuous success with audiences eventually settling down to about 50 paying members each week. We were also getting a steady number of local singers and no longer needed to stimulate the audience numbers with newspaper advertisements. Feedback also suggested that the club was getting a good reputation among folk circles. The half crowns were starting to add up and the next decision was how to use the surplus money.
It was decided that we could alternate singers’ nights with the booking of a well known local singer, suitably advertised in the local press. This, of course, would be more publicity for the club and suitable guests would be an extra perk for our regulars. It did mean me visiting other local clubs and booking singers directly but this was no hardship. We always tried to keep spare funds down to a bare minimum in line with our “no profits” policy.
So the club sailed on. Everyone enjoyed singing, floor singers and audience alike and traditional folk song was becoming the dominant musical feature.
The club had quickly developed a distinct personality and, after a short time, we had an audience that wanted British traditional music with good rousing choruses so that the audience could do its best to raise the roof.
Two of our first guests were Tommy Dempsey, a leading local singer, who sang fine Irish traditional songs and John Swift, who sang quietly to a self accompanied lute. The Australian Bar suited them both perfectly and we had very good evenings on both occasions.
Though we didn’t realise it immediately, the club’s development was to have a profound effect over time, radically changing the club’s personality.
The first obvious change was in the audience, who though always polite, began to show a distinct preference for British music. Songs influenced by the American contemporary folk scene produced a very lukewarm response to the extent that the performers of such material never came back a second time. Unaccompanied singers of British material went down exceptionally well, however. Singers like John Boler thrived on English traditionally orientated songs such as Shoals of Herring written by Ewan McColl. Hearing the club roar out the last line of each verse sent a shiver down my spine.
The club had developed in a way that we didn’t fully anticipate. The preponderance of British traditional singers had quickly attracted an audience, which preferred this music to the exclusion of most other forms and particularly American, both soul and contemporary. This in the end resulted in another dramatic upheaval in the club though it didn’t affect the club’s success at the time.
A new group called the Crofters began to visit the club and perform their songs. At first, as with most new singers, the audience was sympathetic towards them and, shortly after their arrival, Stan began to give them a helping hand with their vocals. This gave them a lot more kick because, although they were four in number, they didn’t have a strong vocalist. Stan gave them more vocal power and extra instrumentation which helped their overall performance considerably. It also gave Stan a chance to perform music of a much wider range, which appealed to him rather than just British material. Unfortunately the Crofters did almost exclusively the very material the club members had little interest in and they, with or without Stan, soon got the polite but muted applause response.
Running the club and making up a balanced singers’ evening was not easy and, when the Crofters began arriving late and leaving before the end of the evening, it became even more difficult. The crunch came when they asked for more songs in their set and we had to refuse. This went down badly and they left the club in a huff, taking Stan with them. I thought it would all blow over but we never saw them again and as far as I can remember Stan never came to the club again either. We had to accept that we had lost the original driving force for the club and I appeared to have lost my good friend Stan. Thankfully I soon found that I hadn’t and was pleased to hear that Stan and the Crofters were now getting regular gigs in clubs around the Birmingham area. The Clansmen were now down to two, although it must be admitted that Stan, Erick and Chris had never gelled as a group, being poles apart in both attitude and personality.
The club sailed on undisturbed and I soon added myself to the singing personnel and eventually added to the group my sea shanties and ballads. Erick’s clever harmonies gave the group individuality and we gave up the Clansmen name for the Folk’sles. Having no Scottish material this made sense. The club then dropped the MacDonalds title and instead became The Australian Bar Folk Club. Everyone enjoyed each Friday evening, including all our regulars, whether singers or non-singers, as well as the pub landlord. The only problem now was cramming everyone in.
Clive Collins, a small but dynamic personality, joined the group and Chris left. He was never happy as a group member and when Clive started to insist on regular practice sessions away from the club, it offended the free spirit in him. He still came to the club but not so often and remained a good friend.
The success of the Folk’sles and the size of the club eventually led to our next move…… To The Birmingham Arms.
The details above have been supplied by Ron Wheeler, who currently lives in Taunton, and was one of the founder members of the club.