The Holbeck is a social club in the heart of a housing estate in Holbeck. It is the oldest working men’s club in the country. But it changed its name to a social club for very obvious and very good reasons. Ernie Wise played there. There’s a plaque. That’s not even one of the top 5 best stories about The Holbeck.
A few years ago it was in financial difficulty (like 95% of WMCs and many pubs) and some excellent volunteers moved to maintain it and start paying back the debt to the brewery. They ran the members’ club as volunteers for a number of years and started to pay down the debt. It continues to survive today- the volunteers are glorious but by their own admission tired.
We have loved The Holbeck for a long time- we’ve done shows there, attended community meetings, we’re members. It is a glorious place.
And I rehearsed Tabby McTat for Freckle Productions there a few weeks ago. During which Slung Low Producer Joanna realised that there was here an opportunity for both organisations.
We’ve come to accept that we needed to make substantial improvements to the HUB in order to continue to support artists and welcome audiences the way we would like. But a perfect storm of uncertainty around the Network Rail sale of all the arches, gentrification plans of the Holbeck urban village area that never felt like they would include an outfit like ours and difficulty in engaging productively with the landowners around the HUB area who have made cultural partnerships with organisations elsewhere in the city meant we were loathed to spend energy on raising money to invest in a property that we had no security in.
And there was the added issue that no matter how welcoming we made the HUB (and our audience told us repeatedly that welcoming we were) we would never overcome the larger geographical issues of being on Bath Road and having the sex worker managed area between us and the one of communities we are keen to engage with. My position has been for a long time that whatever best secures the safety of all the women of Holbeck, including Slung Low staff, sex workers, residents, visitors and audience members is what I’ll support and my admiration for our friends at Basis charity is boundless but there is still no denying that I was regularly being told that one of the main obstacles to attending events at the HUB (especially evening classes at the College) was the walk from the houses in Holbeck to the HUB on Bath Road. We looked at putting on cabs, driving people home, walking buses: all good temporary solutions but harder to maintain with the scale of impact we are hoping that the Cultural Community College and later Leeds Peoples Theatre will have.
So change was needed.
We approached the Holbeck Management Committee (an elected volunteer group made up of club members) with a proposal.
And the proposal was this;
We’ll pay the debt to brewery off so they can secure (and keep) the deeds.
We will pay an amount of rent each year to secure our sole occupancy.
We will manage and run the bar for the club, giving all profits back to the club. The current opening hours, member privileges, and activities in the main bar areas (including lounge, snooker room and bar) will be protected and maintained.
From now on everyone working at the club (primarily cleaners and bar staff) will receive Living Wage payment. All current volunteers will be honoured and offered their current position on the new paid terms. Slung Low staff members can’t be double paid (we’re all on buy-out company wages so if we do a bar shift we don’t get paid twice).
We will guarantee the club each year against loss: it will become a thriving business.
We will move Slung Low’s entire operation (specifically but not exclusively administrative HQ, shared artist rehearsal space, Cultural Community College classes, visiting performances and How To Festivals) to the Holbeck. The non-bar spaces (250 seater stage events room, flat with living quarters, dressing rooms and office space) will be where appropriate renovated and all put to use homing artists, classes and performance.
We’ll commit to being in The Holbeck and honouring these terms until end of 2023.
And ten minutes ago, on a Sunday morning in the main bar, the members of The Holbeck voted on this proposal and approved the plan. The opportunity this presents to Slung Low are huge; in terms of developing audience, participation and hosting artists making work this is a real step forward for us.
Slung Low’s base will sit physically in the heart of a community.
The future of The Holbeck will be secured and an important, and rare in Holbeck, community asset will be secured for the community in the face of market pressures.
If you are a HUB audience member then everything will stay the same, it will just get warmer and 600 m to the south of where it used to be.
This is the most useful thing we can do. So we’re doing it.
The last event at the HUB is our Christmas Fayre on 8th December. From midday we mull wine, roast a hog (eat vegan alternatives where appropriate), browse stalls, sing carols, hear Yuletide stories and have a merry time of it. Then at 3 we’re going to walk over to The Holbeck where the cast of Tabby McTat will give a special Pay What You Decide performance of the show to raise funds for the outstanding homeless charity Simon on the Streets.
That’s the perfect end to our time in the HUB I think. It has been a good home, a free place, a useful place. I can only imagine what we’ll all manage together in the new home. The Holbeck. Now with added Slung Low.
And a few quick FAQ so we all know where we stand.
It’s not a take over. From the start we were keen to reiterate that the members of the Holbeck continue to hold the deeds. We don’t want them. We’re not buying them out. We’re entering into a partnership.The club and its value is still theirs to collective own.
We’re keeping the bus classroom. It is a great piece of work by the team. It will be really useful, there’s room for it at the Holbeck and we’ll continue to use it.
We intend to start moving in to the Holbeck early January 2019 and be gone from the HUB end of January 2019. All activity in 2019 will be hosted at the Holbeck.
All the equipment that we can’t take with us (85 theatre seats, two shipping containers, various furniture, a golf buggy etc) will be offered to other community and arts groups for free. If no one wants them we’ll sell them.
No we can’t take the Hickling Wing with us. God guys, let it go, it was years ago and he isn’t even the theatre critic for the Guardian anymore and he liked the last thing of ours he saw and when are you going to let it go even? Okay, fine we’ll take the sign and put it over one of the cubicles. Are you satisfied now you monsters!
Yes we will continue to be a Pay What You Decide company for all our hosted performances, meals, classes, festivals. The beer you’ll have to pay market value for from now on- this does mean the end of the £1 bar. But it’s a social club in South Leeds so I think you’ll like our prices just fine.
We will continue to lend all our equipment, our van and rehearsal space to whoever have need of it. Nothing changes. Our mission remains to be useful. What is ours is yours.
Where are you finding the money to pay off the club’s debt? Well. There’s a tale. Do you remember when we did that massive show Flood? It was so big it qualified for Theatre Tax Relief (the what? See https://www.thestage.co.uk/opinion/2016/alan-lane-theatre-tax-relief-is-the-graceful-assault-of-an-ideological-ninja/). And I was in two minds because obviously I think TTR is not progressive at all and fundamentally a way to make Andrew Lloyd Webber richer and you are what you do and if we take this money then that’s a bit isn’t it but then on the other hand it’s an act of idiocy to not take it when we work so hard to raise money to do useful things but what could we do with this money that would be useful, secure a home for the company that we could grow in and also help secure a really vital community asset. Ah. Yes. Good. If you think that makes me a hypocrite I understand but i’ve got some news about where the Arts Council get their money from which is going to break your heart.
Everything we do will continue. Including being a home to Yorkshire Aid who are a really important local charity helping refugees in Europe who we are committed to supporting in all the ways we can. That will continue at the Holbeck if Yorkshire Aid want to come with us.
Does this have anything to do with that time Network Rail sent literally a bouncer to do a fire inspection? Yes. We were not intimidated. We were angered. We do not run away. We fight through the opposition and re-organise on the other side. We upgrade. Thanks for the motivation.