A credit to the boys' club movement
FORMED during the Second World War Bedminster Down Boys Club held its inaugural meeting on Thursday, September 11, 1941. Based at Cheddar Grove primary school early activities for the 25 members included a gym club, football, cycling, rambling, swimming and handicrafts.
It being wartime, facilities were limited to a table tennis table, a table skittles table, a draughts board and yes, other assorted table games.
From these humble beginnings, Bedminster Down grew to become one of the most respected clubs in the country – and a credit to the boys' club movement in Bristol and beyond.
The lads who went to the club came mostly from the housing estates of Bedminster Down, Bishopsworth, Headley Park and Highridge.
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The club had a tremendous sporting pedigree and with Stephen Kew (former Bristol City FC chairman) involved throughout the 1950s and 1960s, it's no surprise that the boys excelled at football, with several lads going on to join the professional ranks.
In 1959/60 the club won the Gloucestershire Minor Cup – the first time the trophy had been in Bristol South since 1934.
In 1964, after spending more than 20 years in temporary accommodation, the club moved into brand new, purpose-built premises in Winford Grove.
The new building, designed for 150 boys, had its own gym and changing facilities and with it came the appointment of the club's first full-time leader – the inspirational Steve Long.
In its new home, the club generated a unique spirit and atmosphere that was absorbed not only by the boys and the adult helpers, but by the wider Bedminster Down community.
The general policy was to encourage the lads to get involved in as wide a variety of interests as possible and just to try things out.
"We have never tried to be brilliant at things," the late Steve Long once said,
"We've always had a go and enjoyed it."
A can-do attitude permeated throughout the club and over the next 25 years strong groups were built up in art and drama, football, canoeing, caving, volleyball, rifle shooting, camping, running, boxing, swimming, walking, basketball, rock-climbing, darts, table-tennis, rugby, snooker, chess, draughts, billiards, table-football, weight-lifting and adventure weekends and holidays.
Inter-club tournaments were held across many of these activities, and each year a local or national celebrity, or club supporter, would attend an annual open evening to present trophies and medals to the boys.
Over the years, the range of guests visiting the club from the worlds of sport, drama and entertainment was extraordinary and included Frankie Vaughan, Stratford Johns, Bill Owen, Henry Cooper, Adge Cutler, Jimmy Hill, Acker Bilk, Precious Mackenzie, Frank Bruno, Alistair Hignell, Paul Cheesley, Stan Cullis, Harry Dolman, Terry Cooper, Jimmy Edwards, Brian Cant, Norman Hunter, Don Rogers, Leslie Crowther, Fred Wedlock, Dave Prowse, Bruce Hockin, Roger Bennett and Richard Wyatt to name but a few.
At its peak, the club had over 250 members per year and if there was a local league to participate in then the boys competed in it.
The various junior and senior football teams were stalwart members of the Bristol Suburban League and the Club also took part in the Avon and Bristol Federation of Boys Clubs competitions and those organised by the NABC – the National Association.
The introduction of volleyball to the club in the late 1960s was an example of how a sport taken up for fun at grassroots level, grew into something much bigger.
Two of the voluntary helpers – Gerald Greer and Chris Sherman – knew nothing much about volleyball, but became enthusiasts and qualified coaches.
Their enthusiasm spread to the boys who initiated a volleyball meeting with other clubs, schools and colleges with a view to starting a Bristol League.
Twenty four organisations supported the meeting and the Bristol Volleyball League was born.
In 1974, just six years after starting up the sport, the club became National Boys Club Champions – a feat repeated two years later.
Several boys from the club represented the South West in regional championships, and one lad – Bob Smith – went on to play for England, where he captained the senior team in several international matches.
As well as success in volleyball, the lads picked up national boys club awards in basketball, and football and were once runners-up in the canoe-polo final held at Crystal Palace.
As well as sporting achievements, the lads excelled in the drama department.
The productions, musicals and annual Christmas 'Show-Down' events – all scripted, choreographed and performed by the lads themselves – were extremely popular and helped to foster terrific and long lasting relationships with the Bedminster Down community.
Each year, the opening Show-Down extravaganza was performed solely for the old age pensioners in the area.
Musicals were performed at a range of other venues including the Hippodrome, the Granary, the Webbington and the Old Vic.
The club even managed to obtain the first amateur rights to perform Oliver!
In 1973, the club's Trust Us musical won the Olivier Trophy for the best youth drama in the country. The trophy was won again in 1977 with a production of Albert Skinner. Both productions received critical acclaim and were also broadcast nationally across the BBC network.
Although the club sadly closed in 2004 – partly due to a lack of funding and a move away from boys only clubs – the positive impact it had on generations of local lads will be felt for years to come.
Through participation and involvement in a wide variety of activities it helped lads in the sometimes complex journey from boyhood to manhood.
The boys were part of a living community – the community of the club and the wider community outside.
â Clive Burlton will be talking about the Club, its sporting success – plus a new project aimed at documenting its history – at the M shed museum on Thursday, September 20, 5.30-7pm as part of a month long Bristol Record Office series – Sporting Stories from the Archives.
If you were a club member, and have a story to tell, then please get in touch with the Bristol Times editor, Gerry Brooke (email: firstname.lastname@example.org).