A big club with a big heart

scanned library image''Hetton Club
scanned library image''Hetton Club
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A CLUB which rose from the ashes after a devastating fire in the 1950s is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Hetton and District WMC and Institute Ltd, better known to most as Hetton Big Club, opened in Back Richard Street in April 1911 and has been serving locals ever since.

“At one time, as soon as lads were 18, their fathers would take them down to the club and sign them up as members,” said club secretary Alan Archbold.

“Things have certainly changed over the past 100 years, but we are still going strong. Our ballroom dancing sessions on Fridays bring in people from all over, as do our bands on Sunday nights.”

The roots of Hetton WMC can be traced to 1906, when local miners flocked to the original club in Pemberton Street for a refreshing drink after a gruelling shift underground.

“We still have balance sheets which state the club was registered in 1906, but it moved just a few years later to Back Richard Street,” said Alan, a member of the club for the past 20 years.

“A gentleman called Rain donated some land to the club in the early 20th century, and our current building was purpose-built. There was a bowling green and bandstand in the grounds at one time.

“There are even some baths shown on the upstairs level of the original plans, for the use of miners coming straight from their shifts. Whether these baths were ever built, though, I don’t know.”

A concert room, lounge, committee room, billiard hall, library, singing room, buffet and bar were definitely provided in the new club, all heated by a coke-fuelled boiler house in the grounds.

“I believe it was around this time Hetton WMC was given the nickname of the Big Club,” said Alan. “It offered all sorts of entertainment and sports, was set in its own grounds and was, well, big!

“I would imagine local miners and workers would have paid for the building of the club and, although the land was donated, the actual cost of the project must have been tremendous.

“Unfortunately, we just don’t have documentation to show exactly what happened. Most of our records and memorabilia were lost in a fire which destroyed much of the building in April 1957.”

Fire broke out at Hetton’s Big Club on the evening of Saturday, April 13, 1957. A “short circuit in a newly-installed £600 electric organ” was blamed for the blaze, according to the Echo.

“Huge tongues of flame crackling from the roof cast a red glow on houses in the district,” an article on April 15 reported. “The glow showed a circle of hundreds of faces watching the blaze.

“Many of the club’s 2,500 members were among the crowd. As they watched, the entire upper floor burned furiously – the fire destroying the concert hall, library, committee room and small bar.”

The loss of Hetton Big Club, known as “the club which had everything,” was deemed “a severe blow to the social life of the working community of Hetton” by the Echo.

Within hours, however, what had been the “biggest club in the district” was offered a temporary home – at the Market Street premises only recently vacated by Hetton Comrades Club.

“The fire was a huge talking point at the time, and many of our members still remember it,” said Alan. “The glow in the sky could literally be seen for miles around here.

“Fortunately, we were lucky enough to be allowed to move into the old premises of Hetton Comrades, where we stayed for more than a year until our own club could be rebuilt.”

Hetton WMC’s dramatic return from the ashes was to pave the way for a new-look club.

“It changed the whole structure of the building,” said Alan. “The stage was moved from one end of the concert hall to the other, and the committee room was brought downstairs

“Originally, there had been three snooker tables in the downstairs bars, but these were removed to build a new ladies’ toilet. A new lounge was also created following the fire too.”

Today, Hetton Big Club continues to serve the local community – although the mines which once offered work to its members are long gone.

“We will be celebrating our 100th anniversary for the rest of the year,” said Alan. “We are planning all sorts of things, such as special races for our sports teams here.

“In these days of pub and club closures, it is an achievement to still be going strong. We have had to move with the times, like adding live bands for younger visitors, but it is working,” added Alan.