In 1937 three or four retired gentlemen, conscious of the need to keep their minds active, started meeting regularly on a bench on Whitley Bay promenade to take turns giving short talks about their lives, careers and interests. On 13th September 1937, possibly because of worsening weather, they moved into the nearby Willow Café and took the opportunity to add refreshments to their activities. They also set about organising fundraising events for local charities and hospitals. Thus the pattern for the Willow Club was set. Their numbers increased, and on 8th December 1938 they held a special meeting at which they formally established the Willow Club with an elected Committee and Officers. Having handed out well over £200 in donations they had capital of one shilling! The Club has operated continuously since then, not even breaking during World War II, and is the largest and oldest continuously operating retired men’s club.
An early change was the decision to supplement the members’ contributions by inviting external speakers, usually prominent local dignitaries and professionals. One of the most celebrated was Dr Hastings Banda who spoke to the Club in 1944. He was then a medical doctor practising in the town; he was to become the first president of independent Malawi.
In 1939 it was resolved that the last meeting in December be set aside for a Christmas message. That custom is preserved to this day in the form of a Christmas Celebration consisting of carols and readings, with the help over many years of the choir of the King’s School, Tynemouth.
The membership and activities of the Club have waxed and waned over the years. There have been at various times outings, concerts, ladies’ evenings, Christmas lunches and annual dinners, largely the result of the energies, enthusiasm and organising abilities of individual members at the time. According to the archives membership seems to have peaked in 1950 at 320, and the highest recorded attendance was 240 at a meeting in 1978. The current membership and attendance figures are gratifying at a time when many clubs are suffering from declining numbers and some have had to close.
The question of ladies’ membership is interesting. It was offered by a decision of the Committee in 1946, but the records are vague and ambiguous as to the details. What is certain is that not a single lady took up the offer and it was withdrawn by the Committee in 1988. Throughout its history the Club has benefited from a hard core of long-serving officers and committee members to ensure good governance. For example, in its 75-year history to date it has had only 10 Presidents and 15 Secretaries.
Prof John Derry (right) chatting to Chairman of the Day Ed Thompson
There is something about the Club that encourages speakers to return repeatedly. The record is held by one Victor Bell who, between 1954 and 1982, gave 29 talks. That record has now been equalled; at the 75th Anniversary Meeting on 28th November 2013 Prof John Derry delivered his 29th talk. When he gave his 20th he was made an honorary member with the membership number 1. The record will be toppled in January when John gives his 30th talk.
The Willow Club is the archetype for more than two dozen retired men’s clubs around the North East. The largest and oldest – the Brunswick Club in Central Newcastle and the Beacon Club in Hexham – were direct offshoots of the Willow Club. Stocksfield Retired Men’s Association soon followed, and there are Regent (REtired GENTlemen’s) Clubs and Probus (PROfessional and BUSiness Men’s) Clubs, among others.