The Anstice Community Trust was started in 2014 by a group of local people in Madeley, Shropshire to save a building that has played a part in the community for generations. The Anstice Memorial Institute was opened in 1870 in memory of local mine owner, John Anstice, and sits in pride of place in (what is now) the centre of Madeley in Telford, Shropshire. It closed its doors for the last time in February 2014. Since last year I have also been involved in trying to save what was the oldest working men’s club in England.
I’d always imagined that the inside of the Institute would be dark and smell of stale beer and smoke, but on my first visit I found that it wasn’t. As the curtains in the main bars were flung open, its history was revealed. It was as if the past and present became mixed in a kaleidoscope of memories; each generation who have used the building in the past 147 years has left its own indelible marks upon it. Voices echoed in the silence, and as I touched the 1960s wood panelling on the walls I wondered what secrets were hidden behind it. If the panelling hadn’t been there, could I have touched the original masonry, and if I could, what memories would it hold? I walked out through the bar door and into the once grand entrance hall. The stairs to the first floor, beautifully carved in oak, led up to the ballroom and as I climbed the stairs, the voices that were echoing through the past seemed to be growing ever louder…
Ok, so I know it sounds rather grandiose to write about a building in such a way but it’s all true.
As the area and communities changed around it, the building remained a focal point, a place to gather and to meet friends. Since it was first built it has seen the decline of both the local mining and iron making industries, two world wars and of course the birth of Telford new town. And this is how I came to know it. We moved to the area when I was three, back in 1972, and Madeley Centre was where we did our shopping.
As a young teenager I remember sitting on the bench outside Stantons Café, amongst the cherry blossom trees in Anstice Square, watching the men going in through the doors of the club to drink. My late Grandad was one of them. I thought it would be dark and smelly in there and full of clouds of acrid smoke. There would be one-arm bandit machines, snooker tables and dart boards. Of course as a child I knew all this without ever having set foot in the place! My Grandad would laugh at my quiet consternation and tell me it was an historic building. ‘Yeah, that’s just for men’, I would retort.
Now some nineteen years after he passed away, I wonder what my Grandad would have thought as I touched the walls hoping to grasp the memories they hold. I would tell him, if I could, things are very different now. I became a historian and as an adult I finally realised the significance of the building.
So what is unique about the working men’s club? Well this one has a sprung-floor Victorian ballroom. Even today it is in perfect working order and is one of the last of its kind in England. It’s not just a ballroom though; since 1870 men and women have gathered for meetings, concerts, lectures, classes, dances and so on. It is a place where community engagement continues to the present. The Anstice Community Trust encourages local musicians, bands, school choirs and dance companies to use the building, thereby maintaining its relevance into the twenty-first century. The Institute originally had a library with over 2,500 books. Later the County Library used a room in the institute until getting its own building. Budget cuts and library closures mean that the library might yet return to the Anstice, and ironically in doing so may help to save the building.
A brief linear history of the Institute could not possibly illustrate the breadth of memories that live within the fabric of the building, nor would it document the voices of those who used it. What I want to show is the local importance of this building and that from its very beginning the Antice was designed to be a place of education at the heart of community – until it all went wrong.
When it closed in 2014, newspaper headlines described women not being allowed to become full members and, as such, they had no voting rights. My teenage self, as I sat outside watching the men go in, had been outraged by the apparent nonsensical decision not to allow women to join; my adult self is still angered and disappointed that the committee failed to follow equalities legislation. On 13th July 2015 the Anstice Community Trust was registered with the Charity Commission with both male and female trustees, and all have equal voting rights!
The Institute survived a major fire in 1874 and the birth of Telford, which engulfed the area around it. Yet somehow it remains standing, like a defiant monument, albeit a somewhat shabby one nowadays. Nevertheless, an empty building like this, with its vibrant history makes me feel that anything is possible for our community. And so on that first visit, as I stood at the door to the ballroom, I smiled to myself as I looked out onto the dance floor. I’m sure I could hear my Grandad whisper ‘I told you so’.
For more information, please see: Madeley Local History Group
Lisa Edwards works at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury as a Public Services Officer (Community Outreach & Projects). She has an MA in Public History from Ruskin College, Oxford. She is an oral historian and writer whose current research includes the project ‘Memory, Myth & the Truth: Secrecy & the State in WW2’.