Battle on to save historic Great War club

Secretary Mike Davis outside The Comrades Club on Adelaide Street, Blackpool. Below: The entrance to the club and regular Craig Cheston enjoys a pint.

Secretary Mike Davis outside The Comrades Club on Adelaide Street, Blackpool. Below: The entrance to the club and regular Craig Cheston enjoys a pint.

The walls of the expansive bar in Blackpool’s Comrades of the Great War Club are lined with pictures telling stories of war adventures.

Ex-servicemen from Blackpool opened the club – the former home of Blackpool Grammar School – in 1920 after returning from the First World War.

But now those left are facing one of their biggest ever battles. Club leaders fear this famous stalwart of Blackpool’s history could soon be no more after the triple blow of the smoking ban, an ageing membership and dwindling takings.

The bar only took £120,000 in 2013 compared with £250,000 in 2011.

It is clearly in dire straights.

So today, organisers have launched an impassioned plea for a saviour to keep it running, albeit at a reduced capacity.

Chairman Tim Pipe is one of the members who have helped to keep the financial troubles at bay but have now been forced to call in the administrators.

He said: “A lot of the opportunities facing us are in development but I have spent a great amount of time over the last few years, spending time away from my family and work, because I didn’t think it was worth saying ‘that’s it’.

“We found the place in a mess and if it was an old building and nobody was interested we would’ve given up sooner.

“But when you see the building and some of the photographs when you go in it’s clearly part of Blackpool’s heritage and needs to be protected.”

Mr Pipe, who served in the Royal Engineers from 1977 to 1993, claims when he took over the running of the committee in 2011 he found the club in a “great deal” of debt following years of financial losses.

He attributes this to stock being sold at low prices, the smoking ban and the rise in the cost of utilities.

The newly formed committee looked at a number of options to save the club, including taking out a bridging loan from the bank, but this failed because of the club’s inability to show profits which could repay the money.

And the club is currently being run as a limited company since it was struck off the Financial Services Authority register for failing to complete returns and file accounts dating back to 2003.

Mr Pipe added: “We’ve gone into administration now because there are some long standing debts.

“We wanted to do this so we could have control over the club and it will be going up for sale in the next few weeks.

“We have explored a lot of options and the doctor’s surgery next door is interested in buying part of the site.

“It could be a smaller club in the same building having farmed off various parts of the building.

“People are doing their best in a changing market.

“The smoking ban has destroyed so many clubs in Blackpool for a start, but it’s a combination of that and an ageing and dwindling membership.

“I would hate to see the building demolished to become a car park and I would be reasonably happy to see the front part of the building survive.”

Pensioner Mike Davis, 76, the secretary, has helped Mr Pipe to re-organise the club.

He added: “Club life is not what is used to be but it would be a very sad day if this was to close.

“Blackpool clubs are closing 10 a penny nowadays.

“It would be a loss for me because I have a lot of friends here.

“I’ve got to know a lot of people and it’s not for the want of trying to keep it going.”

There are now just 300 members. In the 1980s and 90s it boasted more than 1,000 and was so popular there was a waiting list to join.

The majority of the membership is made up of relatives of Second World War veterans who joined the club upon returning from active service in the 1940s.

Most of the grandfathers and fathers who gave memberships to their sons and grandsons have now died, but the club’s legacy lives on with their relatives.

Postman Craig Cheston, 41, first joined the club when he was 18 after his grandfather and Second World War veteran, Arthur Cooke, made him a member.

Mr Cheston comes into the club four days a week and is a member of the snooker team.

He said: “It would be tragic if it closed, a real crying shame because I’ve been coming in here more than half my life.

“There’s been rumours going about for a while saying we are struggling but you never know how bad it is until something like this comes out.

“My closest two friends here are the bar staff and I wouldn’t see them anymore.

“We play snooker on a Monday night and I would lose contact with everyone I play with.

“I would love to see it stay open and the best thing that could happen is someone comes in and buys it out.”

Peter Forsch, lives near Stanley Park, and has attended the club for the last 17 years.

He said: “We had been struggling like other clubs in the town but I didn’t expect this.

“It’s a historic building and there’s a lot of heritage in this club.

“It was the first grammar school in Blackpool and we have reunions here for all members of the Armed Forces.

“It’s good to see all the squaddies come in at the reunions and I’d imagine they would be very upset if this was to close.”

Beryl Blezard, of Regent Road, Blackpool, has been a member for more than 20 years with her husband Christopher.

The couple got their membership through Mr Blezard’s veteran father.

She said: “It’s a shame that it’s gone into administration but if members don’t come into the club, it doesn’t survive.

“It has gradually gone down and down.

“I keep saying that if I win the lottery I will buy the club.

“We come in a lot and it’s sad to see it get to this stage.

“All of the old soldiers have died and younger ones don’t come in to places like this, which is such a shame.

“The committee has done its best to save it but it looks like it’s too much because it’s struggling and when it starts to struggle that’s it.

“It would be nice if someone could come in and pay all the debts off because we need to keep people in.”

Blackpool Grammar School was based on the site from 1893 when Thomas Sankey bought a large semi-detached house on Adelaide Street called Frogmore and moved the school there.

It later expanded into the house next door and both premises are now the Comrades Club.

Blackpool Grammar School moved to Raikes Parade, which later became the home of the Salvation Army.

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