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 Downs Club History [updated 2004]



The Downs Club 1963-2004

The Downs Club was formally set up in February 1963, to provide sports and social activities for the staff and students of the hospitals and institutes established on the Downs Road/Chiltern Road site at Belmont.

In the late 1950’s the Royal Marsden Hospital, through the Ministry of Health acquired land and buildings previously occupied by the London County Council, and began development of the site, in co-operation with the Institute of Cancer Research and two recently formed organisations, the Radiological Protection Service and the South Metropolitan Cancer Registry. One of the buildings acquired, part of the old Downs Hospital, was the present Downs Club Hall. With enthusiastic support from Professor (later Sir) David Smithers, Chairman of the Royal Marsden Hospital Building Committee, funds were secured for the conversion of the hall into premises for a club, with construction of the lobby and a bar, and preparation of the main hall for dancing and badminton. It was agreed that the facilities should be available to everyone on the site, and the Constitution of the original Downs Club reflected this, with representatives from Sutton and Cheam Hospital as well as from those organisations which had recently moved onto the site. Professor Smithers became the first President of the Club, with Professor L.F. Lamerton as Chairman, Mr. E.F. George, the Treasurer of the Royal Marsden Hospital, as Treasurer, and Mr. Peter Payne as Membership Secretary.

The facilities then, and for nearly ten years consisted of the hall and the bar, which was originally much smaller than the present bar, and the use of the two tennis courts then on the site. Numerous social and sports sections were set up. The April 1964 Club Bulletin mentions art classes, ballroom dancing classes, a May Day dance, midsummer dance, September barbecue, badminton, tennis, darts, motor section, and navigation classes; there were also facilities for table tennis and judo. At the end of the first year membership was 350; annual subscriptions were 1 for full members and 10/- for associate (family) members. By 1970, during a period when the one major development was the extension of the bar area, membership had risen slightly, to 460.

At that time, a major reappraisal of the Club was undertaken by a small working party set up by the ‘sponsoring organisations’, i.e. the Royal Marsden Hospital, Institute of Cancer Research and Sutton General Hospital; as a result, the Committees were restructured. The Club was supervised by a Joint Committee of Sponsors, while its everyday affairs were handled by a Management Committee. New efforts made to increase membership and income, and provide for expansion of the Club’s facilities.

In addition, independently of the Club, a considerable new venture was undertaken, namely the raising of funds for a swimming pool, for use primarily by staff of the hospitals and Institute, and secondarily as an amenity for local schools and clubs. The fund was began in 1969, when Sir David Smithers was given a sum of money towards the creation of a pool for the nurses. He set up a committee, chaired by Dr. Nigel Trott, to raise further funds. This was boosted by Alderman Frederick G. Moore, who was a great enthusiast for swimming, and made the pool the subject of his charity appeal while Mayor of Sutton that year. By March 1972 9,000 had been raised by the efforts of staff, students and friends, through donations and over 100 fund-raising events. Further donations of 5000 from the Board of the Governors of the Royal Marsden Hospital and 4000 from the King’s Fund enabled the construction of an enclosed pool, instead of a heated open-air pool as originally envisaged. The pool was built between September 1972 and June 1973 at a cost of 21,000. The pool is 20m x 8m (66 x 26ft) and 1-2.3 m deep. It was named the Roderick Moore Pool, in memory of Cllr. Moore’s grandson, who was a patient at the Royal Marsden. Cllr. Moore died in May 1974, just before the pool was formally opened in June by his widow and his son Ronald. When opened the pool was put under the general responsibility of the Downs Club Management Committee. The pool was open to all Club members during the working day, but to swim there at weekends and two evenings during the week, one had to join the ‘swimming section’ of the Club, at a fee of 3 per annum.

Soon afterwards in 1975, using growing profits from the bar and substantial help from the employing authorities, the Squash Court was built. A further achievement was the complete restructuring of the bar area, with the creation of the new lounge and second bar, opened in November 1976. Again, the funds for this major development came from a combination of accumulated bar profits and large contributions from the employing authorities.

By 1978, membership had risen to 1200. Although the Club employed paid staff, its success depended upon much voluntary work by members, often the behind-the-scenes but essential committee and other work needed to register members, run sports and social sections, plan events and handle the substantial finances. In 1978-9, the bar takings were 61,350, which (allowing for changes in the value of the pound) was the highest figure in its history.

At several points, the Club has had to cope with financial crises. In 1979-80, the pool and squash court made a small cash surplus, partly through hiring out the pool to outside bodies 6 times a week; and the fruit machine brought in a staggering 10,000. But bar profits were insufficient to meet the cost of maintenance of the premises, and there was a net deficit of 1400. The sponsoring organisations expected the Club to pay its way, and were to cease payment of the 2000 subsidy the Club had received in 1979. On this occasion the Club decided to reduce bar hours (and hence the wage bill), increase prices, and install a new video machine and better fruit machines, and to run a new Club lottery. Membership fees, which had decreased in real terms since the Club opened, were increased to 4 per annum for the bar and 7 for all facilities. Another crisis in the winter of 1982-3 caused the closure of the swimming pool and sports hall until a rescue package could be worked out between the Club, the Institute and the Marsden.

In 1985, the Marsden Hospital agreed to subsidise the swimming pool and squash court, provided that these were run separately from the bar, with separate bank accounts and executive committees. So the Club was formally split into two sections; by the end of the year the sporting section had acquired the name “Ups Club”. The changing rooms and sports hall lay outside this arrangement, which remained a bone of contention until 1987 when the Ups Club assumed responsibility for them. By then, they had become somewhat shabby.

Also in 1985, an Institute scientist, Dr. Dave Gibson, left the laboratory to become bar manager. His businesslike approach soon had the bar operating profitably again, and some improvements were made to the decor and furniture. In 1987, the pool table was replaced by a full size snooker table, which is still at the Club, in the room behind the stage. Plans were even drawn up for another meeting room above the lounge bar, but the Club was never quite able to afford to build it.

Until 1988, the Club employed a doorman (Fred Frost) who checked the membership of people coming into the Club. After he left, no replacement could be found, and security became a problem until the present system of combination locks was put in place in the 1990s.

In 1988-1991, the Club was threatened by development plans; first a plan to build kitchens on the Club site, then by plans to build houses or laboratories on the meadow to the east, which would involve constructing a road across the site of the swimming pool and squash court. The Club drew up a scheme to rebuild some or all of its facilities on the land between Orchard House and F block, and was negotiating the necessary loans and grants to achieve this when the Hospital and Institute’s building plans eventually fell through. After 3 years of ‘planning blight’ the Club was then able to start some further refurbishment. The changing rooms were renovated, and in 1992 the bar was fitted with new doors, carpet, lighting, and seating. It was re-opened in July, with a successful beer festival in August.

In 1994, the Royal Marsden became an NHS Trust, and re-defined its boundaries. For financial reasons, it could not retain the Downs Club, which by default became the property of NHS Estates. Again the future of the Club was in doubt. Three years of negotiations resulted in the following plan:
1. The Club would be run as an independent organisation.
2. The Institute and Royal Marsden would buy the sports facilities for its staff, who could become members of the sports section (Ups Club) without charge.
3. The Institute would take over the bar area weekday lunchtimes as its ‘Common Room’, and subsidise the selling of snacks and non-alcoholic drinks.

Sutton Hospital had by this time merged into St. Helier Hospital, and was unable to enter into these agreements. Its staff could remain at the Club as associate members, by paying a membership fee.

During the course of these negotiations, the Club was once again in financial straits. 1995 was its worst year yet; it was forced to make the bar manager redundant, and appoint Malcolm Brooker as bar steward with a lower salary.

The corporate membership plan finally came to fruition in 1997-8. The contracts with the ICR and RMT were signed in October 1997, with free staff membership backdated to April. The Club became non-smoking the following January, as demanded by the Institute; it was feared that the bar’s regular patrons would then desert it, but most stayed on, and merely went out to the foyer or the steps outside with their cigarettes. The kitchen, which had been disused for some time, was rebuilt in the winter to meet current standards of hygiene, with the help of a grant from the Institute. Finally, the bar ceased weekday lunchtime operations in February 1998, and the ‘ICR Common Room’ came into existence. Further grants were made by the Institute and Hospital to pay off rates bills incurred since 1994, and to effect urgent repairs. The flat section of roof was beginning to let the rain in at various points; the holes in the pool building had been filled in with sheets of used photographic film; and the electrical wiring had been condemned as potentially dangerous. The roof was repaired in 1998, the pool building in 1999, and the whole Club was rewired in 1999.

The plan did not work. The sporting ‘Ups’ side was successful; the pool continued to be popular, both with staff and with swimming classes and sub-aqua clubs which hired the pool, bringing in much-needed cash to keep the Club going. However, the lunchtime ‘Common Room’ did not attract enough customers to be viable, and the bar kept going only by borrowing money from the Ups Club. In December 1999 Malcolm Brooker was dismissed, and lunchtime opening ceased. For a while the bar continued to operate with its part-time staff (Doug and Linda) in the evenings, but was forced to close altogether in September 2001.

The only way the bar could be re-opened was by using unpaid staff, for restricted opening hours. The present ‘pH bar’ was opened in April 2002, after a winter of cleaning and redecoration by industrious Institute students. It is now open for staff on Thursday and Friday evenings; it runs at a profit, but its survival and possible extension depends on the willingness of members to serve behind the bar.

The long-term future of the Club is still under discussion; both the Institute and hospital have re-assessed its usage and viability, without reaching a defnite conclusion. In 2003 the hospital resumed ownership of the premises, and demanded that improvements be made to the swimming pool so that staff may swim safely.

This short, factual account of some major features in the Club’s history does little justice to some of the more startling events. To, for example, the horrific memory of the occasion when the Committee overlooked the need to renew the 10 year old licence, and the bar was peremptorily closed, or to the recollections of some ill-fated Thames cruises. We have not mentioned the swimming pool flasher, nor the colourful social events that took place when Wal Zani was social secretary - including a Rocky Horror Show and a summer festival with druid sacrifices.

In the first Chairman’s Report, on 21st February 1964, the following appears: “It has been a year of experiment and of experience and although we cannot claim that the final pattern of the Club’s activities has been established, we can at least claim to have become a viable organisation playing an important part in life at the Downs.” Our present Chairman could well echo those prescient remarks. So drink up, leave the changing rooms and hall as you would like to find them and remember, suggestions and criticism are (almost) always welcomed, but don’t be surprised if you then find yourself co-opted onto a committee.

Nigel Trott, 1978
Martin Osborne, 2004

Comments, additions, photos and corrections most welcome!
Please send them to Steve Edwards; e-mail edwards@sketters.co.uk


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Last edited 20 January, 2009: For details of web editor see home page - ‘Sports & Social’.