It’s time that the tale was told. Not, on this occasion, the well-worn story of how a photograph snatched from the prevailing winds on a bitter day in Ordsall came to capture The Smiths at their most irreproachable, but one still more enduring; the history of the club on whose doorstep the foursome shivered, one which has bound the community to its heart, through tethers thick and thin, since 1903.
Illuminating that history is my guide for the day, Leslie Holmes, project manager at Salford Lads’ and Girls’ Club (it was renamed in the 1990s). Having lived and breathed with the club since 1991, Holmes is persuasive in his passion for the uniqueness of its position. A former designer, he sketches out its social history, from its foundations as a part of the New Barracks Estate, conceived along the lines of the likes of Port Sunlight as a model village, to perhaps its lowest ebb during the early 1970s when demolition and rehousing had led attendances to dwindle to less than 80. Even then, however, perhaps particularly then, The Club was a constant. As Holmes tells it: “When everything else was gone, you could still come back here.” He is careful to pay tribute to his predecessors, noting admiringly that “the people who were running it did an amazing job in keeping it together”.
The Salford club’s survival, sadly, contrasts with what has become of its contemporaries. According to Holmes: “There used to be 22 of these clubs in Greater Manchester. They’ve all gone from their original sites, apart from this one. A lot of them have closed completely. All that history has been lost.”
It’s impossible to entirely gloss over The Smiths’ Room, itself a patchwork of devotion to the strange attraction that the unique vernacular Morrissey coined to the metre of Johnny Marr continues to exert over the disenfranchised from Whalley Range to Luxembourg and beyond. However, affecting though its poetic collage is, the mute testimony of the Wall Of Names in the archive room next door is all the more telling in its understated eloquence.
Crafted by Why Not Associates, the company also responsible for the typographic sprawl of Blackpool’s Comedy Carpet, the measured constraint of its alphabetical directory of lads, from 1903 to 2015, is peculiarly moving. As Holmes puts it, describing its democratising even-handedness: “It’s simple and clear, but it’s also about every boy. They’ve had all sorts of lives, a lot of them could have been in trouble, some of them could have been winners at all sorts of things. We’ve got Graham Nash (of The Hollies) here, for instance. He lived just streets away.”
The Wall owes its existence to the club’s careful preservation of more than 22,000 of the original handwritten membership cards, dating back to people born at the end of the 19th century, remarkable in themselves. Like The Smiths’ Room, the archive room attracts its fair share of pilgrims, albeit of a different stripe.
“We had someone come a few weeks ago to trace their family,” says Holmes. “They were related to Robert Roberts, the bloke who wrote [first person accounts of early 20th century working-class existence in Salford] The Classic Slum and The Ragged School.”
Holmes’s three-decade tenure is a mere blink of the eye, however, compared to two of the volunteers. Former Post Office manager, Brian Conway, has been associated with the club for 70 of his 80-odd years. Joining him is a second Brian, also in his 80s. Despite not attending the club as a lad, Brian Ball has likewise become part of its life’s blood.
Conway is forthright when I ask him about what has kept the club going through even its leanest times, and it seems fitting that he should have the last word, having known it from boy to man.
“I hate to say it, but I think it’s a Salford thing. In our days, everybody helped everyone else. Everything you was brought up with, you bring here. Quite often, when people visit, they say, ‘weren’t that nice and friendly?’ It’s not a show, it’s real. We’re proud of what we’ve got, very proud, and we want to keep it going as long as we can.”
A tale far more remarkable than a single iconic photograph, the story of Salford Lads’ Club, rooted in, and entwined with its Ordsall locality, deserves to be never-ending.
Main image by Leslie Holmes, Salford Lads’ Club
Salford Lads’ and Girls’ Club has regular open days every Saturday from 11am. Entry is free, although donations are welcome. Click here for more information.
The annual Mozmeet weekend will be held on April 29, 2023 Further details can be found on its social media.