Salford Lads’ Club was founded in 1903 and was one of dozens set up to tackle gang violence in Manchester in the early 20th century. At the time, knife crime and fighting was rife – particularly in areas of poverty and high unemployment – and clubs were set up to keep young boys off the streets and out of prison. Salford Lads’ Club pledged to “brighten young lives and make good citizens” and offered activities from weightlifting to billiards and annual camping trips.
Most of these working boys’ clubs have long since closed their doors but Salford Lads’ Club continues to work with young people aged 10-18. It now accepts both boys and girls, who come to play netball, volleyball, badminton and pool or take part in art, dancing and boxing classes. It is run by volunteers – many of whom are former members in their 70s and 80s – and is the only club of its kind still housed in its original purpose-built home.
The grand red brick building houses a billiards room, a gym, a ballroom and a concert hall where former members Graham Nash and Allan Clarke of The Hollies learned to play the banjo and harmonica. In 1986, an image of The Smiths outside the club wad used in the artwork for their album The Queen is Dead, and it has since become a tourist destination for Morrissey fans from all over the world.
Last week, the club unveiled a new installation that pays tribute to the many young boys who have passed through its doors over the years. Designed by Why Not Associates, it covers a single wall of the club’s archive room and lists the names of 22,500 members who enrolled from 1903 to August 2015.
Names are taken from letterpress printed cards created for each new member, which listed their name, date of birth and job title. Records from the club’s early days show members’ progression from factory ‘nippers’ and cabin boys to foremen.
“I saw [the cards] on the first day I came in,” says project manager Leslie Holmes, who commissioned the artwork. “They were in this funny little glass cupboard, like the kind you’d use to display shirts in a shop. They were all in alphabetical order and I thought, ‘this is very special’. I knew I wanted to do something with them, but we had a lot of basic things to sort out first,” he adds.
Holmes, a fine artist, first visited the club 14 years ago while working on a project for Architecture Week to teach children about old buildings in their local area. “I had never been in before and was just amazed by this incredible building… but it was in a very bad state and was about to close,” he says. “Membership was dwindling and because it’s in a poor area, no-one really cared about it. I thought there was an opportunity to save the building and do something interesting with it,” he explains.
Holmes has worked with the club ever since, helping restore the building and grow its membership (many original features are still in tact, from glazed brick wall tiles to wooden flooring, but new heating, lighting and electricity have been installed). One of his top priorities is educating members and the local community about the club’s past and the impact it has had on many a Salford lad’s life.
In one room, he has put up photographs of 100 annual camping trips organised by the club. “For many of these boys, this was the only holiday they would ever go on,” he says. Elsewhere, a disused weightlifting room has been transformed into The Smiths room, housing memorabilia, photographs and hand written notes from thousands of fans who’ve come to visit. (The club was previously closed to the public, but Holmes organised open days and guided tours).
The wall of names is the latest celebration of the club’s history. Among the thousands listed are Nash and Clarke, Manchester United player Eddie Colman, who was killed in the Munich Air Disaster aged just 21, Betfred founder Fred Done, and over 100 teenagers who left Salford to fight in the trenches during World War One and never returned.
Holmes says he wanted to document the sheer number of people listed in the club’s archives and pay tribute to every teenager who has spent time there, “during what was often a difficult time in their lives”. He contacted Why Not Associates after coming across the studio’s work with artist Gordon Young on Blackpool’s Comedy Carpet.
“Leslie phoned us up and said ‘I want to put 22,000 names on a wall’,” says Why Not’s Andy Altmann. “I went up there to have a look and just fell in love with the place.”
The project has been a labour of love for both Why Not and club volunteers: before the studio could work on the design, the details on each card had to be uploaded into a database and then manually checked for errors.
“Finally when we had this list of names, we had to figure out how to display it,” says Altmann. “We could have just used vinyl lettering or laser cut wood but in the end we settled on 3mm laser cut steel. Steel has a kind of presence … and the industrial quality really suited the nature of where this was coming from. I guess you could have used copper, but there’s an honesty about steel – it’s not highly polished, and we’ve kept it pretty much in its natural state, though it’s sealed so it won’t rust,” he adds.
Each letter measures just 10mm high and the display is made up of 60 sheets of steel which had to be cut by a specialist in Yorkshire. “We did various tests and the initial sheets were too big for the machine,” says Altmann. “It would move ever so slightly and when you’re working at such small sizes, even the slightest movement just looks wrong. So we made sheets smaller, but that meant we had a narrower column width to work with,” he adds. “We also didn’t realise that steel gets delivered in rolls, and our sheets needed to be perfectly flat, so we had to use the end of rolls which were less bent.”
While the easy option would have been to etch names on to steel, Altmann says he wanted to avoid anything that might look funereal. The finished design is backlit to avoid shadows and make it easier to read. Names are arranged alphabetically and use the same font (Bureau Grotesque) as the original membership cards. “It seemed very appropriate, and the condensed letters allowed us to fit more names in,” adds Altmann.
The finished artwork is a moving reminder of both Salford’s industrial past and the club’s long-standing importance in the community. The area’s docks and most of its factories have long since closed, but the wall of names is a visual record of the many young boys and families who worked there.
“It’s kind of like the family records of this community,” says Holmes. “When you come and look at these names you can see all the people who moved to the area to work … half of the names from the first 50 years are second generation Irish … and you can see new names popping up and then being repeated,” he adds. “We’ve got kids who joined last year aged ten through to people born in 1883, and some families can trace four generations.”
The project cost £70,000 (a sum donated by three individuals) and Holmes is now hoping the public will sponsor a name to help generate some revenue for the club. “If everyone sponsored each name for a few years for say £10, that could sustain the future of the club. It’s recording something that happened here, but it also presents us with an opportunity for the future,” he says.