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Gladiator Club History

Pre 1946

Before and during the last war the Cowley Fathers as part of their parish work had run successful girls and boys club at the St. John’s Hall in Marston Street. The war gradually took many of the boys club into the forces and before the war ended some thought has been given to after the war when hopefully many would return. It would not be possible to run an adult club in the same place as the youth clubs so a committee was formed under the guidance of the Rev. David Hemming SSJE


It must have been in the spring of 1946 that 263 Iffley Road, Oxford was vacated by the Army and the Society of St. John the Evangelist was persuaded by Father Hemming to buy the property for the use as an adult club. Because of the severe housing shortage after the war this would only be allowed if part of the building was made into living accommodation. so it happened that the first work done on the house was to turn it into three flats, ground floor, first and second floor even so the premises were invaded by homeless squatters who were in the ground floor of the house. When these had been successfully removed the ground floor flat was offered to Mr Ken Barson and his wife to set up home and act as caretakers for the premises.

By about September of that year the time had come to start on the club proper. The steering committee therefore put about notices to the effect that an adult club was to be formed and that a meeting would be held to form plans and action to transform the empty buildings into useable club premises.

I went to this meeting and met Father Hemming who showed us over the house which were being turned into flats. There was an out building of a Nissan hut where the Hall now stands with a lean-to annex along the Percy Street side which had formed the Army kitchen. The pre-fab building now the Joinery Workshop was also there with a large Army heating stove standing in the center. What is now the Studio Bar Lounge had been partitioned into two again with an army Stove plus a pre-fab extension where part of the club bar is now.

Work began that year in taking down part of the Army Kitchen leaving just the Nissan hut. Inside the partition was removed so forming the studio as the one room large enough for an assembly place leaving the annex as storage place. it soon became known as the back of beyond and was with us right up to 1973.


Under the Chairman of The Committee Mr. Alec Gibb, a number of the enthusiasts form St. John’s Boys and Girls old members set about making the place suitable to have the Club opened by The Autumn of that year. The rooms in the house were the studio and the present Hemming room plus part of the passage way into the flats which had to be partitioned off, some toilets under a lean-to with corrugated iron wall. All these parts had to be cleaned down and decorated and got ready to start later in the year. I remember that at that time when other distraction took over only a few enthusiasts were left welding the paint-brushes, and Alec had to do a lot a chivvying to keep the work force going, with a no-holds-barred circular letter sent to all who had promised to help. Despite nearly burning the kitchen down whilst heating buckets of a tar solution to spread onto the Nissan hut the work struggled on and somehow got completed in time of October 1947.

While all the practical work was going on, discussions were also going on, not only to monitor the work but also to hammer out a Constitution and Club rules, under which the place would be run. At that time there was a very good friend of the Club. The LEA Youth and Community Services officer, Mr. Fred Green. He came to the Committee with draft constitutions of Community Centres which were then being set up in various parts of the town. These were used to fashion the Club’s Constitution which concerned Membership, (Full and Associated,) committees, Finance, Officers and Annual General Meetings. In these early days it was hoped that the club could embrace the whole parish of Cowley St. John and not just be a Cowley Fathers ‘thing’. To this end, the vicar was asked to be President of the Club and to join in these preliminary discussions. There was some interest from the parish for a time but of course they had their own organisation.

And so it come to pass that on Saturday, the 4th October 1947, having bought some old second-hand pieces to furnish the lounge the opening ceremony was performed in the Studio. Those who had made a response in making funds for the project were invited, Father O’Brien, the Father Superior spoke, as did Mr Green for the City. After all the busy times during the summer in getting the place ready it became a bit of an anticlimax that we had the Club but what to do with it. Somehow I had become Secretary in place of Phil Newman, (soon Mrs Dennis Bryden) Alec Gibb was Chairman and Ken Barson was the Club Treasurer. We must have remained the officers for that first year until the first AGM was held in September 1948.


That starting year was quite a struggle. We had no bar and had to send along to the ‘Maggy Arms’ for jugs of liquid refreshment. There was little in the way of off-ration food to be had to provide snacks but gradually things got sorted. We were allowed to apply for a club license to provide alcoholic drinks on the premises but what brewer would supply us? My brother Roy, went to a food tribunal to obtain a license to provide refreshments for the general club activities, I think we had a football team and of course table tennis was played in the Pre-fab hut (now the workshop) We even bought a full-size Billiard table which was set up in the nissan Hut. But as someone had to light the Tanye stove it often was only warm enough on a winter's night in time to go home. The billiard table was a bit of a white elephant, not one of our early successes. I think that Northampton Brewery was persuaded to supply us with beer and so a bar was set up in the corridor before it lead off into the flats. The name ’Gladiator’ was adopted in place of St John’s Adult Club.

I think it was during this year that the ground floor flat became available to the club as Ken Barson and family had moved to a house down the Iffley Road. This made the front room overlooking the Iffley Road, and the flat kitchen part of the Club also the Bathroom toilet half-way up to the first floor flat became vacated to the club. With this additional space the club stretched bit. There was a sliding door from the front room to the Studio which at that still had a platform to which the sliding door opened to. I think the annual ‘do’ in October each year was a dance and entertainment in the Studio, with refreshments upstairs in the top room with the bar outside.


There was a lean-to at the back of the club lounge and Mr. Jack Buck who had occupied the top flat with his family since 1946 had set up (with permission) a Carpenter & Joiner workshop which was successful and he wanted more space. As the old nissan hut was hardly used it was agreed to partition off one third of the hut to be rented to Jack Buck as additional workshop space, leaving the Billiard table in the larger part.

Our landlord during all this time were of course the Cowley Fathers to whom we and the flat occupiers (but not workshop) paid rent so that with club taking over more of the premises the rent had to go up.


It must have been about this time that Hockey was first played on Bury Knowle and football teams on Donnington ground. Some of the fellows played basketball at Southfield School one evening a week and Father Hemming got the use of Queen’s college Squash courts (2) in St James street for an evening a week. Badminton was also possible to be played in the old girls school hall, in Cowley Road which was adjacent to the Mission House in Marston Street. Money was always a problem as the bar profits were very modest, subscriptions were only 6d. a week (old money) so funds had to raised to supplement. Weekly whist drives were run to help, no bingo then).

The Club continued to be run by the Committee but it was obvious that a club leader or some such was needed to spend more regular time overseeing things. Again with Mr Fred Green’s help we were able to appoint a part-time warden for magnificent sum of £3.00 a week 50% of which would be found by the club the rest coming from the LEA. Frank Pateman became the Club’s first warden.

The St. John’s Boys and Girls club had for many years run successful summer camps at various sites throughout the land usually selected by Fathers Hemming, and in the summer of 1951 it agreed to try an adult camp to occupy the camp site the week before the boys club camp. A site was found in Coombe Martin in Devon and the Glads had one field and the field but one away the girls had their camp. After the Glads camp, some of the fellows stayed behind and helped in the running of the boys camp. This arrangement of shared sites with the boys club camp under canvass continued for some thirteen years or more, the only inconvenience was the storage of all the camping equipment for the rest of the year. It was consigned to the ‘back of beyond’ as already mentioned.

With the additional space made available from the Ground floor flat the bar was able to be moved into what is now the Hemming room lounge,

To augment the club funds the studio had been let to a regular Nursery School in the mornings and for some hours in the afternoon, before the club opened Miss Vera Legge hired the studio for her dancing school. The nursery school equipment had to be found room for and once again the annex to the studio was used. Some use was also made of the cellar where club duplicating was done and the ‘Glad’ rag club magazine was produced periodically. In the summer of 1952 Ken Barson fell ill of typhoid cough while swimming in the river and I took over temporally the job of Club Treasurer (this temporariness lasted for forty years!).

Two other traditions of the club became established about this time. The Annual Anniversary dance and a party was held on the nearest Saturday to October 4th each year and in 1951 the first of the Annual fetes was held on Freeland ‘rec’ where Freeland Hotel once was and is now much built over. Some of us has to sleep on the ground in the marquee on the Friday night before the fete day to protect gear already bought to the site. We had somehow managed to gain possession of an old milk float and this was decorated up and paraded round the streets nearby to advertise the fete. That first year it was Queen Boadicea’s chariot with wooded Briton attendants. On another year's advert run it became the Titchfield Thunderbolt, and early steam loco complete with smoking smoke stack. This was achieved by an oily rag being set alight in the funnel and the whole lot nearly caught fire outside the Conservative Club. We also made papier-mâché ‘big heads’ to wear around the streets to gain attention to the fete being held that Saturday. I remember a grand fete held on the Y.M.C.A. sports field down Jackdaw Lane. One hazard there was whether the grass would be cut in time for the fete which was usually held during July each year. (St. Swithin’s Day, and how it poured!) Later on the fete moved to Donnington Sports ground at the bottom of Cavell Road where the facilities where less primitive. There was a changing hut with water and toilets, also electricity laid on to use for amplifiers announcing events. A regular draw was Miss Legge’s dancing tots in the arena to recorded music. It seemed to go on forever and all the club members manning the stalls lost all their customers. For some time was spent before-hand constructing fairground type ‘games’ to relieve our patrons of their money. Roll-the-penny, roll-the-ball to make up words Darts, Hoopla, Coconut shies, skittles and of course Aunt Sally for the highest dollies hit in the day. We had somehow come upon a kiddies ride helter skelter, and even a small roundabout was made by one of the members (Mick Hopper) long before today’s electronic wizardry someone made an electrical Noughts & Crosses game which one paid sixpence to try and beat. It was quite a novelty in those days to record one’s voice and hear it played back on an early tape-recorder.

The communal activities very much drew the club together and prepared the way for the first big development in the club’s life.


It was during this year’s summer camp at St. Ives in Cornwall that I first heard the rumour confirmed that the club had come into, for those days, a considerable sum of money. It seemed that Father Hemming had been left money in his mothers’ will which he could not inherit but which he could direct it being put to good use. The Club dearly needed a recreation Hall for its now many activities Badminton, Drama, functions and dances and so plans started to be laid. There was quite some opposition to trying to carry out the project on a self help basis. It required a lot of money not merely to build the hall but all the fitting out that would be required it was decided to build where the nissan hut was alongside Percy Street. This meant re-accommodating Jack Buck’s workshop and so it was decided to give up the Table tennis hut and move Jack’s business into there so that when the hall was finished the studio would become the TT room as the larger functions would then go into the hall. More find-raising, two sales of work goods made by members for sale were held before Christmas 1954.


It was decided that we would employ a builder to create the shell of the building and the members would equip it out with doors, windows, ceiling and most important a decent floor. The committee went out in force to Crendon Concrete Co. Builder of Farm Buildings and selected a milking parlour type building.


Goodness knows how we obtained planning permission to erect a farm building in an urban area. The main objection came from a garage owner on the opposite corner of Percy Street and Iffley Road of increase in traffic and noise. Quite a bit of money was raised by appealing to members to make outright gifts or loans to the building fund, and there was a good response. Second-hand windows and doors from old type telephone kiosks were obtained and at the time the Clarendon Hotel in the town was being dismantled to make way for the big Woolworth’s store in Cornmarket Street. We managed to obtain the floor of the ballroom before it was taken away to be burnt. Although second hand it was an oak floor and in good condition despite being ripped up for transporting to the club. It arrived looking dusty and broken down and was stored in the ‘back of beyond’ until required. In the event it was sufficient in floor boarding to cover two thirds of the hall floor when it finally came to be laid.

The second sale of work by the members was held just before Christmas 1955 by which time the walls and roof of the hall were up and the two thirds flooring lay. The stalls were set up on the finished part and the sale duly held. There must have been electricity laid on if only temporary slung from the main house. As with the starting of the Club none years before enthusiasm began to wane so it was agreed to have an all day working party and volunteers took time off work to make a week-end slog starting on the Thursday to Sunday. We de-nailed the floorboards whilst the more skilled laid the joists and the flooring windows and doors were put in and the difficult task of putting up the ceiling got under way. This meant some high level work on a scaffolding tower to fit aluminium strips to take the fairly large sections of polystyrene tiles. Insurance had been taken out against anyone being injured during the amateur building work but there was little mishap except when Frank Pateman using an electric drill developed a fault and he could let go of the drill only by jumping from the tower to the floor below.

I think a grant was obtained from the local Education Committee to help with heating cost installation. Gas was laid on and the gas board installed heaters high on the walls three either side the length of the hall. The heaters were controlled by chains to turn on and off and pilot lights to ignite the gas heaters. They were more than a little problematic in actual use and were with us plopping away until the 1970’s when central gas heating was finally installed


The work described above continued for much of the year. New floor boarding had to be bought locally to complete the floor area but this part, though new was not as good as the main oak flooring light fittings were made by Bill White and fitted just below the roof. Ordinary tungsten lamps directed to defuse up onto the white ceiling. Crash bars were fitted to the exit doors to Percy Street and the workshop end of the hall, the main entrance being the opposite end near the club.

Finally, it was finished and the opening took place at the end of September 1956 some forty years ago. It was a strange irony that Father Hemming who had again been the driving force behind the project was absent from the opening, having injured himself at the Boy’s summer camp that year.

The Club hall was quite an achievement but the building was isolated from the rest of the club house. One had to come out into the open to get from the hall back into the club. For social functions a portable bar was made to put up at one end of the hall and be equipped with stock and glassed on the afternoon before in preparation. There was quite an upsurge in organising dances in the first years of the hall and the ‘annual do’ that year was held there. It became another tradition that the hall and entrance would be heavily decorated with autumnal leafed branches and flowers with a big floral triple spray on the far wall. George and Bill White were the leaders in this project. ‘We will clear up the mess in the morning’ (to the tune of Oklahoma) was one of the lines in the entertainment provided by the Drama group at one of the early ‘annual do’s and the usual stalwarts came round the next morning to do just that.


The hall had been built tall so that Badminton could be played there. Only two purling to hold up the roof got in the way. Table Tennis was played on most of the evening of the week in the studio there being teams in the local TT league. Drama rehearsals were in the back lounge (Hemming room) the bar then being shifted into the tip from room and a new doorway made in the wall at right angle to the sliding door wall.

There was football down on Donnington of a Saturday afternoon, squash once a week on Thursday evenings at Queen’s College courts James Street.

I remember a famous drama production by the ’Glads’ and some older boys club members of the submarine disaster play, “Morning Departure” with Pat Mower playing the John Mills part of the Captain. it was famous because there had been tightening up of fire regulations by the authorities and St. John Hall did not conform. The show had run successfully for two evenings but then we were found out and the last night had to be by invitation only so nobody paid. It was the success of this show which spurred on the need to mount a play in the new club hall.


Someone found out that the post office staff social club had a platform stage obtained when the aforesaid Clarendon Hotel had been pulled down and they wanted to get rid of it. So we are able to buy it and this formed the basis of a portable stage which could be assembled for a production and taken down and stored afterwards. Because Jack Buck now had larger premises the lean-to shed where he had started his business was vacated by him and the stage dismantled pieces stored therein. The iron frames which supported the joists and floor boards were kept alongside jack’s old workshop. Jack also made over to the Club four 4x8 wooden rostrums which were useful as a band-stand and low platform for club functions in the hall. It is hard now to remember, but the LEA must have made a grant to the Club towards the cost of building stage fittings and scenery flats to turn the hall into a Theatre. So in the early part of this year wood was ordered and canvas, and hard board to form a proscenium arch from which to hang the front stage curtains and on Good Friday of that year the stage was first put up for “The Gladiators Presents” and an oval logo was painted by Patsy Bull (now Mrs. Staff) of a Gladiator’s head and the hall licensed for public performances. The first performance was “You can’t take it with you” the tenth anniversary of the same play being performed in the Parish hall 1948. Alec Gibb played the lead although by now he had moved from Oxford to Newbury because of a job with Inland Revenue, and Pat Mower was also in this large cast play.

I mention this show as it was the first of many mounted in the new hall. It was a considerable amount work that was work that was required to build the stage, set up the overhead structure, make all the scenery etc., as the use of the hall by other sections meant only moving in on a Thursday, and have everything until the following Saturday. On Sunday all had to be dismantled and put away and the hall cleared ready for Badminton and the rest on Monday.

There quite a buzz and the club gained momentum and more members as activities increased. We seemed always to be fund raising, the annual fete continued and somewhere about this time Bingo was started held in the hall once a fortnight on a Friday evening. This looked forward to the time when there might be money over than running expenses, to carry our much needed repairs to the premises and surrounds.


Rent paid to the landlords had been kept low to enable the club to get established and it now happened that a change came about between the club and its landlord, the Cowley Fathers. Any major work undertaken needed the sanction of the SSJE chapter which only met about once or twice a year. The treasurer to the society, Father Slade came up with the idea of creating a charitable trust separate from SSJE to run all the property at 263 Iffley Road. The Trust to receive all the rents collected by Dulake's the estate agents and with the proceeds, be responsible for paying the upkeep and repair of the fabric of flats, clubrooms and workshop. The trustees were appointed by the fathers with the vicar as a member and treasurer of SSJE and the lay members drawn from the club. As little repair and maintenance work had been done for 14 years a sum of £1400 was made available to the Gladiator trust who set about carrying out repairs and hoped for improvements. The trust, a legal entity came into being 22nd August 1960.


Throughout the decade, the club continued with most of the activities already described. The established sections more or less running themselves and the warden’s job became more of a catering function. The bar was run entirely be volunteers one stalwart being appointed to do the ordering of the bar supplies and seeing in the deliveries. The pre-fab extension to the Studio remained as a general store and dumping ground. The billiard table had ended up there and was considerably in the way it was eventually given away.

There had always been agitation for a bigger bar it having been moved from room to room over the years but with a bar counter there was little room for ‘sitting out’ a scheme was therefore floated to build a bar room at the end of the studio where the eyesore of the annex was, with a proper entrance to the club and a cellar store behind the bar the whole to bridge the gap between that end of the main building and link up with the club hall.


The Gladiator Trust which by 1973 had been in existence for 13 years managed to obtain a bank loan and with club funds and loans from individual members somehow the money was found.

The new extension was completed and the new bar opened in the summer of that year so a new chapter in the clubs existence opened.

The clubs new bar was opened by Pat Mower who had by now become famous as a professional actor on stage and T.V. the place thronged with members and guests and bar takings rocketed on that first night. the only time that there had been such a crowd was in 1968 when John Joyce had organised the twenty first anniversary of the opening of the club, he had written to father David Hemming who was now working in SSJE’s house in Canada and obtained a tape-recording of good wishes from him which concluded with Father David playing a rousing chorus on the piano especially for old St. John’s boys of their version of ‘Roll out the barrel’ this was played over the speakers to the assemble throng.


The club continued to thrive but there were still gaps between the buildings which needed filling in to make a more unified lay-out. Ian Brook was instrumental in enlarging what is now the Hemming room by knocking down a partition wall so making it large enough for another table tennis table as well as the main one in the studio.

In the interim from when the new bar opened and the next phase of new extensions, thought had been applied to linking between the hall and the main house, building a new toilet block, and a kitchen to serve into the hall, for at that time one went from the bar into the open up the steps and into the club-house. The whole centre of gravity had now shifted to the bar at the lower end and this final improvement would make all much more convenient. Ian Brook loaned the money needed and Mr. Heavens (builder) was again brought in into do the necessary. This was all completed in that year and the club began to look nearer to what it is today. The new bar had sliding doors to separate it from the hall which could be opened up when there was a function the bar counter being then across the room parallel to Percy Street and not as it is now. The club must have prospered for in the next year or so the money borrowed had all been repaid. Membership at the younger age group had always been kept up by recruitment from St John’s boys club, still very much operating under the leadership of Ken Rodgers. This meant that the ‘Glads’ had football teams both Saturday and Sunday as had been the case more or less all through the club’s existence.

Club dances were turned into ‘Discos’ all very noisy and not to everyone’s liking.


From the re-building in 1976 until 1985 no great changed were made the club seemed content to go along much as before but the older element faded somewhat and old traditions like the ‘Annual Do’ no longer happened people were more affluent so the annual camp no longer was needed in fact all the camp gear was disposed of to some deserving Scout Group, long before the new bar went up.

Up to 1985

There was a steady decline in the club’s effectiveness during the early eighties there was conflict between the users of the hall as badminton extended its dominance and took over the Friday evening spot which had always been reserved for ‘Bingo’ with the extra cash this brought in the drama group had long since gone (1968) and the footballers took over as chief opponents to Badminton in users of the hall.

All through the years the club had employed little paid help except for a daily cleaner, and a modestly paid caretaker who liked after bookings for out-side ‘lets’.

The Badminton players finally lost patience with all the dissension and upped and left altogether and went to St. Edwards School courts where facilities were for better.

The officers and committee struggled to keep things going but has poor luck in promoting dances and discos for lack of support. Functions were often cancelled at the last minute and the club had to stub up for the band of disco that had been engaged. Unless something was done the place would fold.

It was early in 1985 Bill Haynes and his wife Myra came on the scene. Bill persuaded the brewers Morrells Ltd to make a loan to the club to turn the Table tennis room into a studio lounge for the bar. The brewery took over all the planning and design for the new lounge and this was put in hand and the building work all completed in time for a grand opening in June 1985. This included opening up the lounge to the bar. Fortunately, gas central heating had been installed throughout the club. The hall was closed off from the bar by sliding doors. A part-time club bar steward had been appointed (Bill Haynes) and thing started to look up. In fact by April 1986, at the instigation of Ken Rogers Bill was made full-time steward and the bar profits and general efficiency very much improved the brewery loan was paid off be forgoing trading discounts on bar purchases until the debt was paid


Before the first loan had been eliminated we went to the brewers again, this time to make improvements in the layout of the bar to rearrange the club entrance and bar cellar door access and increase the size of the cellar. Again the brewer's staff drew up the plans for the improvement and engaged the builders to carry-out the work necessary. When this was completed with the bar counter turned through 90% and a servery into the hall the whole of that area was made to what it is at the present time. The old kitchen up in the house part of the club was given a face lift and re-equipped so that it formed a useful adjunct to the Hemming room for letting for smaller functions with kitchen attached. The club founder, Father Hemming had died in 1979 whilst in Canada and the top lounge had been improved and dedicated to his memory. It is now known as the Hemming room.


The Club continued to flourish with ‘Aunt Sally’ in the hall instead of badminton darts instead of table tennis. Far more local people used the club than before. Most modern things are there Sky television for football relays into the bar. In the summer ‘Aunt Sally’ on the lawn at the rear of the house which had been much improved and laid-out.

Many of the founder members have now passed on and the general tone of the place is that of the older years. Still people still like to come and meet regularly. The usual stalwarts carry on organising functions and money raising to augment the bar profits, money is always a problem but then it always has been.

Phil Copeman 1997.


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