Working men’s clubs have a long history in Sheffield. They have existed as vital community centres and entertainment establishments in areas all over the city for many decades. They have also featured as the backdrop to some of the city’s cultural output, from famous scenes in the Full Monty to being the place where Def Leppard rehearsed - a blue plaque exists outside Crookes Social Club to celebrate this.
However, in recent years they have become more synonymous with closures than they have as thriving epicentres of the city. But one new establishment hopes to change that. “The vibe we’re going for is the heyday of working men’s clubs in the UK,” says Ben Miller, who along with his twin brother Tom, has recently opened a modern day social club in the heart of Kelham Island.
Stepping inside Neepsend Social Club and Canteen is like being transported back in time. Plain brown wood panelling lines the walls, as do plush red velvet curtains. Basic seats and cushioned stools are scattered around, while the design of the zig-zag pattern vinyl flooring is plucked directly from an old working men’s club in the city - the picture of which hangs on the wall in the new venue.
“We’ve had a few people come in and say ‘this feels like the working men’s club my dad used to take me to play pool in and drink cherryade’,” says Ben. “That was exactly my experience too.”
Tom recalls: “These are the kind of places our dad forced us to go to when we were kids, with the promise of naff cola, crisps and football.”
However, the purpose of the place is not simply a stylistic ode to clubs of a former era. “A lot of what motivated us to do it was during Covid,” Ben says. “I think everybody saw how important community was and how important it was to have that connection with people. So we came out of that really motivated to do something - really thinking about how you can connect people as best you can. We had the opportunity to look at what we can do that speaks to the community.”
Another inspiration for the venture, aside from the clubs of their childhood, was a trip to Copenhagen, where they visited a place called Absalon.
“It’s a social enterprise non-for-profit place for the community,” says Ben. “We sat down and people were having this big community meal. All the tables were lined up and central, eating like Vikings, with all these big platters of food that everybody was sharing.
“After this communal meal they cleared everything down and had a massive game of dodgeball. It was like a youth club for adults. It was just a really cool place to meet and chat to people. I love bars and restaurants but I think there is something that can be a bit stuffy and formal. Like, ‘I’m sat on this table and you on that one’. It was just a really nice experience of breaking down the barriers getting people to interact.”
Speaking of the Copenhagen venue, Tom adds: “They make really cool use of a relatively small space, and ever since we went there, that’s what we want to do. We want to be courageous and take the nucleus of what’s so cool about Absalon and put it into this.”
The aim of the venture is to engage with the community in ways just beyond eating and drinking. “Once we’ve got all the nuts and bolts running we want to really get involved in charity work and community groups,” Ben says. “To have it as a place where people can come and feel really welcome and part of a community.”
It’s something that he feels is maybe a little lacking these days. “I think people are more transient and less connected, and so people are probably losing a bit of that social connection. I think now, post-Covid, there’s an underlying yearning for something a little bit different - a yearning for a sense of connection with others. The whole meet your neighbour thing is pushing that community aspect to be something more than just a bar.”
It’s important to them that the venue actually offers something back. “We don’t want to cosplay being a working men’s club,” Ben says. “Or for it to look like a working men’s club but we have none of the values. We don’t want that to be the message at all. We wanted to do something community focused and this seemed like a good vessel. We always wanted to do a bar restaurant, we always had that ambition, but we wanted to do something that was really going to elevate it to that next level, and really speak to our values as people and as members of the community.”
The social club and canteen is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and once in full operation, the plan is for those days to be focused on members-only activities and meet ups. “Like the same in Absalon in Copenhagen, we’ll do the community meals,” Ben says. “What we’d like to do is get a membership package set up where there’s discounts on drinks, kind of like in the same way in a working men’s clubs you’d have subsidised drinks - although probably not as cheap as they were.
“We’re going to do seasonal menus, so every three months we’ll introduce a menu, get feedback from members, see if there’s ways that we can tweak it.”
Regular plans for the venue include old school pub activities such as quizzes, open mic nights and bingo, while they also plan to introduce doing Sunday roasts with Northern Soul DJs spinning records in the corner. The brothers have a background in running street food operations, spanning fried chicken to poutine, but the menu is keeping with the theme and focusing on British classics but with a contemporary twist.
Freshly cooked sausage rolls appear on the bar at 5.15pm every day for those wanting a post-work drink and snack, while the menu features dishes such as potato and beetroot hash, pork chop with bubble and squeak, cheese and leek rissole with Henderson’s Relish pickled eggs, and chicken in a basket with chips, gravy and coleslaw.
The informal nature of the bar is intended to make people at ease, like an old fashioned local that feels like a second home to punters. “I love those places where you can walk in and feel like it’s your lounge,” Ben says. “If I walk in the back room it kind of feels like my nan’s lounge.”
“But then I think it’s just the way that trends move, and actually, there’s something very familiar about places like that and the interior and how they look. I think once you’re old enough to experience nostalgia, it feels very familiar and very comfortable to be back in that environment.”