Walking through the doorway of number 1 Piece Hall Yard is like stepping back in time. The throng of festive shoppers disappears as you enter a building that has changed little since the days when Queen Victoria’s reign was in its pomp.
A grand, sweeping staircase adorned with impressive stained-glass windows leads to the first floor and an old-fashioned bar and separate dining room where you can almost picture the wool barons of yesteryear sitting wreathed in smoke from their after-dinner cigars.
Up on the second floor is a reading room complete with leather sofas and armchairs, as well as a billiards room that wreaks of nostalgia.
A portrait of the Queen hangs regally from one of the walls and light floods in through its hammerbeam ceiling which has garnered a glowing reference in Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s acclaimed guide to great English buildings.
This is the Bradford Club, the last surviving traditional gentleman’s club in the city and one of the few still left in the whole country. It started out life as the Bradford Union Billiard Club in 1855 when the Crimean War was raging, Lord Palmerston was Prime Minister and the explorer David Livingstone had just discovered Victoria Falls in Africa.
In its heyday the club’s membership read like a who’s who of bigwigs in the city, driven by the wealth of the wool barons and industrialists that during the middle of the 19th century helped make Bradford one of the most prosperous cities in Europe.
“It wasn’t limited to the wool barons,” says Tony Emmott, the club’s president. “A lot of councillors, magistrates, bankers and lawyers came here. You had MPs, too. It was a great place to meet and do a bit of networking.”
Tony has been a member for 40 years. “I was a young, wet behind the ears solicitor starting practice in Bradford when I joined. I remember my partners saying the first thing I had to do was join the Bradford Club because it was such a good way of making contacts,” he says.
“There’s no other place like it in Bradford, it really is unique. It’s a hidden gem in the city. One step forward from Piece Hall Yard you can go back a century and a half to Victorian Bradford because little has changed.”
Everywhere you look – from the gleaming brasswork to the tablecloths and the wooden domino boxes – there is more than just a whiff of a bygone era.
Famous past members include everyone from Sir Titus Salt and the Delius family right through to the late Ken Morrison. But while the building may not have changed much over the years, the club’s demographics certainly have.
Chairman Alan Jerome says most of its members are now retired, or semi-retired professionals.
“A lot of the lawyers and accountants who used to have offices here have gone to Leeds. The wool trade has disappeared so you might say we are the legacy of what were the good old days for Bradford.
“There used to be a Leeds Club, a Halifax Club and a Huddersfield Club and they’ve all gone, but we’re still here and we want it to keep going for as long as we can because it’s a very enjoyable meeting place.”
Alan, who worked for one of the leading weaving companies in the city, says at one time anyone who was anyone in Bradford would be a member. But he admits it’s getting harder to attract new blood. “It’s a big challenge because the culture has changed so dramatically. Whereas before members would meet here for lunch, today most people have sandwiches at their desk. In this computerised age so much is done online so you don’t need to see people in the way you once did.”
Peter Bell, former managing director of a wool company based in Bradford, agrees. Now 84, he has been a member since 1962 and has seen the club’s fortunes ebb and flow. “We’re down to around 20 ‘Town’ members now when there used to be hundreds,” he says.
It’s not just a problem here, Rotary and Round Table clubs up and down the country face a similar challenge as culture, and people’s habits, change.
Today, the Bradford Club has 170 members, compared to around 450 at its peak when there were four other similar clubs in the city, and these days it’s more of a social club than a place to make high-powered business contacts.
Peter Townsend is the club’s general manager and has been working at the club for the past 37 years. He says in the early days when he first started working here the club was still thriving.
“When I joined the Wool Exchange had been closed for 10 years but the merchants and traders were still in the habit of coming down into Bradford on trading days and we’d be doing 120 lunches.”
Peter is a font of knowledge when it comes to the club’s history. “There were originally five clubs all founded on the wealth of the wool trade and all built between 1855 and 1880, which is remarkable. Bradford had more clubs than anywhere else in England outside London,” he says.
As well as a litany of notable members, it has attracted numerous high profile guest speakers to events down the years including Sir John Major, Prince Andrew and Sir Michael Grade.
It would be easy to dismiss somewhere this as a fading relic from a past that no longer exists, but judging by the brisk lunchtime trade in the dining room (Tuesdays and Thursdays are the busiest days) and the ripples of laughter and chatter from the so-called Optimists’ Corner, there appears to be plenty of life left in it.
The club has tried to move with the times. It’s 30 years since the rules were relaxed so that women could join and as Peter points out the venue has been hired out for all kinds of events. “We’ve had a heavy metal group here,” he says, with a chuckle. “They booked us out to do a video and they did a rather splendid job in the end.
“We’ve done gay weddings and all sorts of things. We did two Royal Television Society annual dinners which were splendid affairs, that was when Richard Whiteley was still around.”
The club has also been used as a film location on several occasions including for the BBC drama The Great Train Robbery, doubling as the Leicester Hotel where one of the robbers was arrested.
And, despite all the challenges it faces in attracting new recruits, Peter says it has enjoyed some success. “There was a young man in today from Cleckheaton. He works for a bank and spends a lot of time in London and Zurich and he’s interested in joining to have a foot on the ground here and also for the reciprocal clubs we have arrangements with.”
He says the club has also been buoyed by some recent additions to its ranks. “We’ve had eight or nine people join in the last couple of months which is an unusually large number, but we’ve also lost six people who’ve died this year.”
Peter remains hopeful that the club does have a long term future. “There’s a fierce loyalty to Bradford. People might go and work in Leeds or retire there but they still keep up their club membership and this has helped sustain us.”
He feels, too, that there should be a place for clubs like this. “I think in a world where so much is homogenised, our idiosyncrasies, and the fact we’re a small club in this beautiful building, help us stand out from the crowd.” Long may it continue.
For more details about The Bradford Club call 01274 727 036 or email: [email protected]
The Bradford Club was one of five clubs founded on the wealth of the wool trade that were all built in the city between 1855 and 1880.
The Bradford Club itself dates back to 1855 and today is the last remaining one of these gentlemen’s clubs. There is no joining fee and subscriptions start at £255 for retired members.
It is home to the intriguingly named Optimists’ Corner – which originates from the establishment of so-called ‘Corners’ at the old Bradford Liberal Club, when certain members tended to sit in the same seats in the smoking room after lunch.
They have all disappeared with the exception, fittingly perhaps, of the Optimists who still meet at the club every Thursday lunchtime.