Gentlemen’s Clubs had their roots in coffee houses and the meeting rooms of Public Houses. The like minded founders of developing industry and commerce, the wool trade, in Bradford’s case, would meet informally and talk trade over food and drink. One such coffee house, in Ivegate, was a favoured haunt of the wool merchants and textile mill owners as was the White Lion Hotel in Kirkgate. The Bull’s Head Inn at the bottom of Westgate was also the home of many informal groups including the old Choral Society and the first Association called The Bradford Club. This group first met at the Bull’s Head in 1761 and they held meetings for the next 30 years in the many Inns of Bradford. Some of the first members of these groups were the piece traders whose business was based in the Piece Hall, site of the present Bradford Club. Eventually these groups would establish their own clubs by raising substantial deposits to build or modify premises for their use.
In the early 19th century Bradford already occupied a strong position in the wool and textile trade. A number of factors were responsible for the meteoric increase in the volume of the wool trade which would in turn support the establishment of five Gentlemen’s Clubs.
The Industrial Revolution became the age of specialisation for the Yorkshire textile towns. Bradford’s expertise in trading piece goods was easily moved to trading wool and worsteds. The Piece Hall had become redundant as demand for these products had died. The establishment of the Wool Exchange (built 1864- 7) secured Bradford’s place in the woollen industry. The design of the building was subject to a competition, won by Lockwood and Mawson. The style of the building in Venetian Gothic with a Flemish influenced tower, though much celebrated now, was the subject of great debate at the time. Wool was traded here until the 1960s.
The improvement in rail connections and the development of a goods terminal very close to the centre of Bradford were important factors when trading a bulky commodity such as wool.
Jacob Behrens (later Sir Jacob) was an immigrant from North Germany and his work through the chamber of trade in establishing Bradford’s overseas trade and in particular a trade treaty with the French added to Bradford’s dominance of the wool trade. Descendants of Sir Jacob, as the descendants of many famous wool families are still members of the Club today.
During the same period, the arrival of significant numbers of Irish immigrants provided a willing labour force. This influx, started before 1830 with pressure from evictions continued through the famine of 1845/6 and continued into the early 20th century.
During this period the number of textile employees in Bradford increased from14,000 in1871 to 40,000 in 1881 and 64,000 in1911. The population of Bradford increased from 13,000 in 1801to 104,000 in 1851 and to 280,000 in 1901.
The surge in trade was considerable as was demand for land close to the town centre. The sale of land, by the descendants of the Peckover family, of all of what is now Little Germany provided the space for growth. Previously the area had been parkland and meadow surrounding Eastbrook House, the Peckover family home. The land extended down to what was once Well Street and is now the edge of the Westfield development. The German merchants who had started to arrive from 1830 took many of these sites having first settled in the area known as Bermondsey. This was the area around Piece Hall Yard and what is now the Midland Hotel. The last remaining wing of Eastbrook House can be seen from Aire Valley Trunk Road. It was developed and extended as a wool warehouse, once the home of H Dawson wool brokers, it is now apartments.
This same period of boom in the wool trade saw the establishment of 5 significant Gentlemen’s Clubs in the town. It is a testimony to the financial power of the wool trade that these Clubs were all built in the 25 years from1847.
Before the building boom began, around 1850, Bradford had been a fairly low rise town of no great repute. In building all these new warehouses, mills offices and Clubs Bradford was fortunate to have Architects able to articulate these visions. Although Lockwood and Mawson are architects everyone remembers from this period Bradford had several other firms able to rise to the challenge; Fairbank, Pepper, Milnes and France , Andrews and Delauney, Mallinson and Healey , Hope and Jardine.
They were all able to design and build successfully in a range styles from Classical, Venetian and Florentine Gothic to French chateau.
In the 30 years from 1855 Bradford had established five Clubs similar to this one. Four are reasonably well documented but little is known of the fifth one. In addition there was the Peckover Club in Little Germany which was principally a member’s bar.
The Bradford Club
The first “Bradford Club” occupied premises at Upper Piccadilly and Manor Row. It was built ii 1866 at a cost of £6000 to the design of Lockwood and Mawson. Architectural details were borrowed The Randolph Hotel in Oxford and the building is very highly regarded by architectural writers. It was originally a liberal club though not in name. Various sources suggest that this was for a time the most elite of Bradford’s clubs. Members included Edgar Behrens and E H Foster.
It closed in 1940 because many members were on military service but sadly it never re-opened as many of these members did not return. It did not amalgamate with any club but the remaining members were assimilated by the other clubs. The building remains and is known as York House. It is the building in John Street which faces directly into Upper Piccadilly. The building has since served as a police station and a night club and has now been refurbished as flats. Unfortunately, the floors have been split, spoiling the magnificent ground floor windows but the building has been saved and the work has been done with considerable sympathy.. The Liberal Club and The County and Conservative Club
The imposing buildings at Provincial Buildings, Town Hall Square (an extension of Market Street) were the home of the home of The Bradford Liberal Club from 1847 to 1877.The buildings were leased from The Provincial Building Society. When the Liberal Club moved to premises in Bank Street in 1878 The Bradford and County Conservative Club took over the lease, greatly extended the property and remained there until 1955. The press gave considerable coverage to the openings of the two clubs in 1847 and 1878. The presence of four gentlemen’s clubs in a town of Bradford’s size was probably unchallenged. Club life in Bradford, with the exception of the war years, continued to prosper. In 1935 The Liberal Club had 850 members, The Conservative Club 420 members and the Union Club 255 members. In 1955 the Provincial BS wanted the site of The Conservative Club for redevelopment (eventually to become the tower block facing the Town Hall and now the site of Centenary Square). The Conservative Club moved in with The Liberal Club, who were now in their own premises, in Bank Street. Both clubs agreed to drop their political affiliations to become the second “Bradford Club”, as it remained until 1976. The building in Bank Street had been opened by Earl Granville in1877as The Bradford Liberal Club. Again, it was designed by Lockwood and Mawson. There were many influential members including Titus Salt and other leading Liberals of the day. Lunch was the main business of the various clubs. From Monday to Friday, lunch trade was mainly for members and their guests but Saturday lunch was a real family occasion. Informal “Corners” were groups of like minded members who would dine together on a regular basis. There were four such groups at The Liberal Club and they added a significant contribution to club revenues. Most of these groups disbanded as one club merged with another. However one such group, “The Optimists”, still exists today. Besides their weekly lunch, they have a very grand Annual Dinner and other events which all add to the attraction of the Club. With it’s strong non-conformist and Liberal ethic and firm attitudes about strong drink The Bradford Club had no formal bar until 1953. “The Cubby Hole” was a cabinet behind the cash desk from which staff would dispense liquor for consumption at table or in one of the private meeting rooms. By the mid 70’s this club and the Union Club were struggling to survive (possibly something to do with The Cubby Hole). The Bank Street site being the most valuable was sold and the two clubs moved temporarily on to that site while this building was refurbished. Most of the staff for the new Club came from Bank Street site. The building is now occupied by the probation service.
The Union Club 1852 to 1976
The Union Club was named after the original name of Piece Hall Yard, Union Yard. The Union Stage Coach Company operated from the Yard running a stage coach service to Kendal Until the Club members came to these premises they were known as the Bradford Billiard Club. It is not known where they met previously. The Club members built the part of the Club which is now the Bar and Snooker Room section of the Club on a 14 year lease from owner of Nag’s Head, a Mr Williamson. The Nag’s Head, which occupied the site of the present Dining Room was purchased from Williamson and re built by L and M in 1866. The architect of the earlier part of the Club is reputed to be Pepper and Welsh. The two distinct architectural styles can be seen on the Piece Hall Yard elevation of the Club although, as the Yard is only 14 feet wide, it is a strain to one’s neck. The Talbot Hotel had not been planned when Club extension was built so the outlook would have been much open and an appreciation of the Club’s finest façade would have been possible. The architecture of the Club is enhanced by fine interiors with superb decorative plaster work, cast iron and brass embellishments. Nicholas Pevsner was particularly impressed by the attractive and unusual roof structure in the Snooker Room which he recorded in his famous book, “Buildings of England” The Club operated with diminishing fortunes until the mid sixties when trade hit a serious down turn. The Committee of the Union Club opened discussions with the Bradford Club in Bank Street. The Union Club was in a more desperate situation than The Bradford Club and in 1976, after 3 years of discussions, the Clubs agreed to amalgamate. . From 1976 to 1977 it became The Bradford Union Club and then in 1977 when they moved back here it became The Bradford Club (3rd reincarnation). It was decided that “The Bradford Club” was the most appropriate name for Bradford’s last remaining gentlemen’s club
The Bradford Club 1977-
The Club was extensively refurbished by John Brunton’s (incidentally the architects responsible for The Arndale Centre) in 1976 and has traded to this day. Although the wool trade is now greatly reduced, the Club still hosts functions of the Textile Society and the Bradford Wool Association. It is interesting to note that in 1985, nearly 20 years after the closure of the Wool Exchange, the Club was still serving in excess of 120 lunches and a further 60 sandwich lunches on Thursdays, one of the traditional trading days. Merchants, brokers and manufacturers were in the habit of coming into Bradford on these days to trade and lunch. It was not until the late 1980s that these habits started to fade.
The Bradford Club has been Bradford’s only Gentlemen’s Club since 1977. With the demise of the wool trade the membership has become more weighted in favour of the professions. Ladies were first welcomed as members in 1985. There was very little debate about the change because most members had female business partners and it would have been difficult to defend a negative position.
The fortunes of the Club progressed and many famous guests have been welcomed to functions at the Club including Prince Andrew, Michael Grade, Leon Britten, Lord Baker, Lord Howe and Bernard Ingham. The Club has been home to many of Bradford’s oldest trade associations including the Wool Association, the Textile Society, the Bradford Architects and Surveyors Society, the Insurance Institute, the Accountants Association and the Historical and Antiquarian Society.
However the exodus of businesses away from Bradford, particularly to Leeds and to out of town sites has made trading progressively more difficult since the mid 1990s.
Times now seem as difficult as they had been for our predecessor Clubs. However, with the very loyal support of the members and customers for Bradford in general and for the Club in particular, the Committee are cautiously optimistic for the future. It is hoped that the commencement of work on the Westfield site will herald a new era for Bradford. The history is well documented in the minute books of the various constituent clubs. These are all lodged with the West Yorkshire Archive. These are a tough read but it is worth the effort when you find a occasional nugget, recorded by the Secretary, probably for our entertainment. One such entry reads “I think I may venture to assert that no Member of this Club would in his own house submit to having daily cold apple tart and cold Rice & Pears set before him, and I do not see any reason why the repeated remonstrance’s of a number of Members on this subject should be treated with silent contempt. I respectfully add that it is not right that the members are to suffer for the idleness of the cook.”
- The Bradford Club – A Brief History. C. Neville Packett
- The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – An Architectural Guide to Bradford. Professor Chris Hammond