Wolverhampton & District Caledonian Society
80th Anniversary, 2018
Turmoil in Europe – the British Prime Minister struggles to safeguard Britain’s interest. Would that be 2018 or 1938 when our Society was formed? What was going on in 1938?
It is indeed an honour for me to be invited by your President to address you on this very special occasion.
80 YEARS ON AND STILL GOING STRONG! (?)
Should that heading be a statement or a question?
The Society is not quite the same as it was 80 years ago but then neither is the world that we live in. Many things have changed but others – not a lot!
In 1938 Neville Chamberlain famously returned from Munich, following his meeting with Hitler, and declared “peace in our time”. In that same year, believe it or not, Adolf Hitler was Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year”!
On the home front a major piece of legislation established “The Holidays with Pay Act”; the Beano was published for the first time and the first plan for the Preston bypass was drawn up. Why was that important? Because when it was finally built in 1958 it was the beginning of the British Motorway network. More of that later!
The founding meeting of the Society was held on 18th March 1938 at the Windsor Room, Reynolds Restaurant, Queen Square attended by over 100 people. The initial subscription agreed at that meeting was 5/- per year. In today’s money that would be £15 so you are getting a great bargain now!
Now, contrary to what some of you may think, I am not a founder member of the Society but I do have some sort of connection with our founders because my wife Phyllis and I were there when a founder member, and former President of the Society, Willie Robertson, gave the address on our 50th anniversary at the Mount Hotel. He was 100 years old when he gave that address and it was a truly remarkable performance. He was entirely clear and lucid then but, sadly, died a year or two later.
We had another notable update from George Dunwoody, also a former President and long-term member of the Society, on our 70th anniversary. By that time George was living in Scotland and came down, together with his wife Shelagh, especially to give his talk. We also had a celebration at the Mount Hotel on our 75th anniversary.
So how have things changed in those eighty years? Dramatically in terms of the world around us!
In 1938 there was no television. BBC TV was officially started in 1936 but was not generally widespread until the 1950’s. There were no computers, no mobile phones and indeed very few people had any kind of phone! There was no social media and very few people had cars. Immigrants came from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Lifestyles have changed dramatically.
Not surprising then that the Caledonian Society itself has had to adapt and change.
The Society was formed to provide social activity and entertainment and keep alive Scottish culture and traditions for its members so what else was going on in the world of entertainment in 1938?
The 1930’s saw a huge development in the film industry. In Wolverhampton the Gaumont Cinema opened in 1932, the Odeon in 1937 and the Savoy in that same year.
Cinemas were a major source of entertainment in Wolverhampton in 1938 with films such as “The Big Fella” starring Paul Robeson and “Said O’Reilly to McNab” What’s so special about that? Well it starred Will Fyffe who also wrote and performed “I belong to Glasgow“! It seems to me that there must have been an awful lot of Scots in Wolverhampton then because not too many Wulfrunians would have understood Will Fyffe if he spoke in his Glaswegian dialect!
Why were there so many Scots in Wolverhampton? In Frank Mason’s book on Wolverhampton, published in 1979, he describes it as “the town which represents the heart of England’s wealth” Were the Scots drawn by that wealth or did they help to create it? A bit of both I imagine.
When the Society first started, only those of Scottish birth, descent or were married to a Scot could become a member. Anyone else could be an associate member.
The very first social occasion held by the Society was termed an Open Social Meeting held at the Victoria Hotel on the 27th of May 1938. The Society’s membership in that first year was 170.
The first Burns Dinner was held in January 1939 at the Victoria Hotel. 143 tickets were sold at 10/6 each worth £31 in today’s money. The total attendance would have been somewhat greater than that because the Mayor and the Town Clerk and their wives were amongst the several invited guests. Indeed right up until the early 2000’s we had the Mayor and partner as our guest of honour and before that we also invited the Presidents and partners of neighbouring societies.
The normal format was for the President to give a speech entitled: “the place we bide in and the visitors” and for the Mayor to reply on behalf of Wolverhampton. Our Burns Dinners were very formal until the early 2000’s. In 1950, for example, the John Matthews Orchestra was hired to play at the Burns Dinner. The cost was £15.16s6d equivalent to £528 in today’s money.
Other changes have occurred over the years. The Society was very family oriented in the early years. In 1946 children’s subscriptions were 10 shillings for one child and 20 shillings for three children - equivalent to £15 and £30 in today’s money. In 1962 a new affiliated Society emerged calling themselves Wolverhampton Young Scots. They were very active for a short time putting on events such as Car Rallies and Amateur Dramatics but unfortunately they were quite short lived!
Over the years many families have made major contributions to the life of the Society. In 1963 John Johnston was elected to the committee and started one of the most notable family contributions in our history. Along with his wife Marion they hosted many children’s parties, Halloween parties, Hogmanay parties, BBQ’s and barn dances on their farm at Wrottesley Lodge just outside Wolverhampton. That family is still making a huge contribution today in the form of Helen Farquharson, our Treasurer and Isabel Bebb, a former President and current dance teacher.
In 1977-78 there were 18 events in the calendar excluding the dance classes. The dance class did not feature at all in the beginning but was started, I am told, because of the poor standard of dancing at the main events! Some of the dances used then have a familiar ring to them but others have fallen out of use. As you can judge from these four from a 1950’s dance: The Reel of the 51st, The Lancers, Circassian Circle and The Eightsome Reel.
The Eightsome Reel was normally the first dance at any big occasion and it was set up with the Grand March. I am sure the Scots present can remember the Grand March.
A flavour of the differences in the Society events can be gained by this list compiled from different years.
Caledonian supper dances
Joint meetings with the Ulster Society
Joint meetings with the Welsh society
There was even a proposal to start up a Wolverhampton Highland Games in 1965 - ambitious or what?
We have also used a wide range of venues for our activities over the years including
The Dunstable Suite at the racecourse
The Wulfrun Hall
The Institute for the Blind
Saint Michael’s Parish Centre
The Conservative and Unionist Association Hall
The Hollybush Inn
The Hall in Darlington Street
Reynolds Restaurant in Queen Square
The Assembly Rooms at Bradmore Hotel
The Rendezvous Restaurant in Berry Street
In recent years we have had the dance class at Claregate, Aldersley and the Central Baths before settling at The Albert Lawn Tennis Club.
We have gone skittling in Brewood, Albrighton, Bridgnorth, Kinver and Alveley as well as the Wolverhampton Cricket Club.
We have had our Burns Dinners in numerous venues over the years including The Connaught, The Park and the Mount Hotels before moving to Linden House in recent times.
The Society has certainly put itself about a bit over the last eighty years. Apparently both Wellington and Birmingham Societies were offshoots of our Society! So I think we have been innovative and adaptive over the years as the membership and the world has changed around us.
Away trips have long been part of the Society’s agenda –Bletchley Park, the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra at Symphony Hall and the Church at Tong come to mind but the trips to Scotland organised by Colin and Di Hayes, in recent years, did, to the best of my knowledge, break new ground. It is a good example of the Society reacting to the changing needs of its membership.
I referred earlier to the beginning of the Motorway Network with the building of the Preston bypass. The Site Engineer who worked on that piece of history was John Cox who later, along with his wife Rosemary, was a member of the Society for many years and, of course, Rosemary still is a member and great supporter of the Society.
Thinking about this made me realise how little most of us know about the life stories of our fellow members. I know a little about a number of our members and fascinating many of them were and are. Can you imagine what an incredible read it would be if we could read the life stories of all our members past and present?
Let us take a moment to consider the contributions of our friend Charles Gibson. Not only is he the Society’s photographer but he has been a very hardworking member of the Committee for many years. He has also given the Immortal Memory two or three times in recent years at our Burns’ Suppers and he is directly descended from Burns himself.
I think this Society has served its members well over the years. It has benefited enormously from the contributions of those who have given their time and energy to serve as Presidents (there have been 37 Presidents).
The role of President in this Society is unlike the role of President in many organisations where it is often a token role with very little responsibility. In this Society the President carries the can and has a constant concern over the financial wellbeing of the Society. For example the Society incurred a loss of £15.11s10d at the 1950 Burns Supper equivalent to £490 today, despite an attendance of 179 people. Tickets were £1 each equal to £31.50 today. Fortunately our finances have improved greatly compared to the situation in the early 90’s when we were sailing very close to the wind!
The Presidents cannot do it by themselves of course and invariably require the strong backing of an understanding partner. That alone is not enough though and we have been very fortunate to have had the services of a series of very dedicated and hard working secretaries and treasurers without whom the Society could not continue.
Finally every President that I have known has acknowledged that the burden is greatly eased by the support of an enthusiastic committee.
It is my conclusion that “80 years on and still going strong” is indeed a statement of fact. Our programme of events has changed over the years as our membership and the world around us has changed. Nevertheless we still have our main events of the Burns Dinner and St. Andrew’s Night, our weekly dance class from autumn until spring and a string of other events throughout the year.
We are greatly indebted to the foresight of our founders and it is a great honour for me to ask you to be upstanding and drink a toast to the continuing health and prosperity of “The Wolverhampton and District Caledonian Society in its 80th year.”
President 1996 – 1998, 1999 – 2000 and 2008 -2009