Services Club was a haven for armed forces
THERE is not a number 17, Regent Street in Cheltenham. Carluccio’s Italian restaurant occupies the spot that during the Second World War was an annexe to Cheltenham Services Club.
The main part of this establishment resided in a cavernous, nearby building that opened as a riding school called Smith’s Stables in 1854 and later became Regent Street Motors, before briefly being an indoor market before its demolition in 1982.
Cheltenham Services Club was the brainchild of local benefactor Cyril Bird who lived in Lansdown Road.
His mission was to provide a venue that would contribute, as he wrote, “to the moral welfare of Cheltenham, as well as to the pleasure and well being of the forces.”
To ensure the club’s activities were suitably decorous, a governing council was formed comprising representatives from the forces, Cheltenham corporation, the church, Women’s Voluntary Service and the YMCA.
Despite emergency restrictions on just about everything, the materials and labour were found to transform the derelict riding school into palatial premises.
Opened on November 5, 1943 by Sir Archibald Sinclair, Secretary of State for the Air, the club boasted a spacious main hall with its own stage, which was used by local amateur dramatic and services groups, plus bands.
At one of the first evening entertainments the Gloucester National Service Club’s orchestra played a programme of light music, well enough for them to be invited back.
There were easy chairs and sofas, table tennis, darts, cards, chess, draughts and discussion groups on Wednesdays with speakers provided by the Army Education Office.
Former loose boxes were turned into a wartime canteen serving light refreshments, home made buns, cakes and sandwiches.
Membership was open to women and men serving in the British and Allied forces and cost one shilling (5p) per year.
Within three months of opening the club had 3,000 members - Brits, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Norwegians, New Zealanders, Australians and when Uncle Sam turned Cheltenham into a supply centre in preparation for D-day, GIS by the train, truck and Jeep load introduced jazz and razzmatazz to the Club’s usual fare of table tennis and iced buns.
In true wartime spirit, the club was run entirely by volunteers.
To cheer the place up, large paintings of local subjects by Gerald Gardiner, a teacher at Cheltenham Art School, were hung in the main club room.
Tea dances were held, which curiously enough became more successful when the admission charge was increased, as an account of the club reveals.
“At first a charge of 6d was made and members were allowed to bring a guest, but the dances were poorly attended. The charge was raised, as a trial, to 2/6d. and the numbers have since been satisfactory and the dances a success”.
We learn from the same account that the lack of a tobacco licence proved a great bane.
“We are constantly asked for cigarettes and tobacco and when we have to say we have no licence to sell, members - men and girls - go over to the nearest public house for them, being the only place open in the evenings, thus defeating one of the main objects of the club” (ie. to keep service people out of the pubs).
The licence to sell tobacco was eventually granted, but not until the town’s MP Mr Lipson raised the question in Parliament.
When Cheltenham Services Club closed with a final tea dance in 1946, an unknown volunteer with a passion for figures totted up a few statistics.
These revealed that during the war, the club had 20,538 members, who had scoffed 876,800 bars of chocolate and been served 749,177 meals.
The last dance at the Cheltenham Services Club
The bar at the Cheltenham Services Club
Flags of the Allies in the lounge at the Cheltenham Services Club
Meals at the club were made by volunteers
Services Club founder Cyril Bird