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Life Magazine August 1989, by Jane Young

The Unforgettable Days in Rushden

The Pioneers at the "back of the Vic" sitting on
the stairs leading to the "hall".
THE FIRST title I put up for this article was Those Halcyon Days but when I found 'Halycon' in the dictionary it read 'days of peace and happiness'. Happiness yes, in abundance, but no amount of nostalgia could translate them into peaceful.

The years after the war may have been traumatic for the middle-aged and over who were trying to pick up the pieces of a lost decade but to the young people leaving school there were opportunities for fun and friendship not known before.

In Rushden there grew up a heady band of young 'pioneers' from all the churches who met on Sunday evenings in turn at their various halls. The Christian Youth Association, as they named themselves, grew out of an unlikely union. I had done social work in London during the war and fell in with the then current 'Faith and Life' movement whose aim was 'The Conversion of England'. When I returned home in 1946 it seemed that Rushden would be quite enough to start with. Besides other activities I was given the job of minding a Youth Club. This had already been formed by St Mary's C of E youth and the Independent Wesleyans who had got together to play football, the Independents having been deprived of their pitch on account of the war.

Soon the enthusiasm of those members combined with my zeal got in the young people of the other churches and in no time at all we were running our own Sunday evening meetings after the services in the various churches. Numbers ranged from about eighty to a hundred - even more on special occasions. There were no barriers on these nights - each church had its own committee of teenagers and they ran their own show. Speakers and singers were welcomed from all the six denominations. The time came when numbers - and exuberance - proved too much for some of the church elders so we set about finding an alternative place.

Indescribable mess

That was how we came to the stables at 'The Back of the Vic'. It seemed a good idea to put various committees to entrench our eighty to ninety members in a permanent headquarters so I was delegated to open negotiations with the Brewery Company who owned Rushden's Queen Victoria Hotel.

My first thought on climbing the rickety-stairs was to run home and hide. The mess was indescribable as the place had been used for making shoe-parts and the floor was inches deep in leather bits. The walls were crumbling and the windows none too clean. Fortunately, there was a contingent of young folk behind me on the steps and the state of rooms did not seem bother them at all. They had a lot of fun tipping the rubbish over the banisters but not so much in bagging it up and carting it away.

This was in the early fifties when furniture was difficult to get so we negotiated for 50 upholstered seats from a derelict bus. The craftsmen in the group fixed them to elm legs - a really hard job as it meant a hundred legs to be bolted on, and elm is a very hard wood to work. It was all we could get as wood was 'on licence' at the time These seats were, of course, made in pairs and were very convenient for snogging, especially in the back rows. I was horrified when I first became aware of it as I had not even heard the word at that time. In my youth the nearest we ever got to it, in public was a surreptitious peck in a darkened cinema - and this sally usually landed on the top of the head.

When, at long last, the rooms were cleared, the walls painted and furniture in place we held a grand opening. One older member had painted a wonderful mural which went the entire length of one wall - I can see the white ducks (or were they supposed to be swans?) swimming in the blue lake now. I can also see another leading member doing a rapturous turn as a decrepit schoolmaster. His make-up was so good I remember thinking: 'Oh! poor fellow. Fancy only two teeth left at his age ..."

Unseemly incidents

One of my early misgivings about being at the 'back of the Vic' was our close proximity to the Police Station, but our relationships were fine. They did not seem to bother us and we were careful not to bother them - though I guess the exuberance on special events must have caused the bobby-in-charge to look out of his window at times. Some of the other members may recall unseemly incidents but if there were any I was kept comfortably in the dark.

I really did very little in the middle years apart from coming up on Sunday evenings and taking part in the many 'annual' celebrations such as ‘kek-cutting'. It is one of my regrets that I was never able to join a Zig procession, though I was allowed to welcome it when the merry makers arrived triumphant at the top of the stairs.

Zig came into being when members decided to put on their own plays. Not only did they write and produce them but they made their own props as well. Nothing seemed too much to tackle, from a fantastic Nativity Play which filled the Methodist Church one year to the other extreme of Murder in the Red Barn which was put on in the Adult Schools. Zig was 'sculpted' as a skeleton to guard his booth at Polestead fair: 'Don't miss the living skeleton, the wonder of the age!' was his cry.

The idea of a living skeleton appealed and Zig became a leading figure in most club activities. It had it's own anthem, set to the tune of The Lincolnshire Poacher, and was regularly paraded through the town.

Big feast

Among the many celebrations was the annual Kek-cutting when everyone avail­able on a Saturday set off for a walk up the Bedford Road, or wherever kek was readily available. (As a foreigner from Bucks that was a new name for me - we called the weed 'cow-parsley'). Having had fun cutting the kek the party then decked themselves all over till they looked like bouquets, caus­ing some stir, and not a little amusement, as they paraded through the town led by Zig. Of course there was big feast that evening, the main item on the menu being a peculiar pink soup called 'Borsch', concocted by the treasurer.

Little Zig was a rush job when it was found that Zig was too big to get on the train at one of the Club excursions. (Yes, there were trains to and from Rushden in those days). It became popular at Committees, and other small events, to save Big Zig being hauled off his perch high up on the end walls of our hall. The little namesake had an endearing face which resembled a worn-out table tennis bat.

The cast of one of the plays – all were written and produced by members. This was a ‘take-off’ of the current film Quo Vadis.

During the years there were visits from lady missionaries from Ziguanaland. They behaved with perfect decorum but I do not think they contributed much 'towards the conversion of England'.

It will be incredible to present-day young people - and some not so young - that there were no violent scenes to speak of, and no vandalism that I knew about. True, the globe off a Belisha Beacon decorated one of the walls and some of the stronger ones purloined a huge plywood Gin bottle from a local pub, but they were probably moti­vated by teetotalism!

You may well think I was a bit naive at the time (still am) but when you think of the calibre of those young folk - and see their achievements through subsequent years it all fits in.

No names ... one early member is now Head of Youth Services in Birmingham (I often wonder if he remembers his efforts to get us all thinking about the 'C' in CYA?), another is Head of the Biology Department in a London Polytech (a great innovator of our more obscure festivals), another former chairman is Youth (and/or Sports) Organiser for a whole county, (his prowess in jumping off, and up, the stairs is legendary). We have a Trade Union Secretary who is a credit to the whole community and the fellow who organised the bus seat legs is now a Senior Lecturer in a University 'down under'. You will be able to add to this - there are Head Masters, Deputy Heads, Schoolmasters, a Doctor and a Vicar, Managers, self-employed, and so on all over the country.

The committee in a corner of the hall with the
Chairman Little Zig.

This really was a Youth Association already in existence before even the Abercrombie Report was published. It was self-governing, self-organising, and self-financing - except for the plentiful supplies of cakes and other delicacies provided by indulgent mothers. It is true we did apply for a Youth Club allowance for one penny per head per night from the county but the treasurer(s) soon found there were easier ways of paying the bills than filling in endless forms.The CYA vacated the 'back of the Vic' when the Baptist Elders generously offered us the first chance of buying their Old Chapel. We became the Rock Foundation in 1961 and through the following years have tried to carry on in the spirit which inspired the early pioneers in 1946... as equals, without regard to status, creed or politics.

The stables at 'the back of the Vic' have now made way for a block of flats for the elderly. I hope the present residents find happiness there and will take kindly to the haunting of the big Zig if he/she/it decides to roam through the corridors.

The little Zig in the photograph was ceremoniously carried to Cornwall and thrown into the sea off Lands End with the exhortation to swim to America and enlighten the natives there that the spirit of friendship and fun was alive and thriving in Rushden, Northants, and, I am happy to record, is still flourishing today.

CYA - Youth Club

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