Historically…the personal recollections and reflections of Bryan ‘Griff’ Jones
…the UK’s first known ‘Dual Use’ Sports Centre Manager
…and the first UK manager of a leisure centre with a leisure pool
Manager – Breeze Hill School Sports Centre 1966-68
Director – The Grove Sports Centre, Balderton, Nottinghamshire 1968-71
Manager – Bletchley Leisure Centre, Milton Keynes 1971-1974
Assistant Director, Recreation & Leisure, Milton Keynes Borough Council 1974-1995.
Bryan ‘Griff’ Jones spent 10 years from 1956 teaching PE and working in youth and community work in Worcestershire. From 1966-68 he was the manager at Breeze Hill Sports Centre, Oldham and then from 1968-71 was Director of the ‘pathfinder’ joint provision centre, Grove Sports Centre, Balderton. From 1971-74 he was Manager of the famous Bletchley Leisure Centre for Milton Keynes Borough Council and then from 1974 to 1995 was the Borough’s Assistant Director for Recreation and Leisure.
Griff was a founder member of the Association of Recreation Managers in 1970 and was elected to and served on its first National Executive Committee until 1974.
Gerry Carver interviewed ‘Griff’, who lives in France, by email in 2019. Here, Griff recounts the early challenges and struggles in the mid 1960s and early 1970s that underpinned the development of early sports centres, especially dual use and joint provision and the move towards ‘leisure’ centres. Importantly it includes his ‘start-up’ experiences in grass-roots recreation programming and of moving through youth and community work into sports centre management (‘youth and community’ has long since become dissipated as an important service and its heyday largely pre-dates most centres). Griff’s recollections of trying to start from a zero base will remind many from those early days of how unprepared local authorities, including schools and education and youth community departments, were for the practical and quasi-commercial nature of community recreation. For early managers (and perhaps a few today!) it recalls some familiar early problems (including the spatial limitations for staff and storage) and an insight into the early challenges for councils, schools and managers. The start of joint provision in this country is recalled as are some of the first special and non-sporting events to be held in sports centres. The reflections also show how the fast-developing early scene led to many swift moves and promotions for managers. It all provides an interesting picture, not only of sports activity development, but the wider context from which centres emerged, including the lack of appreciation of the practicalities involved in community recreation management. As the first known manager of a dual-use sports centre and the first manager of a leisure centre with a leisure pool, ‘Griff’ was a true ‘Gamechanger’.
My support for ‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’
‘1966 and all that’ …and…‘One of the last of the few’
“As one of ‘the few’ – the first sports centre managers – I have been delighted to lend my support to ‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’. I remember well those early, adventurous days. I saw the shift from the earliest sports halls, to the start of joint provision in Nottinghamshire, and to the first UK public centre with a leisure pool at Milton Keynes. Bletchley set a new standard in quality provision (remember the real palm trees, slide and jet stream!). I was also in at the very start of the Association of Recreation Managers. All great for communities – let’s keep it going!” Griff Jones
1966 and all that…
“Four things happened of note in 1966 that I clearly remember –
- “The Aberfan Disaster – My mother was the village mid-wife, except for around half a dozen children she had brought the rest who perished into the world – and the tip slide stopped 20 yards from our front door.”
- “The trial for the infamous Saddleworth Moors Murders, near to Breeze Hill, took place”
- The World Cup “I watched the World Cup Final in a hostel in Bergen in Norway with a group of young people from my school in Kidderminster. Also in the room were a group of German children from Cologne, which created a fantastic atmosphere. The school bus dropped me off in Saddleworth on the way back and I said goodbye to the school, all ready to start work in Oldham”. AND
- “I joined Breeze Hill School, Oldham. I was appointed to manage community use of the school sports hall and swimming pool, known initially as the games centre.”
Was it a Breeze? Breeze Hill School
- The UK’s first dual use scheme with an appointed ‘manager’?
I arrived at Breeze Hill School on August 1st, 1966, to start officially on September 1st. The school complex was situated on the west side of Oldham on the road to Saddleworth, just off the road leading to and joining the main road from Ashton under Lyne – where the red bricks changed to grey stone.
In 1966 the Education set up in Oldham was in chaos. They had decided that they were going to be among the very first to go fully comprehensive. A new school was built on the east side (I knew a couple who drove 4 miles across town from the grammar school to teach languages 3 times a week!). They added bits and pieces to other buildings and Breeze Hill was one of these. Thus, the school had been built in 3 phases;
- The 1920’s – comprising a craft block for woodwork & metalwork, 6 classrooms, a gym., with changing rooms and showers for boys & girls with a large main hall capable of seating 500 people.
- Late 40/early50’s – the main new building with a full range of classrooms etc.
- From 1964-66 – the 1920 classrooms were converted into several domestic science and arts facilities and the traditional gym was upgraded. In addition, house blocks were built containing staff rooms and 4 classrooms. The swimming pool and sports hall and further changing rooms, plus another small block with an office, tea making facilities and a seating area for around 30 people were also added at this time. These facilities were built from a joint budget between the Education and Youth & Community Departments, with the overall management in the hands of Youth & Community.
A footpath led across the land at the back into an extremely poverty-stricken council estate on the edge of the Medlock valley. This estate housed some of the poorest people in the town and was an area where most of the first wave of Asian immigrants settled. Over the years Oldham Council tried hard to demonstrate a lead in community integration. It re-organised schools provision to reduce huge imbalances. Nonetheless, there were some severe racial tensions in the background of the centre operation over the years, culminating in the ‘Oldham riots’ of 2001.
- Arrival at Breeze Hill
My interview had taken place in April 66, but the day after I was lucky enough not to get appointed to the manager post in Peterlee! My title was actually ‘Teacher/Leader’ and I was employed by the Youth Service under the direct control of the Director of Youth & Community, Bob Watt. In 1966 this was a very progressive move by the Youth and Community Service. I arrived on site just as school had finished for the summer break, a short period of one month in August. The main holiday when Oldham was deserted was during “Wakes Weeks” in June when everything closed down. The school reopened in July and closed again in August for a month. This made timetabling for out of school activities difficult and there was no public use or caretaking when I actually arrived. I was therefore the only member of staff present in August.
The theory was that I would devote 10% of my time to teaching with the PE staff of the school and the rest to running the games centre. For convenience sake I was listed on the staff of the school so that I could use their staff room and enjoy their privileges. The Headmaster who was very welcoming, explained that as my salary grade was one grade higher than the Head of Department, I was also entitled to use the same punishment regime as other members of staff on these grades and was duly handed a “Punishment Book” and a short strap, not dissimilar to a barber’s strap. I never used it! It was a bit of a shock after coming from a selective Church of England school, though I had worked previously at two other boys school in the “Black Country” and undertaken a wide range of Youth and Adult work.
- Getting to the starting gate
Given this background when I turned up on August 1st 1966, a month before I was due to start, there were additional issues that I had to face: –
- I had no telephone, one was installed in mid-September.
- No method of contacting local sports organisations.
- I only managed to obtain a typewriter and gestetner in October
- I had no secretarial help of any sort until April 1968 when I organised my last Sports Festival, which involved over 5,000 participants between mid-April and mid-June (Wakes 2 weeks).
- I was also faced with the dilemma that I was restricted to working with under 18s and
- not knowing what my 10% teaching commitment was going to be, with opening hours from 5-10pm Monday-Friday.
It was going to be very difficult to get started! What had I done?!
During that August period my boss, Bob Watt, took me to three meetings – with the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce and The Lions, representatives of which visited the site and promised support. I took advantage of this and the first benefit was that one car supplier along with an engineering firm and a wood yard made a set of barriers for me – each a metre in height 2 metres long that slotted in metal feet to act as the rebound wall needed. They of course had their logos highlighted on the side. Not only did the barriers prove effective for football, but also for hockey and roller hockey at a later date. When not in use they stacked along the wall with the seating.
On arrival I had no budget, which meant that if I wanted to post a letter I had to take it into the office in the town hall. This was quickly resolved by being given a £1,000 to draw on. This allowed me monies to purchase such items as duplicating paper etc. In addition it was also agreed that the centre could keep all income. This situation was later resolved in the budgets from 1967/68. I was granted £5,000 for casual staff and miscellaneous sports items and a further £2,000 plus the income, for other items. All other expenditure, including the funding for the appointment of a female assistant, was buried in the Departmental budgets, this included maintenance and capital expenditure e.g. the cricket netting.
As a result of these changes I met on a three-monthly cycle with my boss and a member of the finance department to audit the expenditure/income, and to countersign the cleaner’s work sheets and those of casuals we employed “if and when”. The actual income was placed in a Council account at a bank on our doorstep. No monies were ever kept on site due to its isolated position.
- The Sports Hall
The sports hall was large, from memory 140’ x 120’ with no heating and louvre type windows (operated on long winders on the walls) on both sides of the hall to allow in daylight. They were rarely open. The flooring was a black bitumen type surface – they hadn’t heard of Granwood (mind, nor had many other people). The lighting system was the usual fluorescent tubes. The floor markings had been painted on for 5-a-side football, mini rugby league, and netball plus in the middle 1 tennis court. I discussed this with Roger Hopson, Head of PE, but he had not been consulted. It had been decided by some ill-informed member of the architects’ department. The end result was that we had a large area for football, leaving a wide strip down the full length of the hall, which strangely enough had its usage as there was no storage room. At the end of the first year I was able to have a single cricket net installed in part of this space and still have room for storing inherited loose standing bleacher seating, divisible into 3 separate sections to seat 150 people. I also inherited 2 x 5-a- side goals, 2 x netball stands and a table tennis table, and 10 PE benches. The benches became useful initially because when playing 5-a-side football there was only one rebound wall. I’ve mentioned the weird court layout, so the benches had to be laid along the court side line, not very effective!
- The Swimming Pool
The swimming pool was 20m by 7.5m and deck level, quite innovative. I was informed that it was from a Canadian design – the only one other in the UK was in Scotland. It had a full glass wall on one side and the depth went from 1 metre and halfway sloped to 2 metres. The changing rooms for the pool were unfortunately also the changing rooms for the outdoor pitches, enough said! This posed a lot of problems as they also had to be used at night by the sports hall users. The changing rooms were attached to the pool which meant that hall users had to leave the rooms and walk along an outside corridor running parallel to the hall wall – believe me very unwelcoming in bad weather. At the end of the changing room there was a small overhead covering which led into the small block containing my office and the so-called social area.
The maintenance of the pool was of great importance. Oldham had a major pool in the town centre, possibly late 19 century/early 20th with two satellite pools at the edge of the town. The major pool was the then conventional 33+1/3rd yards. The two smaller ones were 20yds x12yds. The changing cubicles were around the sides of the pool behind canvas curtains. Also included on pool side, behind a curtain was a concrete bath, which people used to come in for a ‘scrub down’ as per the bathhouse days. Now that there was a very modern pool in the town, the Baths Institute members considered they should manage it and have a man permanently on site. This caused friction with the caretakers union, NUPE. The caretaker and his assistant both had houses on the site. These problems were resolved before I arrived. The senior school caretaker was sent on a 2-day course(!) which caused a few problems. We turned up one morning to find that after coming back from the Lighthouse pub he had gone into the plant room to close it down resulting in 320,000 galls. of water finding its way down the Medlock valley with of course the problems then of refilling etc. The assistant caretaker and one cleaner were also allocated for keeping the changing rooms clean and for weekend work. They were both paid extra from the Youth & Community budget and paid in the form of a bonus on a three-monthly basis based on work sheets submitted to and approved by me, as was the senior man. Unlike the senior man the assistant caretaker was young, enjoyed his sport and did quite a bit of voluntary work for us.
- Community involvement – in its infancy!
To try and generate interest, I invited the secretaries of the local football, rugby league, netball, women’s hockey to a “pie & a pint” at the pub at the end of the road into Breeze Hill. It was called the Lighthouse, who knows why, we were miles from the sea! I used the same format and invited representatives from the local referees’ societies and by October the first leagues were up and running and continued until I left. The netball clubs set up and ran their own league, hockey came later after the appointment of a female assistant, Jennifer Tyler.
- Working with ethnic groups
There were several ethnic groups in the town, primarily Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Afro-Caribbean and Ukrainian. They all had their own premises. The Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups shared an old Victorian School building in which the two groups were strictly segregated from each other. There was also a small Indian group. We were keen to integrate this Muslim group. We approached them to enter a football team, but I could not get past or convince the mullah. The other 2 groups were different and entered teams. The other Asians in the town were supportive. Indeed, amongst the 5th year in the school was a girl called Lala Ackter who was both a good athlete and county standard hockey player, whom we used in school time as an interpreter and who wanted to become a PE teacher, an ambition she fulfilled. Her father was very westernised, an engineer, and she had travelled the world with him. She became our liaison person on more than one occasion.
- Full sports centre management gets nearer!
At the start of course I was restricted by the under-18 age limit. However, I was lucky in the sense that the town was twinned with one called Kranj in what was then the old Yugoslavia, and what is now Slovenia, near to Ljubljana and a youth exchange was taking place in the September. However their “youth” age was 25 and they had to be suitably matched by age. Because the initial response to the centre from our officially designated age group was so poor, after a lot of arguments/discussion it was reluctantly agreed I could open it up to the higher age group remembering which group had priority. This was introduced in January 1967 and the limit became forgotten along the way, and the name was changed from Games Centre to Sports Centre.
At the same time it was decided to relieve me of any teaching duties although I still went in several mornings to assist with the swimming and got rid of the strap! A problem then arose regarding my title which was revised from April 1967 to ‘Manager’ and at the same time I took over the running of the old school gym and hall for evening activities.
Weekends start with Saturdays
A year after starting, again overcoming opposition, I began to accept Saturday bookings from various organisations, including blind, partially sighted and hearing-impaired groups, and other physically disabled groups.
A charging policy is devised
To start with we had no charging policy, so the initial system was based on further education charges for courses, bearing in mind that the facility was not geared for individual use, so it was through necessity based on group and course charges. However, in late 1967, through the Times Education Supplement, a meeting of like souls (and managers!) was organised at Crystal Palace by the Sports Council under the guidance of Harry Littlewood. There I met George Torkildsen, Graham Jenkins, Geoff Bott, and the North East contingent from Stockton etc. As a result of this meeting we drew up a Breeze Hill charging policy, in some ways similar to elsewhere, but bearing in mind that the streets of Oldham were not paved with gold.
- Recreation programming develops
In September 1967 Roger Hopson, Head of PE, left for his native Newcastle to work for the Sports Council and was replaced by Tom Saunders who had taught at Hulme grammar school in the town for several years. He was acknowledged as “Mr. Life Saving” in most of Lancashire and parts of Cheshire. This opened another avenue as he spent a lot of evening time on site. Through him, we ran Learn to Swim for over 40’s and lifesaving courses. East Lancs Sub Aqua Club used the pool for introductory courses. We also had the odd “fun nights” when sports teams of four competed in mini swim competitions on a knockout basis.
The appointment of Jennifer as assistant was an absolute gift. She had initially trained in PE at Madeley College, but did her 3rd year at Laban, which turned out to be more than useful. She was also a member of the England Women’s Basketball Squad. Now having a female on site and with the assistance of Lala at the start of 1969, we managed to run two types of keep fit, one purely for Asian women and one to the general public, both to music with a dance element (Laban) which ran that year between Christmas and Easter. We circulated the PE departments of schools for girls’ basketball and Jenny held these sessions in the gym on 2 early evenings a week.
A memorable event
One of the most memorable events was a national 5-a-side soccer competition for Iberian Airways. They came from all over the UK and stayed at the Midland Hotel in Manchester. The presentations took place at the Hotel and were made by George Best who arrived in a chauffeured Jag, 1 hour late. George emerged in a scruffy pair of jeans and an even scruffier T shirt, to present the trophies, downed a glass of wine to go with the others he clearly had prior to arriving, mumbled a few words, presented the trophies, his driver picked up his cheque for £500 pounds and they left, 20 minutes in all. To say the UK director for Iberian Airways was unimpressed would be an understatement.
Pressed into action
In the last three months before leaving I had a discussion with the local newspaper sports writer who wrote an article. This resulted in 8 teams being raised for over 45s men’s 5-a-side soccer based on streets. We ran this league on Sunday mornings between 10-12.30 for a trial period of 6 weeks, no running but based on fast walking. It was a huge success and requests followed for 4-a-side touch rugby. This now meant that on certain weeks we were open 7 days in the week. The young caretaker opened and closed at the weekend, and if he wasn’t due to work, he was paid on a casual basis.
Was this one of the first sports hall entertainment events?
My final flurry was in September 1968 with the trophy presentation night. Bob Watt and I invited anyone who was anyone to the ceremony with the principal guests being the Mayor and Mayoress. Then, as now, I am a big band fan and at that time there was one in Manchester named the Syd Lawrence Orchestra. I hired them for the evening, so we had a small concert in Glen Miller style along with the presentations. There was no precedent for this!
- Moving on
I left for Breeze Hill in late October 1968, feeling that we had achieved a lot, from a zero base. Soon after, most of my team left for pastures new. Jenny left in March 1969. Lala went on to Chelsea PE College. My successor was a young PE teacher from the Blue Coat School in town. He soon left and was not replaced. Sadly Bob Watt died in 1970. The scheme then went firstly to the Parks Department and was then swallowed into Education, with much talk at the time about a new leisure Centre in town, which later materialised.
I left for Nottinghamshire, and the Directorship of the new, jointly provided Grove Sports Centre in Balderton.
- Oldham thereafter
A new swimming stadium opened in Oldham in 1975 and in 1985 a new sports centre opened alongside (that building was another ‘victim’ of a centre fire in 1995, re-opening after repairs in 1997). In 2016 the sports centre was demolished following the opening in 2015 of a new Oldham Leisure Centre.
The Grove days — Breaking new barriers
- Nottinghamshire in the vanguard
Moving to the Grove and Nottinghamshire put me in touch with a bigger pioneering arena. Nottinghamshire County Council (NCC) was the largest council in the vanguard of the concept of joint provision from the late 1960s (as set out in Chapter 7). Initially the Council opened four such centres, almost simultaneously, with the County joining forces with the local councils of Bingham, Sutton in Ashfield (Carlton Forum), Newark (The Grove in Balderton) and Worksop. In Newark’s case, the driving force, and consequently the responsibility for the administration, was with the Rural District Council. That, in itself, was quite original and brave.
There were a number of CC officers who fully supported the concept and were well known in the very early days of sports centres. There was John Spencer (who in 1974 became CEO for Newark Council), David Barnes who was County PE Organizer, and his assistant, none other than Jimmy Munn. Nottinghamshire had been a first provider of sports barns (big covered areas, some with drop down canvas sides for bad weather -see Chapter 4: 4.1.4). David retired in late 1969 and Jimmy took over for a short period before moving to Monmouthshire, Torfaen and then Birmingham.
- The interviews and key personalities
Advertising and interviewing for the four Nottinghamshire joint provision centre management posts were held moreorless in tandem across April & May in 1968. The first advertised was Bingham, followed by Carlton Forum, The Grove and Worksop. As we were advised at interview, there were approximately 150 applicants for the first Bingham post. At Bingham there were 12 of us whittled down to 6 in the morning, taken to lunch and then interviewed again in the afternoon. Dave Thomas got the post (later to be Director of the National Sports Centre for Wales). Then an interesting thing happened. John Spencer, County Clerk, came out and informed us that the Carlton and Grove posts were to be advertised the following week. He then kept two of us behind and told us that there was no need for us to apply that we would be on the list for interview if we were still interested, I was one and the other was Alan Slynn (later Manager of Worthing SC). The joint advert for Carlton & The Grove led to over 200 applicants. Worksop was advertised separately.
We duly turned up for the Carlton interviews and in addition to Alan and I there were 2 others from the Bingham interview, plus one ‘local’ applicant. Then Chris Field arrived in a jeep with his batman and major’s uniform. Chris was appointed and after he moved on to Greenwich Council, he was followed in the post by another military man, Tiny (Colonel) Whitworth. When it came to The Grove, there were six of us for final interview, which went down to Alan and me. I was the lucky one but again Alan was approached, and of course landed the Worksop post.
- Operating the Grove Sports Centre
I was appointed in late May 1968 but in order to tie up loose ends at Breeze Hill, especially year end tournaments, I arranged to start at the beginning of October. During the interim period I made several visits to Newark, as a guest at the Chairman’s annual parade, presented trophies at two local school sports days, but in some ways more important was that in addition I also had invaluable talks with Bill Winter, RDC Clerk. The result was that my staffing proposals were agreed, a provisional charging policy approved plus hours of opening, and I was allocated an office in the Council building and as a temporary measure a secretary, June Loughton. June was to become the admin officer for The Grove. Her knowledge of the Council’s systems was fantastic, she implemented the charging system and managed the receptionists and all financial systems. She was a great asset and stayed until she retired in 2001.
When I arrived, in conjunction with Bill Winter, the senior staff adverts had already been placed for deputy director, pool manager, sports officer and plant engineer, and all were appointed before Christmas. June and I appointed the receptionists in Jan (129 applicants – 129 interviewed (well received by the councillors). as June recalls, phase 1 took two weeks but all was completed by the end of the month and training started on the 1st February. John Binks was appointed Deputy Director with responsibility for the maintenance of the building and general welfare of the staff and coaching squash and hockey; and Roy Claydon, Pool Manager, also took on responsibility for the operation of the bar, though I was the licensee. They were appointed in November and the Sports Officer, Jim Coates, in December.
Oh Boy what a difference to Oldham!! Nothing but help and goodwill during this period and we struck up good relationships with the Headmaster and annulled a lot of the fears of the PE staff, which recognised me as “one of them”. When I was appointed the groundwork for the building was complete and when I arrived fully in October the shell was up and work was going ahead with the tiling of the pool, followed by the flooring in the main hall (Granwood), and the wooden floors in the gym. and squash courts. The outdoor areas were being cleared for the games area and provision being made for the installation of the floodlights and the car park laid.
At the beginning of November we advertised for pool and sports attendants. Six good swimmers were appointed (3 male 3 female) plus 2 reserves on a casual basis for emergencies. The pool was filled and ready at the beginning of January so the pool attendants came in for intensive life-saving and first aid skills training under Roy Claydon, Jim Coates and myself (having watched Tom Saunders at Breeze Hill, with Jim Coates sitting on the pool floor with snorkel etc, waiting to be “saved”, you don’t become a CPO in the navy PE branch for nothing!). They were assessed by the RLSS and re-tested every 3 months. After Jim left Ted Glover took over. He had spent 8 years in submarines before coming ashore, another CPO who had been in the gun race at the Albert Hall but was also on the fringe of the GB gymnastics team.
After one or two encounters with difficult school caretakers I wanted my own such staff. The CC would have had to bring in at least another full-time caretaker anyway. After much discussion, especially with the County Council, we succeeded. We employed a full-time caretaker and two part-time cleaners. We contributed to the school caretaker’s salary based on him cleaning the squash courts (attached to School) and the old changing rooms after public use of the all-weather area. He was amenable to this arrangement which solved a clash with NUPE. He was invited to our functions and events and this resulted in a good relationship and the headmaster breathed a sigh of relief.
Public use in joint provision
The public opening hours were from 5pm to 11pm on weekdays and 9am to 11pm. At weekends and during school holidays. The squash courts were open for public use every day as the County had not contributed to their cost. However, time was allocated to the school free of charge for certain periods as a “sweetener”. There were over 30 schools using the pool on a weekly basis.
Bar decision was important
The bar licence was granted in my name in February 1969. They had thoroughly checked my background and during the hearing I had the opportunity to spend time emphasizing the importance of trying to foster a feeling of belonging and the importance sport could play in fostering friendships among players who would otherwise finish their games and leave. The bar set a precedent for Nottinghamshire, though the other 3 centres did not have one. We had to conform to strict rules in respect that pupils at the school or visiting could not gain access to this area. The result was a well-equipped bar and social area, access to which was like entering Fort Knox. All the doors etc. had security locks, the mesh grill and storeroom the same, cameras in the social area and behind the bar, even a lock on my office door that led into the bar area. We also had infrequent visits from the police and one or two magistrates during school hours as a means of checking that the conditions on the licence were being observed. We made many friends through this social outlet. In an area with few social opportunities, low incomes, and an above average unemployment rate at that time. I had mentioned at the licence hearing that I wanted to increase the range of leisure opportunities on offer to the public in addition to sport and I am glad that this philosophy continued after my time.
During this period Bob Tedder had opened the Bicester & Ploughley Centre, another joint provision centre. He was interested in the possibility of putting in a bar so John Binks and I went to see him to pass on our, as it was at the time, limited knowledge. He only really had one place to put a bar and that was in the viewing gallery on the first floor, overlooking the sports hall on one side and the pool on the other. Having discussed the location and requirements I don’t think it was pursued.
Strategic Management of the Centre
We were responsible to a Management Committee which met on a 6 weekly cycle and comprised of 3RDC, 3UDC members, David Barnes from the CC and another, Colin Slater, who did a lot of publicity for us. In addition, Terry Mack and John Carri represented the Sports Council in an advisory capacity. As an interesting aside, one of the UDC representatives. was Colonel Sam Derry, a member of the local Holes brewing family, who during the war had escaped from a German POW camp made his way to Italy and spent the last 2 years organizing the Vatican escape route for allied escapees. Lovely man. This committee was serviced by the Clerk to the RDC Bill Winter.
Innovation to solve storage and office space problem
Like most early centres, we suffered from a severe lack of storage space and we cured our problem in a rather unique way. About a year after we opened, one Friday night, the local Council Clerk, Bill Winter, called in for a ‘quick half’ on his way home and we were discussing the problem when he stated that they were due to pull down some prefabs in the town. We were allocated one, stripped it out, except for the toilet area, and, with the help of both the RDC & UDC technical staff who laid the foundations, moved it across town and placed it next to the sports hall. We now had a complete bungalow. Space was allocated for the school to store equipment, as a result of which the CC paid to connect all the services. Besides the storage space gained, we were able to move in the maintenance base and re-arrange parts of the centre, including the reception area and increase the size of accommodation for the PE staff. At this time we also extended outwards the office accommodation. This also reflected the need to accommodate additional part-time clerical staff. All these changes resulted in an increase in the size of the bar. The only limitation of the bungalow was that it did not have direct access to the main building as it was 25 metres, door to door. However, one of the fire doors in the main hall road was adjacent to the new storage area so this was great for moving equipment (e.g. trampolines) out of the hall and into the ‘bungalow’ storage.
Events dear boy, events….
Following on from the successful Breeze Hill events, during my time at the Grove we held many special events – precursors to what happened in many centres up and down the country in subsequent years. On Friday 28th February 1969, the day before the official opening, Dave Lee Travis and Ed. Stewart opened on-site in the morning with the Radio 1 Club. The top two school years were invited to attend and the grammar schools and the other secondary school were invited to send along several dozen of their pupils. In the afternoon the Centre was open for public viewing. In my time we had two New Year’s Eve dances with Kenny Ball, which were sold out weeks in advance. We also had Ray McVay and his orchestra in concert and a Ball & Bilk Night, with both on the same stage for the last part of the “Balderstone Jumped” evening. We held televised wrestling, antique fairs and car shows, sports expos, plus cat & dog shows. We held a disabled mini Olympics (with podium and medals) and we hosted the all England Schools girls gymnastics championships…… and so it went on for several years. Newark has a small theatre and once a year the local dramatic society staged a major production. In 1970 the theatre underwent a refurbishment and we staged ‘The King and I’ in the sports hall.
Grove staff move across the country
Grove was still early in the life of sports centres. Not only was professional interest high, but the calibre of applicant too. Many of the early centres were a breeding ground for the ‘management class’ of the 1970s and 1980s. Grove was no exception. This is reflected in the movement onward of early Grove staff.
John Binks, the first deputy director, left to manage Haverhill, then Harrogate and Bury St. Edmunds. Alan Burridge was appointed in his place and subsequently went on to manager in Lincoln and then on to Watford. Roy Claydon, pool manager, went on to Bletchley as my deputy there, then on to Swindon’s Oasis as Manager and the Old Jail, Abingdon (conversion). Ken Bailey, plant engineer, had been appointed in January 1969 and became pool manager after Roy Claydon left.
Jim Coates, the Sports Officer, went on to Woking. He was replaced at the Grove by Ted Glover who then moved on to Doncaster. Sean O’Grady, ex-RAF Flight Sergeant PTI, followed Ted. After I left Doug Voyce was appointed Director. I understand he left for Doncaster then Lincoln and he was succeeded by Sean Grady. There were then short stints by Brian Hughes and Roy Brown (ex. Brighton goalkeeper).
June Loughton remained until she retired in 2000. It baffles me why they never made her manager. It was after she retired that the hours at the Centre were reduced, the bar was closed, and the area turned into a fitness gym.
- An open and shut case
The Grove Sports Centre had been officially opened on the morning of 27th of February 1969 by Walter Winterbottom OBE (awarded a CBE in 1972 and was knighted for his services to football in 1978). The Centre opened to the public for viewing in the afternoon. On Saturday 1 March, St. David’s Day, we opened to the public [I did not manipulate it!!]. It was an extremely busy weekend, especially with the pool. The sports hall and squash courts were also busy. We had advertised the opening and booking procedures in the local press two weeks prior and started to take our first bookings a week before we opened.
I moved on in 1971 to manage the bright new and challenging Bletchley Leisure Centre in Milton Keynes, which set a new standard in public leisure centre provision. The Grove Sports Centre closed after nearly 4 decades of service on the 22 April 2016. The building was subsequently destroyed by fire following an arson attack on the 15th September 2017. The centre had been replaced by a new centre costing £9.4m – the Newark Sports and Fitness Centre. The old sports centre site has been designated for a new Special School by 2020.
Bletchley and Milton Keynes — at the leading edge
- Mixed emotions on appointment
When I saw the manager’s position for Bletchley Leisure Centre advertised, I was extremely happy at the Grove. The Grove was a busy Centre and there was a good staff with a family atmosphere, lots of variety and we were well supported by the staff of both councils and their Members. However, it was the new leisure pool concept that fired my imagination plus the extra facilities (bowls hall, theatre, creche, etc.). Where was Bletchley? I had heard and read limited information about this new ‘city’ being proposed in Buckinghamshire. but I didn’t really connect the two.
When I was invited for interview, I had 2 weeks grace and visited the town on 2 weekends, looked around the area, liked what I saw and decided to go for it! The interview was interesting, full Council, questions from all sides with in-depth questions from the senior officers present especially into my working with the County Council and some of the Development Corporation representatives. At the time I thought it was normal but later after my appointment I realised that quite a few questions were relevant to Stantonbury, where negotiations had started with Bucks CC and with the DC involved, together with other schemes around Bletchley. I was offered the position on a much higher salary than I was on, but it was the attraction of the job and the Centre that took me to MK (and of course I never left!!). After the interview I returned to Newark because on the same day they were holding our management meeting and on walking into the bar the chairman said to me” you got the job”, I replied yes, to which he asked on what salary and offered me the same to stay. I had by this time had an opportunity to weigh up the pros and cons and reluctantly turned their offer down. Nonetheless it was a sad moment.
- Construction underway
Bletchley was not easy and entirely different to anything I had previously encountered both in the management structure, which was undergoing change, and politically. On arrival the Town Manager was a great man named John Smithie. When I arrived in Bletchley the first layers of bricks were being laid for the sports hall, after talks with Bill Stoner (Architect) I had one of the emergency doors doubled in height and width using the argument that if I wanted to put a “circus” in there how would I get the elephant in? They were always known thereafter as the “elephant doors”, they were invaluable, and catered for the needs of the BBC with their frequent visits, and movement of equipment for the major concerts we staged, e.g. Halle, RPO, LSO and the internationals.
The leisure pool, a major factor in why I applied for the post, was the first and watching it grow was interesting. The shell went in followed by the steelwork for the pyramid. I can remember sitting in my office when one afternoon a rather long lorry appeared containing two large palm trees, the container was heated and had come from northern Spain. There was much activity to get them into their planters. I hadn’t realised that these trees have roots or bulbs. These had the latter. They were hastily covered as the glazing for the finish had not been installed. At this time disaster nearly struck! The pyramid was covered in a series of small pyramids all made from a material called Plexiglass. This material had been used on a building in the USA and had gone up in flames. Many meetings, much initial panic, However, after several weeks it was decided to progress as the USA problem was due to two different design elements that were not present in the Bletchley structure. Panic off: one-month delay to opening.
- New challenges
The welcome to my presence in Bletchley was mixed. Staff and councillors were fine but certain sections of the public not so, including the swimming, badminton and bowls clubs. This was to a large extent because they had not been consulted over removal from their existing locations. The Queen had opened the existing swimming pool in the late 1950s. It had originally been built in the late 1940’s as an outdoor pool but covered by a large ‘A-frame’ building. It bore all the hallmarks of the typical outdoor version, it was 25×12 yards with slabbed surround, heated with limited changing facilities and was basically run for the benefit of the swimming club. On the same day the Queen also opened the Manor Fields playing fields which became the home of the town football club and cricket and rugby clubs. As part of the building there was a hall which contained one badminton court plus a flat for the groundsman.
I did illustrated talks for the various groups and was told in no uncertain manner by the badminton club that the new proposed sports hall would never be big enough to hold 8 courts. At that time, they were playing badminton on a rubber roll away court. However, the two principal representatives involved would become closely connected to the new Centre. The existing pool was on the site of the new proposed leisure pool so where did the swimming club go? at that time I was unsure.
The bowling club, who were on the same site, were very welcoming and a meeting was arranged with a beer afterwards at the Conservative Club. The following morning at around 8am I got a call on my phone to pop in and see the Town Manager, who congratulated me on the outcome of the meeting but then told me that I had to repeat the drinking of a beer in the Labour Club!
One other notable event that happened at that time was the demolition of the Queens Pool, which resulted in a demonstration against the new Centre led by two councillors and four others carrying a large cardboard coffin followed by around 100 people. The leisure pool concept was not popular! The Chairman of the swimming club did not approve because he knew that I was in consultation with the Headmaster of Leon School for the use of their pool, as the evening use by the school was practically nil. I was also at the time dealing with the County Council in respect of a Stantonbury project. I then invited Ken to join in discussions with the Leon headteacher and the County’s representatives and came to an agreement over the use of the pool by the club. I agreed that while the club was using the pool, they would pay 50% of the hiring fees and BUDC/MKC the other 50%, plus my technicians would assist the school caretaker in its maintenance. This system operated until the Stantonbury pool was available and the club then changed its name to Milton Keynes Swimming Club. in addition to this I purchased the swimming lanes from the USA – the type to eliminate the wash from adjoining lanes (to my knowledge a set existed at Crystal Palace, but I don’t think Leeds had them at this time.
Setting up Bletchley was not to easy and entirely different to anything I had previously encountered both in the Council’s management structure, which was undergoing change, and politically.
- Staffing structure and appointments
I had submitted my staffing proposals at a meeting prior to my arrival and after a bit of a grilling from Errol Ray, who had taken over the financial arrangements, the structure was agreed, then the fun started!! I was trying to get my staff in post and meeting with some difficulty. I was now dealing solely with Errol Ray and his first move was to give me an admin officer, Mike who had handled all the football and civic hall bookings, which was a help, but I was not used to people working their minimum hours on the dot all the time. This was followed by him appointing my first Recreation Officer, Tony, a local groundsman and well-known local sportsman with a county background in cricket and soccer. Then came the third appointment, Dennis Jones, an engineer by training who suffered from a shoulder problem that enabled him to swing a sledgehammer but could no longer use a drawing pen. We did strike up a good working relationship straightaway.
At this stage I called the three together to outline my vision for the Centre and what I expected of them. I went to see Errol, the Town Manager, and told him that not being party to appointments and other relevant matters, and taking just redeployed staff, could not go on. At my talk with the Town Manager I told him that the Centre would not open on the date decided and that I didn’t see the point in being there if my decisions were ignored, and I might as well go job hunting. The following day a new Errol accepted I should proceed as I saw fit. Knowing what was on the horizon, with the likelihood of him becoming CEO, I wondered what my future would be. Errol Ray was to become the first MK CEO. Such was his ability that all competition from the other authorities to challenge his appointment vanished. That was when I became the Assistant Director for Recreation, but still had the Leisure Centre manager title as well. It turned out well, we got along fine, and I was still with him up until his early retirement.
Two staffing changes occurred in the first 12 months of opening, Tony who was an outdoor man came to me within 6 months of opening to resign, he had formed a company and successfully tendered for several landscape projects. In his place I appointed a PE teacher named Doug Brown who built up the highly successful MK Gym Club. Mike was the next to go. He left for a job in a town council. I saw him several times before he finally left Bletchley. He thanked me for my “training”!
- The facilities
Besides the pool, with all its various uses, including wonderful evening pool parties, the extra facilities included of course a large sports hall, a bowls hall, a theatre a kegilbahn and a creche. On the ground floor under the bowls hall and taking up half the space was the rifle range, running parallel to it was a youth club. There was a youth club in West Bletchley but no other facility in the town. The County Council therefore contributed £4000 towards the scheme, paid the running costs and employed the youth leader. He was supposed to be seconded to my staff but that never really worked with his instructions coming from the County. However, he was included in all our activities and attended certain of my staff meetings.
I shortly began to inherit overall responsibility for other facilities managed by different people within the council staff. The facilities were somewhat varied – 2 civic halls, 2 community centres, the letting of 8 football pitches plus two other sports facilities which had been built in conjunction with the County Council (One sports hall and one Dri Pla area).
- Events and theatre
Every year Bletchley UDC held a dinner dance for employees and friends in a public hall known as Wilton Hall. For John Smithie, the Bletchley centre was his dream and he put down the challenge to stage this event at the Leisure Centre. In conjunction with the architect (Bill Stonor) we built a Medieval tent. We then bought some old parachutes and transformed the sports hall into a large tent and used that for the next two years and the last year of five was with lighting effects only – guess who played the last two years – the one and only Syd Lawrence of Oldham fame! The event was then handed to the MK Trust and moved from the Centre. A whole range of other events were hosted including great pool parties and car shows (bearing in mind that at this time not a lot else entertaining existed in MK).
- Local Government Re-organisation and Joint Provision
Errol Ray became CEO for Milton Keynes and was determined to be ready for Re-organisation in April 1974. We all worked from April 1973 on the transfer of assets. I dealt with all the recreational aspects with Newport Pagnell RDC & UDC, Wolverton UDC & Stony Stratford UDC and was appointed Assistant Director in the December. I retained the title of Centre Manager until April 1st 1974.
I was closely involved in three joint provision centre projects at Stantonbury (where Dennis Jones was to become the first manager) and at Shenley and Woughton (see Chapter 8 for details). I had one other major scheme I wanted to get off the ground and that was the provision of an Athletics Track but finding a suitable site was difficult and the management even more so we,(unlike Brexit) had to compromise and in the end located it on the Stantonbury site, the compromise being that the site was only large enough for 6 lanes, however all other events were catered for, It was opened by Sally Gunnell and it certainly set Greg Rutherford on the right path. In 1974 we appointed John Williams, then Deputy Director of Billingham Forum, to manage Bletchley Leisure Centre. John came with a wealth of experience from Billingham Forum and previously Leeds Athletic Institute.
The Sequel — what happened later? Three down!
In a way it looks as if I left a trail of destruction behind me! Breeze Hill School was closed and the grounds cleared some years ago, the site is now up for sale for housing development. The Grove Centre was closed in April 2016 with problems of asbestos and age. A new centre had opened in the town previously. However the old centre suffered a fire through vandalism in September 2017. Bletchley Leisure Centre was pulled down some years ago and replaced with what I would call a utility building, with the leisure pool replaced with a standard 25m x 12.5m and steel and brick replacement not of the original quality and a smaller sports hall, never to hold events again.
…and a few personal and historical anecdotes from Griff…
- Attending IAKS 1970 & 72 in Cologne
“Terry Mack, along with a Sports Council colleague John Carr, came with me in my car to the IAKS conference in Cologne in 1970. On the way back we visited the Dutch National Centre, I had picked up and squeezed into my Capri Bernard Warden who we dropped off at Schiphol airport. He was in a hurry to get back for international basketball. In 1972 I went to IAKS again, this time with my new deputy Alan Burridge (my first, John Binks, had moved to Haverhill) who you probably met during his time at the Sports Council. In the company of Harry Littlewood we attended the final night dinner at the Rathaus and listened to the first performance of the music for the 1972 Olympics in Munich performed by Bert Kempner and his orchestra. Memorable.
At IAKS we crossed over the river and went for a swim. The pool was quarter full with middle and old age German ladies with nice little flowered swim hats, all doing breaststroke at a slower than slow speed when this bunch of English ‘ruffians’ jumped in. The attendant indicated the signs regarding noise – silence is golden. Then Ron Pickering came in, Roy James shouts” get in here Pick it’s bloody great”, whistles blew and Roy was ordered out of the pool by two burly attendants, watched while he dressed and escorted to the exit. Much merriment from the assembled throng!”
- Saddleworth PE teacher
“During my time at Breeze Hill I had help from some really good people including 2 rugby referees who had refereed at Wembley, one who became my mentor when I qualified as a Rugby League referee. For two seasons I did the fitness sessions for Saddleworth Rangers. The PE guy at Saddleworth School taught Rugby League but played Union. However in 1967 he turned pro. with Oldham and he used to pop into these sessions for skills coaching. His name – Phil Larder MBE, in later times manager GB, also coach with England RFU”.
“In 1968 there was the first National Recreation Conference which led to many others. I travelled back on the train with an ex RAF man who had been appointed to run the facilities at Keele University, with a brief to open it up to the public”.
- ‘Missionary’ work
Whilst at the Grove Jimmy Munn moved from Notts CC to Monmouthshire and lived in Raglan, where I stayed with him on 2 occasions. The first a trip to Yeovil in Somerset to try and convert the ’joint provision non-believers’ and the second to Gloucester for the same purpose. At that time, because of my Breeze Hill and Grove experiences, I believed that retiring senior personnel in forces PE branches had a lot to offer. I went with Harry Littlewood at his invitation to Hull University to talk to retiring forces personnel about our work and what was required. Harry emphasised that they had one career and that coming into civilian life they were not owed another, you got there on merit. The result was applause so we took it as being successful.
- Where? Milton Keynes?
As an aside, there is a village not in Milton Keynes but in Aylesbury Vale on the boundary’ called Whaddon, which was famous for its hunt, and the Hall for connections to Bletchley Park. In 1973 someone from the Development Corporation had erected a sign which read “You are now entering the City of Milton Keynes”, but someone had put 3 bullet holes in it! As concrete has now encroached to this area the sign was replaced last year, but city status still awaits.
“At the Bletchley opening I repeated the Grove format – the only problem that day was that Dave Lee Travis turned up in an open top Cadillac and we had to sit someone in the car throughout the show – the number plate DLT 1 was very tempting!”.
“On arrival at Milton Keynes I had found that the Town Manager was a great man named John Smithie, he had brought many industries to Bletchley and in addition had negotiated with the GLC an overspill housing development known as The Lakes Estate to coincide with the incoming of the new industries, such was its size the GLC shared the costs with Bucks CC for building a primary and comprehensive school (include a swimming pool). John’s recently appointed deputy was a man named Errol Ray, previously he was Head of Audit in Coventry and appointed to succeed John on his retirement. Errol became the first MK CEO. Such was his ability that all competition from the other authorities to challenge his appointment vanished.”
“The Bletchley political scene when I arrived: The then MP for that part of Buckinghamshire was a refugee from eastern Czechoslovakia named Jan Ludvik Hyman Binyamin Hoch who reigned from 64-70, the one and only Robert Maxwell I met him twice – not impressed!”
In 1966 when I started at Breeze Hill there was no “Sports Managers Group”. Life in a way was a little lonely but who could foresee that all this would change in a relatively short period of time. It was at the beginning of 1967 when the Sports Council first advertised a conference on Sports Management to be held at Crystal Palace, initiated by Harry Littlewood. This took place over two days and a number of people present were to become founder members of the Association of Recreation Managers (ARM) including George Torkildsen, Graham Jenkins, Geoff Bott, Bernard Warden, John Williams, Bryn Thomas, Dennis Woodman, Brian Barnes Ian Douglas, Roger Quinton,
Ron Pickering, Alan Slynn, Bill Breeze, Martin Rees and others. The conference closed with the promise of a much more comprehensive event the following year organised by the Sports Council and this was to be the FIRST national conference held at Crystal Palace, after which it became a regular calendar event. During that twelve months, contacts had been made, problems discussed and shared and a “loose”” association formed with an increasing number of managers and interested parties ” coming out of the woodwork”. Chris Field and Tiny Whitworth somehow seemed to manage to be accepted by the chief officers group.
And…..The Sports Council held a 2-day seminar at Bisham Abbey in early 1970 and one of the topics was “Sponsorship”. The presentation was delivered by a representative from Coca Cola and halfway through his presentation the door at the rear of the room burst open and in walked Graham Jenkins dressed in a long night shirt, wee willy winkie night cap carrying a lighted candle accompanied by Bryn Thomas more soberly dressed. Graham walked to the front, apologised for interrupting the speaker and announced that Bryn would be serving drinks after the meeting as his brother had called from Yugoslavia, where he was making a film about Tito, and wanted company for a drinking session, so he sent a private plane to Heathrow to pick Graham up. Bisham Abbey was “dry” at that time. Graham had done a deal with the owner of the Complete Angler in Marlow to supply all the drinks. Graham was well known there as his brother and sister-in-law – Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – had stayed there on a number of occasions. When Graham returned from the trip to Yugoslavia, he came with the news that his brother, Richard, would cover the costs of the ARM Chairman’s Chain of Office (where is that chain of office now, it is missing – Editor).
See more on ARM and ARM NEWS in Chapter 7.