John and Mary Butterworth grew up in what some might say was the idyllic atmosphere for young children: surrounded by other children, plus regularly visited and adored by stars of stage and screen, as well as the odd royal dropping by. John and Mary were the children of the legendary Methodist Minister Jimmy Butterworth who created Clubland, a youth club that began life in a church basement with a handful of boys, writes Michael Holland.
Now, John and his co-author Jenny Waine have researched and written The Temple of Youth – Jimmy Butterworth and Clubland, which will undoubtedly be the definitive version of his father and the famous club that he built from nothing.
I asked John why he is writing the book of his father’s life and work now?
‘Partly because no one else has. It should have been written sooner, and it was always a puzzle why professional biographers weren’t queuing up to do it, given how famous and controversial Clubland was in its day, and what a character Jimmy Butterworth was.
‘We decided to write to it because we felt his life story had to be recorded: it is a tribute book first and foremost, and he deserves it for all that he did for others, how many lives he changed for the better, for the rich environment he created. To be honest it was Jenny who drove it: she never knew my father but was intrigued by his story, and she was the chief researcher for the book.’
Growing up in Clubland must have been quite exciting with all the different stars visiting. Who stood out for you from those times?
‘Throughout its history Clubland attracted attention from politicians, stars of stage and screen, writers, artists, sportspeople, and so on. And of course Royalty: Queen Mary, The Queen Mother, Princess Alexandra… After JB’s American fundraising tours began in the Fifties the volume of celebrity interest increased. Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Gracie Fields, Sybil Thorndyke, Richard Attenborough, John Mills and family, the Oliviers, Douglas Fairbanks. Players and directors from Arsenal and Chelsea visited often; so did the American boxer Gene Tunney. Some helped Clubland financially, but that was not all: a few really participated. In that respect Richard Attenborough stands out. He was a genuine friend of both JB and many of the club members.
‘In terms of financial generosity in the rebuilding, Bob Hope’s four visits and benefit performances in the 50s obviously stand out. So too does the huge contribution of Lord (J. Arthur) Rank, and before him his father Joseph.’
Is the book your memory of those times or a more researched piece that covers the times and areas that you weren’t privy to?
‘The book is heavily reliant on research, and especially from primary sources. My father was over half way through his life before I was even born.
‘Luckily for us the Southwark Local History Library has a wonderful Clubland archive going back to 1922, but the historical content required help from many other libraries and archives. We were also assisted by a local historian in Lancashire regarding JB’s early life and family history.
‘I grew up at Clubland – and there is a short section on this in the book. I was a member both of the Juniors and Seniors, and later as an officer. I have great memories of those years, but they were never more than a part of its 55 year history. The book could not have been based only on personal memories.
‘The story of Clubland also belongs to the social history of the twentieth century, and more particularly the changing face of youth work and education, and is set very much in that historical context.’
What did you find out about your dad that you didn’t know before?
Well I knew how determined and single minded he was from personal experience. What I learned from researching was that he had always been like that – from childhood. Nothing was going to stand in his way. Even as a young probationary minister coming to London from Lancashire, he stood up to big-wigs in the Church and local community, and fought for what he knew was right and necessary. He had amazing powers of persuasion even then. In the end his opponents and critics – and there were plenty of them – never stood a chance!’
How much of an influence on your own life has Clubland been?
‘As a teacher I tried to put to use what I had learnt from my father: the importance of self-expression, independent thinking, debate and discussion, that he developed through the Clubland Parliament. The education curriculum still gives too little time to developing these empowering skills. JB was leading the way a century ago, even before secondary education was available to all.’
John Butterworth paints a vivid picture of the extraordinary man his father was, but the book will add much, much more to a story that many people know just bits of. Jimmy Butterworth transformed the lives of thousands in the Camberwell area and the work he did has now been documented for all time, for all to read.
John added, ‘If there are any ex-members reading this who might like an invitation to the book launch in March, in Clubland, can they get in touch through the contacts page of the JB Clubland website and encourage any others they know to do the same.’
The Temple of Youth – Jimmy Butterworth and Clubland by John Butterworth and Jenny Waine (Foreword by Sir Michael Caine)
Hardback 416 pages, 120 b&w photographs
JB Club Press, 2019. £20
Available from www.jb-clubland.co.uk