Fabric nightclub in London closed last week after losing its licence – a move that has angered club-goers around the world. Fabric was renowned the world-over as a centre of electronic music and its loss to the London music scene has been mourned by a wide range of people, perhaps most notably the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. 1
In a recent Guardian article on the closure of Fabric it was suggested that “a good club fosters community, solidarity, liberation and a sense of collective joy”. Clubs, it was argued, “are transformative places- the kind of benign melting pots that cities aspire to be”. These comments made me think of the role nightclubs play in the local community, and of one nightclub in particular: Sheffield’s Leadmill.
When it opened in 1980, the Leadmill, now iconic in Sheffield for hosting the early gigs of bands such as Pulp and the Arctic Monkeys, was little more than a community centre. Not granted an alcohol license until 1982, the venue initially hosted plays, education and training workshops and live music, before becoming a central part of Sheffield’s nightclub and live music scene from 1982. The nightclub scene in Sheffield in the 1980s took on increased significance for young people in the context of rising unemployment and a need for escapism.
The Leadmill demonstrates the role that a venue can have in fostering and supporting the local community. The shelf-life of a nightclub is often short and precarious, and the Leadmill club knew this all too well. Ahead of finalising the 1986/1987 budget, it was noted that “all four ‘commercial’ nights have received full-house attendance…it is unusual if not unprecedented for one venue to dominate on so many nights.” 2 The profits from the so-called ‘commercial’ nights held at the Leadmill were directed toward its educational and fringe events.
In its association constitution the aims of the venue were set out: to promote the education of the public in the arts; to promote social welfare by providing recreational and leisure-time facilities for the benefit of the general public; and to make these available to anyone who had ‘need thereof by reason of their youth, age, infirmity, or disability, poverty or social and economic circumstances’. 3 The venue was dedicated to providing access to culture to a wide range of low-income and marginalised groups, but the young and unemployed were the central focus of the Leadmill throughout the 80s.
In a decade where youth unemployment in Sheffield was above the national average, and the almost total collapse of the city’s industry left thousands of school-leavers without a job, the Leadmill’s policy of training and employing young people through the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) was important. The venue also had reduced rates of entry for the unemployed, and held nights with reduced or free entry for miners during the strikes.
What makes the Leadmill particularly interesting is its funding: the Leadmill was funded, amongst grants by other arts funding bodies, by South Yorkshire County Council and Sheffield City Council. Following the restructuring of South Yorkshire County Council in April 1986 the funding of the venue was continued by the City Council on its own. 4
That Sheffield City Council were committed to continue funding the Leadmill at great expense demonstrates the value to the city the venue was seen to hold. The relationship between nightclubs and local government is often presented negatively, and usually in the context of closure of venues – as in the case of Fabric last week. The example of the Leadmill suggests that the two can, and have, benefitted from each other.
Nightclubs are an important meeting place; they provide a place to socialise, to dance, and have always offered an escape. However, the Leadmill provided more than this: it fostered community relations, supported the disadvantaged, and aimed to be a positive space for young people in the city.
The closure of Fabric highlights the precarious position of spaces for young people in 21st century Britain, and while it is right to mourn the loss of an iconic venue we should not forget the wider effects of the closure of these spaces, including the positive impact these venues can have on the people attending them, and on the cities they inhabit.
Sarah Kenny is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield researching pubs, nightclubs, and the use of space by young people in Sheffield 1960-1989. You can find her on twitter @SarahL_Kenny and read her blog posts for History Matters here.
Image: Jazz event at the Leadmill in 1986, courtesy of Damon Fairclough (@).
- Khan’s plans for a 24-hour London have been well publicised, and his response to Fabric’s closure can be read here. ↩
- SA CA 990/93/8 ↩
- SA SYCC CB/1526 ↩
- In a meeting in January 1986, it was reported to those present that “Sheffield City were in a serious financial situation but that proposals were proceeding to cover the whole of the shortfall of grant from South Yorkshire County Council”. See SA CA 990/93/8 ↩