Upstairs, downstairs: the story of the Cellar club

Martin Carthy
Martin Carthy – a frequent guest – at the club’s current home, the Calthorpe Arms, in 2019. Photo: Sheila Miller

The Cellar folk club seems to have begun in December 1960 – at any rate, that was the month in which it was first mentioned in English Dance & Song (now EDS). Peter Kennedy started the club, although he didn’t run the evenings; I don’t know if he even attended them or if he booked the guests.

It was held on Saturday nights in Storrow, in the basement of Cecil Sharp House, under the auspices of the EFDSS. That mention in ED&S (found for me some time ago by Derek Schofield, when he was the magazine’s editor), under the heading “New events”, read: “Saturdays: Folk song Cellar, 7-10pm. In the Cellar: John Pearse, Hilda Sims, Frank Purslow, Shirley Collins, Steve Benbow, Nadia Cattouse and other guest artists. Admission: as for Square Dancing.” (Shirley Collins was also listed as running five-string banjo classes on Thursdays, from 6.30 to 8pm, at a cost of 3s 0d – for younger readers, that’s three shillings, 15p in today’s money.) Shirley tells me that, in the 50s, people used to meet in Storrow to sing and play in a fairly informal way, before the Cellar club existed.

Jack and Margaret King are remembered by various people as the resident singers who ran the club for some years in the 60s, but I don’t know whether they were there right at the start; I’ve been told that Tony Rose was one of the original residents. John Foreman tells me that, when the Kings gave up in 1967 or 1968, the “three Tonys” (Tony Rose, Tony Shaw and Tony Dean and the Laymen) took it in turns to do the resident’s spot and run the club. Kevin Sheils thinks that was when the Society took over booking the guests. When the three Tonys stopped, Tony Rose persuaded Roger Fleming and Kevin to take it over, and they were still running the Cellar when I started going there in 1971.

The reference to admission in the original mention in 1960 meant that people coming to the Cellar paid at the same desk as for the dance upstairs, rather than in the club itself. That may not have caused a problem then, but it certainly did by the early 70s, as it restricted who the organisers could book: the EFDSS gave the club £10 a month to book guests – not that much in 1960, and certainly not enough in the 1970s. Roger and Kevin couldn’t even put in their own ­money to book someone more expensive in the expectation of getting it back on the door, as the club didn’t have its own ticket desk.

‘One committee ­member said to us: “I can’t see why people need alcohol to enjoy folk music. I’m
a teetotaller myself”’

Kevin was friends with many singers, and was able to get quite high-profile people to come for £10, and on the other Saturdays they had singers’ nights. When he gave up in 1973 (Roger had left a year or two before), there was no one left with similar contacts, and the club rapidly went downhill, attracting only tiny audiences before the EFDSS closed it in 1974.

As it happened, another Saturday club in London, the Peelers, closed very shortly afterwards, leaving little choice for folk song aficionados. There were complaints among the song fraternity, with people saying that Cecil Sharp House seemed to have lost interest in song altogether; many thought it was ridiculous that the House didn’t host a regular song event.

I was one of four people – with Mel Mac­Leod, Mike Butcher and Mary Hardy – who got together to try to do something about it. We eventually persuaded the EFDSS to let us talk to them about reopening the Cellar as an independent club. That took some doing, as they couldn’t see what we would do that would make a difference.

Persuading them to let us have a temporary bar every Saturday was another struggle (one committee member genuinely said to us: “I can’t see why people need alcohol to enjoy folk music. I’m a teetotaller myself…”), but we managed it eventually. The club restarted just a few months later, run by us and still in Storrow, on 26 October 1974; the guests were the Etchingham Steam Band (Shirley Collins, Ashley Hutchings and others). I did the bookings.

Mary Hardy left after a year or two, wanting to concentrate on other things; I took over the publicity, which she had done, in addition to doing the bookings. We had some excellent nights during our time in CSH; Norma Water­son told me once that she remembered a couple of great evenings the family had had at our club.

In 1984, the EFDSS decided to move its shop into Storrow; it was suggested that the Cellar should be suspended for a year or so, during which time partitioning and soundproofing would be put up in Trefusis (the larger downstairs room), and we could then resume the club in that room.

I doubted that this would ever happen, so I went out and found a pub (the Black Horse, about half a mile south of Cecil Sharp House), to which we moved at the beginning of 1985. I didn’t want to change the club’s name, especially in view of its long history, but it couldn’t really be called the Cellar in an upstairs room, so it became the Cellar Upstairs. At that point, Mel MacLeod left, leaving just two of us running it.

That was a lovely pub, and we had a really good landlord, but, after four years – the perennial folk club problem – he was replaced by someone who wanted something more commercial in his function room, so we moved another half-mile up the road to the Assembly House in Kentish Town, a big Victorian pub with wonderful, original mirrors.

The new landlord problem recurred, and at the beginning of 1991 we moved to the Old Farmhouse, also in Kentish Town Road. That was an excellent room – big enough for our big nights without feeling too big for smaller ones. It also had a fine wooden floor, making for excellent acoustics – it was a shame about the traffic noise and the frequent police sirens on the main road outside, but somehow they didn’t interfere too much. We were there for 10 years (during which time it had three names, the other two being Dolly Fossett’s and O’Reilly’s, and I became the sole organiser in 1991, when Mike Butcher left), until a new landlady decided she didn’t want us there.

I had to find another venue at very short notice – never easy, especially for a club that meets on Saturday nights in London – and we ended up in a smaller room at the Golden Lion for a year and a half, and in the Cock Tavern near Euston for a year, after which we moved to the Exmouth Arms, which had a good room and a great location, only two or three minutes’ walk from Euston station. We met there from September 2003 till January 2015, when the pub was sold.

We had many great nights there – far too many to mention. It’s now a backpackers’ hostel, and, of course, it’s an ideal location for that, but it was an excellent location for a folk club too. The ground floor still functions as a pub.

I spent weeks tramping the streets, trying to find a suitable venue – I must have visited most of the pubs in the parts of town that were anywhere near where we’d been – and eventually found our present venue, the Calthorpe Arms on Gray’s Inn Road, a friendly local pub with a good room, about 10 minutes’ walk from King’s Cross station.

I run the club with the support of several excellent residents and Tony Whitford, who has been doing a great job on the door since 1991, and who does the website. The club’s current resident performers are Peta Webb and Ken Hall, Bob Wakeling, Sue Williams and Frankie Cleeve, Amanda MacLean, and Katrina Rublowska. We have had many fine singers and musicians as residents over the years – it’s too long a list to name everyone, but they have included Barry Dransfield, Tim Laycock, Annie Power, Jim Mageean, Packie Byrne and Bonnie Shaljean, Lea Nicholson, Pete Cooper, Anne Lister, Maryeagle, Janet Russell, Anonyma, Stéafán Hannigan, Gail Williams and Jim Younger.

In December this year, the club will be 60 years old. That gives me a small problem, because until a few years ago I had always dated it from 1974, when our group took it over – but, in fact, we took over an existing club, which had simply been in suspension for a few months. The last anniversary we celebrated was in 2014, which I referred to as the 40th, but which was really the 54th. I dare say it will cause some confusion that I now talk about 2020 as the club’s 60th year – I hope this article will do some of the explaining for me.

This article was first published in EDS, the magazine of the English Folk Dance & Song Society. It appeared in Folk London 308, August-September 2020