Written by Geoff Wilding in 1982.
The focal point of the small north Wales village of Llay (rhymes with sigh) is its thriving Royal British Legion Club.The village, which lies four miles north of the busy market town of Wrexham was for many years a bustling mining community but with the closure of its pit, Llay Main has become part of the depressed North West with a higher than average unemployment rate.
Why then, in such a depressed area should the British Legion Club be so successful, attracting membership not only from the village itself but from other towns and villages to a radius of ten miles?”I think it’s because we at Llay are and always have been innovative and inventive, giving a lead for others to follow,” says club secretary,Neville Rogers. “We’re always trying to update our image, moving with the times, keeping up with current trends and trying to get away from the anachronism of poppy sellers one week in the year.
Our activities attract members right the way across the age and class spectrum, providing something for everyone seven nights a week, in fact our motto could be that of another famous institution,we never close! “Though today’s membership stands in excess of 6,000, Llay Legion started in a small way. From the outset it was open to new ideas and prepared to take risks which have happily paid off. The branch was formed back in 1923 and met in an old wooden hut but following the Second World War it was found that the meagre premises couldn’t fill the needs of the returning Servicemen.
Money was borrowed to build more substantial premises which were opened in 1953 and a year later, the Legion won the William Hancock award for the most progressive club in Wales (an award which they won again this year (1982)). Membership rose dramatically, quickly out growing the building, so that by 1958 Llay Legion was negotiating for larger premises. “At the time these seemed massive,” Neville Rogers recalls,”and this time we thought that perhaps we’d bitten off more than we could chew but by the late ‘sixties we’d enrolled so many more new members we were bursting at the seams.” Realising that quarts don’t fit into pint pots,the club just had to find or build yet larger premises. From branch funds they bought five acres of farmland and set to building the club, with its greatly improved facilities.
The present building opened on March 14, 1970, with a membership of 2,000. Since then it has more than tripled. The club’s concert hall with its full stage lighting and superb acoustic sound system attracts the best in local and national talent, top liners like Iris Williams, Matt Monroe, Keith Harris and Malcolm Vaughan and all accompanied by Llay’s own resident house band, a quartet of fine musicians led by Billy Scales who has been with the club for 23 years.
The hall seats an audience of 550 in comfort and members can eat and drink if they want to while watching the show.Llay’s appreciative audiences and its excellent stage and backstage facilities make the venue a performer’s dream. When not being used for variety and cabaret, the hall can be quickly adapted for regular amateur boxing tournaments and weekly tombola sessions.
For members who just want a quiet drink and a chat, there’s a separate lounge bar which seats 150 and for those who want a more challenging evening out, the games room accommodating 200 players offers darts, dominoes, pool, billiards and table tennis. Not all the club’s sports activities are of the indoor variety however, their number one football team plays each week in the Sunday football league. Says team manager, Glyn Bannister: “Since we were formed ten years ago, we’ve been so successful that we’ve won almost every cup there is to win in the Sunday league, so from next season we’re going into the Saturday amateur league, unfortunately we’ll have to start in the fourth division but with our enthusiasm and playing skills and of course a great deal of luck, hope to make first division status.”
One of the Legion’s great strengths is its awareness of other organisations in need of help and last year (1981) alone it made donations to 72 charities, the money coming mainly from its annual gala held in September, a spectacular event which brings in visitors by the 1,000.Their Christmas fayre is also a big fund raiser and from these two events last year they were able to give £1,000 to the Wrexham and District Handicapped Children Society and a further £1,000 to the Churchill Rehabilitation Centre at Maidstone.
In 1979 they donated £6,000 to Byng House Convalescent Home in Southport to provide much needed improvements. This year’s fund raising began with a Good Friday dance, and the proceeds from September’s Gala have already been earmarked for the Earl Haig Fund and Wrexham Handicapped Children’s Society. In common with many other Royal British Legion branches they are close to a Legion Housing Association complex which provides double and single accommodation for forty-six ex-Servicemen and their dependents at Cwrt Pontwmpath.
The club’s mini buses are pressed intoservice to take residents into nearby Wrexham for weekly supermarket visits,when not being used to ferry the darts and football teams to away matches. This year the club’s policy is to try to attract youngsters under the age of 18 into its newly formed Youth Section. “The only way that we can remain a dynamic, go-ahead club is to bring in more young people,” says club secretary Neville Rogers, “while at the same time taking care of our older members.
The last major war ended in 1945 and some of the veterans from that conflict are now in their sixties and seventies. So,to keep things moving along we must attract more young blood. We started earlier this year by running well supervised discos for the under 18s, no alcohol served, just soft drinks. At the beginning things were a bit slow but now that word has got around it’s quite a swinging affair with, on average, 400dancers coming to each session.
On the sports side, we’re hoping this year to field three junior football teams, to play other nearby Legion teams if they’ll accept our challenge. We’re also coaching youngsters in the art of boxing in the hope that we might perhaps discover a local junior champion. You never know! If any youngster comes to us with a bright idea for something new,we’re always prepared to listen and if we think it’s a possibility, we’ll follow it up.” In site and membership, Llay Royal British Legion is one of the most impressive and best organised in the country, last year winning the Ian Hamilton Cup and this year the Wales Area Cup for the most proficient branch.
There is a great feeling of harmony about the place, the members working and enjoying themselves as a team, with a sense of belonging and caring for each other. Theirs is not just an organisation on paper but a living, healthy community, possessing that special ingredient – vitality.
Written by Geoff Wilding of Rossett in 1982.
First published in The Legion July/August 1982 edition.