LOOKING BACK - January 23, 2020 edition

The Woolpack pub

Thursday, 23rd January 2020, 6:00 am
John Phillpott, when he was an Advertiser reporter in the 1960s
John Phillpott, when he was an Advertiser reporter in the 1960s

Former Rugby Advertiser reporter John Phillpott recalls the heyday of legendary pub the Woolpack…

IF you were a Rugby youngster back in the 1960s, it was possible to find places of entertainment on any day of the week.

And there was indeed plenty to choose from. The Benn Memorial Hall staged Friday and Saturday night dances, the Brotherhood Hall hosted hops earlier in the week… and then for the quieter minded there was the folk club at the Clifton Inn.

But there was one venue that held an extra special place in the hearts of many of the town’s young people. And that was the Woolpack Inn.

The Woolpack was situated at 55 Union Street. Opened in 1874, it closed in 1979, and demolished in 1980 as part of the general redevelopment of the area.

Flats have now been built on the site and it’s therefore perhaps hard to imagine what it was like here from the perspective of the present. But half a century ago, the ‘Woolly’ was a rock ‘n’ roll hotspot, the highlight of the week being Beat Club 64, held every Thursday night.

Right from the start of the night’s proceedings, resident group The Cataracts always managed to get everyone dancing in that unforgettable upstairs room, the floor of which lifted and sank what seemed like several inches under the weight of the dancers.

There were no preoccupations with health and safety in those days.

I can’t recall who played bass in The Cataracts, but if I remember correctly, there was Roger Meakin on vocals and keyboards, Mick Pearson on lead guitar, and Johnny Armitage on drums.

They were also joined by a very talented saxophone player by the name of Tony Britnell, who subsequently went on to play with Rugby band Jigsaw and then with Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets.

The Cataracts were a very popular band in the Rugby area and also instrumental in attracting some top names, who amazingly managed to fit into that small top room and its tiny stage.

It was here that I saw Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds, plus boogie woogie piano player Champion Jack Dupree.

The latter really brought the house down, both metaphorically – and taking into account that aforesaid rickety floor – almost literally as well.

Dupree was the genuine article, too. An unashamedly extrovert entertainer with a raunchy sense of humour, he lived in exile in Yorkshire after having fled from New Orleans where his parents had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

Chris Farlowe visited the Woolpack just before hitting the top of the record charts with Out of Time, a song written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. His guitar player was Albert Lee, now regarded as being one of the finest guitarists in the history of rock.

Due to its predominantly young clientele, the Woolpack was frequently raided by the police, on the lookout for underage drinkers and drug users. There was a degree of drug use among Rugby’s young population at that time, mainly amphetamines and cannabis. Hard drugs had yet to arrive.

However, beer was probably the main poison of choice for most youngsters. Boys from Rugby School regularly sneaked in, having escaped for the night from that redoubtable establishment’s boarding houses by shinning down conveniently placed drainpipes.

As time went by, recorded music started being played by a new breed of entertainer called disc jockeys. Two names that spring to mind are Alan Longstaff and Tony ‘Big’ Fry, then very much a legend in Rugby.

Tony also staged a Wednesday night disc session at the Raglan Arms in Dunchurch Road and, on occasion, I deputised for him.

The pub was run by Frank Haines and his wife. Frank was a genial character who welcomed young people to his establishment, one of the few adults at the time who had no problem with rock music.

Tony ‘Big’ Fry roomed in a flat in Bath Street, Rugby, with the late Stu Colman, formerly of the Beat Preachers, and at that time bass player with The Caribbean.

This band had been formed out the nucleus of the Beat Preachers. But despite the release of a single, The Caribbean didn’t really connect with the record buying public.

Nevertheless, Stu went on to enjoy a glittering career in music, working with Shakin’ Stevens and the legendary Billy Fury. He later relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, where he worked as a songwriter and record producer. Stu died in 2018.

In recent years, during visits to my home town, I have occasionally wandered along to the site of The Woolpack. And in an instant, my thoughts will fly back down the years to the days when ‘The Woolly’ was the place to be on a Thursday night.

Footnote: John Phillpott is currently working on a memoir of his days as a reporter on the Rugby Advertiser. His current book Beef Cubes and Burdock: Memories of a 1950s Country Childhood chronicles his boyhood in Churchover. It is published by Austin Macauley and available on Amazon and at bookshops.