The nominations are open for this year?s Southwark Blue Plaque. We will be detailing the achievements of each nominee on the shortlist over the coming weeks.
While all those nominated for a Southwark Blue Plaque deserve recognition, the Reverend James ?Jimmy? Butterworth is a prime contender, writes Neil Crossfield…
Unfortunately a recent application by local group the Walworth Society for an English Heritage Blue Plaque to honour him has been unsuccessful, as his profile does not quite meet their strict criteria, but it is hoped that a Southwark Blue Plaque would go some way to make up for this.
The diminutive ?Jimmy? Butterworth stood only 4 feet 11 inches tall, but he was, in many ways, a giant of a man. Although he finished his service at his pioneering youth group Clubland in 1978, he is still fondly remembered by many in Walworth and beyond. If a plaque could be fitted near the iconic entrance to Clubland next year, it would be particularly significant as it would mark the 100th anniversary of his coming to Walworth.
Arriving as a probationary minister in the summer of 1922, he found the old Walworth Methodist Church in a very sorry state. The building was dilapidated and the congregation diminishing but these were minor inconveniences compared to what he witnessed in the streets around. Walworth was at this time, very poor and extremely crowded.
Still only 25 years old himself, Jimmy quickly made his mark. Starting with a Bible class of just six local boys, his enthusiasm and compassion quickly attracted more. Soon his youth club expanded into the disused basement of the church. Yet Jimmy was not one to make do with second best and he embarked on a mission to develop what would become Clubland.
In his opinion, nothing was too good for the young people of Walworth, and with remarkable energy and vision, he launched himself into a major fundraising campaign to enable him to build a new base for his activities. Designed by the famous architect Sir Edward Maufe, the magnificent new Clubland Church was officially opened on October 1 1929. For its time, it was state of the art. Apart from a new church, it boasted meeting rooms, studios, kitchens, games rooms, workshops and even a roof playground.
This was not just another boys? club; the amenities were superb and of the highest quality. Clubland?s girls’ club had been formed in 1925, and perhaps progressively for the period, they enjoyed similar facilities, also built to the highest standards.
The whole of the Clubland complex was not completed until May 20 1939, when it was opened by Queen Mary. Sadly, it was not to last long, as less than two years later, parts of the building were severely damaged by incendiary bombs on the night of May 10 1941.
It is testament to the loyalty of the members that they valiantly attempted to put out the flames to save their club, until ordered away by the police. This could have proved the end of Clubland, but the indomitable Jimmy was not one to let such a setback destroy his vision.
Once again, he used his fantastic ability to raise money from the great and the good to support his vision. Post-war Britain was a time of austerity, but Jimmy had managed to raise enough money to rebuild Clubland by 1964, this time opened by the Queen Mother. This is the building which still stands today.
Using his personality, charisma and charm, Jimmy was able to forge links with a variety of wealthy people and get them to donate money to build and then rebuild Clubland. Memorial stones in the courtyard of the present-day building show the amazing variety of people who supported Clubland, from film stars like John Mills, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Oliver, to world famous comedian Bob Hope, future US politician Robert Kennedy and many others. Jimmy tirelessly worked to raise money, not for any personal gain but because he knew that without this support, Clubland could not exist.
Another of his qualities was his ability to engage with the young people in an egalitarian and democratic manner. While other organisations like the Scouts or Boys? Brigades had strict hierarchical structures, overseen by adults in positions of authority, Butterworth encouraged the members of his club to take a full and active part in its running.
Self-governing ?Parliaments? were formed, and interestingly, all members had to pay a subscription fee and take part in fundraising activities. Though many of the members may have struggled, the sacrifices they made to find this money meant that they were more invested in the club, and as Jimmy himself would say, they would be ?partners not passengers?. His approach to youth work was quite radical at the time and people came from far and wide to observe and learn from his methods.
While the work done by Jimmy at Clubland was remarkable, this type of project was not unique in south-east London. Such was the deprivation found there, Walworth acted as a magnet to many different churches and charitable bodies, who were drawn into the vicinity to engage in work to alleviate the suffering and poor conditions they encountered. The university settlement movement was active with Pembroke and Cambridge Houses establishing missions. Likewise, public schools like Wellington College and Dulwich College had also operated clubs and missions in Walworth.
However, what set Jimmy apart from the type of workers associated with the settlement movement was that he himself had come from humble roots and had much in common with the community in which he lived and worked.
Born into a poor family in Lancashire in 1897, Jimmy was a bright boy but through financial necessity was sent to work in a bleaching works at the age of twelve. At the age of thirteen, his father took his own life and Jimmy took on the role of the head of family, working hard to support his mother and siblings. While those people who worked with the other social service groups did admirable work, their middle class upbringings perhaps meant that they did not fully comprehend the experience of the communities they worked in.
Butterworth had first-hand knowledge of hardship, loss and adversity which served him well throughout his ministry.
Much has been written about the work carried out in the club, from the holidays to Guernsey to Michael Caine’s debut on the stage at Clubland. It has variously been described as ?The Temple of Youth? or ?a finishing school for working boys and girls? but, whatever we call it, Clubland was an inspiration for many young people from Walworth and surrounding areas.
It is impossible to quantify just how much of a positive impact it had over the half a century Clubland operated, but we can say with great certainty, that the Reverend James ?Jimmy? Butterworth was the driving force behind it and that he deserves to be recognised with a Southwark Blue Plaque.