ARE YOU GOING TO THE WINKIE?
Today as we drive or walk along the Woodstock past the old Gooseberry Corner at the Beersbridge Road junction there is a row of new single storey shops. 100 years ago this was Belfasts if not Irelands first leisure complex and it was built and paid for not by State but by the pennies of the men and women who formed the Willowfield Unionist Association. It was during the Home Rule period and the signing of the Covenant that a local detachment of the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed, and the need for a drill hall arose. They ran jumble sales and lottery draws and bought bricks amongst other things to raise the funds for the hall, whilst a number of prominent business people from the area also give gifts of both money and kind. As a result of this fundraising they were able to purchase the premises of Wilson & Carlisle–better known as the Belfast Paint Company– at 211-215 Woodstock Road, which was then converted to suit their needs.
The Opening of the Halls
On Easter Monday 1914 Lord Edward Carson officially opened the Willowfield Unionist Club, and so began a love affair with the people of Willowfield and further afield that was to last for over sixty years. It was to give so much enjoyment to many tens of thousands of people. The opening was described as a grand gala affair with the East Belfast U.V.F. on parade along with local Orangemen and of course bands. A funfair was held in the grounds of Nettlefield House –the home of the Lewis family and now the site of Nettlefield Primary School.
What they were used for.
The main hall in the building was used as a drill hall for the local volunteers and the local gun club used the large room to the rear as a shooting range. However with the outbreak of the First World War and the forming of the 36th Ulster Division the shooting range was converted into a Picture House, and the Drill hall was then used as a dance hall and variety clubroom. So in 1915 the building took on the shape that was to provide entertainment to all age groups over the next three or four generations. The Club at this time had a 1,000 seat Picture House, a Dance hall, a Library, a quite reading room, a games room, and a Snooker Room. It also had a modern two bedroom apartment for the caretaker and his family and there were also a couple of offices that only certain people were permitted to use.
The Willowfield Picture House.
The “Winkie” as it was locally called was first opened in 1916 as a 1,000 seat Picture House and at this time it had wooden forms for the seating and a piano and fiddle player to accompany the silent films. After the war in the early 1920’s the Winkie was given a face lift and new soft seats were installed. There was a new sound system put in with the coming of the talkies. The entrance at this time was by the entry at Cherryville Street, but later there was an entrance by the front of the building and this was by a long white glazed brick corridor and up a flight of stairs. The pictures was staffed by the same people for years, one was at the ticket office at the front entrance, one was at the top of the stairs to check your ticket, and two others showed you to your seat, one of these was being the famous “One armed Harry”. Before we move on there are many people who would have their own stories and memories of the Winkie. One of my strongest memories, concerns a time during the 1950’s when money was short and there was a good film on. The plan was that we put together all our odds and got the entrance money for one of us to get in. The one that was selected had to be a good shot with a catapult. The idea behind this was that the Willowfield had as aisle lights, “gaslights” to show the way to the Toilets. When the lights went down, the one who went in had to ping the gas mantels so as to release the gas. It was then that the staff had to open the doors into the entry. This was to let the gas fumes out it, and it was at this point that those of us hiding outside charged in and in the confusion the staff did not know who paid in and who did not pay. Many a free film was to be seen during this time, and because of the shortage of staff they could not stop it, I think that the bottom line is that it was part of the game.
The Sports and Music Section.
The club consisted of many outlets and the most famous of these were the football section. Willowfield brought home the Irish Cup in 1928 and were runners up in 1924, while they also hold a record that cannot be beaten. In 1928 they also won the Steel & Sons Cup, the County Antrim Shield and the Intermediate League & Cup. Not bad for a junior team. It is now not possible for one team to win the Steel & Sons and the Irish Cup in the same season. The bowling section was also champions, and the snooker team won many trophies and championships. There was also a cricket section and a cycle club and of course the famous Willowfield Harriers running club was born out of the “Winkie”
The club also boosted a world champion Accordion Band, and a championship Brass and Silver Band.
The library was used a lot as it was the only means for some to keep up with the news as they supplied all the daily newspapers free of charge, and the quite reading room was the ideal place to read them.
The Willowfield Dance Hall was their Ballroom of romance and many a match in the marriage stakes was found in this hall during its lifetime, as it was sometimes said they got together in the Winkie, got wed in Church and had their reception at the Winkie. This part of the building was also used for Jumble Sales, Whist Drives, Beetle Drives and Card Games.
St Patrick’s Night was a gala night and tickets were much sought after as a full night’s entertainment was guaranteed,
The night started with a private showing in the Picture House, and this was usually a couple of films that had not been shown before in East Belfast. At the end of the film people were ushered into the ballroom for a supper, and this was followed by a dance featuring local entertainers until the early hours of the morning. What a difference time has made as there was Irish Dancing and Music and all this by the men who were in the 36th Ulster Division and the Willowfield U V F and Y C V.
There were also great community nights and events that hold many memories for the people of Willowfield.
When the Lights went Down.
During the 1960s which was a period of great change there was more money around and people started to look at the other social events that were opening up. The wind down to the last Picture Show had begun, as the Cinema was sold in the late 1960’s and it was renamed the Rex. It was also used as a bingo hall for a while and also it hosted Concerts to raise money for the Orange Cross– an organization that raised funds for the Loyalist Prisoners and their families. The last Picture Show was in April 1973, and as it closed its doors for the last time all that was left were the memories, and the ghosts of the past 60 wonderful years of the Willowfield. The snooker hall remained open until 1977 when it along with the main building was burnt to the ground by vandals. All that remains of the site today is the Willowfield War Memorial erected in memory of those who did not return from the Great War and therefore did not get to enjoy what they helped to create.
On closing I would like to remind you that the halls were also used as a Church, first of all for Templemore Avenue Hall in the 1930s as they where having their own Church built. The Iron Hall Assembly used it after the Blitz as their hall was being rebuilt, and it was also used as a Mosque in the 1970s by the Indian community, so you can see it was a club of diversity. As in all good films the cowboys ride into the sunset. Alas this was their sunset, but I am sure that when in 1914 the fore bearers of this establishment did not envisage that they had opened the first
LEISURE CENTRE IN THE BRITISH ISLES.