Star Coffee House | Institute and Hall | Part 2

As the Star complex expanded it is difficult, without any plans surviving and no other evidence to explain, to be absolutely sure where the facilities that are known about were situated. However it is possible to make some educated guesses. Within the Coffee House building there was a bar/refreshment room, this facility along with the reading room where a selection of newspapers and periodicals was available, were the only rooms open on Christmas Day between 6-10 p.m. It is therefore very likely that they were situated in the same building. There was also living accommodation for the Manager and his family within that building. The Coffee House was a members only facility, and membership appears to have been restricted to men who were aged over 18 years. It has not been possible to ascertain how much membership cost or the regularity of payments. Bearing in mind that it was aimed at the working man, the subscription was likely to have been modest and could have been paid as often as on a weekly basis.


With the building of the Men’s Institute in 1884, the Trustees took the opportunity to provide a range of activities that they hoped would appeal to the working man and keep him away from the demon drink, some succeeded and some did not! Some of the activities appealed to boys who were younger than those previously allowed membership. This resulted in the Trustees having to agree changes to the membership criteria. In November 1887 it was agreed that boys at 15 may become members, but would not be allowed into the large billiard room. This would be the first of a number of adjustments to maximise the use of the buildings that the Trustees would have to make over the years.


In the early months of 1887 the surviving Resolutions Book shows that the gymnasium was discussed on a regular basis. This facility is likely to have been in existence since the opening of the Institute, in 1884 and to have been situated in one of the large rooms on the ground floor of that building. It appears to have been a popular attraction and if non-members wished to make use of it they were able to pay what amounted to an admission charge just for the gymnasium.


In December 1887 the Trustees agreed to employ Mr Smith to attend the gymnasium three times a fortnight, at a cost of 1 guinea per half year, from 1st January 1888. Half to be paid in advance and remainder at the end of the contract. Mr Smith appears to have been running exercise classes as on the 26th January 1888 the Trustees decreed that no-one under 16 was to be admitted to the adult exercises in the gymnasium. However lads under 16, but over 15 could be admitted to the gymnasium on Wednesdays and Fridays from 7 to 8.15 p.m. and on Saturdays from 4.30 to 6 p.m. “but not to perform on the parallel and horizontal bars and rings with their ordinary boots on. All lads not otherwise members of the Star to be sent away clear of all game rooms as soon as their allotted time is up at the gymnasium.” It was also agreed that two committee members should always be present when the lads were in practice, and no gloves were allowed— this final comment implies the lads were boxing, or rather bare knuckle fighting.


During the same Trustees meeting they decided to extend the stricture regarding the wearing of boots to all adults, with Thomas Meadows being requested to put up a notice to this effect.  The Trustees also authorised the purchase of 2 dozen single sticks and 2 of each dumb bells in weight 6, 5 and 4 lbs. It was also agreed for safety that another bed (mattress?) rather larger than the one used for the horizontal bars be procured.


Despite the Trustees doing much to encourage usage of the gymnasium by providing the facilities, employing someone to give exercise classes and by reducing the age of membership, after the initial interest the enthusiasm for the facility seems to have waned. By October 1888 the Trustees declared that they needed to “infuse life into Gymnasium”.  In December they renewed Smith’s contract for another season. But in October 1889 they decided that they would only start a gymnasium class and engage a teacher if forty names were given in to the manager by November 2nd 1889.  Forty names appeared not to have materialized as there is no further indication that classes were provided.

Septimus Drage to the left, trainer George Wheatley
Septimus Drage to the left, trainer George Wheatley

The gymnasium continued in use, with only the occasional mention by the Trustees after they had introduced a 1 shilling a quarter charge for lads of 15 and 16 years for gymnasium membership in January 1890. Presumably the facility was not very successful as in February 1894 the Trustees decided to sell all the gymnasium goods, the bagatelle and the little billiard board. The gymnasium then disappeared from the records.


This is pure speculation but during the ten years of its life the Star Institute gymnasium may have been used by Septimus Drage, Finedon’s most famous bare knuckle fighter. Drage was born in 1865, and for several years toured with Fatty Harvey’s fairground boxing booth. He returned to Finedon to work as a shoemaker, and lived out his life in a house next to what was the Gate Inn in High Street, dying in 1951.


More on the facilities, personalities and politics of the Star Institute next time.