Puffers to Pemps

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On the fifth anniversary of the demolition of one iconic Wigan landmark, we take in some 2009 memories of the place from Tony Topping… 

This summer a legend passed away, loved by some and hated by many. If your thinking Michael Jackson think again dear friend, the legend was Barbara Calderbank.

My association with Barbara, such as it was, started around 1974/75. It’s hard to put a definite starting point to my Puffers experience but my good friend Tony Lowe assures me it was around this time. Puffers was a nightclub of sorts which later evolved into “Pemps” Well I say nightclub, it was more like a speakeasy from an old gangster movie but it holds a special place in the memory of me and hundreds of others. Come with me and we’ll take a trip back there, let’s start at the beginning shall we?

The start of the evening for me usually meant a trek up to the Miners Arms in Kitt Green, local for my mates but not for me. The Miners was, and I gather still is, a warm friendly old fashioned type of pub. It was run by Dick and Nan an elderly Scottish couple. They didn’t smile much but they ran a good pub and tolerated the antics of the young men who met there with a resigned air. Ah the follies of youth!

After a few pints in there we would catch the 8pm bus down to town, next stop the Vic!

The Victoria Hotel was nearly always the starting point for us in the town centre, the bus stopped just outside it’s once revolving doors. It was a popular pub and always packed early doors because of its convenient drop off. We spent one memorable night in here in the 70’s when the pub ran out of ale during the national 3 day week. I, Tony Lowe & Billy Harrison bought 3 Party Seven cans and drank them instead.

Next up was The Clarence, my favourite pub at that time. I loved it in here, half of Marsh Green could be found down at the bottom end of the pub, lads and girls, we all knew one another. A fond though slightly “sick” memory of this place occurred when somebody had spewed up in the little hallway that led to the toilets. No lights and an “oilcloth” floor led to some hilarious slip sliding away. It was a pleasure to watch some of the poseurs emerge from the bogs covered in you know what.

Over the road now to our next port of call, the Minorca. The Minorca was another nice pub but the ale was terrible so I would switch from my usual tipple of a pint of mixed to a pint of lager and lime. Well it was either that or Snakebite and the latter usually ended up with me crawling home like a reptile so I tended to drink the girly stuff. The Minorca also had a stable bar but I never saw any horses drinking in there.

Upstairs they had a restaurant, a Berni Inn, where you could have a cracking meal. This was the place for a special occasion such as when you somehow managed to get a female to agree to a date. You couldn’t go wrong with Prawn Cocktail to start, Steak & Chips with a tomato, peas, mushrooms and onion ring, and for sweet, Black Forest Gateaux, proper grub. All washed down with a bottle of Blue Nun.

Around £4:50 all in but I suggest you give the waiter a fiver to impress your girl.

Hey who am I kidding, a Wigan girl was lucky if she managed to get a bag of open chips from Jimmy’s but me and the wife did have a meal in there when we got engaged, the Minorca not Jimmy’s.

Out of here and back across the road to the Bees Knees. It was originally the Dog & Partridge with a clientele consisting entirely of blokes with flat caps on and the only time we went in there was for a wee. Then it changed ownership and was completely revamped by someone who had a Jungle/Football fixation. Plastic vegetation hung down from the ceiling everywhere and football programmes were pinned up along side them. Sort of a Les Bagg in the Amazon theme.

It was the first theme pub in Wigan. Until then the only remotely themed pubs in Wigan were The Crofters and The Ship. The theme in the Crofters was “Getting your head kicked in just for being there” The Crofters was a well know latics fans watering hole as you all well know.

In fact Wigan Athletic was formed in one of the upstairs rooms. I dare say the gentlemen who formed the club were much more refined than its 70’s clientele but it was a pub dear to our hearts. After one “disagreement” in there the entire floor was covered in broken glass and you had to walk on the seats to get out. The lads in here though were handy to have when you found yourself in a tight corner home or away and they were latics through and through.

The Ship on the other hand hadn’t changed much since the 1940’s and it attracted like minded customers. The theme in here was “Seedy smoky and Santogen” Old blokes with baggy trousers and braces, shirt & tie and what looked like demob suits. The old women wore thick makeup in a futile attempt to look young but sadly ended up looking like Bette Davis in “Whatever happened to Baby Jane?” It was the haunt of aging prostitutes and was one of the last pubs in Wigan to resist change to its dying day. A bulldozer has no conscience though and a great old character was eventually razed to the ground in the name of progress. Mind you they left the old façade up.

The Raven was another pub we frequented and was a “proper” pub with a mixture of youngsters and old characters one of which was the legendary Billy Davies.

After the Crofters we would nip into the “Brick” which was like the Crofters younger brother, smaller but just as hard. Allsorts frequented this place, young nutters, old nutters and downright psychopaths. Underage drinkers mixed in with veteran alcoholics and I could never call it one of my favourite pubs. It also attracted a large latics following.
More often than not we would make our way back to the good old Clarence after the Brick. When the last orders were over it was onto our grand finale, the piece de resistance, Puffers.

Puffers was so named because of its proximity near the railway tracks i.e. Puffing Billy’s (Steam Trains) and not because of its gay clientele so get that thought out of your head. From the outside it looked like a big coal bunker or a tool store. Windowless and squat with a flat roof I dread to think what Prince Charles would have thought of this carbuncle. He wouldn’t have got in anyway.

Every weekend people formed an untidy scrum outside the little doorway hoping to catch Barbara’s beady eye. It was a scene reminiscent of those miracle of birth documentaries that you see as the sperm desperately try to enter the egg. The longer the Empress whoops, I mean Barbara, took the more desperate the crowd became.

You didn’t want to upset her so you politely smiled and raised your hand to attract her attention, it was like being at school. When that didn’t work you shouted out words of encouragement, mine being a rather pathetic “Barbara, Barbara!” It usually got drowned out though by someone impatiently shouting “Bitch!” Why did the bitch callers always have to be stood near me? Barbara’s head would swivel round and cast an accusing glare in my direction and everyone near me would point out wildly at someone else “It was him, it was him!”

This went on for ages and ages and ages until finally she pointed at you and said “YOU” Yes! At last and you started out for the door but this crowd didn’t like it and you had to force your way through as they begrudgingly elbowed, kicked and tripped you on your way. And if you were really cocky or drunk you could flick the crowd the V’s as you went through the door. Just don’t let Babs see you.

Once inside you could see the L shaped club in all its glory, cocktail bar to your left and main bar behind the dance floor on your right. The dancing area was cordoned off with wooden planks and each corner of the dance floor had a beer barrel strategically placed.

“Our” barrel was the one nearest the main bar and we had quite a gang in those days, around 15 to 20 of us most weekends. A group of us would stand round the barrel watching the girls dancing and the rest would sit on the seats near the wall. I was a barrel hugger along with Tony Lowe and Billy Harrison.

Tony recalls that there was another unorthodox way to enter the club “You could get in via the beer garden by climbing onto the roof. That’s where people used to drop in doing a “colditz” i.e. sneak in without paying. I only did it once with Bev Hill and Billy Harrison. Of course Billy being Billy he managed to rip his arm open on the barbed wire and finished up in the Infirmary. Me and Bev completed the drop in and then Bev went straight home without having a drink. He just wanted to say he’d done it”

Of course the club wasn’t the most palatial and what carpet there was stuck to your platform shoes but the atmosphere was brilliant. Stey Priestley introduced me to a few new drinks in there, Rum & Black and Pernod & Black. At the time I thought they were brilliant, one tasted just like blackcurrant and the other just like aniseed. Sadly my stomach tended to disagree and I haven’t touched either of those drinks since.

Most of the time we stuck to pints and our barrel table would be filled to the rim with dripped ale by the end of the night. On our first ever Christmas there in 1974 I think, Barbara kissed us all good night as we left and gave us a gold coloured pen and key ring.

The DJ at Puffers was really good, sadly I can’t remember his name, think it was John, but he would play all our requests. Top bloke who knew his music and I think he was a bit of a soulie at heart. We always stayed till the end and when the last record finished it was outside to make your way to the final event of the evening, the Taxi Rank Rumble.

The queue was always massive because everywhere shut at 2am and I feel like I’ve spent half of my life in that deadly slow crawl to the head of the line. The fun and games would always start when somebody attempted to sneak in the queue and fights frequently broke out. Two blokes would start, their girlfriends would join in, then their friends, then the people they bumped into and before you knew it two became twenty. And all the time the queue would shuffle forward as they fought in the road.

When I finally got my drunken carcass home and if I hadn’t lost my key again, I would stand rocking at the bottom of the stairs then take a run and the forward momentum would carry me to the top to my little bed. My Mam told me that my Dad used to say that I was the only man he knew who could fall upstairs.

Our love affair with Puffers came to an end when they started putting strippers on and they started attracting undesirables like Tony’s brother. Only joking Joe!

Billy never forgave it from the time he asked the new young DJ for something by Bread and the whippersnapper said “this is for the bloke who wanted Bread well here’s some Jam to go with it!”

By this time another new nightclub had opened that would steal the hearts of our gang, Blutos.

But that’s another story.

Dedicated to John, a very good friend who looked after the gang.

Tony Topping

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