THE Topic (Folk Club) was founded in September 1956, by Alex Eaton and friends. It’s still going now, after 66 years, and is recognised as the oldest continuously-operating folk club in the world.

In 1988, Alex wrote an article for Tykes News about the club’s origins, in passing marvelling at how it had survived for over 30 years. Much of what follows is taken from that article.

The first meeting of what was to become the Topic was held on the third floor of Laycock’s Temperance Hotel in Albion Court, just off Kirkgate, in central Bradford. It was a well-known venue for political debates, and in 1891 had hosted the first meeting of what became the Independent Labour Party. The building is still standing, though now in disrepair.

Though only in his early 20s, Alex had been active for many years in political and musical circles, including the Workers’ Musical Association (WMA), which aimed to help ‘ordinary’ people make and enjoy music Alex hoped to start a WMA branch in Bradford; with the help of those who assembled that evening, many of whom were still at school.

Alex remembers “...the room was dingy, dusty and depressing. We slumped in the few chairs round the stained, green baize-covered table where political orators had dispensed their wisdom. I had the only instrument, a cello-bodied jazz guitar; but we sang and talked a long time. We continued to meet there every Friday. We had no name and no audience but our hopes were high.”

Within two months, there was sufficient enthusiasm for the group to mount a ‘Music for Youth’ weekend at a hostel near Ilkley. It was led by Professor John Hasted from London, who later became a guiding spirit for the Topic. He played banjo, guitar, accordion and piano, knew hundreds of folk songs; and was happy to pass his knowledge on. Harry Jackson, music teacher and conductor of the Shipley Co-op choir, helped with ‘reading the dots’ and using voices properly. It was so successful that a repeat event was held the following year, culminating in an impromptu lunchtime concert in the Cow and Calf Hotel. Alex recalled: “We were a sensation. People crowded in from all directions and we played and sang far into the afternoon.”

The songs the group learned were only available in sheet music form, or in magazines such as ‘Sing’ founded by John Hasted for the London Youth Choir. This featured English songs collected by Ewan McColl or earlier by Cecil Sharp, and the traditions of Welsh, Scottish and Irish folk songs. You’d learn the lyrics, and find someone who ‘knew the dots’ for the tune. Since few people played a musical instrument, songs were sung in choral harmony. As Alex recalled: “We were gathering lots of information from many directions, but we didn’t know how best to disseminate it.”

In the mid-1950s, there were few opportunities to hear folk, or even ‘pop’ music. The wireless (as it was known) was limited to the BBC’s three channels: Home Service, Light Programme and Third Network. Only in 1955 did the Light Programme introduce Pick of the Pops, with David Jacobs and Alan Freeman playing ‘pop songs’ based on ‘charts’ derived from record sales.

Few households had television sets. Better-off households might have a ‘radiogram’; a large combination gramophone-player and radio; but small portable record-players like the Dansette did not become widely available until the 60s.

Already by the mid-50s, young people wanted to put the war behind them, and to carve out their own social and musical identity. And then came Skiffle. Suddenly, here was a popular medium through which the folk music the Topic had nurtured could find a wider expression. Young people started to improvise with musical instruments such as the washboard, jugs, and tea-chest bass. Even the 14-year-old John Lennon’s first band, the Quarrymen, was a skiffle group. Lonny Donegan was singing about dustmen; and offering radical songs like Rock Island Line. Topic members bought guitars, and even learned to play them.

Attendance at the Laycock Rooms meetings mushroomed. Musicians would arrive unannounced, wanting to perform. Some rock-climbers joined, having chanced upon the Cow and Calf concert. Proper musicians like Ewan McColl, Shirley Collins and Rennie Pickles would visit, just to perform to a sympathetic audience. Most visitors were accommodated overnight by Alex and his wife Louise. The Club met on Fridays to practise, and gave concerts on Saturdays, charging entry money to pay for books and magazines. Everything was booming. A police raid found nothing illegal, but advised limiting numbers to 100, in case of fire.

But things were changing. Laycock’s Temperance Hotel had become the Dragon and Peacock Chinese restaurant, which itself grew so popular it needed the whole building. The Topic had to move. As did Alex and Louise. The Topic had taken over their lives, and a disagreement (over the acceptability of rock and roll) led to their temporarily parting active company with the Club.

But the Topic now had a name, a constitution, elected officers, and a momentum of its own.

l The next article will chart the Topic’s progress through the ups and downs of the next 60 years.

But remember, we’re still active today! Our website - - shows our current Shipley location, The Groove Pad, and our weekly programme (Thursdays). We’d love to see you - to play or sing, or even just listen.