Pushed to the brink of financial collapse, and with a somewhat heavy heart the Save Our Stute (SOS) campaign and committee of Shildon Railway Institute have placed a decision on Institute's future into the hands of its surrounding community by launching a public appeal for assistance to try to bring it back to a financial footing sound enough for it to survive the remainder of the Coronavirus pandemic; though the duration of that is unknown.
“This really isn’t what we wanted to have to do,” said Dave Reynolds, one of the SOS campaign founders from its original outset in April 2019, “the work we were doing with the Committee here clearly showed the Institute is both viable and loved and wanted by people here. The virus, though, and the restrictions consequently imposed upon us have prevented us from doing all the things we do best, like host your celebrations and putting on events. We had so much planned and everything has been cancelled. Yet as the Institute’s Treasurer advised us, the bills keep coming. With a grand old building like this one, in many ways quite inefficient, some of those bills such as for heating and lighting can be eye popping. We have a plan for that and the building’s overall condition in the longer term but we won’t get to drive that forward if Shildon Railway Institute ceases to exist.”
“We know that when things return to normal, which they will, this Institute will again have a key part to play at the heart of its community.”
“We know that so many organisations in what is considered to be part of the ‘hospitality sector’ are hurting badly through the effects of the virus. We do feel that Shildon has already lost too much to let this go without a fight. Not just things we’ve lost since the famous railway works here closed. A quick glance around the town even today shows a secondary school campus on the brink of expected closure, casting doubt on the viability of its neighbouring county council run leisure centre. The Institute has belonged to its townspeople members for 187 years, and still has an important part to play. It is worth fighting for, and worth us being humbled enough to ask for help through this unique situation.”
Shildon Railway Institute is a members association based in Shildon, County Durham, that was founded in 1833 by, among others, the railway pioneer Timothy Hackworth who served as its first president. It is therefore the oldest continuous membership organisation associated with the railways in the world.
Originally formed as a Mechanics Institute with educational purposes in mind the Institute the Institute has evolved many times throughout its 187 year history and has campaigned for community improvements and provided services and opportunities for the community that surrounds it. In the past the Institute has benefited from the patronage of rail companies, but in recent years has relied upon the support of its members and community.
Today the Institute is sited in its latest premises, a Grade II listed building on Redworth Road in the New Shildon area of the town which is held in trust on behalf of the members. This part of the town has very few other community facilities. The building, currently in a degrading condition, was built by the North Eastern Railway Company in 1913 and has a variety of flexible spaces to suit a wide range of community purposes.
The New Shildon area has a mixed social demographic, though significant social deprivation is highly evident. Much of the accommodation in the surrounding streets is low value rented with considerable ingress from other towns and regions and there are many clusters of sheltered housing on the Institute’s doorstep. The Institute is particularly a very popular social destination and meeting place for older residents of the neighbourhood many of whom live alone. It provides relief from loneliness and is a welcoming and inclusive environment with a positive influence on community cohesion.
In recent decades, under the guidance of past committees, the Institute had adopted a social club style model and limited its outreach to the community. This led to a situation where the organisation hit financial difficulties. Early in 2019 the Institute teamed up in a long term partnership with group that formed to help the Institute survive and became the volunteer consultancy organisation the Shildon Heritage Alliance CIC and consequently a Save Our Stute campaign was launched with excellent effect.
The Shildon Heritage Alliance (SHA) consists of local volunteers with a wide variety of business expertise in different disciplines from business organisation and process to artwork and marketing, digital or otherwise. All work undertaken by the volunteers and SHA is given free of charge, with members even buying their own Save Our Stute campaign polo shirts which they wear when helping out at the Institute.
Over the last 16 months the Shildon Heritage Alliance CIC and Institute committee and staff have worked together to invigorate the Institute for the short term and reimagine its purpose for the future. A five year blueprint to reform and restore the Institute has been set out and good progress made. With Shildon being one of the towns that will be at the centre of steam passenger railway bicentenary celebrations in 2025, a key objective is to make the Institute a hub for Shildon’s community celebrations that year and to ensure that it has a vision and purpose that matches its community’s needs for the century ahead.
Prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus in spring 2020, the Save Our Stute campaign has been tremendously successful. The volunteers from the SHA organising and marketing a diverse portfolio of community events targeted at all sectors of the community. Ticket and fundraising proceeds approaching £10,000 from events organised by the Save Our Stute campaign have been re-invested in the Institute enabling critical roof repairs, general repairs and spruce-ups to make the building safer and more pleasant to visit. The funds raised also contributed to the cost of Covid safety equipment and changes. The SHA has also commissioned an initial building structural survey through chartered surveying company Eddisons. In addition the SHA members volunteer to provide services for the Institute such as door duty and cleaning throughout the pandemic, delivering advertising and basic maintenance duties.
The events organised by the SHA included film screenings, a railway works reunion, beer festival, Christmas fayre, quizzes, children’s discos, brass concerts, thought provoking talks, themed afternoon teas and many others. These perfectly complemented the Institute’s own programme of private bookings for family and community events from children’s birthdays, where the main hall is ideal for hosting large inflatables, to funerals where the intimacy of the lounge provides a perfect setting. The Institute makes its spaces available to the community at no cost.
The SHA has also initiated new relationships with the Institute with a view to co-operate with heritage focused organisations including Locomotion (the National Railway Museum at Shildon), The Friends of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the Brusselton Incline Group, the Friends of The Wizard and Typhoon (a brass history group concerning two composers that were also one-time members of the Institute) and the Shildon History Recall Society. In conjunction with the Institute the SHA has produced, through volunteer contribution only, two heritage films, one of which features Institute members speaking of their time working at Shildon Railway Works. They are working on a third.
The SHA has also helped develop the Institute in ways that make it easier and more accessible to interact with. A new easily recognisable brand has been developed, the process for applying for membership simplified, a website created enabling users to raise a booking request at any time of day, and to find out about what’s coming up. The SHA volunteers also manage the Institute’s social media.
At the end of the last financial year the Institute had become a profitable concern and looked secure and capable of sustained self-sufficiency for the first time in many years. Community and members were very positive about its prospects.
The Covid pandemic has, however, reversed our progress towards saving Shildon Railway Institute to the extent that the future of the organisation and building are again under threat, and this 187 year old organisation on the brink of financial collapse. Periods of closure under ‘lockdown’, the virus, and tight local and national restrictions scared our regular visitors reducing customer numbers and reduced our opening hours by 18%. Conversely with table service a necessity almost doubling staff cost and the need for PPE and extra cleaning regimes our daily costs have spiralled. Bills for utilities remain broadly the same.
The Institute has taken the pandemic very seriously and has developed facilities and procedures to make it one of the safest places to socialise distantly - but has paid a price in doing so. We recognise that a furlough scheme has been introduced to enable us to look after our one full time and six part time member of staff however this still requires that we pay a percentage of wages whilst not receiving any money through custom. There are other bills and costs for which we receive no support. Our members are not, on the whole, wealthy and not in a position to support us financially any more than they already do. Without financial support to help the organisation’s resilience through the next few months we are concerned that the Institute will fold permanently.
That would be not only a tragedy for our surrounding community and members, but also a blow to Shildon's railway heritage story of which the Institute has thus far been an enduring lagacy.
(16 Nov 2020)