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Changing Times | The history of our town’s thriving RAFA club

I never cease to be amazed at the amount of our heritage that is hidden away behind façades that we walk regularly walk past.

 

The RAFA Club, situated in Waterloo Square, certainly falls into this category.

 

Within these premises there is a thriving club with facilities that include a snooker room, restaurant and bar.

 

There is also a very pleasant area which is used for a variety of entertainment, from speakers to bingo, regular social events to quiz evenings.

 

The national Royal Air Force Association (RAFA) has branches situated throughout the British Isles but only approximately one third of these have a club.

 

It is run as a business, with the RAFA branch owning the building and being registered as a charity. Meanwhile the club is involved in welfare events and, of course, the ever necessary fundraising activities.

 

Like most organisations today, all the officers are volunteers who give up their free time, something echoed throughout society today.

 

The local RAFA club raise thousands every year for the Wings appeal.

 

During the 1950s, members of the club could be seen entering the annual carnival with their own distinctive float.

 

Today, one of the most visual events is their annual Wings Week in September where they have street and house-to-house collections for the association.

 

The Bognor Regis Club has around 900 local members. At first I assumed that all members had to have connections with the Royal Air Force, but this is not correct.

 

Instead, they have to have a minimum of 51 per cent of members with Royal Air Force connections, the rest consisting of local people.

 

They are based in a very impressive building which was occupied by the Hotham Club from the time when it was built.

 

A report in February, 1928, stated ‘it was anticipated that the premises would be completed by March, 1928.’

 

The Hotham Club was purely for gentlemen and anyone wishing to become a member had to apply to a secretary.

 

If accepted, the initial subscription was £2.2s (£2.02) per annum for town members and £1.1s (£1.05) for country members.

 

There were also plans for an entrance fee, but not for the first 200 members.

 

If you take the time to look up at the wrought iron railings, on the front of the building you will see the letters ‘H and C’ clearly depicted as a permanent record of the club.

 

It is thought that the site of the building was used by the old St John’s church in Market Street, as a garden, possibly to a small parsonage.

 

Early pictures of Waterloo Square show a stone wall along this side of the square, which would have enclosed land near St John’s church.​

 

So far, I have been unable to find much information on the Hotham Club except that it was very definitely a ‘gentlemen’s club’ with a live-in steward who catered for all the needs of the members, such as arranging meals, obtaining newspapers, serving drinks etc.

 

During the 2nd World War, the nearby pier was renamed HMS St Barbara by the Royal Navy and their officers were invited to be members of the club.

 

At the end of the war, the naval officers presented their Red Ensign to the Hotham Club.

 

The RAFA organisation was first recognised in the town around 1946, after the 2nd World War, when a group of people started meeting in a small room above The White Horse public house in Chichester Road. They continued meeting there until 1954 when it became necessary to have larger premises. The group purchased an ex-army hospital building from RAF Tangmere for a charge of £450 and this was erected among trees in London Road.

 

The members carried out nearly 12 months of activities to raise money and get the site ready. The land was rented from the urban district council and the chairman. Mr E. M. Bates, proclaimed the building open in March, 1954.

 

The exact site was near to the police station where today we have Berrymill Close.

 

Membership and activities continued to grow until eventually in 1972 the rental agreement for the land was terminated and the club was on the move again.

 

This move was a major event for the club, as they were moving into ‘one of the finest branch headquarters in the country.’

 

They were taking over the Hotham Club, which was being sold because of the lack of use of the premises.

 

However, the club still contained all the leather chairs, small bar etc used by the ‘gentlemen’ prior to the war.

 

The building was going to take time and money from the members to maintain it.

 

The new premises cost the group £21,000, of which £7,000 had already been obtained, with the balance having to be raised in the coming months.

 

Mr Christopher Chataway, who was a member of parliament, opened the building.

 

The opening date was to coincide with the 54th anniversary of the formation of the RAF.

 

Other people present included Senior Royal Air Force officers and the chairman of Bognor Regis Urban District Council.

 

Currently, work is being carried out within the premises to comply with ever-increasing regulations but also to retain and maintain the impressive building.

 

One of the most memorable sights for me when I was shown round the building was the two glass domed ceilings, which allows light to flow out into the night sky.

 

Both these domes are covered externally with a weatherproof fibre glass.

 

Recently, I was lucky enough to be invited to an event at North Bersted to commemorate the work of 1310 Flight and No 83 Group Support Unit who worked on Bognor Regis ALG during the 2nd World War.

 

These squadrons have a strong connection with our RAFA club – a connection that has been forged over fruit cake parcels to the men when they are abroad.

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