The Topic was founded in 1956 by Alex Eaton - once he had left the local Young Communist League choir - and some friends. It was the height of the Cold War, with Suez and the Hungarian Uprising dominating the headlines. From its very beginnings as a fairly informal opportunity for like-minded youths - many of them teenagers still at school - to get together and talk politics and sing folk songs or play skiffle, up to its current policy of around two-thirds guest acts, The Topic was always and remains now a weekly club (sometimes, in the earliest days, twice-weekly).
For more information about the early days written by people nearer the time, have a look at Denis Sabey's article on the history of the Topic (published in Tykes' News in 1968), and The Committee's 25th Anniversary Booklet (published in 1981). The longest historical article is by Alex Eaton himself: The Topic Folk Club: 30th Anniversary, published in 1990 in Tykes' News in three parts. As well as covering the very first few years of the club in the late 1950s, Alex also discusses the wider folk and skiffle scene in Yorkshire and London and the simple difficulty of getting to hear and learn traditional songs. He writes too about the political and social environment of the folk revival, including the anti-nuclear and Workers' Education movements.
Alex Eaton had no note of the exact day or date of the first meeting, but it was some time in September of 1956 in Laycock's Rooms in Albion Court, at one time a place where political activists spoke and debated. He says of the very first venue "The room we entered was dingy, dusty and depressing, but we had no rent to pay at least. Most of the chairs were heaped at the back. We slumped in the few chairs arranged around the stained, green baize-covered table where the political orators dispensed their wisdom, for there were not many of us either. I had the only instrument, an excellent cello-bodied jazz guitar and we sang and talked a long time. We continued to meet there every Friday from then on. We had no name and no audience but our hopes were high."
Whichever specific date the club actually started, for a long time The Topic celebrated its birthday in early November, including the 25th Anniversary Party in 1981. This probably recognises the point when the club became organisationally more structured. One spur to creating a formal club that charged money - a shilling per person (5p in current money) in early days - was the desire to raise funds for refugees from the Hungarian Uprising of 22-24 October 1956. Money was also used to buy records and books as necessary research for the members to find out about folk song at a time when information was harder to find than it became in the age of the internet (where you're reading this, of course).
Since that time there have been peaks, slumps and shifts in the popularity, influence, styles and purpose of what is broadly called folk music, the definition of which is still argued about and which arguably (obviously) encompasses traditional harvest songs with unknown authors, 60s protest songs by very well-known authors, international roots music, Mississippi blues, electrified folk-rock, Irish pub songs, songs of the industrial tradition, skiffle, sea shanties, travellers' songs, Celtic new age, various European strands and a capella harmonising groups, among others. With all this the Topic has survived and adapted when all the other clubs formed before it (and many since) have folded up, and now it claims to be the oldest folk club in the world - certainly the oldest continuously-operating weekly folk club.
How do we justify this? Googling "the oldest folk club in the world" all you get is Topic references (admittedly many of the references come from this site...) Ewan MacColl had founded the first English folk club, the Ballads and Blues, in London in 1953; later known as The Singers' Club, it closed in 1991. The Good Earth, also in London, was founded in 1954 but had gone by 1959, by which time, according to Alex Eaton, the only provincial clubs listed in Sing along with the Topic were Wayfarers in Manchester and Spinners in Liverpool, both now long gone (though it seems The Bridge, see below, should also have been mentioned).
The Cornell Folk Song Club in New York was founded at some point in the 50s, maybe only as a university society to start with, and even now seems only to be fully-functioning during term-time. The Bush Music Club, Inc in Sydney was founded in 1954, but seems to be less a weekly folk club than an EFDSS-style organisation with publications along with dance and music - specifically bush music - workshops. The Bridge Folk Club in Newcastle was founded by Louis Killen and Johnny Handle in 1958, putting it in the same sort of ball-park era as the Topic. Its claim to longevity fame is that it has been in just one venue all its existence - apart from a 6-month gap for refurbishment of the pub - which the Topic certainly can't claim.
Although it's moved a football team of times in all (plus subs; see sidebar) well over half of The Topic's existence has been at just two venues - 22 years at the Star (1969-1991) and 10 years at the Melborn (July 1995 to the end of 2005, when the Melborn announced it was closing as a pub). You can see photos of the old venues, from Laycock's Rooms to The Irish Club, here.
The Topic has always been weekly. On Fridays for the first 38 years or so, Thursdays since 1994. According to records including the 1981 Silver Jubilee History and the Gig List 1957-Now, the club has been closed on less than 50 club nights (almost always Xmas and New Year) since it started. In its very early days it was often going twice a week, with a club night on Friday and a concert night on Saturday. So over the years there have been about 3,000 active club nights; and as well as the paid guest acts hundreds of other people have appeared on the Topic stage: semi-professional support acts, visiting club exchanges, and local singers and musicians.
The club was a place for young people to meet and talk folksong and politics and sing for themselves when it started. The very first guest was London-based atomic physicist Dr John Hasted, but it was a while before paid guests made regular appearances. We do have a very substantial but not yet 100% record of gigs going back to 1957 and it would be nice to fill in any the remaining holes. If anyone has old diaries, flyers, letters or other documents with missing information, please let Trevor Charnock know as he is acting as historian of the club and is collecting what he can so we can put it on the site.
We also have links to the websites of or other online references to over 700 individuals and bands who have appeared on the Topic stage since the 1950s. Well-known visitors over the years include Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, Dominic Behan, Bert Lloyd, Ramblin Jack Elliott, Vin Garbutt, Bert Jansch, Shirley Collins, Robin Williamson and his Incredible String Band, Dave Swarbrick and Simon Nicol, Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies, Martin Carthy, The Ian Campbell Folk Group, Jerry Silverman, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, Ashley Hutchings, Billy Connolly, Christy Moore, Gordon Giltrap, Richard Digance, The Watersons, Mike Harding, June Tabor, The Oyster Band, Roy Bailey, Show of Hands, Kathryn Tickell, Alan Hull, Bob Pegg, Dick Gaughan, Kate Rusby, Davy Graham and Alexis Korner. And many others - Roger Sutcliffe made his 40th-anniversary appearance in 2004.
There is anecdotal evidence only that a very young Bob Dylan might have made a floor-spot appearance once, though it looks certain that Paul Simon never did show up - despite the legend. Among other names of the 60s and 70s, Al Stewart was never booked and we have correspondence to show that Ralph McTell was booked (for December 1969) but was withdrawn by his agent when his burgeoning career enabled him to fill bigger venues.
There is now a pretty full roster of guests, from the US, Canada, South Africa and Australia as well as all over the UK and Ireland, supported by local floor singers, and when there are no visiting artists there are singers' and musicians' nights, which have sometimes been loosely-themed. On any Thursday night you can just listen or you can contribute a song or two and continue the traditional ethos of the earliest days, with people making music for themselves and each other right there, live.
In 1981 the Topic committee produced a 25th anniversary pamphlet containing a brief history of the Topic to that point. At the end of it the committee looked forward to the next 25 years. We got there, and marked the landmark in 2006 not with a big party or weekend concerts but with an Autumn Season of guest bookings including blasts from the past such as Wizz Jones, Vin Garbutt, Allan Taylor and Julie Felix. And a 50th Anniversary T-shirt..
That second tranche of 25 years is now also well in the past and we are over halfway into the third quarter century - and on present form we will indeed be celebrating the 75th anniversary in the autumn of 2031, a smidge over ten years in the future.
Come along, show support and join in. In a world where commoditised entertainment is pumped to consumers' homes via many different channels so that global media corporations can lever money out of your pocket and drop it into their revenue streams, it is good to do something for real.