CUFOS - the early years


by Wenda Clenaghen (Chair, 1983–89)

The Palace burned down in 1980. It was a sad sight. Local rumours circulated that it was a matter of arson, the motive being that Haringey Council wanted to claim the £60 million insurance money. Just six months earlier the Greater London Council (GLC) had offloaded the dilapidated but beloved Ally Pally to the Council for £1 plus a £8.5 dowry.

In reality, the preparations for the Capital Jazz Festival that weekend had gone catastrophically wrong. A soldering spark had whooshed up one of the massive concrete pipes of the Willis organ. This ignited one of the numerous taffeta banners strung from the ceiling of the Great Hall. Burning embers ignited the magnificent parquet floor below.

The Hall burned down to 20-foot-high walls. The Palm Court was saved when hundreds of firefighters directed the westward-heading blaze to the wooden roller skating rink at the north west corner. It exploded.

The demise of Ally Pally was not mourned by all. A local campaign was mounted to stop the rebuilding, and a tortuous enquiry lasted months. It recommended rebuilding to be financed by the insurance money.

It was in this atmosphere that the first labour councillor, Sharon Lawrence, was elected in Alexandra Ward. Hitherto it had been Tory, as was the Hornsey constituency. It was Sharon who recruited the first committee for the derelict old station that had been closed since 1954. A few of us had already had the idea that it would make a wonderful community centre.

We all had babies and toddlers and got on like a house on fire from the start, meeting in each other’s houses. I was elected as Chair, Ann Waters as Deputy, Barbara Harrigan as Secretary, and Osnat Charalambou as Treasurer. We set about publicising our dream, putting posters on trees in playgroups and schools, and held meetings. The 1980s were both pre-internet and pre-lottery funding. The committee attracted seniors, the Bowers and Gooks, a Sri Lankan enthusiast hoping to set up a Buddhist school, and several others. But how to raise the money, estimated at £250,000? How many jumble sales and sponsor-a-bricks would that take? As we pondered these problems, our babies and toddlers crawled around our feet.

As the Palace began to rise from the ashes under the leadership of Peter Smith, the borough architect, we realised we were in a position to lobby for part of the reconstruction money if we could make a case. After all, the community should have a payback for all the hassle. We had to prove that we were diverse across class, age, and race – thus the Station Seniors, Buddhist school, Afro Caribbean judo, Barbara’s Hilltop playgroup, woodcraft folk, and so forth.

Sharon had us attend council meetings concerning the Palace rebuild. Some councillors were hostile due to fears of overspend. At one meeting a cool £250k was voted through on a nod to pay for a frieze in the Great Hall! We now had our ammunition. How dare they prioritise mere decoration over community use for the station!

From then it all happened very quickly. We got the funding and were assigned a Palace architect, Peter Ledwith. In collaboration with the committee, he drew up plans of what you now see. Building work proceeded rapidly. We had become a pet project – a payback to the community.

We always intended to be independent of both Palace and council governance and resisted demands that we have employees. We argued that the place was too small compared with, for example, Jacksons Lane. From there we got advice on a constitution and how to apply for charitable status.

Ann Waters came up with the fun anagram CUFOS – Community Use For the Old Station. With the promise of a peppercorn rent I worked out on the back of an envelope – which, along with very low user rents on a sliding scale, related to usage – we estimated that two weekend parties (in addition to regular weekday groups) would just about cover our bills. We had no idea that such parties would number up to 6, more or less end to end, Saturday’s and Sunday’s.

Osnat organised the finances and accounts brilliantly, which is why we were able to decorate regularly, have new floor coverings  and keep up maintenance, some of which was carried out by volunteers. All this made CUFOS even more attractive to hire.

After a lease was signed by our new trustees, we opened triumphantly on October 5, 1987, only four years after we had got together.

Hard work by the volunteers ensued, establishing our presence and viability. Some original committee members continued for over 20 years. I had to go back to full-time work so sadly resigned the Chair, but I still do duty officer work. Early on I joked “I'm doing more cleaning here than in my own house!” Later we could afford professional cleaners, but only three times a week. Some of our initial party hirers didn't appreciate the cleaning-up condition of hire. They thought we were a profit-making outfit, no doubt. To insure against damage, we came up with the deposit system – bit of hard-headed realism that worked.

The biggest subsidy, especially now that we no longer pay a peppercorn rent, continues to be the voluntary labour of our present dedicated committee and other enthusiasts who give their time to help maintain CUFOS. The user groups understand their obligations and the joy of the cheap rates offered by CUFOS in beautiful surroundings.