A glimpse inside Kirkcaldy’s ‘People’s Palace’

The billiards hall at the People's Institute boasts six professional tables. Pics: FPA
The billiards hall at the People's Institute boasts six professional tables. Pics: FPA

150th anniversary of a remarkable town landmark

Walk along the west end of the High Street a hundred times and you would probably notice, at best, an intriguing black and white banner stating: ‘Kirkcaldy People’s Club and Institute’.

A tribute to Sir Sandford Fleming, inventor of standard time

A tribute to Sir Sandford Fleming, inventor of standard time

But if you were to step through its unassuming front door and continue up the old winding stairwell, your curiosity would be amply rewarded – because what lies within is an absolute gem.

Perfectly preserved under an open-beamed roof is a Victorian billiards hall which was – and probably still is – the finest of its kind in Fife.

And, proudly running it today, supported by a seven-strong club committee, is club secretary James Clunie, who spoke to the Press as the club celebrates its 150th anniversary.

“We’ve had our trials and tribulations through the generations but it is good to know we are still part of society,“ he said, a touch relieved.

The club originally ran from the Bell Hotel on Bell Inn Wynd and was begun by local businessmen solely for the equality, recreation and educational betterment of working men and women, irrespective of their ‘station’.

Essentially two billiard tables and a subscription library, the organisation’s motto was “Welcome, come one, come all” and, being strictly temperance, no alcohol was allowed.

In need of larger premises, the institute bought its Glasswork Street building in 1882 and, after three years of refurbishment, opened its doors to the public.

“It must have been a showstopper in its day,” said James.

“You would pay a penny to come into the reading rooms and there was nowhere else like it – it was the first building dedicated to the recreational pusuits of the people.”

“Furthermore, it was the first club to welcome women, who had nowhere else to go other than the pub or the kitchen sink.”

By 1900, the main hall was completed and became the “finest and largest” billiards hall in Fife, boasting six professional-standard tables.

It was hugely popular, with players lining up their cues along the length of the wall while they waited for a table.

But despite the hubbub, the atmosphere within was one of reverential silence interspersed with the distinctive click of a cue, or a ball finding a pocket.

The library would close when the Nairn family opened Kirkcaldy’s public library but the club’s popularity nevertheless endured as it held Scottish billiards and snooker championships and became the first to bring in American Nine-Ball pool tables.

“You would have to book to get in,” said James, “and you would get fathers coming in with their sons and teaching them the etiquette of a billiards room.

“In the days before mobile phones, people would just come here to meet and we used to have the trade councils and the unions meeting here too.”

The cafe also used to seat 22 people and employed three part-time cooks and six youngsters to help serve the public.

“That came to an end when the building no longer complied with disability access laws,” explained James.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was pay people off.”

It was a major blow to the club and it came close to being closed down in the mid ‘90s but a combination of hard work by committee members, an adherence to longstanding principles and, in the end, a stroke of good luck, preserved the club for at least another generation.

“James Lawson – three times president – ensured the People’s retained its sobriety. and that kept us our charitable status,” explained James. “The other factor was a lady who came in asking to see a stained glass window.

“I insisted on giving her a tour everywhere else first and, when I showed her the billards hall, she said: “Wow, I think it’s safe to say you are now listed”.

“We didn’t know she was from Historic Scotland.”

The aims of the club still stand – to encourage the lesser players and ensure the better players avoid complacency; to encourage good sportsmanship and gentlemanly behaviour.

It is said a certain Stephen Hendry used to play on table three but such talk is considered ‘unconstitutional’.

Likewise, you won’t get far without basic manners.

“Nobody gets served in here unless they say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ – it makes all the difference,” said James.

The ‘People’s’ – as it is more commonly referred to – now welcomes fewer visitors, although a core group of men, which has frequented the club for decades, still constitutes something of a community family.

“The old guys here could play with their eyes closed. Billiards is a phenomenal game, much more interesting than snooker – a game can go on for days.

“A lot of kids today don’t even know what it is because it’s not televised.

“It’s amazing the People’s is still here.”

The club is open weekdays, 2pm to 10pm and Saturday, noon to 6pm. Table hire is best to be booked in advance by phoning 01592 260452.

An historical gem of a building

The original Kirkcaldy People’s Institute on Glassworks street is largely intact but for one notable exception – five large rooflights in the billiards hall were covered up during WW1 after complaints from the Ministry of Defence.

But the building’s history stretches further back in time...

Reverend Robert Shirra

The part of the building at the back on stilts was the site of the ‘Shirra Ha’, the residence of Rev Robert Shirra, who saved Kirkcaldy from the pirate John Paul Jones.

In 1778, Jones (a Scot hailed by the USA as the father of the American Navy but then a rascal mutineer) sailed up the Forth to sack Kirkcaldy or Leith.

Shirra led terrified townsfolk from the ‘Ha to the beach and prayed for deliverance, whereby a “mighty wind” blew the pirate ships away.

Sir Sandford Fleming

Sir Sandford Fleming, the engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway and inventor of Standard Time, was born in the building in 1827.

He also designed Canada’s first postage stamp, the three-penny beaver.