How the true-blue Workers Club became Launceston’s hippest party space

Workers Club
WORLDS COLLIDING: Club vice-president David Kearnes, artist Heath Franco, Mona curator Emma Pike, and artist Rosie Deacon. Picture: Phillip Biggs

What is surely Launceston’s staunchest holdout of a bygone era has somehow become one of the city’s coolest venues.

The Launceston Workers Club is run entirely by volunteers in their older years with a passion for 8-ball.

It’s also the setting for three adventurous modern art installations this week for Mona Foma.

The club was the location for Junction Arts Festival’s 2018 clubnight plus a host of other boundary-pushing Junction performances, and is the home of annual punk festival Until the Wheels Fall Off.

The art mavericks who have fallen in love with the true-blue space have been wholeheartedly embraced by the members: Workers Club vice-president David Kearnes told all of his friends to “come check out this art festival.”

Rosie Deacon
VIBRANT: Rosie Deacon’s participatory performance act at the Workers Club will be an explosion of colour. Picture: Phillip Biggs

“I just don’t believe it,” he said. “I heard that they’ve sold 5000 tickets.

“I can’t wait to see it: I’ve met all these people, and they’re very nice, actually. We get on well, and they love this place.

“They said they want to come back next year, and we said, you’re most welcome.”

Mona curator Emma Pike was looking for a space that was woven into the patchwork of Launceston’s history for the festival’s art program, and found it in the Workers Club.

She sees using the space as an opportunity for Mona to bring people travelling from places like Sydney, where Pike used to live, into a classically Australian, working-class world, fast-disappearing from the mainland capitals.

“It’s Australian larrikin, and these guys are so serious about their 8-Ball and snooker – it’s kind of amazing,” she said.

“I love that this subculture still exists.

“In Sydney it just felt like these sorts of places were becoming more and more gentrified and whittling away, so it’s been good to find these little gems that people have forgotten exist.”

There will be three art projects at the Workers Club for the duration of Mona Foma.

Rosie Deacon’s “vibrant, fun and inclusive” work, upstairs, is an Instagram-ready installation complete with costumes for festival-goers to put on, and sun visors they can take home with them.

Heath Franco’s six video projections, downstairs, are chilling creations that invite paranoia, revulsion, and disgust, as well as humour.

Heath Franco
ART TAKEOVER: This manic clown in the fireplace is one of six video projections from Heath Franco at the club for Mona Foma. Picture: Phillip Biggs

Kenny Pittock’s mural is a delightful, pun-based cartoon writ large on the wall.

For festival director Brian Ritchie, the local spaces are as important as the artists transforming them for Mona Foma to achieve its aims: part of a “long-term strategy to colonise oddball Launceston venues and institutions in a subversive and fun way,” he said.

For voluntary barman Graeme Perdon, 71 – who has been a member of the Workers Club for 47 years – he just wants the club to “put on some good events for the youngin’s.”

“People are slowly starting to know where the Workies is again,” he said.

It’s easy to see why the Mona crowd found the Workers Club appealing.

Its history includes murder, ghosts, financial resuscitation, and endless games of snooker.

The first Launceston Workers Club building opened in Paterson Street in July 1863, with about 60 members.

In February 1871, fundraising efforts and donations led to the purchase of an Elizabeth Street building, where it became embedded in the culture of the growing city for more than a hundred years.

Over the next century the club thrived, and the venue could not accommodate their more than 1500 members.

In 1985 the Hotel Tasmania in Charles Street was purchased. However, the decision was not financially prudent, and a few years later they set to work restoring the old warehouse on 66 Elizabeth Street, where the club remains.

Graeme Purdon can remember the club’s glory days, when they had a shack at the Great Lakes for members, and the bar would be four-deep on any weekend night.

“It’s a really good place to be,” he said.

“If the club closes down, you can kiss snooker goodbye in Northern Tasmania. That’d be a sorry thing, if it every happened.

The current building is an 1860s stables-cum-transport carrier service-cum-bar.

With over a century of use at the site it’s little wonder that the club is also haunted, by an unsettling but apparently harmless presence the members call Tracy.

At first, it was only Mr Purdon that insisted on the ghost’s existence, but pretty much all of the regulars have come to be convinced, said David Kearnes.

“(Voluntary barman) BJ was here one night – because we didn’t believe Graeme – but he was here one night and rang me up, he was panicking, he said, ‘there’s someone in the club,’” Mr Kearnes said.

“He thought there was someone breathing down his neck, and he turned around and there was no one there.

“He wanted me to come down and babysit him while he counted the till and locked up,” he laughed.

The urban legend goes that Tracy was a woman murdered by her husband at the nineteenth-century stables. The violence spooked the horses, who went mad and trampled the perpetrator to his death – and the evil act has been echoing through time at ever since.

“I’ve heard a lot of funny little noises, Graeme’s heard footsteps upstairs and when you go upstairs there’s no one there,” said Mr Kearnes.

David Kearnes
SPOOKY: David Kearnes at the site of the alleged nineteenth-century murder. Picture: Phillip Biggs

So persistent are the tales of the supernatural, that the alley behind the club is included in the Launceston Ghost Tour.

For about six years, all of the work done at the club has been entirely voluntary, as they recover from financial troubles that climaxed in about 2013.

That includes working behind the bar, running the keno, and maintaining the pool tables – but Mr Purdon said they hope to begin paying bar staff and a bar manager again soon.

“Like a lot of clubs, it was fighting to survive,” he said. “So to keep the place going, we all went voluntary.

“We had a few outstanding bills, but they’ve all been cleared up. The volunteers have turned everything around. The club’s surviving now. It’s heading that way (towards paying staff) – but it’s still got a long way to go.”

David Kearnes has worked at Coles Express in Invermay for 21 years. He can be found behind the till there four nights a week, volunteers behind the Workers Club bar two nights a week, and has one night off.

Mr Kearnes wife, Janelle, does the cleaning, with everyone pitching in to help after a big party.

He had his wedding at the venue: a surprise event that had “tears coming out of everyone’s eyes.”

“I invited about 80 people,” he said, “130 turned up.

“I got up and stage and told everyone that I’d asked Janelle to marry me, and then I said, ‘we’re going to do it right here, now, in front of the whole lot of you.’

“I thought the roof was going to fall off.”

It’s easy for him to explain why he’s put so much work in, free of charge, to keep the place going.

PART OF HISTORY: The Launceston Workers Club is experiencing a revitalisation. Picture: Phillip Biggs

“I love the place,” he said, “I love my 8-Ball. I just can’t say no.”

The club’s fortunes are on the rise, but they could always use a bit of community help.

Graeme Purdon is unambiguous about the best way for locals to support the club: “come in and have a beer.”

There is an 8-Ball competition on Tuesday night with nine teams, snooker and billiards on Wednesday and Thursday nights, poker on Friday nights, the bar is open every night except Mondays, with keno, televisions, darts, and tables available for use, plus they “don’t knock back any parties” in their two halls.

Membership is $30 for a year or $15 concession, but you do not have to be a member to go to the bar or rent the space.

Keep up with the snooker, 8-Ball, and billiards competitions, plus any future avant garde arts events they may be hosting, at their Facebook page, Launceston Workers Club.

RELATED: Mona Foma guide: Set times, map, artist profiles, local recommendations

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