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News Analysis: Legion branches march into an uncertain future
BRITISH Legion branches face having to pull down the shutters because not enough people are using them.
While their members have glowing military backgrounds and a proud history of serving their country, organisers say they are getting old and not being replaced.
Young people may still use the organisation’s clubs – but only in many cases to get a cheap pint.
Three branches of the Armed Forces charity have closed in the past decade and there are 1,738 fewer members across 52 branches in Oxfordshire than 10 years ago.
The news comes just months before the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War.
Wallingford and District Royal British Legion branch has revealed it is in danger of folding unless more members step up to help run it.
It has had one person apply since the Oxford Mail ran a story to say the branch was seeking new members in July.
And if the branch closes, it will be the fourth one to shut in the last 10 years in the county.
Linda Shoebridge, 73, secretary of the branch, said: “People just do not want the responsibility.”
And she said that it is difficult to recruit younger servicemen and women into the branch.
“I think the difference now is that modern technology gets in the way – everyone is into their iPods or Xbox.
“We’re finding that service personnel do not know what the legion is.”
The branch first opened in about 1921 and then re-formed 26 years ago after it had closed down.
At its peak it had 300 members, but this is now down to 105.
It is looking for new officers to help with the national Poppy Appeal.
The Royal British Legion, founded in 1921, is a national Armed Forces charity that provides support for members British Armed Forces, past and present, and their families.
Its charitable work includes supporting injured personnel and providing advice on residential care.
Mrs Shoebridge added that many of the branch’s members are too old to assist with the appeal, which she helps organise with her husband, Aidan, 73, who served in the Army from 1960 until 1966.
Headington Royal British Legion club and branch has also seen a drop in members. Secretary Terry Cox said it had about 300 members two years ago and now has 209 – 89 ex-servicemen.
In 2005, the British Legion changed the rules to allow people who have not served in the forces to join local branches.
The move was designed to boost numbers – but it has not helped stop the decline.
Mr Cox said: “We do not have young serving members – just young kids drinking in the club.
“The weekends are very busy here but the club is still deeply in debt.”
The club in Hadow Road was built in 1964 – but has seen better days. Mr Cox said: “It was very much an old fogies’ club but now lots of younger people come because we are cheaper than anywhere else.”
Headington branch member Bill Fullick blamed the decline in membership on there no longer being compulsory national service.
The 74-year-old ex-serviceman, who was a nurse in the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1957 until 1959, said: “That’s what’s caused it. And the young people who use the clubs have no respect for anything.
“The other problem is that a lot of ex-servicemen who were heavily involved have now died.”
Chairman for the Royal British Legion in Oxfordshire, Jim Lewendon, 84, said there is a general lack of support for branches and clubs around the county.
He said: “It’s getting the younger people interested – that’s the problem.”
Some branches and clubs are seeing slow improvement, however.
Four new members have expressed interest in joining Marston Royal British Legion in the last two weeks. It currently has 302 members.
Treasurer Ann Rowles, 68, said: “It’s still hard-going but I think this branch is luckier than most. We were in dire straits in 2007 when the club was rebuilt in a new place and the old committee forgot to pay the taxman.
“The key thing was making the committee volunteer-run.
More and more clubs are having to do that.
“We now rent the car park out during term time, which is helping us move forward and we are now no longer running at a loss.
“We have a few young members, but not as many as we would like.”
She added: “I think the British Legion still has a stigma attached. When we talk to young people they think it’s still just for older people.”
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