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Lancaster’s premier nightclub – The Sugarhouse – is enjoyed by students almost universally, famous for its paramount role in student life.
However, earlier this year, the more subversive history of the nightclub was made more available to students and locals alike as a student petition to rename The Sugarhouse was proposed to LUSU, bringing to light a history tied to the Lancaster sugar and slave trade.
The current site of The Sugarhouse nightclub is incidentally the location of the first sugar house opened in Lancaster, emerging around 1681.However, the building at present is not the original sugar house structure; the first sugar house was used for the storage and refining of raw sugar from the West Indies in the trade between Lancaster and places like Jamaica and Barbados, with much of the sugar being transported to Lancaster via Liverpool and Bristol.
Around this time, Lancaster was the 4th largest slaving port in Britain.
The original sugar house building ceased operations in the 1690s, making way for another to open up in the 1740s around the Bulk Road area which would later burn down in 1848.
Prior to the present day name of ‘Sugar House Alley,’ the area of The Sugarhouse was called Spring Court during the period that the current nightclub building was built in, first used as a timber workshop in the early 1900s.
In the 1970s, at the time that the University was based in St Leonard’s House, the building was used as an office block and the alley received its name “Sugar House alley” from the Council.
The Sugarhouse building was leased to Lancaster University Student’s Union in 1982 after being purchased by Mitchell’s Brewery and was then opened to the student population.
Since then, the nightclub has been a place of student community and socialisation, hosting acts such as; Danny Howard, Lethal Bizzle and Rudimental. The Sugarhouse has won multiple awards, such as the “best bar none award,” celebrating its status as one of the safest nightclubs in the UK and (arguably) the most popular nightclub in Lancaster. It stands as a symbol of student community passed down from Lancaster University Alumni in the 80s to the present day.
After a year of closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Sugarhouse has recently re-opened for the new academic year. However this did not come without its share of controversy…
On the day of opening, the sign above the club still read “The Sugarhouse,” despite a recent bid from the Racial and Ethic Minority Students’ Officer and petition filed by the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ campaign, to rename The Sugarhouse.
The petition was proposed in 2021, receiving immediate support and enough votes for the renaming of the nightclub to go ahead, however, after the vote for the new name, it was revealed that 60% of students wanted to protect the original Sugarhouse name.
The mere fact that the original name remained an option in the voting menu received backlash alone and raised questions about LUSU’s commitment to upholding the outcome of the renaming petition. However, the more prevalent outcome was that The Sugarhouse would uphold its original name, raising an even more contentious debate around the celebration of Lancaster’s history and the modern recognition/support for Lancaster’s BAME students.
Where does the line between historical recognition and establishing a definitive break from past notions of oppression lie?
Perhaps a name change for The Sugarhouse should have been the correct course of action considering the stark reminder of the colonial past that its name – which is peppered into Lancaster’s culture – signifies.
However, the petition itself and the support and success that it achieved in making people more aware of The Sugarhouse’s colonial ties must be celebrated as a piece of contemporary history and marker of modern understanding and progressivism where students and communities can begin to enact real change in the way that issues like Lancaster’s history are thought about and approached.