Members of the American Clubs of the Costa Del Sol taken in 1986.
Members of the American Clubs of the Costa Del Sol taken in 1986. / SUR

The rise and fall of the expat club

  • Many once popular English-speaking societies on the Costa del Sol are struggling to survive

During the 1960s and 70s, thousands of expatriates from all over Europe and America began arriving on the Costa del Sol.

The majority were retirees in search of their dream home and a chance to spend their third age lapping up the Spanish sun. However, many of these new arrivals had difficulties with Spanish legal procedures, and the fact that few of them spoke Spanish added confusion to the process of integrating into the system.

At this time there were no associations or societies aimed at foreign residents and so many felt alienated, but this was soon to be rectified with the birth of the expatriate social clubs and groups that began appearing during the late 1960s.

The British Society, which was started by Fred and Mona Heap in 1967, was one of the first expat clubs to appear on the Costa del Sol. Their idea was to open a social club where expatriates could make lasting friendships, help each other and share information, while also enjoying organised social and sporting activities.

Original membership

Others followed, and soon English-speaking clubs and associations began popping up all along the Costa del Sol. These clubs were once extremely popular and some even had to limit membership numbers because they simply could not cope with the demand. By the 1970s, the British Society had over 400 members, and the American Club, which opened in 1974, boasted more than 600 registered members. Similar figures could be found in the other English-speaking clubs, but over the past decade, their popularity has begun to wane.

The British Society, which celebrated its golden anniversary earlier this year, has around 60 members today, and the American Club has seen a sharp decline in membership numbers over the last few years.

Today, many of these clubs are struggling to survive and it seems that they may well soon become a thing of the past. One of the main problems is that they no longer attract members and, as the average age is usually quite high, it would appear that the clubs are literally dying out.

The worst-affected areas are Benalmádena and Torremolinos, although in general, the decline has affected most of the coast.

The Arroyo Social and Welfare Club in Benalmádena has seen a sharp decline in membership numbers. When the club first began in 2005, it was so popular membership numbers had to be limited to 250 people: today the club has around 50, although fewer than 20 people turn up to the weekly meetings.

“We don’t seem to attract new members now and the average age of our group is 75. We hold weekly meetings with a raffle, quizzes and various other games, but the younger generation is into computer games and social websites,” Jean, the club’s secretary, explained.

No interest

The Torremolinos and District Social Club, which once boasted more than 225 members, is now down to around 20. The club has received just one application for membership in the last three years and it looks as though time may be running out.

The club’s president, Michael Hudson, told SUR in English that there is simply not enough interest in the club anymore.

“Most of the members have returned to the UK or simply died. The average age at the moment is around 65, and the younger generation is simply not interested,” he explained.

These clubs once attracted members with bingo, dominoes and cards, or a visit to other regions on organised coach trips and shopping excursions. It was also an opportunity to catch up with friends, local gossip and share photographs from previous meetings and functions.

This, of course, was before the revolution of the internet and the introduction of the social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Today, local gossip, photographs and social information is acquired without leaving the home, and the bingo and quiz nights are obviously not enough to entice the younger generation.

Even the Royal British Legion (RBL) is struggling to attract new members in Torremolinos. The Fuengirola branch of the legion closed in 2015, and the Torre del Mar branch was temporarily shut down the following year.

The legion is generally well supported in other parts of Malaga. The branch in Mijas Costa has the highest membership of all the southern branches, with almost 230 members. Two new branches have also opened this year, so the future of the RBL is looking a little bett

The British Society was one of the first of its kind on the coast.

The British Society was one of the first of its kind on the coast. / SUR

er than that of some of the other associations on the coast.

The crisis is blamed for the fall in membership by some of the clubs and the forthcoming Brexit is also having an effect. Some expat residents were forced to sell up and return to the UK and not so many long-stay residents visit during the winter months. With the uncertainty of the UK’s exit from Europe, things could even get worse.

New activities

However, not all of the associations are in such dire straits, because some have added new activities and modernised their clubs in order to keep people interested.

The English Speaking Club in Malaga, which has been running since 1971, currently has 60 members, which is just ten short of its capacity. The group meets once a week in El Pimpi in Malaga and they hold ‘tertulias’ and cultural talks, as well as organising museum visits and occasional nights at the opera.

The club’s secretary said, “We have always had a good membership. We struggled a little during the crisis, but we currently have 60 members, which is just about the right size.”

The Phoenix Social Club in Torre del Mar is another club that seems to have no problem attracting membership. It was started in September 2009 and currently has 397 members.

Gail Mooney, secretary, said, “We are different from other clubs because we have a vibrant community here in Torre del Mar.”

The only clubs that seem to keep going are the ones that have a purpose other than just a weekly get-together. The Lions Club and The Rotary Club with their charity work and U3A with its lectures and classes, for example, are generally well supported.