The origins of haggis, football or indeed the universe itself are shrouded in such mystery that nobody can agree quite where they came from. The name of Newcastle’s main student bar is a similar chicken and egg situation.
When the Union building opened in 1925 young gentlemen and young ladies were not supposed to fraternise, and so the building was built of two halves – men on the left, women on the right. The Men’s Bar was located on the ground floor, where the Student Advice Centre is now. Desegregation was almost complete by the mid-1960s, but the Men’s Bar remained an exclusively male area (except on Tuesdays). In what is perhaps the most sexist article ever to grace the Courier‘s pages, men were outraged when women “invaded” their bar in 1963, but just four years later women were allowed in every night of the week. It was not until the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, however, that the bar was mixed all the time, at which point the Courier jokingly suggested that the Men’s Bar named was no longer appropriate. Indeed, by the early 1980s the apostrophe mysteriously disappeared and the bar was named after the Union’s latin motto, mens agitat molem.*
Hence the two explanations of the bar’s name, which have been spat at opponents for four decades, with both sides refusing to accept the alternative origin. Every few years some bright spark decides the name is sexist/confusing/shit, and the student politicians of the day go through the motions, leading to some sort of vote, where various suggestions to rename the bar will fail, whereby the bar will revert, by default, to its sexist/confusing/shit name and everyone will carry on with their lives.
One particularly nasty manifestation of this debate happened in 1991. Two years earlier the bar had been quietly renamed the Main Bar – a name similar enough that no one would notice the switch, but shit enough that people would be happy to change it to something better. In 1991 the sabbatical officers decided to rename it the Stonewall Bar, in honour of the New York gay bar that was the site of the Stonewall riots in 1969, a key event in the LGBT movement. The new name was deeply unpopular with the Mens/Main Bar regulars – mostly rowdy and macho sports clubs – and the ensuing debate quickly descended into homophobia and personal insults. After several weeks the name was changed back to Mens Bar.
When the Union was refurbished in 2010, the Cochrane Lounge and Global Cafe just ceased to exist, but the Mens Bar name somehow managed to cling on, moving downstairs to a new location. A further (unsuccessful) challenge to its name in 2014 suggested that the Mens Bar name was literally indestructible, although a vote in March 2017 (where the status quo was wisely left out as an option) saw the name changed to “Luther’s”. This is further than any previous attempt to rid the bar of its sexist connotations has got, but it remains to be seen if Mens Bar can really be consigned to history. Watch this space.
*Another layer of mystery is added by the Agitat Bar, which existed on the top floor of the Union from the late 70s until 1997, when it became the Global Cafe. Like Mens Bar this apparent reference to the Union’s latin motto seems to be mere serendipity – according to legend (repeated in the Courier in 1976, 1987 and 1989) it was named after the Agitat Club, a sort of alumni association of the University that, having run out of members, gave their money to the Union on the condition that one day a room would be named after them. Apparently this was in 1960, and despite a massive extension being constructed at the time (with many rooms crying out for names), it took nearly two decades for this promise to be fulfilled. How this came to be, or how anyone on the Courier teams of the 1970s and 80s knew about it, I still don’t know. But if this story is true, then by some extraordinary coincidences the Union ended up with two bars named for very specific historical reasons that just happened to share their names with the first two words of the Union’s motto, which has been inscribed above the front door (presumably) since the building was built in 1925. I get really confused by this, until I remember that it is just a bar name and doesn’t actually matter.
Update 18 March 2017: Despite my prediction that the Mens Bar name would live on for all eternity, in March 2017 students voted to rename the bar “Luther’s”, in honour of Martin Luther King. Regardless of whether or not this new name sticks, it’s an important development in the bar’s history and warrants an update here.