Today's stay-at-home culture, fuelled by the internet and social media makes it hard to appreciate how valuable the working men's clubs were for many communities. Dr Ruth Cherrington, who attended working men's clubs from a very young age, reflects back on what made them so popular and also what has led to their demise:
I grew up on a post-war council estate in Coventry with a working men’s club just across the street. The feeling that it was a home away from home was shared by hundreds of other families on that estate. The Canley Social Club had soon become, after opening in the late 1940s, the social centre of the community.
My dad played bagatelle - a game closely linked to Coventry - billiards, dominoes, cribbage and later on bowls with his friends in the Club. These and other games and sports were hugely popular in clubs all over the country with hundreds of inter-club competitions, leagues and trophies.
My dad and his pals were not so different to men a hundred years before them who set up and used clubs. Those early clubs were assisted by the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (WMCIU) which was founded in 1862 by a teetotal minister, the Reverend Henry Solly.
He wanted working men to have their own recreational spaces as an alternative to the pubs. As private members clubs, they would run these clubs themselves on a voluntary basis through elected committees. His ideal was for no drink to be sold and no profit taken.
There was to be a strong ‘self-improvement’ ethos along with educational aspects as befitted the rational recreation movement ideals. Above all, Solly realised men wanted somewhere to go where they could socialise in civilized surroundings without the pressure to buy a round of drinks. He and his supporters believed clubs would benefit working class women with less drunkenness among their menfolk and the rent money being kept for exactly that rather than being spent on another round of drinks.
From a small handful to start with, the club idea spread across the country. They could seek the assistance and advice of the WMCIU and affiliate to this organisation by paying a small fee.
The Reverend Solly soon had to accept that clubs should decide for themselves about selling beer but he was right that working men wanted their ‘own’ social spaces without bosses telling them what to do. Most clubs were set up by groups of men, often with their own money and labour.
This was the case with our club across the street, the Canley Social, with founder members helping to dig the foundations in the late 1940s and erecting a temporary hut for the first room. The ideals of self-help and mutuality had been passed down from their Victorian predecessors to the post-war context not only in bomb-damaged Coventry but hundreds of towns and cities across the country.
Although ‘working men’s clubs’, many had from their early years allowed the wives and children of men in to use the facilities, even if on a restricted basis. Christmas parties became an annual highlight for the children as well as summer coach outings. By the post-war period, women could join clubs as ‘lady members’, without full rights such as being able to vote or be elected onto the committee.
Women had managed, however, to carve out a space for pleasure in these largely patriarchal institutions. They could attend concerts, watch the games and sports, join in the ‘sing-alongs’ and play bingo with their friends in a place they saw as ‘safe’ and close to home.
They might go into the clubs with their husbands and fathers, but soon find a place for themselves to share with other women and have a drink or two. Kids were ‘kept an eye’ on communally and they knew that misbehaving would bring the attention of the committee men which was to be avoided at all cost, just as was making any noise when the bingo was on!
There were many informal rules about behavior and expectations of what would happen in clubs that accompanied the formal regulations. A form of socialisation of children took place including about what was acceptable/unacceptable behaviour in public spaces.
Even though clubs usually sold beer and alcohol, rowdy drunken behavior was condemned and it was very much social drinking. There were rules and regulations about drink, games and gambling and clubs needed to discipline their own members to retain a degree of respectability as private member’s clubs. They were not pubs where anyone could walk in and buy a drink. You had to be proposed, seconded and approved by the committee and pay the annual subscription fee. Any member who broke the rules and behaved in an unacceptable manner such as excessive drinking, brawling, gambling and the like, would be up before the committee and probably be banned.
Members tended to want to avoid that happening for in their heyday, in the 1970s, clubs offered all-round entertainment and activities for the family as well as fund-raising for all sorts of charitable causes. Entertainment had come to dominate over the educational aspects by this time but some clubs still made efforts with the latter.
My own local club across the street, the Canley Social, hosted my school’s brass band several times for concerts and another school held their parent’s evening there. It was felt there would be better attendance of parents in the club rather than at the school. Other clubs had art exhibitions, plays put on by local theatre groups, courses for older people such as local history and keep-fit.
There was far more than ‘beer and bingo’ going on in most of the 4000 plus clubs affiliated to the WMCIU in the early 1970s and the several million members of those clubs would bear testament to that.
In the current period, there are less than half the clubs there used to be in their heyday. They started losing members when traditional industries went into decline and unemployment rose. The stay-at-home culture expanded, partly by choice but partly due to lack of money for nights out, and the large, refurbished clubs of the post-war era in particular started to suffer and look tatty.
The younger generation was no longer interested as there was more on offer for them with the expanding diversity of social and leisure activities, the popularity of computers and the internet for example. Young working class men no longer automatically followed their father’s footsteps into their clubs just as they no longer followed them into the mines, factories, steel mills, car factories and shipyards.
Clubs increasingly became seen as outdated with mostly older people using them. The type of entertainment of the 1970s wasn’t so appealing in the 2000s. The growing popularity of cheap supermarket alcohol fuelled the ‘stay at home’ culture and many see the smoking ban of 2007 as another important factor in the decline of working men’s clubs.
Failure to keep up with modern times and the loss of local communities meant hundreds have closed down in the past few years. Once boarded up they usually become the target of vandals and arsonists. My own old local in Coventry, was torched in early September 2013. 65 years of history went up in flames and a local community centre that could have been revived with some good planning and support, lost for good. It was not the first to suffer this undignified ending and it probably won’t be the last.
So- is there a future for any of these clubs that can trace their origins back to the mid-19th century? Times have changed for sure but what people still need is a community centre, a place to meet and socialise not too far from home and where they can feel some sort of ownership as well as shared identity. With good planning and some updating, clubs could remain part of our cultural landscape and they can still fulfill the many roles they once played. It has been recognised that social isolation can be combatted through participation in club life.
Perhaps clubs need a helping hand from council and other authorities, not just the WMCIU, but they have first to be recognised as the valuable community assets they are. We very much need these local spaces where people can mix easily with others and where profit is not the overriding concern. I believe that clubs remain at the heart of many communities and we pay a price when another one closes.
You can hear Dr. Ruth Cherrington talking in more detail about the Social History of Working Men's Clubs in Not just Beer and Bingo part of our Girls and Boys season.
Stay up to date with all our activities by signing up to our newsletter.