By Ruth Cherrington
June 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (WMCIU, referred to as the CIU or ‘the Union’) by the temperance movement minister, the Reverend Henry Solly.
Working men’s clubs have a long past, but do they have a future? They are often viewed as old-fashioned institutions, renowned for the huge amounts of drinking that went on. Haven’t they simply had their day? Not exactly, I argue, which is why I research into and write about their history and effectively campaign on their behalf. This includes running Club Historians (www.clubhistorians.co.uk), the only website dedicated to their history and development since 2008.
Although now viewed as being in decline with an uncertain future, clubs used to play a central role in working-class leisure. During their heyday in the early 1970s, there were just over 4,000 CIU-affiliated clubs across the country. They made up a thriving national network, overseen from the CIU’s head office in London and through its 28 regional branch offices. There were as many as four million club members in the boom years, with many thousands more on waiting lists to join.
I know from my own first-hand experience how packed the clubs would be at weekends, with people having to get there early to find a seat. Many respondents told me similar stories during interviews emphasizing the popularity of these clubs. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of being taken to the local club across the street, the Canley Social in Coventry. It was so close and familiar as to be like an extension of our living room – another commonly shared view. As a child, I was unaware of how similar ‘our’ club was in what it provided and how it was run to those early clubs that the Rev. Solly helped to set up a hundred years earlier.
It was more popular than the local community centre and certainly busier than the local church. In fact, the club was established by local men in 1950 five years before the church! My father was far from alone in going there almost every night. He loved the games and the social side of club life. Children were catered for, although I learnt later on that not every club was so welcoming to children or women. Clubs could set their own regulations according to the democratic decisions made by the (male) members who collectively owned and managed the club. Although the CIU was the main organisation, it did not run the clubs; there was local autonomy. Women could join as ‘lady’ members virtually everywhere, but full equality only came in 2007.
The clubs offered a lot of opportunities to drink beer and to play bingo, but the institutions were, and still are, about much more than these activities. Drinking was not on the original list of what they were meant to offer, especially given Henry Solly’s temperance leanings. Ideally, they were to be places that would fulfill the aims of the rational recreation movement of the late 19th century by offering ways for men to better themselves.
There was a moral panic in late Victorian England about pubs claiming too much of working men’s time. Tempting men out of pubs and into more sober forms of social discourse was the early objective, but Solly realized that working men needed the warmth, companionship and sociability of the pub.
He came to accept that the club movement would not expand without resolving the ‘beer question’. From 1865, the CIU Council agreed that each club could decide for itself on this issue. Many opted to have a bar to ‘supply’ their members and not sell for profit: any money made could be ploughed back into the club’s coffers as helpful funding.
It was largely through beer that clubs managed to become independent from the upper class gentlemen, clergy and aristocrats who were patrons of the early clubs, offering their support and funding but also sometimes interfering in club management. These were left behind as members increasingly voted for their own management committees.
The CIU clubs were for private members only and those wishing to join had to be approved and pay annual subscriptions. There was a strong element of self-regulation and members who broke the rules, for example with excessive drunkenness or fighting, would be barred.
Games were available, with billiards, cribbage, dominoes and skittles popular. These continued into the 20th century with an expansion of the recreational programme in the post-war period. Entertainment was also a ‘boom’ area, with professional acts working the club circuit as well as the music halls. Many well-known names came up through the clubs such as Dame Vera Lynn who first sang, aged 7, at the Dagenham Working Men’s Club in 1924.
Less famous but still home-grown talent could be drawn upon during the ‘free and easies’ when members could step up to sing a song or two, play the piano or tell a few jokes. These unpaid amateur events were popular with every club having their favourites who might be rewarded with a pint or two
From a few dozen clubs in the late 1860s, the club movement continued to expand until their popularity began to fade in the last quarter of the 20th century. Reasons for the falling off in membership include industrial decline and unemployment, plus social and cultural changes. There is simply a lot more on offer now in our leisure time than there used to be, with more home-based entertainment such as DVDs, computer games and the internet. Add the smoking ban of 2007 and an increasing legislative and taxation burden for the mostly volunteers who run clubs and we can understand why they are now struggling.
I was saddened when the decline became obvious. I noted how the once ‘top class’ concert room in the club across the street became rundown and half-empty. The crowds had gone. The death of my father in 2003 made me realize even more that the histories of ordinary club members like him needed to be documented before too many more were gone for good. They had stories to tell about their clubs that were rapidly disappearing: between 1972 and 2012, the CIU has lost approximately half of its clubs.
The Club Historians website sets out not only to document the history of clubs across the country and experiences of members, but also to act as a campaigning tool. It seeks to highlight the valuable community roles played by clubs as well as their important social capital, to gain a wider audience for their existence as well as their plight.
We encourage people to send in their own experiences, memories and views. From the emails and letters we receive, I am able to write up the stories and experiences they want to share, keeping their voices far as possible, but making the story accessible to the site’s audience. If there are pictures or images, these are worked into the piece.
Most are thrilled to see their ‘ordinary’ story online and in many ways this is history from below.
One recent example is of Jim Pratt’s parents who met during the war in Leicester. Harley Pratt was in the US Air Force and stationed at Chelveston. He was invited by his prospective father-in-law to join his Northamptonshire Club, the Stanwick Working Men’s Club (WMC) and he passed on fond memories of the club, plus some memorabilia to his children. Jim wanted to share these and on seeing the result on the site he said that ‘it brought tears to my eyes. I really wish my parents were alive to see this.’
Harley Pratt’s WMC memorabilia. Top left: wedding photo, 1945. Top centre: his membership card for Stanwick WMC. Top right: Stanwick WMC rule book. Bottom: CIU associate card.
The website is not only a tearjerker: it has become a valuable historical resource used by students researching for their dissertations and film-making projects and journalists seeking background information for features or TV documentaries. Others are seeking leads about their family history or even advice about how to save a struggling club. They are encouraged to contribute information to the site. This has helped to build up a network of club users, supporters, historians and others who are interested in clubs.
This network is still growing and assists in campaigning to help clubs receive more recognition for what they have contributed to local economies and communities, and how they might continue to do so in the future.
Thanks to Geoff Booker, Club Historians’ Webmaster.
Ruth L. Cherrington, (2009) ‘The Development of Working Men’s Clubs: a Case Study of Implicit Cultural Policy’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, Vol. 15, No. 2, May 2009, pp197-199.
Ruth L. Cherrington, 150 Glorious Years! CIU official 150th-anniversary publication, CIU Club Journal, June 2012.
Ruth L. Cherrington, Not just Beer and Bingo! A Social History of Working Men’s Clubs forthcoming, Summer 2012. Website here for further details.
G. Tremlett, Clubmen: the History of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union, London: Secker & Warburg, 1987.