Digital History

Who Cares About Working Men’s Clubs?

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 (, 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.

The Canley Social Club, Coventry (2006), now renamed Sports and Social Club. The small green sign at the top right-hand side of the building was where the CIU logo used to be

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.

Children’s Christmas party, late 1950s, Canley Social Club, Coventry

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.

Winning bagatelle team circa late 1950s, Canley Social Club. The author’s father is holding the trophy

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.

Further Reading
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.


  1. Wonderful piece on the clubs which are at the very heart of our social network. It is a shame that one law has done so much to undo all that Henry Solly strove to achieve. I see clubs that once thrived now closed. The Scraptoft Valley Club in Leicester is a prime example, once boasting more than 2,000 strong membership and playing host to many top names (inc Bernard Manning) folded due to the rapid loss of members after mid 2007.
    The clubs have a unique place in our history, they cannot be allowed to die out!

  2. a great artical ruth,how we would love them back the way they were,a good night out without a swear word if there was ladies about,not like today.and all those shows at the weekend,how many great acts were found from clubs that went on to be on tv,the clubs were the equivalent of shows like the x factor today,but then ofcourse we were out with family and friends,we used to know all our neighbours popping in and out for a cuppa tea a fag maybe,and ofcourse it will be see you over the club tonight,its your round.

  3. One of the reasons for the reputation of Working Men’s Clubs as organs of ‘social control’ Was that for many years Rev. Solly was considered by the Marxist historiography as a conservative agent. Fortunately, more recent studies have shown that he had actually pretty radical views. My research into W.E. Adams ‘s youth in Cheltenham and the reading of his journal as a self-improving republican artisan has convinced me that the latter interpretation is actually correct. May more works on these clubs continue…!

  4. My husband’s grandmother was a singer in working men’s clubs from the 1920s to the 1940s. Her name was Rosina Swann and she apparently sang at the opening night of the Duncan Road WMC off Saffron Lane. We both wonder if anyone remembers her, or if there is any historian researching club entertainers who might know more about Rosina’s career.

    1. Hi Jenny
      It would be great to get in contact with you, Ive been trying to research Rosina Swann and Leicester Variety Artist Club. Thank you

  5. I am looking for information about Rosina Swann, who sang in working men’s clubs from the 1920s tp 1940s. I believe she sang on the opening night of the Duncan Road WMC off Saffron Lane.

  6. can any one tell me do you after be a c I u member to join a workmans club

  7. This is what working class is all about.even though the upper class pay people crap wages.the upper class didn’t stick working class knew how to laugh and stick together and treat everybody equal.

  8. I have very fond memories of my local WMC. I was brought up in a small mining village and before I was old enough to go in (no kids allowed) I vividly remember the club was packed to the rafters on a weekend from 7.00pm onwards. Me and my mates used to stand outside peering through the chinks in the curtains to watch the ‘turn’ and listen to the music or laugh our socks of at the jokes we shouldn’t really be listening to.
    The club is now sadly gone. When it was demolished it was not just the end of an era, it was the end of my era, my father’s era and my grandfather’s era. The sounds and sights comming from that club will remain with me forever. My dad handing me my membership card on my 18th birthday was for me, then, the best present ever.

  9. hi. want to know who ran the working mans club in reddish in 1967, from what ive been told it was two brothers , the elder brother ran it with his wife and children the younger brother lived and worked with them.

  10. Hi Iam Brian .In the 60s I played piano in British Legion Club in BLABY (Sycamore Street) and used to accompany numerous artistes together with my drummer (John) and I remember playing to a ”drag ” artiste and would very much like to know for certain if it was Larry Grayson (a.k.a.Billy Breen) I wonder if anyone can enlighten mebefore it’s too late!!(I am 73) If you could find out ,it would certainly ease my mind One of the committee was a Mr Tom Heald I think.Hoping you can help Kindest Regards Brian.

      1. I was a great fan of larry Grayson a brilliant comedien

  11. Myself I would go to my WMC at the age of 14 – 15 with older friends play darts, 5s and 3s, and 9 card don. It gave you a view into the adult world at the time. You learnt your social behaviour called the adults MR and MRS until they told you to call them by their first name. No messing about.
    This in its day was social media, when people talked to each other, not text or e-mailed. If you needed a plumber, plasterer etc someone would know someone to do the job for you.
    The demise of industries in 70s- 80s did not help the clubs,factories shut down with lose of 100+ jobs gone. By the 90s- 2000 a lot had gone due social change, workers have to travel further a field to find work, move away from their birth place the link was broken.
    The club is still going, run by volunteers. With only being a small club its stood the test of time this due to long standing members not letting it slip away.
    I still go down for a game of darts or 9 card don and chat, have a good pint that I don’t have to take a second mortgage out on.

  12. Dear Ruth

    I’m interested to do some economic history work on on WMCs and wondered where the best sources of clubs accounts and membership records etc. Is to be found ?

    I’m an academic but this is not my field. I used to play in bands across Yorkshire in many clubs and find their demise sad but perhaps inevitable in this multi-media age. I’ve lots of anecdotal stories and stuff too!

  13. I am trying to research the history of the Victoria WMC on Church HIll Hednesford.Is there anyone who can help me?

  14. Hi. I’m trying to research the wmc’s which existed in St Helens and Merseyside in 1978. Most of them have closed and been demolished so I’d love to trace which ones and where they where. Any help anyone could offer me would be fantastic. Keep up the great work.

    1. Hello Keith

      I have also began looking into Working Men’s Club’s but from the CIU perspective and whether they are really relevant today. They contributed to the Sports and Social life of WMC’s for many years but very little in recent years, particularly in Warwickshire where many clubs have either closed or left the CIU. Looking at the benefits of CIU Membership (or lack of them) there is little to justify the cost of maintaining CIU membership. Having experienced many difficulties and unfairness I have found little support from the CIU. I find contact with Head Office difficult as there never appears to be anyone available, emails to a generic email address receive no response or even an acknowledgement that they have received it. I have requested copies of thee CIU Branch Rules on numerous occasions but am yet to receive a copy. It may be that our Club has a particularly poor Secretary and Executive Officer as Coventry and West Midlands Branches fair much better.

  15. Does anyone from Coventry who remembers my father Johnny Mac.
    He was very popular on the ciu circuit in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
    Be great to hear from you.

  16. I am wanting to write about being brought up from age 3 to 26 years old in various working men’s clubs. I’m in South Yorkshire and my parents moved around between the Sheffield and Doncaster, with a short time in Knottingly.
    I remember quite a lot but, unhappily, have forgotten certain aspects.
    Any stories you can provide would be really appreciated. Thank you in advance.

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