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Back to the Club

This year's 160th anniversary of the working men's club movement went widely unnoticed – but at a time when community spaces are closing and the price of a pint is hurtling up, its history is one worth remembering.

12 October 1964: Labour leader Harold Wilson gets a rousing reception at a working men's club in his constituency, Huyton, Liverpool. (Keystone / Getty Images)

You probably missed the 160th anniversary of the Working Men’s Club movement back in June. Most people did—it wasn’t reported by a single mainstream media outlet.

Should it have been? Working men’s clubs are slipping from the nation’s collective memory. For many who do remember them, they are faintly ridiculous institutions, all flat caps and chicken-in-a-basket, channelled through the affectionate filter of Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. For those with longer memories, they are bastions of everything that was wrong with the 1970s: casual racism, rampant sexism, and a world of beige mediocrity.

There’s some truth to this picture. But it’s hopelessly incomplete.

In 1862, the Reverend Henry Solly launched the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (CIU) as a movement to encourage working men to create social clubs, and as a catalyst for those clubs to cooperate and thrive together. The teetotal Solly believed drink was the chief of all the problems facing the working classes, and saw clubs as a healthy alternative to the pub. Some of Solly’s conspirators had other motives: millions of working men were about to get the vote. They needed to be educated and gentrified, so they would vote for the right kinds of people. (Women were still decades away from suffrage, and therefore of less concern.)

At every turn, the members of these new clubs proved themselves smarter and more capable than the nobles and clergymen who patronised them could have guessed. Within three years, they had won the right to sell beer. Then, in 1872, a new Licensing Act instituted mandatory closing times for pubs but exempted the gentlemen’s clubs of Mayfair and St James’s, where the legislators themselves drank. The CIU pointed out that they, too, were private member’s clubs, and therefore subject to club rather than pub legislation. This enraged the judiciary, the police and the pub-owning brewing industry, who even joined forces with the temperance movement in their unsuccessful attempts to shut clubs down.

In the 1880s, a group of ‘Radical Clubs’ in London’s East End began inviting political speakers to debate why so little of the vast wealth of Empire was tricking down to the people who had worked to build it. In the eyes of the authorities, these were Schrödinger’s club-goers: simultaneously a drunken, puking, useless rabble, and a highly effective subversive political movement hell-bent on bringing down the state. Since the clubs were private, no one knew what was going on inside, but everyone agreed that whatever it was, it must be deeply sinful.

When clubs wrested control of the CIU from its patrons, some Radical Clubs formed the missing link between the Chartists and the foundation of the Labour Party. Working men’s club members elected ruling committees. Committee men could then stand for regional posts within the CIU, or even the National Executive. If that sounded daunting for working men who had left school early, a Club Management Diploma provided an education in everything from licensing and employment law through to bookkeeping and beer cellar management.

Working men who got their first taste of committee life through clubs soon developed a broader aptitude for public life: by 1922, clubmen accounted for 178 MPs, 474 county councillors, 1497 town councillors, 1242 district councillors, and 1030 magistrates.

With no profit motive, and with longer hours and cheaper beer than pubs, money went back into improving facilities. Theatres and concert halls absorbed the spirit and character of Music Hall, after that movement was gentrified into the more middle-class-friendly experience of Variety Theatre. Billiards and snooker tables competed with the ‘turns’—the quality of which could be judged by whether they managed to empty the games room or not.

By the 1920s, clubs were providing facilities beyond the building itself. They created summer schools for members’ children, and scholarships to Ruskin College, Oxford. From seaside trips for the kids, to showers and baths for those who didn’t have them at home, to convalescent homes for members towards the end of their lives, clubs provided a proto-welfare state decades before the real thing.

In the second half of the twentieth century, musicians from Tom Jones to The Fall got their start in working men’s clubs. In the 1960s, new ITV franchises such as Granada and Yorkshire created an alternative route to the screen for entertainers who weren’t lucky enough to follow the Footlights path into the BBC. Clubland was on the doorstep of these northern studios, and provided a wealth of comedians, magicians, singers, variety acts, and compères who became household names. Rather than coming across as untouchable stars, performers like Les Dawson, Marti Caine, Paul Daniels, and Paul O’ Grady knew that a cheeky, chatty, ‘one of us’ style was the way to win over a club audience. Their ability to translate that to TV set the tone for much of popular mass entertainment, even today.

So why has clubland been all but forgotten? The clubs themselves were mostly terrible at keeping records, and often insular. (The CIU issued no press release about its recent anniversary.) Media and publishing—even supposedly left-leaning titles—remain dismissive of culture that is rooted firmly in a non-aspirational take on the working class. The club movement received negligible coverage even at its peak. Entire libraries of books on working class or northern history, popular culture or mass commercial leisure, collectively offer up a tiny handful of references to working men’s clubs.

Then there’s the sexism: in 1978, after being banned from playing snooker in Wakefield Club, Sheila Capstick started a campaign for women’s equality in clubs under the slogan ‘A Woman’s Right to Cues.’ It would be another twenty-nine years before women finally gained equal status in clubs. The CIU’s defence of the right for two clubs to operate a colour bar in the 1970s was an even bigger own goal.

Around 1400 working men’s clubs remain in the UK today. The concert rooms are mostly locked and dark, the bars quiet, the committeemen well into their eighth decade. But over the last twelve years, the need for community-owned and run spaces has increased. As libraries, youth clubs, and community centres are closing, as the price of an average pint in the pub is hurtling through £6, and as people worry about how to stay warm this winter, the welfare state that replaced many functions of club life is in retreat. We shouldn’t need to rely on its forerunner. But many communities, whether they are aware of it or not, could benefit from a revival of the movement they have all but forgotten.