Sixteen years ago I developed an idea for a social history of the Working Men’s Club movement. Last year, a publisher finally bought it. Here’s why I have an eternal fascination with an overlooked aspect of British social history.
One of my earliest memories is of being held in someone’s arms in a space that glowed.
I know the memory is genuine because it’s disjointed; a sequence of random impressions that only make sense in retrospect, now I understand things I didn’t at the time.
It was Christmas, and in a community like Barnsley, you don’t do Christmas by halves. Every wall, every inch of ceiling, was covered by hanging decorations made from shining metallic paper. Tinsel adorned every corner and ledge. And behind it, the brass bar tops and beer fonts gleamed a fiery, welcoming glow. Perhaps it was fairy lights, possibly candles, but everywhere there was light, and the surfaces in the pub caught this light, refracted and amplified it, until it seemed that the very air shone. I had no understanding of alcohol, no concept of why we were here, but it was a magical place.
And this wonderland transformed the people within it. Faces that were normally grey and drawn were now shiny and red, adding to the colour. They looked each other in the eye as they laughed. They were ostentatious in their generosity. The women were gorgeous, all long frocks, dangly earrings and blue eye shadow, and the men were open and expansive, generous and warm, somehow thawed out in the midst of the winter chill.
For a long time, I used to associate this memory with the pub. But my parents hardly ever went to the pub. My dad, when he drank at all, was a club man.
Pub versus Club
I first became interested in the story of working men’s clubs when I was researching Man Walks into a Pub in the early noughties. These establishments were first created for rather than by working men, essentially to keep them out of pubs and “improve” them in the eyes of well-meaning and progressive, but ultimately naive, clergymen and noblemen.
But clubs didn’t really take off until upper class people realised working men needed to determine their own destiny. A separate club licence had been introduced, which meant that politicians could introduce licensing laws forcing pubs to close, but still go to their gentlemen’s clubs and carry on drinking afterwards. Working men proved they had been underestimated when the realised they could get club licenses of their own, defying the hypocrisy of their supposed betters.
Working men’s clubs, when run by working men, were a form of emancipation. A man could work in a factory or mill during the week, and then go and be on a committee at his club, responsible for a turnover that rivalled the company he worked for. Many committee members went on to be mayors or even MPs. Or he might go onstage and be a comedian, a ventriloquist or singer. Clubs provided libraries, financial support, clothing banks and washing or showering facilities decades before the welfare state began helping people who didn’t have enough.
In terms of entertainment, as variety theatres disappeared, clubs became the launchpad for what TV execs would later call ‘light entertainment’. Everyone from Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey to comedians like Les Dawson, Little & Large and Cannon & Ball got their first breaks on the club circuit. Talents as diverse as Paul Weller, Noddy Holder and Steve Davis all played in working men’s clubs before they played anywhere else – Davis getting his first break in a very different sense than the others.
There is of course the issue of women, especially given the name of these organisations. Some clubs were more progressive than others, and the story of how women gain equal rights in clubs is both shocking (it didn’t happen until 2007) and inspiring, beginning with a woman being banned from playing snooker and going on to form a campaign called “A woman’s right to cues”, and essentially breaking new ground for female representation in sports more widely. It’s one of the best stories in the book. Many clubs have dropped the “working men’s” bit from their names, and women now play a key role at every level of club organisation.
A long and winding road… to the north
I started discussing an idea that captured this remarkable, hidden story with editors around 2005. I pitched the idea seriously in 2012 and again in 2016. It got nowhere. People in London publishing houses would see it as no more than a nostalgia fest for people who went to clubs in the 1970s, or would get that it was more than that, buut say, “Well I’d read it avidly, but I don’t think enough other people would.”
Then, in July 2020, I got an e-mail from an editor at Harper North, a new, Manchester-based subsidiary of Harper Collins. Did I have a book idea that would suit a list that had a northern tilt to it?
Yes I did.
“Clubland” will be published by Harper North in June 2022, to coincide with the 160th anniversary of the Club and Institute Union (CIU). It probably won’t be called “Clubland” by then. It will be my twelfth full-length published book and I am enjoying researching it enormously.
Tell me your story
Some of the stories in this book have already exceeded my wildest hopes when I began researching it. The many different ways in which clubs have influenced people, communities and society as a whole are mind-boggling, sometimes very moving, often utterly hilarious.
In early July I’m going to be visiting clubs around the country and talking to people who run them and use them. If you think there’s a club that has particular historical or contemporary interest, one that has a remarkable story to tell, please let me know. And if you have your own stories that deserve to be told, tell me now!
(For information: I’ve already had at least three people tell me the tale of Shirley Bassey and the backstage sink and claim it was them.)
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