Like one of those aged celebrities who hits the news on their birthday when you thought they’d died a long time ago, the working men’s club may be frail and half-forgotten, but we need it now as much as we ever did.
Today, the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (CIU) celebrates its 160th anniversary. Or rather, it should be doing. There’s a statement on the CIU website, a piece in their member’s magazine The Journal, and that’s about it. As far as I can tell, there’s no coverage at all in mainstream media. You can’t really blame them though – the CIU has no press office or bespoke media contact, and only seems interested in talking to its dwindling band of member clubs. It probably never occurred to anyone to issue a press release to celebrate the occasion.
Should we be bothered?
It’s twenty years now since clubs troubled mainstream media. Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights ran for two series from 2001 to 2003, and has remained the reference point for any scattered mentions working men’s clubs have had I local newspapers since then. Kay brought his trademark mix of fondness and ridicule to clubland, and while there was some genuine warmth there, the humour derived from working men’s clubs being presented as an anachronism in the newly-minted 21st century.
This cheesy public image of the club is rooted in the 1970s, because that’s when clubland provided a significant chunk of the talent on TV and in the charts. More than one in ten British adults was a member of at least one club. When trends in entertainment and culture changed, the club disappeared from public view. Like someone you last saw as a kid ten or twenty years ago, in the public imagination, they still look like that.
But this was never a complete picture of what clubs did.
On 14th June 1862, Unitarian Minister Henry Solly convened a meeting which founded the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union. At the time, philanthropists and reformers of all stripes were desperately trying to ‘improve’ the working man – some out of genuine concern for his plight, others because millions of men were about to get the vote for the first time and therefore needed to be ‘civilised,’ so they voted for the ‘right’ people. (This is a big part of why women were initially excluded from membership. Those who worked in service were already being ‘civilised’ by being exposed to their social superiors, and anyway, the vote for women was still decades away, so they mattered less in the thinking of reformers.)
Solly recognised that if he wanted to attract working-class men after a gruelling, monotonous, ten- or twelve-hour shift, they needed a place where they could relax as well as being lectured to. A club, rather than an austere institute, was his model. In the long run, he wanted these men to be able to run there clubs themselves. So the Union was an umbrella organisation that helped clubs set up and thrive. It created model rules and articles of association. It introduced a pass card, meaning a member of one club could drink in any other club in the Union. If one club fell foul of, say, licensing laws or contract law, the Union represented them, and shared any new learnings with all member clubs.
When – against Solly’s wishes – the clubs started selling beer, profits were invested back into clubs, improving their facilities, adding billiards rooms, concert halls, and much more.
Pints and empowerment
By the 1890s, clubs were being run by working men as well as for them. Middle-class patrons who believed that, without their enlightened input, the clubs would just descend into drinking dens were proved wrong. Working men did want a chance to improve themselves. But they wanted to do so on their own terms rather than those of people who thought they knew better.
Working men’s clubs gave uneducated working class men another chance to do something more than the jobs they had been prepared for. Those who joined the committees that ran clubs got a taste for politics and public service, with thousands going on to become local councillors, magistrates and MPs. Concerts allowed people to sing, dance, tell jokes, or design and build scenery and props.
As the money flowed in, the clubs widened their vision. They provided services such as baths and showers for people living in slums with no bathrooms, summer seaside trips for kids, scholarships for members who had had no choice other than to leave school at 12 or 14, welfare schemes for those who couldn’t work due to accident or illness, and convalescent homes when members could no longer live by themselves. Working men’s clubs provided a welfare state for those who needed it decades before the real thing came into being.
Writing about the CIU in 1987, George Tremlett remarked that most of these services were no longer needed, now the actual welfare state provided them. 35 years later, with 14 million people in the UK living in poverty, that’s no longer the case.
Join the club
After more than a decade of austerity, community assets are disappearing across the board. Libraries, youth clubs and community centres are all closing. So are many working men’s clubs. Those that remain open are often anonymous – you wouldn’t know they there there if you weren’t already a member.
Inside anonymous-looking buildings like this all across the country are bars, concert rooms and meeting rooms that would be perfect for coffee mornings, jumble sales, record fairs, dance classes, yogas classes, mother and toddler groups, slimming meetings, youth clubs, book events, WI meetings, band practices and such more. On a more prosaic level, as the price of a pint soars, they’re good places to get cheap drinks without giving your money to Tim fucking Martin. Yet for much of the week, they stand empty. The community often has no idea they’re there. And the committees who run these places – often now well into their seventies – have no idea how to market themselves. The CIU should be helping them, but it’s just as clueless about the modern world as they are. No one in the organisation seems aware that communities today live online.
Working men’s clubs could once again be vital and multi-faceted community assets. They have now mostly dealt with the problems of sexism that once blighted them – most successful clubs have women on their committees these days. Many are rebranding as social clubs. But not enough have benefitted from the injection of energy that younger people bring.
A significant anniversary such as your 160th is the perfect time to raise awareness of clubs, the roles they once played and could play again. Sadly, no one seems to be making that case.
This is a big reason why I wrote Clubland, and why we published it last week. The final chapter outlines what both the CIU and individual clubs could be doing to thrive once more. There’s a lot of humour in the book, but this is one of the serious bits. If you have a fondness for clubs, see if there’s one local to you and see if you can join. They need you – whether they know it or not – and we need them.
Clubland: How The Working Men’s Club Shaped Britain, is published by Harper North as a hardback, kindle and audiobook (which I read myself!) It’s available for pre-order at Amazon or, if you prefer buying from an independent bookshop, bookshop.org.