The untold story of a British institution
Pete Brown is a convivial guide on this journey through the intoxicating history of the working men’s clubs. From the movement’s founding by teetotaller social reformer the Reverend Henry Solly to the booze-soaked mid-century heyday, when more than 7 million Brits were members, this warm-hearted and entertaining book reveals how and why the clubs became the cornerstone of Britain’s social life – offering much more than cheap Federation Bitter and chicken in a basket.
Often dismissed as relics of a bygone age – bastions of bigotry and racism – Brown reminds us that long before the days of Phoenix Nights, 3,000-seat venues routinely played host to stars like Shirley Bassey, Louis Armstrong, and the Bee Gees, offering entertainment for all the family, and close to home at that. Britain’s best-known comedians made reputations through a thick miasma of smoke, from Sunniside to Skegness. For a young man growing up in the pit town of Barnsley this was a radiant wonderland that transformed those who entered.
Brown explores the clubs’ role in defining masculinity, community and class identity for generations of men in Britain’s industrial towns. They were, at their best, a vehicle for social mobility and self-improvement, run as cooperatives for working people by working people: an informal, community-owned pre-cursor to the Welfare State.
As the movement approaches its 160th anniversary, this exuberant book brings to life the thrills and the spills of a cultural phenomenon that might still be rescued from irrelevance.
Behind the Blurb
I’ve wanted to write this book ever since I finished Man Walks into a Pub, my first book, in 2003.
I discovered a bit about the origins of working men’s clubs while I was researching the history of beer and pubs, and loved the stories around their origins. Club were initially conceived as a way of keeping men out of the pub and ‘improving’ them. They were originally run by wealthy philanthropists, some well-meaning, others not so much. But working men soon wrested control, and proved they were more than capable of running the establishments themselves. When a separate licence was introduced that allowed gentlemen’s clubs frequented by politicians to open for longer than pubs, the working class clubmen pointed out that they too were eligible for this licence, much to the dismay o the establishment. Despite a concerted campaign by the police, brewers and the temperance movement all working together to destroy clubs, their numbers booms a pub start to decline.
That origin story felt a long way from the world of frilly-shirted comedians and chicken in a basket that memories of clubland have been reduced to. Pushing on, I discovered that clubs were so much more. So this is a book about beer, snooker, bingo, housing, music hall, comedy, rock and roll, politics, community, emancipation, and the entire sweep of what working class men – and women – get up to in their down time, and how this eternally upsets those who regard themselves as our ‘betters’.
I’ve pitched this book to various publishers over the years and it’s always been turned down because, in London publishing’s eyes, only old northerners would want to read it, and old northerners don’t read. But something has changed. Where once people’s eyes used to glaze over when I mentioned the idea, now they get excited and interested. And Harper North, newly opened in Manchester, is proof itself that people in the north do read. They napped the book up as soon as I mentioned it to them. And anyway, it’s not just a northern thing – clubs started in London.