Just saw the news that the legendary Harry Belafonte has died. He was the subject of one of my favourite stories I was told while researching my last book. It’s fucking hilarious. It also reveals the extent to which he was a progressive activist as well as a gifted singer. I shall be eternally in Ian Clayton’s debt after he shared with me not only the story, but also the means of verifying it.
American singer Harry Belafonte wrote to Arthur Scargill to say that he was coming to England and would like to meet up. Arthur invited Harry and his wife to come and stay with him and Ann Scargill. Before he arrived, Arthur went to the Swaithe Working Men’s Club in Monkspring, near Barnsley, to ask if the Concert Secretary would like to have Harry Belafonte sing a few songs. The Concert Secretary thought for a bit and said, “Ooh! I’m not sure about that Arthur. I’ve got plenty of top turns booked up well in advance. I can’t just make exceptions at the drop of a hat. Arrabella who, did tha say?”
There’s only one question in my mind the first time Ian Clayton tells me this story. I think you can guess what it is. How the hell did Harry Belafonte know Arthur Scargill, and why did he want to come and stay with him?
“The Scargills were guests of Fidel Castro at the 11th World Festival of Youth and Students in Cuba in 1978, explains Ian. “While they were there Arthur sat with the dignitaries; Joshua Nkomo, Yasser Arafat, who was carrying a silver pistol, and Harry Belafonte, who was there as some sort of cultural ambassador. Ann went swimming with Belafonte and his wife every morning. Arthur tells a brilliant story about how at the closing ceremony they were all sat close together on a podium. He leaned over to Belafonte and said ‘It’s to be hoped if any snipers are thinking of having a pot at Fidel today, that they’re a good shot!’”
The paperback of Clubland is published on 8th June.
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.
Can I have order all around the room? Thank you, please. The book I’ve been wanting to write for eighteen years is finally here.
What does the phrase ‘working men’s club’ evoke for you?
Anything at all?
If you’re under fifty, I’m guessing the first place it will take you is Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. Looking back at that series twenty years later, it’s obvious there’s a deep fondness for clubs at its heart, but even back then, some of its humour came from the fact that clubs seemed anachronistic in the 21st century, a humorous throwback to a previous age that had outlived its relevance.
If you’re a bit older, you might remember the Wheeltappers & Shunters Social Club. Shot in 1974, when clubland was at its peak, it’s already taking the piss (Colin Crompton, who plays the clubs concert secretary, was later overheard describing club-goers as ‘peasants.’)
It is – obviously – very easy to laugh at working men’s clubs. They’re old-fashioned and northern (except that’s not quite accurate), and that’s enough. Dig a little deeper, and they are also weighed down by accusations of sexism (the clue is in the name) and racism (subtly poking its head into the programme below at least once).
Next Tuesday, 14th June, marks the 160th anniversary of the Club & Institute Union, an umbrella organisation that was founded to help clubs work together to support each other and thrive. The clubs themselves were designed to provide working-class men with an alternative to the pub or music hall, where they come could come together and relax without being pressured into drinking to excess – something which temperance campaigners at the time saw as the cause for men stumbling home and beating their wives and families (the welfare of women has always been at the heart of the working men’s club movement in one way or another – which is not to excuse the inarguable sexism that did colour much of its history.)
I first became aware of this broader, deeper history of clubs when I was researching Man Walks into a Pub, my first book. Clubs obviously exist as an alternative, a rival to pubs, and some establishments blur between the two. But I soon realised that clubs were much more than, as George Orwell described them in The Road to Wigan Pier, “glorified cooperative pubs.” Owned and run by their members, there was no need for them to make a commercial profit. Beer could be sold more cheaply than pubs, which meant they were busy, and still made money.
That money was invested back into the clubs, building concert rooms, snooker and billiards rooms, and then, as their scale and ambition grew, 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. As the welfare state is dismantled, there’s an argument that clubs are needed once again.
Later, as those concert halls grew and club members got a bit more money in their pockets, the biggest stars of stage and screen were brought to the doorsteps of miners and steel-workers. When clubs weren’t booking major celebrities, they were creating their own – from the 1960s to the 1980s, pretty much any comedian, gameshow host or presenter on TV had come up through the clubs. Singers and musicians from Very Lynn and Tom Jones to The Jam and The Fall all played their clubland dues.
The important role that working men’s clubs played in shaping 19th- and 20th-century culture and society has been erased from history books – there’s just one other book in print on the subject apart from this one. Clubs are ignored in any history of working class leisure or British light entertainment. This project was a working of thrilling discovery, stretching way deeper and broader than I ever thought when I started it.
In the book, I speak to snooker legend Steve Davis, who credits clubs not only with the start of his career, but the survival of the entire sport. I talk to Les Dennis and Bernie Clifton, who went from club stages to being household names, and to the campaigners who fought for equality for women in the club movement and eventually won it – decades later than you might expect.
So, please buy my new book. It overlaps with writing about beer and pubs but covers so much more. It’s political, social and cultural, and at times, deeply personal too. In writing it, I think I finally resolved my conflicted feelings around being born into a traditional working class community and deciding to leave it as soon as I could – a decision that, it turns out, was shaped significantly by my own interactions with working men’s clubs.
Clubland: How The Working Men’s Club Shaped Britain, is published on Thursday, 9th June 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.
I’ll be hosting an online launch party for the book tomorrow, Wednesday 8th June, via Zoom. Tickets are free but places are limited – book yours here.
Advance praise for Clubland:
‘Pete Brown is a brilliant master of ceremonies as he brings the history of these fine institutions to life and demonstrates their importance in working class communities across the country.’ Alan Johnson, author of This Boy
‘A compelling mixture of social history, vivid reportage and candid autobiography, Clubland makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of Britain in the last century and a half.’ David Kynaston, author of Austerity Britain
‘Leave any flat-capped clichés at the door: Brown offers an earnest exploration of this crucially formative area of British social history.’ John Warland, author of Liquid History
‘Pete Brown writes poetically and with great authority on a slice of culture that has been ignored or derided for many years. He illuminates these arts centres, debating halls and palaces of carefree delight with love and care.’ Ian McMillan, author of Neither Nowt Nor Summat
‘At last the working men’s club gets its turn in the cultural spotlight. Pete Brown has written an important history and a heartfelt tribute to the friendship, organisation, humour and community to be found in these remarkable institutions.’ Ian Clayton, author of It’s The Beer Talking: Adventures in Public Houses