Working Men’s Clubs: Past, Present and Future.
At the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club this week, you can groove all night at the Disco 54 Festive Freakout, do your Christmas shopping at The Satanic Flea Market’s ANTICHRISTmas, or experience the delights of ‘alien burlesque’ at May The Farce Be With You. All this at a venue cosily tucked away between London’s achingly hip Dalston and Shoreditch districts, which proudly proclaims its heritage: ‘Since 1953 we’ve been a real East-end Working Men’s Club’. This claiming of continuity and authenticity may feel a little disingenuous, as today depressingly few of Bethnal Green’s bright young things are born and bred Londoners. Still, the club’s provision of popular social activities – under the moniker ‘workers’ playtime’ – could have applied equally to clubs in bygone years.
However, it is difficult not to be struck by the differences more than the similarities. In 1953, working men’s clubs were already nearly 100 years old, the first having been established in 1862, as a place for men to meet for ‘conversation, business and mental improvement, with the means of recreation and refreshment.’ By the mid-twentieth century, many clubs still had libraries and offered educational courses on a variety of subjects – ranging from The Gambling Laws and Clubs, to Post War Policy in Education and Recreation, to The Foreign Policy of the USSR.
It was their complementarity to men’s world of work, however, that defined the clubs. Whether in the traditional mining and steel communities of the north of England and south Wales, the new car-manufacturing industries in the east Midlands, or across a broad spectrum of locales from rural parishes to large cities, the clubs’ chief purpose was to provide relief for working-class men after a hard day’s labour.
As private member-only institutions, clubs were able to select which beer was sold, set prices (which typically matched or undercut pubs) and arrange opening hours to dovetail with the shifts of local workers. Some even had rooms for the storage of work tools and baths for men to wash in after work. One of the most striking aspects of the clubs during this time, was that they straddled public and private spheres: at the club, men could relax in homely environs outside the domestic setting. Despite their masculinised names, working men’s clubs were also more likely than pubs to welcome women and children, albeit often only in designated rooms on certain nights of the week.
Clubs were often closely entwined with local and national politics too. Members were often also trade unionists, with some using club membership as a springboard to prominent positions in public life. By the time the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club first opened its doors, the club movement had produced 970 County Councillors, 2,664 Town or Borough Councillors, and 176 MPs. The values of solidarity, collective endeavour, and worker representation closely resembled the founding principles of the Labour party; further, they served to distinguish the clubs from pubs, whose brewery managers typically had links to the Tory party.
Towards the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s and 1970s, however, many clubs underwent a transformation. Spaces once designated for men, drinking and bar-games were converted to large-scale concert halls, with facilities catering to the whole family. By 1958, the largest of the eight working men’s clubs in the mining village of Stainforth, near Doncaster (population 6,000), had concert facilities to seat an audience of 800 people.