Working men’s clubs, once the hub of communities, are in decline. But ditching the dour old image is helping some to stay alive and thrive. By Mandy Richards
The revival of the working men’s club: A different beat … a night at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, East London. Photograph: Stuart Griffiths
The Mildmay Club and Institute Union is one of the few surviving working men’s clubs in London. Established in 1888, its dark Victorian facade, though crumbling and caked by the elements, stands defiantly, if somewhat subdued. Rich in terms of space and equity, the north London club is struggling to sustain itself due to spiralling maintenance costs. The huge four-storey site could fetch over £10m on the open market if the circling property developers got their way.
Welcomed in by a Saturday night soundtrack of John Holt and Jim Reeves, I’m met by Brenda Brown, a middle-aged club committee member for the past eight years. Brown and her partner, Alan Fitzgerald, have witnessed working men’s clubs dropping like flies. Once the hub of working-class communities, they have been in steady decline since the 1970s, when there were more than 4,000 clubs affiliated to the Club and Institute Union. Of the 2,500 remaining, many have seen membership halved in the last 20 years. At that rate of depletion, they will be virtually extinct by 2025.
Brown and Fitzgerald suggest that the club will become a block of fancy apartments before then. They talk of being under threat from an encroaching community that has insidiously undermined their way of life.
“It’s the middle-class whites,” Brown says. “They are a different race entirely. A lot of them come from up north. They go to college and start telling the white working class how to treat different races, when we’re born and bred in a mixed environment. They don’t mix with other races, and are patronising to black people, who can fight for themselves. We’ve got Filipinos in tonight having a function. With them, it’s share and share alike.” Regulars are invited to have any leftovers.
Chris Giff, 58, who came to London from Ireland in 1980 and has been trustee of the Bethnal Green Working Men’s club for five years and a member for 25, says: “There’s no bullshit or racism.” But he fears that working men’s clubs get a bad press. “There is an assumption that they are racist,” he says.
When Henry Solly, a Unitarian church minister, set up working men’s clubs 150 years ago, they raised funds for local causes, provided informal employment networks, and offered sport and light entertainment for recreation.
Brown believes they were also about keeping the working class in check, but says they now provide a haven against “the youngsters taking over the pubs”.
Yet to many they appear to be a throwback to a monocultural and sexist age. Although most clubs welcome women, “lady members” pay less subs, and some 20 single-sex clubs still exist.
Malik Gul, a community facilitator dealing with social cohesion issues for Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network, south London, argues that sticking with “the known” allows for certainty, and provides an element of comfort and security. He warns that society is in danger of leaving behind whole sections of the community who, for whatever reason – age, culture, environment – are not able to change and adapt to new rules. He draws his lessons from working with local communities where older white men and women who weren’t part of the white flight from these neighbourhoods were socially excluded from services and support. In these circumstances, he feels that working men’s clubs can provide an important unifying experience, an extension of home.
More surprisingly, Gul also draws parallels with his own Muslim community. “Neighbourhood mosques, often in converted houses, are essentially congregated by men of a certain age and background – first generation working-class immigrants,” he points out. “The ritual of going to the mosque provides them with a sense of identity and certainty. You could, if you scratched the surface, identify within this group elements of bigotry and xenophobia. But these gatherings, like working men’s clubs, do provide a service to their community, and provide a sense of identity in an age of rapid change.”
This was certainly true of Bordesley Labour Club in Birmingham, which is situated at the heart of what is now an area densely populated by Muslim communities. Club secretary John Aspery, 61, says: “We had a mass exodus of people. They flattened this part of Small Heath to rebuild and to regenerate – it was the old pre-war back-to-back houses – so obviously we had a lot of members of the club who left to go to other areas of Birmingham – mainly Yardley, Hay Mills, Sheldon. Bordesley Green is not that far away, but far enough for them to form other friendships and find new pubs. There were 12 clubs in a square mile in Small Heath 20 years ago. I think there are four now.”
But Aspery attributes the club’s dwindling membership – its 400 members are half the number 20 years ago – to more than people moving away. “Young people don’t follow their fathers and grandfathers into the clubs like they used to,” he says. “Many years ago, it was more a family-orientated thing. We’ve only really survived by good housekeeping and a big reliance on Birmingham City FC; it’s very busy when the football matches are on. We get surveyors, accountants, as well as labourers. We’ve got a whole spectrum of people coming in.”
Aspery identifies the blanket smoking ban voted for by MPs last week – which will prohibit his members, 60% of whom are smokers, from lighting up on the premises – as a nail in the coffin for working men’s clubs. “It will affect us in the same way that cheap drinks from supermarkets have already driven people away from clubs and pubs,” he warns. “It will drive even more people to invite friends round for drinks, rather than going to their local pub or club. If I was still a smoker, it would definitely stop me.”
The Idle Working Men’s Club in West Yorkshire has sustained its appeal, and currently boasts a membership of 1,200. Pop singer Michael Jackson is an honorary member, as was the late TV presenter Richard Whiteley. Frank Johnson, the club president, reveals the secret of its success: “A good, hard-working committee – willing to ensure, if possible, that what the members want the members get. When the dinosaurs were in charge – my dad and everybody like him – they were ‘men’s clubs’, but you have to think forward, because when you think about it women were the backbone of the clubs anyway. They sold all the raffle tickets, ran all the bingo, did all the functions.”
Johnson says that keeping the punters happy also means low beer prices (“£1.70 a pint as opposed to £2.70 down the town”), and opening every night. It was packed on the Thursday I visited – with a bingo session in the concert hall, pool, snooker and Sky TV for the “young ‘uns” downstairs. The more mellow crowd occupied the modern and cosy pub-style lounge, which was formerly a cold Formica and lino canteen before a £140,000 makeover, facilitated by brewery assistance and accumulated annual surpluses. As non-profit-making organisations – whose members pay an average sub of £5 a year to become, in effect, a stakeholder and investor – any surplus is ploughed back into the clubs.
Nationally, the clubs that thrive have evolved. In Bethnal Green, Giff sees his club as “a living canvas”, a forum for fostering new talent. Cabaret artist Polly Cupcake, who hosts specialist Friday night events such as “Toot-Sweet” and “Stars Up Your Arse”, has a full house of style conscious young people aged around 20 to 30, crammed into the very kitsch concert hall upstairs.
Seeing a space like this so vibrantly alive provided a stark contrast to the sepia haze of most of the other clubs visited. Club promoter Warren Dent, whose brainchild it was to run a separately licensed club out of the ailing venue, is pleased with its success. Local to the area, he used to DJ at the Bethnal Green working men’s club himself, with the Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker. A 60:40 surplus split with the club means it is now well on the road to breaking the back of the £40,000 it owes the breweries.
So for Bethnal Green, with a current membership of only 200 (due to “natural wastage – people bleedin’ snuffing it”, says Giff) the initiative should forestall closure. And, as the months roll on, there may even be some seepage between upstairs and downstairs.
If more of the clubs could see their way to exploiting the needs of the communities they have come to inhabit by cooperatively diversifying their operation, perhaps these shadowy corners of Britain’s heritage could enjoy the kind of renaissance being achieved in east London.
Smoking ban: ‘It’s a class thing. A large percentage of non-smokers are middle class’
Ex-smoker; Bordesley WMC, Birmingham
“To be honest, we thought we were going to be exempt because we’re private clubs, owned by the people who use the club. The fact that they’ll still be able to smoke in the House of Commons doesn’t sound very fair to me, but they’re a law unto themselves. I don’t disagree with people smoking. I mean, it’s a fact of life isn’t it? Although I don’t like smoking, I don’t really agree with the fact that they banned it completely.
It’ll affect us in the same way that cheap drinks from supermarkets have already driven people away from clubs and pubs. The smoking ban obviously might drive even more people to invite friends round for drinks rather than going to their local pub or club. If I was still a smoker, it would definitely stop me.”
Ex-smoker, Idle WMC, Bradford
“We’ve had a policy that, with any children’s parties in the club, we put notices on the table asking parents not to smoke. So we did minutely ban smoking a couple of times a year, such as Halloween and Easter Bunny parades. On Thursday nights, which is a bingo night in the concert room, it’s like a fog in there, so we have to keep putting the extractors on to get rid of it. The occasional member you may lose, but en masse I wouldn’t say it’ll affect anybody. If anybody wants to smoke, I know it’s cold but they can go outside. That’s what they did in Ireland. There may be a motion at the annual general meeting that we will put some sort of hood up outside the door so that people don’t get wet when they’re having a fag.”
Former 60-a-day man; Bethnal Green WMC, east London
“We knew the smoking ban was on the cards because all the people that are against smoking were smoking every bleedin’ thing going back in the sixties. But now they’ve got into positions of power. It’s a class thing, really, because the working class smoke too much, and because quite a large percentage of non-smokers are middle-class people. That’s what it comes down to – that’s their prerogative. The Labour party will pay the price in the next election, both the local and national elections.”
First published in The Guardian Wednesday 22 February 2006