Working Men’s Clubs and Education by Dr Ruth Cherrington

It’s for a good reason that I gave my book on working men’s clubs (WMCs) the title ‘Not just Beer and Bingo!’ They were always about much more than drinking and low level gambling. I will outline here the important educational aspects that WMCs started out with which were part of their ‘self help’ ethos. Another article will follow WMCs into the 20th century describing how, whilst educational aspects declined, they did not entirely disappear.

Reverend Henry Solly
Reverend Henry Solly

The Context

The origins of WMCs can be traced to the mid-19th century when we can see two things happening simultaneously: support for clubs ‘from above’ and working men themselves setting up clubs- a form of movement ‘from below.’ These two became intertwined for a while due to the efforts of one person: a teetotal clergyman, the Reverend Henry Solly, who believed in the importance of ‘sober social discourse’.


For Solly, ‘intemperance, ignorance, improvidence, and religious indifference’ were rife and he saw WMCs as one way to combat such social ills. With that in mind, he founded the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (WMCIU) in 1862. This was a time, according to Stephen Linstead, ‘when memories of radical movements and potentially revolutionary initiatives were still relatively fresh.’ This reforming zeal ‘found acceptance amongst a workforce which had few opportunities for leisure or social contact other than in public houses.’


Pubs had for centuries offered company and brief respite from the harsh reality of lives. Beer washed away the dirt, thirst and toil offering what some have referred to as a ‘culture of consolation.’ Pubs also offered spaces for business meetings and political gatherings when there were few other options available. Their customers didn’t always want to feel the pressure of having to stand a round, however. Where were they to go if they wanted alternative leisure spaces with the companionship and sociability of a good pub but without putting profit into the pockets of breweries and publicans? It was up to them to found such places.


For Solly, ‘unrestrained social intercourse, the means of chatting with one another, with or without refreshments’ was ‘undoubtedly the first great want of working men after their long day’s toil.’ Temperance campaigners were initially supportive of WMCs as they linked the ruination of family life to excessive drinking.


The Salvation Army sent their troops into pubs armed with bibles and popular drinking songs reworked as hymns. The beer was often a lot warmer than the welcome they received but some drinkers did sign ‘the pledge.’ Those ‘rescued’ from the clutches of drink could easily lapse as tea and sermons in cold church halls weren’t always sufficient to keep them from falling off the wagon. WMCs were to be more welcoming places where men could participate in social and educational activities but without the beer.


Working class homes

Working class homes at this time were often miserable places. There are enough descriptions of 19th century living conditions, ranging from Engels writing about Manchester slums to Mayhew documenting the life of the London poor. George Sims provided descriptions of the ‘”one-roomed helots” of slumdom’ and grim accounts of living conditions are found in the works of Dickens.


Solly spent enough time with working people to know about their conditions. ‘The wealthier classes have places to go, in their homes and outside but the working classes don’t.’ Until their conditions improved, they needed social clubs as many simply had ‘no place to go of an evening but the street-corner or the public house.’


Solly had gentlemen’s clubs in mind as a model. The better off had spacious homes but still spent a good deal of time socialising outside. If upper class men had clubs, why shouldn’t their working class counterparts have something similar? The appeal of a WMC was to be ‘comfort and companionship: it provided somewhere, brighter and more cheerful than many homes, to meet friends and have a drink.’


The word ‘club’ was preferred over ‘college’ and the ‘Working Men’s’ part desirable because this was the main target audience, plus there was pride in this identification. It was related to the WMCIU’s own name and often the ‘Institute’ part was included, indicating that clubs were for learning as well as pleasure.


At the end of its first year, the WMCIU had helped to form 13 clubs with13 others joining and another ten established under its guidance. Six clubs established in London included Bethnal Green WMC, which is still open for business. Others were in the Midlands, Home Counties and the north of England.


Working mens clubs

Key Characteristics of WMCs

The typical premises of a 19th century club comprised a few rented rooms above a shop or perhaps a small house leased and converted by the members themselves. They were to be not for profit, being constituted and owned by their members though many early clubs had patrons who offered financial and other support.


Solly’s list of early club supporters read like a who’s who of the day and whilst often generous, some wanted to have the final say in how clubs were run. This went against the view that, quoting Lord Rosebery, that ‘working Men are to be raised by their own endeavours, and are not to be patronised, and fostered, and dandled. All that is to be done for the working men is to be done by themselves.’


Patronage was very soon rejected as increasingly members felt that there was too much interference in clubs they wanted to run themselves. Having had enough of being told what to do at work, the preference was for self-governance, if finances and skills permitted.


The WMCIU helped out here as it set out to develop a system of internal government such as a set of prescriptive ‘model rules.’ In 1864 WMCs were brought under the cover of the Friendly Societies Act. This meant that they had to make an annual return but they had a different status to pubs, being private members institutions.


Prospective members had to be nominated with applications posted on the notice board for members to consider. If accepted, they would agree to abide by the regulations and pay the subscription fee. As private members clubs, WMCs set their own rules, in accordance with the laws of the land and WMCIU regulations.


There was a democratically elected management committee in each club with their own based on the WMCIU’s own version. The way that WMCs were run was a small-scale form of local democracy well before all working men had the vote.


WMCs were intended for men, as most organisations at the time were. Solly believed that women would benefit if their husbands and fathers used WMCs more than pubs as they would be more sober and better off. Some clubs did allow women in from early on, wives and daughters only, at certain times of the week. Although women were not the intended target audience, over the years many did find pleasure under patriarchy in WMCs. There were variations, with some more amenable to the presence of women as time went on but others insisting on remaining male-only. This theme is addressed in other writings but will be one we return to in terms of educational elements.

Working Men's Club and Institute Union

Educational Elements

What would be the role, then, of education in the ‘ideal’ clubs Solly envisaged given that the WMCIU’s motto was ‘recreation hand in hand with education and temperance’? Notions of reforming people and society through leisure were linked to the rational recreation movement. Clubs have been described by historian Peter Bailey as ‘the most prominent example of rational recreation formally organised on a national scale.’ The key question was how education would be offered without deterring men who were not motivated by the prospect of studying in their spare time.


Solly respected the Mechanics Institutes and Colleges set up by Dr. Birkbeck earlier in the 19th century but their successes were limited. WMCs were to be more appealing to a wider body of working men, offering social discourse as well as education. Making the latter the dominant part of club life might have led to the WMC movement being very short lived indeed. Solly sought to avoid over-emphasising education: clubs would offer ‘a framework for their members to engage in a range of political, educational, or recreational activities.’


Educational ideals were usually written into club constitutions but members did not always have time or motivation for sustained educational pursuits. What was offered and with what frequency would vary according each club’s preferences and resources (space, furniture etc.) Some WMCs had more going on than others and despite common trends, each club was unique, as indeed they are today. It was up to the members to decide through their management committee. These were, after all, ‘DIY’ leisure spaces, ran by and for the members not by private enterprise or commercial interests.


Several strands of educational activities can be identified which will be considered: the reading room facility with newspapers and books, the WMCIU’s circulating library, classes and lectures, games and sports.


The Reading Room

The Reading Room

‘Reading Room’ was actually part of the name of many early clubs and remained in use until well into the 20th century. This term highlighted that members could go to their WMC to read and that they could find suitable reading material there.


Walthamstow and Coventry Working Men’s clubs, both dated from 1860, compete for the title of the first CIU affiliated club. Coventry WMC was established by a group of weavers after a strike and provided a reading room for its members. They decided to set up their own venue as a place to meet and discuss issues of the day and this included a small reading room for members. Walthamstow WMC boasted a discussion room, games room and library- an ideal combination of facilities for the early clubs.


Newspapers and books would be bought through a WMC’s own funds and made available for their members. In an era when books were out of reach of many working class people and newspapers too expensive to buy, a well-stocked reading room was a much-appreciated facility. This appreciation was summed up in part of a poem entitled ‘Our Club’ written in1905, by Mr. R.W. Slater who was President of the Morley Club in Leeds.


To start with, there’s the reading-room,

Where one can sit at ease.

There’s various kinds of literature to read whene’er we please,

A cosy chair and nice warm fire through-out the winter time

To shelter those who are out of work from

Winter’s frost and rime.

It must be elevating, then, to spend an hour or two

Reading over quietly what others see and do.

Mind, mark you, there’s no talking here, it’s not allowed by rule:

the man who breaks it, don’t forget, is marked down a fool….


The complete poem was originally published in the November edition of the WMCIU’s Club & Institute Journal in 1905. It expresses the value placed on the reading room as well as the whole club. Some clubs benefited from the help of the WMCIU’S circulating library, introduced as early as1863. By 1893, this had risen to a circulation of 10,000, and rose again to 110,000 in 1912, with 888 boxes of books doing the rounds. ‘The idea of a circulating library is as indicated, a box of books going between Head Office and various clubs for the members’ enjoyment and learning.’


Rules about borrowing were quite strict with fines issued for books returned late or not at all. We can perhaps view this circulating library as a forerunner of mobile libraries in the 20th century. In the WMCIU’s Twenty Sixth Annual Report 1887-88, one of the three stated Objects was to- ‘maintain Circulating and Reference Libraries with the best works in all departments of Literature, Science, Art, and Politics, for the use of the Members of Clubs and Institutes.’


Talks, Lectures and Classes

Talks, Lectures and Classes

Talks and lectures were promoted with a variety of social and political commentators as well as historians available to tour the clubs. Any clubman who felt sufficiently informed on a subject could offer to address fellow members and academics also visited WMCs.


Topics were wide-ranging, such as ‘The Reformation’ by J.T.A. Haines, B.A. Fellow of University College, to ‘Peasant Proprietorship’ by the Rev. E.M Walker, M.A. Fellow of All Souls’ College. Most of the speakers were unpaid, providing their services in order to help ‘better’ working men.


The late 19th century may have been ‘halcyon days’ for clubs according to John Taylor, when educational activities such as lectures were considered an important part of clubs life. Over time, in his view, the social rather than educational elements came to dominate. Those who attempted to give serious talks in busy clubs might have to compete with audiences who were drinking, talking loudly, playing dominoes plus the noisy ‘pot collector.’ Performers would have to compete with this background noise as well.


Holding classes was another educational element. During the year 1886-7, the WMCIU’s 26th annual report noted that ‘various classes were held at several Clubs and Institutes in connection with the Extension Classes Scheme of the Working Men’s College, Great Ormond Street.’ Around 500 people had availed themselves of these classes with 17 London WMCs running them, including Bermondsey WM Institute, East Finsbury Radical Club, Hammersmith Liberal Club, North Kensington Club, St. Luke’s Club, and Peckham. There were French classes, political economy, physiology, modern history, building construction and other subjects.


The compilers of the 26th Annual Report noted that attendance was ‘less regular than is desirable’. This was sometimes due to members having to work overtime and was beyond their control; it was not always down to lack of interest. An Educational Committee was appointed ‘in order that every assistance may be given to clubs willing to actively promote educational work among their members…’


In 1888 it was decided to encourage participation in educational pursuits by offering prizes for students and free use of textbooks and dictionaries by clubs. There were competitions such as history and essay writing. In 1884, the WMCIU held an examination with the first prize in history going to William Johnson of Bedworth, who won it for the next five years. He later went on to be the MP for that area, perhaps proving that rational recreation was helping some men to rise up through the ranks with the assistance of the WMCIU.


First aid

Later came courses in chemistry, hospital management, housing reform, temperance reform and technical education. First Aid was also offered in some clubs. The growth of the Union was also discussed in the 26th Annual Report. The fact that there were more WMCs and members joining was viewed as good but the downside was a perceived entry of ‘rougher elements’ of the working class. It seemed as if ‘enormous numbers of men have become associated with the movement who are probably, in their great majority, wholly ignorant of the principles which led to the establishment of the Club Union.’


The WMCIU was concerned that it had become ‘merely a convenient instrument for supplying certain conveniences of club life,’ with only a few in each club consciously realizing the ‘higher ideals of the movement; to the mass it is only a means of obtaining amusement and recreation.’


Not all new members were interested in education, as Solly had been aware of from the outset. The rise in membership of ‘a less educated and less earnest class’ was a challenge but this was the exact group seen as in ‘thorough need of practical of the practical and sensible training in self-government which may be gained through club life.’ But there was this fear that they would just lower the tone of club life.


Over 25 years after the founding of the WMCIU, the dilemma between educational and self-improvement ideals and popular entertainment and leisure activities arises again. A balance was still being sought but the former did suffer with the rise of ‘lighter’ forms of popular entertainment in some clubs. This was sometimes blamed on allowing women into some clubs, as noted by John Taylor in his work on WMCs. ’”The decline in the legitimate drama may be attributed, we think, to the increased influence of women, for men sacrifice their own tastes and desire to please their female friends.”’


The working class was never a homogenous group but comprised of people with different levels of education and aspirations who wanted different things from the fledgling clubs. Clubs differed because the members were from different sections of the labour force. ‘In the same town or area, two distinct types can be found even in the same trade, and these gravitate towards different clubs.’ Often, then, the conflicts between recreation and educational would be fought at the local level of individual clubs with the WMCIU acting as mediator.


Larger clubs might have had a hall with a stage that enabled theatrical performances to be put on including scenes from Shakespeare. Such endeavours brought nods of approval from the aristocratic patrons who hoped clubs would ‘improve’ the lower orders.

Working mens club games and hobbies

Games and Hobbies

Men could form groups or ‘sections’ around a variety of recreational pursuits such as pigeon fancying and angling, with the club being their headquarters. Involvement in these and similar activities might not be viewed strictly as educational but as more recreational but a case can be made for them having educational aspects.


I include games here as an educational strand to club life as these were not just about relaxation but often about the gaining and improvement of skills. These were encouraged by the WMCIU which went on to organize a wide range of inter-club tournaments and leagues, eventually becoming one of the world’s largest sports and games bodies, Some members excelled at their chosen game and young talent was closely monitored and nurtured.


As with all other aspects of club life, it started off small-scale, with cards and dominoes. Billiards was popular but required more space and money for the special tables but having one could attract more members. Inter-club chess tournaments were organised such as in 1876 when the Jewish Working Men’s Club and Institute defeated the Bermondsey Institute and had to then contend with the St. Pancras Club team.


Games were a welcome relief after the long working day, perhaps accompanied by a thirst-quenching pint. Participation was usually free or required just a small fee for the table or its light. The placing or taking of bets was strictly prohibited and any club caught condoning gambling would be expelled from the WMCIU. That is not to say it didn’t take place but it was very much proscribed in bona fide WMCs.


The WMCIU first became involved in inter-club games at the end of the 19th century. A group of clubs in Yorkshire were running a whist contest and they wrote to the London HQ asking whether ‘“the Union could do anything for them.” A small trophy was provided- and from that small commencement the Union has become the largest organiser of games and sports activities in the country.’


Healthy competition and good sportsmanship were encouraged and gave working men a recreational focus. Games could be considered as improving activities by the upper classes who were partial to billiards themselves. This game was played in the gentlemen’s clubs in London and the well-to-do cafes of late 19th Vienna.


Critics such as John Taylor dismissed them as time-wasting rather than self-improving. He felt that club life became centred on ‘entertainment and its associated features, such as billiards, sport and other activities of a “lighter” nature; lighter in that they possessed none of the educational and political intentions which had been such a great feature of club life. Such pastimes were merely designed to pass away an evening (every evening if possible) in a form which made fewer demands.’


Whilst some games were more about luck, others required skill and concentration. Individual talent and team work were both important for success in club and WMCIU competitions as well as social skills. These were often overlooked when dismissing games as passive activities.


Skills, as well as a love of the games, were nurtured and passed down across the generations. It was not uncommon for young men to be informally taught or mentored by older members who had a particular expertise in one game or another. When clubs prospered and had space and money for expansion, a dedicated games room was usually top of the list. These were cherished by the men with competition not only in terms of the games but also about which club had the best facilities.


Concluding Comments

By the early 20th century, WMCs had found a place in the leisure time of working class people up and down the country. The original educational elements were in competition with other aspects such as light entertainment but there was still importance placed on the reading rooms and classes. There were strong informal and intergenerational elements of education in club life such as with the games, How these fared as the century progressed will be discussed in a later article.


Ruth Cherrington has written a book about the history of working men’s clubs called ‘Not just Beer and Bingo! A social history of working men’s clubs’ which you can buy from Authorhouse:


Cherrington, R ‘Not just Beer and Bingo! A social history of working men’s clubs’, Authorhouse: 2012
WMCIU 26th Annual Report,1887-88 London (1888, WMCIU 150, Holborn London E.C.)
Bailey, P. (1978) Leisure and Class in Victorian England, Toronto & Buffalo: RKP,
Linstead, S. et al., ‘The Clubs and the future’, Club & Institute Journal 1987 April, p. 2
Solly, H. (1980) Working Men’s Social Clubs and Educational Institutes, New York & London: Garland Publishing
Taylor J. (1972) From Self-Help to Glamour: the Working Man’s Club, 1860-1972, History Workshop Pamphlets 7, Ruskin College, Oxford, p.17