Working Mens Clubs and Education: Into the 20th Century by Ruth Cherrington

In a previous article, I outlined the educational strands of Working Men’s Clubs (WMCs) as they developed from their mid-19th century origins. Already by the end of that century there were concerns that these were declining due to a rise in popular entertainment. The WMCIU motto was ‘recreation hand in hand with education and temperance’ but few clubs had remained ‘dry’, with most choosing to sell beer.

Working Mens Club


Was education to go the same way as the early ideal of temperance? We’ll look here at some of some illustrative examples of clubs trying to offer some form of educational provisions as well as the more general decline of clubs.

Taking Working Mens Clubs into the 20th Century

Working Mens Clubs could be found in most parts of the country by the 20th century and many displayed their industrial allegiance in their names: Gasfitters, Brassworker’s, Railwaymen’s, Miner’s and Coachmaker’s Clubs, for example. Other Working Mens Clubs showed a political allegiance in their names, with Radical, Liberal, Progressive, Conservative and Constitutional clubs. Many such clubs were founded in the last decades of the 19th century as demands for political reforms grew louder. The rise of the Labour Party gave an impetus to Trades and Labour Clubs.


When considering politically inclined clubs, it could be said that there were both direct and indirect elements of education. Members might have been involved in political campaigns and this involved keeping on top of developments and disseminating these to fellow members as well as the general public. This is not to say that all members of this type of Working Mens Club were politically active but probably they were more inclined to be so due to their decision to join such a club in the first place.


Post 1918: Growing Numbers of Working Mens Clubs

According to the first return of the Licensing Act of 1902, there were 6,371 registered clubs in 1903 with this figure rising to 8,902 by 1915. Out of these, 1,638 were affiliated to the WMCIU in 1914, about one fifth of the total overall. There was a slight fall during WW1 but the numbers rose again after the War, partly due to the rise in a new category of Working Mens Club: Ex-Servicemen’s Clubs.


Survivors of the Great War provided another impetus for club building after 1918. Many had war memories that were difficult, perhaps impossible, to share with those back home. This is a familiar story of veterans of the ‘War to End All Wars’ with men tending to keep their experiences to themselves. Captain Charles Carrington of the 1/5th Battalion, Warwickshire Regiment described how difficult it was to relate to people back home. ‘One got annoyed by the attempts of well-meaning people to sympathise, which only reflected the fact that they didn’t really understand at all.’


Exservicemen in working mens clubs

Ex-servicemen could gain some support by establishing their own clubs. It was not necessarily the case that they would open up to fellow veterans about their experiences over a few pints, though some may have done. It was more about retaining that wartime camaraderie, the ‘man’s world’ as Captain Carrington put it. Ex-servicemen’s clubs could provide a place a refuge where certain things were implicitly accepted even if not openly addressed.

Some were called Ex-Servicemen’s, ‘Old Comrades’ or ‘Done our Bit’ clubs. These were not established with education as the uppermost element but more as recreational spaces for those who had gone through similar wartime experiences.


The implicit educational element can be seen in their efforts to keep the memory alive of the sacrifices of those servicemen who did not make it home to have a pint in the company of their old ‘chums.’ Some worked hard to educate others about the battles that had been fought. Royal British Legion clubs can be included here as these clubs had many similarities with Working Mens Clubs (Note: British Legion clubs were allowed to affiliate to the WMCIU from1964 onwards).


WMCIU clubs

But what of the general club movement – how was education faring?

In the interwar years, more WMCIU clubs were established. The character of a club would usually depend on what the founding members had in mind and not all of them were concerned with education. In the 1920s, pub and club researcher Ernest Selley concluded that when there was a strong committee in a club, there was an ‘excellent’ tone.


He found that members often felt a deep sense of pride in their clubs. ‘Where corporate loyalty, pride and sense of responsibility exist, and where clubs are founded with some social object and the provision of drink is only one item in the range of their activities, the registered club towers high above the best-managed public house.’


Members regarded their clubs as social centres, not just places to drink. One London working man preferred his club to a pub because he could drop in and have a ‘pleasant’ time, being sure to meet someone he knew to chat with or have a game of something. He could please himself whether to drink or not. He also appreciated the fact that strangers couldn’t just walk in and ‘cause trouble.’


There were negative feelings, however, that the ‘old ideals’ of the club movement were being lost. One trade union official felt that although beer was part of a clubman’s life, he wished that ‘the real club side of the movement had been more developed.’ Another agreed, claiming that whilst many clubs ‘set out with ideals’, few lived up to them. Tutorial classes had been run ‘but not with great success.’


Social researcher Andrzej Olechnowicz
Andrzej Olechnowicz

Differences of opinion about whether Working Mens Clubs should be more about entertainment than education emerged on the London County Council’s new Becontree estate in Essex in the 1920s. Social researcher Andrzej Olechnowicz wrote of how the LCC suggested setting up a club for residents, not necessarily with a bar. The British Legion Club opposed this as they thought it would be competition but a new club opened nevertheless, in 1924. It was equipped with medical and dental services as well as licensed refreshment rooms for men and soon attracted over 500 members.


But there was concern about alcohol and the lack of educational activities. The head of the local Evening Institute thought that the Club and Institute did some useful educational work up until 1931, but ‘the bar always offered serious competition.’ Eventually it came to be ‘such a greater attraction that these worthy ideals had to be abandoned.’


It seemed that most members wanted to drink and play billiards. Critics pointed to wider interests not being catered for and others complained that it was no more than a ‘glorified public house,’ with their licensing rights making them ‘private conduit pipes for the supply of drink.’ Another club on the Becontree estate tried to combine the interests of the ‘bookish and the loutish,’ not always successfully. Several opened and closed before the New Becontree Club opened its doors in 1925, with a garden and a hall for 600 people.


In the 1930s the WMCIU did receive recognition as a ‘national institution that did much to ensure that working men’s clubs were properly run, providing their members with recreational and social facilities so often unavailable elsewhere.’ Viscount Astor defended them in the House of Lords, saying that: ‘The club movement brings relaxation and education in a large number of towns and villages up and down the country. There is not a word to be said against the movement. In fact, it is deserving of the greatest support.’


Educational ideals remained part of the movement but not all clubs desired to fulfill these. This fact can be placed into the changed context of clubs in the interwar years compared to their predecessors in the late 19th century. State education was only just beginning in the earlier period whereas it had been expanded greatly by the 1930s. There were local libraries in the later period and newspapers were no longer prohibitively expensive. This may, in part, be a possible reason for some clubs being set up more for recreation rather than for education. The need was possibly not perceived to be as great.


As private-member institutions, clubs were the members’ own leisure spaces. Whilst they may have all shared the WMCIU ‘model’, there were many variations, some having more facilities than others. By the outbreak of WW2, 2,863 WMCIU affiliated clubs, and many non-CIU clubs co-existed alongside pubs and other leisure venues such as cinemas.


The Post-war Period

There was a good deal of club building in the aftermath of the war, as new estates sprang up on the outskirts of major towns and cities. War damage, combined with earlier slum clearance programmes, meant there was a housing shortage and councils sought to build new homes for their citizens. Residents on these estates may have been pleased with their new homes and gardens but often leisure facilities were scarce. This provided impetus for them to build a new generation of clubs from the late 1940s to late 1960s.


To what extent did founding members wish to replicate what their Victorian did? In some ways, the newer clubs were not so different: funded and set-up by the men themselves who did what they could to keep costs down and who aimed at self-management. Some newer clubs retained the idea of a Reading Room, which they also added to their name.


The WMCIU wanted to keep an element of education in their affiliated clubs and in 1955 they reprinted in their Journal the poem they had published 50 years earlier. (See previous article) They wished to make the point that the WMCs still upheld earlier principles and continued to make achievements in the field of social education.


The Journal editorial stated that the poem’s sentiments were ‘equally true of our present-day clubs,’ believing some sections of the community to be ‘misguided’ about what clubs did. ‘Our organisation, the largest of its kind in the world, has survived many onslaughts from these sections, and by the test of time has proved its value to the nation. We can be justly proud of the progress made by our movement since its inception in 1862, and there is not the slightest doubt that we have brought the dreams of our founder, the Rev. H. Solly, into the realms of reality.’


There was not such a pressing need, for educational facilities than in Victorian times. With an expanding state education system including further education colleges, members had more opportunities to take professional qualifications or simply to learn new things out of interest.


CIU Journal Editorial Board
CIU Journal Editorial Board

In 1963, the January edition of the Club and Institute Journal (C&IJ) posed the question of whether was Adult Education was ‘all played out.’ Arthur Maddison wrote: ‘Far from taking a back seat, adult and workers’ education is actually on the increase in an age of increasing leisure.’ He discussed an increase in W.E.A. courses and number of adults enrolling but did not refer to education in clubs. The implication was that there were opportunities offered by the W.E.A. for adults wishing to study further whether for work or pleasure.


By the end of the 1960s, the emphasis can be seen to have shifted to offering more specialized educational opportunities for those interested in running clubs. In January’s edition of the C&IJ, 1969 (p.10), these were outlined for readers with an expressed commitment to continuing educational elements in the club movement.


‘It has long been recognized that no sizeable working class organisation can progress satisfactorily if it has no sound educational background. The Union has been engaged in educational activities for some 80 years. Not the three R’s type of instruction, nor technical and vocational, as the subjects do not really come within the ambit of the Union’s work. “Education” is not perhaps the right word, and it tends to scare many clubmen. The mechanism of Club life is complex. The wheels and springs and cogs are fellow Clubmen who are prepared to devote a good proportion of their time in the service of others. And that is where the Union’s educational service comes into the picture.’


Most club committees consisted of volunteers doing what they could in their spare time. They may have had little experience of accountancy or administration and those new to these roles perhaps could not anticipate the ‘intricacies’ of club management. Without support in their work, a club officer might fail and their club fail as a result. This was something the Rev. Solly and his successors in WMCIU head office understood. They sought, then, ‘to help him, for the success of the Club largely depends upon his efficiency.’


The main offering was the Club Management Diploma, a postal course dealing exclusively with Club Law and Administration and Accountancy. Six lessons were forwarded to candidates between September and March with an examination held at local centres each May. Successful candidates received the Club Management Diploma and Silver Badge. ‘In some respects this course is the most practical form of education we offer, as it deals with many of the countless difficulties which Club Officials have to face.’


There were also spring and summer schools every year, with the WMCIU reserving Ruskin College, Oxford, for a week in the Spring and the Men’s Residence of Leicester University for two weeks in the summer. Forty places were provided at Oxford and 60 each week at Leicester. Every WMCIU Branch was entitled to a place with this being paid for out of Head Office funds.


‘In this manner, Clubmen from all parts of England, Scotland and Wales are brought together…. The lecturers cover a wide variety of subjects, the majority of which concern Club administration and the work of the Union. Care is taken to include plenty of social activities in the programmes. After all most of the men have allocated a week’s holiday to attend the schools, and are not accustomed to sustained study.’


Such holiday study programmes attempted to combine learning with leisure, the assumption being that study alone would not be attractive enough. Another educational offering was the provision of one-day schools, which had been started during the War. ‘The scheme was a popular one, and has now become a regular feature of Branch activity. The Schools are held in Branch areas on Saturday or Sunday afternoons.’ Speakers and lecture topics were selected locally with the biggest demand were for WMCIU related themes.


Many of the speakers were drawn in from local W.E.A. branches. Free to attend, in the late 1960s between 3,000 to 4,000 club members participated annually. This figure represented only a small fraction of total membership of Working Mens Clubs. At that time, many men might have had to work on Saturday mornings so perhaps the idea of a talk in their free time was not top of their list of things to do. It would be another indication that education was not seen as the primary element of club life.


Coombe Social Club
Coombe Social Club, Coventry. 75th Anniversary Concert Poster, 2008 (Photo R. Cherrington)


John Taylor, author of ‘From Self-Help to Glamour: the working man’s club 1860-1972’, had definite views about the primary driver of clubs at this time which he referred to as the ‘hegemony of entertainment.’ He saw post-war clubs as increasingly interested in concerts and hiring professional entertainers. In some areas, clubs paid large sums of money for ‘top acts’. Bigger concert rooms were built up and down the country as the clubs went into the boom years. Where was education in all this?


Some elements persisted, apart from the WMCIU courses already discussed. Many clubs organised classes of various sorts for older and unemployed members. The provision was not nationwide or uniform: it depended on each club’s own priorities and facilities. In a C&IJ article entitled ‘A club and the community – what can be done’, (1982) one specific example was provided. Canley Social Club in Coventry, held an exhibition of wood carving done by members, who had used facilities of a local Community College. The article stated that this showed ‘how a Union club and an educational organisation can help each other while still preserving their complete independence.‘


The club’s relationship with local school and community college, Alderman Callow, had been developing since the latter had opened in 1974, 25 years after the Club had been established. ‘The Headmaster and his Deputies realized then that the club was a focal point in the community, frequented by many parents and other local residents, and applied for membership.’ Most of the school’s staff apparently went on to become members.


The cooperation included allowing the school to use the club’s netball and tennis courts as they didn’t have their own. An ‘education surgery’ was set up in the club’s lounge one evening a week when the Headmaster or another member of staff was available to answer member’s questions and offer advice.


A Wednesday club was also set up with use of the committee room made available. Members attended the hour-long sessions with topics chosen by themselves, such as the history of the trade union movement. Many members at Canley Club would have been in trade unions branches at the local car factories. Other activities were organised through this club/school cooperation such as visits to local historical sites.


An important role was opened up in the way that club members could discuss, in confidence, any problems their children were having at the school which was less than a mile away. There would also be parents evenings at the Club, with the suggestion that teachers were more likely to meet with parents there rather at the school. ‘There are countless instances of misunderstandings explained, anxieties eased and problems solved by an informal chat over a pint between a club member and a Deputy Head of the school.’ On the other side of Coventry, things were happening at the Hen Lane Club.


Reception Hen Lane Social Club
Reception, Hen Lane Social Club in Coventry (photo R. Cherrington)


They held a week long ‘education shop’: a series of activities involving local schools near to the club. This included members talking to their children’s teachers and visiting an exhibition of their work in the club. Many teachers were club members and found it easy to meet with parents there. Hen Lane also offered twice weekly ladies keep fit classes, as well as typewriting and sewing classes.


They worked in cooperation with the Education Community Service in Coventry, who were working with other clubs, recognizing their importance as social centres. Another course was aimed at retired people, explaining their rights. These are only a few examples- over the country there would have been hundreds more. It is clear that there was interest in making links with local schools in order to help member’s children and break down some barriers that existed.


Clubs in Decline and Considering the Future

The ‘boom’ years were already started to fade by the mid-1970s when the WMCIU had its peak numbers of affiliated clubs and the clubs had their highest levels of members. From then on a decline set in that has been documented thoroughly elsewhere. (See Not just Beer and Bingo! A social history of working men’s clubs)


A MORI survey of public attitudes towards social clubs carried out in 1985 indicated that going to clubs was still a popular leisure activity even though memberships were falling. A fifth of men questioned went to social clubs on Saturdays and Sundays and over a quarter of men below 35 had been to a social club on the Saturday prior to being interviewed.


The vast majority of those questioned were aware of at least one club in their area with a fifth of those questioned belonging to a club and nearly two thirds using one ‘occasionally.’ Clubs were viewed as having cheaper drinks than pubs, with good live music, bingo, rooms for dancing but having rather basic decoration. Education did not appear to be something people expected in clubs.


Club researcher Stephen Linstead
Stephen Linstead

They were still seen as family places, mainly for working-class people but with a lot of rules and regulations; perhaps too many. Club researcher Stephen Linstead highlighted the importance of the members themselves. It is they who ‘collectively are the club and are joint owners of the property, furnishings and fittings. Support of and interest in their club is of paramount importance to the well-being and future of the club.’


He advised against publicising Working Mens Clubs primarily as suppliers of cheap drink as their other distinctive features, such as the educational and social roles, were then downplayed. He warned against simply copying the pubs at that time when the latter were being refurbished to attract the younger generation. He believed that clubs had a ‘unique role’ and that they would do well to revive some of their early ideals. ‘Their traditional social, education, recreational and welfare objectives are the essence of their distinctiveness, and have made them an important social force in the twentieth century.’


In this view, the future success of clubs lay, to some extent, in them looking back to the past, to their unique, distinct features and ideals, with education being one of these. Trying to compete with pubs at their level would cause further demises and clubs were not pubs. If the past ideals were left behind, Working Mens Clubs perhaps didn’t have much of a future.


Without proper interest and debate in clubs, Linstead predicted that the number of clubs would dwindle. Clubs needed to take note of the changes taking place as ‘to ignore what is going on in other sectors of society cannot fail to be counter-productive in the short run and may be disastrous in the long run.’ 30 years later, it appears we have the ‘disastrous’ outcome Linstead warned about with less than half the number of WMCIU clubs than there were in the mid-1970s.


Some reasons for decline were beyond the control of the WMCIU such as legislation, social and cultural change and an increasing amount of leisure time options. But some measures regarding taking the best from the past and taking these forward with a modern approach as well as having effective management could be within the hands of the clubs themselves.


Derelict Dial House Club
Derelict Dial House Club, Sheffield. (Photo R. Cherrington)


Not all clubs have been willing or capable of doing this, of coming up with a survival or revival strategy. Where club committees have recognized the decline and taken action, there have been some successes and improvement in their situations. The internet and social media can be included in any survival strategy. Clubs without a web presence and unable to reach out to prospective members are likely to fare badly: they will simply be unnoticed and once their ageing membership passes away, so will the clubs.


Education can have a role here, as it did in some clubs during the 1980s, previously discussed. One example is that older members can become ‘silver surfers’ in the clubs with the help of outside bodies such as schools, colleges and charities. The interest gained from such cooperation could increase intergenerational interaction and even the use of clubs, boosting membership and income. They would also be recognized as the valuable community assets that they actually are as a result. Other age groups could be assisted such young mothers with children who might feel isolated. Classes for them in the clubs about childcare, health, fitness and other topics have been tried with success in some clubs.


Hiring out club rooms during the daytime and quiet evenings can earn clubs the revenue they need to keep going. Activities such as yoga have become increasingly popular in recent years and clubs can offer themselves as venues. Some already do. There could be a revival of club talks and art classes to give a few more examples.


Fewer clubs refer to themselves as ‘working men’s clubs’ now in an effort to appear more inclusive and more equal. A name change can help but there has to be a strategy in place to boost membership and income to keep a club going. Times have changed and continue to do so, very rapidly indeed.


But some of the needs of people who have traditionally used clubs remain the same, such as the need for somewhere they can feel they have part ownership of, that is relatively cheap to use and is run on a not-for-profit basis. Those who cannot afford to pay for evening classes in local colleges, where prices have risen, could perhaps be offered something similar in the clubs. Self-help amongst members could be reignited and links with local schools and colleges strengthened.


We don’t hear so much now about the ‘big society’ but the ideas encapsulated within this phrase were very much part of the club movement long before the phrase was invented. Taking these ideals, ideas and activities but using contemporary methods and tools such as the internet, Working Mens Clubs could still have a future and education, formal and informal, could be part of that.


Concluding comments

This second article on the educational elements of Working Mens Clubs brings us up to the current situation where clubs face declining memberships and numbers. The future may look very bleak indeed with some social commentators saying that clubs have had their day and should be allowed to disappear into history.


I have always disagreed with this view as all my research and experience of clubs has shown that they have played hugely important social and community roles. We still need these, perhaps more than ever. By playing to the strengths of clubs and reaching out to different people, many clubs might find their way into the future. I believe that some balanced emphasis on education, as the WMCIU founder Rev. Henry Solly suggested, is as important today as it was in his day, and could help to make clubs more secure in the coming years.


Dr. Ruth Cherrington


Advisory Group, Kent University’s Fuller House Bingo research project

Drinking Studies Network Member



  • Cherrington, R. (2012) ‘Not just Beer and Bingo! A social history of working men’s clubs’, Authorhouse
  • Linstead, S. et al. (1987) ‘Clubs and the Future, C &IJ April, p. 1
  • Olechnowicz, A. (1997) Working Class Housing in England between the Wars, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Selley, E. (1927) The English Public House as It Is, London: Longmans
  • Taylor, J. (1972) From Self-Help to Glamour: the Working Man’s Club, 1860-1972, History Workshop Pamphlets 7, Ruskin College: Oxford
  • Tremlett, G. (1987) Clubmen: the History of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union, London: Secker & Warburg

Club and Institute Journal Articles

  • 1955, March p. 13, ‘Our Club’ written in1905, by Mr. R.W. Slater who was President of the Morley Club in Leeds.
  • 1963, January p.10, ‘Adult Education- is it all played out?’ Arthur Maddison
  • 1982, January p.5 ‘A club and the community- what can be done’
  • 1983 April, p. 18 ‘Involving the Community’
  • 1983 May, p. 23 ‘Club that serves the whole Community’