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Intro to clubs

Our pubs and clubs are vital spaces within our communities. In our series The Pub of the Future, we’ve talked about how pubs have changed over the years to accommodate our evolving wants and interests. But how do working men’s social clubs fit into the discussion? How are they used in modern life? And in our modern high streets, suburbs and shopping precincts, have the differences between local pubs and social clubs blurred?

Katie Mather 

A beer blogger-turned-food and drink writer, with regular work featured in Beer52’s Ferment magazine and Pellicle magazine. Co-owner of Corto, a neighbourhood beer, natural cider and wine bar in Clitheroe. Loves pubs.

Intro to clubs

Our pubs and clubs are vital spaces within our communities. In our series The Pub of the Future, we’ve talked about how pubs have changed over the years to accommodate our evolving wants and interests. But how do working men’s social clubs fit into the discussion? How are they used in modern life? And in our modern high streets, suburbs and shopping precincts, have the differences between local pubs and social clubs blurred?

Illustrations by Lucie Cooke

Emma Inch

A CAMRA member since 1997, John is volunteer with a keen interest in the technicalities of beer dispense, a GBBF bar manager, editor of Manchester’s Beer Buzz magazine and sits on CAMRA’s Technical Advisory Group.

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What is a Working Men’s or Social Club?

One of the best resources for social and working men’s clubs in Britain is the Club Historians website, run by Ruth Cherrington, author of “Not Just Beer and Bingo!  A Social History of Working Men’s Clubs”. Alongside detailed anecdotes and personal stories relating to social clubs past and present, the site hosts a wealth of information about what social clubs actually are.

In their heyday of the 1970s, there were some 4000 working men’s clubs open and thriving across Britain, providing space to congregate, communicate, celebrate and, well, drink beer.

“Whether well-established in inner-city areas or relatively new on council estates…Clubs claimed a place at the heart of working class communities.” (Excerpt from “Not Just Beer and Bingo!  A Social History of Working Men’s Clubs” by Ruth Cherrington.)

What is a Working Men’s or Social Club?

One of the best resources for social and working men’s clubs in Britain is the Club Historians website, run by Ruth Cherrington, author of “Not Just Beer and Bingo!  A Social History of Working Men’s Clubs”. Alongside detailed anecdotes and personal stories relating to social clubs past and present, the site hosts a wealth of information about what social clubs actually are.

A Potted History of WMCs

As institutions, Working Men’s Social Clubs were first created at the tail end of the 19th century, by and for working class people in industrial areas.

The very first social club was founded in Reddish, Greater Manchester, to give workers a place to relax. Typically these spaces were only available to men, and as well as the sale of alcohol, food was often provided, as well as games such as pool, snooker and darts.

“In their heyday of the 1970s, there were some 4000 working men’s clubs open and thriving across Britain, providing space to congregate, communicate, celebrate and, well, drink beer.”

 Katie Mather

“You get soft, almost wine like aromatics, refeshing… acidity and apple driven, when you try Kent and Eastern style ciders”

— Alison Taffs

In their heyday of the 1970s, there were some 4000 working men’s clubs open and thriving across Britain, providing space to congregate, communicate, celebrate and, well, drink beer.

“Whether well-established in inner-city areas or relatively new on council estates…Clubs claimed a place at the heart of working class communities.” (Excerpt from “Not Just Beer and Bingo!  A Social History of Working Men’s Clubs” by Ruth Cherrington.)

Over time, these places of recreation became vital to communities, becoming central to local charitable activities, and offering large, accessible spaces for local workers to enjoy live music, comedy, bingo and night time entertainment, especially over the weekend. Where pubs were often focused on drinking and not much else, clubs were multi-use spaces where working class men (and later, women and children too) were welcomed with no time limits or obligation to buy drinks — all they had to do was pay their annual membership.

This is where the main difference between pubs and clubs shows itself: clubs are not only places to buy and enjoy alcohol. They have always been, first and foremost, community spaces.

A Potted History of WMCs

As institutions, Working Men’s Social Clubs were first created at the tail end of the 19th century, by and for working class people in industrial areas.

The very first social club was founded in Reddish, Greater Manchester, to give workers a place to relax. Typically these spaces were only available to men, and as well as the sale of alcohol, food was often provided, as well as games such as pool, snooker and darts.

Clubs in the 21st Century — Equality and Diversification

WMCs remain fixtures in our community landscapes more than 120 years after their foundation, and are run in much the same way as they always have been. They are cooperatives, and most are affiliates of The Working Men’s Club and Institute Union or CIU. At the current count there are 2,200 registered social clubs within the CIU.

A campaign for equal membership rights for women in WMCs began in the late 1970s, after snooker player Sheila Capstick was banned from playing in her local social club. This was rejected for decades by the union, however in 2007, almost 30 years after the campaign began, the CIU accepted equal membership rights for women. So, despite the name, women are welcome to become members of their local working men’s club!

Over time, these places of recreation became vital to communities, becoming central to local charitable activities, and offering large, accessible spaces for local workers to enjoy live music, comedy, bingo and night time entertainment, especially over the weekend. Where pubs were often focused on drinking and not much else, clubs were multi-use spaces where working class men (and later, women and children too) were welcomed with no time limits or obligation to buy drinks — all they had to do was pay their annual membership.

This is where the main difference between pubs and clubs shows itself: clubs are not only places to buy and enjoy alcohol. They have always been, first and foremost, community spaces.

This change has been vital to the survival of many social clubs. Slowing rates of membership and a decline in use means the threat of losing our social clubs is very real. Like pubs, they have had to diversify; allowing non-members entry to the bar, throwing beer and cider festivals, leasing out function rooms and choosing different beer and cider to sell to an ever-growing community of craft beer and real cider fans.

Unlike pubs, however, most social clubs are not owned by pubcos or landlords, having paid off their mortgages long ago. The threat of them losing their tenancies is lower. A different threat exists — that disuse turns into dereliction, as patrons and owners age and younger members fail to accumulate.

Some WMCs have embraced technology to avoid this fate, using Google ads to shout about their affordable prices and spacious function rooms with drinkers who might never have otherwise stepped through their door.

Clubs in the 21st Century — Equality and Diversification

WMCs remain fixtures in our community landscapes more than 120 years after their foundation, and are run in much the same way as they always have been. They are cooperatives, and most are affiliates of The Working Men’s Club and Institute Union or CIU. At the current count there are 2,200 registered social clubs within the CIU.

A campaign for equal membership rights for women in WMCs began in the late 1970s, after snooker player Sheila Capstick was banned from playing in her local social club. This was rejected for decades by the union, however in 2007, almost 30 years after the campaign began, the CIU accepted equal membership rights for women. So, despite the name, women are welcome to become members of their local working men’s club!

“…places of recreation became vital to communities… offering large, accessible spaces for local workers to enjoy live music, comedy, bingo and night time entertainment…”

 Katie Mather

“You get soft, almost wine like aromatics, refeshing… acidity and apple driven, when you try Kent and Eastern style ciders”

— Alison Taffs

As modern pubs diversify, they take on the roles a social club once might have had. The bingo hall. The community centre. The learning annex. The comedy club. This crossover has helped save many pubs from certain closure, but it’s come at a cost for the WMC. Does a modern community need both pubs and social clubs? We think so. They both offer different experiences and different opportunities to support our communities. But they can only continue to do so if we support them. Sign up for your local social club today! Join the snooker team! Pop by for a pint! Tell them we sent you.

This change has been vital to the survival of many social clubs. Slowing rates of membership and a decline in use means the threat of losing our social clubs is very real. Like pubs, they have had to diversify; allowing non-members entry to the bar, throwing beer and cider festivals, leasing out function rooms and choosing different beer and cider to sell to an ever-growing community of craft beer and real cider fans.

Unlike pubs, however, most social clubs are not owned by pubcos or landlords, having paid off their mortgages long ago. The threat of them losing their tenancies is lower. A different threat exists — that disuse turns into dereliction, as patrons and owners age and younger members fail to accumulate.

Some WMCs have embraced technology to avoid this fate, using Google ads to shout about their affordable prices and spacious function rooms with drinkers who might never have otherwise stepped through their door.

As modern pubs diversify, they take on the roles a social club once might have had. The bingo hall. The community centre. The learning annex. The comedy club. This crossover has helped save many pubs from certain closure, but it’s come at a cost for the WMC. Does a modern community need both pubs and social clubs? We think so. They both offer different experiences and different opportunities to support our communities. But they can only continue to do so if we support them. Sign up for your local social club today! Join the snooker team! Pop by for a pint! Tell them we sent you.

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