Katie Mather asks whether there’s still a place for the venerable social club in UK pub culture
Tuesday 29 September 2020
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My first introduction to a Social Club was a golden wedding anniversary at Lancaster Phoenix Working Men’s Club. I danced to the Birdie Song with my Nana. I ate triangle-cut cheese savoury sandwiches. I remember being excited by the vast polished dancefloor ready to be slid across once I took off my patent party shoes.
Since then, I’ve been to a lot of Working Men’s Clubs. I’m northern, and at least part of me is working class, so it kind of comes with the territory. From the Lansil Sports and Social on Caton Road, Lancaster, to the world famous and totally unique Brudenell Social Club in Leeds, they’re all different, but they all have a similar vibe — chilled, mind-your-own-business, cheap, often locally-brewed beer, games, and if you’re looking for them (I always am) a couple of tall tales.
The Working Men’s Club is an institution that as drinkers, we’re all aware of, but they’re mostly ignored by younger drinkers. For the past few decades, Social Clubs have struggled to welcome new faces into their establishments. There are many reasons for this, says Ruth Cherrington, author of “Not Just Beer and Bingo! A Social History of Working Men’s Clubs”, who also runs the Club Historians website.
“It used to be that parents would give their child a membership to the Club on their 18th birthday,” she says. “Now, there’s a lot more to do as a young person than there was, even in the 80s. But as fewer people use them, fewer people experience and understand what they’re all about. And we’re losing them.”
It’s a man’s world
The name can be offputting. That’s the first thing I notice when I talk about Working Men’s Clubs. I immediately feel like people switch off, and I get it. Even though I know differently through my own positive experiences, the name makes me feel like I wouldn’t be welcome — that they are spaces created without me in mind. Ruth assures me that things are changing, slowly, and that diversity is being pushed from members and behind the bar right up to their committees.
“It’s true that women used to not be allowed in,” she admits. “But that’s changed! Everyone is welcome now.”
Diversity is being pushed from members right up to their committees
For a bit more background on the hard-won right for women to use Working Men’s Clubs, we should step into the games room. A blog post on Cluster Of Reds.com, a snooker blog run by a superfan (who has asked to remain anonymous) reads:
“A dispute at Wakefield City Working Men’s Club in 1978 led to a national campaign for equal membership rights for women in Social Clubs. Sheila Capstick had been a regular snooker player at the Club before a ban was instituted on women playing snooker by a male-only committee.”
“Her protest ‘A Woman’s Right to Cues’ developed into a nationwide campaign for equal rights called the ERICCA – Equal Rights in Clubs Campaign for Action.”
Picketing the CIU’s annual conference in Blackpool year after year, delegates from more progressive clubs also stood up to propose resolutions supporting equal rights. Year on year, they were ignored.
The blog post continues: “In April 2007, after the resolution had been consistently rejected annually by the Club and Institute Union (a federation of over a thousand clubs in the UK), it was accepted to grant equal membership rights for women.”
At the time, Sheila, who went on to be active in the Women Against Pit Closures movement, said: “Justice at last, and not before time,” adding that she felt “vindicated” by the decision.
Her husband Ken spoke to the Yorkshire Post about her campaign in 2014, saying that the campaign had been “bigger than the snooker”. And it was. For generations, women had been welcome in Working Men’s Clubs as wives or relatives of the men who frequented them, but alone, many members and committee members sought to find ways to curb their attendance and influence. Thanks to Sheila Capstick and the 29 long years of campaigning that she ignited, there is equality between men and women within the Working Men’s Clubs of Britain.
Bowes Social Club in Bowes, Co. Durham, is a club that’s embraced this equality wholeheartedly since the early 80s, and it seems to work very well for them indeed. Davina Tunstall, the Club treasurer, took me through the work they’d put in to create a space that was welcoming to everyone.
“Bowes Club is run by a committee of both men and women,” she told me, “Ranging in age from 30 to 80 years old. Women have been active on the committee since 1982, including Pat, who was one of the two women originally voted in, and who remains on the committee today.”
1982 was a big year for Bowes. Davina explains:
“The Club wasn’t doing too well in the 80s — the village was small and nobody wanted to join the committee. They needed more people to join, and someone said well, what about women?”
Of course, that didn’t go down well with some members, nevertheless an Extra-Ordinary Meeting was held to put forward the idea of allowing women to join the Bowes Club committee. A majority voted positively, and Bowes Working Men’s Club became the first Club in the country to allow women onto its committee. Shortly afterwards, Bowes became more financially stable and was able to stop leasing and buy its building from the leaseholder.
“Now we’re half men and half women, give or take,” says Davina, “and Pat tells me that the club wouldn’t be where it was today if it wasn’t for the women.”
Continuing to move things forward, Bowes left the CIU and changed from a Working Men’s Club to a Social Club in 2017, following approval from the committee. Davina says this seemingly small but important change has helped them to thrive.
“We changed our outside sign to read Bowes Social Club - All Welcome - so that everyone knows they are welcome to come in.”
“Our approach was to get rid of the stigma surrounding Working Men’s Clubs being for a group of older men sat around the bar. We’re thriving now, we really are. Now the local shop has closed people pop in for drinks or snacks to take home. We’re like the hub of the village.”
Another Club looking to diversity and equality to improve their fortunes is Langham Club based in Haringay, North London. The Club’s president James Thompson is young — 33 years old — and with his brother and the Club’s committee of open-minded individuals he’s been helping to steer the Langham right.
“When I first came to The Langham I knew that, like many Clubs, it didn’t have a website. I said I’d build one and people were really positive about it. Rather than choosing not to have a site, there was instead maybe a frustration that there weren’t the skills before to create one.”
“Now we use Pay Per Click ads on Google for the Haringay area for key words like snooker, venue hire and cheap drinks and honestly, our top hit is for Red Stripe!”
“There’s a feeling sometimes that committees aren’t moving as fast as the clubs. The biggest virtue you need as a young person running a club is patience. You need to be committed to the long game.”
“In my experience there hasn’t been resistance to change, just an idea that because things have always been done a certain way, there is no other way.”
He adds that Covid-19 had a strangely positive effect on moving internal communications off newsletters and onto social media.
“Up until recently Clubs haven’t worked together; at best they’re silos, at worst there’s a rivalry between them. When we were forced to close during lockdown, a WhatsApp group was created by a Club in North London and clubs all over our region have been using it and a related Facebook group, helping each other to source PPE, discussing re-opening dates and times, and just being mutually supportive.”
A museum piece?
After WWI, Clubs were looking for ways to continue serving their members cheaper beer while still turning a profit. This is when the Federation Brewery in Newcastle was set up, organised and run by the CIU to brew beer especially for Working Men’s Clubs to sell back to themselves. This is how traditionally, Clubs managed to buy beer for much less than pubs had to — and why you might remember managing to get a pint for about £1.20 even in the late 90s. Now, however, the Federation Brewery has gone, sold to Newcastle Brewery and then Heineken. Clubs have the same options as every other pub in the country now, giving them fewer opportunities to be the cheapest, and giving people one less reason to choose to drink there.
A closed Club isn’t just a shut door though. For many people, older people especially, Social Clubs are where they meet their friends, play games and relax, and perhaps the only place outside of their home that they visit to socialise.
Ruth Cherrington believes this is why Clubs are still vital to our pub culture in Britain.
“Acknowledgement needs to be had that they are community spaces, not businesses that sell beer,” she says. “There is a real and dangerous problem with loneliness in our country, and a big part of that is down to the loss of community spaces.”
“During lockdown it was worrying to see isolated people become even more isolated, and this is how it is when Clubs close down. They’re a lifeline.”
A CIU member with a passion for social clubs, pubs and beer history who has asked not to be named talked me through what they saw as being the major hurdles Social Clubs and Working Men’s Clubs are facing in 2020.
“A lot of people think it’s a closed door. It isn’t!” they tell me. “That closed door can be offputting. The lack of beer gardens can also be a factor, as many drinkers want to be able to smoke, or at least sit outside when the weather’s nice.”
They raise a good point. As Boak and Bailey describe in their excellent blog post “Shadow Pubs”, Working Men’s Clubs and Social Clubs aren’t always the most beautiful buildings:
“Another problem for clubs is that they aren’t pubs. They don’t generally occupy quaint pub buildings but rather prefabs, Portakabins, institutional blocks or plain backstreet units. The entrances can seem forbidding — blank doors into empty corridors leading to gloomy staircases. If you do make it inside you’ll probably find an oddly consistent style of interior decor: hard-wearing, un-pretty, harshly lit.”
Like Boak and Bailey describe later in the post, I think there’s a reassuring sort-of utilitarianism about them. I spend a lot of time in pubs, and a Club isn’t somewhere that’s concerned with keeping up with trends. They tend to be relaxingly bland. Like a sort of sensory deprivation tank, but with beer and pool.
My unnamed CIU member thinks this is holding them back somewhat though, and that’s probably a fair assessment. Not everyone has such strong emotional ties to beige furniture, mild and magnolia woodchip.
“They can be very old-fashioned. Innovation might be frowned upon just because the locals wouldn’t like it. Pubs have to constantly change their range and clubs are at the mercy of their committee — trends can take ages to hit them. The gin craze is only just reaching a lot of clubs now!”
“Also, Clubs could be highlighting and promoting their biggest assets better. So many people aren’t aware of their facilities and the great spaces that they are. People don’t seem to realise that it’s a family atmosphere inside and you don’t get any trouble. It’s a safe environment, and there’s less hassle.”
“There’s a great sense of belonging in Social Clubs, and that’s not really something you can explain, You have to go in and experience that. That’s what a lot of people are missing out on.”
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