The working men’s club and the age of austerity

Dr Ruth Cherrington works in the department of translation and comparative studies at Warwick University where her research focus is identity and representation in multicultural society. A few years ago she was the subject of much interest for research she had carried out on the rise and decline of working men’s clubs.

Image courtesy of the wesbite for Bishop’s Stortford and Thorley – A history [http://www.stortfordhistory.co.uk/

The subject for Cherrington has personal significance; she grew up near a working men’s club which she described as being her second living room. Since then she has noticed the gap which the demise of those institutions have created in society.

As homage to this dying institution she set up the club historians website in May of 2008 which provides a detailed history of the club, and gives people the opportunity to share photographs and memories of their times.

Cherrington reminds us in her history that the clubs came to prominence in the nineteenth century as a means to fill a gap; there wasn’t a lot for people to do other than work. Options to go to the pub, watch music and other leisure activities were usually very expensive, rather somewhere was needed that people could call their own, and not simply lined the pockets of landlords.

Cherrington is open about the problems posed by the working men’s club. The name itself suggests there may be problems of exclusion. Throughout the twentieth century the club was seen as somewhere largely dominated by white males, which suggested a strict exclusivity.

That there had been limited or no female membership in the nineteenth century had not been a point of contention; women enjoyed limited rights as it was and people’s attitudes in the men’s clubs – as can be imagined – were not perturbed by this.

Even by the middle to late twentieth century when women enjoyed more political rights the clubs were still very slow to adapt to a changing societal picture, and even though it was not unheard of to have female members, the exclusiveness was certainly a barrier that needed to be reconsidered.

The same must also be said about multicultural society. The national executive insisted that they could and would not tell individual clubs what to do or who to admit as members, but after the 1970s when anti-discriminatory laws were introduced, and society as a whole changed vastly, so too did the face of the clubs.

One of the more attractive elements of the club had been the so-called “club scene” and the “free-and-easy” nights, which were open microphone sessions for budding musicians and entertainment acts to try their luck among a listening, but generally not an easy audience. It has been said that the audiences of the free-and-easy’s did not suffer fools gladly.

Another overlooked part of the club, which Cherrington is very keen to point out, is the community activity and charity attachment. Cherrington makes note of the notion that charity begins at home, a sentiment embedded into Victorian values, which working men’s clubs utilised and reappropriated as charity beginning in our clubs – in what Cherrington calls acts of “mutual self-help”.

Examples of which can be seen by looking at work achieved by the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (WMCIU). An example of their work was to set up convalescence homes, some time before the creation of the welfare state, which afforded men who may have been recovering from surgery or couldn’t afford to go on holiday, to stay for a week or two by the seaside funded through their subscription.

The clubs were once the hub of local charities who donated good sums of money for special schooling or operations for children where they were not available on the NHS. Cherrington recalls there always being someone passing by in the clubs requesting money for a local charity, alongside someone else selling bingo tickets.

What is worrying about the wide demise of the club is the question of what it will be replaced with, and never has that been a more relevant question. The severe package of cuts has hit community activity rather hard, local sporting centres are either being drowned by expensive private gyms or costs are increasing to keep the centres open at all. Modestly priced places for families to congregate and socialise with friends are all but gone and institutions that bring whole communities together are slow to gain traction – which, I imagine, has a lot to do with how time consuming it is, and how little time people have.

Cherrington sees the closure of Coventry working men’s club – the oldest one of its kind – as a symbol of a dying institution with nothing in its place. She praises charities such as Age Concern and Help the Aged, but notes that with an ageing population these organisations are pushed to bursting point, and are unable to resource for all who need its services. The problem of elderly social mobility, amid the demise of clubs and bingo halls, reduces many elderly people to experience their twilight years secluded and without the social purpose they once enjoyed.

Furthermore, little is available to reconcile the young and the old. In comparison to many countries, there is a noticeable conflict between youth and their elders that really wasn’t apparent in communities brought together by institutions such as the working men’s clubs. The absence of community cohesion is fairly recent and few inspirational ideas have emerged from think tanks and government departments on how to restore it – particularly between the generations.

I’m sure many would have you believe institutions such as the clubs are redundant in today’s society, and closures are not a product of community cohesion in decline, but of people finding different ways in which to entertain themselves. But I’d dismiss that. However my concern about the way in which many of the cuts have been organised, and our rapid descending into mass joblessness and increasing poverty, is that something like the club will be a necessity and not something to fill the hours with at night and at the weekend – and yet such institutions will be absent.

Many commentators and critics are starting to get the impression that what was meant by “cutting waste in public spending to reduce the deficit” was actually a means to, as the saying goes, “starve the beast” that is to say reduce the budget through cuts and breaks which subsequently weakens the role of the state and the social welfare programmes it funds, thereby appearing to strengthen the argument that cuts are necessary and private institutions do things better.

The club, for all its problems concerning who became members and who it excluded, promoted an ideal of “mutual self help” where in society such help had not yet been institutionally founded. We may return to a state where mutual self help is the only alternative – and despite its altruistic good, should not be relied upon since the function of the state, for any decent person, should be to ensure the inalienable right of citizens to welfare.

The return of the club should only be to restore communities and families, the element of the club which preceded the welfare state should be guaranteed by the state alone – since this is its primary function – and this current government is almost certainly trying to creep away from serving its primary function.

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