Henry Solly and the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union

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Founder of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union and a great propagandist for clubs, Henry Solly provided a much needed conceptual clarity to the notion of club work. He also was an important advocate for the extension of working-class political rights and helped to set up the Charity Organization Society.

contents: introduction · involvement with working-class social and political causes · clubs and the Club and Institute Union · the development of the ciu · conclusion · further reading and references · links

Henry SollyHenry Solly (1813-1903) was born in London, the son of a successful businessman (he was, amongst other things, chairman of the London and Birmingham Railway Company and of the first company to send steamships across the Atlantic). Initially, the family lived in the City but later moved to Walthamstow, where his grandfather with others had erected a meeting-house in around 1730. He went to study at Dr Morell’s school (Hove, Brighton) and in 1829 he entered University College in Gower Street, London (studying classics and mathematics). His father wanted him to work in business, and although Henry Solly was to do this, he yearned for other things.

For some years the struggle between natural inclination and obedience to parental purposes went on. He worked assiduously at the business by day, and got all the culture he could by night; fretted at his destiny, wrote tragedy, broke down in health, fell in love, and, above all, became (he says) ever more ‘conscious of intolerable disorder all around me, and an overpowering desire to right all the wrongs in the universe’ (The Inquirer 1903, quoted in Tremlett 1987: 8-9)

In 1840 Solly decided to enter the Unitarian ministry, initially at Yeovil (1840-42) then followed by Tavistock (1842-44), Shepton Mallet (1844-47), Cheltenham (1847-51), Carter Lane, Islington (1852-57) and Lancaster (1858-62).

Involvement with working-class social and political causes

While in Yeovil Henry Solly married, and became involved with the Chartists and several of the working-class groups in the town. Bailey (1987: 118) comments, ‘He discovered a sympathy with the local Chartists who, as moral force men, impressed him with their intelligence and restraint as well as the basic justice of their case’. He also met, and became friends with, John Bainbrige who was later to be involved with the CIU and probably also served as the model for Solly’s (1883) novel James Sandford (op. cit.). The involvement with working-class politics was a little too much for some local Baptists and it became necessary for him to move to another pastorate (Tavistock).

Besides arguing that there was a case for the political advancement of the working class, Henry Solly also had religious and social concerns – and these became stronger. In particular, he was worried about what he saw as a widespread ‘wretched and degrading bondage to the public house’ (Solly 1893). He was a keen teetotaller and was worried about the impact of drinking upon the welfare of families. He was also anxious about social polarization – and saw the need for places where people of different classes could meet. Socially and politically, he became more closely identified with Christian Socialists and their arguments that ‘the classes should work for improvement in concert, and thus preclude a return to the dangerous divisions of the Chartist years’ (Bailey 1987: 119, see also William Lovett). He believed that a more contained or moral version of capitalism offered the best chance of advancement and of harmony between classes. Henry Solly became a keen supporter of working men’s colleges, clubs and institutes and by the time he moved to Lancaster in 1858 he was well known for his campaigning. He had ‘given evidence to royal commissions, and had travelled around the country, addressing religious and temperance congresses, trade unions and friendly societies’ (Tremlett 1987: 12).

It wasn’t only Henry Solly’s social and political activities that caused disquiet amongst his fellow Unitarians. His religious thinking also caused some controversy. He wrote a number of religious works, but his (1861) book on the doctrine of atonement was particularly seen as challenging fundamental Unitarian beliefs. Indeed, he was seen as heretical in some quarters. As a result he left the ministry.

Clubs and the Club and Institute Union

Henry Solly then set about establishing the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (1862) and became its first general secretary on a salary of £200 pa (1862-67). He was an energetic propagandist and was soon raising monies, inviting peers and parliamentarians to become involved as officers, and drawing up a prospectus for the Union (1862, reproduced in the informal education archives). He established the Union’s first offices at 150 The Strand, London. The club was seen as the key environment in which the education of working men could take place. He chose to include the word ‘club’ for in the title of the new association because of the way it invoked notions of sociability and relaxation, and ‘institute’ to indicate serious educational intentions. Freed of the distractions of alcohol, and associational in character, the club, Solly believed, would provide for recreation and create an informal teaching situation, ‘where more serious matters could gradually be introduced’ (Bailey 1987: 120). This was explained by Henry Solly in his theory of the inclined plane:

Begin by meeting the workingmen’s humblest social wants for relaxation and amusement, and you may lift our hard-worked brethren by degrees up to very respectable heights of knowledge and education… You fail if you present the thick end of the plane first. (quoted by Bailey 1987: 120)

The chance conversation could lead on to classes. Henry Solly claimed that recreation, temperance and education were like a three-legged stool – remove one and the enterprise would collapse. Healthy relaxation was necessary to social welfare, temperance crucial to averting the worst excesses, and education fundamental to development. (Significantly, later proponents of boys clubs like Charles Russell used a similar threefold device, but substituted religion for temperance e.g. Russell and Rigby 1908: 19-20).

The aim of the new Union was to encourage the formation of clubs by working men ‘where they can meet for conversation, business, and mental improvement, with the means of recreation and refreshment, free from intoxicating drinks’. In addition, clubs would constitute societies ‘for mutual helpfulness in various ways’ (taken from the prospectus written by Solly in 1862). Clubs would allow for ‘unrestrained social intercourse’, and would be places where the middle classes and gentry could be brought in touch with, and influence the working class (Simon 1965: 72).

As Bailey (1987: 119-120) comments, Solly’s ambivalent attitude to the working classes persisted:

At his most optimistic, Solly cast them as ‘the new Greeks’, whose genius for association would, when effectively released, renovate national life, which he considered dangerously decayed owing to the reckless competition and materialism of both the aristocracy and the middle class. But this same canker which was demoralizing the upper levels of society was liable to disrupt those of the working classes necessarily cast as helots or worse… The garrotting scare in West End streets and a recent bread riot in the East End moved Solly to raise this spectre of insurrection in an address in 1868 to the Royal Society of Arts, and his warnings reflect the underlying nervousness among his class at the continuing combustibility of the masses, particularly in the capital.

However, much to his credit, Henry Solly continued to emphasize self-help. In the words of the prospectus for the Union, ‘The aim… in all cases would be to help Working Men to help themselves, rather than to establish or manage Institutions – this being as essential for the moral usefulness as for the permanent success of our endeavours.’

Henry Solly had considerable success in recruiting the support of aristocrats and prominent members of the middle class. He was a great propagandist. Unfortunately, he was less successful at involving working-class men. Solly was also deeply committed to temperance – and it became clear that this was getting in the way of the participation of many men.

It was only with the greatest reluctance that I contemplated even the possibility of its either being right or wise for members of clubs to be able to get the drinks there which had wrought them so much mischief in the public house, and for several years I combated with all my power the arguments of those who contended for the opposite course. But when I found at last by sad experience that the men whom we specifically wanted to attract from the public house would not come to clubs where they could only get the drinks they did not want, that scarcely any club we could hear of was self-supporting, and had to be shut up when the gentry became tired of paying the annual deficit, that nearly all the clubs we had started had, in consequence, to be closed after two or three years existence; that even if men joined a club where no alcoholic drink were to be had, they continued to go to the pub. for a glass, and there met old companions and frequently remained, and lastly, and chiefly, that they almost passionately declared, and proved, that ‘if the pressure of the landlord were taken off and the salt kept out of beer’, they should not themselves be tempted to take too much and would not allow of excess on the part of others – I gave way. (Solly 1893)

In 1865 the Union resolved ‘The Great Beer Question’ by deciding that there would no longer be a restriction on the sale of beer in clubs. Issues around patronage were not so easily solved. Within the Union and those associated with clubs, there was significant resentment of the influence of those from middle-class and aristocratic backgrounds – and of their over-representation on councils and committees. Solly, himself, publicly argued that that the role of patrons was ‘to supplement not supersede’, that they should conduct themselves as friends not masters (Bailey 1987: 124). However, he still didn’t fully appreciate or endorse the strength of feeling there was among working-class members of the Union around patronage – and the extent to which it undermined participation.

Solly’s sometimes quarrelsome character, his continued advocacy of temperance, and the relative lack of attention he gave to extending the participation of working-class men made his position as Secretary to the Union somewhat problematic. The final blow was his poor administration – proper records were not kept of the Union’s business. After what appears to have been a major row, Henry Solly resigned his secretaryship of the Club and Institute Union in 1867. He continued to be involved in the Council and took time to write his book Social Working Men’s Clubs and Institutes which was published by the CIU. He then tried to establish a rival organization – The Social Working Men’s Club Association – taking some of the aristocratic supporters with him. This was not a success and in 1873 Solly was back with the CIU as an organizing secretary.

While involved with the Union, Henry Solly was also active in the Charitable Organizations Society. Indeed, a paper he presented to the Royal Society of Arts in 1868 (‘How to deal with the unemployed poor of London and with its roughs and criminal classes¢¢¢¢¢) is mentioned by Rooff (1972: 28) as helping to precipitate the society (formed in 1869). He became its first honorary secretary but resigned fairly quickly after it became clear that the financial administration of the Society wasn’t up to scratch (Solly had problems with two successive assistant secretaries). He continued to be interested in questions of poverty and housing and wrote a number of publications on these matters (1868, 1870, 1884).

The development of the CIU

For a number of years, the CIU was held together by Hodgson Pratt, a former high ranking civil servant in India, and a strong supporter of the Co-operative movement. While there were significant issues around questions of patronage, it was clear that the club idea was meeting a very real need. A number of clubs were formed by working men themselves, and this became an increasing trend in the early 1870s. Selling beer was a great aid both in terms of attracting members, and the money it brought in – allowing clubs to be self-supporting. We can see this in the formation in 1875 of the Great Wigstone Working Men’s Club, Leicester, by ‘a few youths of the village tired of being chased around by the village constable’ (Taylor, 1972: 18):

They even had to borrow the four shillings and sixpence to pay the bellman’s fee when he went around announcing their first meeting. His cries fell on respondent ears, and these early clubmen were able to rent premises in the shape of ‘an asylum house’. This was a humble home; ‘The furniture consisted of two old forms, and the place was illuminated by lamps and candles’. The first beverage to be drunk in the club was tea.

The first member to arrive lit the fire and put the kettle on, and became the steward for the night. With too many stewards this did not pay. It was eventually decided to try a small barrel of beer. Success was immediate. (Taylor, 1972: 18)

The London clubs, in particular, continued to fight patronage. They tended to be more political (see Shipley 1983) and through their location in the metropolis are likely to have experienced more interference. There was much talk of patronage as ‘hateful’ comments Hall, the first historian of the movement. The shifting pattern of club organization and the pressure to sideline patronage finally paid off in the early 1880s. In 1884 the CIU had 557 clubs in membership. The membership began to insist on a directly elected central Council which properly represented the clubs in membership. Simon (1965:74) comments that the list of Council members for 1884 indicates how profound was the change. It includes, for example, representatives of the Tower Hamlets Radical Association – ‘one of the most advanced of working men’s clubs’ (op. cit.). By 1886 the Union was fully under democratic control and a new constitution was drawn up that effectively undermined a number positions of patronage (such as vice president).


How successful an initiative was the working men’s club? The answer must be that it did meet a range of needs among working-class men. However, it was not the force for change that Henry Solly envisaged. Hall (1912, quoted by Bailey 1987: 131-2) commented, ‘The sphere of the workman’s club is smaller in circumference than was at first projected by the Pioneer, and immeasurably smaller in its results’. The emphasis on self-help by proponents did mean that working men did gain a foothold in the government and organization of their institutions and the CIU. Education initiatives and debate around social and political questions did flourish for a time (Taylor 1972). Of the third leg of the stool, temperance, the recognition that it was not going to be a successful aim did at least signal that Solly and other bourgeois patrons ‘had come closer to an informed and committed tolerance of [working class] culture than the great majority of their fellows’ (Bailey 1987: 132).

And what of Henry Solly himself? There can be no doubting his energy and ability to promote. He did recognize and develop the idea of club life and saw some of the educational possibilities of associational life. In addition, Solly recognized the need for fuller working-class participation and involvement. However, he shared certain less pleasant characteristics with a number of founders of charities. He tended to make his ideas and concerns the central matter, and to assume ‘ownership’ of the clubs; had a strong sense of his own rightness in debate, and rather liked the attention and company of the aristocracy and gentry. Solly’s great service was, according to Eagar (1953: 156) that ‘he defined intelligently what other men and women were groping after’. Eagar continues, ‘He had an inspiring enthusiasm for the common man, inexhaustible energy, a remarkably clear and able mind and indomitable courage… His formulation of the nature of clubs cleared up a sticky confusion of prejudices and good intentions’.

Further reading and references

Bailey, P. (1987) Leisure and Class in Victorian England. Rational recreation and the contest for control 1830-1885 2e, London: Methuen. 263 + viii pages. Besides being an excellent exploration of leisure and class, this book includes a very helpful exploration of the Club and Institute Union as an example of ‘rational recreation’.

Eagar, W. McG. (1953) Making Men. The history of the Boys’ Clubs and related movements in Great Britain, London: University of London Press.437 pages. Quite the best historical treatment of UK youth work. Eagar begins by discussing the recognition of adolescence; the development of church and philanthropic concern around youth; the emergence of ragged schooling, clubs, settlements and missions and then charts the history of the boys’ clubs movement. There is some material on girl’s clubs. He is particularly strong on the idea of the club, linkages into schooling and rescue, and how these related to other Victorian institutions and concerns.

Hall, B. T. (1912) Our Fifty Years. The story of the Working Men’s Club and InstituteUnion, London: The Working Men’s Club and Institute Union. 349 pages.

Shipley, S. (1983) Club Life and Socialism in Mid-Victorian London, London: Journeyman/London History Workshop Centre. 84 + vi pages. Fascinating study of six clubs around their formation in the 1870s.

Solly, H. (1867) Working men’s social clubs and educational institutes, London: Working Men’s Club and Institute Union. 320 pages. See also the 1904 edition ‘condensed, and supplemented by information carrying it forward to the present date by B.T. Hall’, London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent and Co. viii + 244 pages. Republished by Garland in 1980. Chapter 1 is in the archives.

Tremlett, G. (1987) Clubmen. The history of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union, London: Secker and Warburg. 297 + xiii page. This book focuses on the history of the union rather than the activities of individual clubs, however, there is some useful material on Solly and the various struggles in the movement.


Russell, C. E. B. and Rigby, L. M. (1908) Working Lads’ Clubs, London: Macmillan.

Simon, B. (1965) Education and the Labour Movement 1870-1920, London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Solly, H. (1847) The Great Atonement, London: J. Chapman.

Solly, H. (1849) The Development of Religious Life in the modern Christian Church, illustrated by the life and work of certain great men, London.

Solly, H. (1861) The Doctrine of Atonement by the Son of God, London, Lancaster.

Solly, H. (1868) Destitute poor and criminal classes : A few thoughts on how to deal with the unemployed poor of London, and with its “roughs” and criminal classes?, London: Society of Arts.

Solly, H. (1870) Working men : a glance at some of their wants : with reasons and suggestions for helping them to help themselves, London : [Slatter Brothers, Printers]. Paper originally read at the Social Science Congress held at Dublin in 1861, and ‘is now issued with a few additions and necessary alterations, by the Council of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union’

Solly, H. (1881) James Sandford, Carpenter and Chartist, London : S. Low, Searle & Rivington.

Solly, H. (1884)Home colonisation: re-housing of the industrial classes : or, Village communities v. town rookeries, London.

Solly, H. (1893) “These Eight Years : or, The story of an unfinished life, London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent and Co.

Taylor, J. (1972). From Self Help to Glamour. Working Men’s Clubs 1860-1972, Oxford, History Workshop.


‘Broad cloth and fustian’: The social and political thought of Henry Solly, paper by Malcolm Fielding.

Henry Solly: useful overview of his life from The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography

Henry Solly’s prospectus for the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union 1862

Henry Solly: the origin and nature of Working Men’s Clubs and Institutes (being the first chapter of his 1867/1904 work).

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. k. (2001) ‘Henry Solly and the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/henry-solly-and-the-working-mens-club-and-institute-union/. Retrieved: insert date]

© Mark K. Smith 2001