Henry Solly: The origin and nature of Working Men’s Clubs and Institutes

 Picture by Graeme Douglas. Flickr ccbysa2 licence

infed archives

In this piece Henry Solly reviews the early development of working men’s clubs and establishes their central characteristics and principles. First published as Chapter 1 of Henry Solly (1867; 1904) Working Men’s Social Clubs and Educational Institutes.

Henry SollyFounder of the Club and Institute Union and a great propagandist for clubs, Henry Solly (1813-1903) 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.

In this chapter, he reviews the development of working men’s clubs and educational institutes – and develops some key themes. Among these are the significance of conversation and social exchange, fellowship, education and self-government. He comments, ‘Free-and-easy sociability, without any interference of masters or teachers, is the very first and absolutely essential condition for the life and usefulness of the Club. But woe to that club which aims at nothing more!’ (page 46).

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


[page 21] In tracing the Origin and nature of the recent movement on behalf of Working Men’s Clubs and Institutes, we must look back forty years to the agitation in favour of Mechanics’ Institutes, originated by that true friend of the working classes, Dr. Birkbeck; and to which the illustrious man who has led the van in so many great enterprises for the good of humanity, Lord Brougham, gave such distinguished assistance. That agitation was purely an educational effort, intended originally to teach mechanics the correct knowledge and principles of their own trades. Then came various unconnected intermittent attempts to provide what were called “Reading-rooms” for working men, in which the chief element was the supplying a place where time might be innocently passed, but where neither education, social intercourse, nor recreation was offered, except so far as reading a newspaper or book in the same room with other people might be supposed to afford all or either. Next came the formation of Mutual Improvement Societies, which met chiefly in schoolrooms, and aimed at Classes, Discussions, and especially at the preparation of short papers on interesting and improving topics. There was often a [page 22] good deal of the sociable spirit in these little Organizations, but they were seldom long-lived. The writer formed one on a more comprehensive plan in 1842 at Yeovil, Somersetshire, for the working men of the town generally, which aimed to be a fellowship for mutual benefit in various ways, but chiefly educational, with very little of the recreation element in it, and without any of the Club features properly so called. It was well appreciated and very useful for a time, but after he left the town dishonest practices broke it up. In the same year, that excellent institution, the People’s College at Sheffield, was established by a very earnest and able friend of the people, the late Rev. R. L. Bayly, of that town, which has done great good there, and is still, we believe, as useful as ever.

But the greatest impulse to the movement for helping working men in the particular direction now under consideration, at all partaking of a national character, subsequently to the initiation of Mechanics’ Institutions, was given by the Rev. F. W. Robertson, Incumbent of Trinity Church, Brighton, in 1849, by the establishment of the Brighton Working Men’s Institute. The large-hearted, Christian sympathies of that gentleman, and his striking eloquence, procured a considerable amount of attention to his enterprise; its influence was felt through the Midland counties and as far north as South Shields, where a Working Men’s Institute was formed, shortly after, by working men who had heard vaguely of such a thing doing good to working men somewhere, and thought, therefore, it might do the same in their own locality. Their Institute has continued in healthy and useful existence to the present day. A more direct and acknowledged impulse from the Brighton centre was given in various other towns where Working Men’s institutes were formed, and, among others, to a few working men and their friends, including the writer, in Cheltenham, where, in 1849-50, a Working Men’s Institute was established which, like its prototype, aimed at a combination of education and amusement, but [page 23] which subsequently fell into bad hands and closed in. gloriously.

The establishment of Night Schools, and the formation of the Yorkshire and Lancashire Unions, of the Southern Counties, of the South Staffordshire, and of the Metropolitan Societies for promoting Adult Education, have been useful agencies during the last dozen years in the education of the working classes, but the good done has been chiefly confined to young persons, and the results generally have been very far from satisfactory as regards working men.

While, however, all these efforts have been productive of more or less unquestionable benefit, none of them met that which is undoubtedly the first great want of working men after their long day’s toil—viz., unrestrained social intercourse, the means of chatting with one another, with or without refreshments. This is the first and simplest kind of relaxation that hard-worked men in any rank of life desire; but in proportion to mental culture and educated tastes will be the desire, of course, for other enjoyments than mere gossiping chat. All efforts, as far as we are aware, to benefit working men, not aiming directly at their moral, religious, or pecuniary welfare, previous to 1852, appear to have ignored this their primary and simplest, but most urgent want. Hence their very limited success. A few of the elite of the working classes benefited by them here and there. But they never reached the masses, who still found the only conditions for the relaxation they desired in the public-house, where they had to pay for it in a way that very often, at all events at first, they did not desire—viz., by drinking for “the good of the house,” and to the damage of their families and themselves.

In the year above-mentioned, however (1852), there appears to have been a new element introduced. An institution, we are told, was opened that year in the Colonnade, Clare-market, under the presidency of Viscount Ingestre, which was called “The Colonnade Working Men’s Club,” and provided amusement and [page 24] refreshment, as well as newspapers and books, though it does not appear quite certain when it was actually commenced. It continued in existence, however, until recently, and met with a tolerable amount of support; and though suspended for a time, has been since reopened as a Youths’ Institute.

Laudable, however, as this improved scheme was, it does not appear to have attracted any general attention. In 1855, Mr. Horlock Bastard, of Charlton Marshall, near Blandford, Dorset, without having heard of any similar enterprise, established a Village Working Men’s Club in that parish, which still continues its career of humble usefulness, and which, like the Colonnade Club in London, made the means of conversation, combined with opportunity for obtaining refreshments, the primary object—newspapers, books, with chess and draughts, being at the same time offered. Women are allowed to be members of the Charlton Club. A similar Village Club was established about the same time in Hertfordshire on the estate of Mr. Lawes, in conjunction with garden allotments. Beer in limited quantities was sold at this Club to members with the result, we are told, of shutting up the public house. Soon after, village Clubs were established at Littlemore and Iffley in Oxfordshire, which again gave rise to Clubs at Kingham, Chipping Norton, and Adderbury, Oxon.

Then came one of the greatest, if not the greatest, impulses yet given in this country to the movement for elevating working men in the social scale. We mean the establishment, by the Rev. F. D. Maurice and his earnest fellow-workers, in 1854, of the London Working Men’s College. This most important enterprise grew out of the wants felt, and desires awakened, by the “Christian Socialist or co-operative” movement, in which those gentlemen had been previously engaged; but the name and idea of a college, Mr. Maurice tells us, were suggested to him by the People’s College, Sheffield, which, however, though an admirable institution, has been little more than a system of capital classes.

[page 25] The publication of Miss Marsh’s deeply-interesting work, “English Hearts and English Hands,” though not claiming a distinct place in the record of efforts to elevate the working classes by means of social or educational institutions, gave so great a stimulus to those efforts, and to middle and upper class sympathies with “the sons of toil,” that it would be a serious omission if it were not noticed here. Among the most direct and striking results of its publication was the share it had in leading Mrs. Wightman to enter upon her Christian work at Shrewsbury, in i86o, which has issued in the erection of a spacious and handsome Workmen’s Hall as a material agency, and in an incalculable amount of moral and spiritual good to the working men of that town and elsewhere. There is a very flourishing Temperance Society that holds its meetings at the Hall. But there appears to be nothing now corresponding to a Working Men’s Club held there. Penny Readings, etc., were checked.

In 1858, about four years after the establishment of the Working Men’s College, a clergyman in Salford,— the Rev. E. Boteler Chalmer formed a Working Men’s Club, which made social intercourse, amusement, and refreshments, the primary object. It has been eminently useful and successful.

In 1860 two excellent ladies in different parts of the metropolis, in ignorance of what each other was doing, but both moved to action by witnessing the sufferings and degradation of the wives and children of labouring men in whom they were interested, were busy devising means for drawing these men from the public-house. In the course of the year z86o, Miss Adeline Cooper, after much consideration and labour, succeeded in fitting up premises in Duck-lane, Westminster, suitable for the object which she saw must be aimed at, and in December of that year the Westminster Working Men’s Club was formally opened. Fortunately, Miss Cooper saw the value and importance of calling the institution, thus established, a Club, and by bringing the writer to the [page 26] same view, has been mainly instrumental in fixing the right name both on these societies and on the movement generally—no slight service, seeing the wonderful extent to which a cause depends for success upon its name. When names are symbols their power is immeasurable. The Duck-lane Club has continued to this day in its course of humble but most remarkable usefulness. During the same year (1860) Mrs. Bayly was holding several interesting conferences with the brickmakers of Nottingdale,; and, in 1861, the Notting-hill Workmen’s Hall was opened in the Kensington Potteries. For further particulars of the history of these pioneer Clubs, and of the benefits conferred by them, see various numbers of the Weekly Record (Tweedie); also a very interesting paper read by Mrs. Bayly in 1862, an abstract of which was published in the Social Science Transactions of that year, p. 527. They were both of them practically Working Men’s Clubs in the sense now given to the word—viz., societies of working men formed to promote social intercourse, innocent amusement, mental improvement, and mutual helpfulness of various kinds; and their establishment, which was made known far and wide among temperance reformers, through the Weekly Record as well as by Mrs. Bayly’s own publications, gave a powerful impetus to efforts and inquiries in this direction. The Manchester enterprise and Mrs. Bayly’s led the writer, during the year 1860, to consider the desirableness of adding the Club element to such societies for mental improvement as he had previously endeavoured to promote in various localities. The Temperance Reformation had long engaged the attention and enlisted the active support of many earnest friends of the working classes, but it was Mrs. Bayly’s and Miss Cooper’s efforts that first led him to see what was imperatively wanted, and might easily be supplied, to make that great reform permanently efficient, and, when combined with higher influences and aid, gradually independent of the teetotal pledge.

About the same time the writer, who for twenty years [page 27] had been trying in various parts of the country to promote Mechanics’ and Working Men’s Institutes, was coming to the conclusion that a much larger amount of recreation and provision for social intercourse than these Institutes afforded was required to meet the wants of working men. Having also worked during the greater part of that period in the Temperance movement, and seen how many reclaimed drunkards fell back after a time into their old ways, he began to understand that by far the larger number of men who frequent the public-house go there for the company rather than for the drink. And when a lady who was devoting herself to the benefit of the working men in Lancaster, observed to him one evening at a pleasant social party in a well warmed and lighted drawing-room, that a friend had written to her only that day, “The cry comes from all parts of the country. What are we to do with our reclaimed drunkards ? “—a new view of the work to be done for the industrial classes presented itself to his mind. He had been trying for two years in vain to get the working men to attend a Mechanics’ Institute possessing capital premises, in Lancaster, but without success; and he now, therefore, got a number of the inhabitants to consider the whole question at two meetings in the Townhall (June, 1860), under the presidency of the Mayor. Having been warmly interested in Mr. Maurice’s labours, his first idea was to try and establish a Working Men’s College, which should also combine the attractions of recreation and social intercourse as part of its constituent elements. But he soon found that the name of “College” would repel nearly all the men whom he had so far interested in the scheme, and still more those whom he specially wanted to attract from the public-house. After several meetings and conferences, therefore, a “Working Men’s Mutual Improvement and Recreation Society” was formed, which flourished with considerable vigour and very useful results for about a year-and-a-half, until it coalesced on favourable conditions with the Mechanics’ Institute. About this time an able pamphlet by W. T. [page 28] Marriott, Esq., was put into the writer’s hands, in which, after dwelling on the wants and claims of the working classes, Mr. Marriott suggested the establishment of “Clubs” for working men on the same principle as those used by the upper classes. He had taken an active part in the formation of a capital Working Men’s Institute at Hulme, Manchester, in which he had set up a gymnasium, and had also doubtless been an interested spectator of Mr. Chalmer’s enterprise in Salford.

In the summer of 1861 the writer, when visiting London and conversing with the Rev. David Thomas, of Brixton, found that gentleman as deeply interested as himself in the subject of suitable places of resort for working men, and looking precisely in the same direction. Mr. Thomas, urging the importance of immediate and national action in the matter, proposed the formation of a Limited Liability Company, with a capital of 3,000,000l., for building Working Men’s Institutes all over the country. The writer saw with great thankfulness that such an organization, if only it were made a philanthrophic society instead of a commercial company, was the very thing required; and Mr. Thomas consenting to the change, they set to work at once to draw up a prospectus, and form the Society. The consent of Lord Brougham to become its President was obtained; and this invaluable support once secured, other eminent men were successively induced to become Vice-Presidents. The writer next drew up a paper (“A Glance at the Wants of Working Men”), which was read for him by the Rev. S. A. Steinthal at the Social Science Association meeting in Dublin the same year; but owing to the threatening Lancashire distress, it was thought advisable that no further steps should then be taken. In June, 1862, however, the meeting of that Association in London presented too favourable an opportunity to be lost, and the writer having previously brought the question before a Temperance Conference of clergymen and ministers at the London Coffee-house, was there introduced by Mr. Thomas to the Rev. J. Rylance, Curate [page 29] of St. Paul’s, Lambeth. With that gentleman’s very efficient help, he then agitated the matter in several sections of the Association (a large number of prospectuses being at the same time distributed), and obtained Lord Brougham’s hearty consent to preside at a meeting to launch the proposed Society. This meeting was held at the Law Amendment Society’s Rooms, in Waterloo-place, on the 14th June, 1862, when, among other addresses, two very able and interesting speeches were made by Mr. John Bainbridge, an upholsterer, and Mr. Bebbington, a costermonger and secretary to the Working Men’s Club, already mentioned, in Duck-lane, Westminster. At this meeting the Society was duly inaugurated, under the title of the “Working Men’s Club and Institute Union,” Mr. Rylance and the writer being appointed Hon. Secretaries pro tem. Mr. W. M. Neill announced his intention of giving 100l. to its funds, Lord Brougham gave 20l. on the spot, and the agitation on its behalf went forward with greatly increased vigour, helped on by the paper already mentioned as read by Mrs. Bayly at one of the Social Science meetings, and by Miss Adeline Cooper’s valuable counsels.

In the following autumn, after a great many meetings held by the Council appointed at the meeting on the 14th June, the writer resigned the pulpit of the English presbyterian Chapel, Lancaster, to become the paid Secretary of the Union at a Salary of 200l. a year; rooms were taken at 150, Strand, and its labours were fairly commenced in the beginning of October that year. Its principles and plans of action were thus expressed in a Prospectus which was diffused far and wide throughout the kingdom.

[the remainder of page 29 and the pages to page 33 contain the prospectus of the Club and Institute Union, 1862 – which is reproduced on a separate page in the archives]

[page 33] While these preparations were being made for a national organization, two ladies in Southampton (Mrs. Deacon and Mrs. Inglis), two members of the Society of Friends (Messrs. W. and R. Westlake), Sir George Pechell, and other gentlemen, who had been struck with the account of Mrs. Bayly’s and Miss Cooper’s labours given in the Weekly Record, and animated by similar hopes, had commenced, early in 1862, a movement in that town, which resulted in the opening of three Workmen’s Halls in the summer of that year, and a fourth, on a smaller scale, in the spring of 1863. The remarkable success which at first attended these benevolent [page 34] efforts was fully described in a letter by Mr. W. C. Westlake to the Morning Star, December II, 1862. The following extracts are taken :— “Three Workmen’s Halls have been opened in Southampton within the past year, situated respectively in Orchard-lane, St. Michael’s square, and Northam. They are designed for the benefit of working and seafaring men; the management is in the hands of one central and three executive committees—the latter are working men, elected half-yearly by the members; and the total number of members is at present 400…

…The Halls are opened from six to ten o’clock every week evening, and from two to nine on Sundays. Refreshments are supplied at a low fixed rate. Smoking is allowed, but the use of intoxicating drinks on the premises is prohibited. A large number of publications—five daily, and nine weekly London and provincial papers, and sixteen weekly and monthly periodicals—are placed on the tables; and provision is made for fourteen games in the Halls and skittle-grounds. There are class-rooms and places for letterwriting at each Hall; and the Halls in Orchard-lane and at Northam are open at meal-times. A trade register is kept for persons seeking employment. Public readings, recitations, and singing take place every Wednesday, when the members take their wives and families. The subscription required is one penny per week, and a single payment secures admission to all the Halls. Admission free was given for the first month after opening. The experience of the promotors of these Halls has brought out some very interesting particulars. In reply to the question, “Could not beer be sold at the Halls, as at other Club-rooms?” one of the Vice-Presidents writes: ‘We think it undesirable to do so. But few of our members are teetotallers, and as we have had sometimes 150 to i8o men at once in the Hall, it would be too much for one woman to keep order (as she now easily does) if men could have a ‘finishing pint’ on our premises. We also find that if men do not [page 35] drink beer they are less induced to bet, and less quarrelsome… We were often told that no one would play at skittles without beer, or without betting. We resolved to test the assertion, and the result so far is that, while our ‘skittle alley’ is thronged every evening, those of the public-houses around are almost deserted; and we are as noted for good words and good temper as most others are for the contrary.” A skittle-ground, under proper regulations, we may here remark, is a very valuable adjunct to these Clubs, especially in large towns, where working men cannot easily get to cricket grounds or recreation fields.

“The distribution of trades among the first 700 members was as follows: One fourth, or  172, were labourers, hawkers, porters, etc.,; 109 bricklayers, masons, and carpenters, etc.; 103 boiler-makers and smiths, etc.; 61 shoemakers, curriers, etc.; 54 engineers and seamen; 99 painters and mechanics, etc.; 26 tailors; and the remainder were shopmen, agents, carriers, etc.

“Everything added to the substratum of recreation and occupation is on an ascending scale. There are classes for reading and writing, large elocution and singing classes, a harmonic club, a benefit society, and a lending library at each Hall. Political discussions are excluded. Order is maintained in accordance with the simple rule, “that every man must be his own policeman.”

The further steps taken and the principles which guided the original Supporters of the Union will best be seen by the following extracts from a paper read by the present writer at the Social Science Association’s meeting held at Edinburgh in October, 1863. But it may be well to state that Lord Lyttelton, who at the request of Lord Brougham became a Vice-President of the Union in October, 1862, and has ever since been one of its staunchest and most valuable supporters, made an emphatic protest early in 1863 against any attempt to impose restrictions on Working Men’s Clubs in regard to the sale of malt liquors to members, and a special meeting [page 36] of subscribers to the Society was called in consequence. The result was to rescind a rule originally passed prohibiting the admission of any Club into the Union which allowed the sale of such liquors, and substituting a simple recommendation, expressed in the second paragraph of the above Prospectus. It is also desirable to remark that great stress was laid at the inaugural meeting on the importance of combining educational facilities in the programme of all these Clubs; and, on the motion of E. G. Clarke, Esq., the name of “Institute” was as length carried as an addition to the name of “Club,” to signify this inclusion of the educational element. Hence the idea of combining the essential elements of a Working Men’s Club and a Working Men’s College under the significant and comprehensive title of “Working Men’s Club and Institute” was constituted the indestructible and vital principle of this movement, differentiating it from all other similar enterprises, and giving it the conditions and the guarantee, it is believed, for permanent as well as widespread usefulness.

“The present movement in favour of Working Men’s Clubs and Institutes takes its rise in a perception of the privations and evils of various kinds to which the working classes of this country are exposed, first, from the limited nature of their domestic accommodation, and secondly, from their imperfect education. These two causes have led them to seek social intercourse and pastime in the public-house to an extent as injurious to their moral as to their pecuniary well-being. A third evil has been the want of places where they could meet for business purposes; leading to the same calamitous results. Hence, various efforts to provide rooms where they might enjoy that social intercourse and rational amusement, with those opportunities for mental improvement and business meetings which the wealthier classes possess in their own homes and in various public institutions. The Mechanics’ Institutes have done vast good, [page 37] but not generally to the working men. The Clubs and Institutes which are now being formed in so many directions, aim at supplying all the advantages of the public-house without its evils.

“But for the establishment of such Clubs, and especially for their formation on sound principles, a stimulus ab extra is frequently needed, and advice, information, and experience almost always required. A central propagandist society, therefore, to give that stimulus on the one hand, to gather up and diffuse the results of reflection and experience on the other, appears to be necessary; a society which might bring the friends of this movement into helpful relations with each other, and at the same time collect their pecuniary offerings for successive undertakings where pecuniary help is required. To meet that want the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union, which I now have the honour of officially representing as its Secretary, has been formed.

“The measures which we took to carry out the foregoing objects were, in the first place, to issue circulars to the Secretaries of the various Mechanics’ Institutions and Temperance Societies, to editors of provincial newspapers, and to persons known to be interested in social progress, enclosing a prospectus, and inviting cooperation in our enterprise. Various papers and pamphlets were then prepared successively, and circulated extensively in reply to inquiries, in preparation for public meetings, or in aid of local efforts generally. Several thousand copies of these publications have been thus distributed. But while we thus aimed at bringing into organized activity as large an amount as possible of benevolent zeal, we were fully convinced that we could be of permanent use to the working classes of this country only so far as our help stimulated and strengthened them to help themselves; our chief aim, therefore, has been to awaken an interest among working men in the formation, maintenance, and management of these Clubs. Our motto has been “Supplement, not supersede.” And we have found working men in every [page 38] direction ready to give a cordial welcome to our efforts as soon as they understand our plan and principles.

“But working men cannot in general provide those funds themselves, which is perhaps fortunate, as it gives wealthier people the occasion for rendering them help of an elevating nature, and of strengthening the bonds of good feeling between different classes. From £25 to £50 will generally be required to furnish and fit up the Club-house, the rent of which, varying from £12 to £60, the members cannot individually guarantee, while few landlords would accept their collective responsibility. It is in meeting these preliminary expenses, and in giving this guarantee, that pecuniary help is required. When fairly started, the Clubs in large towns at once, in smaller towns by-and-by, may be made self-supporting by judicious management, coupled with a determination on the part of the members to pay their contributions as regularly as to their Friendly or Benefit Society. One Club, recently established at Wednesbury, in Staffordshire, under our impulse and guidance, has from the first resolved to be bravely independent of all assistance from their wealthier neighbours, and the Secretary informed me the other day that they have kept and intend to keep their resolution. Their Club received 320 members during the summer months, paying twopence per week, and they paid the preliminary expenses by a subscription among themselves. The receipts amounted to £17 6s. 21/2p., the expenses to £15 11s. 21/2p. Wednesbury, at present, is the only instance with which we are acquainted where, from the beginning, the Club has been entirely independent of extraneous help. How, then, are these needful expenses to be met in the great majority of cases?

“The Working Men’s Club and Institute Union has always aimed at getting the requisite funds for starting these Clubs by stimulating local zeal, because they have felt that such an institution should be rooted in the sympathies and cherished by the support of all classes in the neighbourhood—must be developed, as it were, from the [page 39] soil where it is to grow, not to be planted there as an exotic merely by foreign influence.

“But in appealing for local support for any particular Club, we know that the best way of obtaining legitimate help for working men is for themselves to show they want it, and will make good use of it.

“For this reason we have dwelt much upon the value of holding a public meeting at the outset of district agitation, and getting a provisional committee formed thereat, or shortly after, consisting chiefly of working men. We have also advised the circulation of forms, to be used by influential operatives in getting the adhesion of their shopmates and acquaintances to the proposed undertaking, and which forms, when filled up, should be shown to the persons whose donations or subscriptions are requested. Whether a private preliminary meeting of persons of the wealthier class to raise the requisite funds should precede or follow the public meeting must depend on local circumstances. But working men often need counsel and guidance as well as money. Moreover, in a great number of cases they ask for, or heartily recognize, the necessity for some amount of supervision in conjunction with their own self-government and freedom. They see the necessity of fundamental rules, and they generally desire that the guardianship of these should be placed beyond the interference of members of the Club. Persons also who subscribe their money to establish an institution naturally desire some guarantee for its objects being faithfully carried out. Hence one of the most difficult problems has been to reconcile a certain amount of supervision and control with that independent action and self-government generally by the members which we all recognize as so vitally important. The plan of having two committees, one of gentlemen, and the other of working men, or one appointed by honorary members, subscribers, and donors of 10s. and upwards to hold the purse and manage all financial matters, we believe to be essentially unsound and pernicious. 1st. Because it gives rise to jealousy, collisions, and discontent, [page 40] among the members, who feel that they are being treated as children, mistrusted, and deprived of one of the most important functions of government. 2nd. Because it prevents the members from acquiring experience in financial management, and from learning how to make their Club self-supporting. 3rd. Because it checks any desire to make it so, and shifts the responsibility of keeping it out of debt from the shoulders of those who are enjoying its benefits to those of wealthy patrons, and thus inevitably tends to pauperize the members. We believe that we have, to some extent, solved the problem by recommending the appointment of three or four trustees chosen by donors and honorary members who shall hold and expend such donations and subscriptions as their constituents may contribute, and be at the same time responsible for the observance of certain fundamental rules agreed on by the persons who desire to establish the Club, but which said trustees will have no right of interfering further in its general management, or have anything to do with the ordinary members subscriptions. Working men are accustomed to the authority of trustees in their Friendly and other Societies, and do not feel such control as the above to be at all irksome or inconsistent with their rightful liberties. Where the trustees or any other parties are responsible for the rent and taxes of the Club-house, it is, of course, right and desirable that they should have the first claim, if they desire it upon the current subscriptions, honorary or ordinary, and have control over them to that extent. In some cases it may be necessary that all the funds should go direct to the trustees, or persons guaranteeing rent, etc., and that they should vote at monthly meetings such proportion thereof as they find they can afford, to be spent be the managing committee.

“As soon as the existence and objects of the Union became known, applications came to the office from various parts of the country for advice and information, for pecuniary help, for a visit from the Secretary, or for social influence to help in awakening a local interest for [page 41] the establishment of a Club; and from the gratifying success which has hitherto attended our labours, we cannot but hope that our Society is meeting a great want of the age, and that we are becoming a not unimportant fact in the history of our country’s social progress. Persons of rank, of social position, and high culture, no less than the the elite of the working men, members of every Church, and sect, and political party, especially benevolent and accomplished ladies, in every quarter of the kingdom, have come forward to welcome and uphold us in our work. Resolutions in favour of our movement have been passed by no less than four important Conferences of representative men—viz.: The Annual Conference of Delegates from Mechanics’ Institutes in connection with the Society of Arts, held at the Adelphi, London, last May; the Annual Conference of the British Temperance League, held at York, in July last; the Annual Conference of the West of England Temperance League, held at Bristol, in August; and the Annual Conference of the South Staffordshire Adult Educational Society, held at West Bromwich this present month.

“Not to dwell longer on the methods we adopted, or the help we received, the immediate results are to be seen in the thirty-two Clubs and Institutes we have been instrumental in establishing in the space of twelve months, containing on a rough calculation about 7,400 members, and, as we have reason to hope, in the improved working of about twenty more, which we have assisted with information, advice, and deputations. There are also many other Clubs in process of formation, and every week brings us tidings of their establishment by benevolent friends in conjunction with the working men in different parts of the country.

“The principles which we have kept steadily in view and recommended to others as the only sound basis on which to establish these institutions have been—

“1st. That they were to be managed chiefly by the working men themselves.

[page 42] “2nd. That they were to make facilities for social intercourse, amusements, and rational recreation, the primary object.

“3rd. That they were invariably to aim also at combining with those facilities a quiet reading-room and classes for those who wished to improve themselves.

“4th. That they should aim at having frequent entertainments, lectures, &c., which might be attended by the wives and daughters of members.

“5th. That no intoxicating drinks, betting, or gambling, should be allowed on the premises.

“6th. That boys, and youths under the age of eighteen, should not be admitted to membership.

“7th. That smoking should be allowed, but in a separate room if required.

“8th. That the Clubs should be not merely places to which men may go, but Societies to which they should belong.

“9th. That the Clubs should be thoroughly unsectarian, socially, politically, and religiously.

“For want of attending to one or other of these points many unfortunate failures have taken place, and eari~est benevolent people been discouraged, so that a great and sometimes lasting hindrance has arisen to prevent a similar enterprise on wiser principles being attempted again in the same locality.

“The necessity for developing an ésprit de corps, a genuine spirit of fellowship, I regard as absolutely indispensable, not merely as an essential means for keeping the Clubs in existence, but as a most important end in itself, to be gained by the establishment of the Clubs.

“Experience daily confirms us in our conviction of the wisdom and importance of rigidly preserving the non-sectarian character both of this movement generally and of the individual Clubs. They are intended for persons of all sects and parties; they occupy a common ground on which men of the most varied shades of social, religious, and political opinions may meet in pursuit of common objects in a friendly spirit and for mutual benefit. [page 43] Hence they must not be employed as machinery for promoting sectarian views of any kind. Teetotallers can cordially support them because they will greatly promote sobriety; but they must not be made into Total Abstinence Societies; no man must be excluded from office, still less from membership, because he believes himself justified in taking a glass of wine or beer. A member of Friendly Societies can give them hearty support, because, by offering an alternative as a place of meeting to the public house, they will greatly promote the success and benefits of those valuable organizations. A Trades’ Unionist may support these Clubs for the same reasons, but neither will he be committing the Club to Trade-society views by belonging to it, nor must he endeavour to convert the Club into a means of enforcing those views. Conservatives and Liberals of all shades can promote these Clubs and Institutes, because they promote the general well-being, morality, and happiness of the working classes, help to dissipate the alienation and misunderstanding sometimes existing between different ranks of society, afford opportunities of mutual interchange of benefits and kindly courtesies, tend to dissipate that ignorance and apathy which foster so fearfully the evils which enlightened politicians of every party labour to remove. Men of all religious persuasions can give these Clubs their zealous co-operation, because whatever promotes sobriety, provident habits, health, intelligence, courtesy, self-respect, rational recreation, and mutual helpfulness, is preparing the way for higher influences and spiritual good, as well as directly promoting many of the objects which all good Christians heartily desire to accomplish.

“Hence, if sectarianism must be thus carefully avoided it is quite clear that the Clubs cannot in general legitimately or safely be used for directly promoting either religious or political improvement, because the members, in almost all cases, or those who might wish to become members, would differ as to what was truth or improvement in those directions, or as to the proper persons for  [page 44] proclaiming that truth. We must be very careful, however, to repel the notion that therefore persons joining such institutions thereby show their indifference to religious or political truth. As one of our Vice-Presidents, Lord Lyttelton, observed at our last annual meeting, a man may join the Atheneum, the Carlton, or Reform Club, without ever being asked what are his religious opinions, and he will continue a member of such Club for all his life without in any way promoting, or aiming thereby to promote, particular religious views or religious practice, but he would be very much astonished if he were, therefore, to be told he belonged to a godless society, or manifested an indifference to religion.

“In most cases a Temperance, Co-operative, Loan, or Friendly Society might be formed among members of the Club, and hold its meetings at suitable times on the premises without giving occasion for any hostile feeling. So with a Trade Society, or a prayer-meeting, a religious service, or, possibly (but this is more doubtful), associations connected with matters of public importance. But in all such cases it would be necessary to keep the organization thus formed, and the proceedings connected with it, entirely independent of the organization of the Club, and in strict subordination to the general comfort, feelings, and wishes of the great majority of the members.

“Finally, the work which now lies before the Society, and which, as I have said, is increasing daily in magnitude and importance, consists :—

“1. In aiding to give the impulse, and to awaken the local efforts, requisite for establishing Clubs, and especially to give the guidance needful in most cases for establishing them on sound principles.

“2. In giving advice or material help requisite for sustaining or renovating Clubs already established.

“3. In developing the full capacities of the Clubs for usefulness, doing this especially by means of the organization which unites them together in our central Society.”

[page 45] We have said that the fellowship or brotherhood of its constitution and the completeness of its aim constituted the speciality and vital idea of a Working Men’s College. But so far as the Clubs are to be a permanent and powerful element in the elevation of the working classes of this country, these will form, as we have also said, their vital force likewise. We may have Reading-rooms, Night Schools, Lectures, Mechanics’ Institutes, Mutual Improvement Societies, on the one hand, and we may have Recreation Shops, Talking and Smoking-rooms, Penny Readings, Concerts, and Free-and-Easys on the other. And we may have all or any of these combined under one roof, calling the establishment a Workmen’s Hall, a Working Men’s Institute, or a Working Men’s Club, and the said establishment, or any of the separate agencies, will undoubtedly do more or less good while it or they continue. But to start or promote them, however useful and laudable in particular cases and as preliminary steps, is not the real work now before the social reformers and friends of the working classes of this country. That work is to help bring into being organic bodies with a living soul in each, all forming part of a larger organization which should be filled with a yet higher vital force. We want societies, brotherhoods, inspired with the same noble idea as that which has been attributed to Working Men’s Colleges, aiming at the completest culture and development of the mental, physical, and spiritual of the life members which may be possible under the given conditions, yet beginning with the humblest and simplest agencies, meeting the actual social wants of the least cultivated, while offering the means of gradually increasing cultivation as they may be willing and prepared to receive it. So far as we aim at less than this, so far as our movement fails to be inspired with this idea, all who promote it, we firmly believe, are only working for a little temporary good, and are preparing successive failures which will exert a disastrous influence on all subsequent efforts for the benefit of working men.

[page 46] If all this be true, it is evident that Working Men’s Clubs and Institutes, when rightly constituted, may be viewed as Working Men’s Colleges “in the forming,” with the constituent parts in different degrees of development, as in all growing organizations. The social element, and next to it that of recreation, must always be made the principal features of .a Working Men’s Club in its earlier stages of existence. Free-and-easy sociability, without any interference of masters or teachers, is the very first and absolutely essential condition for the life and usefulness of the Club. But woe to that club which aims at nothing more! In proportion as working men obtain comfortable and roomy homes, and give up drinking habits, they will see their friends at their own homes, just as the upper classes do, and the Clubs will be proportionately less required for social purposes. But their higher uses will always be needed; and a hundred years hence the number of Working Men’s Colleges will probably far exceed that of Working Men’s Clubs.

This view of the matter attributes, it will be said, rather a complex organization to what some have fancied, was an extremely simple affair. True. But the higher any existence may be in the scale of creation—the greater its power and the more enduring its life—the more complex we find its organization to be, and the more complete its development. This is as true of communities and institutions as of individual beings. There was a stage in the existence of all of us, when, as in the case of certain animalculae, the stomach was the principal and most active organ in our system; but the laws of development and the principal of growth have carried us to higher and more perfect conditions, not in spite, but in consequence of such partially exaggerated development of that organ in infancy. The basis of a Working Mens’ Club—viz., the talking and smoking-room—is simple enough, and with the recreation department will be the principal feature in it for a long time. Nevertheless, that basis may nourish and prepare for higher [page 47] forms—will do so inevitably, if the Club lives. At the same time, when a Club and Institute begins to outgrow the wants and tastes of the lower class of working men in any neighbourhood, another for purely Club purposes should immediately be formed, and thus a succession of suitable agencies for the gradual elevation and culture, as well as for the immediate enjoyment, of the working classes will be duly provided. All that we insist on is that, in securing the rudimentary, we must never lose sight of the higher and ultimate results. If we care only for certain excellent, but very limited objects, or for ephemeral and feeble institutions, do not let us trouble ourselves about Working Men’s Clubs and Institutes. Be content with Adult Night Schools, Penny Readings, or Recreation and Refreshment Rooms. If we desire to see organizations capable of permanently aiding the working classes to attain that full culture and humanizing development which we have the highest authority in maintaining they were created to enjoy, then let us accept the ideal standard now offered. We may be quite sure ‘that the best efforts will fail to reach it fully. But, unless we have both a true and a lofty ideal, the reality accomplished will be miserably inferior, both in quality and permanence, to what we should otherwise have attained. On the other hand, the higher influences will certainly fail to reach the great mass of working men unless the humbler attractions and advantages are first offered.

Next in order to the need for a genial welcome, and for providing attractions to the Club, comes the necessity, hinted at above, for cherishing and developing the “society” spirit—the need of brotherhood, in fact—that spirit which has been at the heart of all true civilization and of all successful corporate action from the Dark Ages when men had to form leagues for mutual protect. ion by the sword, down to the age of Friendly, Trade, Temperance, and Co-operative Societies. But to get this spirit of cohesion and of mutual helpfulness in a Working Men’s Club and Institute, on what are we to [page 48] rely? Persons who have seen the power with which it has been manifested in Religious, Political, Trade, and Temperance organizations, say we never can awaken it in these Clubs, because there in no common bond of interest and sympathy, no motive power strong enough to arouse enthusiasm and zeal. Well, if there is not— if they are merely places where the members may go for a little individual or selfish amusement and rest—we grant they never can become real societies. But then we must equally grant that, in a great majority of cases, they are destined to have but a brief existence. Twenty years hence, in a few large towns, they may exist on the same footing as the gentlemen’s West-end Clubs, but they will not take root now, on that footing, among the great body of the working classes, nor probably at any future time. Can we find no true and natural living bond of union for them—some principle and object that shall be capable of cherishing and unfolding that divine spirit of fellowship and sympathy which is mightier to bind men together than all their selfishness and discords are to rend them asunder ?—something that shall make them societies to which men may belong, and not merely places to which they may go? It would be weak and shameful to doubt it.

But it will, very probably be asked, Why are Clubs for working men to be so much more complicated, and to aim at so much more, than gentlemen’s Clubs? Evidently because of the difference in the circumstances and condition of the two classes. The gentlemen who compose the West-end Clubs in London, for the most part, have had the means of gaining tolerably complete culture at school and college. They have, moreover, far greater means and leisure for continuing that culture at home or in the world, and their occupations often have more of a humanizing and educational character than the mechanical handicrafts of the working man, while their homes admit of that social intercourse and interchange of visits from which the working men, at present, are precluded by their very limited domestic accommodation. [page 49] They are, in fact, in a position to make their Club minister to higher culture when they join it. Working men, on the contrary, often need the very culture which alone would make their Club profitable to them. Hence there is a far greater number of wants requiring to be satisfied by these Clubs, in the case of the working men, than in that of the gentry. On the other hand, a proportionately greater vital force is required to lift working men, and to help them lift themselves, out of the various evils, temptations, and hindrances—social, physical, and moral—which now oppress them, than is needed merely to supply certain simple wants, already felt and recognized by persons perfectly able and willing to help themselves. That force can only be found in great principles working through suitable and varied organizations. Possibly the Clubs of the upper classes may yet find that they have an important lesson to learn from those of working men. It is said that many of them are already beginning to feel the want of more sociability among the members, of some more definite bond of Union.

There are two practical applications of these views, which are comprehensive and, important.

First,—In relation to the government and practical conduct of Working Men’s Clubs and Institutes.

In every enterprise and institution there must be some governing principle, as well as some inspiring idea. Where there is organic harmony and connexion between the constituent parts, this principle, to which all questions not of mere expediency should be referred as to a ruler and judge, will be found to originate in the fundamental idea. It is so in the case of Working Men’s Clubs and Institutes. The governing principle is mutual helpfulness for the culture, advancement, and enjoyment,. (which indeed is only a species of culture) of all the members. Hence, if any question gives rise to difference of opinion concerning the management and operations of the Club, the principle says, “Do that which will best promote the largest amount of culture and happiness compatable with the common consent of [page 50] the members. You are not to do that which will best promote those objects according to the views of particular individuals or sections of the Club-members, but must remember that it is a fellowship formed for mutual benefit, and that there must, therefore, be mutual concession to promote the common good. Have the largest amount of agencies and appliances for recreation, education, and social advancement that can be obtained by common consent and the constitution of your Club, but do nothing that would destroy that harmony of aim and of feeling, that balance of effort and condition, which is requisite for complete culture and associated life.”

Second,—In relation to the maintenance and usefulness of the Club.

Here the fundamental idea of a Club clearly demands the application of the principle of CO-OPERATION, which we take to be that of united contributions for proportionate profits—but, in this case, profits for others, and not for oneself alone. Money, time, strength, education, talent, and skill, must all be brought to maintain the existence and develop the usefulness of a Club. No one must belong to it merely for the good he himself is to get out of it, but also for the good he is to bring into it. On the other hand, care should be taken that every one, in proportion to his contributions, whatever they may be, and to his capacity for receiving, should be benefited by being a member of the Club to the utmost of its capability for good. All sorts of agencies will thus be brought into operation; on the one hand, to obtain for the Club from all classes general sympathy and help; on the other, to make it self-supporting; but, in any case, to give it the widest usefulness and the most permanent existence.

If, in conclusion, it be objected that we have made the maintenance and management of these Clubs too complicated and difficult to secure their efficient operation, and have set the aim and meaning of them far too high to obtain for them general support, we answer—

[page 51] First,—That the best means for attaining any end are those which, whether complicated or simple, grow organically out of the fundamental conception of the enterprise, institution, or machine, and which, therefore, are in harmony with its parts and adapted to its objects.

Second,—That Working Men’s Clubs and Institutes, in our judgment, must be such as we have described, or they will ere long be nothing at all; that if they have merely a body without a soul, they can have no enduring life, and are as certain to die as any of Owen’s or Fourier’s Phalanxes; but if they have life they will inevitably grow; and then in time they will become what, perhaps we rightly shrink from imagining them in their earlier stages.

Third,—That if loftiness of aim, or difficulties of execution, will preclude any important enterprise from obtaining the sympathy and support either of the higher or of the working classes of this kingdom, we have entirely misread the history of our country, and misjudged our national character.

Taken from Solly H. (1904) Working Men’s Social Clubs and Educational Institutes (revised by B. T. Hall), London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent and Co. First edition 1867

This piece has been reproduced here on the understanding that it is not subject to any copyright restrictions, and that it is, and will remain, in the public domain. First placed in the archives: July 2002

Last Updated on October 10, 2019 by infed.org