When people talk about the importance of the pub in working class culture, they’re right, of course, but there are reminders of an alternative drinking culture right under our noses: half-blown illuminated signs advertising brands of beer from thirty years ago; signs behind frosted glass saying, slightly needily, ‘Non-members always welcome!!!’.
They’re usually in Portakabins, or on the upper floors of post-war buildings, hidden up side-streets or on industrial estates. Occasionally, they occupy rather grand but decaying buildings, as in the picture above.
Even though my parents ran a pub for a time, a lot of my childhood memories are actually of social clubs. My grandad, a former prisoner of war, used to like the Royal British Legion at Pawlett which, as I recall, was wipe-clean white throughout and resembled a hospital waiting room. Later, he joined a working men’s club in Highbridge where the family spent a lot of Sunday lunchtimes and afternoons. It was cosy and dark, and there were mountains of ham rolls in clingfilm on the bar.
Years later, my parents joined the Railwaymen’s Club in Bridgwater, though neither had any connection with the trains. It was in a prefab next to the tracks and a pint of keg bitter was almost as cheap as a can from the supermarket. There were lots of raffles and usually ‘a band’ (that is, two blokes playing guitar and singing to a backing tape, or a man in a shiny jacket imitating Matt Monro to a keyboard auto-backing). It was too bright and, sadly, not very friendly, but it was an affordable night out.
Factory social clubs, like those affiliated with Wellworthy’s or British Cellophane, were the venues for weddings, wakes and children’s Christmas parties, too.
They’re rarely architecturally significant, often a bit glum, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Is anyone bothered about saving or preserving them?
When we mentioned this subject on Twitter, several people pointed us towards this book by Ruth Cherrington which is now on our wish list.