Clubs: Shadow Pubs

Interior of the Buffs club, Penzance.

Clubs, or working men’s clubs as they have historically been known, are all but invisible to many pub-goers but once you tune into them it can be like discovering a whole new town.

The best and snap­pi­est his­to­ry of the devel­op­ment of clubs can be found in Ruth Cher­ring­ton’s 2012 book Not Just Beer and Bin­go (£3.49 for Kin­dle via Ama­zon):

Work­ing men in the late 19th cen­tu­ry want­ed their own clubs and mem­bers of the upper class thought that these would be bet­ter places than pubs. Clubs fit­ted into the per­spec­tive of the ratio­nal recre­ation move­ment that aimed at halt­ing a per­ceived moral decline in soci­ety…

After much debate, how­ev­er, clubs did win the right to serve alco­hol from the cen­tral organ­is­ing com­mit­tee and in the 20th cen­tu­ry their char­ac­ter changed:

[If] the club bought in the beer, it could sup­ply it to mem­bers with­out the need to make a prof­it, so prices could be low­er than in the pubs. This gave clubs a rep­u­ta­tion for pro­vid­ing sub­sidised drink. The down­side of this was that clubs came to be viewed only in this light with their oth­er ser­vices and fea­tures over­looked.

Clubs thrived as indus­try thrived, serv­ing indi­vid­ual fac­to­ries, local trades such as the rail­ways, or par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal groups and par­ties – Lib­er­al, Labour and Con­ser­v­a­tive clubs. With two world wars, sev­er­al small­er ones and nation­al ser­vice until 1963, clubs allied to indi­vid­ual branch­es of the armed ser­vices also became com­mon.

Which brings us to 2017 and our recent efforts to vis­it clubs in and around Pen­zance which kicked off at our local, The Farmer’s Arms. We were sat in our usu­al place, at the cor­ner in the back, when we noticed a bloke at the next table, with his part­ner and some friends, try­ing to get our atten­tion.

Alright. Ever go to the Legion, do you? You should come down some­time.’

British Legion crest in the foyer of the club in Penzance.

The Roy­al British Legion was found­ed in 1921 with the aim of sup­port­ing those who had served in the First World War. As well as the annu­al Remem­brance Sun­day pop­py cam­paign it is known for its clubs of which most towns have at least one branch. For most of the 20th cen­tu­ry mem­ber­ship was (at least the­o­ret­i­cal­ly) restrict­ed to present or for­mer mil­i­tary men, the cheap beer being seen as a kind of reward for ser­vice to their coun­try.

Don’t you have to been in the army or some­thing?’ Bai­ley asked, recall­ing chunks of his own child­hood spent in British Legion clubs around the coun­try where it was always made very clear that spong­ing, ser­vice-dodg­ing inter­lop­ers real­ly weren’t wel­come.

Not these days. I nev­er was. My Dad was. I’m on the com­mit­tee. There’s not many vet­er­ans around now. We’d nev­er have any mem­bers.’

The British Legion club at Newlyn: MEMBERS ONLY.

Window of the British Legion: VISITORS WELCOME.

And this is one prob­lem clubs face in the 21st cen­tu­ry. The sol­diers, sailors, air­men, min­ers, rail­way­men and oth­er trades on which they used to depend are dis­ap­pear­ing and so the strict rules that once gov­erned entry are no longer viable. NON-MEMBERS WELCOME has become a com­mon sign out­side clubs – star­tling to those of us who remem­ber the days of wait­ing lists, black­balling and for­bid­ding MEMBERS ONLY warn­ings behind the frost­ed glass in the foy­er.

Some clubs have just con­vert­ed to pub sta­tus, and tak­en pub-like names, so that any­one can walk in, such as The Rail­way Arms next to Truro’s main rail­way sta­tion – a life­line for any­one stuck between ser­vices – or the Legion at Mouse­hole which has rebrand­ed as The Tre­wavas Free­house. Oth­ers are feel­ing their way, as the man­ag­er of one of Pen­zance’s ser­vice clubs explained:

We charge a one-off 50p entry fee for non-mem­bers and ask them to sign in. If some­one signs in four or five times in a month we’ll say, come on, it’s time to join, mate, because the beer is that bit cheap­er. But we can’t afford to turn peo­ple away these days.

Exterior of the Buffs club, Penzance: concrete and railings.

Sign outside the Buff's club, Penzance.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. Two of the Pen­zance clubs we vis­it­ed were more-or-less win­dow­less. If you’re used to the brown, cradling cosi­ness of a Prop­er Pub this can seem pret­ty unap­peal­ing.

Interior of the British Legion, Penzance.

In some ways, though, this is also a sell­ing point. Pen­zance’s best pubs, espe­cial­ly in sum­mer, are colonised by tourists and geared towards them: pints of Cor­nish ale at £3.50+ a pint and crab sand­wich­es all over the place. But clubs, secret­ed up alley­ways and refus­ing to play at sea­side chic, attain a kind of speakeasy qual­i­ty. There were tourists at the Roy­al Air Force Asso­ci­a­tion (RAFA) club but they were down-to-earth, bar-stool-perch­ing friend­ly Mid­lan­ders rather than mem­bers of the home coun­ties Sea Salt brigade.

Decorations at the Gremlins (RAFA) club in Penzance.

RAFA club logo in the club foyer.

Portraits on the wall of the RAFA club in Penzance.

To put that anoth­er way, even if clubs aren’t pubs in lots of impor­tant ways, they cer­tain­ly do a good job of pre­serv­ing mid-20th-cen­tu­ry pub cul­ture: deter­mined drink­ing, domi­noes, card games, pool, pick­led eggs, and a cer­tain anti-cor­po­rate quirk­i­ness. Many even insist on clos­ing in the mid-after­noon as if it is still 1965 – once an annoy­ance but induc­ing a jolt of nos­tal­gia now.

Ansell's Best Bitter at the Mousehole Legion.

Bass Mild at the Buff's.Which brings us to beer. Though there are clubs famous for their ale – Ley­ton Ori­ent Sup­port­ers’ Club, for exam­ple – this is not gen­er­al­ly a strong point. Where once many clubs could ben­e­fit from the lack of tie to a spe­cif­ic brew­ery to acquire more inter­est­ing local beers, these days, to keep prices down – remem­ber, that’s a major sell­ing point – they tend to stick to nation­al brands in kegs, espe­cial­ly lager. Occa­sion­al­ly, though, this throws up pleas­ing odd­i­ties: the Buffs club is the only place reg­u­lar­ly serv­ing draught mild in Pen­zance as far as we can tell, albeit keg Bass Mild at 3.1% ABV, and we were star­tled to find Ansel­l’s Best Bit­ter at the Legion in Mouse­hole. No-one at the British Legion in cen­tral Pen­zance knew the ori­gin of the house keg best bit­ter but it tast­ed like Bass, and good Bass at that – funky and dry.

Old signs outside the Newlyn branch of the Legion.

We came out of this exer­cise feel­ing as if a spell had been lift­ed. We’ve tend­ed to skip clubs on pub crawls either because we sim­ply haven’t noticed them, or because we assumed, despite the signs, that we would­n’t be wel­come. So far, quite the oppo­site has been the case. Clubs seem to like vis­i­tors under 50; like Christo­pher Lee they CRAVE FRESH BLOOD! We’ll cer­tain­ly make a point from now on of pop­ping in when we see them on our trav­els, espe­cial­ly when what we want is a pack­et of scratch­ings and a straight­for­ward pint for less than £3.

This is the first post that we’re going to say was brought to you through the gen­eros­i­ty of Patre­on sub­scribers like Lor­raine. Their sup­port gave us the encour­age­ment we need­ed to get out and do the research and to actu­al­ly spend a cou­ple of hours writ­ing it up and edit­ing the pho­tos. Thanks, gang!

12 thoughts on “Clubs: Shadow Pubs”

  1. Yes, a fea­ture of clubs is that you often encounter the for­got­ten keg brands that you thought had long since dis­ap­peared.

    In Wales, of course, an impor­tant advan­tage enjoyed by clubs for many years is that they could open on Sun­days when pubs could­n’t. It was only in the mid-1990s that the last bas­tions of Sun­day pub clos­ing sur­ren­dered.

  2. One of my favourite posts of yours I think. Some real­ly good analy­sis and pho­tos. The points about pre­serv­ing pub cul­ture, and the lack of win­dows, par­tic­u­lar­ly good. Agree with JB on Chel­tenham; though a num­ber of Clubs in the Guide (around a dozen new ones each year, it seems) seem to be reward­ed for effort and range rather than qual­i­ty.

  3. Excel­lent blog! Good to see some atten­tion on Clubs and you under­stand their poten­tial and prob­lems very well. Corn­wall has a strong club tra­di­tion (which sur­pris­es some peo­ple who think that clubs began in the NE!) Good to see British Legion clubs being high­light­ed here, a lot of respect for them. I vis­it­ed the very friend­ly one in St. Just some years back and even did a Sal­sa les­son there! If you haven’t been there, do pop in.
    Keep up the great work, Boak and Bai­ley!

  4. We have sim­i­lar mil­i­tary clubs but not the indus­tri­al ones. The Roy­al Cana­di­an Legion held nation­al pro­grams like kids sports days when Dad (ex RAF) was a mem­ber and I was a kid. I played snook­er in a mas­sive on in the mid-1990s in near north­ern Ontario. But they are get­ting old­er and, like the Masons, have a hard time attract­ing any­one under 50… maybe 60. Hard hit by smok­ing bans. The seem­ing­ly brighter futures are found with a few niche reg­i­men­tal clubs. We have one here called the RCHA – Roy­al Cana­di­an Horse Artillery – which is the best blues bar in the City. All now take all com­ers as mem­bers. But who yearns to be a mem­ber of any­thing any­more?

    1. Hi Alan, real­ly inter­est­ing com­ments. A lot of sim­i­lar­i­ty to clubs here includ­ing the Legion clubs. They did a lot for their mem­bers and the local com­mu­ni­ties, with kid’s par­ties, trips and also for senior cit­i­zens. Aus­tralia also has its own clubs, the RSL ones. It’s a great loss so many are dieing off as their mem­bers do. I strong­ly believe, and this comes out of my research as well as my own expe­ri­ence, that peo­ple do need to belong and be a mem­ber of some­thing in this imper­son­al world we live in. Oth­er research has shown that peo­ple are hap­pi­er and health­i­er when they belong to some sort of clubs. If the old clubs of our child­hood and youth can be trans­formed for the mod­ern age we live in, they can still make such a huge con­tri­bu­tion to hap­pi­ness and well-being of so many peo­ple. All the best, Ruth

  5. Great arti­cle.

    It brought back some of fond mem­o­ries of child­hood vis­its Abram Labour Club (near Wigan). My Grandad was on the com­mit­tee at one time and a (very) reg­u­lar there. Myself and my broth­er used to go to my Grand­par­ents dur­ing the sum­mer hol­i­days and if Grandad end­ed up look­ing after us we’d often end up vis­it­ing the club in the after­noon. We’d be giv­en a cou­ple of cokes, a bag of crisps, some cash or the fruit machine and sent off into the main func­tion room (watched over by the over 60’s bin­go ladies). Grandad would be based in the bar, play­ing domi­noes or snook­er with the oth­er men enjoy­ing a cou­ple of pints. The beer used to be Wilsons, if I recall cor­rect­ly.

    I’m not sure if the club is still there (in its orig­i­nal loca­tion) any­more. I seem to recall that there were hous­es on the site the last time I passed through Abram.

    1. Hi Ian, your com­ments illus­trate how clubs were a safe space for kids as well as some­where to have some fun! Kids were looked after by rel­a­tives there or old­er women as you men­tion here. This made them very fam­i­ly-friend­ly spaces indeed. Sad­ly many clubs have become small hous­ing estates. I know we need hous­es but there are few fam­i­ly-friend­ly com­mu­nal spaces left now that. Tak­ing kids on a day out costs a for­tune. Clubs were real­ly cheap! All the best, Ruth

  6. Those chairs in the top pic: all the crick­et clubs* round here have them (or some­thing very sim­i­lar). They give that “bar on a camp­site” vibe (which some microp­ubs man­age to cul­ti­vate also – must be to do with cheap fur­ni­ture).
    *CCs are anoth­er area wor­thy of inves­ti­ga­tion: IME on sum­mer after­noons they wel­come any­one will­ing to spend mon­ey at the bar, and obv. the large out­side drink­ing areas com­bat the gloomi­ness issue.

  7. Sports clubs in gen­er­al are anoth­er area of inter­est. In my small­ish town, there are quite a few pubs and bars of all types from the tra­di­tion­al street cor­ner booz­er through estate pubs to the Miche­lin-starred gas­trop­ub and so on; there is a social (read Work­ing Man’s) club, and until recent­ly a Legion and a Con­ser­v­a­tive club. The lat­ter two still exist, but in dif­fer­ent guise as inde­pen­dent clubs, such are the demo­graph­ic changes. We also have 2 crick­et clubs, a rug­by club and a ten­nis club with decent bars (and a cou­ple of golf clubs too, but they’re a rather dif­fer­ent issue) and a foot­ball club with a can bar. These clubs serve cask beer, keep it rea­son­ably well, and are all actu­al­ly more pleas­ant drink­ing envi­ron­ments from the inside (At least one is an eye­sore out­side!) than sev­er­al of the pubs – one of which actu­al­ly feels like one of those win­dow­less clubs from inside, despite a pret­ty inte­ri­or.
    I like the sports clubs. I like watch­ing a game of crick­et with a pint in the sum­mer, or a game of rug­by in the win­ter with that same pint. It’s very socia­ble. The beer is slight­ly cheap­er at the rug­by club if you’re a mem­ber, and it actu­al­ly has a choice of beers – Brew XI (!), Lon­don Pride, and a guest – nev­er cut­ting edge, but gen­er­al­ly some­thing I’m hap­py to drink.

  8. I’m a mem­ber of the Labour Par­ty and recent­ly went to a new mem­bers’ meet­ing, where one elder­ly man asked whether we had a social club. Of course, we don’t – although local coun­cil­lors and at least one MP can often be found in the back bar of a local pub – but it did strike me as not the worst idea in the world. Per­haps if mem­ber­ship goes on going up…

    These days “Con Clubs” are com­mon­er than Labour around Man­ches­ter, and I’m not con­vinced Lib­er­al Demo­c­rat clubs are a thing; both the for­mer Lib­er­al clubs I know have changed their name to some­thing more neu­tral. The club I go to most often is actu­al­ly a crick­et club.

  9. Orp­ing­ton Lib­er­al Club is in my Lon­don book as well as LOSC as anoth­er club that makes a point of its inter­est­ing beers. It does still have a con­nec­tion with the local Lib Dems but some­one I spoke to there was absolute­ly insis­tent it was the Lib­er­al and not the Lib Dem club – I did won­der that they might actu­al­ly pre­fer it to be the Whig Club! But they’re very inclu­sive in oth­er ways. “Actu­al­ly I’m a Labour Par­ty mem­ber,” one of the vol­un­teers told me, “but the beer’s bet­ter here.” The club is in an inter-war detached house and real­ly does feel like you’re drink­ing in some­one’s front room.

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