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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!