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!
    Ruth
    http://www.clubhistorians.co.uk

  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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