There’s been a bit of talk lately about working men’s clubs and the breweries established to supply them and we thought we ought to flag an apparently little-known book on the subject.
So They Brewed Their Own Beer by Ted Elkins was published in 1970 and tells the story of the rise of the Northern Clubs Federation. Elkins was a journalist from the North East of England whose career started in the 1950s and as a freelance PR man he wrote a few official company and organisational histories relating to brewing and hospitality.
STBTOB opens on 24 May 1919 at the Social Club in Prudhoe, a village on Tyneside, where the founders of what would become the Federation Brewery met for the first time to discuss the idea. Elkins, possibly scrambling to reach word count, or perhaps just to make the job more fun, lays it on a bit thick:
These were new men, bruised and bloodied in mind and limb by the carnage of slaughter and survival. They came back [from war] with a sense of comradeship, buoyant in triumph, each humbly aware of his obligation to his fellow man, the need to right the wrongs of a world irrevocably changed by the torment of war.
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.’
We’ve found more evidence in our efforts to understand the extent to which British people were discerning in their choice of beer before the Campaign for Real Ale came along in the 1970s.
Brian Jackson’s Working Class Community was first published in 1968 and reprinted by Pelican in 1972. It belongs to the ‘working class people as aliens’ genre of academic writing so popular in the 20th century, though it is rather more readable than most examples, and occasionally even funny.
Amongst chapters about brass bands and bowling greens there is one called ‘At the Club’, which includes generalisations based on observations of several working men’s clubs in the north of England. It contains a fair bit about pubs, which were apparently considered expensive and ‘stuck up’:
Ah never go into a pub at all now. Clubs are much more sociable, like. Look at this. Ah couldn’t rest me legs across a chair in t’pub. Here it’s like being at home. As long as Ah don’t put me feet on t’seat, Ah’m all right.
But we were mostly intrigued by the section called ‘Drinking’. Unlike pubs, which were mostly tied to breweries and thus offered a limited range…
Working men’s clubs are a cooperative venture in the purchase and sale of beer and spirits. Each offers a choice of several draught beers, and the brews are changed ruthlessly as members demand…
Club members, it seems, were ‘discriminating and demanding’ in their choice of beers, and so, despite competitive pricing, it often had the best ale in town:
There is an excellent draught beer brewed which is sold in surrounding Yorkshire. But it cannot be obtained in Huddersfield public houses because the pubs are in possession of rival concerns. The beer, though good, is blocked out. Except for the clubs. In almost every one a pint of this ale could be bought. The beer was chosen and sold on its merits, quite regardless of the major brewery strategy which limits the range of the pub drinker.
(What can it have been…?)
There is also an amusing worm-that-turned narrative in the clubs’ resistance to advertising and salesmen from big breweries. They would, according to Jackson, take loans and gifts from breweries, without feeling any obligation to then buy beer from them. Here’s an account of an attempt by a rep from Yarnold’s to win over punters at one club:
Ah remember a traveller bringing a barrel. It were free while he was here, he paid for t’lot. They supped it then, y’know. They did that! They supped it like bloody wolves! But when he were gone nobody would touch it. It’s like lead in y’belly is that stuff. When Ah had some, Ah felt as if Ah’d swallowed yon plumb-line from t’window there.
So, they were discerning, but what did it mean, in this context? Were they interested in flavour, strength, or something more abstract? Unfortunately, that’s where the book lets us down, though who knows what more detail might lurk in the original field notes.
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?