Working Men's Clubs.* -- [* For most of my information on this subject, I have to thank Mr. Norman Grosvenor, who with one of my Secretaries, Mr. Hardy, personally visited every club on my behalf.] The 115 Clubs in East London and Hackney may be primarily divided into those which can be entered by a stranger and those which cannot. Those which open their doors at all, do so very readily and very completely. They have not only nothing to hide, but are very generally proud of their position. They are moreover not infrequently linked by affiliation to the "Working Men's Club and Institute Union," or the "Federation of Working Men's Social Clubs," on terms which provide for the welcome of the members of any one club by any other club in the same association. Thus a very wide natural publicity is given to all their proceedings, and it is not difficult for the social inquirer to obtain trustworthy information about them and even himself to experience their hospitalities.
As to those which decline to open their doors to strangers, I can give no information except as to the reputation they enjoy, which, it must be said, is very bad. They are usually called "Proprietary" clubs, and there can be no doubt that betting and various forms of gambling, but chiefly betting, are their main objects. On my list are 32 such clubs within the limits of the district. Some are dramatic and others make dancing a principal attraction, but in all cases their foundation and raison d'e'tre is gambling in one form or other. Some of them are respectable, frequented by bookmakers of good repute. Others are very disreputable indeed, being, it is said, a combination of gambling hell with the lowest type of dancing saloon. All alike maintain a jealous privacy. An outer door labelled "members only," an inner door of baize ; a window with a sliding shutter, through which, as the visitor enters, appears promptly the face of the doorkeeper ; an entire refusal to give any information or admit any strangers ; such are their suggestive characteristics. Grave responsibility evidently attaches to their management, and police raids from time to time justify the precautions taken. These clubs seem to be short-lived, but die in one street only to spring up in the next. Shoreditch is the quarter in which most are found. Those in Whitechapel, of the same sort, but belonging to Jews and foreigners, are more permanent and probably more truly social in character. These clubs are of various grades and cater for every class from A to H; but not one of them can be properly called a working men's club. The total number of members will not be very large.
The clubs which live in the light of day may be conveniently considered in three divisions : (a) Philanthropic clubs in connection with churches or missions, started, supported, and managed by outside influence ; of these there are 33 ; (b) Social, numbering 18; and (c) Political, of which there are 32.
The division between the philanthropic and the true Working Men's Club is not very clearly defined, for while many philanthropic clubs are merely adjuncts to missions; others, such as the " University Club " in Victoria Park Square, and the "United Brothers " in Commercial Street, are practically self-supporting and to a great extent self-managed. All, however, are superintended, and so are not as interesting a study as the spontaneous self-managed clubs. A practical distinction between the philanthropic and the self-supporting club is to be found in the question of drink. All the philanthropic clubs but one are teetotal; while, with the sole exception of the Jewish Club in Great Alie Street, all the social and political clubs are not. To make a club self-supporting without the sale of beer is very difficult. The bar is the centre and support of a working man's club—the pole of the tent. The structure must be upheld in some way, and failing the profits from liquor sold, support must be found in subscriptions from outside; for in no other way but the paying for drinks will any of these clubs make sufficient effort to support itself--a rather striking proof of the preference for indirect taxation. Moreover, the clubs are not only run on the profits of the beer sold, but the prospects of these profits in very many cases raise the funds needed to make a start. Brewers find it to their interest to follow up their customers in this way, and lend. money towards the fittings of the club. Repayment is not pressed, nor is the security scrutinized ; for the lender is repaid by profit on the beer supplied.
The difference between the Social and Political clubs is slight, lying mainly in the mode in which they are started. Social clubs in East London may or may not acquire a political tinge, but those intended to be political cannot stand unless social, and the social side tends to become more important than the political. For both, the friendly mug of beer—primordial cell of British social life—supplies the social bond, as well as the financial basis. There must be beer, but there is a good deal else. Almost every club has entertainments on Saturday and Monday, and a concert or discussion, lecture, or some other attraction, once or in some cases twice in the day, on Sunday ; and billiards, bagatelle, and whist are greatly played. Whether from the publican or from the club, these are the things demanded by the people—beer, music, games, and discussion.
It is said by those hostile to clubs that they are mere drinking dens, sought because they remain open when the public-house is shut. Or they are objected to in a general way as antagonistic to family life.
As to the first charge made, it has; with regard to the great majority of members, no foundation. As to the second, it is not so much the clubs which draw men, as their own restless spirits which drive them from home. In any case they would go out, and better as I think if they go to the club than elsewhere. Some competition is not amiss : the homes might easily be made more attractive than they are.
In considering these objections and the whole question whether clubs are on the whole an element of good, it would be unfair to take too high a standard. The leaders may consciously realize the higher ideas of the movement, but the rank and file are not above the average of their class, and usually join clubs with no higher motives than those which influence the ordinary club-goer of any class, or would otherwise take them to the public-house. Looked at in this rather low way, clubs seem to me better than the licensed public-houses they tend to replace. Nor do I see that they compare unfavourably, all things considered, with the majority of clubs in other places. The language one hears in them is the language of the streets ; stuffed with oaths, used as mere adjectives ; but in every class, oaths of one sort or other are pretty frequent on the tongues of men, and especially young men, who are numerous in every club. The fashion of the oath is not of much importance, whether beginning with a B or with a D.
Evidence of the spirit of self-sacrifice is not wanting. In many cases the members do all the repairs and alterations of the club after their own day's labour is done. In a new club in Bethnal Green the chairs and tables have been made, walls papered, and bars fitted up, stage erected, and scenes painted in this way. Many, too, are ardent politicians, and begrudge neither time nor money in advancing their political views.
And something more may be said. Coarse though the fabric be, it is shot through with golden threads of enthusiasm. Like less Cooperation and like Socialism, though in a less pronounced way, the movement is a propaganda with its faith and hopes, its literature and its leaders. This, it is true, applies to a few individuals only, but to many more club-life is an education. If the leaders are few, those who belong or have belonged to the Committees of Management are numerous. It may perhaps be thought that enthusiasm might find some better aim, and citizenship some other field, than the management of bar-parlour and "free-and-easy; " but taking things as they are, the working man's club is not a bad institution, and it is one with very strong roots.
To come to some sort of analysis of the clubs. There are among the Religious and Philanthropic 16, with about 2600 members, named after the churches or missions with which they are connected. Most of these are intended for artisans and labourers. There are 3 belonging to the Y.M.C.A., mostly for clerks, &c., and some 7 others, among which are the " University Club " and the "United Brothers," already mentioned as ranking more properly with the self -managed and self-supporting clubs. In addition to these, are 6 Boys' clubs, of which the Lads' Institute, in Whitechapel Road, and the Whittington Club are the most important, having between them about five hundred members.
The Social clubs are, as a class, much older than the political clubs: one half of them date their foundation as far back as 1880, and two of them previous to 1870; and their growth has been steady, in marked contrast to the uneven rapidity with which the political clubs have sprung into existence during the last few years. There are in all 18 social clubs, with about 5530 members. Of these, 4 are Jewish, while in 6 the majority of members are foreigners; 8 belong to the middle classes, and though the remainder may be, and are, called working men's clubs, they contain among their members a large sprinkling of the middle class. The subscription and entrance fee vary with the class of the club, but in most cases are higher than those of the political working man's club, and the financial position on the whole is stronger.
Of Political, or more strictly Politico-social clubs, there are 32, of which 22 are Liberal and Radical, 6 Conservative, 3 Socialistic, and 1 Irish Home Rule. The Conservative clubs, with about 1800 members, belong mainly to the upper or lower middle class ; only one of them, with 200 members, is called a working man's club. Of the Liberal and Radical clubs, 7 (with over 2000 members) belong to the upper or lower middle class, 6 (with less than 1000 members) to the working classes, while 9 (with nearly 6000 members) are mixed. The three Socialist clubs count only 200 members amongst them, and the Home Rule club has over 100.
Judging by the clubs there would seem to be no doubt of the political complexion of East London ; and the weekly papers mostly taken - Reynolds's and the Dispatch - tell the same story. But the tone is not so much Liberal or even Radical, as Republican, outside of the lines, authorized or unauthorized, of English party politics, and thus very uncertain at the ballot box. There is also a good deal of vague unorganized Socialism.
It will be seen how large a part the lower middle class plays in East London club life, but it is not easy to draw the line between this class and so-called working men. "What is a working man ? " is a question to which no very clear answer can be given. In theory, dealers and small master men would be excluded, but in practice my classes E, F, and G, the central mass of the English people, consort together in a free and friendly way. Some of the clubs draw also from classes C and D. Class H has its own clubs apart, class B has only those provided for it philanthropically.
There are four clubs which from their size deserve special mention :—The United Radical with 2000 members ; the Boro' of Hackney with 1800 ; the Jews' club and institute in Great Alie Street with 1400 members ; and the University club with 700 members, besides about 400 belonging to the women's and children's sections. Any of these large clubs almost every evening is full of life, rising on occasion to the climax of a crush. All show what can be done with numbers, and point to the conclusion that in the enlargement of clubs rather than in their multiplication lies the road towards perfection. The possibilities in this direction amongst a dense population are almost unbounded; and it is found that men will come long distances to obtain the advantages which clubs on a large scale can offer.
The Jews' Club, though now ranking as a social club, was practically established on a philanthropic basis, its large and substantial premises having been built at the expense of Mr. S. Montagu, M.P. As a social club, it is remarkable in three ways : (1) it is teetotal; (2) it admits both sexes to membership ; (3) it prohibits card playing.
No club in East London is more ambitious than the University Club ; nor any more strict in confining its membership to the working class. Helped at the start, it now pays its way, and this without the sale of beer. It owes its success to the direction of its President, Mr. Buchanan, who hopes to show " that a people's palace can be built out of the people's pence."
The subscription to an ordinary working men's political club is 6d per month with 6d entrance fee. The club opens at 6.30 P.M. and closes at 12 or 12.30 ; on Sundays, 11 A.M. to 1 P.M. and 6.30 P.M. to 11.30 P.M. If the club remains open longer the bar is closed.* [* Disorderly conduct may occur, but it is rare.] Great care is taken not to serve beer to anyone not a member or entitled by affiliation to members' privileges. The ordinary number of members is from 300 to 400. The management is by committee, consisting of president, vice-president, treasurer, secretary, trustees, and a varying number of ordinary members. The duties of door-keeper and bar-tender are in some cases taken by members of the committee in turn. The clubs pay their way, but usually owe more than their assets, if sold up, would discharge. A monthly or weekly statement of accounts is usually posted in the doorway with other notices. Beer, spirits, tobacco, and teetotal drinks are supplied at the bar at a profit of 30 to 50 per cent. The games played are billiards, bagatelle, and cards (chiefly whist and cribbage), draughts, and dominoes. The rule against gambling is strict and is not infringed to any noticeable extent. Billiards are the principal attraction, and the standing of a club may be gauged by the number of its tables. There is usually a small library kept in a room used for committee meetings. Some evening papers are taken, perhaps two Stars and an Evening Standard; Reynolds's paper, the Weekly Dispatch, and some illustrated or comic papers, with a local print, complete the list. The club premises consist of a large room with billiard and bagatelle tables, a hall with small stage, bar room and committee room, library or reading room. The club has a political council whose lead the members usually follow. Entertainments, lectures, and discussions for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday are arranged by the committee. To the entertainments ladies may be brought and do come in considerable numbers, and there will be dancing on special occasions. The entertainments are sometimes dramatic but more generally consist of a succession of songs, comic or sentimental, the comic songs being often sung in character with change of dress. A music hall entertainment is the ideal aimed at. A chairman presides and keeps order, as at the free-and-easy or benefit performances held at public-houses, and as till recently was invariably the practice at the public music halls. The chairman sits at a table with his back to the stage, flanked by his intimates, and sundry jugs or pots of ale which are passed from hand to hand. He alone of all the audience is uncovered and he is faultlessly dressed. At his right hand lies his hammer of authority, and sometimes a sort of wooden platter to receive the sharp blows with which he calls for silence or emphasizes the chorus. He does not spare this exercise of his authority, and gives out, before each song, the name of the singer, in the ordinary public-house concert room style ; the formula being "our friend so and so will now oblige." The singers are sometimes professional, but more commonly semi-professional; those who do a good deal in this way and no doubt make money by it, but have other occupations. Others are purely amateur, members, or friends of members, who really perform to "oblige" their brother members. Two or three songs may be expected from each singer. The more purely amateur, the more purely sentimental the song as a general rule. The performance, though poor enough, serves to amuse the audience, but except on great occasions does not empty the billiard room. The entertainments are at times connected with some charitable object ; a member has perhaps had an accident or suffered from illness, and a concert is got up and tickets sold for his benefit. A pleasing feature connected with the entertainments given is a practice recently adopted of having a children's Christmas party. It is now very general, the expense being mainly defrayed by voluntary subscriptions of members. The United Radical Club alone entertained 4,000 children this year.
Charles Booth, Labour and Life of the People, Volume 1: East London, 1889