Celebrating 130 years of East Ham Working Men’s Club
PUBLISHED: 14:00 09 February 2019
Beer flows freely at working men’s clubs now including at East Ham Working Men’s Club which celebrates its 130th anniversary this year. But it wasn’t always like that. The movement’s founder was dead set against booze.
For East Ham Working Men’s Club to reach its 130th anniversary is no mean achievement.
At a time when many clubs have closed or are closing, the Boleyn Road venue’s survival is one more reason to celebrate this much-loved East End institution.
East Ham Working Men’s Social Club, which was based in the Barking Road before it moved across the street to its current location, is one of the oldest surviving in London.
Ruth Cherrington, author of Not Just Beer and Bingo! A Social History of Working Men’s Clubs, said: “Congratulations are certainly in order for the East Ham Working Men’s Social Club for reaching the grand old age of 130 years.
“It is one of the oldest of what used to be a very strong, nationwide network of such clubs,” she added.
The author said that working men’s clubs made up a thriving national network with as many as four million club members in the UK in the boom years, with many thousands more on waiting lists.
East Ham’s secretary, Peter Bell, remembers a time when there were 2,000 members. The club now has about 800 with a core membership who regularly visit of around 200.
Working men’s clubs were in their heyday in the early 1970s with more than 4,000 affiliated to the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (WMCIU).
There are now about 1,800 across the country.
The WMCIU was set up in 1862. It was the brainchild of the Reverend Henry Solly, a temperance movement minister who wanted to get working men out of pubs and spending their leisure time bettering themselves with more wholesome pursuits.
Ruth said: “There was a moral panic in late Victorian England about pubs claiming too much of working men’s time.
“Tempting men out of pubs and into more sober socialising was the aim. But Solly realised working men needed the warmth, companionship and sociability of the pub,” she added.
But working men also wanted their own places to meet and relax, much like the private members clubs used by Victorian gentlemen.
They also wanted a space to rival pubs but not driven by a landlord’s thirst for profits.
Clubs were set up under their own rules and were managed by members. Women were able to join as “lady” members. Full equality came in in 2007.
Rev. Solly knew the success of the movement depended on reaching an answer to “the beer question”: to serve or not to serve.
The CIU’s governing body agreed in 1865 that club bosses could decide for themselves whether to start pulling pints.
And, according to Ruth, it was beer that saw clubs gain independence from the upper class gents, clergy and aristocrats who were their early patrons.
“Many clubs opted to have a bar to “supply” their members and not sell for profit. Any money made could be ploughed back into the club’s coffers as helpful funding,” Ruth said.
They might have a reputation for drinking, but clubs including East Ham’s offer far more with live music, boxing and bingo among the entertainment tempting punters in.
After West Ham United moved from Upton Park to the London Stadium the club put on talks by former players including Phil Parkes before taking fans to the Stratford venue by coach.
Several stars also came up through working men’s clubs including Dame Vera Lynn whose father was master of ceremonies at East Ham.
The club movement expanded for much of the 20th century but industrial decline, unemployment and more choice in entertainment has seen numbers decline over the past 30 or so years.
But the team at East Ham Working Men’s Social Club have a plan to keep the doors open for years to come with designs for a five-storey building including a new space for members which was submitted to Newham Council in November last year.
Former committee member Peter Duffy said: “The idea is for a development there with a club on the ground floor. It will be smaller, but financially it will be much more manageable.”
Ruth said: “Clubs have faced many challenges due to social, cultural and economic changes. East Ham has done well to rise to those challenges and keep its doors open for its members and the community.
“I’d like to wish them well in the years ahead.”
Not Just Beer and Bingo: A Social History of Working Men’s Clubs by Ruth Cherrington is available to buy online.