Interacting with others in a social environment has been inherent in our culture for longer than you might think. Dating back to the 19th century, the first ever working men’s clubs were founded more than 150 years ago. These clubs first provided the ‘working man’ with a calm environment to drink and socialise with other men.
Over time, the working men’s club has become less for drinking and more for the community, where the whole family can be involved. That change was formalised in 2007, when women for the first time were granted the same rights as men within the clubs, after The National Executive of the Clubs and Institute Union voted to grant women members equal access to clubs across the country.
The original working-class institutions that were once at the heart of the local communities have, however, slowly declined in popularity, and in many regards adopted a new demographic. Traditional working men’s clubs over the past decade have been victims to the smoking ban, cheap supermarket booze and changes in working-class culture. In the Leeds area alone, club numbers have tumbled from 70 to 56 in just a few years.
But yet there is hope – with some working men’s clubs reinventing themselves anew. Many existing set ups can be transformed into music spaces, where established acts bring in a different range of people which allows them to escape the death some clubs were unable to avoid. Brudenell Social Club in Hyde Park Leeds is a triumphant example of a traditional working men’s club turned into an acclaimed gig venue, with a whole different demographic than originally aimed at.
Whilst some clubs are adopting a 21st century attitude to socialising, many others in the LS area have kept the traditional community spirit alive. Holbeck Working Men’s Club are one of a few who have neglected the trend of changing into a music venue, and have recently received a blue plaque marking them as the oldest continuously open working men’s club in the UK.
Originally established in 1871 and built at a cost of £1,172, the club included rooms for refreshment, billiards and bagatelle, and a lecture hall for 300 people. Holbeck recently welcomed the Slung Low who manage it as a traditional members’ bar, and the rest of the building as an open development space for artists, a place for other companies to present their work, and for Cultural Community College classes.
Sally Proctor, of Slung Low explains more,: “The Holbeck Working Men’s Club did face its own challenges to stay open, but fortunately the community mobilised and a team of volunteers worked hard to secure the club’s future. To further strengthen the club’s stability, and echoing its educational past, Slung Low recently made the club their home too, and now run a series of pay what you decide theatre performances and Community College courses – which are always offered to those who live in Holbeck first. We also have a variety of different community groups and individuals using the space on a pay what you decide basis. This summer we had healthy holidays here providing daily activities and hot meals to those who might otherwise not get one during the summer break.”
It is these kind of initiatives, proved successful by Brudenell, Holbeck and some others in Leeds too, that can keep working men’s clubs alive as both a traditional hub of the local community and a progressive attraction to new generations. Long may they continue.