Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Working Men's Clubs

One of the amazing things about our 19th century forebears was their ability to organize quite impressive institutions. The Co-op stores were all started and developed on local initiative as were Mechanic's Institutes, Brass Bands, Worker's Educational Associations, Schools, Charities, Football Teams, Friendly Societies and so on. Working Men's Clubs were a part of that general trend of community self-improvement and Wolverton and New Bradwell were well represented.
According to Sylvia Mead the Wolverton Working Men's Social Club was founded in 1872 at 72, Church Street. I have looked through the censuses for the period and can find no reference to a Club Steward so I can only assume that the Club was run by volunteers until they acquired their new building at 49 Stratford Road in 1898. I don't know either if this 72 uses the 19th Century numbering system or the present one which began in 1900 and I don't at present have the resources to identify which house was used.
At any rate the institution thrived and in time expanded and in 1901 has a full-time steward in the shape of one George Brown from Hoxton.
In 1907 a second club was built on a new block on Western Road. It was a large complex which incorporated a stage and dance floor upstairs. It was officially the Central Club but was always known as the "Top Club" and of course the Stratford Road establishment became the "Bottom Club".
The function of both clubs were largely recreational and social and in the bars one could play cribbage and various popular card games. Both clubs had tables for billiards and snooker. Beer was probably a penny a pint cheaper than in pubs.
For the first seventy years of the 20th Century Working Men's Clubs were thriving institutions.  They had a strong membership and therefore a good customer base, but various social forces have since pushed them into slow decline. We may in time come to look upon them as an historic phenomenon, much as we do 18th Century London Coffee Houses. Of course there are many activities which now compete for our attention but I think the decline of the clubs can in part be attributed to a loss of community cohesiveness. In Wolverton's case the precipitous decline of the railway works has been a major factor but in my mind it is also part of a disappointing trend in this country which has allowed government to take on all aspects of community life and professionalise public service.
The Top Club closed its doors a few years ago and I am not sure what state the Bottom Club is in. I think the New Bradwell Club has also closed down.

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