by FIONA LALLY
It’s Friday night and the sound of a live band filters up from the basement of the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. It sits on Pollard Row, a lonely bastion of late-night life in a largely residential area. Spanning the length of the building’s right wall is a giant yellow flower, which, the barman claims, was painted by Banksy.
The atmosphere is intimate. A couple of hipsters play table tennis under the black-and-white sneer of a Sid Vicious poster. The surfaces are mostly linoleum or leatherette, and broken clocks crowd the shelves and walls. Although the interior is retro, everyone at the bar looks under 30.
“It’s a popular venue, especially at the weekends, and there’s a mostly young crowd. It’s comfy and people are always nice,” said Mike Meyers, an old-timer from Spitalfields who occasionally visits the Club.
“The Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club is lucky to have two floors. The downstairs is used by the members and the upstairs is used by artists,” said Warren Dent, the event organiser at the Club.
According to its website, it hosts “regular social events each week; from racy, cultural or refined to mostly wild, unhinged good times”.
Opened in 1887, the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club is an example of how such clubs have moved with the times. Dent took it over with Charlotte West-Williams, now the Club’s creative director, when it was on the verge of closing.
There have been working men’s clubs in the UK for 155 years. The Clubs and Institutes Union (CIU), founded in London in 1862, helped establish many around the country. They wanted working men to have a place to go where they could meet friends, play games and read newspapers after work. As the years passed they opened their doors to female members and became strongholds in local communities.
“My earliest memories include memories of the club. It played a huge role in my family’s life, in fact the life of much of the local community on the post-war estate where we lived,” said Ruth Cherrington, founder of www.clubhistorians.co.uk, a website that documents the history of working men’s clubs. Her local club was the Canley Social in Coventry.
From the 1970s onwards, however, working men’s clubs became less popular. This was partly due to people’s changing interests, and partly because of new legislation such as the smoking ban.
Nowadays, working men’s clubs face competition on multiple fronts. “The Internet and the distractions of the online world have resulted in fewer people using working men’s clubs for entertainment purposes,” explained Cherrington. “I still feel some clubs will survive and the more people that recognise we need to have some community venues, the better,” she said.
“Working men’s clubs certainly still exist, but they don’t serve the same purpose. Mostly people go to them for the cheap alcohol these days,” said historian Keith Flett.
“The distractions of the online world have resulted in fewer people using working men’s clubs for entertainment”.
While some of the more traditional working men’s clubs remain open – including the beautifully preserved Mildmay Club in north London, sometimes used for film sets – many are struggling.
Back in Bethnal Green, though, the good times are still rolling. Although there was some antagonism at first between those that use the Club’s upstairs and the people in the downstairs pub, in the end “people are just people, they just got used to it,” said Dent.
Photos by Huw Poraj-Wilcyznski