One of the major sources of education and particularly self-help for working men was to be found in the Working Men’s Clubs. Not surprisingly, attempts had been made all through Victoria's reign to control the working classes and to convince them of the virtues of industrial capitalism. The origins of the Working Men's Club movement was, in large part, an extension of just such attempts at social control.
The early, sponsored, clubs such as the Colonnade Working Men's Club opened by Viscount Ingestre in 1852, were meant to provide "amusement and refreshment as well as newspapers and books." Often they were concerned with improving the working man. At Stormant House Working Men's Association in Notting Hill, for example, neither drinking nor smoking was permitted and the library contained 400 "uplifting" volumes.
The Saint Matthias Working Men's Club at Salford, was not untypical. Opened in 1858, in "two large cottages, well lighted, warmed and ventilated ... thrown into one, and made to present, as far as possible, the features of home," the subscription was one penny per week. Like most early clubs, it attempted to combine social meetings with lectures and exhibitions. The cottages soon proved too small and a club-house was built containing "rooms for conversation, amusements, committee meetings, and school purposes, as well as a library, well stocked with history, travel and popular science." In addition, there was a newspaper room and a lavatory. Some clubs had smoking rooms as well.
Prior to the 1870s and the expansion of popular education, the reading rooms in the clubs often provided the only significant educative service available for working men who sought it. Additionally, for those who wished to read the papers, it was cheaper to be a member of the club and have access to a reasonable selection from the press than to buy one's own. In the Workmen's Halls in Southampton, for example, in the 1860s, one could select from "five daily and nine weekly London and provincial newspapers, and sixteen monthly and weekly periodicals," all of which had been placed out on tables.
By the middle of the 1880s, a typical Working Men's Club might have six hundred members ranging from small masters through skilled artisans earning anywhere between 25 shillings to 4 pounds a week. Subscriptions were about 15 shillings per year and an observer in 1885 noted that the clubs often had, as a chief room, "a spacious hall for debate, with a stage at one end for occasional dramatic entertainments. Immediately adjoining it is a smaller chamber furnished with a refreshment buffet." In addition, the visitor might find a billiard-room, a bagatelle-room, a chess-room and most certainly the ubiquitous reading-room.
At least one analysis was done in the 1860s of the membership of a Working Men's Club; in this instance one of the Workmen's Halls in Southampton. Of the first 700 members, 172 or just under 25 per cent were from employment as labourers, hawkers or porters. The remainder were basically skilled workmen. Just over fifteen per cent were involved in the building trades as bricklayers, masons and carpenters, and another, only slightly smaller group were involved in boiler-making or working as smiths. Among the remainder there were to be found shoemakers, engineers, seamen, painters, mechanics, tailors, shopmen, agents and carriers.
Clearly in the fifty years from mid-century to the death of the old Queen, the Working Men's Club movement was an influential force. Although started to encourage the moral regeneration of the working classes, the development of popular education and the growth of the trades union movement as a focus for class solidarity allowed the clubs to be just what the gentlemen's clubs in Pall Mall or St. James Street were, social organisations where men might escape from the daily grind of work, the wife and children, and yet be remarkably safe from the hazards of the Gin-Palaces and the public-houses.