DAVID WILSON takes a trip down memory lane and stops off at some of York’s Working Men’s Clubs

IF you drive through York you will almost certainly have seen the signage WMC on certain buildings around the city.

In some people’s minds Working Men’s Clubs are relics of yesterday’s social landscape.

But such opinions would be very much mistaken. As of February 20 this year, The Club & Institute Union (CIU) lists on its website no fewer than 26 branches of Working Men’s Clubs as well as Sports & Social Clubs in the city of York, and WMCs have a listing on www.yell.com, the online Yellow Pages.

Some of these WMCs such as the Huntington & District WMC and Acomb Working Men’s Club are still extremely active and boast their own websites and Facebook pages.

WMCs are organised as cooperatives and run by their members through a committee.

In fact, the CIU claims that The Working Men’s Club and Institute Union is now the largest non-profit-making social entertainment and leisure organisation in the UK, representing the interests and view of several million club members.

York Press: South Bank Working Men's Club in 1925. Photo from City of York Council Explore ArchiveSouth Bank Working Men's Club in 1925. Photo from City of York Council Explore Archive

Frank Healy, Branch Secretary of the York City Branch CIU, told me that for the first time since Covid struck he would be attending their Trade Fair, AGM and Conference later this month, and was looking forward to getting a more detailed current picture of the CIU-affiliated WMCs.

In recent years, a number of York WMCs, like others around the country, have closed their doors for the last time. In September 2021 Natasha Meek reported in The Press that The New York Club & Institute in Blossom Street had closed in January 2019 after 90 years in the community.

Meek explained that the club had been unable to attract new members and that numbers had dropped by around half. Non-members are generally not allowed entry unless signed in by a member. One reader commented that he had applied for membership as a 20-year-old and had been turned away because the existing membership didn’t want younger people in the club. Others have blamed COVID lockdowns and the impact of the 2007 smoking ban for the decline.

A poll by the York-based British Institute of Innkeeping and the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations (FLVA) found that overall revenue was 7.3 per cent down as more people opted to drink at home where they could also smoke. Working Men’s Clubs in the past tended to be male preserves, but most are now open to women.

Then again, generational behaviour has change massively in recent years. The internet has encouraged a more virtual form of socialising. Millennials and Generation Z, in particular, tend to socialise more extensively online than face-to-face. Working habits are also changing and more people commute or travel as part of their job. Others are obliged to work flexibly in the evenings and at weekends. These factors militate against community life, and many voluntary social groups have been affected, not just social clubs.

To gauge how much WMCs have changed over recent decades I took a trip to York Reference Library and read through a scrapbook of some 1950 press cuttings from the now defunct Yorkshire Herald.

Journalist Don Hardisty wrote a number of features about York WMCs and I felt as if I’d entered another world. The Clarence Working Men’s Club was the first to open in 1898 above a hairdressing salon at 95 Clarence Street, and was the second club to be affiliated to the national C & I Union. In 1952 it had more than 1,000 members. The first club to be affiliated was the Leeman Road WMC.

York Press: Leeman Road WMC in 1979Leeman Road WMC in 1979

In the 1950s, WMCs offered a number of facilities, many connected to sporting activities. There were groups for football, both soccer as well as rugby league and union, cycling and walking as well as indoor games such as darts, dominoes, billiards, cribbage, whist, and almost always an ‘angling corner’.

Competitions were often held between members of different clubs and trophies were awarded. Outings to Scarborough were arranged in the summer months.

One of the Burton Stone Lane WMC’s earliest activities was choral singing and the club performed charity concerts. Donations to charity were made by various York clubs, and during the Second World War, the members of Tang Hall WMC in the forces regularly received gifts from members at home twice a year throughout their service.

Looking at the photos in these press cuttings I was struck by images of well-dressed working men in shirts and ties and by the long-service certificates awarded for service on the committee. In a city where fewer people than today moved away for work, family connections in the various WMCs remained strong, and names of sons as well as their fathers figured prominently in the membership lists.

York Press: Crescent WMC in 2002Crescent WMC in 2002

Hardisty was already commenting in 1952, however, that: “On my travels around the working men’s clubs of York I have often heard it said that young men of today have not the same interest as their fathers in the club movement”.

Nowadays, York WMCs are mostly recreational, offering regular live music and comedy evenings and weekends, raffles, charity events and a popular place to meet up and socialise over drinks and snacks.

In a city which continues to witness so many social changes, Working Men’s Clubs provide opportunities to maintain and build community ties. Long may they flourish!

David Wilson is a community writer with The Press