Mum and the ‘Clubs’: an affectionate look at Blackpool’s ‘Clubland’

‘Clubland’ refers to those Working Men’s and Social Clubs that provided entertainment on a grand scale, in Blackpool for over 150 years. Some still do.

Prompted by a tenuous link with Clubland, this piece worked its way on to the page. The link is through my Mum’s ‘work’ in the 50’s through to the 70’s, in those clubs. She was a Singer, in fact at 91, she can still ‘belt it out’ at any given opportunity.

The clubs provided a small income to supplement the income of a family of 8. Initially, Mum would have the family bathed and ready for bed when Dad came home from work, he would babysit while Mum travelled to and from the Club by bus. Later, we had Baby-sitters, my Grandad, or Aunties or Uncles, but as we got older, my Sister and I took charge when Mum set off with Dad driving, to entertain the demanding audiences in ‘Working Men’s Clubs’. Dad in the audience.

Mum 1950, Carrol Levis Audition

Mum in her Heyday

Until the research for this piece I knew only the bare essentials: they were for working men; that the audiences were hard work; but they provided a grounding for some of the most famous UK acts in the business, among them, Jimmy Tarbuck, Roy Castle, Frank Carson and many, many others, all of whom cut their teeth entertaining the Blackpool crowds. At one stage Roy Castle’s name on the bill was at the bottom, Mum’s at the top!

Work was found by going to ‘Auditions’ where the Concert Secretaries of the Clubs met and, as a group, tested the ability and capability of the Artiste, then booking the artiste if they thought they had a chance against the noisy but well meaning crowds at their club. My Mum survived singing in Clubs for over 25 years, singing songs from the shows, light opera and pop-songs that
were within her range, or those popular with the audience. She did so whilst bringing up 6 kids, having 4 of them over the same 25 years. Mum went on to appear on Television, returning always to the Club stage.

The Clubs that she loved and hated simultaneously, fell always into only 2 categories the good ones and the bad ones. The good ones, where the pay was good and the audiences appreciative, and the bad ones, where the reverse was true. My memories are of her talk of favourite Concert Secretaries, Accompanists, Bands and Clubs’ names. When she wasn’t shouting at the kids, she sang all the time, no doubt rehearsing the next new song.

For over 60 years, until the late 1970’s, The Empress Ballroom and the larger Clubs hosted the ‘Command Performance of Clubland’. Stars from throughout the year were invited back for the biggest Blackpool showbiz event of the year. Mum regularly appeared and occasionally starred.

But what of the Clubs themselves? They began to emerge as places of entertainment for a working class with a little disposable income. Often built and run by the men themselves as an antidote to the entrepreneurial offers available at the time, although some sought Patrons to provide initial funding and association with a ‘Name’. The rise of unionism and new ideas of self-determination, encouraged both social cohesion and enterprise, giving the Working man an opportunity to contribute to the welfare of his local mates. The clubs were run by a Secretary, with an elected committee and Officers. They would have the power and the subscriptions to book and pay for entertainers to perform in their establishments.

The Working Man’s Club ‘movement’ leapt forward with the formation of the The Working Men’s Club & Institute Union (CIU) in 1862 by the Rev Henry Solly, a Unitarian Minister, supported by local dignitaries and Politicians, specifically ‘to encourage self-improvement and promote temperance among working men’. For over 150 years, the ‘Union’ provided, and still does, guidance on the setting up and running of Clubs. Affiliation, meant that Members could visit any club in the Union.

The Temperance lobby was strong at the time and members, and their families, were pleased to be seen as contributing to and benefiting from the cause. It did not last, the growing prosperity of the members and their clubs enabled choices to be made as to whether drink would form part of the entertainment. Committees soon realised that to buy beer in bulk and to sell volume relatively cheaply would generate profit and benefit for the members.

By 1865, the CIU Allowed clubs to decide their own path and the majority settled for a not-for-profit bar for the benefit of Members only and the surpluses to be ploughed back into the Club. A Royal Commission and a consequent ‘Friendly Societies Act’ of 1875 sought to regulate clubs, protect members from exploitative activities of those in charge, enabling them to hold property and pay benefits to sick and infirm members.

From the few dozen Clubs in the early days through their supremacy in the 1970’s when there were over 4000 ‘affiliated’ Working Men’s Club to the present day when there are about 1900 throughout the UK.

Blackpool, as a centre of entertainment, was host to many Clubs, some still in existence. The oldest, the No1 or Bloomfield Club, recently celebrated its 150 anniversary. The Central Library local history archives has a programme for the Club’s Golden Jubilee (at LT94(P)), with a fascinating history of the Club and its changes of location, name and activities.

The largest by 1954 was the Central Club, formerly the Blackpool WMC. The Blackpool Directories perhaps tell the growth story best: in 1924 there were 7 Clubs listed, in 1929 it was 9. By 1934, Barretts Directory records 22 Clubs, excluding Sports, Church, Political Clubs and British Legions. The local press bears witness to the evolution of Clubland, recording formation, acquisitions, amalgamations and changes of name and location.

Appendix ‘A’ provides a list from those Directories. Many in the list will be instantly recognisable today. They are for me!

Appendix ‘B’ provides images of Membership Cards and Rule books from Blackpool Clubland available in The Local and Family History Centre at Blackpool Central Library,.

The place of Clubland in Blackpool’s Heritage can not be over stated. Over the years, they provided, entertainment, employment and a vibrancy to the Town, as well as a welcome break from drudgery of work for both men and for women. The paucity of research on the Clubland scene in Blackpool demands that this sector is taken into account in the assessment of Blackpool as the leading UK centre of entertainment. I can only hope that the planned Museum will initiate that research, or at least a bright young Undergraduate might see the potential for a Final Year Dissertation.

MPC
Jun 2015

Sources & Further Reading

Cherrington, R., 2012, ‘Who cares about Working Mens Clubs’, available at: http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/who-cares-about-working-mens-clubs/

Cherrington, R., 2012, ‘What is the CIU’, The Club Historians, available at: http://www.clubhistorians.co.uk/html/what_is_the_ciu.html

Blackpool Clubs at: www.amounderness.co.uk/blackpool_guide_1934.html

Cherrington, R., 2012, Not Just Beer and Bingo! The Social History of Working Men’s Clubs’, AuthorHouse.com

Tremlett, G., 1987, Clubmen: the History of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union, Secker & Warburg.

‘Command Performances of Clubland’, Cyril Critchlow Collection, Blackpool Central Library. An Index is at: https://www.blackpool.gov.uk/Residents/Libraries-arts-and-heritage/Documents/Cyril-Critchlow-collection—November-2012-%5BPDF-173MB%5D.pdf

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