The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names

The Reverend Henry Solly

and the Working Men's Clubs

by Bob Solly

This article was originally published in the November 1999 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.

The Working Men's clubs were intended to provide alternative centres of social recreation to the pubs but were to do so by creating a different environment from them: an environment that was pleasant and comfortable, which provided all the necessary, conditions of social intercourse, including alcohol, but where the 'temptations' and evils of the bar would be absent. There would, for example, be no pressure on working men to buy and drink 'for the good of the house'. 

Thus, the clubs were one of the few philanthropic efforts that were realy accepted by the working men and were to become an integral part of the working‑class society. Within the clubs, there was a myriad of working‑class activity. Designed to humanise the working men through the presence of a good environment, it was originally intended that formal education facilities would also be provided. 

Although this aspiration was seldom to be realised, the clubs were a useful meeting place for the politically and socially conscious working men and lectures of political and social interest were common. The issues of the day were always debated in the clubs. From these debates and lectures, recognising the limitations mentioned above, the basic characteristics of working‑class attitudes emerge.

It must be recognised, of course. that the movement did have an ideology: an ideology bestowed upon it by the founders of the clubs in the 1860s. The principles of the movement were fairly straightforward. It was designed to help create a temperate, moderate, working class interested in education and devoted to class mutuality. It was consciously designed as an agency of social control.

The origins of the Club Movement were a compound of middle‑class philanthropy, an attempt to cure the intemperance and barbarism of working‑class life, and a desire to elevate the intellectual achievement of the working men by providing 'healthy' recreational facilities until the state was reached when

"a large majority of the members of all social and political clubs prefer lectures, conversation, reading, recitations, and good music in their clubs on Sundays, to the empty headed nonsense and noise, however 'refreshing' the latter amusements may now be."

The man who wrote these words, the Reverend Henry Solly, founded the Club and Institute Union in 1862 and was the most significant figure in the early days of the movement's history. He had been inspired to create the Club Movement by the examples of William Lovett, Frederick Robertson. W. T. Marriott and F. D. Maurice.

However, it had taken Solly twenty, years of association and contact with working men before he had been able to settle on the correct formula for establishing successful clubs. There had been experiments in working men's clubs at least since 1848 when Robertson of Brighton had played an important part in founding an institute for the working men of the town. Throughout the 1850s others had realised that if working men were to be weaned away from the pub an attractive alternative had to be offered.

Clubs were established by social philanthropists like Mrs. Bayly and Adeline Cooper whose separate institutions both propagated Christianity in an attempt to improve the conditions of working‑class existence. Mrs. Bayly's analysis of working‑class problems was typical of the presumptions that created the Club Movement. Drink was at one and the same time both a symptom and a cause of working‑class distress. In common with the other initiators of the clubs, Mrs. Bayly felt it to be the key problem. She calculated that one‑fifth of the working man's weekly wage was spent on alcohol and that this was the margin between a healthy, sufficient life with a 'clean, neat home' and the squalor that characterised so many working‑class residences. She believed that working men behaved thus foolishly because they lacked the willpower and moral values to resist the temptations and sensual pleasures of beer.

A change of character and lifestyle was necessary. For Mrs. Bayly, the solution was to inculcate into the working man the moral and spiritual values of Christianity which would provide him with sufficient strength to resist the evils of drink.

To others, however, changing the character and life‑style of the working man was not so easy. The inconvenient fact was that am attempt to Christianise the working man usually met with a justified sullen resistance. A way had to be found which would have the same effect but which would not seem to be an overt attempt to impose a different and alien value system on working‑class society. It was Henry Solly who successfully realised the potential of the clubs as agencies of social reform.

And with the help of several prominent aristocrats and middle‑class men he formed the Club and Institute Union with the object of propagating the idea of clubs and providing legal and moral advice to those trying to establish them. The big difference between the clubs as they emerged under Solly and those of the earlier proponents was that Solly was concerned to provide an alternative to the pub only in so far as the club would be comfortable, clean, warm, and would be devoid of the habits and customs of the public house.

He believed that the association of working men with gentlemen who would visit the clubs, the better environment and the encouragement of middle and upper‑class patrons would all work to 'improve' the working‑class mind and intellect. There was no need to apply a religious test. It was because of the absence of an overtly uplifting purpose that Solly was successful where others had failed. Although at first the Union discouraged the sale of beer in its clubs, by 1867 this policy, was reversed ‑ the better environment of the club. it was believed, would prevent drunkenness ‑ and the clubs were assured of attracting large numbers of working men.

Henry Solly was a restless autocratic, hypersensitive individual. He found it almost impossible to work in harness with others. The only institution in which he retained an executive position for any length of time was the Artisan's Institute, and it is significant that it was the only organisation over which he had absolute control. He had insisted upon this

"in consequence of seeing how all my other attempts had been taken out of my hands ... to manage them ... not according to my designs"'

Convinced of his own rectitude and confident that he alone knew what was wanted in a given situation, he would ride roughshod over the sensibilities of his colleagues and would then complain of being 'misunderstood' and of being ill‑treated. The occasion of his final break with the Club and Institute Union in 1878 was illustrative of his arrogant and high‑handed treatment of an organisation which he considered his own but which refused to be subjected to his whim.

He had received information that the practice of tied clubs was becoming very widespread in London and was causing the inevitable abuses of brewers' control. Solly, instead of going straight to the Council of the Union with this problem, laid his allegations before the Earl of Shaftesbury and Samuel Morley both vice‑presidents of the Union, and worst of all, before the Board of Inland Revenue, which administered the licensing laws. Two days after this, he did inform Hodgson Pratt ‑ then one of the Secretaries ‑ of what he had done.

The Council was annoyed because of

'your course of action in bringing the matter before Lord Shaftesbury, Mr. Morley and the Board without consulting your colleagues or giving them any intimation that you intended to do so'.

The next day a special Council meeting passed a resolution which stated that 'statements of an injudicious character' had been made but that no definite charge has been made and the Council consider they have no information to act upon. A further resolution was passed which expressed the hope that Solly would apologise for the course of action he had adopted. Heated words were spoken.

Many of the Council who, like Thomas Paterson, were long‑standing opponents of Solly, felt that he had deliberately tried to damage the movement. He, in his turn felt that he had been ill treated because it had not been made sufficiently clear that he had, at the first opportunity, laid the matter before Hodgson Pratt and had given his consent to its being brought before the Executive Committee. He therefore intimated his intention not to stand for re-election to the Council. But the mantle of a martyr seemed to fit comfortably upon his shoulders.

He wrote to Shaftesbury in 1878 that

'some good appears to have been done by the move I made in the matter ... Martyrdom is often useful, though ... I shall always feel that I was treated by the Council ... unfairly.'

Solly's whole connection with the Union was short and stormy. He was Secretary from 1862‑7 and again from 1871-2. And his failure to work well with men like Hodgson Pratt and Thomas Paterson was largely due to his personality. He had a great personal regard for Pratt, but felt that he did not make sufficient effort to understand him:

"What I complain of is that instead of helping me to correct mistakes and faults and to some extent bearing with them for the sake of counterbalancing qualities, and for the regard with which I had treated him, he sanctioned ... conduct on the part of those who wished to get rid of me that was both unjust and dishonourable."

It is probable that the main fault was on Solly's side. He was a 'hard working idealist ... fond of his own authority', who did not suffer fools gladly and who exhibited a complete lack of tact and judgement. James Hole, a member of the Council, wrote a frank, biting letter which illustrates Solly's complete inability to work with other people. Hole wrote referring to some fracas in a Council meeting:

If you had followed my advice and kept quiet, the scene that followed would have been avoided. You have yet to learn the value of silence. If Mr. A. Hills remarks were worth nothing and in the matter of subscriptions absurd, why could you not trust us to find that out? You must think that we are all fools and that we could not come to right conclusions unless you showed us the way. You are without exception the most deficient in tact, that I ever saw in a man in a public capacity dealing with committees

Thus, the failure of Solly was essentially a personality failure and the arguments within the Union in the early years were a reflection of this. They centred around finance and propaganda. Solly's restless personality and unbounded enthusiasm delighted at the thought of spreading the word about the clubs throughout the country and much of his time was spent on these travels and meetings, especially after 1866 when he became Travelling Secretary.

But other members of the Council, led by Hodgson Pratt and Thomas Paterson, were afraid of the dangers of the movement becoming overextended and felt that the time had come to consolidate their gains. In 1866, it was decided that the Union would henceforth direct more attention to the strengthening of the existing clubs rather than promoting the formation of new ones. It was rationalised that 'the organisation should for a while rest content with its position and develop itself from within ... it should begin to awaken sentiments of self‑reliance and self‑support'.

Solly, who was always paranoid, felt that this move had been directed at him and he resigned in the following year. There was also the problem of money. Solly was not a wealthy man and felt that he should receive adequate remuneration which the Union could ill afford. He felt sure that the reluctance to grant him 150 per year plus his travelling, expenses as a salary for the post of Travelling Secretary was motivated by personal animosity This animosity carne primarily from Thomas Paterson, the self‑educated working man who was a member of the Union Council.

It was Paterson's opposition and the antagonism of certain other members of the Council that forced Solly's resignation in 1868 and which prevented a successful reunion in 1871 when Solly, for a short time formed a rival to the Club and Institute Union. He remained a member of the Council until 1878 and was always active in the movement, but never again held a position of authority.

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