The North Belfast Working Men’s Club (NBWMC) is located on Danube Street a short distance off Crumlin Road. This blog post examines the origins of the club, its recreational offerings, and ways in which trustees sought to improve the lives of working-class citizens in North Belfast. The club was founded by local business owners ‘who had at heart the well-being of the working-classes’ mixed with a desire to maintain social order and facilitate moral improvement.
The 1894-built NBWMC was preceded by little over a year by the South Belfast Working Men’s Club, a ‘three-storey edifice’ at 55 Donegall Pass. Lord Mayor Sir Daniel Dixon presided over the opening of the club which, like that on Danube Street, was founded on ‘temperance principles, [and] … thoroughly non-sectarian and non-political’. Among Belfast’s elite figures who attended the ceremony was Gerald B. Snape, ‘H.M. Inspector of Factories’, who was ‘aiding in the establishment of a similar club in the north of the city’.The foundation stone of the Danube Street club was laid by Lady Rosa Harland, wife of Harland & Wolff co-founder Sir Edward Harland, in September 1893. The building cost £2,700 and was designed by local architect William Gilliand who ‘drew all the plans and superintended the erection of the building free of charge’. The governing board was elected in February 1894 and was comprised almost exclusively of the local linenocracy. Their welfarist instincts blended with that of maintaining ‘social order by providing workers with an alternative to the tavern’. Recreational opportunities within the NBWMC, stipulated in club guidelines, adhered to middle-class notions of ‘rational recreation’ and ‘mental and moral improvement’.
The club opened from March 1894 between the hours of 9am – 11pm (Sundays excepted). Annual membership in 1911 cost four shillings. Facilities included a reading room stocked with material ‘of an instructive and improving character’. A lecture hall for educational classes was added in 1909. Evening classes ‘for the purpose of people making themselves better citizens’ were funded by grants from the Commissioners of Education. The classes proved popular and ‘about 200 pupils’ were enrolled each year. From 1902, until the opening of the Oldpark Carnegie Library in 1906, a clubroom also functioned as North Belfast’s first free library. Sir James Henderson, proprietor of the Belfast News-Letter, opened the branch ‘in the presence of a large and representative gathering’ and received the first lending ticket for ‘Mrs Beeton’s popular work on cookery’.
‘Any improving institution’, writes historian Richard Price, ‘must bait its hooks by offering facilities for relaxation and amusement’. Accordingly, a billiard room and smoking room was also provided. These rooms were gutted by a fire in December 1899 which ‘destroyed most of the buildings’. The club was quickly re-built and further recreational facilities were provided in the form of a bowling green and red-brick pavilion, completed in 1914 and 1924 respectively. The club was intended for the ‘respectable men of North Belfast’ and would remain free of ‘intoxicating liquors’ and ‘betting or gambling’. Refreshments were, therefore, limited to ‘tea, coffee and cocoa’ sold ‘at a most attractive rate’.
By 1902 ‘the number of members and visitors amounted to about 1,500’ which represented ‘no less than 35,000 visits’ to the club per year. The primary function of the NBWMC was to ‘enable young men to pass their evenings in a quiet and rational manner’. The club, argued Lord Mayor Sir Robert Thompson, chairman of the 1908 Annual Meeting, was ‘a counter-attraction to other places, which might induce them [young men] to spend their time less profitably’. Although the NBWMC was formed out of ‘genuine concern’ for working-class welfare, the club’s factory-owner founders may have acted with a degree of ‘self-interest’ in steering workers away from ‘rougher’ forms of recreation. The model villages at Cadbury’s Bournville (Birmingham) and Port Sunlight (Wirral) are, perhaps, the best illustrations of this ‘civilising dynamic’.
Mirroring changes at similar institutions, ‘deference gradually gave way to self-assertion’ after the Second World War and club rules were relaxed. The club’s social rooms also ceased to be gendered spaces and were opened to both men and women. Significantly, the temperance values on which the club was founded were discarded in the 1960s with the opening of a members’ bar. By the 1970s, the post-war peak in popularity for working men’s clubs, ‘libraries and educational debates had largely made way for drinking and a variety of entertainments’. The core function of the NBWMC, still governed by a voluntary body, is now a social and drinking venue. Although membership levels have decreased in recent decades, symptomatic of wider social change and the turn towards home-centred leisure, the club maintains a lively presence on Danube Street.
 Alf Roper, North Belfast Working Men’s Club historical review: 1894-1910 (Belfast, 1911), p. 5.
 Belfast News-Letter, 7 January 1893.
 Belfast News-Letter, 23 January 1894.
 Ibid., p. 400.
 Roper, North Belfast, p. 89.
 Ibid., p. 73.
 Belfast News-Letter, 8 January 1894.
 Belfast News-Letter, 3 May 1924.
 Belfast News-Letter, 14 March 1925.
 Belfast News-Letter, 6 December 1902.
 Richard Price, ‘The working men’s club movement and Victorian social reform ideology’ in Victorian Studies, vol 15, no. 2 (1971), p. 118.
 Roper, North Belfast, p. 23.
 Belfast News-Letter, 23 January 1894.
 Belfast News-Letter, 28 February 1902.
 Belfast News-Letter, 21 October 1898.
 Belfast News-Letter, 13 March 1908.
 Alice Johnson, ‘“Some hidden purpose”? Class conflict and cooperation in Belfast’s Working Men’s Institute and Temperance Hall 1865–1900’ in Social History, vol 43, no. 3 (2018), p. 414.
 Sean O’Connell, ‘Violence and social memory in twentieth-century Belfast: stories of Buck Alec Robinson’ in Journal of British Studies, vol 53 (2014), p. 734.
 Johnson, ‘“Some hidden purpose”?’, p. 399.
 Interview with Rev. Colin Hall-Thompson. https://greatplacenorthbelfast.com/projects/colin-hall-north-on-belfast-working-mens-club/
 Richard Hall, ‘Being a man, being a member: masculinity and community in Britain’s working men’s clubs, 1945–1960’ in Cultural and Social History, vol 14, no. 1 (2017), p. 74.