The founding principles of the North Belfast Working Men’s Club: Camaraderie, Temperance and Industry.

The Victorian era was a period of significant social change in Britain. The influx of workers coming to industrial hubs to work in the factories and mills saw increasing friction between the various classes. This was in large part due to the different ways of life and ideologies that were prevalent in the various communities which made up cities such as Belfast. Social tension built as communities, which previously existed separate from each other, found themselves occupying the same spaces in these burgeoning industrial cities, such as Belfast. One result of this increasing friction borne from social differences was the establishment of patron sponsored social institutions: a number of which were founded in north Belfast.

Whilst Victorian institutions which were funded by private means were built to benefit the local community, often these institutions were established with ulterior motives. For example, when the public baths were built on Donegall Street they were constructed to provide bathing facilities for those who didn’t otherwise have access to them. However, the construction of these bathing facilities was also motivated by a fear that the conditions in which the poor of the city lived, posed a potential threat for society as a whole with a higher risk of disease outbreaks in densely populated areas with unsanitary conditions. Such outbreaks would be indiscriminate and would affect people of all classes, therefore it was seen as in everyone’s best interests to improve the living conditions of the poor.[1] It was hoped that the erection of the baths would ‘civilise’ the poor in society by offering them opportunity to improve their way of life: a lifestyle that was seen as ‘better’ by those in the upper echelons of society. Acknowledging the motivating factors that surrounded the foundation of these institutions helps us better understand the reason such institutions were deemed necessary by those who provided the funds for their construction.

Another such institution was the North Belfast Working Men’s Club on Danube Street. The club was opened officially on 31st March 1894. It was an entirely non-political, non-sectarian, temperance club for the people of north Belfast:

              “…open to members of all creeds and parties, and was to form a home wherein friendly intercourse could be cultivated, and social and intellectual improvement attained, and where working men could spend their leisure hours pleasantly and profitably in healthy recreation. [2]

The club itself contained reading and billiard rooms, with recreational areas for various sports and uses. The club was proposed by the Inspector to Factories for Belfast, Gerald, B. Snape, and was modelled on successful temperance clubs which existed in England, with donations provided from many of the industrial titans of wider Belfast, such as Edward Harland, alongside the owners of the nearby Edenderry Spinning Company, Brookfield Linen Company and York Street Flax Spinning Company.[3] These patrons were eager to support the construction of the club as it was set forth as a reputable establishment, when compared to clubs in which alcohol was served.[4]

Whilst ‘dry’ institutions may be seen as uncommon by today’s social standards, during the 19th Century, the Temperance movement held significant sway, particularly with those in the middle and upper classes. Alcohol was widely available, and in certain instances served an important role in society. For example, alcohol was prescribed by doctors and mental health asylums in Britain purchased great quantities to treat their patients.[5] Furthermore, in certain instances alcohol was seen as a viable treatment to ease industry-related illnesses such as Flax or Cotton-dust induced byssinosis: a medical condition caused by the inhalation of fine particles within the factories. [6] Whilst some amongst the temperance movement campaigned for the outlawing of all alcohol, the vast majority called for moderation, instead taking issue with drinking culture associated with overconsumption.

Regarded as ‘the national curse of Ireland,’ drunkenness was seen as the prime cause of sexual immorality, gambling, broken homes, poverty and social strife.[7] The need for temperance and restraint was preached from the churches, taught in Sunday schools, and in the case of the North Belfast Working Men’s Club, patronised by wealthy heads of industry. Whilst one could speculate there were a number of reasons that a Working Men’s club that practiced temperance attracted many of the city’s wealthiest industrialists, there are two in particular that should be highlighted. Firstly, the institution which an individual sponsored was seen as representative of their moral values. Furthermore, it was a display of wealth and social status, cloaked in an act of charity. As the North Belfast Working Men’s Club was a temperance club upon foundation, it was readily apparent to observers that those who sponsored the Clubs construction endorsed the teachings at the core of the Temperance Movement. Secondly, these clubs were a way of appeasing or appealing to the working population of the area. As highlighted, amongst the listed sponsors of the club were three of the largest factories and mills on the Crumlin Road and York Street. The area surrounding Danube Street was a maze of terraced houses, which would have housed workers from the nearby industries. Academics such as Thompson view institutions such as the working clubs as a method of social control in Victorian Britain.[8] In certain situations, this may be correct, as conditions were often austere and exploitative in the Victorian factories, with poor living conditions and sanitation in the houses which catered to the vast industries. For example, this can be seen in factory towns such as Bradford, which had a life expectancy of 18 years in the first half of the 19th Century, with the highest proportion of malnourished and crippled children in England.[9] Whilst indicative of the living conditions in Bradford as a whole during this period, the number of profitable industries which operated in the area, which did not seek to improve the wellbeing of their workforce, speaks to the apathy displayed by many of the mill owners who were often far removed from the industrial centres in which their mills and factories operated.[10]

In comparison, the North Belfast Working Men’s Club adopted a much more holistic outlook, and offered a space in which individuals could interact with those who otherwise would have occupied a different role in society, overseen by a committee of management which included a Head-Constable, factory owners and the Inspector of Factories for Belfast, the latter acting as President for a number years. It was seen as a place in which those in the working class could improve their social standing, and offered a space where divisions caused by class, politics, and religion were less obvious. This can be seen upon the departure of Gerald Snape in 1906:

Picture of Gerald B. Snape (Roper 1911)

              “[We] tender you our cordial congratulations on the recognition of your abilities as an Inspector of Factories, which the promotion indicates, and to express at the same time, our sincere regret that your active association with our club is about to end.
              Your presence in the billiard-room always stimulated a kindly rivalry amongst the players, and infused into the tournaments a zest which otherwise would have been wanting.
              We esteemed it an honour that a gentleman of social and official distinction should fraternise with working men, and yet never treat them with the slightest semblance of patronage, and the easy bonhomie of your temperament made it a pleasure, at any time, for your humblest member of the club to chat with you.”[11]

Whilst such a message often celebrates the actions of the individual, it is Snape’s remarks to the assembled audience that highlights the purpose for which the NBWMC was founded, and the principles that were at the heart of the Club on Danube Street:

“[Snape] had been fortunate enough to make many friends both among employers and employed.
              He had been happy in his relationship with the former, as he found the broad-minded, far-sighted men of business, with…a sincere interest in the welfare of their employees.
              He had been happier still in his relationship with the workers… being a thorough believer in the advantages to be gained by the social betterment of the working classes, one of the means to this desirable end being the establishment of…the North Belfast Working Men’s Club, which had proved and would prove, a medium whereby the self-respect and true manhood of many toilers would take root, and, fed by the advantages for mental and physical improvement and recreation to be found there, come to perfection.”[12]

[1] S.Sheard, ‘Profit is a Dirty Word: The Development of Public Baths and Wash-houses in Britain 1847-1915’. The society for the Social History of Medicine. (2000) pp.64-65.

[2] Alf Roper, North Belfast Working Men’s Club historical review: 1894-1910 (1911), p. 5.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, Pg.2. John Horner, owner of the Brookfield Linen Company, became a committee member at the NBWMC, later becoming treasurer and then president. He was also part of the Belfast Charitable Society.

[5] T.Hands. “Drinking in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Beyond the spectre of the drunkard”. (2018) pg. 102.

[6] J.S.Logan. Flax-Dust Byssinosis and Chronic Non-Tuberculous Chest Disease in Belfast. Ulster Medical Journal (1959) pg.171.

[7] D.Hempton & M.Hill. Godliness and Good Citizenship: Evangelical Protestantism and Social Control in Ulster, 1790-1850. Saothar. (1988) pg.71

[8] FML Thompson. Social Control in Victorian Britain. The Economic History Review. (1981)

[9] R.Smith. The Temperance Movement and Class Struggle in Victorian England. Student Historical Journal Loyola University. (1993) pg. 8, L.D. Parker. Corporate social accountability through action: Contemporary insights from British Industrial Pioneers. Accounting, Organizations and Society. (2014). Pg.4

[10] Ibid

[11] Alf Roper, North Belfast Working Men’s Club historical review: 1894-1910 (1911).pp 35-39

[12] Ibid pp.39-41

Members Involved

YEAR: 1894

Location: Danube Street