Workingmen’s clubs emerged in the industrial areas of England from the mid-19th century to provide recreational and educational services for working men. The first New Zealand club was set up in Dunedin in 1874, and three years later clubs were founded in Wellington, Napier and Greytown. By 1896 there were at least 12.
There were two drivers. One was dissatisfaction with the pubs, for encouraging heavy drinking. The second was a desire to encourage self-improvement among working men. The Wellington club was called a ‘Workingmen’s Club and Literary Institute’; many early clubs had the description ‘mutual school of arts’ in their titles, and all had a reading room or library. By the 1890s the Wellington club had over 3,000 books.
Not a drinking shop
At the opening of the Wellington Workingmen’s Club in 1877, Henry Anderson, editor of the Evening Post, said, ‘When you come to the club at night, your wives and daughters, and sisters and sweethearts … will know that you have not gone to a mere drinking shop but that you will go back to them and meet their pure eyes without a single reason to feel ashamed or reproach.’1
Members were well-mannered working-class men. Subscriptions were low – often as low as 10 shillings a year (compared to £5-10 a year for gentlemen's clubs) – and there were strong disciplinary expectations against drunkenness and disorderly behaviour. There were debates about admitting Māori, and for a time the Kaiapoi club barred them.
During the 20th century self-improvement became less important, and the clubs became focused on drinking and socialising. From the 1890s the prohibition movement had presented challenges and prevented new charters being awarded to clubs. After 1904 the clubs were forced to act as if they were licensed premises, with restrictions on hours. In ‘dry’ areas (where sale of alcohol was prohibited) they also had to be ‘dry’. They were not supposed to sell liquor for off-site use. Some clubs, such as Invercargill, circumvented restrictions by a system of personal lockers in which alcohol was deposited. Selling alcohol at cheaper prices than the pubs remained important.
In the 1920s returned soldiers set up Returned Servicemen’s Association (RSA) clubs, which functioned much like workingmen’s clubs. In the King Country, which was officially ‘dry’, clubs filled the gap. By 1950 there were 35 clubs there.
Hotel failings were a continual spur – when West Coast pubs raised the price of beer in 1947, three workingmen’s clubs sprang up. The Riccarton club was started in 1954 out of ‘dissatisfaction with the service … at the local watering hole’.2 In 1957 there were 140 chartered clubs. There was a big rise in clubs in the 1960s, with a concentration in South Auckland, perhaps in response to the migration of Māori and Pacific people to the area. The breweries gave considerable financial assistance in the form of loans and guarantees. By 1980 there were 365 chartered clubs in the country. As concerns rose about drinking and driving, the clubs established courtesy vans and expanded their bottle stores.
When the Greymouth club was set up in 1947, it was officially called (as was the custom at that time) a ‘Workingmen’s club and Mutual School of Art’. President Rod Scorgie said, ‘We always reckoned the “Art” was in the drinking. I had a lovely lady call me one day wanting to put on a painting exhibition. I told her I was a bit out of my depth.’3
As drinking became more significant to the activities and finances of the clubs, sports and gaming expanded. In the 19th century members had played cards and darts. In the 20th century clubs offered billiards, cricket, golf, bowls (indoor and outdoor), rifle-shooting, squash and table tennis. There were competitions between clubs. From the late 1950s some clubs introduced a TAB (for gambling on horse races) into their clubrooms, and from the 1980s a gaming room. Revenue from ‘pokies’ (poker machines) compensated for shrinking booze revenues.
There were also live events, from housie and quizzes to line-dancing and musical gigs.
From the 1960s workingmen’s clubs were challenged to admit women. In general they liberalised sooner than gentlemen’s clubs. Women were active club fundraisers, so their needs had to be recognised. The first club to receive a charter with both genders as members was the Canterbury University Club in 1965. The first integrated working people’s club was the 1968 Kinleith Pulp and Paper Workers’ Socialist Association (later the Tokoroa Cosmopolitan Club). Among established workingmen’s clubs, the first to admit women was the Tinwald Workingmen’s Club in 1969. Four years later it was renamed the Tinwald Club. Many clubs followed in the 1980s, especially those founded in the 1960s. Resistance was rarely extreme.
The Whangamatā Workingmen’s Club defeated a motion for women’s membership in 1974 ,with some members saying it was ‘the last bastion of man’s independence’.4 However, when women were admitted three years later, a number of men apologised for their earlier stand.
Women took up membership with some enthusiasm. Many clubs changed their names to ‘Cosmopolitan’ rather than workingmen’s clubs, but the membership remained the respectable working class, and the clubs continued to be highly successful. In 2016, including gentlemen’s clubs, there were more than 300 chartered clubs (including gentlemen's clubs) in New Zealand. The Petone club alone had over 13,000 members and was a major landlord.