Rev. Henry Solly (1813-1903) and the Working Men’s Club Movement

From: Smith, M. K. (2013) Walking informal education. Exploring developments in central London. London:

St James and Soho Working Men’s Club, 14 Greek Street, originally at 39 Gerrard Street W1. Working men’s clubs began as an example of the promotion of ‘rational recreation’. Examples appeared in the 1840s in Manchester and Birmingham and the Brighton Working Men’s Institute established in 1849, but they were fostered on a national scale by the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (founded 1862). Henry Solly was the prime mover in the early days – arguing that the achievement of a harmonious society depended upon educating the working classes to recognise that the existing system offered the best chance.

Solly argues that the Colonnade Working Men’s Club, Clare Market, WC2. was the first institute to use ‘club’ in its title (Solly 1867). It opened in 1852 to provide wholesome and constructive amusement, newspapers, books and later refreshment (strictly temperance). The club format was seen by its supporters as the right milieu for more subtle forms of education. It offered recreation (Solly thought this to be a basic need of social welfare) but it also provided ‘an informal teaching situation into which more serious matters could be gradually introduced’ (Baily 1987: 120). Everyday talk could lead onto regular classes (here political economy was stressed) – but that should not be the only fare.

Many of the early attempts such as the Colonnade were not very successful. (In 1859 its premises were opened as the Colonnade Boys’ Home and Club. It included lodgings for 18 boys and eighteen young women; bible classes and night schools for both sexes, educational classes; a soup kitchen; and a laundry (Eagar 1953: 155). The site is now occupied by the London School of Economics. Initially, these institutes and clubs were temperance – which was a source of some contention. They were a middle class initiative aimed at working class men – however, with the promotional power of Solly and the Union, a significant number of clubs were established (55 alone in its the CIU’s second year). The London clubs, in particular, began to attack patronage, there was a strong campaign for the sale of beer. Through these efforts in the 1870s middle class influence waned (see Tremlett 1987).

There were a number of working men’s clubs in this district (Soho and St. Giles). This particular club was said to have 550 members in 1883. For various reasons the clubs were a base for radical political activity. They were mutual aid institutions that gave great opportunity for debate. Especially important here were the Sunday evening meetings where various political and practical questions were debated (Shipley 1987). But they also provide a site for recruitment and organization such as was the case with the Manhood Suffrage League in the early 1880s.”


“…In 1840 Solly entered the Unitarian ministry – he later resigned following a dispute with the church authorities. He became very involved with the Chartist movement as well as with a number of other working class groups. Henry supported many radical causes such as free education, the creation of museums, anti-slavery and universal suffrage…Solly was also an active member of the temperance movement and banned the consumption of alcohol in the working men’s clubs although this embargo was later abolished with the result that the clubs became more popular.

…The first Union offices were located at 150 The Strand, London…Initially the majority of the clubs struggled to survive and some closed. One reason for this was the exclusion of alcohol and tobacco and eventually the rules were amended, against Solly’s wishes, and the clubs began to enrol more workers…

…Solly went on to found the Trades Guild of Learning in 1873…Eventually there was a disagreement between Solly and the management of the Guild arising from his strong paternalistic beliefs and those held by the trade unions and he resigned as its chairman. Solly was by most counts restless, autocratic, irascible, arrogant, and though a hard working idealist he was dismissive of others and found it difficult to work in harmony with colleagues. However he was more successful in retaining an executive position with the Artizans’ Institute which he helped to create after he severed his involvement with the Trade Guild of Learning (TGoL). The Artizans’ Institute was founded in 1874 and was initially located in St Martin’s Lane…finally in 1883 the classes of the Artizans’ Institute were transferred to the Finsbury Technical College. The Artizans’ Institute played an important part in the development of technical education and in spite of all the difficulties associated with Solly’s irascible and mercurial temperament he contributed much to its development.

Solly died in 1903 and the then secretary of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union B. T. Hall wrote “If the work that the clubs do, if their influence on personal character and their contribution to the sum total of human happiness be correctly appreciated …. then shall the investigator reckon Henry Solly amongst the constructive statesmen of our time”…Henry Solly possessed great energy and ability and recognised the importance of education but tended to make his beliefs and ideas foremost and assumed ‘ownership’ of the organisations he helped to establish. Nevertheless he is a key figure in the development of technical and workers’ education along with others that include F.D. Maurice (Working Men’s Colleges, London), R. S. Bayley (Peoples College, Sheffield) and Quintin Hogg (The London Polytechnics).”

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