Special guest blog by professional researcher and local historian Simon Fowler
Kew’s Victoria Working Men’s Club was founded in 1885 as a space for local working men to socialise away from the temptations of the public house. Its motto was ‘Non-political, Non-sectarian and Non-alcoholic’. (1) Membership proved attractive to the small traders and craftsmen who serviced the middle-class population of the area and who lived in the new terraces that were built in the 1880s and 1890s near the Club.
The leading light was Sir James Szlumper (1834-1926) (pictured), who had made his fortune building railways in Wales. Sir James was a prominent local Conservative and the first mayor of the Borough of Richmond. (2)
Robert Copland (1870-1926) was the Club’s secretary for twenty years until his suicide in 1926. By trade he was a builder and decorator and had undertaken commissions at Buckingham Palace and Marlborough House. (3)
By 1910 the Club was well established. the Annual General meeting heard that there were 200 paid-up members. Club finances were in a healthy state which meant that a loan on the billiard table had been paid off and they were able to offer £2 in tournament prizes. (4) For a decade or so during and after the First World War, the Club hosted an unusually large number of members of royalty, senior politicians and military men. Ostensibly, guests were invited either to address the annual dinner or to receive an illuminated address commemorating their contribution to national life or the war effort.
However, who they were and what they spoke about give a clue about the true purpose of their visit. they were mainly politicians – Conservative for the most part – who preached harmony between capital and labour, what might be called today ‘One Nation Conservatism’.
The 1910s was a decade of great industrial unrest which many feared might lead to a socialist revolution. (5) Just as many called for revolution, others called for harmony between the classes. Admiral Lord Jellicoe reminded members in February 1919, when to many a revolution in Britain seemed just around the corner, that ‘war is horrible but a revolution is hellish’. (6)
Speaking to the Club was perhaps a way of expressing solidarity with the respectable and loyal elements of the working classes. indeed, when Jellicoe proposed himself for election as an ordinary member, arguing that he had been a ‘working man since 1880’, his self-election was accepted with enthusiasm. (7) Andrew Bonar Law, the Conservative leader, told members as he unveiled a war memorial at the Club:
“I believe that these better conditions could be arrived at by reasonable feeling between class and class, by a recognition that the Millennium is not to be got by any pooling of capital reserves, but by increasing to the utmost the output of the country and seeing that the rewards of the output are fairly and reasonably distributed amongst all those who have taken their share in producing them”. (8)
As well as politicians the Club attracted royalty. King George V and Queen Mary visited the Club on 23 March 1918 for afternoon tea. They met local war workers, servicemen as well as club members. (9)
The Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) also called at the Club several times. The first was on 12 April 1919, when The Times reported:
“Several members of the Club were in military uniform and many others wore upon their civilian attire medals, ribands and badges indicating that they borne their part in the war. Women formed a considerable proportion of the company of 400 or 500 assembled in the clubhouse… The Prince spent nearly an hour and a quarter in conversation with members of the company as he passed around the hall…” (10)
Visits by royalty and prominent politicians, however, tailed off during the early 1920s as a new generation of politicians came to the fore and newer forums for discussing one nation conservatism emerged.
Through these meetings the Club offered an image of society at peace with itself, where all the social classes worked harmoniously together for the common good. It was an excellent venue from which to spread the message, one that was undoubtedly supported by members, although perhaps not by the wider working-class across Britain who were suffering from unemployment and squeezed living standards. Although the Club was resolutely non-alcoholic, and probably non-sectarian, it was certainly not non-political.
Simon Fowler is editor of Richmond History, published by Richmond Local History Society. This article is based on a piece in the current issue (no. 40, 2019). He is an associate teaching fellow at Dundee University and a professional researcher at many of London’s archives.
1. David Blomfeld suggests 1892, see David Blomfeld, Kew Past (Phillimore, 1994), pp.116-117. However, the 25th anniversary of the Club was celebrated at a dinner in March 1910. Surrey Comet, 19 March 1910, p.10.
2. See his obituary in The Times, 26 October 1926.
3. For more about Copland, see the interview with him in Richmond Home Journal. West London Observer, 8 October 1926, p.12. He was found on the towpath having slit his throat. Witnesses told the coroner that Copland had recently been depressed. It was stressed that the Club accounts were in good order.
4. Surrey Comet, 29 January 1910, p.10.
5. Simon Fowler and Dan Weinbren, When the War was Over (Pen & Sword, 2018).
6. Western Daily Press, 13 February 1919, p.6.
7. The Sketch, 27 February 1918, p.3. The Annual Reports stress that ‘Every man who makes his living is our interpretation of the term “working men”‘.
8. The Observer, 14 April, 1920, p.14.
9. The Times, 23 March 1918, p.9; Thames Valley Times, 27 March 1918; The Observer, 24 March 1918.
10. The Times, 14 April 1919, p.9.
(Images: Wikimedia Commons; Richmond Archives and Local Studies; Daily Sketch in British Library Newsroom)