Walworth's Clubland

It is now a century since James Butterworth a young probationary Methodist Minister, arrived in Walworth, London and set up Clubland.  An area he described thus;  

‘Within a half-mile radius of Clubland, which is near the Elephant and Castle, Walworth SE , there are over 80,000 people twice the population of the whole island of Guernsey. The Englishmen’s Castle in many cases is an attic or a basement-dwelling below street level, where the kitchen must also serve as bedroom’

Butterworth was to start a Friday night bible class of six boys in a basement which within a few months became a thriving boys club. It was to grow to become a club for hundreds of both girls and boys, with sports teams, music clubs, art classes, crafts, theatre, outings and camp holidays. The six boys soon became 80 and he set up the monthly Clubland Review providing a wealth of information on the growth and nature of its activities. By 1925 the magazine from which the following account is mainly taken was able to proudly proclaim ‘Yes we have a Girls Club at last’ membership of which swiftly reached 148.

Total membership numbers are difficult to confirm but by 1939 there had been over a thousand, both boys and girls. JB as he was affectionately known became synonymous with Clubland for many years until it folded in 1975. Clubland’s phenomenal success in attracting youngsters with its vast range of social and cultural activities attracted both national and international attention. Not least because JB was a prolific fundraiser and charismatic character who enlisted leading sportsmen, film stars and royalty to assist his efforts.

My parents Sid and May met at Clubland and married in 1939. I was brought up with tales of JB and the numerous clubland activities that had been so instrumental in their character formation as youngsters and adults. As a historian I was determined to place this unique institution in its historical context, the inter-war years of growing consumerism alongside continuing poverty. As a son I’m fascinated by the impact on my parents lives and their community and perhaps myself.

Youth organisations like the Scouts were not new and many like, the Boys Brigade, Girl Guides and Church Lads, attached to churches. But what JB was to set up was certainly different. Partly, because there appears to be only one Clubland and to many ‘Walworth was Clubland’. To cover the range of activities provided is impossible here, but there are three main areas I feel demonstrate its ethos: sport, holidays and parliaments.

‘Muscular Christianity’ is a term often associated with religious links to sport’s development in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and JB was President of the London Weslyan Methodist Sport Association.  Close sporting links were quickly established with the Weslyan College at Richmond. Clubland boxing tournaments were praised as ‘not exactly scientific but it was vigorous and made and enjoyable evenings sport’

The girls had several netball teams and expressed a desire to learn cricket to ‘try and get a team to beat the boys’. Both boys and girls had their separate annual sports days and Gym nights for both were the best attended activity. It was not uncommon in the 1930’s for the boys to field seven football teams on Saturday. Less the relationship between club and church be forgotten the club commented on a match at Richmond between the Old Boys and Seniors which the Old boys won ‘isn’t it rather wonderful to think that every player was at Communion the night after?’

The inter-war years were a boom time for holidays and resorts with millions of working class people experiencing a holiday for the first time. Although the Holidays with Pay Act did not arrive until 1938, so for the majority of the working class in areas like Walworth, church trips were a major provider of holidays in the form of day outings and camps. JB set about providing camps in Guernsey, Sussex and his native Lancashire with customary energy and ingenuity.   The railway company was ‘encouraged’ to give a discount for the younger travellers and Methodists in the destinations were utilised to assist. ‘Methodism has much property in lovely country spots and seaside locations’ according to JB. Hence, ‘let one branch of privileged Methodism entertain another branch of unprivileged Methodism’ and they did. Camps were held every year and were central to JB’s philosophy of character building and getting a boy out of his restricted urban environment. Girls also had their own camps.  On the affordability of the annual pilgrimages which were expected to be paid for by the families Clubland proudly stated ‘No one has ever been declined camp because they cannot pay’.

What epitomised the spirit and ethos of Clubland as a Methodist institution was surely its Parliaments. A democratic structure of governance for the club, and its relationship to society and Christianity.

‘The citizen who can afford it has to contribute to the upkeep of the state. Is the club member trained to contribute as much as he can afford to the club?’

There were four parliaments, both boys and girls, junior and senior. The process was outlined in JB’s book Clubland ‘The officers hear how boys would like the club run, which may be vastly different from what they thought was best for the boys’.  A cabinet style structure with officer reports had to be made. Any member could question any activity.

‘The last half-hour is devoted to the world of affairs outside the club when private members bills deal with Housing-Overcrowding-Books read-Plays seen-Prohibition -Amateurs-Professionals-Socialism-Communism-Channel Tunnels-Capital Punishment-Bishop’s Salaries-Racing-Religion-Sweepstakes-Sunday Cinemas’

In 1935 after thirteen years of what has been described as its ‘Golden Years’ before the war, Clubland stated ‘Club is training for life not negative pastimes or cheap pleasures. From the first, Clublanders are inspired to be partners not passengers’.  By the late 1960s it appears Clubland struggled to compete with the new youth-centred popular culture, those ‘cheap pleasures’ perhaps. I know my parents and many others benefitted from the activities, comradeship and ethos of Clubland and a century later, I am grateful for that.











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