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the way to start and manage a girls’ club

Maude Stanley’s (1890) handbook Clubs for Working Girls was the first substantial exploration of what was involved in girls’ club work. Here we reproduce Chapter II. In it Stanley sets out her view of some of the key characteristics of such work.

Maude Stanley began working as a district visitor in Soho and St Giles in the early 1870s. Her first book Work Around the Seven Dials (1878) is a series of reflections on that work. She had set up a number of groups and clubs in the area, but then went on to establish the Soho Club (1880) and to work for inter-club cooperation. Clubs for Working Girls is based on her experience of the Soho Club and of the large number of other groups that she visited or with which she was involved.

Links: Maude Stanley · Lily Montagu · club work

 

[page 16] Girls’ clubs have been started in different ways, sometimes locally, so as to benefit the girls living in a certain neighbourhood, sometimes for girls engaged in some special branch of industry, such as flower-girls, laundresses, dressmakers, mill-girls, and those engaged in factories. Clubs are also often formed specially for members of some church, into which club other girls may be allowed to enter, or else the club is devoted to the use of the members of the church alone. We would not advocate any one scheme as pre-eminently the best; for the success of all such undertakings will depend on the zeal, [page 17] the tact, the energy, the capacity of the promoters; and it would be unwise to dictate any one way to them: they must use their own judgement in starting the club, specially having in view the circumstances of the neighbourhood, the amount of people interested in the work who will come forward with personal help and money, and above all they should be satisfied to start in a very small way, to allow the club to grow and increase, however slowly, being assured that the experience gained is worth some delay. In some instances clubs have been started and have proved most lamentable failures; owing to an undue hurry and inability to work slowly. The managers have been impatient to succeed, not considering that characters require much time to develop under better and new influences, and that by hurrying such a work as this, and being too anxious about results, they will only touch the superficial parts of human nature. They should remember that rude, vulgar, untidy disreputable habits, [page 18] uncorrected during childhood and youth, will need very patient and continual correction before we can see the manners of the working girl become refined, polite, unselfish, and thoughtful for others.

In starting a club, and indeed in carrying it out, discipline and order are the first requisites. A club was established in one part of London for the poorest of work-girls; they were allowed to talk to one another as they would have spoken in the streets, probably in their own homes; their conduct became lawless, there was no respect shown to the ladies, and the club had to be closed for some months, to be reopened under stricter discipline. Another club we know of was started for boys, with the most Praiseworthy desire to benefit the lads of a dangerous neighbourhood. A few respectable boys were got together, who were anxious to find some evening place of recreation; but the promoters were not satisfied with the progress of the tortoise: they wished for rapid results [page 19] and large numbers; they admitted all who chose to apply; there was no order, no means of instruction; the respectable boys left, the roughs who remained said they must be allowed to smoke in their club; all control over them was gone, the language was so foul that the police had to interfere, and fortunately the club was soon closed, but not before more harm had certainly been done to the neighbourhood than good by collecting together the ill-disposed lads.

The same amount of license will, of course, not prevail amongst girls, but the language may be as foul; in one club we heard the police say that in the streets they had not heard worse language than was used in that girls’ club. We have heard that, the moment the girls were dismissed at closing time from another club, fights took place between them till they rolled in the streets together, abusive words being used to one another and against the ladies who had spent their evenings trying to amuse them. We have seen, in a club, [page 20] ladies coming in, who were frequent visitors, received by such exclamations as these: “Well, Lady James, what have you brought for us this evening? something worth having, we hope,” a free and easy style which does not mean confidence or affection but merely ill-bred familiarity.

Ladies who engage in this work without previous experience are to apt to be carried away by their sympathy with the hard life of these work-girls, to remember their long hours of wearying work, to look at their pale, care­worn faces, and to think that they will add to their hardships if they in any way reprove them or do not allow them their fling once they are off work and are come to the club. But this is a great mistake; there is nothing a girl will value more that the thoughts that she is improving herself, that she is learning manners. Why, have we not been told by the uneducated wife of an artisan the loss she felt when sitting with her husband’s friends, that, from want of education, she knew no [page 21] “dictionary words,” showing by this that the uneducated, the rough working woman can feel the loss of schooling, and is conscious of the value of culture of which she has been deprived.

Men can also become sensible of this deficiency, as a labourer, after a winter’s training for singing in a church choir, when praised for his progress, answered, “Why, marm, we have not only learned singing, but we have learned manners too.” So first and foremost in club management we must insist on order, discipline, and good manners as well as good conduct, and it is perhaps the most difficult quality to find in any of the well-intentioned, kind ladies who will undertake this work. They must have a dignity in themselves which will command respect; they must be even-tempered, showing no favouritism amongst the girls; there must be no hurry, and tact is essentially needed. We have seen the gentlest and most fragile of ladies command a respect of which the strongest [page 22] might fail to obtain. We have known a class to be left in most perfect order by one teacher who had to attend to another part of the club, and, for what reason we know not, disorder had sprung up, slates had been thrown about, and the gas turned out. Such collisions should certainly be avoided, so let the managers be very careful who they get as coadjutors in this sometimes difficult work. Any helper in a girls’ club should, above all, have friendliness in her manners and in her heart; to be lively is a great advantage; quietness and decorum are attractive in a girls’ club as else­where, whereas pride or conceit is soon detected by them. We have heard of girls in a club who openly discussed the ladies who came to them, saying of one, “We don’t like Miss Ann, she is so stuck up! she gives herself such airs!” We need not add that such remarks should never be allowed - not silenced, but, quietly and apart, the girls should be reasoned with.

[page 23] There is often in the minds of people an unfortunate obliquity of vision which places the individual before the institution. The efficiency of a school will sometimes be sacrificed for fear of dismissing an incompetent teacher, and in other undertakings we have seen the same fatal mistake. The man of business will not hesitate to dismiss the foreman or manager who is not up to his work, and we should manage philanthropic institutions with the same clear-sighted judgment. Ladies who undertake volunteer work are often new to it, and we must not expect proficiency at once, but must be satisfied to show what is needed. Should we, however, find that they are not fitted for the work, either by disposition, manner, or capacity, we must not hesitate to recommend that they should find some other field for their labour. I have heard of a club where a lady who contributed much of the funds for its maintenance was of such a sensitive organisation that both the playing [page 24] of the piano and the noise of the games were too much for her; and on her coming into the club everything had to be still. Can we wonder that the girls were often heard to say, “I won’t come to the club tonight if that old cat is there.”

In more than one instance ladies have said to me, “Our club will not succeed and our old members are leaving because Mrs. Dash is so unpopular with them.” “Well,” I say, “why do you not get rid of Mrs. Dash?” But unfortunately the lady who is so unpopular may be the important lady of the committee; she may have the purse strings; she may even be the originator of the whole scheme; but her manner is unsympathetic, and commands neither respect nor affection.

Some ladies, with every desire to be of use, with perfect knowledge of the subject they wish to teach, may be unable to interest their pupils, or their strictness or their impatience may make them worse than useless, for they will create a distaste for learning in the minds of their pupils, or their strictness or impatience may make them worse then useless, [page 25] for they will create a distaste for learning in the minds of their pupils.

When we hear from the superintendent that she cannot get the girls to go to a class, or when we hear that on certain evenings but few girls come to the club, we may-be sure there is some reason, and should it be that this or that lady is not suited to the girls, let us not hesitate to make a change. We have been fortunate in the Soho in having most kind, bright and sympathetic ladies who have helped in our club, and whose absence when circumstances called them away has been a cause of sorrow and continual regret to our girls.

In starting a club where none has before existed it is sometimes well after taking a room to send invitations for a tea. Let these be given through district visitors, employers, Sunday School teachers of all denominations. After tea let some lady address the girls, tell them what is success [page 26] has attended clubs already established, say what classes will be held, what payment will be required, what amusements will be provided; then, after this address, let the ladies talk individually to the girls, get to know them, get their names and addresses and promises, if possible, of joining the club. It would be well at first starting to ask no admittance fee, but after a month have one of twopence, sixpence or one shilling, and admit all who apply with the understanding that there is no membership till a vist has been paid by a lady to the candidate’s home, after which, if satisfactory, a card of membership will be given. It is well to allow girls, once they are members, to introduce other girls. They will be anxious to introduce none but girls who will be a credit to themselves and indeed it seems the only way of getting members except those personally known to ladies, for repeatedly has the experiment been tried to give papers of clubs in the streets to work-girls. They have taken the papers, [page 27]expressed a wish to come, but have never made their appearance.

After a day or two it would be well to call on these girls who gave their names and addresses, and explain more about the club to the girls and to their parents. A monthly party is a good thing to propose, when every member is allowed to bring in a friend and where there can be dancing. By this means the club gets known in its most attractive aspect.

Another way of making a club known to the girls of the neighbourhood is to call at the factories where they are employed, and by getting the foreman or forewoman interested in the scheme, you may probably be allowed to go there at the dinner hour. Those girls who are likely to wish to avail themselves of your club will be brought to you, and you can explain to them all the advantages and pleasures you propose to give them in the club; you can distribute hand-bills with full details of all that is done [page 28] there, which they can give amongst their companions.

A great deal may be done in getting a club known in a district by window bills, and money spent on printing in this respect is well spent. In London and in other large towns the working people have little communication one with another; their acquaintances are generally made amongst their companions in work, and though they live within a stone’s throw of a girls’ club, they may never have heard of it. The showy window bill may attract their attention, and they may then look in and find a home and friends they had never thought of.

In a country town in the west of England a club was started where girls freely came in, and where there was generally music. One evening a girl appeared in a thick white frock in which she had been singing in public-houses; strange to say, this was the only garment she had on. Her voice was beautiful, and she had a natural talent for [page 29] singing, and was attracted into these rooms by the sound of music; the pleasant friendly kindness of the ladies and the homelike appearance of the rooms caused her to come again and again, till the ladies arranged for her by her own wish to go into a home and to be trained for service.

Members who come in like this will be exceptional cases; and we must look out for all sorts of ways for getting the club known.

It is of no use asking girls to whom one is unknown; they will not come; they are distrustful of such invitations, and shyness also will prevent their entering a strange place.

The best way of starting a girls’ club, but that is not always possible, is to make it the outcome of a night school, or through the work of a district visitor. There you have a natural connection between members and ladies, and you will have the friendliness on one side and the confidence on the other side engendered by the intercourse already carried on between them.

[page 30] Then, in arranging classes, only settle on such for which you can be certain to have teachers; they may be paid or unpaid teachers - it matters not if they are of the right sort. They must know how to teach, they must have the gift for teaching, for remember that these scholars are all voluntary; there can be no compulsion; and also that they are handicapped by long hours of hard work by which their bodies are tired out, and which may a little dull their brains. But if your teachers love teaching, they will get brighter as the lesson goes on, and their pupils will forget fatigue and lassitude, and will be eager and attentive to get all they can from their instructors.

It is most important to secure a good superintendent in a girls’ club; much of the success of the undertaking will depend on the person you place there. It is a great advantage to the girls to have visits from ladies, and they should take each their special evenings for visiting the club, but let there be [page 31] one manager, who is always there, and who will know all the members and be known by them. We have had experiences of a lady as a superintendent, and also one of the same class as the girls, and we do not recommend either one or the other as absolutely the best; the essential is to find a woman with great friendliness, love for the girls, warm sympathy, order, and liveliness, who will never be tired, or rather who will never let her feelings, mental or physical, interfere with the work of the Club. At Nottingham and in some other places a different system is carried on; there is no regular superintendent, but the ladies take their turns at the club. The numbers at such clubs are not so numerous as some London clubs, and where there are over one hundred or more members with an average of over fifty attendance, a permanent superintendent seems necessary. The salary required for a superintendent will be some consideration when funds are low, but as it will only occupy the evenings of a working [page 32] woman, a very large pay will not be required. Should the superintendent be a lady, her salary need not be much more, as it would not be wise to engage one who would have to depend on this salary for her maintenance.

It is better never to close the club; this is sometimes done when ladies are out of town, but the sense of continuity is very important to ensure a regular attendance at a club. In some instances we have heard of free teas on Sundays being given to the girls who have come in the week; this implies that the girls were doing a good action by coming to the club, whereas they should get to feel that they are enjoying a privilege by possessing and making use of the club. It will generally be found necessary to form a committee of ladies, to which gentlemen may be added; but in starting a club it will be well if the guidance and management of it be left in the hands of one or, at the most, two ladies, who habitually visit the club in the evening, and who will best know the [page 33] requirements and characteristics of the girls. It is very essential also that there should be perfect accord between the ladies and superintendent, as the girls are on the alert to gauge the amount of confidence placed in their superintendent. We have known the usefulness of a club much marred by the annoyance felt by the ladies at the greater attachment and confidence shown to the superintendent than to themselves. It is but natural that they should be more at their ease with the one that is always with them. Undue familiarity should be discouraged, as it will often lower the respect the girls feel for those placed over them. It would be well, when the club is first started, for the committee to meet every week, but as everything settles down once a month will be sufficient, when the lady who has been in charge can give her report. It is a good plan, when the club has got quite into working order, for each lady of the committee to take a month at a time for looking through [page 34] the superintendent’s book, her attendance marks, the register of fees, and her log-book, and to visit the club one evening a week during her month of duty.

The committee of ladies should be mostly composed of those who know best how the work is be carried on, what classes the girls require, and what amusements should be given to them. It may be well to have some members on the council who , though unable to work in the club or visit in the evening, will be useful in other ways – getting friends to contribute funds or to provide amusements; but in general I should recommend that only those who would work for the club in one or another should be asked to become members of the council; the mere attendance at a committee does not constitute work.

In many ways it is advantageous to keep a register of attendances; the girls like it themselves; they are glad to think that the ladies look through these registers and observe [page 35] those who are oftenest in the club. In another way it is useful; if a girl has been long absent from the club or comes in less often than before inquiries are made. It has happened that the mothers have fancied their girls were attending the club every evening when they were really elsewhere, and in this way a girl has been more than once checked in giddy ways.

The attendance register should be ruled for every day, and marked daily; a month’s attendance may be entered in two folio pages, so that at a glance the girls’ attendance can be seen. In some clubs each girls’ name is entered on a new page every day; such a register would not enable one to see at a glance how often each member has been in the club.

For the payments of girls, whether it be twopence or a penny a week, the following register can be adopted.

We require in our club that the quarterly fee should be paid by all members over seventeen years of age who have been over one quarter in the club, which [page 37] will give them time to see if they care to belong to it permanently. 

In the log-book should always be kept the record of the ladies who visit the club, any special event, any new members joining, or any other fact of interest it is well to note. In some clubs there is a limit of age for admittance. There are some difficulties in admitting girls under fifteen when they seem to be but children, and when the number of members is very small it is best to keep the girls more of an age; but my feeling is very strong that girls who have left school at thirteen or fourteen, and have gone to work, should be encouraged to come to a club specially with the object of attending classes; they are generally anxious to improve them­selves, and the argument of idle hours spent in the streets after their day’s work and the danger of such practices applies as much to them as to older girls. In our club in Soho the average age is seventeen, but we are glad to admit the girls of fourteen who have been [page 38] at the four or five schools of our immediate neighbourhood, and who therefore live close by and who are anxious to come. The older ones are apt to talk of the smallness of the new members, but they are reminded that they joined when children, and of the advantage the club has been to them. Where the arrangements of the house make such a thing possible, it would be well to have a separate room for the elder members and those who wish for quiet and reading and who do not need supervision.

It seems very necessary to provide at a club the means of cheap refreshment, and it is well to let the girls undertake this work themselves. We must at first choose those girls who seem most capable and whom we consider fit to undertake this duty. The charge should be small - a penny and halfpenny a cup of tea or coffee, buns, pastry, etc., all according to the usual prices at coffee-taverns. If properly managed there should be no expense attaching to the refreshments, and, indeed, [page 39] there will be a little profit when many are present; and it is an advantage to the girls to take some little trouble for what they can see is so entirely to their own advantage.

Every club should have its library. Books are now so cheap and friends are so kind in giving them that there should be no difficulty in establishing one. Novels and stories are most in request, and as it is very usual for girls to buy the penny serials, which must do them much moral harm, we are glad to put other stories of less sensational character in their way. These novelettes are known to be of such a bad nature that girls will keep them concealed from their mothers, most of whom do not allow them to be brought into their house. They are full of sensation and crime, pretending to depict the lives of Lord Edwards and Lady Janes, who are by the authors supposed to spend their lives in a continual state of melodramatic action. There is nothing in these tales to improve or to elevate; they are  [page 40] taken in week by week, so that they keep up in the readers’ mind a perpetual excitement and a longing that in their poor little lives some great sensation should have a place. A mistress who had taken from us a girl as general servant complained of the number of novelettes she took in every week; this I found was true, and with wages of £10 a year the girl spent fourpence a week on literature. On speaking to the little servant of this extravagance I thought there seemed some excuse when I was told that she had to spend every evening alone in a kitchen that swarmed with black beetles and that no other books had been offered to her by the mistress. Books are lent out at many of the low shops at a halfpenny a volume, and so girls as well as boys can get at translations of the worst French novels without difficulty, and once such a taste is got we know what it must lead to.

Our library is managed by two girls, who each take one evening a week to give out books; they levy fines for the books [page 41] that are not punctually re­turned, and they keep them covered with brown paper and labelled. We had, as in all libraries, much trouble about getting books returned; but the following rules have been of some use in preserving the library —

1. Any one borrowing a book must return it to one of the librarians herself. The books must not be left with anyone else.

2. If a book is not finished at the end of two weeks, leave must be asked for a further loan.

3. A fine of 1/2d. if kept over two weeks; over three weeks, 1d., and 1/2d. for each succeeding week.

4. If not returned, the borrower is responsible for the value of the book which she must pay to the librarian.

5. No book may be lent from one member to another.

Some girls will make up their minds to go through all the works of one author — Dickens, Miss Sewell, Walter Scott. Books about girls and advice to them are cared for, and a small-sized book is not liked as much as a larger one. It is very useful to have a savings bank, as the facility by which the money, either pence or shillings, [page 42] can be put by greatly encourages that excellent habit of saving. We need have no fear, as some seem to have, of being over-thrifty as a nation; we are astonished, on the contrary, to find how little forethought there is, and now as holiday time comes round no provision has been made, though wages have been good and regular. We hear of feather clubs! but not often of boot clubs. When a girl has learned the value of saving at a club bank she will get her post office savings bank book and have something put by for her marriage or for the rainy day.

A free registry is also of use, for when a club has been long established ladies will often apply there for servants, and girls will frequently wish to give up business and take to service.

In some clubs baths have been introduced; they will be rather expensive but of great value to the girls, who will be quite willing to pay for their use.

We know of baths at girls’ clubs in Liverpool [page 43] and Manchester, and we wish that there were space in London clubs to admit of such a convenience.

With regard to the payment of fees we found much trouble at first; when we allowed the girls to pay weekly there was often a jar in the friendly relations in reminding the girls that unpaid fees meant non-membership, so we ruled that nothing less than three weeks’ fee of sixpence should be paid in advance. Now we have gone a step further in asking quarterly fees from the senior members. In case of poverty the discretion of the managers may always be used to help those who really need assistance.

We have spoken of a girls’ committee. This is a very important element in a girls’ club - as necessary as in men’s club of all sorts; but we cannot expect to start a club with members fit to take a responsible part in the management. At the opening of a club, in the address that is given, we should hold out as an object before us the work of a girls’ [page 44] committee and explain how it can be accomplished. The whole question will be new to the girls, so they must feel their way slowly, see what is wanted, what duties could properly be discharged by the committee, and at the end of a year the members will have got to see in which girl they can best place confidence; a day should be named, the voting papers prepared, and six to twelve members can them be chosen by all the club. It is well to have two members on duty every evening, in case of the unavoidable absence of one of them. The committee members should undertake every evening the refreshment bar, buying the food and keeping the accounts; they should undertake the library, appoint two days in the week for lending and receiving back the books; they should between them see that the class­rooms are ready each evening; some of the committee members should give out the games, see that the new members are introduced to other girls, and that no one sits neglected by [page 45] herself. Then, on the evenings of the soirees - we wish we could find an English word equally descriptive of the evening entertainment - the committee should again act as hostesses, send out invitations, receive the guests, and keep up the life and amusement of the evening.

But a girls’ committee will require looking after for some time; they have not learned business habits and regularity, they have not learned the importance of an engagement nor the necessity for punctuality except at the shop or the factory, and so though we have started them at the right road, taught them how to hold committees, still ladies who are most conversant with such duties must inquire occasionally, and look how their books are being kept.

The committee should have a book in which the minutes are entered every week, and a monthly report should be prepared by the chairwoman, and after being presented to the committee and approved by them [page 46] should he sent to the secretary of the ladies’ committee or council, as they may be called. In the report the chairwoman may, by the request of the other girls, suggest any alteration in the rules or propose amusements or changes in the work of the club. We have had a variety of proposals from our girls; they have asked for an extra evening for dancing when the ladies were all away and there were no classes, and to this we agreed. At other times they have proposed to have parties or dramatic entertainments, and it was by their wish that a bazaar was got up at our club, and carried out by them­selves. They formed themselves into a bazaar committee of twenty girls who resolved to work, and this they did most energetically. Our excellent printer undertook to attend the committees, showing them how the goods received were to be entered as stock, and how all the different books were to be kept.

In other clubs we hear of sales of work being got up by the members for the benefit [page 47] of the club, and in another one we heard that whenever their funds were low they would get up a concert to which their friends would come, so raising the small sum required. We were once asked by the committee to allow playing cards; but this was not thought advisable, and on the reasons being given for the refusal the girls cheerfully acquiesced in the decision of the council.

We feel that a girls’ committee could really manage the club entirely alone, but as those who form the committee are all working girls, finishing their work at seven or eight, or later, in the evening, it would be too much to expect of them to give up so much of leisure as would be needed for the whole management of the books, registry of attendances, and payment of club fees. During our superintendent’s three weeks’ holiday last year the club was managed by the girls’ committee, and everything was most satisfactory.

We have reached this point after nearly [page 48] ten years of work in our club. Slowly and gradually the girls have learned that order conduces more to the general wellbeing and comfort than disorder, and that culture and re­finement are to a certain extent within their reach. They have realised that their club has been of inestimable value to themselves, that it has given them interests which have brightened their days, that through the club they have found friends who have helped them on in this life and shown them a higher life worth striving for. We have not wished to take our girls out of their class, but we have wished to see them ennoble the class to which they belong.

Maude Stanley (1890) Clubs for Working Girls, London: Macmillan and Co.
This piece has been reproduced here on the understanding that it is not subject to any copyright restrictions, and that it is, and will remain, in the public domain.
First published in the archives: November 2001