youths’ clubs and institutes

Arthur Sweatman’s (1863) groundbreaking paper was the first to describe and advocate club provision for youths. It provides a particularly helpful insight to some of the activities of early clubs and institutes.

First read to the Social Science Association in Edinburgh in October 1863, this paper subsequently became widely known through inclusion in Henry Solly’s (1867) book on Working Men’s Clubs and Institutes.  According to Booton (1985: 22) it is the earliest advocacy of specific youth provision. ’Sweatman’s statement expresses a central idea, that the social condition of young people (mainly in this case, lads) warranted specific intervention with the aim of a general cultural improvement; that this need was urgent, and sufficiently extensive to require nothing less than a completely new type of social institution’ (op. cit.).

This is the text included in Working Men’s Clubs and Institutes and includes an addendum written by Henry Solly.

Links: Arthur Sweatman; Henry Solly and the Club and Institute Union; club work



The whole question of Evening-Classes and Night-Schools has been lately revived, and public attention has been drawn somewhat prominently to the subject of supplemental education for the working classes. The occasion of this attention to a rather shelved question is no doubt the manifest gap which has appeared in the educational life of the working man.

It is not to be concealed that the training of the school is brought to a very abrupt and premature termination by the necessities which call away our working boys to the earning of their livelihood; and however rigorously the course of teaching may be restricted to those rudiments which will furnish a lad with useful and handy knowledge for the common exigencies of his station, the time is often scant for the laying of even these foundations, and, at the best, their permanence is greatly endangered by the early age at which they must be put to the proof.

Unless a lad so taught find some means of following up his school education co-ordinately with his daily work, there is every prospect of his losing the little learning he has accumulated, and none of his adding to the store. On the other hand, the Mechanics’ Institute or Working Men’s Club comes to his assistance only after a long interval, in which his knowledge has rusted, and his facility for study become dull and blunted.

This is the merely educational view of the matter, which has revealed the want of some intermediate agency in the shape of an evening school to supplement the work of the day-school as soon as the office of the latter ceases and thereby to save it from most probable effacement.

But the general experience of tried schemes for evening instruction seems to have been far from encouraging. The very name of “Night-school” has become suggestive of much unrequited drudgery on the part of the teacher, much wearisomeness and untowardness on the part of the taught, and a general failure of any permanent results in the improvement of the class aimed at.

This acknowledged unsuccess of night-schools, with a few bright exceptions here and there, is perhaps due to an assumption, which is not warranted by experience, that working lads would for the most part desire so to continue the studies of the day-school, and that such supplemental instruction was the great desideratum for meeting the evil.

But it does not prove to be the case that mere teaching, even in subjects of practical usefulness, is either the great want of this class of boys, or to any large extent welcomed by them. To be either useful or welcome, it must be associated with some work of a more social and recreative character; not only because lads so newly emancipated from the restraints and work of the school-room very naturally shy at anything which seems threaten a return to the old bonds, but because their day’s work fairly entitles them to reasonable recreation at its close, and still more because there are other and more important offices to be done for them than the mere supply of book-learning.

This opens up the social aspect of the question, which seems to be the more important of the two.

The great peril of the system which releases boys at so early an age from the discipline of school, and turns them out loose upon the world imperfectly taught and trained, is, that they are likely to degenerate into a very low condition, mental and moral, and gradually to slip away from all improving and elevating influences. The kind of influence which a Working Men’s Club is designed to exercise is just that which it is desirable should be brought to bear upon the boy who has exchanged the slate and copy-book for the desk, the counter, or the tool-bench; and it is practically found that many boys would find their way into these societies, were not their admission detrimental to the attendance of adult men. For several reasons men do not choose to attend a reading-room or class frequented by boys; and a junior or intermediate institution is thus necessitated, which shall receive youths, until they are of age to avail themselves of the Men’s Club.

This is, in the simplest light, the office which those institutions fulfil which have acquired the distinctive title of Youths’ Clubs or Institutes. It is the purpose of the present paper to describe the objects and operations of a Youth’s Institute, especially illustrating them by a sketch of that established in Islington.

It will be quite understood that any attempt to prescribe a scheme of universal applicability must be hopeless. Local circumstances must greatly guide any plans undertaken for the purpose in question; and besides this, the class of lads to be provided for must be clearly defined. For it is plain that even recreations which would be highly appreciated by an intelligent class of town-boys, might offer no inducement to farming-lads in a village, or to a lower grade of boys even in town, and the questions of payment and instruction are equally affected by the same consideration.

The class contemplated by a Youths’ Club and Institute is capable of easy definition. It consists of boys and young men between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, who have left an elementary school for some junior situation at a weekly salary or wages, varying from 5s to 18s. This description creates a distinct, well-defined class within sufficiently wide limits. It embraces the junior clerk in an office or warehouse, the office-boy and errand-boy, the apprentice to a skilled trade, and the son of the small shopkeeper. For the most part, such lads are capable of appreciating a superior kind of recreation to that offered them in the streets - a higher social intercourse, a better style of literature, and a healthier class of amusements, requiring some mental exercise.

They have also their special wants and dangers, which call for such an agency as the Youths’ Institute. Their peculiar wants are evening re­creation, companionship, an entertaining but healthy literature, useful instruction, and a strong guiding influence to lead them onward and up­ward socially and morally; their dangers are, the long evenings consequent upon early closing, the unrestraint they are allowed at home, the tempta­tions of the streets and of their time of life, and a little money at the bottom I of their pockets.

In the ease of most of these lads, their own homes afford no supply for these peculiar wants. There is often small accommodation, and less quiet, for writing or study; in the midst of domestic arrangements they may frequently find themselves in the way; the resources of the family in the way of amusements are slender, and out of doors they must turn in quest of congenial associates of their own age and tastes.

But all these wants the Youths’ Institute is specially designed to supply - recreation, companionship, reading, instruction, and all of a pure and healthy kind.

Its operations may be best explained by an account of an actually existing Institution; and while that at Islington is selected for the purpose, it ought to be stated that the first experiment of the kind was made, with great success, by the Rev. Henry White, of the Chapel Royal, Savoy - first at Dover, in 1857, and afterwards at Charing-cross, in 1860; and that a most flourishing Youths’ Club has been carried on for the last five years at Bayswater, by Mr. Charles Baker. Each of these Institutes has possessed its own peculiar features, though planned upon one model.

The Islington Youths’ Institute was opened in the first week of October, 1860, at St. George’s Hall, Richmond Road, which was engaged for the week evenings only of the seven winter months. This hall was used for reading, recreation, and a weekly lecture; the educational classes being held in a smaller adjacent room. The subscription of members was fixed at 3d. per week.

The success of this first experiment was immediate and marked, 236 boys and youths of various occupations availed themselves of the advantages offered during the season - more than 100 being always in steady membership - and the nightly attendances ranged from 50 to 75.

This success encouraged the Managers to employ the interval before the second winter season in extending and consolidating the scheme. A larger and handsome room was added to the original premises, and furnished for reading and recreation; the old hall being appropriated to the purposes of classes and lectures, and fitted with the necessary desks and forms. A small room was also fitted up for the library and for secretarial purposes; and a class-room added for the use of the Penny Bank, and occasional classes. The Bishop of London became the patron of the Institute, and on the occasion of his visit addressed the members.

Under these improved auspices, the Institute has continued its work to the present time with a steadily increasing success.

The work is chiefly carried on by two Hon. Secretaries, one or both of whom is always present in the reading-room. They are assisted by a staff of gentlemen, who gratuitously conduct the various classes, and in their more mechanical labours by a committee of members, nominated by themselves, who also serve as monitors, and watch over the good order and comfort of the Society.

The conditions of membership are made somewhat stringent by the requirement of a small entrance-fee, and the recommendation of two members; and the numbers are limited to 160. It is thus made to be re­garded as a privilege.

The reading-room is open each evening (Sundays excepted) from half-past six till half-past nine, a short prayer being used at the commencement, and an evening hymn sung at the close. Great pains have been taken to make the room attractive and cheerful, by having it well lighted and warmed, and hung with good pictures.

A large central table, capable of seating about twenty-five readers, is spread with more than three dozen different periodicals, including the daily, illustrated, and local newspapers, the various Boys’ Magazines, and the serials of a higher class. Twelve smaller tables, each accommodating three pairs of players, are provided with the games - chess, draughts, solitaire, tactics, and any similar drawing-room amusement that can be found. All the tables are covered with red baize, which adds greatly to the cheerfulness of the room.

This room is unreservedly devoted to recreation. The members are encouraged to the freest and happiest intercourse amongst themselves, and complete confidence towards the managers; it is sought to cultivate in them courtesy of manners, truthfulness, mutual forbearance, and good temper. No coercion is exercised but what may be needful for the general comfort and propriety. And it is pleasing to state that in this, the characteristic feature of the Institute, the success has been most complete. The reading-room is used with invariable decorum and earnestness; the periodicals and papers find an increasing number of readers; the interest in chess and draughts has become more intense each season, and the Institute can now furnish a large number of skilful players.

At half-past seven, the classes commence; two (sometimes three) being held each evening. They consist of book-keeping, arithmetic, reading, elocution, grammar, writing, dictation, drawing, French, and biblical study. Each member is required to attend at least three of these classes regularly, and for encouragement to diligence a large number of prizes are distributed at the close of the season.

On alternate Tuesday evenings Lectures of an entertaining or instructive kind are delivered, to which friends are admitted at a small charge.

The Library contains at present 800 volumes, chiefly the gifts of friends or grants of societies. It is open for the exchange of books twice-a-week, and is used very largely by the members, the issues averaging about 100 volumes weekly.

The Penny Bank receives deposits also twice-a-week, and is fairly availed of by the members.

Beyond these regular features of the Youths’ Club and Institute, there are various other occasional opportunities, useful or pleasant, which grow out of it, or group themselves around it - summer excursions, by rail or river, with friends and subscribers - gatherings of kindred societies for a distribution of prizes or an outdoor holiday - reciprocal visits from one Institute to another, for friendly rivalry in recitation or to contest a chess tournament - Christmas social meetings and Easter musical entertainments. Such incidents serve to keep up a freshness and spirit about the undertaking, to attach the members to the scheme, and to bind the several Institutes together in a friendly fellowship

The satisfactory and harmonious tone which pervades the members has been already alluded to. It is in this moral improvement which they have observed resulting from their work that the managers find their chief encouragement. But the success of the scheme is not less apparent upon paper. A few statistics will show how thoroughly St. George’s Hall is enjoyed, and its advantages welcomed in the neighbourhood.

The Hall was opened for the present season on Monday evening, 3rd October last. No effort by means of advertisement or otherwise was made to obtain members, but on the first night 95 applicants were enrolled, and by the Friday evening the full number of 160 was completed. From a super-­numeracy list of applicants the vacancies have been filled up week by week to the present time, until the register shows a total of 245 names entered. The largest number present on any one evening has been 139, and through a most severe winter the attendance has never fallen below 43. The attendances throughout the season show an average of 90 present each night, of 104 for the Monday evenings, and of 140 present during each week. No falling off is being experienced as the season draws to an end.

A few words on finance may be acceptable. The present subscription is 4d. per week; entrance-fee for old members, 6d., for new, is 6d. These payments will amount to about 85l. for the year, of which about 81l. is taken during the seven months when the Institute is open. In the summer, we charge one penny for such members as use the Library, and take about 4l. The Cricket Club is self-supporting. The only other source of regular income is the sale of lecture tickets, producing 3l. or 4l.

Of expenditure, the chief item is for rent, gas, cleaning, and firing – 65l. All other permanent expenses, printing class materials, periodicals, postages, &c., are under 20l. So that not the least gratifying feature of a Youth’s Club and Institute, well conducted, is that as regards all ordinary expenditure it may be thoroughly self-supporting. It is well, too, that the members should feel a consciousness of honest independence; it makes the Institute more really their own property.

The only objects for which it is needful occasionally to ask a little help from personal friends are books for the library, pictures, &c., for the walls, prizes, and an occasional entertainment.

It may be added that during the summer months a Cricket Club is formed among the members, which has proved a source of much healthful enjoyment, and a means of holding them together from one winter season to another.

Such are the means by which Youths’ Institutes seek to supply the gap which has been so long allowed to exist in the opportunities afforded to the people. A five years’ trial warrants the expectation that they are destined satisfactorily to answer the vexed question, “What is to be done with our older boys?” A five years’ observation also establishes the conviction that such boys are open to a good influence, and ready to submit themselves to it. There is, in the generality of them, enough of moral good, enough of knowledge and consciousness of right, instilled in their early training, to pre-dispose them to welcome and profit by any offer of good in the stead of evil. It is the absence of any provision for their harmless recreation, and the refusal to recognize their natural claim to it, that has driven so many of them into bad ways.

Evil is still to be overcome with good; and splendid triumphs in the great battle are to achieved by such agencies as a Youths’ Institute. The idler and lounger, the good-for-nothing and vicious among our big lads, are to be redeemed from a lost life, and trained to self-respect and manliness, frank­heartedness and moral-mindedness, intelligence and industry, to do good and true work in their day and generation.


The following practical remarks, made at one of the monthly tea-meetings of the Secretaries of London Clubs, held at the office of the Union, form a fitting sequel to this very valuable paper. They will be read with interest, treating as they do of the rather difficult question -

How to Deal with the Youths,

 in relation to those clubs which they have so uniformly wooed, and too often won, with a passionate and fatal ardour worthy of the most dismal and romantic scenes in a modern sensation novel.

The Chairman having inquired the views of each person present, in turn, as to the age at which they thought persons might be admitted as members without prejudice to the Club, six representatives mentioned “eighteen;” but four of them, admitting that applicants for admission constantly falsified their age, urged that measures should be taken to prevent any coming in who had not actually admitted that age, either by requiring older persons to certify the fact, or by making the nominal age twenty-one. One secretary considered none should be admitted unless they had actually attained the age of twenty-one; another named twenty-two, and another urged twenty-three. Several maintained that none under twenty-five or thirty, even though admitted to the Club, should be allowed to use the bagatelle-room, as, independently of the noise younger men made when playing, it had too often happended that youths came to the Club, learned to play at bagatelle, became passionately fond of it, and then got into the habit of playing at public-houses, for money or beer. It was also recommended by most of those present that no person under twenty-one should be admitted, if at all, with out a recommendation, or (as at the Southwark Club) unless two adult members agreed to be answerable for his good behaviour. (This last suggestion carries us back to the renowned institutions of Alfred the Great, and has great virtue in it.) One speaker ably contended that it was really a question of good management, saying that men do not object to the company of well-behaved youths, but quite concurred in the exclusion of the latter from the bagatelle-room until their characters were comparatively formed - say, twenty-five years. In judicious management, wisely blending firmness and kindness, would be found, he thought, the solution of all these and similar difficulties. Most, however, agreed that men would not keep company with the youths; but the representative from Camden Town and St. Bride’s considered that grown men did not object to the company of youths as young as sixteen or eighteen. One speaker urged the great importance of not allowing any member under the age of twenty-five to be on the committee; otherwise, as was the case at one time in the Club he belonged to, the youths might get completely the upper hand, and do great mischief. The representative from Chelsea (Mr. Taylor) said they admitted them at the age of eighteen, provided, as long as they were under twenty, some members of the Committee took them under their special charge. At that Club they had twenty-four on their committee, and four of them took it in turn to be there every night; hence such a thing as disorder and noise was quite unknown among them. He maintained that, unless youths are admitted as young as eighteen, “they go to the bad” before they are admitted to the Club. Many youths who used to play bagatelle at beershops in the neighbourhood of this Club never go there now, but play at the Club instead, and without betting or noise. None, however, are allowed to play twice until all who wish it have a chance of playing once. (This Club, however has since been closed. Some working men of the neighbourhood being asked the reason, said, “it was an excellent thing, but there had been too much patronage and interference.” Of course we cannot say how far this representation was correct. Great pains, we know, were taken to make it both useful and pleasant. We fear the want of separate rooms for youths had much to do with the catastrophe.) The representative of another Club urged that there was no possibility of keeping youths out of the bagatelle-room till they had reached the given age. The great point was to let them amuse themselves as they liked; but to be continually taking opportunities of leading them on to care occasionally for something higher and more improving.

We then dwelt on the original and fundamental idea of a Working Men’s Club - viz., that of a society of grown men for promoting that social intercourse and pleasant fellowship among themselves which the wealthier classes get at each other’s homes, or at their Clubs, but which working men are driven to seek at the public-house. We urged that husbands and fathers of families, men of ripe years and experience, often wished for chat with one another on many subjects of interest, in discussing which they certainly did not desire the company of lads and youths as listeners. Of course, we fully recognized the vast importance of providing a place of resort for the latter, but suggested the various expedients already mentioned; and contended that where youths were admitted indiscrim­inately to a Club, without any of those precautions, it might be doing a great deal of good in some other way, but it certainly was not answering the purpose for which Working Men’s Clubs were and ought to be established. The Secretary of the Southwark Club (Mr.Symons), in a very able speech, then summed up the discussion. He believed that if Clubs could be formed and maintained such as we had described, to which none should be admitted under the age of twenty-five, they would be a very great success, and would meet an extremely urgent want. Perhaps they might be best supported in large towns if each trade had its own Club. At all events, he much wished to see Clubs that would really belong to, and be used by, grown men exclusively. He strongly confirmed, by various illustrations from his own experience, the statements made as to the absurdity of expecting grown-up men to talk familiarly with one another in the presence of youths. What they said would be sure to be misunderstood, or be repeated, perhaps misrepresented. Very likely it would be all over their workshop the next day, or they would hear of it in their families, perhaps in the streets. In every point of view, it was most unpleasant and objectionable to have lads listening to their talk. For these reasons, he would like to see in every Club at least one room where men could be by themselves. But he could not consent to exclude youths altogether. And in the present state of the movement, and of his own Club in particular, he felt that he would rather labour to save those whose characters were not yet formed - who were under the age of twenty-five - than older men; for he had seen the wonderful good done to these young fellows by admitting them to that Club. He would employ, however, various safeguards. He had got power from the Committee to suspend any member guilty of disorderly conduct until the next Committee meeting, and the youths, knowing he had this power, now behaved much better.

(It was mentioned, by-the-bye, in the course of the evening, that the steward of the Holloway Club had the power en-trusted to him of turning out any offender for the night, but had never had occasion to exercise it -partly, perhaps, because he had the power - partly, no doubt, because of his firm, yet genial, manner with the members.)

Mr. Symons further mentioned that they had passed a rule making youths only “associates” until they attain the age of eighteen, so that they would have no power in managing the Club, or rather mismanaging it, as had formerly been the case. He also suggested that, where there was a great demand for admission on the part of youths, the committee might require them to show a certificate from the secretary that they were in the habit of attending some class or lecture, and of conducting themselves respectably, before giving them a ticket of admission to the bagatelle­room. This, however, would require a great deal of tact and good management, but in some Clubs he thought it would work well. He wished they were as fortunate as the members of the Chelsea Club in having so many staunch and competent members of committee to take it in turn to attend every evening, and so many popular gentlemen to help work the Club and make it both pleasant and useful. They had only one of this class, their president, Mr. Seaward Tayler, to whom they were under the greatest obligations; but he lived a long way off, and of course could not be very often there.

We must confess that we agree in the doubt expressed above as to whether it is desirable to have a bagatelle-board in it; for experience certainly shows that in several instances youths have learned to play at bagatelle in the Club, have acquired a passion for the same, and have afterwards become systematic players for money at a public-house. Even where that has not happened, it must be confessed that there is generally a great deal of noise connected with the game, and disorderly youths are attracted by it, so that the older members are annoyed and repelled; while even though no betting or stakes are allowed by the rules, it sometimes happens that lads and youths play for beer, bet, and then adjourn to the public-house after the game to settle their accounts. Of course, no good is without some attendant evil, and the abuse of a good thing is no argument against its use. But it is by no means clear that bagatelle-playing is so decided a benefit for youths as to counterbalance its dangers. Unquestion­ably it is of the greatest importance, as was well urged by two highly intelligent and respectable working men at the aforesaid London Secretaries’ Tea-meetings, must form an essential part of their programme. But it is very different providing bagatelle-tables for grown men, whose characters are comparatively formed, and who would only use them, in general, as gentlemen use their billard-tables, for an occasional relaxation, and letting youths give themselves up to the game, night after night, perhaps meanwhile acquiring a taste for betting and gambling. If these youngsters would consent to vary their bagatelle-playing with attendance at classes and lectures, and if a vigilant yet amiable member of the committee, or other official, could guard against betting and rioting among them, the game might be simply a useful and pleasant diversion for them, just as in the drawing-room of a gentleman’s home.

But, further, in all cases we would recommend the plan suggested above of admitting youths, if at all, only as associates, not as full members, until they have reached a specified age, which we should strongly advise to be fixed at twenty-five years. They would thus obtain no power to interfere with the management of the Club, nor exercise the right of voting, until their age (and, perhaps, previous satisfactory connexion with the Club as associates) gave some guarantee that they would exercise the privileges of full membership judiciously. In all such cases it would be well to require -as is now done in some Clubs, when youths under twenty-one apply for admission - that they should bring a recommendation from two or three of the older members. Obtaining full membership would then be looked forward to as an object of honourable ambition, and would be viewed, perhaps, with something of the old Roman satisfaction felt in putting on the toga virilis.

No doubt there are strong reasons for leaving the managing committee some power to admit, in one way or another, youths under twenty-five, or even younger. A father may wish to join a Club chiefly for the sake of encouraging his sons to attend it; and his presence there, or their own characters, testified to by himself and some other members of the Club, may be sufficient guarantee that they will conduct themselves quietly, and not annoy the older members. And when youths can be brought into a Club without annoying older men, and without learning bad practices there is not only a great gain to themselves, but ultimately to the Club, of which they will probably, in time, become staunch and valuable members. Some young men under twenty-five or even under twenty-one, may be much steadier and pleasanter company for grown-up men than those of older growth. But, equally of course, these cases are exceptional, and we cannot legislate for exceptions. Probably the best solution of the difficulty will be found in the practice of election by ballot recommended elsewhere.

Lastly, on the principle of dealing with facts as we find them, we must not, however, ignore the hapless condition of many existing Clubs, which before they knew the deadly nature of the mistake, admitted these youthful, innocent-looking allies into the heart of the citadel. Now, the managers of those youth-oppressed Clubs, round which treacherous and deceitful juveniles are clinging, like drowning victims to their would-be preservers, may fairly turn to us and say: “This is all very fine, if we had only known it a year or two ago, and had then adopted the precaution you suggest; but now two-thirds or three-fourths of our members are under twenty-five. They have driven away all the older men, except those who are content with the quiet reading-room, and lectures, or entertainments. We cannot afford to send them packing, or we could not pay our rent, and should not have thirty members left.” Now in answer we might say that, if they cannot have those separate chat and game rooms above proposed; and that, if the Club was really established for men, and not for youths, the sooner they left off perverting it from its legitimate purpose the better; that, moreover, as soon as it became known in the neighbourhood that the youths had really been bowed out, the men would gradually return. But there is a middle course in such a case, viz., that adopted at Heywood, and which, in many cases, might be a far better one than making a clean sweep of more than two-thirds of the members of a Club. It secures one room, at all events, in which grown men can always secure from the presence of lads, where they can have their chat and their pipe in peace, and talk without constraint. This, after all, is the thing of most importance; and if the older men want to use the bagatelle-board, and cannot afford to have two, they must form their own party and take their turn. At one of the London Clubs they have the great advantage of having a separate entrance and staircase for the youths, as well as separate rooms; which, in fact, affords the material conditions for a Youths’ Institute in connexion with a Working Men’s Club. Nothing better than an arrangement of this sort could be desired, if it be strictly carried out.


Booton, F. (ed.) Studies in Social Education Volume 1: 1860-1890, Hove: Benfield Press. 199 pages. This collection of material includes Sweatman’s paper on youth institutes and clubs, the full text of Maude Stanley’s Clubs for Working Girls, plus Pilkington’s ‘An Eton Playing Field’.

Solly, H. (1867) Working Men’s Clubs (revised edn. 1904), London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent 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.