Friday, February 16, 2024

Coventry Working Men's Club 'Colour Bar' (1971)

An everyday tale of 1970s racism in England involving the Barras Heath Working Men's Club in Coventry and its efforts to keep out black people. The Race Relations Act 1965 may have banned discrimination in public places but there was an ambiguity about the status of members clubs - were they private spaces and therefore not subject to this law, or in providing for the public were they prohibited from discrimination? This played out in a number of court cases and local disputes in the 1960s and 70s. In the Coventry case, the local Community Relations Officer made a complaint about the club in 1970 after it advertised that a dance would be subject to 'house rules' that were understood to include 'a clause forbidding citizens entry on grounds of colour'.

In the following year a group of young people from the local Methodist Central Hall discotheque club picketed the club after one of their members - 'A 20 year old Indian youth' - was refused a drink in the working men's club. According to their leaflet, 'The club uses coloured men to help build its extension yet it will not allow them inside when the job is done. An Indian member of our group worked at the club as an electrician but when he came back in the evening he was refused a drink'.  

A few weeks later it was reported that 'Members of a Coventry church discotheque club are taking their campaign against racial discrimination to the Home Secretary Reginald Maudling'. They argued that the existing law 'left a loophole for clubs such as these to continue to discriminate on racial grounds' and that 'it should be against the law of this country for any club of whatever sort to so discriminate' (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 18 August 1971).

Five years later though the club was still 'notorious for its racialism' according to a report in Workers Action, refusing to 'book any black artists' or allow 'membership or entrance to blacks'. Seemingly they must have slipped up in their bookings 'and one night a black member of Equity turned up at the Barras Heath - and was turned away'. Equity, the actors' union, then called for its members to boycott the club and for a picket involving '100 local trade unionists' which performers refused to cross.


This case was by no means unique. As Camilla Schofield has described 'While the working men’s club now looks like a vestigial social institution of by-gone days, it was at its high-water mark in the 1970s with over 3.5 million members of the CIU [Club and Institute Union, the umbrella body for working men's clubs]: CIU numbers were never as high before nor since. In some towns and cities, particularly in the industrial north, working men's clubs were regarded as the centre of social life, the beating heart of labourism. In County Durham, ‘To exclude coloured people would be to institute apartheid’, wrote a club member in a letter to the Daily Telegraph. Yet in some towns and cities, even in highly diverse areas, clubs held long-standing explicit or unwritten whites-only policies—or ‘some form of colour bar’'. Schofield suggests that 'white solidarity and exclusion' in such clubs was a factor in the construction of an image of the working class as white, male and industrial - an image bought into this day by parts of the left as well as the right. Easy to romanticise  this past, but large parts of the working class, including women and black people, were never invited to the party. See 'In Defence of White Freedom: Working Men’s Clubs and the Politics of Sociability in Late Industrial England',  Twentieth Century British History, Volume 34, Issue 3, September 2023.

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