Birmingham – The Social Institutes

The following is taken directly from The City of Birmingham Baths Department 1851 – 1951. The work was written and compiled by J. Moth M.N.A.B.S Birmingham 1951 and is presented here.

On the 30th September, 1903, a Public Meeting was held in the Council Chamber, to hear an address by Dr Paton of Nottingham on the subject of the ‘Leisure of the People’, during which particular reference was made to the work carried out by the Christian Social Union in Glasgow.

During the discussions which followed the address several facts emerged which largely influenced the decisions afterwards taken. Briefly, these facts included the need for increased provision for popular recreation during the winter months when the City Parks could not fulfil the same functions as in summer, and that in accordance with a Municipal Policy which already provided Parks and Playgrounds used for recreation in the summer, and Free Libraries and an Art Gallery open all the year round, it was anticipated that the City Council might make some contribution to the solution of the problem. The Meeting appointed a Committee to survey the position in the City and report further. At the second Meeting in 1904, the Birmingham Social Institutes Committee was constituted ‘to provide recreation of the broadest and most comprehensive character, on neutral ground, for both sexes, unassociated with any sect or political party, and linked up with the Municipal life of the City.’

Northwood Street Baths SketchA deputation from the Committee, which included Sir Oliver Lodge, Mr. Samuel E. Short, Alderman J. H. Lloyd, Mr. William Arthur Albright (Hon. Treasurer) and Mr. J. H. Lear Caton (Hon. Secretary), waited upon the Baths Committee in the early part of 1904, to suggest that as the swimming baths were either closed or lying practically idle at the time indoor facilities were most needed, permission might be granted for the Social Institutes Committee to use a swimming bath or baths as winter recreation centres. Whilst declining the responsibility of organising such a scheme, the Baths Committee offered their fullest co-operation and the facilities desired, by granting the use of the First Class Swimming Bath at the Northwood Street Establishment, if on their part the Social Institutes Committee would undertake the conversion of the premises to an Assembly Hall by flooring over the Bath, and generally administering the Centre. This offer was gladly accepted, and funds were raised to meet the immediate overheads. Employers in the district were asked for, and gave, their co-operation, and in due course, on Wednesday the 6th December, 1905, the first Social Institute was opened. The premises were opened free from 6.30 p.m. to 10.30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, and on Saturday afternoons, to persons of both sexes over 18 years of age. Facilities for billiards, bagatelle, cards, chess, draughts, and an air-gun range were provided upon payment of a small fee. Full advantage was taken of the Institutes services as a record of the attendances shows, and on Saturday evenings popular concerts were arranged which attracted capacity houses.

Old Monument Road BathsThe success of the Northwood Street Club induced the Social Institutes Committee in 1905 to again approach the Baths Committee who offered the use of the First Class Swimming Baths at Monument Road and Woodcock Street in addition to the Hall at Northwood Street, on similar terms to those already granted, with one modification, in that if the floors of the two Halls were provided by the organising body, all three floors should be transferred to the Baths Department as its property, the Baths Committee undertaking to remove, store and replace them each Season so long as they might be required by the Social Institutes Committee. It was on this basis that other swimming baths were subsequently opened as winter clubs.

The movement grew, as will be seen from the following list of premises used as Social Institutes, opened on the dates shown:

Northwood Street 6th December 1905

Monument Road 2nd November 1906

Woodcock Street 3rd November 1906

Mose!ey Road 21st November 1908

Nechells 14th November 1910

Small Heath 25th November 1911

Northwood Street Second Pool 16th December 1911

Many of Birmingham’s foremost citizens contributed towards the sums required to provide floors and equipment. Amongst them were Alderman J. H. Lloyd and Mr. William A. Albright, whose particular generosity did a great deal to ensure the finances of the movement. The experiment attracted attention in other towns and cities, and deputations visited the Clubs to see them at work.

Nechells Park Road BathsThe scheme enjoyed uninterrupted success until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In the second year of the War the Clubs at Northwood Street and Small Heath were temporarily suspended, and remained closed until the War was over. With the cessation of hostilities the Clubs were resuscitated and reorganised. In the reorganisation a change was made at Northwood Street, where the administration of the Club was taken over by Col. Miss E. Osborn and ladies of the Women’s Volunteer Reserve (later known as the British Red Cross). For several winters these ladies gave magnificent and unflagging service and the popularity of the Northwood Street Club exceeded all previous records. Dancing, which was rapidly becoming an accepted pastime, was organised nightly in the Main Hall, and the Second Hall was used mainly for games. Excellent Canteen services were provided, and prices were kept to a minimum.

There was an important development in the post War period when unemployment increased alarmingly. On the initiative of the Lord Mayor, the Club Rooms were opened in the daytime to cater for unemployed men and women, who showed their appreciation by the large attendances recorded.

Changes in social habits following the First World War were reflected in the patronage and popularity of the games. Interest in air rifle shooting, bagatelle and billiards declined. Carpet bowls and table tennis enjoyed a brief measure of success. Dancing and card playing, particularly whist drives, retained as strong a hold on the patronage of the club users as ever.

The Cafe Northfield BathsBefore the Second World War, due to reconstruction work at the Monument Road and Woodcock Street Baths, it was not possible to provide the usual facilities. Immediately prior to the Second World War, only two establishments were being used, namely those at Moseley Road and Nechells. The outbreak of war saw the closing down of both these clubs, and by the time peace was declared the Social Institutes Committee had suffered irreparable losses in its leaders, all of whom had given magnificent service since the inception of the movement, and in 1945 the remaining members decided to disband the Social Institutes Committee and not attempt a revival of its work, believing that future development in this direction should be the responsibility of the Municipal Authorities. Today, of the original officers only the Hon. Secretary, Mr. J. H. Lear Caton survives, and he had served throughout from the first meeting in 1903 until the winding up of his Committee in 1945.

Mr. Caton has proved most helpful in providing the information which forms the basis of this account.

In closing, it must be recorded that the Police often bore testimony to the value of the work accomplished and the improvement in public order in the districts where the clubs were opened. Wives of men using the clubs were loud in their praise of the boon the movement had proved to their home life, and men who regularly attended expressed gratitude for the opportunity whereby they could meet their comrades in the rivalry of a game of whist or billiards.

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