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Article taken from Eric Fowell collection, transcribed by Jacky Lawrence 2007
The Cork Club

It is not known where and when Cork Clubs began as there were no central administration points. Rules and procedures were handed down from club to club.  It is assumed that these clubs of mainly working men were nationally spread, large in number and late Victorian in origin. They had their critics due to the short initiation ceremony and became known as the working man’s freemasonry. The only event of any note, however, was placing your hand on the emblem, a brass bound cork, and swearing to be truthful in dealing with club affairs. Their aims were beer drinking activities but equally a very much under publicised, local charity element. When joining it was explained that membership was virtually free but that the charitable aspect would cost them money. So, they appear unsensational but what was unique about the set up was the harnessing of the harmless, boisterous swearing which took place at the time on the factory floor etc.

In Rushden the Compasses was a venue but there are no dates known and the last one to be formed in the town was at the Railway Inn in 1935 and was the brainchild of Bill ‘Slippy’ Johnson. He became the chairman and was supported by a secretary, treasurer and two club seniors. The Inn , under new management, introduced a piano, two singalong nights and the first dart board in the town centre. With these facilities the Railway soon became the Mecca of the youthful tipplers of the town.

On initiation you were presented with a brass bound cork with instructions to carry it at all times. When meeting a fellow member outside the club you had to challenge him in precise words ‘May I see your cork brother’. If he failed to produce it you would report him at the next meeting and he would be fined one penny, if he said you were a bloody nuisance that would cost another. Time, date and place of these challenges had to be stated. If the challenge was presented correctly there was no appeal.

The first part of each meeting was quite ordinary. Financial matters were dealt with such as grants for members who had been ill, when the sick pay had run out and occasional grants were made to users of the pub. At the movement of any other business the meetings became quite hilarious and boisterous. The chairman introduced provocative subjects which were debated with a good deal of profanity and the secretary and his two aides recorded each individual’s misuse of the English language. There was a ten minute pause at the finish, the result of the raffle was announced and the transgressors had to pay their fines for their lapses, this generally consisted of the whole assembly, usually around thirty.

The Railway belonged to Praeds, the Wellingborough brewers who were situated in Dulley’s Yard where the Swansgate centre now stands. Free yearly club outings were held and some of these were to the brewery. The sampling of the product was well received and the ploughman’s lunch at the Horseshoe opposite completed a good half day out.

Today the method of collecting money may seem odd, at the time it was described as blasphemous but it was done behind closed doors and really foul language was not tolerated. Contributions of pennies also seem petty but a penny was six and a half percent of the hourly rate of a boot and shoe male worker, £2.70 in today’s money for a forty six and a half hour week. Around £30 to £40 was collected and distributed yearly which makes the much under publicised total £2500 to £3000.

So what happened? The second war must take some of the blame and women began to frown on these all male activities. The real reason, however, were the benefits brought in by the 1945 Attlee government for people down on their luck.

A Cork Club but where and who are they?
This photograph has been sent in without confirmation of place.
If you recognise anyone or where they are sitting, please contact us.

Nick Hamzij has emailed - April 2012 - to tell us "We still have an existing Cork Club at the Cider Bar, Newton Abbott, Devon."

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