May I See Your Cork, Brother?
Okay. It’s sometime between the late Victorian age and World War II. You’re a new man in town, attracted by the work available in Greenwich’s factories and wharves. You’re walking down Creek Road, minding your own business, when a sinister-looking fellow in a tatty flat cap, stained cravat and baggy working-man’s jacket sidles up to you.
“May I see your Cork, Brother?”
“Eh?” You’re nonplussed. Does he want a swig of your beer? Is he after cash? Is it some kind of dodgy come-on?
The man notices your unease and smiles, realising he’s made a mistake. You strike up a conversation and the next thing you know you’re being invited to join his club.
“Is it some kind of masonic-thing?” you ask.
“It’ the working-man’s freemasonry,” he admits, steering you into the Lord Hood’s public bar. Although you’re a little nervous, the chaps at the Hood ply you with a few beers and the next thing you know, you’re taking part in the initiation ceremony…
Cork Clubs are an almost entirely forgotten part of working-class social life. Trying to find anything at all out about them is nigh-on impossible. There are odd mentions – an 1896 notice of an application for the Friendly Societies Register here, a faded photo there – but their boisterous, smoke-filled, beer-fuelled world seems to have been almost entirely lost today. Perhaps it was their ‘unorthodox’ method of charity fund-raising that made several generations of prudes paint them out of history in favour of nice, safe Lions and Rotary Clubs. Who can tell.
No one even knows when or where the idea began. There was no central administration, and every club had its own rules and regulations. It’s not even clear exactly what the notorious ‘initiation ceremony’ consisted of – all we know now (from an account in Northamptonshire) is pretty innocuous – placing your hand on the emblem (a brass bound cork) and swearing to be truthful in dealing with club affairs. It’s hardly breast-baring, trouser-rolling, knife-wielding stuff. After the initiation you were presented with your own brass-bound cork, and the strict instructions to carry it with you at all times.
Cork Clubs were, frankly, based around the consumption of beer, but, like the closest thing I can think of today, Rotary or Lions clubs, it was also about raising money for charity, mainly local ones and to help members fallen on hard times. It was how they raised the cash that I find absolute genius.
It was virtually free to join – but new members were warned that the ‘charitable aspect’ would cost them money. It was especially punitive if they happened to be a bit forgetful, or enjoyed a fruity vocabulary.
A typical meeting would start out quietly enough. There would be the usual notes and minutes – a grant might be given for a member who’d fallen ill , or a loan made to someone who was finding life tough. The club secretary noted it all down, being careful not to overstretch his writing hand too early.
Moving on, the meeting started to hot up. People were invited to come forward with precisely-annotated instances (time, date and place) where they had met a fellow member in the street, and challenged them with the exact words:
“May I see your Cork, brother?”
If the guy failed to produce said cork, he was fined a penny. If he’d then grumbled, perhaps by telling the inquisitor that they were a bloody nuisance, he’d be fined another penny.
The secretary wrote it all down, then got ready for the marathon part of the evening. Any Other Business.
This always consisted of outrageously provocative topics, and, as the alcohol got topped up, the secretary, now assisted by two aides, recorded every instance of profane language, to be added up for fines payable at the end. Although it was only pennies for each transgression, by the end, everyone had to cough up a fair amount of cash before staggering home.
It has to be said that Cork Clubs had their critics. Initiation ceremonies always make outsiders edgy, and their enthusiastic money-making wheezes were bordering on the blasphemous for religious types. But in a world before any kind of benefits system, these were people finding their own way to create some sort of social safety net. After Atlee’s government brought in basic benefits in 1945, Cork Clubs quietly melted away.
I shudder to think of what went on on the free yearly club outings to the brewery, though maybe they were a little more decorous since it’s clear from the picture below that Mark’s sent me of the Lord Hood’s annual shindig that women were allowed on the jollys (they were not welcome at actual club meetings.)
This picture still hangs in the Lord Hood, but it’s a bit of a mystery. No one knows how old it is or the names of anyone in the group. The buildings are just about recognisable – though the one in the left of the pub has now gone and the one on the far end must be Up the Creek now.
Mark and his wife are at odds with each other about the picture’s age – They agree it’s pre-1932, but she thinks it’s 1920s from the way the ladies are dressed; he thinks the charabanc’s acetylene headlights and the lady on the far right make it older.
Me? I don’t know. The street’s still cobbled and the tramlines are clear. The union flag hanging from the pub could be a national event – or just patriotism. There are dozens of clues – but no answers. Much like the origins of Cork clubs themselves.