(Founder of the Club and Institute Union, Social Reformer and a key player in Charity Organisation, the Artizans’ Institute and the Working Men’s Club Movement).
Born in London his father was a successful businessman involved in transport particularly the railways and steamships across to America. He studied classics and mathematics at University College in Gower Street, London being amongst its first students. In 1840 Solly entered the Unitarian ministry – he later resigned following a dispute with the church authorities. He became very involved with the Chartist movement as well as with a number of other working class groups. Henry supported many radical causes such as free education, the creation of museums, anti-slavery and universal suffrage. In the early 1860s he played a major part in founding the working men’s clubs. He was one of the leading and most energetic figures in the adult clubs movement. These clubs were aimed at improving the social and education of working men who up to then had not been involved with the Mechanics’ Institutions. A number of people had suggested that the Mechanics’ Institutions had partly failed because they had not provided recreational activities but even so Solly acknowledged the positive impact and contribution that they had made to education for mechanics and the workers. To be fair other earlier organisations had argued in similar ways that there should be recreation alongside formal instruction and indeed a number of Mechanics’ Institutions and Lyceums from the 1830s had offered such a combination of recreation and education.
Solly was also an active member of the temperance movement and banned the consumption of alcohol in the working men’s clubs although this embargo was later abolished with the result that the clubs became more popular. One aspect he was particularly successful in was gaining financial support from the aristocracy and politicians. As a result he was able to establish 116 clubs over a period of three years and by 1867 nearly 300 existed that were recognised by the Union. The Union was established in 1862 in London mainly because of Solly’s efforts and was under the presidency of Brougham (see biography on this website) and a number of eminent vice-presidents. The concept of a Union had been advocated by David Thomas but it was Solly who brought it into existence. The Union was founded to help working men create Clubs and Institutes to improve their lives through education and recreation. As mentioned above Solly was very committed to combining recreational activities with educational activities arguing that after a hard day’s work they needed some form of recreation. The first Union offices were located at 150 The Strand, London.
He stated that the aim of the working men’s clubs was to encourage the establishment of clubs where working men “could meet for conversation, business and mental improvement, with the means of recreation and refreshment, free from intoxicating drinks”. He said that the education was given “as by a friend,” in an easy, pleasant and often in a conversational way”. The operation of the clubs usually comprised classes complemented with opportunities to access libraries and periodicals/newspapers.
The movement published a journal called The Working Man which aimed at improving the education of the workers and in addition strongly advocating co-operation with the employers. Initially the majority of the clubs struggled to survive and some closed. One reason for this was the exclusion of alcohol and tobacco and eventually the rules were amended, against Solly’s wishes, and the clubs began to enrol more workers. He was the first paid secretary for the Union but when he opposed the sale of alcohol in the clubs he was forced to resign although he returned in 1871 but this too failed following disputes about his salary. He was chairman of the Union between 1862/87 and between 1871/72/3 he was organising and travelling secretary. He did remain a member until 1879 and continued to be a firm supporter of the movement but never again held a senior post.
Solly went on to found the Trades Guild of Learning in 1873 which promoted the vocational and further education of Artisans. The Guild was not a Trade Union but included skilled workers who were trade union members as well as those who were not. Eventually there was a disagreement between Solly and the management of the Guild arising from his strong paternalistic beliefs and those held by the trade unions and he resigned as its chairman. Solly was by most counts restless, autocratic, irascible, arrogant, and though a hard working idealist he was dismissive of others and found it difficult to work in harmony with colleagues.
However he was more successful in retaining an executive position with the Artizans’ Institute which he helped to create after he severed his involvement with the Trade Guild of Learning (TGoL). The Artizans’ Institute was founded in 1874 and was initially located in St Martin’s Lane. The Artizans’ Institute was in some ways an offshoot of the Trade Guild of Learning and Solly played a key part in its creation. Its value cannot be underestimated as it helped to form the foundations for the Technical Education of Artizans working in a number of crafts and trades and laid many of the important principles on how they should be conducted. The guiding principle was to complement and supplement the training of the factory or workshop and not supersede it. The objectives of the Institute were: ‘The systematic instruction of apprentices and workmen (i) in the principles of art and science forming the basis of various handicrafts; and (ii) in the technical application of those principles to actual work’. The Institute experimented with a combination of technical training for the crafts and trades with more liberal focussed subjects. Solly acted as Principal until 1878, when because of ill-health he retired. The Institute struggled for some time after his departure but eventually was recognised and supported by a number of Livery Companies (see biographies on this website) and continued to raise the importance of technical education. In addition Philip Magnus (see biography on this website) gave the Institute great encouragement and finally in 1883 the classes of the Artizans’ Institute were transferred to the Finsbury Technical College (see pen portrait on this website).
The Artizans’ Institute played an important part in the development of technical education and in spite of all the difficulties associated with Solly’s irascible and mercurial temperament he contributed much to its development.
Solly died in 1903 and the then secretary of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union B. T. Hall wrote “If the work that the clubs do, if their influence on personal character and their contribution to the sum total of human happiness be correctly appreciated …. then shall the investigator reckon Henry Solly amongst the constructive statesmen of our time”. (1)
He was also instrumental in creating the Charity Organisation Society. In addition he became editor of the Beehive the most influencial working-class newspaper in the 1860s and 70s
His philosophy reflected his idealism and was based on three strong beliefs namely: education, recreation and temperance and he held firmly that to remove one would undermine completely the others.
In 1889 there were 329 clubs in membership with the Union; in 1899 there were 683 and by the time he died in 1903 there were 992 clubs with a membership of 380,000. The Club movement was mainly active in London and the Industrial areas of England. For example London, the Home Counties, Lancashire, Yorkshire and the West Midlands accounted for 479 out of the 683 in 1899. Very few existed in Wales and Scotland. Henry Solly possessed great energy and ability and recognised the importance of education but tended to make his beliefs and ideas foremost and assumed ‘ownership’ of the organisations he helped to establish. Nevertheless he is a key figure in the development of technical and workers’ education along with others that include F.D. Maurice (Working Men’s Colleges, London) – see picture below, R. S. Bayley (Peoples College, Sheffield) and Quintin Hogg (The London Polytechnics) – see other biographies on this website.
(1) ‘The Working Men’s Social Clubs’. J. H. Wicksteed.1904
and ‘Our Fifty Years, The story of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union’. B. T. Hall. The Working Men’s Club and Institute Union. 1912.
Other useful references:
‘Technical Education’. Address to the Trustees of the Artizan’s Institute, by Henry Solly. 1878.
‘These Eighty Years’, Or, The Story of an Unfinished Life. H. Solly. Simpkin and Co. 1892. 2 volumes
‘Education and the Labour Movement 1870-1920’. Lawrence and Wishart. 1965.
Note: Artizan today is more usually spelt Artisan