Kays “Universal” Clubs are the largest, the most popular, the most successful and the best conducted clubs in the kingdom.

So claims Kays’ 1893-4 catalogue, in large fonts and with lots of capital letters.

The opening page of a Kays catalogue from 1893-4.
The opening page of a Kays catalogue from 1893-4.

This is followed by more than four pages of text, divided into five columns a page and in quite a small font, giving the names of towns and districts where these clubs were held. Worcester is there, of course, and nearby Ombersley, Howden (near where my parents live), Aberystwyth, Ayr, Penzance, Hemel Hempstead and Newcastle-on-Tyne, and an awful lot of place names I don’t recognise at all.

Clearly Kays wanted the customer to know that they had a large number of clubs, in a large number of places. What the catalogue doesn’t explain — presumably because in 1893-4, the customer already knew — is what on earth these clubs were for.

1893-4, 'Kay's "Combination" lever' watch, '£2 10s. 0d. Warranted for Five years.'
1893-4, ‘Kay’s “Combination” Lever’ watch, ‘£2 10s. 0d. Warranted for Five years.’

Catalogue shopping ‘clubs’ seem to have grown out of mid-nineteenth century watch clubs. These were promoted by watch and jewellery firms as a way to make it easier for working class men to afford to buy watches — which they were beginning to want.

Watch clubs asked each of their members for a set weekly contribution, often half a shilling or a shilling. Once everyone had paid up, each week, the members drew lots. Whoever won got to use the total amount of money that had been collected that week to buy himself a watch.

A club would run until each of its members had won. Previous winners were excluded from the draw — you couldn’t win twice — but still had to keep paying their weekly contribution. There were fines for late payment, but the clubs probably also depended on trust between their members.

1893-4 - 'Kay's "Combination" lever' watch, 'Inside view... Showing exact pattern of Movement.'
1893-4, ‘Kay’s “Combination” Lever’ watch, ‘Inside view… Showing exact pattern of Movement.’

So, for example, a club with thirty members, with a weekly payment of a shilling, would run for thirty weeks. Each of its members would make thirty payments, and by the end of thirty weeks, each member would own a watch. The total amount each man paid over the course of the club — thirty shillings, one every week — would be the same as the amount he won whenever his lucky week came around — thirty shillings, one from each member. All but the last, unluckiest member (often in fact the club organiser, who would go last out of courtesy) would get his watch before he’d paid the whole of its cost.

The early mail-order business grew out of this system. Not only Kays but firms such as Fattorini and Sons, based in Bradford, and John Myers, in London, had their roots in jewellery and watch manufacture. They took advantage of increasing working class wages over the second half of the nineteenth century, and diversified to sell an increasingly wide range of goods through the same club system.

The 1893-4 Kays catalogue includes mangles, sewing machines, cutlery, binoculars, travel bags, tea sets and accordions, as well as plenty of watches, clocks and jewellery. But they still have a working class customer in mind. Their ‘”Combination” Lever’ watch is advertised as ‘specially constructed for all who require a watch of great strength, and for those whose occupation is heavy, or who want a perfect watch for daily use that will stand rough wear’.

1893-4, 'Kay's "Combination" lever' watch, 'Pattern of Cap fitted to each Watch.'
1893-4, ‘Kay’s “Combination” Lever’ watch, ‘Pattern of Cap fitted to each Watch.’