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19th Century Leisure Time

To what extent did leisure activities serve to integrate social groups which were separated from each other at work? Discuss with respect to the nineteenth century.

Leisure can be defined as time in which one has no pressing obligations, free from ‘the demands of work, direct social obligations and the routine activities of personal and domestic maintenance’. [1] Study of historical leisure has increased along with the broader interest in social history since the mid twentieth century; modern sociologists argue that formal occupation is, for many, no longer the defining factor of individual identity, providing perhaps an explanation for a popular focus on the leisure activities of the past. The early historiography of the topic, to a large extent, focussed on how the nineteenth-century witnessed a sharp decline in leisure time for the lowers orders; de Grazia went so far as to claim that during the Industrial Revolution leisure ‘disappeared under an avalanche of work’. With the increasing reservations about the validity of the concept of an industrial ‘revolution’ however more recent work has been keen to stress the continuities between the ‘shared culture’ of pre-industrial Britain with what followed in the nineteenth-century. Harris points to the problems of source material, prescriptive literature that we can never be certain as to what extent its values were taken on board by contemporaries, and also to the difficulties in assuming the nineteenth-century saw a dichotomy in leisure between ‘popular’ and ‘elite’ culture. Certainly such a divide must e an oversimplification yet that is not to say that leisure truly saw the integration of various social groups on a large scale. This essay shall attempt to outline the ways in which leisure activities could serve to integrate social groups which were separated from each other at work, but how, ultimately, this integration was at best very limited. It shall also seek to draw attention to the point that the situation throughout the nineteenth-century was not static, leisure activities impacted differently on social integration in different areas at different times.

‘Tipsy, yelling, loathsome creatures, such as make a monkey look like a king’, so the novelist Ouida described working class day trippers to Derbyshire in the 1880s, exemplifying the nineteenth-century preoccupation with the idea that the leisure of the lower orders was a threat to the order of society and needed to be suppressed. The eighteenth-century, whilst far from an egalitarian utopia where all classes took their leisure together, had provided opportunities for the upper and lower orders to mix. The prizes for competitions held on festive days were generally supplied by the landed classes, and they shared with the lower orders an interest in blood sports; bull baiting, cock throwing and other unsavoury pastimes were, at the least, gambled on by rich and poor alike. As the ‘middling sort’ became more numerous and more visible – and, increasingly, more religious – protests against such events grew more vocal; Shrove Tuesday football at Derby, a centuries old tradition, was suppressed in the 1840s by moralists and reformers who saw the sport as nothing more than unregulated violence. In place of such traditional ‘amusements’ the idea of ‘rational recreation’ took hold amongst the middle classes; it was not enough for leisure to amuse, it now had to educate and enable self-improvement. Amongst the middle classes this saw an increasing interest in ‘gentlemanly’ amateur sports (almost invariably barred to the working classes), in libraries and educational lectures, and in philanthropic activity. It was felt that there could be no hope for integration of the middle and working classes in leisure until the working classes were reformed, taught to take on middle class norms and values. To this end middle class philanthropists attempted to provide atmospheres in which the working classes could interact with, and learn from, their social betters; the Spitalfields Sewing School founded in 1863 sought to provide girls with basic skills as well as enabling them to be lectured to on good morality whilst there. Some ventures gained no small measure of success, the Monday opening of the Edgbaston Botanical Gardens to the working classes at 1d a head attracted visitors in their thousands (so keeping them out of the pubs), but for the most part middle class ‘supervision’ of leisure was resented. In 1880 the Coffee Music Hall Company set up in London to provide ‘respectable’ entertainment, it focus on temperance and patronising tone meant that within months it was heavily in debt. Towards the end of the century the religious sanctions against leisure lessened and the middle classes were more likely to look for amusement in leisure, yet even where different social classes attended the same leisure activities it is still doubtful there was much social integration. Take for example the music halls, by the 1880s some of the better halls were attended by both the working and the middle classes; But they remained physically and psychologically segregated; the worker might pay 6d to sit in the ‘pit’, the middle class professional would buy a more expensive ticket to sit in the gallery. In short whilst leisure activities could offer the opportunity for class integration the extent to which it actually took place must have been limited; class was a powerful psychological divide and even where classes mixed there was tension and a constant awareness of the exceptionalness of the situation.

It has been argued that women’s leisure is fundamentally different in character to that of men; when women are not in work they still have other responsibilities, for example even whilst at leisure it was the mother who was expected to keep an eye on the children, or provide the meals. Reid tells of how in Birmingham ‘Saint Monday’ saw men enjoying a day away from work spent at leisure; where women spent the day away from work it was to fulfil domestic duties within the home. As the dominant middle class ideology of separate spheres infiltrated down through society this divide became more obvious; legislation segregated working class men and women at work, the Mines Acts preventing women from working underground for instance, and the idea of respectability was to curtail the extent to which the two took leisure together. Women found themselves excluded from the working men’s clubs and other facilities provided by the philanthropist middle classes such as the YMCA, women were to spend their spare time in female only company at activities like Mother’s Union meetings; obviously this was a sharp contrast to the free mingling of the sexes seen at eighteenth-century fairs and wakes. The middle classes themselves adhered too to this segregation; men joined political clubs and scientific societies whereas women socialised with female friends in the domestic setting or became involved in charitable and philanthropic organisations, seen as acceptable given women’s perceived affiliation for such good natured activities. Yet the nineteenth-century did not see the complete curtailment of shared leisure activities; both women and men attended the singing saloons and, later, the music halls and, amongst the middle classes, as the century wore on increasing numbers of societies began to accept female members. As educated middle class women fought, with increasing militancy, for their right for access to male leisure activities the working classes saw the opposite process; formal schooling and segregation in the workplace led to the notion that it was proper for leisure to follow similar divisions. In this we see the curious effects of middle class success in disseminating their values to their own detriment, although leisure continued to afford opportunities for the integration of the sexes it tended to be within the domestic setting. More formal leisure activities, such as the music halls, found themselves having to become more strictly self-regulating on gender interaction in order to retain their licences and escape the wrath of the moralists.

Leisure might also be expected to provide opportunities for the integration of young and old. Reid’s study of ‘Saint Monday’ in Birmingham for example shows that young apprentices were likely to follow the example of the older members of the workforce when it came to leisure activities; middle class reformers were also quick to point out that the youth followed where their elders led. Amongst the working classes it was usual for children to enter into the same sports or spend their time in pubs with the adults in the early nineteenth-century. The introduction of compulsory schooling and successive legislation which segregated the two groups at work eroded this unquestioned sharing of leisure activities. Juvenile workers found themselves unable to observe ‘Saint Monday’ once their daily working hours had been restricted by the 1867 Workshops Act for example and were forced to confine their leisure to the statutory half holiday on Saturdays. In addition then, as now, the youth were feared as a social group in as much as they appeared to ‘different’ to and generally wilder than previous generations; to combat this lack of deference and order amongst the young clubs and societies were set up to instil those qualities, such as the Boys’ Brigade founded in 1883. Ignoring whether such organisation were successful in their aims they, along with the schools, succeeded in providing the young with a perceived group identity. At a Birmingham music hall in 1890 it was reported that ‘a large audience of young people’ rioted in protest at the withdrawal of free passes to the show, exemplifying this idea of the young as an identifiable, out of control, social group. Similarly within the middle classes the ‘cult’ of childhood which merged encouraged a segregation of the old and young as childhood became seen as a special period, a period which required its own specific dress, manners and leisure activities. Above all this middle class rhetoric demanded that children be protected from the harsh realities of the adult world – depending on religious leanings, this was to protect their innocence or remove the temptation to give in to their inherent sinfulness – which saw little integration between children and adults at leisure. Whilst older youths participated in the same leisure activities again it must be questioned to what extent they were becoming socially integrated with their elders, legislation gave them a curiously separate identity, which would only increase into the twentieth century.

If, then, leisure activities only provided limited integration between different ages, classes and genders might it have been better able to provide horizontal integration? That is to say, integration between people of different occupations who to all other intents and purposes were peers. The popular image of nineteenth-century leisure suggests this was not the case, for instance the infamous way in which all the workers at a particular factory or local industry simply relocated to the same seaside town for a week, the miners of the South Wales Valleys to Porthcawl for example. Looking past such anecdotal evidence however there is evidence that in this leisure activities could have provided substantial integration between social groups separated by work. Middle class clubs and societies drew their members from a wide variety of occupations; take the Freemasons for example, their members might include magistrates, politicians, manufacturers, and so on. All male, of a similar social status and, in many instances, age, such men were nevertheless unlikely to mix much in their respective workplaces. The nineteenth-century saw a similar situation being to emerge amongst the working classes; whereas in the early nineteenth-century a male iron-worker would likely spend his free time at the work pub by the mid Victorian period increasing numbers of skilled workers were moving into suburbs, meaning they now spent their leisure time at the ‘local’ a place where people of a variety of occupations could mix. Stedman Jones has argued that, in London, this process saw a decline in working class involvement in politics; the Merthyr rising in 1831 was the result of a workforce united against a common cause (their employer, William Crawshay), their common employment experience lent itself to the call for action spreading; suburbanism encouraged a less involved attitude towards the workplace and working class leisure became, once again, focussed primarily on amusement, although by the 1880s this meant organised sports (such as football) or the music hall in place of vicious sports like badger baiting and unorganised pedestrianism. Perhaps not as obviously important as an integration of social classes or gender groups, the integration of different occupational groups through leisure activities was nevertheless significant. It encouraged a more varied outlook on life and paved the way for the modern preference of leisure to occupation as the basis for identity.

It is also important to note that the extent to which leisure activities served to integrate social groups separated from each other at work was not static. In fact there was much regional variation, not to mention change over time. In rural areas the ‘shared’ culture of earlier centuries took longer to die out, brutal blood sports continued, often with the continued patronage of the local gentry who were not only partial to such sports themselves, but also aware of the way a small concession such as allowing access to their lands on a festive day ensured the deference of villagers throughout the rest of the year. Malcolmson has pointed out the way the gentry distanced themselves from the exploitation of workers by such periodic displays of benevolence, in areas where this relationship between worker and lord was less threatened by middle class usurpations it was likely to continue well into the nineteenth century. This change over time can also be observed in the way in which middle class attitudes towards leisure as an ‘amusement’ changed. In the 1830s the austere regimes recommended by the Evangelical church amongst others proclaimed that anything other than ‘rational recreation’ was a sin, fuelling the distaste with which the middles classes viewed the traditional leisure activities of the lower orders. By the 1870s views had mellowed considerably helped along, no doubt, by mid-Victorian economic prosperity which made moderate leisure less likely to end in financial ruin; this led to an easing up of middle class sanctions on the working classes. Reverend Solly, the most enthusiastic of the founding members of the Working Men’s Club Movement, was an active teetotaller and had proposed the clubs be alcohol free in the 1860s, by 1871 however he was actively urging the clubs to serve beer as British workmen were only ‘moderate drinkers’ anyway. The mixed class audiences at some music halls by the 1880 were only made possible by this changing of attitudes amongst the middle classes and a change in working class expectations of leisure; social pressure and changing social structures had made working class leisure less violent. In addition the opportunities for social integration was not constant; by 1834 there were only 8 statutory half day holidays in England and ‘Saint Monday’ was falling out of favour in many regions as employers’ threat of dismissal held increasing power for the poor. Yet just as leisure was ‘disappearing’ a counter campaign began to make an impact, the Factory Acts shortened working hours for women and children, most famously in the Ten Hours Act of 1847. Clearly it is dangerous to over-generalise the capability of leisure activities to integrate social groups which were separated by work; the likelihood of, say, class integration through football would have varied significantly between the Shrove Tuesday matches in Derby which attracted up to a thousand players and the first FA cup tournament in 1871.

In conclusion leisure activities could provide opportunities for the integration of social groups separated by work. But, as Cunningham points out, it was all too likely that boundaries of class, of gender, of age and geography would simply be ‘reproduced in leisure’. Middle class leisure remained overly exclusive and where there were attempts at interaction it was too often stilted and resented on either side. Dominant ideology and moral rhetoric made it difficult for gender groups to socialise at all in many instances, let alone integrate. Similarly age groups remained separated in leisure as in work by social expectations. This is not to say that there was no integration, just that in many cases it was on a very small scale, although it must be recognised that regional and time variables ought to be take into consideration; young and old were more likely to interact through leisure before compulsory schooling curtailed the available leisure time of the young for example. This essay has shown however that leisure could be more successful in integrating different occupational groups, whilst nothing new in rural settings it was less common in the early industrial urban areas. Although even here it must be remembered that amongst the working classes in particular much leisure time, especially that of men, continued to be spent with work colleagues above anyone else.

Footnotes:  [1] P. Bailey, Leisure and Class in Victorian England. Page 6.

Leisure Bibliography 

  • H. Cunningham, ‘Leisure and culture’, in F.M.L. Thompson (ed.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain (1990), vol. 2. 
  • J. Rule, The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850 (1986), chapter 9. 
  • T. Harris (ed.), Popular Culture in England, c.1500-1850 (1985), introduction. 
  • R.W. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society, 1700-1850 (1973). (Skimmed) 
  • E.P. Thompson, ‘Patrician society, plebeian culture’, Journal of Social History 7,4 (1974). 
  • P. Bailey, Leisure and Class in Victorian England (1978). 
  • D.A. Reid, ‘The decline of Saint Monday 1766-1876’, Past and Present 71 (1976). 
  • P. Bailey, ‘Custom, capital and culture in the Victorian music hall’, in R.D. Storch (ed.), Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth-Century England (1982). 
  • R.D. Storch, ‘The Problems of working-class leisure: middle-class moral reform in the industrial north, 1825-50’, in A.P. Donajgrodzki (ed.), Social Control in Nineteenth-Century Britain (1977). 
  • G. Stedman Jones, ‘Working class culture and politics in London’, in Languages of Class (1983).


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