Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Leisure cultures

How did people spend their leisure time? Leisure time can be seen as free time, time in which the individual is relieved from the pressures of work and other obligations, the choice of how to spend leisure time can be seen as distinctly personal. However, some would argue that to some extent it is not a personal choice and so is not in any positive sense leisure, but merely adherence to social custom or obligation. Choice is constrained by material circumstances and by the availability of facilities, but within those constraints on this argument, there is nothing to stop the chimney sweep fox-hunting or the peer attending the music hall. It is the beauty of leisure that it enabled individuals to escape from the pressures that otherwise circumscribed their lives.

This idealist approach to the study of leisure may recommend itself to philosophers, but to historians it has rarely seemed to accord with reality. Many have suggested that the key analytical tool for the study of leisure is the distinction between the rough and respectable. The implication of this distinction is that the respectable of all classes had more in common with each other than they did with the rough members of their own class. This distinction is, as we have already seen, is a simplistic one and may beg more questions than it answers. With some activities, of course, there is no difficulty but with many other activities, going to the theatre for example, there may be some disagreement about whether it is rough or respectable. The rough/respectable division is in fact an extraordinarily crude tool for the description of social reality; the fact that contemporaries made the distinction is, of course, of interest, but in adopting it themselves historians have confused the history of moral fears with the history of lived experience.

The latter can best be approached through a culturalist analysis. Leisure activities did not float freely above the world of work and daily life; on the contrary, they were intimately related to and derived from that world. Boundaries of class, of gender, of age and of geography were therefore likely to be reproduced in leisure. Leisure activities may themselves have reinforced or shifted those boundaries and not merely passively reflected them. The issue, therefore, is not one of leisure per se but of different leisure cultures that were not hermetically sealed against each other but overlapped and influenced each other. Nor were any of these cultures ever static; they were constantly changing, both in themselves and in relation to other cultures.

The ‘leisured classes’?

The phrase ‘the leisured or leisure classes’ can be traced back to the 1840s and may well have existed earlier. In 1868 Anthony Trollope was confident that England possessed ‘the largest and wealthiest leisure class that any country, ancient or modern, ever boasted.’ [1] At the end of the century Thorstein Veblen subjected them to the most trenchant analysis they would ever received in his The Theory of the Leisure Class. He argued that: ‘The fundamental reason for the development of a leisure class was that only in conspicuous leisure and in conspicuous consumption could the wealthy achieve the status they sought.’ The key word here is ‘conspicuous’. Leisure for the leisure class was not something carried on in private; its function, to establish status, demanded that it be seen both by fellow members of the class and by an envious or admiring excluded public. Since the function of that display was so fundamental to its social position, it is difficult to determine whether there was any separation of work and leisure within the class. Since by definition, though with some qualifications that will come later, they did not work in any sense in which the rest of the population would understand work, it followed that their duties and obligations in life lay in a highly ritualised leisure whose demands they often bemoaned.

The leisure class existed at the level of the nation and of the provinces. At the national level it could be most readily observed in the London Season and until the 1880s this was as much a political as a social occasion. In the circumscribed political world of the nineteenth century the numbers involved were relatively small -- perhaps 500 families compared to the 4,000 families who participated in the more purely social London Season of the late nineteenth century. Until then entry to London ‘Society’ was carefully guarded and its social functions were mostly private. Thereafter, it became easier to but one’s way into ‘Society’.[2] This reflected a change in the nature of the leisure class. It became less easy to identify a class whose members manifestly did not work; by contrast, public attention began to focus on the plutocracy whose male members worked, but so successfully that they could spend their fortunes in their leisure. The London Season formed one clearly demarcated phase in the annual life of the leisure class; the remainder of the year was centred on the country houses in a mixture of activities some of which were thoroughly exclusive while others entailed a carefully calculated patronage of more popular occasions. Shooting was the most exclusive of sports while foxhunting was, in ideology at least, open to peer and peasant. In the late nineteenth century, as in London Society, the plutocracy began to supplant the aristocracy as its leaders.

From the mid-eighteenth century the London Season had its provincial counterparts. There existed in the larger provincial towns, perhaps particularly in southern England the ‘urban gentry’ who in a modest way provided the lower echelons of the leisure class. After 1830 such people living on income from capital tended to gravitate towards the spas and more select seaside resorts. They were disproportionately female and old. In contrast to the national leisure class, there was neither firm structure to their year nor any flamboyance in their leisure. They maintained their status by careful observance of the formalities that helped to distinguish them from those who had to work for a living. In the later nineteenth century a new category, the retired, began to fuse with this older, modest, provincial leisure class, to form a substantial proportion of the population of the southern and coastal towns in which they congregated.

Such people had little in common with the national leisure class, and it may be questioned whether they should be included within the leisure class at all. It was luxury and its overt enjoyment, not modest affluence, which characterised the leisure class in its higher reaches. One mark of that luxury was the role accorded to women. Within the leisure class it was always legitimate for a man to have certain duties that were scarcely distinguishable from work, like running an estate. Indeed by 1870 it became possible for them to be more obviously part of the world of work and most obviously in the City of London. Women, however, apart from duties as hostesses, had to be kept rigidly separate from any money-making activity. Other social classes might emulate or aspire to the luxury of the leisure class. Even as far down the social ladder as the upper working-class, it was a mark of status that a woman should have no employment; clearly, however, such women did not fall within the leisure class. What could not be prevented was the copying of the manners and dress of the leisure class by those without the means to sustain the life-style.

An urban middle-class culture

By contrast, urban middle-class culture, in its origins, was distinctively provincial. Up to about 1800 it was a culture that was more obviously urban than middle-class, expressing many of the values of the urban gentry, who themselves, may be considered as part of the leisure class and its aristocratic way of life. It was inherently social rather than intellectual per se. Its existence can be documented from figures of theatre building: only ten purpose-built theatres were erected in the larger provincial towns between 1736 and 1760 but more than a hundred were built between the 1760s and the 1840s. The music festivals in the provinces are another indicator. In London it was not until the 1830s that the patronage and market for classical music passed from the aristocracy to the upper middle-classes; the provinces can be said to have led the way. The new culture was visible too in the classical style of its architecture and in the design of squares and boulevards that were emphatically the territory of the aristocracy. For this culture was unashamedly exclusive.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century the intellectual dimension of this urban culture became more pronounced. So also did its masculinity. Like-minded men turned typically to the club or society as a forum within which they pursued their interests. If this culture is projected forward into the second quarter of the nineteenth century, its leaders can be seen turning away from a provincial pursuit of high culture towards a direct concern with the social and political problems of their own towns: they formed statistical societies and diffused useful knowledge. They became a culture anxious to influence the ways of life of the working-classes from their narrow but powerful middle-class bridgehead and were increasingly concerned with the supply of leisure to others than with the enjoyment of it themselves.

The emergence of this male, intellectual, socially concerned and distinctly middle-class urban culture marked part of the wider challenge to the lack of seriousness and the frivolity of the urban gentry. The interlocking impact of evangelicalism, the French Revolution and British radicalism posed a threat to the essence of eighteenth century urban culture: its urbanity, its stress on manners and behaviour as opposed to feeling. The shock waves were to be felt far into the nineteenth century in two particular forms. First, particular activities, theatre-going for example, or novel reading or cards or even cricket, now had to be scrutinised to see if they served any purpose that God, rather than Society, would approve. Many such activities ceased to be ‘respectable’. Secondly, the sociability that had been so highly prized in the eighteenth century ceased to be a virtue. The attraction of a life lived in public within a defined and exclusive society gave way to an emphasis on domesticity. The effect, undoubtedly, was to shift the emphasis of middle-class urban culture away from sociability towards domesticity, and away from frank enjoyment of leisure towards a more calculating performance of duty, towards a ‘rational’ view of recreation.

This ‘call to seriousness’ began to be relaxed after the middle of the nineteenth century. In the 1860s and 1870s the press and pulpit endlessly discussed the legitimacy of this or that activity and of leisure in general. The official view was that the purpose of leisure was to re-create a person for the more serious business of life, work. Recreation was only necessary for those who worked -- namely men and boys -- and was justified not for its own sake but for its ulterior purpose of re-creating men for work. Under this umbrella, however, more and more activities became legitimate and were doubtless enjoyed for their own sake. It was in physical activity, however, that the change was greatest. Sport conjured up images of an aristocratic style of life and gambling, or the corrupt seediness of pub-based prize fighting. Middle-class urban culture, especially the public schools, was able from 1850 to transform the nature and image of sport. Sport encouraged qualities of leadership; it took boys’ minds off sex was the best training for war. As rules were drawn up and enforced, sport became increasingly an analogy for middle-class male life: a competitive struggle within agreed parameters. The middle-classes not only imposed a new ideology on sport; they were also in the period up to 1914 the chief beneficiaries of the expansion of facilities. There can be little dissent from the view that up to 1914 ‘the sporting revolution belonged, in the main, to the middle-classes in their leafy suburbs.[3]

Middle-class urban leisure culture, then, was a shifting entity. An eighteenth century urban pursuit of pleasure turned in the nineteenth century to an anxious scrutiny of the legitimacy of particular pursuits and to a corresponding emphasis on domesticity rather than sociability. Gradually there was a relaxation, but it occurred within the safe boundaries of school and suburb. Indeed the most obvious and continuing thrust of the culture was towards social exclusivity. Within the wide middle-class boundary, lines to demarcate status were carefully drawn and upper and lower middle-classes would never meet in leisure. What they had in common was an attitude to leisure and a view of its social function: in leisure people could meet others of similar social status in environments, whether public or private, that were in accordance with the canons of respectability of the day.

Artisan leisure culture

Artisan leisure culture was based on a particular type of work and its rise and decline paralleled that of the artisans. In the first half of the nineteenth century it flourished, but as the artisans themselves became more absorbed into the structure of capitalist industry they began to lose the characteristic feature of their culture: independence. Independence in the workplace was paralleled in the leisure culture where it took the form of a rejection of any patronage from above. Artisans made their own goods and also made their own culture. If the workplace was one factor leading to independence, masculinity and age were others; this was a leisure culture of adult males. Women were admitted rarely and then only on sufferance and the young apprentices, who had once had a culture of their own, were now firmly subordinated.

Artisan leisure culture had a certain intellectuality and rationality. In Birmingham, artisans formed debating societies and clubs and attended the theatre. [4] The friendly societies and the trade union both had their strongest roots among the artisans, and they were instinctively radical in their politics. But it was not an expansive culture existing for itself and had no missionary zeal to spread its way of life more widely. By 1850 the heavy drinking artisan culture became isolated to certain trades and regions. A more respectable, even family-based, culture began to replace it. In perception the artisan was now becoming the ‘labour aristocrat’, a respectable, hard-working member of society who took his pleasures seriously. In Edinburgh, the clubs that artisans joined for horticulture, golf and bowling and their participation in the patriotic Volunteer Force, suggested a new conformity to the values and norms of middle-class society. These clubs, however, retained their own independence. Insofar as artisan culture became more respectable, it was a respectability generated from within the class and for the class, not one imposed from outside.


[1] A. Trollope (ed.), British Sports and Pastimes, 1868, page 18.

[2] On this see L. Davidoff The Best Circles: Society, Etiquette and the Season, 1973.

[3] H.E. Meller Leisure and the Changing City 1870-1914, London, 1976, page 236.

[4] See J. Money Experience and Identity: Birmingham and the West Midlands 1760-1800, Manchester University Press, 1977, pp. 80-120.

No comments: