Friday, 27 June 2008

The supply of leisure

Leisure activities were made available in four main ways and as a result provided employment in leisure. First, the state, whether at local or national level, both created a legal framework and acted as a direct supplier. Secondly, there was much self-made leisure, whether this is thought of as communal or associational on the one hand or personal and family based on the other. Thirdly, voluntary bodies and philanthropists were key agents in the supply of leisure for others. Finally, leisure was supplied on a commercial basis. These neat categories are, however, susceptible to fragmentation. Sheet music, for example, supplied on a commercial basis, provided a necessary resource for much individual and communal self-made leisure.

The state

The state had always been concerned with the supply of leisure. In the early part of this period its main concern was to control supply, chiefly by licensing, but later its role was more positive and it became a direct supplier of such facilities as parks, libraries and playing fields. This interpretation has some validity but it provides little to help unravel the motives for its intervention in the supply of leisure other than dividing its activities into two separate spheres, negative control and positive supply.

One such motive was prestige. At the national level this entailed support for both the production of high culture in the present and the preservation of the high culture of the past. By the 1830s it was recognised that state aid was necessary to maintain or at least subsidise museums throughout the country and from the 1860s governments drew back from subsidising high culture. Public funding required more justification than had the royal patronage that dominated support for culture in the first half of the nineteenth century. The public could not be denied right of access. In 1810 admission to the British Museum was made free and unlimited with dramatic impact on the number of visitors: in 1824-5 this stood at 128,000 rising to 230,000 in 1835 and 826,000 by 1846. These figures lead into the second motive that governed state supply of leisure, a concern for public order and social harmony.

It is, however, easy to exaggerate the amount of state supply. The typical pattern was not for the government of the day to take an initiative, but for a pressure group within Parliament to be appeased by the appointment of a select committee. The outcome tended to be permissive legislation, which a local authority could implement if it wished. Central government provided a legal framework within which museums or libraries could be built and run out of the rates; but it was as much concerned to protect the ratepayer as to encourage the provision of a facility. Not surprisingly, buildings were often slow to appear on the ground. Up to 1914 libraries stemmed much more from philanthropy than from rates and even at that date were within reach of only 60 per cent of the population. The same was true of museums and parks. Local authorities played an increasingly important role and shared the same motives as central government: a concern for prestige, in this case in relation to other local authorities; and a worry about social order. But they added to them a more compelling motive, a desire for prosperity. The seaside resorts led the way after 1875, investing in sea defences, promenades, piers, golf courses and concert halls in an attempt to improve their attractiveness to potential visitors.

A major element in the state’s supply of leisure was its concern to control and monitor the use of space. The home, as a private space, was beyond its physical reach. The pub was much less safe and hardly at all to be recommended. Licensing of retail outlets for the sale of alcohol was the state’s major intervention in the leisure market and was intended to preserve public order and provide some means of monitoring the leisure of the poorer sections of society. Public parks, museums and libraries were supported precisely because they were public, open to scrutiny and controlled by bye-laws. The space provided by theatre, music hall and cinema was potentially more dangerous, but the power or threat of licensing of both building and activity made them relatively acceptable. The censorship of both plays and films ensured that public entertainment adhered to acceptable moral and political values. Fire regulations, for example those imposed on music halls in 1878, not only reduced the dangers of fire, but drove many of the smaller, less salubrious halls out of business. In the cinema the industry formally established its own form of censorship in 1912 with the British Board of Film Censors. In horse-racing, by contrast, the government stepped in to ban off-course betting in the Street Betting Act of 1906. It was, however, leisure that took place outside these spaces that posed the threat; streets, rivers, canals and privately owned rural areas were spaces where there was almost constant feuding between the state and the people.

Self-made leisure

In self-made leisure the separation between supply and demand becomes artificial. The more self-made it was, the more local or domestic it was likely to be, and therefore the harder it is to find information about it. In its communal or associational forms it was a major means of supply of leisure for the middle-class urban culture, typically in the form of subscription concerts and libraries and of clubs, for example, for chess. In Bradford in 1900, for example, there were 30 choral societies, 20 brass bans, an amateur orchestra, six concertina bands and a team of hand-bell ringers. In Rochdale, and doubtless elsewhere, the churches and chapels were crucial suppliers of leisure up to 1914 with their young men’s and ladies’ classes, their debating societies and numerous other activities. At the family and individual level reliable information is even harder to come by. Much leisure within the family relied on commercial sources of supply, of games, pianos, books and a huge array of hobbies. In music and hobbies in particular there came to be considerable degree of activity in working-class homes: by 1910 there was one piano for every fifteen people, far more than the middle-classes could absorb.

Voluntary bodies and philanthropy

Voluntary bodies and philanthropists were less single-minded than the state, but as with the latter it is both tempting and misleading to divide their activities in the supply of leisure into two groups, a negative controlling one and a positive supply one. Into the first group would fall such organisations as the Vice Society (1802), the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (1824), the Lord’s Day Observance Society (1831), numerous temperance and teetotal societies and the National Council for Public Morals (1911). The second group might include philanthropists and employers who funded parks, libraries, brass bands and football clubs, the Mechanics’ Institutes, the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Association, the Girls’ Friendly Society (1874) and the Boys’ Brigade (1883). Such a division obscures the factor uniting the two: a concern to direct and mould other people’s leisure by control of some sort over its supply.

The hope of weaning people away from bad habits by the provision of counter-attractions came to the fore in the 1830s. ‘Rational recreation’ offered the solution and quiet and elevating pursuits, modelled on the best contemporary middle-class practice, were recommended and offered. As a result, not only would the bad habits themselves disappear or at least diminish, but in the process people (largely men) of good will from different classes would meet fraternally and come to understand each other’s point of view. The amount of leisure provided under these auspices was enormous. Parks, libraries and similar institutions were frequently the outcome of philanthropy. In Glasgow, for example, were ratepayers on three occasions in the second half of the century refused to fund a public library, Stephen Mitchell, a tobacco magnate, left £70,000 for a library that opened in 1877. In Manchester T.C. Horsfall raised the funds for an Art Museum opened in 1884. Bristol acquired a municipally owned museum, library and art gallery between 1895 and 1905, all through private benefactions. Much church and chapel activity should probably come under this head, rather than in the self-made category, for it was organised from above for people deemed to be in need. Of these, the most important were the young. The real problem arose when they left Sunday Schools. It was partly to keep a hold on these children that William Smith established the Boys’ Brigade in Glasgow in 1883. Thereafter uniformed youth movements, particularly for boys, were to attract a high proportion of the youth population. The Boys’ Brigade had its denominational rivals and from 1908 faced serious competition from the Boy Scouts. By 1914, between a quarter and a third of the available youth population was enrolled in a youth movement.

The provision of leisure probably served females less well than males, doubtless in part because the former were thought to pose less of a problem. The Girls’ Friendly Society, formed in 1874, was predominantly rural and Anglican in outlook and many of its members were young domestic servants. Two further organisations came into being to meet their needs as they grew older: the Mothers’ Union founded in 1885 expanded to 7,000 branches by 1911 and the Women’s Institutes begun in 1915.

Commercial supply of leisure

Commercialised entertainment played a larger and larger role in the supply of leisure between 1830 and 1914. In 1830 it was provided largely for the middle-classes but diffused itself into the working-classes by the 1870s and to the masses by 1914. There was a shift in the nineteenth century from the patron-client relationship that characterised the employment of professionals in cricket and music in 1800 to an employment relationship more akin to that of the industrial world. This was in part because of the seasonal nature of much of such employment, but also because of the lack of control over entry to leisure jobs. The numbers employed were growing, certainly after 1870. Between 1871 and 1911 the population of England and Wales rose on average by 0.8 per cent per year and the number employed in the arts and entertainment by 4.7 per cent per year. The number of actors and actresses peaked in 1911 at over 19,000, having quadrupled in the previous thirty years.

In nearly every section of the leisure industries there were attempts to raise the status of entertainers. The outcome was the achievement of stardom for the select few while the rank and file had to be content with wages at roughly semi-skilled level. The best actors and actresses were already getting £150 per week in the 1830s. In 1890 at least ten jockeys were earning £5,000 per season and the better professional cricketers were earning £275 per year. Between 1906 and 1914 the wages of performing musicians doubled reaching £200 per year. The best professional footballers could not earn high wages: the Football Association set the maximum wages at £208 per year and only a minority got that amount. On the whole, however, complaints about wages and conditions of service within the entertainment and sports world were muted. The lure of acceptance as a profession, the hope of stardom for the individual and the sense that to be in entertainment was unlike any other job, for the most part curtailed any open conflict.


The importance of leisure in giving people a sense of national and social identity is matched by a greater significance placed on leisure in people’s individual life-choices and priorities. Leisure preference is normally assumed to have been a feature of pre-industrial society and could not survive the greater emphasis on consumerism of an industrialised society. Between 1830 and 1914 as hours of leisure grew longer so leisure activities took on a more central role in people’s lives. It is not surprising that ‘rational recreationalists’ wanted to ‘control’ what people, and especially the working-classes, did in their spare time. They were successful, to a degree, in mitigating the worst excesses of pre-industrial leisure with its potential violence and cruelty. Yet the persistence of large-scale spectating, especially of football and horse-racing showed the limits of that success. Alcohol and gambling remained key working-class leisure activities and, despite increased controls by the state, continued to play a major part in defining working-class consciousness throughout this period. Leisure remained in 1914, as it was in 1830, largely male-dominated and escapist.

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