Thursday, 26 June 2008

Urban popular culture

Urban popular culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can best be understood by distinguishing three approaches to the analysis and composition of such a culture. The first approach emphasises activities for which people had to pay and in which their essential role was that of spectator, audience or reader. Included would be theatres, circuses and fairs in the first half of the century and later, music halls, professional football, horse acing, the popular press, seaside excursions and cinemas. In this approach the focus is on the scale of commercialisation, the size of crowds, the distancing of stars and professionals and the role of technology. From this point of view of supply, urban popular culture can be seen as mass culture.

The second approach focuses on people as the prime agents in generating leisure activities. There might be some commercial or voluntary input towards the provision of facilities but the activity was of and for the people. The most significant institution was the pub, the location for much more than the consumption of alcohol. The activities included brass bands, mass choirs, flower shows and the allotments that provided the basis for them, fishing and pigeon fancying. In this approach activities are generated within the community or neighbourhood; though they might take the participants outside in the competitiveness that was one of the hallmarks of this type of urban popular culture: pub against pub, club against club; stars and professionals were absent; there was little formal separation of performers and spectators; and, the participants were mainly adult males.

In the third approach women move centre stage and attention is drawn to the much hazier boundary between work and leisure for most women. The focus is not on activities, but on space and, in particular, the space of the home and of the street; women’s leisure was not an activity demarcated as leisure but something that was done as an accompaniment to work; in its more social aspect, in the street, its most typical form was chatting, and here too work, discussing prices for example, was in no way distinguished from other forms of talk; and, consequently it was a culture heavily based on a sense of neighbourhood.

Each of these approaches emphasises a different aspect of what can legitimately be described as urban popular culture.


Other forms of literature besides drama were becoming popular and more pervasive. The period after 1830 was the first literate rather than oral popular culture. Events were advertised in print and news was conveyed in print. The expanding newspaper press of the eighteenth century reached a largely middle-class audience largely because of cost, but the chapbooks and broadsides, some of which sold a million copies, were bought by the new literate popular culture. It is difficult to establish an accurate profile of the readership of this expanding quantity of print by age, gender and class. Men, until after 1870, had a higher rate of literacy than women and they may have had easier access to literature. They were probably the main readers of the popular Sunday newspapers that by 1850 were read by one adult in twenty; for Sunday was much more a day of leisure for men than women. Sporting literature was a genre of popular literature, and with its emphasis on ‘manly’ sports, may be assumed to have reached a dominantly male audience. Similarly, participation in and spectating of commercialised sports was largely, though not exclusively, male. Horseracing was immensely popular despite attempts to control its spread by force of law.

After 1850 figures for attendance become more reliable and their general trend is upwards. Music hall was the first new form of entertainment to make its mark. Charles Morton’s opening of the Canterbury Hall in Lambeth in 1851 was to gain him immediate and retrospective attention, but there were important precedents in the saloon theatres that had flourished since the 1830s and in the ‘music halls’ that already existed in the larger provincial towns. What is striking about the 1850s and 1860s was the multiplicity of forms in which people could experience what was eventually to become standardised as ‘music hall’. The analysis of the songs has distracted attention from the range of entertainment on offer in the halls; dance, acrobatics, mime drama and clowning as well as the occasional associated facility a museum, art gallery or zoo, were part of the ‘variety’ of the halls from the beginning. The emergence of music halls that were architecturally similar to theatres came relatively late during the second great wave of music hall building in the late 1880s and 1890s when chains of ownership were becoming common. It was in the 1890s, too, that there was a partially successful attempt to win middle-class audiences. Cinema can be seen as superseding music hall as the most popular form of mass entertainment, but there was a long period of overlap. Music hall was indeed the commercial cinema’s first home. From 1906 onwards, however, cinemas acquired their own homes, some 4,000 of them by 1914. Until 1934 we can only guess at the number of admissions but an average of 7 or 8 million a week seems plausible in the years immediately before 1914 or 400 million admissions a year.

The seaside holiday is, on one argument, a dubious contender for inclusion in urban popular culture for it represented in some ways an escape from the city. But the manner of that escape suggests that urban popular culture was being transposed to the seaside. The history of the seaside holiday was not something initiated by the middle-classes and imitated by the working-classes. Escape to the sea by workers preceded the coming of the railway. The major increase in demand, however, came only in the later nineteenth century and it was only then that the seaside holiday became a recognisable part of urban popular culture. Even then there were regional variations. The week at the seaside that many working-class Lancastrians had come to enjoy by the 1880s was unique; elsewhere the day trip was the norm. The expansion of demand can be seen in the increasing number of visitors to Blackpool in season: it rose from 1 million in 1883 to two million ten years later and to 4 million in 1914.

Spectating at professional sport was already common by 1850 and to some extent what happened after was a switch from one sport to another. Rowing ceased to be a major spectator sport and amateur athletics could never claim the crowds of the professional pedestrianism that it replaced. Football, on the other hand, attracted numbers that rose from the late nineteenth century to 1914 and beyond. The average football cup tie attendance rose from 6,000 in 1888-9 to 12,000 in 1895-6 to over 20,000 in the first round in 1903. In 1908-1909, English First Division 6 million people watched matches, with an average crowd size of 16,000. It was, of course, dominantly a male pastime and it was regionally concentrated in the Lowlands of Scotland, northern and Midland England and to a lesser extent London.

The available statistics may, however, be more significant for the light they shed on leisure as an industry than as an indicator of how urban people spent their leisure time. In particular, they did not point to any great change towards a spectator society, for spectating was already a common activity in 1850. When considered not as tens or hundreds of thousands, but as a proportion of the available population their significance in the social life of the people can be placed in a fairer perspective.

Active involvement

The pub had close ties to this commercialised aspect of urban popular culture. It was itself a commercial undertaking, increasingly under the control of the major brewers. It was the main location of what was by far the largest single item of leisure expenditure, alcohol. Despite this, the pub also managed to be the main organising centre for the self-generating culture. Publicans were often sponsors of activities that they viewed simply with an eye to profit and some of the activities were on a large scale. In addition the pub offered a space for socialising; clubs of all kinds met in pubs. The community generated by the pub expressed itself in the annual outing. Above all, within the pub men could take part in a range of competitive activities: darts, draughts, bowls, card playing and gambling of all kinds. This participant competitiveness was indeed a key feature of urban popular culture and its significance is grossly underplayed in those accounts that focus exclusively on music hall, cinema and spectating generally. As communications improved many of these competitions became regional and national. Brass bands, for example, were competitive from their beginnings on a significant scale in the 1840s.

Culture in home and street: a culture of gender

The urban popular culture focused on the home and the street offered different kinds of satisfaction to a different part of the population. The dominant masculinity of the world of participant competition had its parallel in an equally dominantly female world. Most working-class women were confined, for their leisure as for their work, to the home and the street and there is increasing evidence from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that they created their own separate female culture there. It remains to be established when such a culture can first be identified and when it began to wither away, but there is enough to suggest that it existed as a key component of the ‘traditional working-class culture’ associated with the period from 1870 to 1950. Whether it can be called leisure culture is dubious: it was essentially a female network of support based on the separation of male and female world after marriage. The distinction between the three approaches to urban popular leisure culture has value to the extent that it identifies different and mutually exclusive worlds of leisure. Popular urban leisure was to a considerable degree fractured along lines of gender.

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