Sunday, 22 January 2012

What was popular culture in 1830?

In 1830, popular culture was public, robust and gregarious, largely masculine and involved spectacle and gambling with an undercurrent of disorder and physical violence. The distinction between high and popular culture, between opera and drama on the one hand and spectacle, circus and showmanship on the other had broken down: Shakespeare, melodrama and performing animals not merely co-existed but intermingled.

The eighteenth century pleasure fairs had played a major role in this process and many major actors started their careers in their theatrical booths. English theatre and opera was produced not only for the cultivated and informed but for mass audiences for whom melodrama, lavish stage sets and live animals were essential and whom managers and actors bored at their peril. Expanding audiences funded the extensive rebuilding of Covent Garden, Drury Lane and Sadler’s Wells as well as theatres outside the West End and entrepreneurs gave melodrama a legitimate place on the stage as well as developing the modern pantomime. Provincial theatres followed the example of London. [1] By 1830, however, there had been some decline in theatre going among the provincial bourgeoisie, the result as much of the rougher audiences frightening them away as the impact of evangelicalism.

Developments in sport showed the same commercialism and capacity to survive in the face of the hostility of authority. [2] Shooting and hunting were the only sports to remain exclusively elitist. Until 1831 shooting was legally restricted to owners of land worth more than £100 and the Games Laws ensured that poaching was severely punished. [3] While shooting demonstrated a horizontal cleavage in rural society, foxhunting had a far greater community interest. Though dominated by the landed aristocracy and country gentlemen, it was open to urban gentry and professionals and the poorer sections of the community followed the spectacle on foot. Some hunts were the property of single great landowners but were expensive to maintain and subscription hunts became more common: there were 69 packs of hounds in Britain in 1812, 91 by 1825. [4]

Horseracing was the sport of both the rich and poor. It could not maintain its exclusiveness though different prices charged for the stands, the paddocks and the ordinary enclosures were as much an expression of social hierarchy as different class of railway travel. Horseracing combined two obsessions: the love of horses and gambling. Professional bookmakers appeared around 1800; by 1815, the ‘classic’ races, the Derby, the Oaks, the One Thousand and Two Thousand Guineas, the St Leger and the Ascot Gold Cup, were all established and by 1837, there were 150 places in Britain where race meetings were held. [5] By 1850, off-course betting had been established, further broadening participation.[6]

Pugilism or prize fighting began as a sport of the labouring population and attracted aristocratic patronage by 1800. Like horseracing it was increasingly commercialised and its champions such as Tom Spring, [7] Tom Crib and Dutch Sam were full-time professionals. Both flourished as industries with their own specialist newspapers yet they were also evocative of an older, perhaps imaginary, culture where sporting squires and labourers rubbed shoulders in a common appreciation of animals and physical prowess. Upper-class support for prize fighting waned after 1830 but it retained its popularity among the working population and its real decline did not occur until after 1860.[8] Other sports like cricket, rowing and pedestrianism had similar characteristics to horse-racing and prize fighting.[9] They became more organised and professional, more dependent on attracting spectators and accompanied by extensive gambling. Cricket originated as an activity of the labouring population in southern England and was then take up by the aristocratic elite.[10] Pedestrianism and rowing also began as popular sports before moving up the social scale late in the nineteenth century. [11]

Many traditional customs continued until well after 1850. There is evidence for the large unchanged New Year mumming festivals in northern England until the 1870s. Guy Fawkes’ Night was still celebrated despite attempts by various authorities to suppress bonfires and the burning of effigies. [12] Changes to traditional customs were not easily enforced even in areas, like Lancashire, where factory discipline was most firmly established. The Lancashire Wakes Weeks, traditionally the most important event of the recreational year, were forced on mill-owners rather than freely given. [13] It was not simply employers who attacked wakes and fairs. Moral reformers, the magistracy, and later the police recognised that these acted as a focus for criminal activity, could potentially lead to violence and threatened public order. That they continued until the late-nineteenth century was due not to lack of opposition but to disagreement about what action to take.

By 1830, a clear distinction was apparent between the nature of much popular recreation and the dominant intellectual movements of the day, rational liberalism and evangelicalism with their argument for a self-conscious and moralistic cultivation of respectability. This produced much of the impetus for reform. From the formation of the Proclamation Society in 1787, the campaign for reform gathered momentum. By the 1830s, there were societies for preventing cruelty to animals, the Lord’s Day Observance Society founded in 1831 and the British and Foreign Temperance Society. Parliamentary reform in 1832 gave such societies slightly more influence over Parliament and as the police force extended they gained the means to enforce legislation. Betting was an early and obvious target for reform but lotteries were not made illegal until 1823 and 1825 and further measures to discourage gambling had to wait until the 1840s and 1850s. [14] Reform was not achieved easily, quickly or completely. Neither was it the prerogative, nor was it dictated by the interests, of any one social group. It traversed class boundaries, dividing all groups, especially the working-classes, internally.[15]


[1] Borsay, Peter, The English Urban Renaissance: Culture and Society in the Provincial Town 1660-1770, (Oxford University Press), 1991, pp. 117-149.

[2] Ibid, Borsay, Peter, The English Urban Renaissance: Culture and Society in the Provincial Town 1660-1770, pp. 173-196.

[3] Munsche, P. B., Gentlemen and poachers: the English game laws 1671-1831, (Cambridge University Press), 1981.

[4] On this issue see Carr, Raymond, English Fox Hunting: A History, (Weidenfeld), 1976, and Itzkowitz, David C., Peculiar privilege: a social history of English foxhunting, 1753-1885, (Harvester Press), 1977.

[5] Church, Michael, The Derby Stakes: the complete history 1780-2006, (Raceform Ltd), 2006, Seth-Smith, Michael, and Mortimer, Roger, Derby 200: the official story of the blue riband of the turf, (Guinness Superlatives), 1979, Tolson, John, and Vamplew, Wray, ‘Facilitation Not Revolution: Railways and British Flat Racing 1830-1914’, Sport in History, Vol. 23, (2003), pp. 89-106, and Huggins, Mike Flat racing and British society, 1790-1914: a social and economic history, (Cass), 2000.

[6] See, Clapson, Mark, A bit of a flutter: popular gambling in England, c.1820-1961, (Manchester University Press), 1992.

[7] Hurley, Jon, Tom Spring: bare-knuckle Champion of All England, (Stadia), 2007.

[8] See, Anderson, Jack, ‘The Legal Response to Prize Fighting in Nineteenth Century England and America’, Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly, Vol. 57, (2006), pp. 265-287, and Sheard, K. G., ‘“Brutal and degrading”: the medical profession and boxing, 1838-1984’, International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol. 15, (3), (1998), pp. 74-102.

[9] Wigglesworth, Neil, A social history of English rowing, (Routledge), 1992, pp. 1-91, and Halladay, Eric, Rowing in England: a social history: the amateur debate, (Manchester University Press), 1990

[10] See Underdown, David, ‘The History of Cricket’, History Compass, Vol. 4, (1), (2006), pp. 43-53, and Birley, Derek, A Social History of English Cricket, (Aurum Press), 1999.

[11] Lile, Emma, ‘Professional Pedestrianism in South Wales during the Nineteenth Century’, The Sports Historian, Vol. 20, (2000), pp. 94-105.

[12] Sharpe, J.A., Remember, remember the fifth of November: Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot, (Profile), 2005, looks at remembrance.

[13] Poole, Robert, ‘Lancashire wakes week’, History Today, Vol. 34, (8), (1984), pp. 22-29.

[14] Munting, R., ‘Social opposition to gambling in Britain: an historical overview’, International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol. 10, (1993), pp. 295-312, Raven, James, ‘The abolition of the English state lotteries’, Historical Journal, Vol. 34, (1991), 371-389, and Woodhall, Robert, ‘The British state lotteries’, History Today, Vol. 14, (7), (1964), pp. 497-504.

[15] Itzkowitz, David C., ‘Victorian bookmakers and their customers’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 32, (1988), pp. 7-30.

1 comment:

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